Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
The cut I had sustained in Mungul Sidrath had opened again and the bandage could no longer hold back the blood.
Turko was swearing on about the Muscle and swords and spears and devilish flying man-monsters.
The volrok folded his wings and plummeted.
This time I had to ignore his toonon. The spear had to be slipped, as Turko and I knew how, and I had to get those scimitar blades of his in good sight in that treacherous illumination.
I switched grips on the boat hook.
Instead of holding the sturm-wood shaft with my left hand forward, like a spearman, I held it right hand forward, like a swordsman.
A wooden longsword had been used before. This time it was of unhandy length, of ridiculous length; but it had a bronze point and a bronze hook. The volrok dropped down and I had time to realize the scimitar blades had been strapped to his heels to give a straight-line strength and control from his legs; had they been strapped to his feet or toes he would not have been able to deliver the same power. He would not have been able so easily to drag the blades free and lift off after a strike, either. As it was, he couldn’t stand up easily for the blades curved to form a continuation of his legs.
The dark form swept in toward us. The glitter of the spear meant nothing. He would jerk his legs forward in the last moment of his dive, impaling me, or slicing my head open, and then fly on, trailing his legs, and so wrench the scimitars free.
With a yell to Turko, “Get down, Turko!” I ducked and let the toonon go past. It cracked the lenk gunwale of the boat and skidded on. Then I swung. The boat hook circled and smashed with awful force against the volrok’s thighs. Both his legs broke. The blades abruptly dangled.
In that tiny moment I was able to drive on and up, hard, and the bronze point tore up into his body.
Turko’s oar battered his wings.
The volrok screamed. His wings churned the air as he sought to drag himself away. The boat hook had caught him. I leaned back, savagely dragging him down. The oar smashed down now on his head. With a convulsive effort, which tore his insides in a shower of blood, the volrok broke free from the bronze hook. He rose unsteadily, shrieking, and his wings beat feebly, and wavering and lurching, he flew away in the moonlit shadows. I was not content to let him go, and cursed.
“We could have used his toonon, and those vicious blades.”
“He was a fighter—”
“Oh, aye, he was a fighter.”
“Vicious, the volroks.” Turko turned back and looked down into the boat. “Stop yelling! He’s gone.”
The girls yelped into snuffled wailings.
“Do they hunt in pairs, Turko, or singly?” I ignored Saenda and Quaesa. This was something a fighting-man had to know. “Or — in packs?”
“It depends entirely on which town or province they come from. I do not claim to recognize all their markings. But, they are men, they have intelligence—”
I scanned the night sky with the warming glow of She of the Veils spreading out upon the dark waters. Our noise had attracted attention. Lights moved across the water, waving, clotting into a bunch, growing in size, nearing.
“They’ve spotted us, by the Muscle!”
I dropped onto the thwart, chucked the boat hook along the bottom boards and was rewarded by a shriek from one of the girls, and unshipped the oars. Now my training as an oar-slave aboard the swifters of the inner sea and the swordships prowling up along the Hoboling Islands would come into full use — not to mention my early years as a seaman of Earth’s late eighteenth century wooden navy.
The blades bit deeply. Water surged. I put my back into it, uncaring of the blood that clotted on my forehead and stung coldly in the night breeze. I pulled for the north bank. It was the nearer of the two. Coming up fast from astern the long low shape of a galley, a liburna, hauled into just a prow upflung against the stars and what appeared a single oar, rising and falling, each side, starboard and larboard.
But those whipped Miglas slaving aboard the liburna pulled too, and the galley foamed along in our wake, closing.
“Where away ahead, Turko?”
He jumped for the bows, past my back. In a moment he called: “To the left — that is your right, Dray—”
The little fishing boat, a mere dinghy in reality, surged ahead. If any more volroks attacked now we were done for. We would be done for, too, if I did not reach the shore with time for us to leap out and escape into those alleys of darkness between the mudbanks and the mudflats. I pulled. We had passed a quiet day, and rested, and my strength was restored. I would not tire yet; but there was little chance of a single man in a clumsy boat like this outrunning a galley crewed by oarsmen at forty oars, at the least.
“By the Muscle! Volroks! Scores of the yetches!”
I did not waste effort looking up. I pulled. The water splashed and hissed and at each stroke the boat leaped. The liburna following cleft the water with a fine pink-tinged white comb in her teeth. She gained. I pulled. The boat leaped as Turko, waving his oar, for there were two pairs aboard, leaped and slashed wildly above his head.
A wing buffeted me, over the head and for a moment a dark haze dropped over my eyes; but I fought it. I had to. This was no way for Dray Prescot, Krozair of Zy, Lord of Strombor — and much else besides — to die.
The girls were simply huddled together and screaming in mindless fear. The galley smashed her way after us. And the volroks descended in clouds from the pink-tinged darkness about us.
“This is the end!” shouted Turko, bashing with his oar. “We’re done for!”
Obquam of Tajkent keeps order
Neither the Star Lords nor the Savanti had made any attempts to save me when I stood in mortal peril of my life in obeying their aloof commands. I could look for no help from them.
There seemed no hope.
If the Star Lords moved the volroks, I did not know then and I do not know now.
But the cloud of winged men swirled up, their wings an evil rustle in the darkness, the pink sheen from their weapons rising and swinging, their eyes glittering, and then, in a single close-bunched mass, they swooped upon the galley pursuing us.
In an instant all was commotion and pandemonium aboard.
I did not cease from pulling.
“By the Muscle . . .” breathed Turko, in awe.
Any ideas I might have entertained of remaining in the boat and of slipping past along the river were banished as more galleys appeared, pulling up with the kind of individual precision obtained by a smart whip-deldar and drum-deldar, and a skipper who knew his business. A brisk little action was being fought back there. The volroks, of whom I was to learn a great deal later on in Havilfar, had flown in from their aerie towns far to the north and west. They had a plan. Although I could only guess what their schemes might be, I did know they would aid me in my own.
The conceit appealed to me.
One of the galleys had hauled around the main area of conflict. I knew they could still see us, as we could see them, a dark blob against the pink sheen along the water. The galley ignored the fight off to her side and settled down to a strong steady pull. We would reach the bank first, I judged; but it would be a touch-and-go affair.
Now it was just a question of a long strong pull across the ebb toward the bank. Rushes and reeds grew there tall enough to shield us for a space, enough to give us time to cross the mudflats and so escape into the shadows. Behind us, and full in my view, the clustered galleys were putting up a doughty fight against the swarming clouds of volroks.
Arrows skimmed upward, their tips chips of glittering light in the pink glow; crossbow bolts also, I guessed, would be loosed among the flying men. Many I saw fall. One of the galleys swayed drunkenly out of line, her oars all at sixes and sevens, and reeled into a second. Her upperworks, which were, in truth, low enough to the water, were dark with the frantic agitated forms of volroks, like flies upon jam.
Now the Twins edged into the sky, and the two second moons of Kregen, continually orbiting each other, shed sufficient light in their nearly full phase to pick out details with that pink and typically Kregan semblance of fuzzy ruby clarity. Neither the galleys nor the volroks were winning, I judged. The galley pursuing us must be constrained under the most severe orders to recapture us to leave the fight. I pulled and went on pulling as I watched that furiously waged fight, clamoring and shrieking into the night. We had traveled in our flier from the west coast of Havilfar clear across the narrow waist to the northwestern tip of the Shrouded Sea. We had soared over a mountain range. In those peaked valleys, I guessed, lay the towns and aeries of these volroks, these flying men of Havilfar.
The boat’s keel felt the first kiss of mud. The boat shuddered; but with a few long, powerful strokes I forced her on until the keel grated unpleasantly on gravel and coarse mud.
I grabbed Saenda. Turko grabbed Quaesa. Also, with a semblance of a grimace that might be called a smile, I seized the boat hook. It was our only weapon.
Over the side we plunged, thigh-deep, and at once the water roiled and clouded with disturbed mud. We staggered on.
Wasting breath, but considering the waste justified to cheer my comrades, I said: “This shallowness of the bank side will hold the galley farther out. We have a better chance.”
Saenda, her fair hair streaming over my shoulder, her arms and legs wrapped about me in a clinging grip, shouted: “You’ll be sorry for all this, Dray Prescot! By the Lady Emli of Ras! What you’ve done to me since we—”
I chose at that moment to stumble over an old tree stump half buried in mud and water, and recovered reasonably quickly; but Saenda went under and took a mouthful of that mud and water, and her sharp complaints changed to a choking gargling, in which I caught her attempts at further swearing and promises of the dire things that would happen to me when I took her home to Dap-Tentyrasmot. If ever there was a time for chuckling this night, I suppose that was the time; but I did not chuckle. I simply blundered on up the bank, slipping and sliding in mud, hearing the mud slop and suck at my legs, hoping that I would not fall into a patch of quicksand or that the mud leeches would not get a good grip on my naked legs. For I wore only that old scarlet breechclout. Saenda, for her part, wore a dead Canop guard’s breechclout and a piece of cloth hung around her shoulders, and the leeches would relish the fine blood they would discover beneath that fair skin.
Quaesa, with her darker skin and jet hair, would also provide luscious blood-sucking territory. So it was that I was most thankful to blunder out on top of the bank and slip and slide down the other side where the rushes grew wild and in great profusion and leave the sluggish and highly unpleasant River Magan behind.
“They stuck, Dray, just as you said,” said Turko as he followed on. His breath came as evenly and his chest moved as smoothly as though he had not plunged into muddy water and carried a girl up a slippery bank at top speed.
“But they’ll wade ashore, as we did. Let us
That old devilish crack whiplashed in my voice, and the girls jumped, and Turko chuckled, and so we put the girls down and we ran as best we could through the reed beds.
The harsh and mystical training through which I had gone with the Krozairs of Zy — a period that would never really end, for the Krozair usually makes time to return and refresh not so much his physique but his mental attitudes to life and the secret disciplines — enabled me to push on quickly enough and to assist Saenda. The Khamorros, too, taught physical and mental disciplines that enabled Turko to forge on with Quaesa. This was lung-bursting, thew-tearing, heart-hammering effort. Some people when referring to what I have called unarmed combat talk about bloodless combat. There is such a thing, of course, and it is what, really, the Khamorros do in practice — most of the time. But the unarmed combat man is seeking to down his man, and blood will flow then just as though he had sliced him with a sword as hand-chopped his ear so the blood gushes from his nostrils and mouth. There is nothing bloodless about the kind of unarmed combat Turko the Khamorro and I, Dray Prescot, Krozair of Zy, shared.
So we were able to outdistance the pursuit. Soon we ran across a road, muddy and full of potholes, but, nonetheless, a road, and here we saw the beings waiting for us to emerge from the reed beds.
Turko stopped with a low hiss of indrawn breath.
The two girls began to squeal — and two hard and horny hands clamped across their soft mouths. Turko knew as well as I the importance of first-footing with strangers, especially strangers encountered on a lonely road at night with the pinkly golden light of Kregen’s moons glinting back from the muddy ruts and potholes and throwing details into a hazy blur.
Often and often has the understanding been brought home to me that this kind of situation is what life on Kregen is all about: This continual headlong advance into danger; this confrontation with the unknown. These beings might turn out to be friends, attracted by the commotion on the river and waiting to see what manner of men or beasts emerged from the reed beds. They might choose to be hostile, and so demand all Turko’s skills and a measure of hefty thwacks from my boat hook. They would act according to their natures, and, of a surety, Turko and I would act according to ours.
“Llahal!” I called, using the nonfamiliar form of the universal Kregish greeting.
“Llahal,” responded the leader, a being who stepped a little in advance of the others.
There were ten of them, and I saw the gleam of weapons; but I fancied that if Turko and I were quick we might see them off. Certainly I would not tamely submit. I had been trying, as you can bear witness, to quell that hasty and violent streak of mine that will not tolerate oppression in any form. I had been trying, you might say, to talk first and then strike, rather than the vice versa method to which I had been accustomed.
“We come in peace,” I said.