The Army of the Confederation is on the move again. For the Undying High Lord Milo Morai is ready to take the next step in his master plan to reunite all the tribes which centuries ago formed a single, powerful nation known as the United States of America.
Before the Confederation forces lie the Armehnee Mountains, the home of the savage tribes that constantly raid the lowlands, bringing with them destruction and death. But Milo's forces are about to face an even more dangerous enemy than the Armehnee.
For the Witchmen -- twentieth-century scientists who have achieved a kind of immortality by stealing the living bodies of men while destroying their souls -- have long been at work in the mountains.
And unbeknownst to Milo, his troops are marching into much more trouble than they bargained for -- trouble that could spell the end of the Confederation!
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).
The narrow, winding streets of the city were dark and utterly deserted, save for the solitary figure whose worn, oft-patched boots crunched through the fresh-fallen snow. The fine stuff of the hooded cloak which shrouded the walker had commenced to fray in places, but still was thick and warm. The scabbard of a broadsword jutted out at the hooded one’s side, though of all the folk still alive within the walls of the doomed city, he was the man least likely to be attacked.
Not that Vahrohneeskos Drehkos Daiviz of Morguhnpolis was universally loved. There were full many who actively hated the short, stocky, middle-aged nobleman, especially among the more religious elements of the population. But there was not a man or woman who would have dared to lift hand against him who commanded the city and its defense, for, harsh and uncompromising as had been his tenure, but few of his schemes and strate-gems had failed, while each and every one of his predictions had inexorably come to pass.
Most of those few thousands remaining in besieged Vawnpolis were common people—peasant villagers of this Duchy of Vawn and its neighboring principality, the Duchy of Morguhn; Vawnpolee and Morguhnpolee city dwellers, servant-class types, miners, herders and the like—and all were deeply riddled with superstition, else they would never have become involved in the insanity which had brought them to these sorry straits.
Inflamed by the kooreeohee and priests, who had been abetted by a handful of minor nobles, they had schemed and plotted against their rightful lords and finally had risen up and murdered many of them. In Vawn, the rebellion had been an unqualified success. But, due to a number of factors, in Morguhn it had failed miserably and, worse, had cost the lives not only of many Morguhn rebels but of hundreds of the Vawnee who had ridden to aid them. Of the two kooreeohee, Holy Skiros of Morguhn was known to have been captured by the forces of the pitiless thoheeks of Morguhn; Mahreeos of Vawn had simply disappeared in the maelstrom-rout of the self-proclaimed Soldiers of God, whether dead, captured or in hiding, none of his erstwhile followers could say which.
Few of the rebel nobles had survived the debacle in Morguhn, and those few had bolted to the only refuge available to them, the walled city of Vawnpolis, which had been the seat of the now extirpated Thoheeksee of Vawn—descendants of one of the barbarian Horseclans whose rule had been imposed upon formerly Ehleen lands for a century and a half.
Though there had been, between the defeat in Morguhn and the investment of Vawnpolis, more than adequate time for every man or woman or child of the rebels to escape, to flee before the avenging forces, there had never been a safe direction in which to flee—Morguhn lay to the east, the loyal Duchy of Skaht lay to the north and the equally loyal Duchy of Baikuh lay to the south; west lay grim death in the terrible form of wild, savage mountain tribes.
Just before harvest time, after a hotly contested march, the army now besieging Vawnpolis had arrived under its walls. Twenty thousand Confederation Regulars had marched under their cat standards, along with almost every loyal nobleman of fighting age, their relatives, retainers and companies of hired Freefighters, most of the latter being natives of the Middle Kingdoms, which lay several hundred miles to the north. This vast host—more than thirty thousand warriors, in all—was led by High Lord Milo of Morai and High Lady Aldora Linszee Treeah-Pohtohmahs Pahpahs, two of the Undying Triumvirate who had ruled the Confederation since its inception. Only they were aware that the rebellion, though cloaked in religious trappings, was really sparked by ageless agents of the Witch Kingdom, situated in the huge and trackless Salt Swamp of the farthest south.
With the siegelines drawn and fortified, the bulk of the nobles had been sent home to see to their harvests, while their Freefighter companies and the Regulars maintained the investiture. With the crisp air of autumn, they returned with reinforcements, swelling the total strength of the army to over forty thousand.
Since then, there had been three assaults on the city walls, all beaten off, but all exacting a high cost not only to attackers, but to the defenders, who could ill afford any manner of losses.
It was, Drehkos ruminated as he walked back to the Citadel, an impossible situation. Due principally to the senseless burnings of standing crops and slaughterings of herds during the first days of the Vawn rebellion, Vawnpolis had not ever been really well supplied with food and had lasted this long only because of the fever which had sporadically raged through the city, taking off mostly the youngest and the oldest and the sickly or wounded. Now, the last skeletal horse had been butchered, most of the hoarded stores were gone along with dogs and cats; even rats and mice were virtually extinct in Vawnpolis.
Before the outer works fell, it had sometimes been possible to filter small raiding parties through the lines to prey upon the camps or supply line of the besiegers, but recent attempts in this direction had resulted only in the gruesome return of the raiders by way of the investing army’s catapults—their headless bodies splatting against the walls or into the streets.
At least there was no lack of fresh water from the three deep wells within the walls. Nor did they lack for fuel, since the miners had early on discovered a wide seam of hard coal beneath the city itself. But these were the only items they did not lack.
The refugee-rebels had fled their homes in haste, in summer, and the dearth of warm clothing, boots and blankets was crippling. The supply of arrows was running perilously low. Since the city’s tannery had lain outside the walls, leather was become scarce and even the few green hides were husbanded. Even so mundane a thing as rope was become infinitely precious, and ordinary linen or cotton thread brought its lucky owner a silver thrahkmeh the yard.
For months now, no scrap of any hard metal had been allowed to sit idle. A round dozen master smiths were among the rebels in Vawnpolis, along with numerous apprentices and a superfluity of fuel; all that was lacking was a decent supply of war metals—steel, iron, bronze and brass.
The lack of horn and fishglue rendered the repair of bows almost an impossibility, and stringing those still usable was becoming more and more difficult as the supply of silk steadily dwindled. The few arrows they could find decent wood to produce were, of dire necessity, fletched with vellum and tipped with fire-hardened bone; also, Drehkos had encouraged experiments in scraping and otherwise processing bone in attempts to devise a substitute for horn, but the results had been, thus far, inconclusive.
If only...Drehkos Daiviz could but shake his weary head and sigh. This rebellion, now fast approaching its bloody, inevitable conclusion, had been pointless and wasteful, and those involved, himself included, had been fools and worse. How can an egg be unscrambled? And it would be as simple to do that as to return any part of the Confederation to its pre-Horseclans condition—Ehleen-ruled and principally Christian.
How could he and the other nobles have allowed the kooreeohee to so delude them? Poor Myros, at least, was more or less mad and might be excused on that ground. But the rest of them should have known better, should have known their Holy Cause was foredoomed to failure, should have realized that a mere handful of nobles and a few thousands Soldiers of Christ—ill-armed, half-trained peasants and city riffraff—had not the chance of a snowball in Hell against the professional troops they were certain to face.
As the torches at the Citadel gate glowed ahead, he consciously set his face in a smile, that those good men within might not think him either worried or displeased. For he was definitely not displeased, not with them, anyway. They—common and gentle and noble…yes, and even cleric—had done more, done longer and done with less than anyone had any right to expect.
And his smile broadened, involuntarily, at the swell of his fierce pride in these, his men. Their bravery, stoicism in suffering privations and self-sacrifice, should, by rights, have bought them their lives and guaranteed their futures; in truth, he and they would all soon be dead. He only hoped that what they had done here would be remembered by those who opposed them, even after the Holy Cause which had brought them all to this pass had been long years relegated to that dungheap from which it should never have been resurrected.