Lost in a strange and violent land, can Bili of Morguhn and his warriors escape a sorcerous trap?
Out of the jaws of destruction
When the Witchmen caused the earth to move and called forth the fires from the mountain’s inner depths, the Moon Maidens, Ahrmehnee, and Thoheeks Bili's troops barely escaped with their lives.
Driven by the flames into territory said to be peopled by monstrous half-humans, Bili was forced to choose between braving the dangers of nature gone mad or fighting the savage natives on their own ground. But before he could decide, his troops were spotted by the beings who claimed this eerie land as their own and would use powerful spells of magic and illusion to send any intruders to their doom…
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).
This book finds Bili the Axe, famous war chief, dying as his mind returns to some of the more famous incidents of his life including further details of how the Moon Maidens, a warlike all female tribe came into the Confederation and how the original kings of Kuhmbuhluhner (Cumberland) lost their heritage and using a form of "mindspeak" caused Bili's command to join them in a war against their enemies.Amazon Review
5 Stars A rousing tale of a legendary warrior!
As Bili Morguhn lay on his deathbed, he remembers scenes throughout his life. Known as Bili the Axe, and the Prince of Karaleenos, Bili had led an astounding life as a warrior, and leader of men. But the tales are not only of Bili's heroics, but of other warriors as well.
Anyone who has read and enjoyed, a Horseclans story, will surely enjoy this one. Those who have never read Horseclans, but enjoy stories, of heroics, battle, and brains are sure to have a good time, reading this story of epic email@example.com -- Amazon Review
The gray dawn had crept upon the stillness of the morning, its meager light reflected from the heavy, icy dew bedecking trees and leas and croplands of the Principate of Karaleenos. Slowly, grudgingly, the river mist—thick as bean soup and the unappealing color of dingy cotton bolls—began to clear from about the walls of the city which sprawled along the south bank of a swift-flowing river.
Over the last of the rolling, northerly hills, a dozen cloaked and hooded riders urged tired horses along the Traderoad toward the bridge that led to that city. Ease of movement for traders was the reason for the road’s existence and maintenance, but the small, mounted party was not made up of traders.
A sharp-eyed sentry atop the stone watchtower guarding the northern end of the bridge easily spotted the telltale signs—erect lances, bowcases and quivers now covered with waxed leather against the wet and mist, the unmistakable posture of veteran cavalrymen—and a quick word from him to those in the room below brought a bugler up the ladder to hurriedly blare two staccato signal calls.
In the lower levels of the tower, the inner shutters were opened, letting in blasts of cold, damp air but giving the bowmen behind the slits a deadly and overlapping coverage of the approaches to and the passage past the stronghold.
From the south bank of the river, another bugle answered the first and, shortly, a distant but resounding clang told that the massive iron-sheathed oaken portcullis now most effectively barred easy entrance to the ancient city of Karaleenopolis. Once the winter capital of kings, it was now the seat of the Prince of Karaleenos, who ruled the former kingdom as the local satrap of the High Lord of the Confederation of Eastern Peoples.
As the small cavalcade neared the outer fortification, the lead rider threw back the hood of his travel cloak, unbuckled and then removed the helmet beneath it, baring his close-cropped, blondish hair and fair-skinned but weather-bronzed face.
The grizzled sentry turned to the bugler and the noncom who had come up to join them. “Best blow the ‘Let Pass,’ lad. That bareheaded one, he be the Undying Lord Tim Vawn, commander of the Army of the West. I sojered with him fer near thirty years, and he don’t like waiting, as I r’call.”
Within the massive fortress-palace, core of the citadel around which the city had been Built, in a circular tower-chamber before a blazing fire of resinous pine logs, a man and two women sat at ease on low, padded couches. Atop a round table between them were small ewers of several wines, decanters of brandy and cordials, pipes and tobacco and a large bowl of unshelled nuts. They had been there throughout the night, and the wan light of the new day showed layer upon layer of bluish tobacco smoke filling those parts of the chamber where the hearthfire’s draft could not pull it up the chimney.
Although the two women were very different—the one a very fair, blue-eyed blonde, the other of a light-olive skin tone, with eyes as sloe-black as her long, thick hair—they appeared to be about of an age, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years. But appearance was, in their highly unusual case, deceiving in the extreme; the blonde, the Undying Lady Giliahna Vawn, was seventy-six, while the black-haired woman, Neeka Morai, was nearing eighty.
The man who sat with them differed only in degree of agelessness. Where not darkened by sun and weather, his skin was darker than Giliahna’s though lighter than Neeka’s. So long as there had been a Confederation, the Undying High Lord Milo Morai had been its ruler—over three hundred years now.
Save for his rich attire, he could have—and often had—passed unnoticed on any street of any city in his domains. His glossy black hair was stippled here and there with errant strands of white and had gone a uniform silver at the temples, but his body seemed hale and fit, his movements strong and sure. He had appeared just so for nearly a thousand years.
Placing a sun-browned hand before her pale-pink lips, the blonde yawned cavernously, and the dark woman spoke. “Why don’t you get some sleep, Gil. You know one of us will mindcall if... well, if you’re needed. Our bodies need sleep just as much as any human one does, so go on up to bed.”
“No, not alone.” The fair woman shook her head decisively, picked up her small, bejeweled pipe and began to clean its bowl, leaning far to the side to tap the loosened residues into the ashes on the hearth. “Tim will arrive today. He may be on the bridge this very minute, and I mean to be up to greet him.”
Milo said, his dark eyes narrowing, “Wishfulness, Gil... or another instance of knowing?”
She shrugged. “Frankly, Milo, I don’t know. It’s pure hell to have abilities you can’t control. All I know is that last night I just suddenly realized that Tim would be here today, early.”
She paused to blow through the stem of the pipe, then reiterated, “So I’ll take my sleep when he has come... with him.”
Milo chuckled and selected a brace of nuts from the bowl. “And scant sleep the two of you will have. You forget, I was at Theesispolis three years ago when he came back from the west. I just thank Sun and Wind that you two are what you are. The hearts of mortals would never have held out against such punishment. I’ve little doubt that a protracted session like that first two weeks or so would’ve put to shame a pair of minks.”
The blond woman flushed but retained her small smile, which suddenly blossomed fully as, with a creaking of leather, a jingle of spurs and the clank and ring of fine steel armor, footsteps were heard upon the stairway which led up to this eyrie.
His name was Bili Morguhn. His place of birth had been The Duchy of Morguhn, and the time of that birthing was almost a century agone. His sire had been Hwahruhn, Thoheeks and Chief of Clan Morguhn, his mother Mahrnee of Zuhnburk, a daughter of the Duke of Zuhnburk. Bili, too, had held the lands and titles of his patrimony before he had been elevated to ahrkeethoheeks for a while and, finally, to his present rank and station—Prince of Karaleenos.
With his assumption of the exalted position and title, he had had to divest himself of the chieftaincy of his clan. His clansmen had then elected his younger brother, Djaik, to succeed him, and Chief Djaik’s grandson was now Morguhn of Morguhn.
During his fifty years as Prince of Karaleenos, Bili had ruled wisely and well, and, as he had not finally been persuaded to quit his familiar and comfortable seat until his forty-ninth year, he had also outlived almost all his contemporaries.
But death comes, soon or late, to all mortal men and women, and in his great, canopied bed within his princely bedchamber, Bili lay dying—coming at last to the end of that long, long road on which he had taken his first, hesitant footsteps more than ninety-nine years now past in far-off Morguhn.
Yet as short a time as three months before, he had been healthier and more vital than many a man of far less advanced years. Disdaining litter or carriage and forking a big white saddle mule upon streets or roads and his coal-black hunter—Mahvros was the name that he and each of his predecessors had borne, all being direct descendants of the great black warhorse who had borne Bili down from his war training in the Middle Kingdoms to the north—in wood and field and lea.
Bili the Axe—as he had been known in his youth—had been a man of action all his long life, and, with cares of state and weighty responsibilities so hampering him that he no longer had the time or leave to go a-warring, he had grudgingly forsaken warhorses and prairiecats for hounds and hawks, discharging his immense energies in the chase.
When more than four score and ten, Prince Bili had taken a four-hundred-pound boar upon his spear and had held the deadly creature thus impaled until the pack and other hunters had arrived to kill it. The singular feat had been the talk of all the principality for near a year and had added new luster to the legend that Bili had lived.
But Bili would ride and hunt no more, nor would he live much longer.
The bear had come down the river valley from the mountains to the west during last winter’s extremely hard weather. He had lived well and avoided the proximity of man through spring and summer, but with the onset of autumn, he had somehow, somewhere, acquired a fondness for mutton, nor had he stuck at the killing or maiming of the dogs and men who guarded their beasts.
Bili had heard the complaints, organized and joyfully led out the hunt, behind a pack of specially imported Ahrmehnee bear hounds.
But the bear—all abristle with arrows, claws and jaws clotted with dusty gore, little eyes agleam with bloodlust, with those of the pack of hounds still able to hobble all snarling and snapping at his heels and flanks—had come in low, under Bill’s spear, and had savaged the old man terribly before the hounds had pulled him down with Bili’s hastily drawn hanger hilt-deep in his furry body.
With many a doleful lamentation, the hunt had borne the prince back to his city, none of them believing at the start of the journey that Bili would be alive at its end. But he was.
His Zahrtohgahn physician, Master Ahkmehd, had first hypnotized the prince, then he and his apprentice had worked long and skillfully on the horribly wounded nobleman. But their patient had never really recovered. Despite their best efforts, infections had set into the jagged wounds, the brittle, shattered bones had failed to mend properly, and, when last the physician had dosed the prince with drugs to ease his pain, he had had no choice but to inform all who asked that the legendary Bili the Axe would most likely be dead by nightfall.
Bili himself had had no need to be told. Poor old Master Ahkmehd’s obvious sorrow—for they two had been close friends of many years’ standing—had been sufficient. As the waves of agony slowly ebbed in the face of the drugs, the Prince of Karaleenos wrinkled his canted nose at the stench of suppuration arising from the torn and deeply gouged muscles and flesh of his arms and shoulders and torso.
Despite the expected wave of sickeningly intense pain which overrode the strong drugs, Bili raised his left arm to where he could see the hand and wrist below the bandages. In the light of the candles, all the wrinkled flesh appeared to be as livid as the face of a corpse, and to the fingers of his questing right hand, those of his left felt ice-cold.
The old man bared his worn yellow teeth in a grimace. A warrior, he knew the signs; the fearsome black rot was well entrenched in his left arm. Amputation at the elbow or, better yet, the shoulder, might... might halt its insidious spread, but who could say for sure and who could say that the same deadly complication would not soon affect the other arm or one or both of the legs.
“No,” he muttered to himself, “Sacred Sun has granted me almost twice as many years as most men live, and I’ll not let them further butcher this body that has served me so well, simply to linger on a few more months or years as a cripple. If the pain gets too much for the drugs, I’ll use my dirk, but I’ll go to my pyre a whole man.”
Slowly, as the drugs dulled not just the pain but his consciousness as well, he relaxed, and his half-dreaming mind journeyed far, far back, more than seventy years in time.
Taking a fresh grip on the haft of his mighty axe, Bili mindspoke his huge black warhorse, Mahvros, “Now, brother mine, now we fight.”
With Bili and a knot of heavily armed nobles at the point, the squadron of mounted Freefighters crested the wooded hill and swept down the brushy, precipitous slope at a jarring gallop. Naturally a few horses fell, but only a few, and as they reached level ground, Komees Hari Daiviz of Morguhn’s wing moved to the left to take the unruly mob of foemen in the rear.
Unconsciously, Bili tightened his thigh muscles, firming his seat and crowding his buttocks against the high cantle of his warkak, while bending over the armored neck of the thundering black and extending his axe in his strong right arm, the sharp spike at the business end of the haft glinting evilly in the pale light
Then, they struck!
The big, heavy, war-trained destriers sent ponies tumbling like ninepins, and the well-armed, steel-sheathed nobles and Freefighters wreaked a fearful carnage among the unarmored and all but defenseless horde of shaggy barbarians. The beleaguered lines of Ahrmehnee and Moon Maidens could only stand in wide-eyed wonder at this eleventh-hour deliverance from what would surely and shortly have been their last battle.
A red-bearded headhunter heeled a tattoo on his pony’s ribs and directed the beast at Bili; he jabbed furiously with his crude spear, but the soft-iron point bent against the Pitzburk plate and Bili’s massive axe severed the spear arm, cleanly, at the shoulder.
Screaming a shrill equine challenge, Mahvros reared above a pony and rider and came down upon them, steel-shod hooves flailing. Gelatinous globs of bloody brain spurted from the shattered skull of the man, and the pony collapsed under the unbearable weight, whereupon Mahvros stove in its ribs.
It was a battle wherein living men were ahorse; those not mounted—noble, Freefighter or barbarian—were speedily pounded into the bloodsoaked ground.
The shaggy men fell like ripe grain, most of their weapons proving almost useless when pitted against fine modern platearmor and only slightly more effective when employed against the scale-armored Freefighters. To counter blows and thrusts of broadsword and saber, axe and lance, mace and warhammer, the primitive wickerwork targets offered little more protection than did the furs and hides and ragged, homespun clothing.
But though the shaggy men died in droves, it seemed to Bili that there were always more and yet more appearing before him, behind him, to either side of him, jabbing spears, beating on his plate with light axes, with crude blades and with wooden clubs. He felt that he had been fighting, been slaying, been swinging his ever heavier axe for centuries.
Then, abruptly, he was alone, with none before him or to either side. At a flicker of movement from his right, he twisted in his sweaty saddle, once more whirling up his gore-clotted axe. But it was only a limping, riderless pony which was hobbling as fast as it could go from that murderous melee, eyes rolling whitely and nostrils dilated.
Bili slowly lowered his axe and relaxed for a brief moment, slumped in his saddle, drawing long, gasping, shuddery breaths. Beneath his three-quarter armor, the padded-leather gambeson and his small clothes, his body seemed to be only a single long, dull ache, with here and there sharper pains that told the tale of strained muscles, while his head throbbed its resentment of so many clanging blows upon and against the protecting helm. Running his parched tongue over his lips, he could taste the sweat bathing his face and salt blood trickling from his nose, but he seemed to be unwounded.
Several more stampeding ponies passed by while he sat, and one or two troop horses, the last with a Freefighter reeling in the kak, rhythmically spurting bright blood from a left arm that ended just above the elbow. Exerting every ounce of his willpower, Bili straightened his weary body and reined Mahvros about, bringing up his ton-heavy axe to where he could rest its haft across the flaring pommel of his saddle.
Fifty yards distant, the battle still surged and raged. He had ridden and fought his way completely through the widest, densest part of the howling horde, which was a testament to the charger’s weight and bulk and savage ferocity as much as to his own fighting skills.
So close that Bili could almost touch him stood a panting horse with his equally weary rider. There was no recognizing who might be within the plain, scarred, dented plate, but Bili knew the mare and urged Mahvros nearer.
When they were knee to knee, he leaned close and shouted, “Geros! Sir Geros! Are you hurt, man?” His voice was a painful thunder to his own ears within the closed helm. “Where did you get my eagle banner?”
But the other rider sat unmoving, unresponsive. His steel-plated shoulders rose and fell jerkily to his heavy, spasmodic breathing. One gauntleted fist gripped the hilt of his broadsword, its blade red-smeared from point to quillions; the other held a hacked and splintery ashwood shaft, from which the tattered and faded Red Eagle of Morguhn rippled silkily in the freshening breeze.
Sir Geros had once borne this very banner to glory and lasting fame while serving as a Freefighter with the troop of Captain Pawl Raikuh, but since his well-earned elevation to the ranks of the nobility, a common trooper had been chosen standardbearer, while the new knight took his expected place among the heavily armed nobles.
Bili tried mindspeak. “Did you piss your breeks, as usual, Sir Geros?”
Shame and contrition boiled up from the knight’s soul and beamed out with the chagrined reply. “I always do, my lord. Always wet myself in battle.”
Bili chuckled good-naturedly, and his mirth was silently transmitted, as well. “Geros, every man jack in this squadron knows that you’ve got at least a full league of guts. When are you going to stop being ashamed of the piddling fact that your bladder’s not as brave as the rest of you? None of the rest of us give a damn about it, man. Why then should you?”
“But... but, my lord thoheeks, it’s not. . .” he paused. “Not manly!”
Bili snorted his derision. “Horse turds, Sir Geros! You are acknowledged one of the ten best swordsmen in a dozen duchies and you fight like a scalded treecat. So why waste worry about a meaningless quirk of yours? I assure you, no one else is bothered by it.”
“Yet I am the joke of the squadron, my lord,” grated the young knight. “There is never any sort of alarm or fight but that someone mentions my weakness, my shame, and asks of it or openly lays hand to my saddle or my breeks. Then they all laugh at me.”
Bili extended his bridle hand to firmly grip the knight’s shoulder, chiding gently, “Oh, Geros, Geros, the laughter is not at you, man, it’s at your evident embarrassment. And it’s friendly, Geros, just well-meant joshing among peers. In truth, there are few men in all the host who are so deeply and widely respected as are you. Everyone knows you’re a very brave man, Geros.”
Geros just shook his helmeted head, tiredly, resignedly. “But I’m not really brave, my lord, and I know it, even if no one else does. I fight for the same base reason I strove to master the sword and other weapons: only to stay alive. And I’m frightened near to death in a fight, nearly all the time, my lord, and that’s not valor.”
“Not so!” snapped Bili firmly. “It’s the highest degree of true valor that you recognize and accept your quite legitimate fears of death or maiming and then do your duty and more despite them. And don’t forget what poor old Pawl Raikuh told you the day that we stormed the salients outside the city of Vawnpolis. Fear, consciously controlled fear, is what keeps a warrior alive in a press. Men who don’t know fear seldom outlive their first, serious battle.
“And I’ll add this, now, Geros: Self-doubt is a good thing in many ways, for it teaches a man humility; but you can’t allow yourself to be carried too far by such doubts, else they’ll unman you.
“But all that aside. Tell me, how’d you chance to be bearing my banner again? Can’t keep your hands off it, eh?”
Geros was too exhausted and drained to rise to the joke. “My lord, I was riding at Klifud’s side through most of that ghastly mess back there, and I thought me I had guarded him and the eagle well. Then, just at the fringes of the horde, a barbarian axeman crowded between us and lopped off poor Klifud’s forearm. I ran the stinking savage through and barely caught the eagle ere it fell. Then I was in the open, here; I don’t know what happened to Klifud, my lord.”
Bili nodded brusquely. “Well, man, you have it now. How’s your throat? Dry as mine, I doubt me not”
Feeling behind his saddle, he grunted his satisfaction at finding his canteen still in place and whole. With numb, twitching fingers, he unlatched and raised his visor. Lifting the quart bottle to his crusty lips, he filled his mouth once, spit the fluid out, then took several long drafts of the tepid brandy-and-water mixture. The first swallow burned his gullet ferociously, like a red-hot spearblade on an open wound, but those which followed it were as welcome and soothing as warm honey. Taking the bottle down at last, he proffered it to Sir Geros.
“Here, man, wash out your mouth and oil that remarkable set of vocal cords. If we’re to really clobber those unwashed bastards, we must rally the squadron and hit them hard again.”
For the impetus of that first smashing charge had been lost, as Bili could plainly see, and the majority of the lowland horsemen were fighting alone or, at best, in small groups, rising and falling from sight, almost lost in a roiling sea of shaggy, multitoned fur.
Bili realized that where mere skill at arms and superlative armor could not promise victory or even bare survival against such odds, the superior bulk and weighty force of the troop horses and destriers were his outnumbered squadron’s single asset. To take full advantage of that sole asset, the horde must again be struck by an ordered, disciplined formation, charging and striking at the gallop. But before he could deliver another crushing charge, he must rally such of his scattered elements as he could.
On command, Sir Geros’ clear tenor voice pealed like a trumpet above the uproar, while Bili himself, gripping the brass-shod ferrule in both his big hands, raised the eagle high above his head and waggled the shaft.
For a long, breathless moment, it seemed that none could or would respond to the imperative summons. But first a pair of blood-splashed Freefighters hacked their way from out of the near edge of the press, then a half-dozen more appeared behind a destrier-mounted nobleman, and slowly, by dribbles and drops, the squadron’s ranks again filled out and formed up behind the Red Eagle of Morguhn. Not all who had made the first charge returned, of course; some were just too hard pressed to win free of the horde, and some would never return.
Bili took a position some two hundred yards off the left flank of the milling mob that was his target—the absolutely minimal distance cavalry needed to achieve the proper impetus in a charge. He had just gotten the understrength units into squadron front when the beat of hundreds of drumming hooves sounded from somewhere within the narrow, winding defile to his own left flank.
The veteran troopers were already preparing to wheel in order to face the self-announced menace when the riders swept down from out the mouth of that precipitous gap. In the lead rode Ehrbuhn Duhnkin, followed by the bowmasters of the Freefighter troops. But their bows were all unstrung and cased; their sabers were out and flashing in errant beams of sunlight
While the archer-troopers took their accustomed places in the shrunken ranks, Ehrbuhn rode up to Thoheeks Bili, mind-speaking. “We had to miss first blood, Lord Bili, but I mean to be in at the kill. So too do some others, incidentally; they it was showed us the way down from up there atop the cliffs. So, in all courtesy, my lord, I think we should not begin this dance until the arrival of the ladies.”
With the Maidens and the Ahrmehnee warriors riding in a place of honor—the exposed right flank of the formation—and with the grim-faced brahbehrnuh beside Bili in the knot of heavily armed nobles and officers at the center of the line, the reformed and reinforced squadron struck the confused, reeling barbarians almost as hard as had the first charge. And human flesh could endure no more; the savages broke, scattered before the big horses and armored warriors and streamed southwest in full flight.
Some few escaped, but not many. The destriers and troop horses were tired, true, but so too were the ponies, and superior breeding and careful nurturing told in the end at a cost of the ultimate price to the bulk of the mob of barbarians. To the very terminus of the long, narrow plateau were the shaggy men pursued, ridden down and slain. At length, Bili forced a halt, recalled and rallied his now heterogeneous force before commencing the slow, weary march back to the battlefield below the cliffs.
Bili trudged beside Mahvros at the head of his exhausted command, having allowed only the seriously wounded to remain mounted. The big black stallion was spent; he looked as tired as Bili felt, hardly able to place one hoof before the other, his proud head hung low and his glossy hide was befouled with drying lather and old sweat, with horse blood and man blood, all thickly overlaid with dust. Nor were the other horses of the much-battered squadron in better shape; many were, in fact, worse.
The brahbehrnuh helped a reeling Freefighter onto the back of her relatively fresh charger, saw him secure, then paced up to stride beside Bili. After a silent moment, she addressed the towering young man in accented but passable Trade Mehrikan. “What is the polite form of address for you, lowlander?”
•The Confederation Ehleenee say ‘thoheeks’,” replied Bili, “while my Freefighters say ‘duke’... but my friends call me simply Bili. My lady may feel free to use whichever comes easiest to her lips.”
With, a brusque nod of her head, she asked bluntly, “You and your ilk are the born enemies of the Ahrmehnee and so, indirectly, of me and my sisters. So why then do you fight and bleed and die for us? Was there not enough loot in the vales for both you and the cursed Muhkohee? Think you that even this will earn you Ahrmehnee forgiveness for your many and most heinous crimes, Dook Bili?”
A woman of spirit, thought Bili with approval. No polite, meaningless words for her; she spits it all right out and be damned to you if you don’t like it.
“Because, my lady, me and mine no longer are the enemies of the Ahrmehnee. Even now does the great chief—this nahkhahrah—treat with the High Lord. Soon all these Ahrmehnee mountains and vales will be as one with our mighty federation of peoples; your folk too, probably.”
“Never!” she spat, her dark eyes blazing. “Since the time of the Earth Gods have the Moon Maidens been sensibly ruled by wise women, rather than by stupid, clumsy men. Never will we submit to such utter debasement.”
Then did Bili of Morguhn show an early spark of that genius which was to secure him a high place among the ruling caste of his homeland. “But, my lady … did my lady not know?”
“Know what, lowlander?”
“Why just this, my lady: the true rulers of the Confederation are women—the Undying High Ladies Mara Morai and Aldora Linszee Treeah-Pohtohmahs Pahpahs.”
Her ebon brows rose and her jaw dropped, but her recovery was quick, and she demanded, “Then what of your infamous Undying Devil, this Milos?”
Bili answered glibly, constructing the tale as he went along. “Lord Milo commands the Confederation armies, especially in the field, on campaigns. You see, my lady, our armies are all of men.”
Her olive forehead wrinkled. “But Dook Bili, how can your High Ladies trust this Milos to not bring this army of mere men against them, slay them both and usurp their rightful place? The men of my own folk foolishly tried such treachery many times over the centuries until, finally, in the time of my mother’s mother’s grandmother, men were forbidden to carry weapons or to know their uses. Since that time, the Wise Women have ruled us, unquestioned and unopposed.”
Bili shook his helmeted head. “Such harsh measures have never yet been needed in the lands of the Confederation, my lady. For one thing, the Undying High Ladies cannot be slain with weapons, but, more important, the High Lord would never do aught which might harm or divide the Confederation. Moreover, it is said that he loves the High Lady Mara, to whom he is wed, and I have seen his great respect for the High Lady Aldora. Thus has it been for six generations and more.”
They two walked on in silence for a quarter-hour. At last, the brahbehrnuh announced her decision by asking, “When and where can I meet with one or the both of these High Ladies, Dook Bili? With the Hold of the Maidens destroyed, we—my few remaining sisters and I—are cast adrift in a hostile world, owning naught save the little we bear and wear and the horses we ride.
“But I must be certain that we—this last, pitiful remnant of my race—will receive land in return for our allegiance and service to your lady rulers and that we will be allowed to practice our ancient rites and customs unmolested. These things must your lady rulers avow to us who serve Her, the Supreme Lady.”
Bili mused, trying to guess the proper answer to give to this strange, handsome young woman. But, abruptly, the conversation was rendered of no importance.
Many a league to the north and west, in what once had been the Hold of the Moon Maidens, a defective timing device at last fulfilled its long-overdue function. A small charge exploded, hurling a barrel-sized charge over the lip of the smoking fissure which the Maidens had known as the Sacred Hoofprint.
Far and far it fell, bouncing from rock to hot rock, deeper and still deeper into the very bowels of the uneasy mountain. Within bare seconds, it fell from regions of hundreds of degrees of heat to regions of thousands, and its steel casing began to melt, dripping away. Then the tight-packed insulation burst into brief flame and the immense explosive charge roared out, unheard by any living ear.
A sense of unbearable unease suddenly gripped Bili. His every nerve-ending seemed to be silently screaming, “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!”
Even tired as they were, all the horses were uneasy, too. Weary equine heads came up to snort and nod, nostrils dilated and eyes rolled. Aching muscles forgotten, they danced with nervousness.
Beside Bili, Mahvros half reared and almost bolted when several deer and a pair of foxes broke cover, dashing out of a dark copse to rocket downslope and over the edge of the plateau. Hard on their heels came a living carpet of small, scuttling beasts, and up ahead of the men and horses a huge, gaunt gray wolf and a treecat raced in the same direction, almost side by side.
Recalling that the High Lord had once remarked that the prairiecats were closely related to treecats and that many of the latter could mindspeak, Bili attempted to range the fleeing feline, but he encountered only a jumble of inchoate terror.
Having long ago learned the folly of ignoring his instincts, Bili suddenly roared out, “MOUNT! Mount and form column!” Then, his weariness clean forgotten in the press of the moment, he obeyed his own order, flinging himself astride Mahvros and finding his stirrups.
He had but barely forked the black stallion when the very earth and rocks beneath the horse’s hooves shuddered strongly. Horses along the column screamed in terror; so too did some of the men and women. The brahbehrnuh stumbled against the flank of Bili’s dancing destrier, frantically clutching at his saddle skirts and stirrup leathers for the support her feet could no longer find on the rippling ground.
With no time to care for the niceties and formalities, Bili leaned to grasp the back of the woman’s swordbelt and, lifting her effortlessly, plunked her belly down on his crupper.
Komees Hari came alongside, his big gray stallion tight-reined and seemingly half mad with fear. “It can only be an earthquake, Bili. I thought me there was something odd, something disturbing about this damned plateau. We’ve got to get off of it... fast!”
Bili nodded once, turned in the saddle to face his column and shouted, “THAT WAY,” pointing an arm in the direction taken by the fleeing wildlife. Mahvros was too submerged in his terror to respond to mindspeak, so Bili reined him over to the right. His booted heels beat a tattoo on the black barrel and evoked a more than willing response; exhaustion clean forgotten, the big horse raced flat out toward the track of the game beasts.
The column followed as best they might while trees crashed around them, and huge boulders shifted, slid and tumbled. After their young lord they went, heedlessly putting their panic-stricken mounts at the impossibly narrow, suicidally steep descent down the precipitous face of the plateau.
Had that plateau been higher at this its southern edge, none could have survived; but since it was much lower than in the north, all save the very tail of the column were galloping east and south and west on comparatively level ground when, with an awesome, grinding roar, the entire rocky face dissolved and slid down upon itself.
It was not until they were a birdflight mile from what had so recently been the foot of that small plateau that Bili brought his command first to a walk, then a full halt on the brushy slope of a long, serpentine ridge. Not even there was the earth completely still, but the occasional tremors were quickly forgotten, erased from their minds by the awesome and terrible wonder of the northern horizon.
Looming so huge that it looked close enough to touch, a roiling cloud of dense, opaque, multicolored smoke shot through with flame towered. Then, even as they watched, came a clap of sound of such a magnitude that horses shrieked and repeatedly reared, while men and women slapped hands to abused ears and rolled on the heaving hill·side in agony. Some nameless force shredded the cloud, and among the remaining tendrils a vast host of smoking, blackish shapes could be seen rising high into the air. Of irregular conformation were the black objects, and no two of the same size. Some rose faster than others, farther, but all that could be followed with the eye soon plunged back toward earth, trailing smoke like impossibly huge pitchballs from the giant catapult of a god. And wherever they struck among the forested mountains and vales, red flame sprang into being.
One of the shapes narrowly missed Bili’s party; falling, it bounced heavily in the narrow vale between their ridge and the one beyond. It finally came to rest within the bed of a tiny rill, and when the last tendrils of steam had dissipated, Bili and the rest could see that it was naught but a boulder.
But what a boulder! It was a boulder big enough for two destriers to have stood upon, uncrowded. And upon its broad face, certain cryptic carvings were plainly to be seen.
At sight of the boulder, the brahbehrnuh uttered a single piercing shriek. Then her eyes rolled back in their sockets and she collapsed, bonelessly, at Bili’s feet.