Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
When I had seen what I needed we slanted back to the army.
I sent a messenger to Seg, telling him to trend his men away to the north. Along there a valley lay athwart the path of both armies. When I saw Seg reach the crest on the western side and halt I knew we had, for the moment at least, achieved a considerable advantage.
By the time the Canopdrin army formed up on the opposite crest the suns had risen enough to satisfy me, and, because we were in the southern hemisphere of Kregen, the suns would circle the heavens to the northward, behind us. I felt a little more pleased, then. A cavalry scout came in to report he felt sure the Canop king was with his army. He could not be sure, but . . .
If King Capnon, whom his nobles called the Great, was really with his army we might finish the thing in three hours of hard fighting.
Now the suns were high enough so that they formed no hazard to us at all. I lifted my sword. As you must guess I was carrying that Savanti sword I had taken from the dying hand of Alex Hunter. I wore Vallian buff, with a great scarlet sash, and sufficient armor to protect my vitals. Turko was there, at my back, a great shield upraised. Seg and Inch had both given me looks when Turko, un-speaking, unsmiling, had thus positioned himself. I had said, “Turko the Shield follows me,” and they had nodded, pleased, I liked to think, that they had someone else to keep me out of harm’s way.
The sword slashed down.
The whole army advanced.
The Canops must have been puzzled. For instance, where had all these vollers sprung from? They did not recognize the markings. And now, an army of men — apims — marched toward them. But they were soldiers. They obeyed orders. And, led by King Capnon, their masters urged them on. With a great brazen roar from their trumpets, and with the silver leems high, they charged.
At once Seg halted. The Bowmen of Loh lifted their weapons.
Well, it is all a long time ago now, and so I shall not go into every gory detail of that battle. It took place along that valley, called the Valley of the Crimson Missals. Crimson missals are very rare, for the trees usually carry white and pink blossoms, and the valley was thusly famous and well known throughout Migla. So the Battle of the Crimson Missals began with the Crimson Bowmen of Loh, shielded by the crimson-clad Migla shield-men, shooting in a long series of controlled discharges that tore huge rents in the ranks of the Canops.
Powerful and deadly is the longbow of Loh. Those steel bodkin-tipped clothyard shafts, expertly fletched and flighted, skewered through the Canops like — well, to liken that sound and that sight to anything is to lessen it. The Lohvian longbowmen tore the heart out of the Canops.
Here was where Seg was able to show beyond dispute the superiority of the longbow over not only the Canoptic crossbow but the Valkan compound reflex bow. My Valkans raged, and led by Tom ti Vulheim, they raced forward, brushing aside the Migla shield-men, getting themselves into range so that they too could join in that sleeting storm of shafts.
The Canops, although dreadfully stricken, did not lose their formation or their dressing. They closed up and charged, shields high, straight for our bowmen.
Many and many a Canop went down. I had to harden my heart, and I suffered. I remembered what Mog had told me of the devilish practices of these iron men of Canopdrin. Now their iron was of no avail against those withering shafts pouring down on them from the sky. A few soldiers reached our ranks so that our rapier-and-dagger men could get to hand grips. The lines swayed and roiled, and then it was all over.
The crossbowmen had been shot down, their splendid weapons tumbled into the green grass. The crimson missals glowed in the light of the suns above them, and clumps of Canops formed in the shelter of the trees. They formed a shield wall and the branches deflected the arrows from them. The Miglas were yelling and prancing. So many men were involved that complete views of the scene were impossible without taking to the air.
I had a mind to let the remnants of the Canops alone, to survive. I remembered Naghan the Throat and Jedgul the Finger. They might be safe in the hospital in Yaman. But there were other men like them in that army trapped among the trees. Also, there were officers like Hikdar Markman ti Coyton. The face of Kregen would smile more cleanly if they were removed.
The decision was not too difficult, for there was a precedent.
“Tell Seg — tell the Kov of Falinur — to leave off now.”
The message was taken by one of the small corps of aides I had quickly organized from young men anxious to play a part. His totrix bounded away. The Miglas were inflamed. This was their first heady taste of victory. The field presented a dreadful spectacle and I wanted to get in touch with the Canoptic hospital organization and arrange a truce so that the wounded might be speedily treated. We had brought doctors and medical equipment with us, but the Miglas were ill prepared. And the Miglas were inflamed. I caught a glimpse of crazy old Mog, wearing all her regalia, her golden staff lifted high, racing across the field astride a totrix, yelling blue bloody murder, thirsting for the blood of every Canop alive there.
Another aide was dispatched to bring her back.
I had done what the Star Lords commanded, but in my own mind this was only a beginning. Now must begin the harder task of reestablishing Migshaanu and of integrating the Canops with the Miglas. Failing that, I would find them a country they might make their home without bloodshed or dispossession of the people native to that land.
It seemed clear to me that the task must begin with the banishment of their king, if he still lived, and of the reversal of roles between common soldier and noble — judging by the examples I had met.
An attack made by armored Canops astride mirvols was beaten off with an ease that made me think back with some savage self-contempt to the way the mirvollers had ripped up that first raw Migla army. I thought I caught a glimpse of the scarlet and golden raptor, among the whirling bodies of the mirvols; but the glimpse was too quick for certainty. It would be like the Star Lords to keep this close an eye on what went on.
Delia rode out to me, her totrix an old nag and well worn down; but she had refused anything better, saying the best animals were needed by the fighters. Her presence thrilled me as always. She rode with a free fine grace. She hauled up, dust kicking from the totrix hooves, and she was not laughing.
Rather, she said, “This is a terrible business.”
“Aye. But it is over now. Now we begin to put everything back in place.”
“Those poor men — the arrows are so cruel.”
“Some deserved it, some did not. Seg is ordering a cessation. We will get help for the wounded.”
We dismounted, for her totrix threatened to keel over any minute and I wished to talk seriously to her. We went a little apart from the others, from my dwindled group of aides, from Mog and Mag, from the trumpeters and the standard-bearer. Oh, yes, Delia had not forgotten to bring a brand-new and impeccably stitched flag with her. My own old flag — the yellow cross on the scarlet field, the flag that fighting-men called “Old Superb” — had floated over our victory.
Turko the Shield gazed after us, but he had sense enough not to intrude.
“We have won a victory, Delia, my heart. But you must wonder why it had to be, why I became involved with this backward country in Havilfar which is generally more advanced than other places—”
“I know what you think. But Vallia cannot produce fliers.”
“No. But Father says this is a first step in the right direction.”
“So it is. But I would like to tell you why, my Delia.”
She looked up at me, perfectly aware of the seriousness of the moment, her soft lips half parted, her brown eyes brilliant upon me, waiting for me to speak. A little movement scuttled in the dusty grass at her booted feet.
And now I must relate a thing that seemed impossible to me at the time, and still strikes as strange and weird as anything I encountered on two worlds.
For Delia looked down sharply, and without screaming or starting, said, “Oh, Dray! A scorpion!” I looked.
The reddish brown scorpion scuttled past Delia’s boots. It halted before me and that damned arrogant tail lifted. I did not move. Delia, with a single glance at my face, remained silent.
And then — Dear God! — the scorpion spoke to me.
I thought I was hallucinating again, as I had done in that first dreadful attempt to cross the Klackadrin when the Phokaym had captured me. I put a hand to my head, staring at the scorpion.
“Dray Prescot,” said the scorpion in a reedy and shrill voice not unlike a buzz saw ripping through winter logs. I did not think anyone else might hear that baleful voice.
“Dray Prescot. Perhaps you are not so great a fool as we thought.” The Gdoinye had spoken to me. A bird had spoken to me. Was a scorpion any the more strange in this weird and wonderful, beautiful and horrible world of Kregen? “You have done what you were commanded to do. We acknowledge your deeds. Now you have our leave to depart from here, to Hyrklana—”
I shouted in my old savage, intemperate way. “I am not going to Hyrklana!”
Just how it was done I did not know, could not know. But, on the instant, black clouds roiled across the sky. Huge raindrops began to fall, gouting the dust into fountains, spreading and joining and coalescing into rivulets trickling down into the Valley of the Crimson Missals. In a twinkling the darkness of the clouds shut off every other person from my sight. Thunder boomed.
“Delia!” I shouted. “Delia!” I screamed it out, spinning around, lost and shut away and condemned.
I heard her answering call, but faint, faint. “Dray! Where are you, dearest heart?”
“Delia! Here — I am coming to you!”
I blundered in the direction of her voice.
“Dray! It is dark and I cannot see — Oh, Dray!”
The shape of a terrified totrix reared above me in the gloom, his hooves wicked.
I ducked and heard a faint and dwindling cry: “Dray—”
And then the blue radiance swamped down about me and that greater representation of a scorpion caught me up in its ghastly blue embrace and I was falling and spinning and tumbling away into a long blue tunnel of nightmare.
Of the descent of a slate slab and a scarlet breechclout
Yells of panicking men and shrieks of terrified women burst all about me as I sat up, cursing, and looked upon a bedlam. Trust the damned Star Lords to pitchfork me headlong into frantic action. I knew why I was here — wherever here might be. Someone was in danger. Someone was in deadly peril and the Star Lords wanted them rescued — so, send for Joe Muggins, Dray Prescot. He’ll land flat on his back, stark naked, unarmed, and he’ll sort out the problem, never you fear.
Oh, yes, I cursed the Everoinye to the Ice Floes of Sicce and gone as I climbed to my feet and started to sort out what the hell now the Star Lords had chucked me into.
I stood in a cavern carved from virgin rock, the marks of chisels sharp and distinct upon the walls and roof giving no indication of the age of the place. It was clean and only a little dust puffed as the crazed mob of people ran and struggled madly from the square-cut opening through which streamed the mingled streaming rays of the Suns of Scorpio.
I could hear brazen lungs yelling orders out there, and the harsh blocky silhouettes of halflings in armor packed the entrance. Men and women ran screaming past me and plunged headlong into a farther opening, smaller, in the back wall. About twenty people were left to struggle through, away from the armored halflings raging to get at them. These people wore decent blue robes and dresses, had sandaled feet, combed hair, clean faces and arms. Most of the women wore bangles and bracelets of cheap imitation jewelry: Krasny ware, but pretty in their way. Now every face was a mask of horror. There were a few children there also, running fleetly between the legs of their elders, skipping for the far opening and safety.
Then I saw the smooth slab of slate descending. It dropped smoothly and slowly down over the exit and when it touched the floor it would wall off the way of escape from the halflings and give safety to those who had passed through.
But there were still these last twenty to pass through. And the descending slab would shut them out of safety, shut them back in this cavern with the swords and spears of the halflings, who, I now saw, were Rhaclaws, most savage and unpleasant. So I, Dray Prescot, pawn of the Star Lords, must rescue them.
“By Zair!” I said feelingly. At my side on the floor — and next to an overturned sturm-wood bench and a gilt cup still rolling and spilling its dark wine across the rock, a positive indication of how suddenly and how recently all this panic had begun — lay a length of scarlet humespack. I grabbed it on my way toward that descending slab of slate, wound it roughly about my loins. People tended to get in the way as I ran, trying to thrust their way through the narrowing opening.
“Out of the way, onkers!” I roared, and barged on. I got my fingers under the hard edge of slate and then my shoulders. I braced my legs apart. I could feel the weight coming on. It grew and grew and pressed me down so that I felt my feet would puncture the rock of the floor.
Men and women flung frightened glances my way, but they did not stop, and scurried past me, to left and right, as I stood there like poor old Atlas, chained by the weight of Kregen.
I could feel my muscles cracking. I bent a little — I had to — and the massive slate slab inched down. Now there were barely ten people left, and I heard a woman — a short but plumply rounded woman with a tumbled wealth of dark hair falling across her face and the shoulders of her blue gown — calling to her son and daughter, as I judged.
“Hurry, Wincie, hurry, Marker! This great paktun is holding the door! It will not crush you!”
The children squealed and the little girl, Wincie, all disarrayed black hair and long naked legs and flickering petticoats, dived between my legs. Those legs of mine corded under the strain. Sweat ran down my body, and my muscles bulged, my chest arched and resisting, backbone taut. I knew I could not hold much longer, for the weight of the slab was immense. But now there were only five people left, and then three and then one.