Battle to the Death!
When Milo Morai, the Undying High Lord, and his Horseclans warriors found the tower ruins, they welcomed it as the perfect citadel from which to hold off the packs of ravenous wolves eager for their blood.
But the ancient building hid a secret far more dangerous than either wolves or any human foe, for in its depths waited The Hunter--the penultimate product of genetic experimentation gone wild, one of the few descendants of a powerful breed that had long outlasted its human creators.
The Hunter--who, with fang, claw, and blood-chilling speed--would challenge the Undying Lord himself to a battle to the death.
Robert Adams (1932-1990) was a career soldier whose Horseclans series drew on his military background to lend verisimilitude to the exploits of 26th Century of immortal mutant warriors in a balkanized North America. The Coming of the Horseclans (1975) was the first of 18 novels in the sequence, which ended, with The Clan of the Cats (1988), only on account of the author’s death.
His non-Horseclans work included two other series. Castaways in Time (1980) and its five sequels were a mix of alternate history and time travel. The Stairway to Forever and Monsters and Magicians (both 1988) were the only volumes to appear of a projected fantasy series.
He also co-edited several anthologies, among them Barbarians (1985, with Martin H. Greenberg and Charles H. Waugh), four Magic in Ithkar volumes (1985-87, with Andre Norton), Robert Adams' Book of Alternate Worlds (1987, with Pamela Crippen Adams and Martin H. Greenberg) and Robert Adams' Book of Soldiers (1988, same co-editors).
Robert Adams has written a huge series of books called The Horseclans Series. There are eighteen books in the series. This is the second one I’ve reviewed.
The world as we know it no longer exists. Bombs, guns, diseases and starvation have eliminated much of the population. Now small settlements exist here and there. Many of them steal from each other: food, horses, and women. After all, you can’t have too much inbreeding or that will make their group die out, too. Another danger is the animals. Scientists were experimenting with breeding trying to bring back the animals that had gone extinct. They were better able to survive in this world. They didn’t like people, though, because the prey animals were few and they both liked to eat them.
Mr. Adams sets up a believable world in a desolated place. He adds a man who doesn’t die (he heals all his own wounds with no help) to help lead these people into the new future and stay alive. When the cat kills him to get the deer, he comes back to life. He also wants to find the cat, but not to kill it. To study it and see how many there are. Getting caught in the forest by wolves wasn’t on the list.
This volume was more about the scientists of the past and their plans than it was about the animals and the people in the present. I find the imaginary world much more fascinating than the folks in the past. The big cat, resembling a sabre tooth tiger, has to let the man help her heal. Eventually she begins to trust him because he can mind speak with the cats. When other cats locate them, she and her son are willing to die to protect him. There should be more to this story; the cats deserve their own book.
If you want a peek at what your future could be like if it turns dystopian, Mr. Adams is the man for you. Each book can stand alone and together they show you a wide look at a future world. Let your imagination go wild!Aloe -- Long and Short Reviews
Icy-toothed wind soughed through the denuded branches of the overhanging trees, increasing the chill of an already-frigid day. Somewhere within the forest a branch exploded with the sharp crack of a pistol shot.
But the Hunter had never heard a shot of any kind and so ignored that sound as she did all natural sounds, concentrating the whole of her attention upon getting as close as possible to her browsing quarry before commencing the deadly rush and pounce that would, hopefully, result in her acquisition of almost her own weight of hot, bloody, delicious meat. Meat! Meat to fill the gnawing emptiness of her shrunken belly, meat enough, maybe, to be worried at by the three kittens waiting back in her den.
But the Hunter knew, too, that she must be close, very close, to have a chance, for she now had but three sound legs. Her left foreleg, deep-gored by the same shaggy-bull whose horns and stamping hooves had snuffed out the life of her mate, was healing but slowly in these days of deep snows and scant food.
As the manyhorn browser ambled a few feet farther and began to strip bark from yet another sapling, the Hunter carefully wriggled a few feet nearer, amber eyes fixed unwaveringly upon her prey, twitching nostrils seeking for the first faint odor of alarm or fear. Then, suddenly, the Hunter stopped, froze in place, even as the heads of all four browsers came up, swivelling to face a spot just a little to the Hunter’s right.
The Hunter saw the muscles of the largest manyhorn bunch under the skin of his haunches. But before he could essay even the first wild leap away from the danger all sensed, a volley of little thin black sticks came hissing from the thick cover of a stand of mountain laurel and all four of the browsers collapsed, kicking their razor-edged hooves at empty air, one of them coughing quantities of frothy blood forth to sink, steaming, into the deep, white snow.
A vagrant puff of wind wafted to the Hunter the rare but still-hated scent of two-legs, and her lip curled in a soundless snarl. They were trying to rob her of her manyhorns, trying to rob her and her helpless cubs of life itself, for if she did not have food, she knew that she soon would lack the strength to get food, and her kittens were still too young to hunt for themselves. Outside the den and without her protection, they would be the hunted rather than the hunters.
The lung-shot browser, a hornless doe, struggled to her feet and staggered across the tiny glade. Another of the hissing black sticks sped out of the laurel covert, thunnk into her heaving flank, and she fell again, this time almost under the Hunter’s paws. The heady scent of her hot blood filled the Hunter’s nostrils and set her stomach to growling, while her tongue unconsciously sought her furry lips.
Dik Esmith unstrung his short, powerful recurved bow and replaced it in his bowcase quiver. The other three archers emulated their leader, while Dik mindcalled back to where the rest of the hunting party waited with the horses.
“Uncle Milo, brothers, once more has Clan Esmith demonstrated for all to see the matchless skill at stealth and the deadly accuracy of its bowmen—”
“And,” broke in a mindspeak that Dik recognized as that of Rahn Linsee, “the longwinded boasting for which Clan Esmith is justly famous. Get to the point, Dik—did you and your blunderers kill the deer or not?”
Dik’s horny hand unconsciously sought the well-worn hilt of the saber he had left behind at the beginning of his stalk. “Blunderers, is it? I had always thought, Linsee, that that title was exclusive to Clan Linsee... along with ‘cowards’.”
“Enough, children, enough!” Command was unmistakable in a third and exceptionally powerful mindspeak. “We are out this wretched day to kill game to feed our folk, not to carelessly begin bloodfeuds. How many deer, Dik?”
“Four, Uncle Milo. But the Linsee filth started it. He had no right to—”
“Enough, I said!” came Milo’s retort. “Perhaps I should have been certain I brought men to hunt with me. You do all look like men, you bear the weapons of men, but just now you put me in mind of pugnacious herd boys wrangling over a sickly heifer. Next time I might be better off to bring a few maiden archers, eh?”
“I... I’m sorry, Uncle Milo,” beamed Dik sheepishly. “But he—”
“No ‘buts’!” Milo’s thought beam cracked like a whip. “Rahn was simply joking, weren’t you, Rahn Linsee?”
“I... oh, yes, yes, of course, Uncle Milo, I was joshing dear Brother Dik.”
“And you are lying in your teeth,” thought Milo to himself. “You were deliberately trying to provoke a fight with the Esmiths because I chose to bring their archers rather than Linsee bowmen on this hunt. But,” he smiled to himself, “those are my Horseclansmen for you; if there’re no outsiders around to fight, they’ll hop at each other’s throats.
“Be that as it may, though,” he thought on, “I must have done more than a few somethings right, over the years, else you and your cousin would not be around to snarl and snap at each other. A bare hundred years ago, thousands, millions of people lived hereabouts, and now you could ride for weeks in any direction and not meet any human who does not claim kinship to one of the Horseclans. And I doubt that all fifty-odd clans together number as many as five thousand souls.
“I think we’re somewhere in northern Nevada, or maybe it’s southern Idaho. A century back, great, glittering, thoroughly modern cities reared out of the desert to the south of us—hell, they even raised crops in places where we’d now lose all our herds from thirst and hunger were we crazy enough to try to make it across.
“Who could ever have imagined, back then, that ten dozen scared, ragged, starving kids could not only survive the death of the world into which they’d been born, but that their direct descendants could so well adapt to a hideously hostile environment and become fearless, self-reliant men like these?”
The Hunter flattened her long-furred body to the snowy ground and moved not a whisker, for she wanted none of the black sticks coming at her. But neither was she willing to leave so much meat, either.
She watched four two-legs, covered in animal hides and furs, rise up from the shrubs that had hidden them. Pulling out long, shiny things, they went from one to another of the downed manyhorns, cutting open the big throat veins and holding hollow horns to catch the hot red blood, which they then drank off with smiles and relish.
The Hunter could hear other two-legs and the rather stupid, hornless four-legs that often carried them on their backs coming closer from upwind, if she was to have any chance of getting clear with one of those dead manyhorns, it must be done quickly.
The first four two-legs had stopped drinking blood, and now three of them were dragging the largest manyhorn toward a large tree on the other side of the glade. The fourth was shinnying up the bole, a rawhide lope clenched between his teeth.
The Hunter had wormed herself to the very limit of available concealment. Only a partially snow-covered log and a body-length of open ground now lay between her and the dead doe. With careful speed, she drew her powerful hind legs beneath her, then sprang over the log, landing almost beside the carcass.
Rahn Linsee strode into the glade. just behind Uncle Milo. Though big for his breed, Rahn still was a head shorter than Milo Moray. The other differences between the one man and the others were not so easily apparent, not that any Horseclansman or woman would have even considered questioning said differences. They all had known or known of Uncle Milo all their lives—he did not winter with the same clans every year. Their parents had known him all their lives, and their grandparents and all their ancestors back to the very Sacred Ancestors whom Uncle Milo had succoured and led upon the path to their present greatness.
Uncle Milo never changed. Horseclansmen might be born, toddle about the camps between the felt yurts. guard the herds until their war training was complete, then ride the raid and take heads or booty or women; they might then die, full of glory and glorious memories, surrounded at the last by their get and the get of their get. But Uncle Milo would be the same tall, black-haired and dark-eyed man who had drunk the health at their birth.
Mothers told curious children that Uncle Milo was a god. That he was the only god to survive the awesome War of the Gods. As the children grew older, they found it hard to consciously believe godhood of this man who rode and ate and drank with them, slept in their yurts, often swived an offered young wife or concubine, who sweated and bled and defecated like any other man. But in their subconscious, the teachings of childhood were often strong.
But no less strong was Rahn Linsee’s pugnacity. “Hi, Dik Esmith! Always has it been said that the Esmith clan were a mite slow of thought, but only a very stupid man cannot tell the difference between three dead deer and four dead deer. Or did you have all ten fingers tucked up your arse to keep them warm, eh?”
Uncaring that his tormentor went fully armed with saber and dirk at his belt, Dik spun about from the hung buck he had been flaying, took two running steps and flung himself upon Rahn, seeking to get his teeth, nails or blood-slimed skinning knife into the hated flesh.
At Milo’s impatient mindspeak and gesture, the rest of the party lifted the battling men, jerked them apart most ungently and prudently disarmed them both.
Milo strode before them, scowling darkly. “Damn you both! Your chiefs shall hear of this, from me! While you are in camp, I don’t care if you blind, maim or chop each other into gobbets, but a raid or a hunt is no place for personal grudge-fighting, and you both are old enough and experienced enough to know that fact. What in hell kind of example do you think you’re setting for these younger warriors, eh? Do you even care?
“Your ancestors knew better, knew that their folk were only so strong as their ties—blood and kin—one to the other. Are their descendants then idiots? The hand of every Dirtman, every non-Kindred wanderer, is against the Horseclans. As if those were not enemies enough, the very elements would deny you and your herds’ life.”
He motioned that the men be released. “Dik Esmith, Rahn Linsee, this winter has been very hard and is lasting much longer than most. We dare not take much milk, now, because the calves need it, but our folk must have food. These deer could mean the difference between life and death for some. So let’s get about preparing them for packing before the wolves scent all this fresh blood.”
As the men began to move off, he raised his voice in a parting admonition. “And hear me, I’ll put my saber through the next selfish roughneck who tries to start a fight here.”
When the three deer were all hung and cleaned and the meat and other usable portions wrapped in their own hides and lashed on to the packhorses, Milo, Dik and Rahn examined the bloody spot on which the missing doe had lain. Several large pugmarks were deeply pressed into the Snow.
“Puma?” mused Rahn, aloud.
Dik snorted. “No puma ever grew feet that big, nor any lynx, either.” He scratched after a flea under his parka hood. “But... maybe one of those spotted cats the southern Dirtmen call teegrai?”’
Milo shook his head. “No; this animal is a little bigger and a good deal heavier—if those tracks are any indication—than any jaguar or tigre I ever saw.” Reaching over to a fallen log, he pulled several long, silky hairs from where they had caught in the rough bark. They were a creamy buff for most of their length, tipped with a dark grey.
He stood, and the two Horseclansmen emulated him. “Rahn, take all but three of your men and go back to camp with that meat. I’m going after that cat—whatever kind it is, I think its pelt would make a handsome saddlecover. Besides, it did steal our deer. I’ll take Dik, two of his bowmasters, and a couple of your spearmen with me. The other two men can stay here in the clearing and guard the horses until we get back.”
A hundred yards into the thickening forest, the Hunter could no longer resist the temptation. Dropping her burden at the base of a tall pine, she used her dagger-like fangs to rip open the doe’s belly, then tore out greedy mouthfuls of the tender, still-hot viscera.
From behind a bush, a vixen thrust out her wriggling black button of a nose and a couple of inches of her silvery-grey jaws. The Hunter placed her good forepaw atop the dark brown carcass and rippled a snarl of warning. The nose and jaws disappeared and the vixen scurried away... but not far; she knew her turn would come and she had the patience to await it.
The sharpest pangs of hunger temporarily assuaged, the Hunter arose, gripped her somewhat lighter burden, and limped on toward the isolated stand of rocks wherein lay her den and her hungry kittens.
When the Hunter was well out of sight among the dark boles of the trees, the vixen crept from beneath the snow-laden bush and first cleaned up every scrap of gut or organ, then began to lap at the bloody snow.
With Rahn Linsee and the bulk of the hunters on their way back to the two-clan camp, Milo and the remaining men unsaddled their horses, then broke down squaw-wood to build a fire for those who would remain in the glade with the animals. That done, they set out on the clear track of the big cat with its stolen deer.
They had only gone a few yards when Djim Linsee, a gifted tracker, squatted over the pugmarks and said, “Uncle Milo, this cat may be big, but it’s hurt, too.”
Milo squatted beside the broken-nosed towhead. “How can you be sure, Djim?”
The tracker pointed a grubby forefinger at first one, then another print. “You see how deep and clear this track is, Uncle Milo? And how shallow and fuzzy is this one? The cat’s putting as little weight as possible on the left leg. It must be a really big cat, though, and very strong, to drag so big a deer so easily with only three legs.”
They went on cautiously, the bowmen with their weapons strung, one arrow nocked and one or two others between the fingers of the bowhand. The spearmen followed close behind, hefting the balance of their six-foot wolf spears. Milo had armed himself with three stout, yard-long darts. Like the others, he had hung his saber diagonally across his back to keep it out of the way in the thick forest.
The vixen’s keen ears heard their approach long before they came into view, and she was nowhere about when they arrived at the base of the big pine.
Djim squatted, picked up a shred of gut missed by the grey vixen, rubbed it between his fingers, sniffed at it and then tasted it. His pale-blue eyes on the ground, he said, “The cat stopped here, Uncle Milo, tore the deer open and ate most of the innards.” Then he fell silent, then bent over to peer closely at a patch of snow that looked to Milo like any other. Extending his tongue, the towhead tasted some near-invisible something, then straightened, grinning. “Uncle Milo, the cat is a she-cat and likely is nursing kittens. That stain there where she laid is milk, cat milk.”
“After she ate her fill of the deer’s innards, she headed that way.” He swept his arm to the northwest. Then a grey fox was here to pick up her leavings.”
As they trudged on after the cat, Milo thought: “Damn! That man is no more than twenty-five years old, yet he’s acquired knowledge and skills, a keenness of smell and an acuity of vision that I’ve not picked up in the hundred fifty-plus years I’ve been around.” Then he mentally shrugged. “Maybe I never will become as these people of my fashioning. I think it’s the early life, the formative years. Mine were spent—to the best of my knowledge, of course; damn, there’s always that memory lapse or whatever to screw up my calculations!—in a degree of urban civilization that these fine men could not even imagine and which, were they suddenly put down in it, they would find terrifying and abhorrent.”
He thought hard, thought back and back, trying to dredge from out his memory the America of the last quarter of the twentieth century. He sought to recall how it was nearly eightscore years now past, before most of the nation’s two hundred millions were returned to the dust, before the cities and towns were become only ruins, crumbling and overgrown.
At last, he desisted. He could evoke a dim ghost of a memory, but no more. It had just been too long; too many more recent scenes overlay that long-dead past now. Funny, he could easily remember women he had had, back then, in some detail, could recall the performance of fine cars and boats he had owned, but still the broader picture of that lost world eluded him.
“Just as well, likely,” he muttered under his breath. “Let the dead stay buried. They’d be as lost in this time and environment as we would be in theirs.”
The bowman ahead of him in the single file half turned. “Yes, Uncle Milo... ?” he mindspoke.
Milo smiled, and answered as silently, “Never mind, Pat. I was talking to myself.”
The ground was harder underfoot, under the layers of snow; the men’s bootsoles now frequently slipped on the surfaces of rocks and boulders thrusting up from out of the frozen earth, forcing them to throw out their arms for balance or grasp at trees and shrubs for support.
At an overly thick copse of brush and trees, the spoor veered to the right, and the hunters relentlessly followed it.
The Hunter was aware of her pursuit very soon after it commenced, since her pursuers made almost as much noise as a stampeding herd of shaggy bulls. But she was easily maintaining her lead, despite the weakness and lancing agony that her left foreleg was become with the strain of dragging the stiffening, heavy carcass through the breast-deep snow and over the rough ground beneath it. Only when she neared the hillock atop which lay her den did she decide to take action against the persistent two-legs. Perhaps if she killed one of the pack, the others would feed on him as wolves did, and give her time to cover her trail to the den.
The Hunter had never had much contact with two-legs, but she had seen her mother killed by them, pierced through and through with the hateful little black sticks, then pinned to the ground, still snarling and snapping and clawing, by a longer stick in the hands of a two-leg sitting high on the back of a hornless four-leg. She did hate two-legs, did the Hunter, but she also respected them, so she laid her ambush with care.
She continued well past the spot she had chosen, then adroitly broke her trail by leaping atop a fallen free bole from which the night winds had scoured the snow. Climbing atop the mass of dead roots and frozen earth, the Hunter reared to her full length and carefully hung her precious deer over the broad branch of a still-standing tree. Below that branch, the trunk stood bare and the bark was slippery, so the carcass should be safe from the depredations of any other predator save perhaps a bear or another cat. And the only bear that stalked hereabouts was denned up a full day’s run to the north. The few small cats ran in mortal fear of the Hunter and would never venture so close to her den.
The soil was thin and rocky on the hillslope, and over the years many a tree had fallen to storms and winds. The Hunter now made use of these raised ways to make her way back to the ambush point she had chosen without leaving tell-tale tracks in the snow. Arriving at last in the thick brush, she bellied down and made a swift and silent passage to the opposite side of the copse. There she crouched, motionless as the tree trunks themselves, waiting.
The first two-leg, slightly crouched above her tracks. came abreast of the Hunter, then passed her, a long shiny-tipped stick dangling from one forepaw. Then came two two-legs, each grasping one of the horn-covered sticks that threw the deadly little black slicks; them, too, she allowed to pass around the point of the copse.
The third was bigger than the others, which most likely meant that he was leader of the pack, thought the Hunter. He bore neither long stick nor short, but three of an intermediate length. Soundless as death itself, the Hunter hurled her weight upon this pack leader. Even as she bore him to earth, she thrust her good, right forepaw around his head, hooked her big claws into the flesh over the jaw, then jerked sharply back and to the right.
The Hunter growled deep satisfaction at the snapping of the neck. Then she spun upon her haunches and bounded back into the brush-grown copse, leaving the other two-legs shouting behind her. Many of the little black sticks were hurled after her, but only one of the hastily aimed missiles fleshed, and that one only split the tip of her ear before hissing on to rattle among the tree trunks.
Well satisfied with her stratagem, the Hunter negotiated the width of the copse and made her way back to where she had cached her deer, directly this time, for there now was no need to hide her spoor. Soon she and her three kittens would be feasting upon tasty deer flesh, while the two-legs would probably be tearing at the carcass of their dead leader.
Milo could not repress a groan as Dik Esmith dabbed a bit of homespun cloth at the hot blood gushing from the claw-torn cheek.
“Let be, Dik, let be,” he gasped. “That cat is not only canny she’s strong as a horse. She broke my neck like a dry twig, but it will knit quickly enough. Just leave me here.
“She’s most likely broken trail, so some of you had better scout around and see where the spoor takes up again. Djim, you and a couple of bowmen backtrack her through that copse, but be damned careful—you’ve all seen what she can do.”
Milo lay still feeling the pains of regeneration of bone and tissue already commencing. He was aware that Dik and one other squatted nearby, unwilling to leave him hurt and alone in this cold and dangerous place.
“They’re good men,” he thought, “all of them. I’m glad it was me that that wily flea factory chose as victim, and not one of them. In thirty minutes, those tears in my cheek will be fading scars and even the vertebrae will be sound again in an hour or less. But if she’d jumped one of them, we’d be bearing a well-dead Linsee or Esmith back to camp.”
For the many-thousandth time he wondered what had made him the kind of being he was, wondered if he was unique on the earth, or if, somewhere, there might be others of his kind. Over the course of the hundred fifty-odd years of life he could remember, he had suffered wounds enough to have slain a hundred ordinary men—he had been gunshot, stabbed, slashed, cut and clubbed. Once an axe had taken off his left hand above the wrist, but it had regrown; twice he had lost the same ear, yet he now had two.
With an agonizing tingle, life was coming back into his arms and legs and body. When he could easily flex his limbs and abdominal muscles, Milo rose to sit propped on his hands.
Shortly Djim Linsee approached and proffered a horn cup of clear, icy water. Milo gulped the fluid gratefully.
The tracker sank down before him. “There are many fallen trees just beyond this place, Uncle Milo. The cat must have doubled back across them, for we could only find the tracks she made when she ran away. She had hung the deer up in a tree, and after she took it down, she went uphill at an angle to the right until she came to flowing water. The stream bed is all rock, so where she went from there, upstream or down, is anybody’s guess. But I have a feeling...”
“That she went upstream?” asked Milo.
Djim nodded quickly. “Cats always seek high places. I climbed a tree on the stream bank and looked uphill. The slope is very much steeper farther on, but the top of the hill is flat and level and virtually treeless. Near the center of the hilltop is a high and spreading pile of rocks. True, I could not see any openings that looked big enough for such a cat to go into, but then I could only see the one side.
“Don’t ask me how, Uncle Milo, but I know her den is in there, in those rocks!”