Read Arena of Antares Online

Authors: Alan Burt Akers

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy

Arena of Antares (6 page)

Against that war machine we must pit only religious-minded halflings with vosk-hunting experience. In the normal course of events we could not hope to win; but I held ever in my mind what had been accomplished with the slaves and workers of the warrens of Magdag, and I did not lose hope. I had no right to lose hope, for that would have displeased the Star Lords, and my overriding duty was to stay on Kregen — no matter how.

A camp was established in the back hills of Migla and here collected disaffected halflings prepared to fight. They came in, in small numbers; but as the message was spread by word of mouth throughout the land that both Mog and her brother Mag were returned the stream of recruits thickened. The full rites of Migshaanu were celebrated every sixth day, as was proper on Kregen, and due observances were restored every day also.

I was kept very busy.

A small cadre of dedicated Miglas gathered about Turko and me. Hamp, as one of the better potential officers, and Med also, could be trusted to carry out orders faithfully. I spelled out various of the difficulties to them as we watched Miglas straggling to stay in line and advance shoulder to shoulder over the slope of a hill.

“We face a number of problems,” I told them. “One is the absolute absence of hand-to-hand fighting experience here. Not only are you deficient in the art, you do not even have the weapons.”

“I have this,” said Med, ripping out his big knifelike scramasax. “My veknis has slit many a vosk throat — aye! And a neemu’s also, into the bargain.”

They solemnly nodded their heads, these ugly little Miglas.

“Aye, Med Neemusbane, you speak the truth.”

Whereat Med lowered his head, and looked away, ashamed of thus boasting of his prowess and calling attention to the deed for which he was both famed and named.

“And,” I said cuttingly, “what of your little veknis against a real sword? Answer me that!”

I was harsh about his scramasax, for that Saxon weapon is a knife built like a sword, and is very ugly and deadly, although of beautiful shape. But a thraxter, the cut-and-thrust sword of Havilfar, would deal with the veknis with ease.

They shuffled their feet and the Miglas in the line advancing up the hill weaved about like those tendrils sprouting from that horrific syatra in the tunnels beneath Mungul Sidrath. I looked up. At least, the Suns of Scorpio still shone.

“We need shields, and bows, and we need the skills to use them.”

Here there were no masses of slave workers skilled in all manner of arts and crafts, as there had been in the warrens of Magdag, as ready to produce a bow or a shield as to produce a statue or a decoration for the megaliths of the overlords.

Mog waved her arms. She insisted on attending every planning meeting, and this was her right, I suppose.

“We must collect all the money we can. All the deldys my people will give — aye, and more. Then we can hire mercenaries. I am told Rapas are very good, for I do not think we could afford to hire Chuliks. There is your answer.”

They could do this, of course.

“You can do this,” I said. “But who holds the treasury of Migla now? Who controls the state chest in Mungul Sidrath? Can you outbid the Canops in hiring soldiers? For every Rapa you hired they would hire two Chuliks. And, I tell you, for I know these things, no mercenary likes to be hired to fight for a side so obviously doomed to lose.”

That, I realized at once, had not only been a tactless thing to say, it had been also offensive.

I went on bluntly and offensively: “Until you learn to fight for yourselves, you will not regain your own country.”

“We will fight!” yelled Med Neemusbane. He jumped up, waving his stux. “We will fight!”

“Then learn, you wild neemu! Learn!”

Turko said, in the hush that followed, “If we fight and begin to win, will not the Canops then hire more mercenaries?”

“If they do that, good Turko, they admit defeat. Then, I would be happy to see contingents of Rapas and Brokelsh and Fristles landing in Yaman. For then we would be winning!”

One important fact I must make clear at this point is that I felt myself cut off here in halfling Migla. I was a Homo sapiens, as was Turko; apim. We were the only apim among all these halflings, people whom I would have dubbed, when I first moved among the races of Kregen, as beast-men. I knew a little better by this time. But the oppression of being stuck away here in this backwater of Havilfar, when all I really wanted to do lay across the Southern Ocean, filled me with a haziness as to my proper course for the immediate future. Building up an army seemed to me the only sensible course to follow. The army grew slowly, and shields were produced, and I hammered out a system of tactical combat that I felt would serve its purpose on the day of battle.

We had the advantage of numbers. But, had I been a Canop Chuktar commanding my brigade of regiments, I would have chuckled and in the old uncouth and savage way have said: “All the more targets for my fellows.”

As far as the numbers opposed to us were concerned, I was amused to notice how the oddly intricate mensuration of Kregen hampered estimates. Kregen measures in units of six and also in units of ten. In the ancient and misty past we here on this Earth used to measure in units of six; but the decimal system ousted that, and a last rearguard action was fought when shillings vanished and twelve pennies were no longer a unit. There were eighty men in a Canoptic pastang. Six pastangs formed a regiment. With ancillaries like the standard-bearers and the trumpeters and grooms and orderlies and cooks and others of the un-glamorous duty-men necessary in every army, there would be, I judged, something like five hundred and fifty men in a regiment. The commandant in Yaman held no less than twelve regiments, of crossbowmen and of footmen. With extras here, also — say between seven and eight thousand men. He had an air wing also, of which I knew nothing; tough aerial cavalry mounted on mirvols and not on fluttrells as I had previously thought. There was a ground cavalry force, riding totrixes and zorcas, and I had been told that here in Havilfar the half-vove also was used.

In addition there would be the Canop Air Service, flying vollers, those airboats which were at the time manufactured solely in certain of the countries of Havilfar.

All in all we faced a formidable fighting machine.

They hadn’t understood my reference to being glad to see contingents of mercenaries, and I had to explain that I meant that these would be mercenaries we hired, for then they would be happy to come to join the winning side for booty and glory.

I had for the moment discounted various Canoptic regiments stationed outside the capital city, for I meant to make the decisive struggle in and around Yaman itself. By the time those regiments scattered throughout Migla arrived they would march into a debacle and could easily be dispersed and captured.

The air of impatience among the Miglas grew with every new bunch of arrivals. They were excellent spear-throwers. I told them what I wanted, what, indeed, I could see as their only chance.

“Shield-bearers will protect your flanks and your front and the stux-men must hurl as they have never hurled before. By sheer weight of flying stuxes you must beat down the Canop shields and slay their bowmen. Then, once you can charge into close quarters, you must use your veknises to strike savagely upward and in, past the edges of the devils’ armor. That is your only chance.” I stared at the group of Miglas I had chosen as officers, not finding it at all strange that they and Mog had allowed me to take overall command. “I shall show you how to create a new kind of stux that will strip a man of his shield. It will be hard and bloody work. But with a continuous supply of stuxes” — and, Zair forgive me, I did not add, ‘and a continuous supply of men’ — “you should beat down their strength and their will and so slay them as you slay a wounded vosk.”

That, too, was not a clever image, for a wounded vosk is atrociously dangerous, the time when vosks lose their usual placid stolidity and become fighting mad. But, then, the image was correct, after all, for the iron men of Canopdrin were far more dangerous than any vosk, wounded and raging.

And as well I must not lose sight of the fact that Med and his fellows hunted wild vosk out here in the back hills. The domesticated vosk is the stupid sluggish animal of story and legend, and I recalled how we had used them and their appetites in the Black Marble Quarries of Zenicce. The wild vosk, as I discovered, was another kettle of fish altogether. They were wild. Their horns would impale a man and his totrix together given half a chance. The Miglas prized them, though their meat was stringier and tougher than that of the domesticated vosk, because their skins were infinitely more supple and strong, and the export of voskskin had been of great economic value to Migla. The Canops were altering that, as I knew; but for us, here and now training up an army in the back hills, the wild vosks had served to create men — Migla men — with unerring eye and aim, and muscles that could drive a stux with deadly accuracy.

More and more Miglas joined the growing army and shortly a vociferous claque began to demand we march instantly to Yaman and smash the Canops in fair fight.

However much I tried to explain the truth, the hotheads would not listen. They were the victims of an old illusion. Once a man joins his regiment and puts in a little training his whole life changes, he knows he is fitter and tougher than he has ever been, and possessed of fighting skills he had not dreamed existed. He sees his comrades all in line and charges valiantly with them against straw-filled dummies. He believes he is then a soldier. He imagines he is ready to fight.

They would not listen.

Mog and Mag, ugly old twins, whipped up the passion for immediate action. The crimson of Migshaanu appeared everywhere.

I did what I could to depress this premature enthusiasm; but everyone, including Turko, looked at me askance, and could not wait to march.

As promised the new spears were made under my instructions and issued. All I had done was to tell the smiths to convert a stux into a pilum. This was simply done, and in the crudest of fashions, by inserting a rivet halfway along the shaft which, when the spear bit into a shield, would bend and snap and so allow the pilum to droop. The trailing shaft on the ground would impede the soldier and drag down his shield. He would not be able to drag it free for the barbs, and he would be unable to cut it away with his thraxter for the metal splines running down the forward portion of the shaft. When the pila flew shields would be cast away — or so I hoped.

The men were divided up into regiments, and shield-men, stux-men and pilum-men formed into units for the tactical plan.

We had a small totrix-mounted cavalry force, mostly of young Miglas who had been shaken from the placid lethargy of their elders by their resentment of the Canoptic invasion. The totrix, a near relative of the sectrix and the nactrix, is a somewhat heavier beast than either of those and will carry an armored man more easily. They had nothing of the fleetness and nimbleness of zorcas, and nothing of the smashing power of voves, but we had ourselves a cavalry screening force.

Of course, it was not easy. I had to be everywhere and superintend everything, and I own I was tired in a way strange to me, enervated and depressed and struggling vainly to whip my enthusiasm up to the giddy heights of all those around me.

We possessed no aerial cavalry whatsoever.

Hamp was a transformed man.

“They are vosks, Dray Prescot! You said so yourself!”

“Yes — but, Hamp, we are not ready—”

“Look!” Hamp waved his hand at the men who now ran forward steadily in long even ranks, hurling their pila, the air filled with the flying shafts. The stux-men threw, hard and accurately. Then the whole mass drew their veknises and charged, whooping and skirling and roaring. They made a brave sight.

“Not ready,” I repeated. My face was ugly.

“You cannot be afraid, Dray Prescot,” cackled old Mog. “I saw you at work, in the jungles of that Migshaanu-forsaken Faol. You perhaps fear for the lives of my young men?”

“I do.”

“We are happy to give our lives for Migshaanu the All-Glorious!” yelled Med Neemusbane, waving his knife.

“Aye, you are happy. But I am not. Suicide is no way to find Zair and to sit at his right hand in the glory of Zim.”

“Heathen gods, Dray, heathen gods!”

I had to bite down my angry retort. I was, as you would say in this day and age, losing my cool.

Despite what many men — aye, and many women! — have said, I, Dray Prescot, Krozair of Zy and Lord of Strombor, am a human being. I am only human. I was tired in a way that irked me. If I let the decision slip away, if I did not fight them more forcefully, I own the fault is mine. Worry and concern pressed in on me, and I gave way. Their enthusiasm and confidence were treacherous pressures. I should not have allowed it. But, to my shame, I did.

“Very well! Give me two more sennights. Just two. Then, by Vox! Then we will march on these men of Canopdrin!”

I was a fool.

The Miglas would not wait twelve more days.

Hamp was the ringleader; chosen by me as a commander, he took full control, actively encouraged by the twins Mog and Mag. Med Neemusbane was his enthusiastic lieutenant. The Migla army, a creation wholly new to them, and a thing not seen in Migla for many and many a season, marched out.

They marched singing.

They carried their shields over their backs. Their stuxcals were filled. Their pila were ready. Their veknises were sharp. They sang as they marched and the long winding columns of crimson, with the great staff of Migshaanu borne at their head, rolled down from the back hills and took the road to Yaman.

Turko and I sat our totrixes on a little eminence and watched them go.

“Fools!” I whispered.

“They are brave, Dray. They will fight well, for you have taught them.”

“I have sent them to their deaths . . .”

“They chose to go.”

“Aye. And I cannot let them go without me.” I shook out the reins.

Turko lifted his great shield, specially built and strengthened, behind my back. The Suns of Scorpio streamed their mingled red and emerald light about us as we trotted down from the hills, our twin shadows moving with us. All this was happening because of the direct orders of the Star Lords. I did not much care for the Everoinye then. We trotted down from the hills and so rode with the Migla army for the city of Yaman and for disaster.

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