Can Bili’s warriors stand alone against the deadly menace of the Witchmen and the mountain savages?
Which is mightier—science or the sword?
Stranded in a land peopled by wild cannibal tribes and monstrous half-humans, Bili of Morguhn and his small band of warriors have sworn to aid the mysterious Prince Byruhn of Kuhmbuhluhn in his war against these savages. But even as they train for battle, another force is on the move—the Witchmen, evil scientists led by Dr. Erica Arenstein and armed with weapons far more lethal than any known to the men of the Horseclans.
Bent on recovering a twentieth-century technological treasure trove, the Witchmen will destroy anything that stands between them and their goal. And, if Dr. Arenstein can join the power of the Witchmen with fighting prowess of the cannibalistic Ganik tribes, even Bili’s proven warriors may not long survive…
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 Female of the Species - More Deadly than the Male
This ninth book in the series details the adventures of Erica Arenstein and her small party of pre-Holocaust scientists, who are trying to retrieve a 20th century technological treasure trove. They are part of a group of humans who have survived the centuries by repeatedly stealing new bodies to house their minds and who have their own designs for ruling existing civilization. Erica is pitted against another key character in the series, Bili of Morguhn, one of the stalwart leaders of the horseclans' light cavalry. To complicate the hostilities, Erica has become unwillingly allied with a degenerate group of cannibals, the Ganics, actually the remnants of 20th century organic farmers. These books are primarily military science fiction and not for the faint of heart. There are lots of vivid descriptions of battles, torture and ghastly wounds. The prose is spare and very action-oriented. While not a fan of military fiction in general, I was sucked in by the animal component of the series. The clanspeople have the ability to communicate telepathically with their specially bred war horses and with a mutant wild cat, the "prairie cat," which sounds like a blend of puma, sabertooth, and cheetah. I'm also obsessed with translating the terminology of the time -- it becomes a kind of game -- figuring out what words like Ehlai (LA), Pitzburk (Pittsburgh), Karaleenos (Carolinas), Neekohl (Nicole), Kuk (Cook), Hwallis (Wallace) all mean. If you like Larry Niven's Man-Kzinn Wars series, you might enjoy the horseclans saga.Amazon Review
5 of 5 stars
Battle axes, sabertooth tigers, massive bears, oh my! Mountain battle scenes laid out meticulously. What more could a guy ask for?Jeff Cadoff
3 of 5 stars
I read a bunch of these books, and ... man, what a ride. The story is set in a post-apocalypse world. Everything has gone wrong, from nuclear warfare to plagues, so nothing remains from our time. This new world is run by barbarians and swords. In the new world, there are a few changes. Some clans have the ability to mindspeak to a few select animals, such as big cats (which are more like panthers), and a select few have the power of immortality. Such as our main character, the Undying High Lord Milo! Milo starts up as a small clan leader, and eventually his clan starts growing bigger as the novels progress. The series is a manly fantasy story with none of the silly dancing elves stuff. Every few pages, someone gets either killed or raped, and the good guys usually are responsible for both.Mohammad Ali Abedi
Sir Bili of Morguhn lay dying in his palace. Fifty years before, after lengthy and strenuous persuasion, he had assumed the title and duties of Prince of Karaleenos, and he had served that office well and faithfully, it and the farflung Confederation of which the principality was a sizable part. Early in his long life he had become a legend, but now he was an old man, a very old man, dying as all old men must, soon or late.
But the legend would not die with his ancient, suppurating flesh; he knew this as well as did all those powerful notables who had hurriedly gathered to attend his passing. The deeds that the younger Sir Bili had wreaked with his huge and famous axe, with his prowess and courage, with his matchless mental attributes, would continue to be recounted as long as there were Eastern Kindred, mountain Ahrmehnee, Ehleenee, or a Confederation.
“Aye,” the dying old man thought, chuckling to himself despite the slowly increasing agony of his infected wounds, “and those damned Witchmen will have cause to remember Bili the Axe, too! Between us, Lord Milo and I scotched more than one of their hellish schemes, over the years.
“They never seem to give up, those unnatural monsters. At least once in every generation of normal men, they’re out to foment trouble somewhere in or around our Confederation. Twelve ... no, fourteen or fifteen years back, it was that vicious bastard Gardmann. Before him, it was that phony Freefighter. What did he call himself, anyway? I forget, now, after so long...Close onto forty years; but I remember the name—his real name—that he gave under our tortures, Morton Flachs. It’s too bad he managed to chew through his wrist veins, that night after he finally broke; we might’ve gotten more out of the bastard the next session.
Then there was that man who tried to kill Lord Milo and Aldora and me that time in Kehnooryos Atheenahs. We never knew for sure if he was really a Witchman, but Lord Milo assumed that he was because of his weapon—that booming, fire-spitting thing Lord Milo called a pisztuhl. He struck all three of us and killed two guards, outright, but the missiles did no permanent harm to the two Undying, of course. The one that sped toward me failed to strike me solidly, thank Sun and Wind, it just tore through my shirt and furrowed my arm before killing the guard behind me. Before Lord Milo could make himself heard, the living guardsmen had made a blood pudding out of the man...but they couldn’t be blamed for it, they knew their duty and they did it despite the terror they all must have felt of that witchy weapon.
“Of course, I’d seen and heard one like it before that—a bigger, much longer one. She called that one a ryfuhl, that damned Witchwoman who’d set herself up as ‘goddess’ of those outlaw Ganiks, the ones we fought for Prince Byruhn.
“Hmmm, what was her name, now? In nigh eighty years, a man can forget so much.”
As old Bili’s mind, cloudy now with drugs and age and suffering, sought recall of the name of that Witchwoman who had so many years before, led the savage, cannibal Ganiks in the then-unknown mountains to the west and south of the Ahrmehnee lands, he began once again to relive those exciting times. It had been those times which had given birth to the legend of Bili the Axe.
Born to one of the two wives—sisters, they had been, and daughters of a Middle Kingdoms duke—of Hwahruhn, the hereditary chief of Clan Morguhn, Bili and all of his younger brothers had been sent in childhood to foster at various royal or archducal courts of Middle Kingdoms maternal relatives. Then, in Bili’s eighteenth year, the chief, his father, lay ill unto death and he had been summoned back from the north by his mothers.
Although barely eighteen, the Bili who had ridden back south had been a full man and a proven warrior, already knighted into the Order of the Blue Bear of Harzburk by the king who had fostered him. Nor had that knighthood been a meaningless gesture; Bili, the king’s distant kinsman, had earned the honor with his strength, arms skills, and stark ferocity, axing down a full-grown nobleman in a single combat, and then the two men-at-arms who treacherously attacked him in defense of their foresworn lord.
And young Bili’s prowess, coupled with his qualities of natural leadership, quick and accurate judgment of men and situations, and some highly unusual mental attributes, had served him, the duchy and the Confederation well in the very hard and fearsome times that immediately followed his return, his father’s death and his accession to the chieftaincy and title. For rebellion had long been brewing among certain elements of the Ehleenee—whose distant ancestors had ruled over most of the lands of the Confederation prior to the coming of the Kindred Horseclans. Incited, aided and abetted by a murderous gaggle of priests of the Old Ehleenee Church and by two spurious bishops of that church, both of whom proved to be actually agents of the Witch Kingdom—that realm located among the swamps of the far south—the situation had exploded bare days after he had come back to the lands of his birth.
The young warrior’s initial encounter with the rebels had very narrowly missed being his last. While riding back to Morguhn Hall after a visit to the hall of a kinsman-vassal, Komees Hari Daiviz of Morguhn, he and his small party had been viciously attacked on a forest road by more than a score of sketchily armed but coldly murderous rabble.
“What a night that was,” ruminated the dying Bili. “And what a glorious fight!”
Then, suddenly, in his mind he was there again.
The young Bili would have taken the lead into the place of lurking danger had not his companions—Vahrohneeskos Ahndee, Bard Klairuhnz and the two Freefighters on loan from Komees Djeen Morguhn—argued him down. So when the mounted column trotted in a single file toward the bridge, Bili was third in the line, with Ahndee ahead of him and one of the Freefighters, Dzhool, at point. Behind Bili rode the bard, Klairuhnz, with Ahndee’s servingman, Geros, between him and the other Freefighter, Sharl.
The closer the little party came to the forest, looming darkly just beyond the bridge, the stronger grew Bili’s apprehension. Now he knew for certain that they were riding into a battle, and he so mindspoke Ahndee and Klairuhnz.
Awed, Ahndee silently asked, “You can fargather, then, Bili? That’s a rare and a precious ability. We were told of it at the Confederation Mindspeak Academy, of course; but not one of the instructors had ever met a man or woman or cat that actually possessed it. Can you sense how many foes? Or how far ahead they be?”
“No,” Bili readily admitted, “never have I been able to judge numbers, but we are near to danger and drawing ever nearer.”
The thick, old planks of the bridge boomed hollowly under the impact of the ironshod hooves, then they were into the forest. Bili found the forest proper far less dark a place than it had appeared from without. Except for the oak-grown fringes, the growth appeared to be principally tall old pines, unbranching for many feet above road level, and the wan moonlight filtered through the needled branches high above, making for dim visibility.
The road ran straight for a few dozen yards, then began a gradual ascent and a slight curvature to the right, following the lower reaches of a brush-grown hillock. They splashed through a tiny rill which fed down into a small swamp before joining the larger stream. Beyond the rill, the road commenced another slow curve, this one downward and to the left. As they descended this reverse slope, the moon dove for cover and Bili’s hackles rose. The still-unseen danger was now looming terribly near!
“Soon!” he urgently mindspoke Ahndee and Klairuhnz, while bringing his axe up so that its fearsome double-bitted head rested against the steel plates covering his right shoulder. He dropped his reins over the pommel-knob, for, in battle, he guided Mahvros solely by mindspeak and knee pressure, not that the battlewise and faithful stallion required a great deal of guidance. Then he lowered and carefully locked into place the slitted half-visor which served to protect eyes and nose. By that time, the peril lay so very near, pressed so heavily upon his senses, that he could hardly bear it.
“Now!” he beamed with mind-blasting intensity. “It is all around us!”
Ahndee and the bard drew their blades, and the sibilant zweeep of steel leaving scabbards alerted the two troopers, who bared their own weapons. The servant, Geros, awkwardly gripped and regripped the haft of his boar spear in a sweaty hand.
Up the slope, to their left, the trees abruptly thinned out...and the fickle moon chose that moment to again start a slow emergence from the clouds.
There was a scuffling noise at the head of the column, a strangled grunt, followed almost immediately by a horse’s shrill scream of agony and terror, then came the unmistakable clash-clanking of an armored body falling to the ground ... and the moon came fully out.
Bili could see the trooper, Dzhool, twitching on the roadway. A stocky, black-bearded man had a foot on the dying Freefighter’s chest and was frantically striving to jerk the point of his spear from the body.
The rebel bushwhacker never got the weapon free, however, for Bard Klairuhnz kneed his mount past Bili and Ahndee, and his heavy, cursive saber swept up and then blurred down. The bearded head, still wearing its old-fashioned helmet and a look of utter surprise, clattered across the road and into the weeds. The headless body stood erect for a brief moment more, geysering great, ropy spouts of dark-red blood, then collapsed atop the still body of its victim.
From around the far side of the screaming, hamstrung lead horse charged another of the rebel ambushers, lacking either helm or body armor, but swinging up a short, broad-bladed infantry sword. This man was as short and stocky as the first, but beardless, with thinning gray hair. His lips were pulled back in a grimace, revealing his rotten and discolored teeth. There was fresh blood showing blackly on his swordblade, and he ran directly at Bili, shouting something in Old Ehleeneekos.
Ahndee watched Bili—seemingly effortlessly handling his long, massive weapon with but one hand—catch the sword-slash on the steel shaft of his axe and allow the blade’s own momentum to propel it into the deep notch between shaft and head. Then a single twist of Bili’s thick wrist tore the hilt from the old rebel’s grip and sent his sole weapon spinning off to clatter into the roadside weeds near his companion’s severed head. But the spike surmounting the twin axebits was jammed deeply into the oldster’s chest well before the sword came to ground.
Dead Dzhool’s crippled mount was still screaming. Then the servant, Geros, began to scream, too; no warrior, he, he was frightened beyond words and could only scream and point his spear up the brushy slope. There, a line of riders—at least a dozen of them, the moonlight reflecting from their arms and armor—was issuing out from amongst the trees which had concealed them.
“Back!” roared Klairuhnz. “There’re too many of them to fight here; back to the bridge!” Suiting action to words, he reined his mount about and set off in the wake of Geros, Sharl and Ahndee.
Bili lingered long enough to split the skull of the suffering horse, then he set off toward the narrow bridge just as the line of mounted ambushers came tilting down the rise. This granted Bili a closer look, and his battlewise eyes informed him that though numerous—nearer a score than a dozen—the charging horsemen were not nearly so well armed as they had at first seemed to be.
All of them had swords of one kind or another and a few even bore the weapons as if they understood them and their proper use, but the uniformity ended there. The big man in the lead had a full panoply of longsword, shield and suit of three-quarter armor that looked to be decent-quality plate.
But all of the men he led might have been outfitted from a hundred years’ worth of battlefield pickings. Their helms were of every description, from true antique to almost new. One man’s body armor was naught save a dented breastplate, another had squeezed into a shirt of rusty scalemail, two or three went in ancient jazerans, one in a cuirass of boiled and lacquered leather and another in an old, threadbare brigandine. Bili thought that the ruffianly crew certainly looked the part of the brigands they probably were.
Mahvros’ powerful body responded to Bili’s urgings, and the big, steel-shod hooves struck firelight from the pebbly roadbed. The black stallion-splashed through the little rill, and then they were descending back along the road’s first curve.
Suddenly, twenty yards ahead, riders emerged from among the tree trunks to block the way back to the bridge. A shaft of moonlight silvered their bared blades.
Bili mindspoke Mahvros, “Faster, brother mine; be ready to fight.”
The huge ebon horse increased his speed and beamed his approval and impatient anticipation of the coming conflict, one of his principal joys in life being the stamping unto death of anything or anyone he was set against. Raising his head, he pealed a shrill, equine challenge, then bore down upon his promised victims.
“Good old Mahvros,” thought the ancient Bili. “I’ve forked many a strong, faithful, pugnacious horse in the years since he went to Wind, but never has there been another that was his equal in any way. Sacred Sun shine ever upon his brave spirit.”
One horse and rider went down in a squealing, screaming, hoof-flailing tangle, while Bili took a ringing swordswipe against the side of his helmet in passing. Still shrilling his challenge, Mahvros came to a rearing halt, pivoted and returned to savage the downed horse and man, while Bili axed the second rider out of the saddle with a single businesslike stroke. The stallion knew the brief elation of feeling man-ribs splinter under his hooves before Bili urged him back along the road to the bridge.
Scores of hooves were pounding close behind them as Mahvros cleared the last of the trees to see Ahndee and Klairuhnz, their blades gleaming, sitting their mounts knee to knee a few paces out onto the span. Three yards behind them, the trooper had uncased and strung his short hornbow and nocked an arrow and was calmly awaiting the appearance of a target for that arrow.
“Bili!” Ahndee shouted exuberantly. “Sun and Wind be thanked. We’d thought you slain back there.” He began to back his big gelding that Bili might have his place.
But Bili signed him to stay, positioning Mahvros a little ahead of the two warriors. “This will be better,” he stated shortly, adding, “An axeman needs room.” He did not see the smile that Ahndee and Klairuhnz exchanged at his automatic assumption of command over them.
The trooper proved himself an expert archer, putting his shaft cleanly into the eye of the first pursuer to gallop out of the dark forest. His second arrow pinned an unarmored thigh to the saddletree beneath it. He nocked a third, quickly drew...and the bowstring snapped. Cursing sulphurously and most feelingly in four languages, he cast away the now useless bow, drew his saber and ranged up close behind Klairuhnz and Ahndee.
The next four attackers took a brief moment to form themselves up, then launched a charge, apparently expecting their prey to remain in place and await their pleasure. They none of them lived long enough to repent their error or to recover from the counter-charge.
The leading man held up his shield to fend off Bili’s axe, while he aimed a hacking cut at Mahvros’ thick neck. But the stout target crumpled like wet paper and the axeblade bit completely through, deep into the arm which had held it, the force of the buffet hurling the man down to a singularly messy death beneath the stamping hooves.
Mahvros roughly shouldered the riderless horse aside, while Bili glanced around, seeking another opponent. At that very moment, Ahndee was thrusting the watexed-steel blade of his longsword deep into the vitals of his adversary and Bard Klairuhnz looked to be more than a match for his shaggy foe. But the hapless Freefighter trooper had troubles aplenty. First his bowstring had broken, and now his saber blade, leaving him but a bare foot of pointless steel jutting up from the hilt. With this stub, he was fighting a desperate defensive action.
In a single, mighty leap, Mahvros was alongside the mount of the ruffian. Shortening his grip on his axehaft, Bili jammed the terminal spike deeply into a side made vulnerable by a wide gap between the back and breast plates of an ill-fitting cuirass. Shrieking curses in both Old and Modern Ehleeneekos, the wounded man turned in his saddle to rain a swift succession of swordblows on Bili’s head and shoulders. Although the stout Pitzburk plate turned every blow, Bili was unable to retaliate, for at such close quarters, his long-hafted axe was all but useless.
Unexpectedly, the swordsman hunched his body and began to gag and then retch, spewing up quantities of frothy blood. At this juncture, the Freefighter reined in closer, used his piece of saber to sever the man’s swordknot, then virtually decapitated his late opponent with the man’s own antique blade.
They had almost regained the bridge when the main body of attackers caught up to them. First to fall was the rearmed Freefighter, his scaleshirt unable to protect his spine from the crushing blow of a nail-studded club.
Bili’s better armor turned a determined spearthrust before he axed the arm from the spearman. Then he turned Mahvros full about and, straightening his arms, swung his bloody axe in several wide arcs before him; he struck nothing and no one, but did achieve his desired effect of momentarily halting the van of the oncoming force and granting Ahndee and Klairuhnz a few precious moments to regain the bridge.
Bili’s vision, somewhat restricted by the bars of his visor, failed to record the man who galloped in from his left...but Mahvros saw him. With the speed of a striking serpent, the mighty horse spun about and sank big yellow teeth into the flesh of the smaller equine.
The mare thus assaulted was not a warhorse, not even a hunter, and she harbored no slightest intention of remaining in proximity to this huge, maddened stallion. Taking the bit firmly between her own teeth, she raced back into the forest, bearing her shouting, cursing, rein-sawing rider only as far as the low-hanging branch which swept him from her back and stretched him senseless among the dead leaves and mosses.
Mahvros’ forehooves were already booming the bridge timbers when a hard-flung throwing axe caromed off Bili’s helm, nearly deafening him and filling his head with a tight-spiraling red-blackness, shot with dazzling-white stars. Only instinct kept him in the saddle while Mahvros, well-trained, battlewise and intelligent animal that he was, continued on to the proper place, then wheeled about just ahead of Ahndee and Klairuhnz.
Reaching forward, Ahndee grabbed Bili’s arm—limp under its sheathing of steel and leather—and shook him. “Are you all right, Bili? Are you injured?” he shouted anxiously.
Then he let go the arm and turned to Bard Klairuhnz, saying, “Your help, please, my lord. He’s barely conscious, if that. We must gethim behind us ere those bastards cut him down.”
Bili could hear all and could sense movements on either side of him, but neither his lips nor his limbs would obey his dictates. Fuzzily, he pondered why Vahrohneeskos Ahndee, a nobleman of this duchy, would have addressed a mere roving bard as his “lord.”
In his great bed in the dimly lit room already smelling of death, old Bili smiled to himself. “That was the first fight I fought beside the Undying High Lord, though I knew not that that same Bard Klairuhnz was my sovran until much later in the rebellion.”
Against so many attackers, holding at the bridge, where a flank attack was impossible, had been a good idea. The blades of Ahndee and Klairuhnz wove a deadly pattern, effectively barring their foemen access to the dazed and helpless Bili, now drooping in the saddle. Because of the narrowness of the span—it being but just wide enough to easily accommodate passage of a single hay wagon or ox-wain—only two men at a time could attack the defenders, thus doing much to nullify their numerical superiority. And on a man-to-man basis, the ill-armed, ill-trained crew were just no match for well-equipped and seasoned warriors. The length of the Forest Bridge, from the far side to the center, was very soon gore-slimed, littered with dropped weapons and hacked, hoof-marked corpses.
But the repeated assaults had taken toll of the two stout defenders, as well, for flesh and blood can bear only so much. Ahndee sat his horse in dire agony, his left arm dangling uselessly at his side. He had used its armored surface to ward off a direct blow from a huge and weighty club, while he slashed the clubman’s unprotected throat, and he now sat in certainty that the concussion of that buffet had broken the arm beneath the plates.
Klairuhnz’s horse now lay dead and the bard stood astride the body. Hopefully, he had mindspoken Mahvros, but the black stallion’s refusal had been unequivocal. Moreover, he had promised dire and fatal consequences should any two legs attempt either to unseat Mahvros’ hurt brother or to take said brother’s place in the warkak.
Bili regained his senses just in time to see Klairuhnz sustain a vicious cut on the side of his neck and be hurled down, blood spurting over his shoulderplates. Roaring, “Up Harzburk!” through force of habit, Bili kneed Mahvros forward and plugged the gap, admonishing the horse by mindspeak not to step on the man.
A swing of his axe crushed both the helmet and the skull of Klairuhnz’s killer. As the man pitched from the saddle, Bili belatedly recognized the twisted features—it was the face of Hofos, Komees Hari’s majordomo.
Then there were two more enemy horsemen on the bridge before him. But this time it was Ahndee who was reeling in his kak, kept in it only by the high, flaring cantle and pommel, and unable to do more than offer a rapidly weakening defense.
Bili disliked attacking a horse, but the circumstances afforded him no option. He rammed his axe spike into the rolling eye of his opponent’s mount, and in the brief respite allotted him while the death-agonized beast proceeded to buck its rider over the low railing and into the cold creek, he swung his axeblade into the unarmored chest of Ahndee’s adversary. Deep went that heavy, knife-sharp blade, biting through hide jerkin, shirt, flesh and bone and into the quivering heart, itself.
Someone in the decimated group between the bridge and the forest cast a javelin, and Mahvros took it in the thick muscles of his off shoulder; he screamed his shock and pain and made to rear, being restrained only by Bili’s mindspeak. Grimly, the young man dismounted and gently withdrew the steel head—blessedly, unbarbed.
Then he backed the big warhorse and turned him, beaming, “Go back to the hall of Komees Hari, Mahvros.”
“This horse still can fight, brother!” the black balked, stubbornly.
“I know that my brother still can fight,” Bili mindspoke with as much patience as he could muster up. “But that wound is deep. If I stay upon your back, you might be permanently crippled...and that would mean no more war for you, ever again, brother.” Thinking quickly, he added, “Besides, the other man can fight no longer and must be borne back to the hall. A horse of your intelligence is needed to keep this stupid gelding moving, yet see that it does not move so fast that the man falls off.”
Bili was not exaggerating. Ahndee had dropped his reins and his sword dangled by its knot from his wrist. Though his booted feet still filled the stirrups, his body was now slumped over the pommel and his two arms weakly encircled the neck of his mount.
The young thoheeks grasped the gray’s bridle, faced him about, slapped his rump sharply and shouted. Even so, the gelding made to stop at the end of the bridge until a sharp nip of Mahvros’s big teeth changed his mind.
Laying aside both axe and javelin, Bili took Klairuhnz under the arms and dragged him back from the windrow of dead men and horses, propping his armored body in a sitting posture against the bridge rail. Odd, he thought vaguely, I think he’s still alive, and he should be well dead by now, considering where the sword caught him. . . .
Striding back, he picked up the short, heavy dart that had wounded Mahvros, drew back his brawny arm, chose a target and then made a running cast.
One of the ruffians with only a breastplate was adjusting his stirrup leathers when the hard-flung missile took him in the small of the back. The sharp steel head tore through rough clothing, then skin, kidney, guts and fat, standing far enough out from the man’s belly to prick the horse when he stumbled against its flank. Scream of horse almost drowned out scream of man. And as the still-screaming man fell to kick and writhe his life away in the dust, most of his fellow rebels made to follow the riderless horse up the road and into the forest.
But a big, spike-bearded man—he who wore a full, matching panoply and sat a large, fully trained destrier—headed off the fleeing men and beat them back with the flat of his sword. Driving them back to their former places, he began to harangue them. Bili, leaning on his gory axe among the dead men whom he expected to soon join, could pick out words and phrases of the angrily shouted monologue, for all that he had not heard Old Ehleeneekos spoken in ten years.
“. . . cowards ... to fear but one, dismounted man . . · and he a God-cursed heathen...creatures of filth...gotten on diseased sows by spineless curdogs...gain your freedom?...lead all men to the True Faith?...treasure and land and women?...Salvation...killing heathens for the one, true God?”
Bili shook his head, vainly trying to clear it of the residue of dizziness. A true product of his race and upbringing, he had no fear of death, of “going to Wind.” He was a bit sorry that he was to go so early in his life, but then every warrior faced his last battle soon or late. He would have liked to have seen his ill father and his sweet mothers just one time more, but he knew that they would rejoice when they learned that he had fallen in honor, the blood of his foes clotting his axe from spikepoint to haftbutt. And his brother Djef, six months his junior, would surely make a good chief and Thoheeks of Morguhn...maybe even a better one than he, Bili, would have made.
“Dirtmen!” he shouted derisively at the band of ruffians. “Rapists of ewes and she-goats! Your fellow bastards here are lonely. Are you coming to join them, or are you all going to run home like the curs you are to bugger your own infant sons? That’s an old Ehleen custom, isn’t it, you priest-ridden pigs? An old Ehleen custom, like the eating of dung?”
He carried on in the same vein, each succeeding insult more repugnant and offensive than its predecessor. The spike-bearded leader wisely held his own tongue, hoping that Bili’s sneering contumely and racial insults would raise an aggressive spark in his battered, demoralized band, where his own oration had so clearly failed.
At length, one of the tatterdemalions was stung to the very quick. Shrieking maniacally, waving his aged saber, he spurred his horse straight at that lone figure in the center of the bridge.
Bili just stood his ground. To the watching rebels it appeared that he was certain to be ridden down, but Bili had positioned himself cunningly and he correctly judged the oncoming rider to be something less than an accomplished horseman.
The rebel’s horse had to jump in order to clear the bodies of the two dead horses lying almost atop each other and thoroughly blocking his route to the axeman. Before the rider could recover enough of his balance to even think of using his sword, Bili had let go his axe to dangle by its thong, grabbed a sandaled foot and a thick, hairy leg and heaved the rebel over the other side of his mount.
Dropping his weapon and squalling his terror, the Ehleen clawed frantically for a grip on the smooth-worn bridge rail; but he missed, and commenced a despairing howl which was abruptly terminated when his hurtling body struck the swift-flowing water thirty feet below. He had been one of the “lucky” ones—attired in an almost-complete set of three-quarter plate—and, since he could not swim anyway, he sank like a stone.
But Bili had not watched the watery doom of his would-be attacker. No sooner was the man out or the saddle then he who had unseated him was in it, trying to turn the unsettled and unfamiliar animal in time to meet the fresh wave of ruffians he could feel pounding up.
Feel, hear, but not see! For, once again, the sick, tight dizziness was claiming his senses. When, at last, he had gotten the skittish horse to face the forest, it was to dimly perceive the backs of the motley pack of murderous skulkers pounding toward that forest, a small shower of arrows falling amongst them, the shafts glinting as they crossed a vagrant beam of moonlight.
Bili’s brain told his arm to lift the axe, his legs to urge the new horse on in pursuit of the fleeing Ehleen rebels...vainly. His legs might have ceased to exist, might have been severed from his trunk, while his axe now seemed to weigh an impossible ton or more. The weight became just too much to even hold, and he let it go, then pitched out of the low-cut hunting saddle to land precariously balanced on the narrow railing above the deep, icy stream.
“I was later told old Djeen and Hari grabbed me just in time to keep me from being just another armored corpse on the bed of that creek,” ruminated old Bili. “For all of the troubles I had with Count Djeen shortly after that night, he was still a doughty old fighter, especially for his age—he was older than my sire—and lacking an eye and a hand. But, if memory properly serves me, it seems now that all men and some women were harder, tougher and more concerned with the really important aspects of life then than are most folk today; even my own kin—my grandsons and their get—seem addicted to frivolities and luxuries, sneering behind their soft hands at those few who still adhere to the old, good ways. The bulk of the Kindred are become as dissipated as Ehleenee.”
“But the Ahrmehnee, now, ha, they’re as stark and fierce and hardy as ever they were; they’ve become the backbone of the Confederation armies, and I hear tell that one of them—well, he’s not pure-blood Ahrmehnee, since his grandsire was Kindred, Hahfos Djohnz, the first Warden of the Ahrmehnee Marches, but I recall that old Hahfos became outwardly more an Ahrmehnee than his wife or any of her kin. Anyhow, they say that his grandson, Moorahd Djohnz, will be the next senior strahteegos.”
He chuckled to himself, a bit evilly, thinking of the cold rage of his eldest son, Senior Strahteegos Thoheeks Djef Morguhn of Djahreht, now retired from active soldiering, when he told his father, Prince Bili, of the High Lord’s plans to make a “wild Ahrmehnee” foremost military officer of the Confederation.
Bili had simply grinned in the face of his son’s towering anger, saying, “Well, Djef, you were Senior Strahteegos, as I recall, and your dear mother was pure Ahrmehnee ... or did you conveniently misremember that fact, Lord Thoheeks?
Old Bili chuckled again, thinking of how his aging son had stamped out, livid in his rage, snorting and shouting and cursing in several dialects of Mehrikan, Ehleeneekos and—Ahrmehnee.
“I always was good,” thought old Bili, “at roiling already troubled waters and at spreading oil on smoldering fires.”
Then, he mentally sobered. “But the boy ... I guess I’ll always think of him as a boy, for all that he’s pushing seventy-five winters, now ... no, more than that, he’s only a bit more than nineteen years my junior, after all.
“But he’s wrong, nonetheless, and he should know better, he above many another, for not only is he half Ahrmehnee himself, but he commanded Ahrmehnee troops for years and they won many a victory for him and our Confederation. I know this and the other princes know this and the High Lords, too, so Djef s petulant objections to Moorahd’s well-earned elevation will get all the consideration—or, rather, lack of consideration—that they and he deserve in this instance from the powers that be.”
He silently pondered, then thought, “Djef must have gotten this strain of racial intolerance in the army, probably from some of those stiff-necked, overproud Ehleenee officers, the boy-buggering bastards. No, no, now I’m getting as bad as him or them. Not all the Ehleenee are overweening degenerates, there were quite a few with me in the mountains who were fine, stark warriors, men of normal tastes and preferences, who despised the Ehleen perverts as much as I did and do.
“Ah, those, too, were good days. Those days when we had scotched the Great Rebellion, then ridden into the western mountains to bring the Ahrmehnee to heel. That was true,old-fashioned warfare, and I was a young man, full of strength and juice and vigor, able to ride or hike from before dawn to dusk or after and then fight a battle before bedtime.
“In those days, I would hardly have noted these few bear-bites and scratches that will shortly be the death of me. But, of course, not even that brave bruin would’ve gotten a chance at my flesh, back then, before age had slowed my reflexes and stiffened my joints enough to let him charge in under my spear. True, it’s not as good a death as my brothers, Djef and Tcharlee, died—full-armed, facing their foes in battle to the last breath—but it’s a far better death for a warrior than the one our poor father died..
“Even my dear, ever dear, Rahksahnah—Wind keep her—for all the tragedy of her death, she had a cleaner, quicker death than this one I will presently die. Although I have ever thought that a part of me died long ago with her; had it not been for the children and my people’s need for me, I’d have followed her to Wind before her husk had become cold.”
As he lay with eyes closed, thinking of the long-dead, irreplaceable love of his youth, his mind again returned to those happy days of near eighty years before.
Subsequent to the surrender of the last stronghold of the Ehleen rebellion, Vawnpolis, the great army, reinforced by the addition of some hundreds of former rebels, had been split into uneven thirds for a three-prong invasion of the .mountain lands of the Ahrmehnee tribes.
Thoheeks Bill of Morguhn, commanding some thousands of Freefighters and Confederation nobility, had been assigned the task of bringing fire and sword to the southerly reaches of the Ahrmehnee stahn, with the ultimate goal of so savaging the villages, croplands, kine and inhabitants that the warriors—all then gathered in the north and making ready to invade the westernmost thoheekahtohn of the Confederation—would feel impelled to break off their planned aggression and return to their own lands to defend their families.
Then, of a night, Bili received an urgent farspeak from the High Lord, Milo Morai, ordering him and his forces to immediately cease their depredations, break off contact with the Ahrmehnee and withdraw back into Confederation lands.
Bili was to proceed north and west with a picked force of squadron strength. His basic mission was to intercept a large pack train, slaughtering the Witchfolk who led it and destroying all of the ancient machines or devices the animals bore. The Witchfolk, said Milo, had looted these antique devices and machines—along with a vast store of treasures—from the Hold of the Moon Maidens, after having slain or incapacitated all the inhabitants of that hold, then destroyed the tunnel leading into the fastness.
The High Lord also cautioned Bili to be on the lookout for a party of Moon Maidens, with whom he was to attempt to effect an alliance. The last warning was to be cautious, as it was said that bands of savage cannibals called Muhkohee were possibly raiding into the western Ahrmehnee lands in the absence of the native warriors.
So Bili had ridden west and north, with a nucleus from his reserve squadrons. He had given the High Lord’s orders to each of the western squadrons as he met them, then fleshed out his own ranks with the very best of their various forces. Loud had been the outraged howls of Confederation noblemen when he had forced them to trade their fine, expensive armor and armament and big, well-trained destriers for the less fine equipage and lighter mounts of Bili’s mercenary burkers. The only way that a country nobleman kept his suit of Pitzburk and his charger was by dint of convincing Bili that he himself would be a valuable addition to the squadron.
The result of these forced “loans” was that the force that the High Lord’s young deputy finally led far, far to the west, off any existing maps, was compounded of the best available warriors on the best available horseflesh and with the best armor and weapons obtainable. And, considering all that was to befall him and them, it was well that he had so equipped them.