Read Arena of Antares Online

Authors: Alan Burt Akers

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy

Arena of Antares (7 page)

Chapter Five

Turko the Shield and I sup after the first battle

That disaster did not strike exactly as I had imagined it must.

The raw army of recruits of Migla fought well.

I fought with them. The memories I retain of that battle are scattered and fragmentary, of the charges and the falling spears, the glitter of armor and weapons, the clouds of crossbow bolts, the solid chunking smash of masses of men in close combat. The fliers astride their mirvols rained down their bolts from above, and the Miglas lifted their shields, and the crossbowmen afoot loosed into them.

But the pila dragged down many a shield, and the stuxes flew. The Miglas fought magnificently. They outnumbered the army of Canopdrin. They did not consider their own losses. They charged again and again, their veknises gleaming crimson with blood, and again and again they were hurled back. Yet still they charged. The supplies of stuxes I had arranged to be brought up by wagons were late arriving, and when they did at last reach the field, which lay in wide meadows about a dwabur west of Yaman, there were pitifully few hands to grasp them.

I had four totrixes slain under me. When there were no more riding animals to be had I charged afoot at the head of the Miglas. I found the thraxter to be a useful weapon, used with a shield, and I also discovered — as I had always known — how inordinately powerful a shield wall could be if it remained intact.

The Miglas broke two shield walls.

They toppled two Canoptic brigades into rout.

But the supreme efforts spent their strength and the remaining two brigades were able to drive in, charging in their turn now under showers of bolts, and tumble the Miglas back into destruction.

Trapped in a close-pressing melee Turko and I were tumbled back with the rest. Yes, I do not recall many of the details of that battle, which, from a windmill nearby owned by a Migla called Mackee, was henceforth known as the Battle of Mackee; but one scarlet memory stands out and runs like a thread through the whole conflict.

How strange it was, I thought, not to have to worry over my back!

For, where I went, there went Turko the Shield.

With those lightning-fast reflexes of the Khamorro he picked up the flight of a bolt and interposed the shield between it and my back or side. He hovered over me, an aegis through which no single bolt, no single arrow, no single stux could penetrate.

And — more than once a Migla, inflamed by the homicidal fury of combat, seeing in Turko and me two hated apims, would hurl at us. Turko’s muscles roped and twined as he held the great shield up, its surface bristling with shafts. Whenever he could he took the opportunity of ripping them away. He had the Khamorro strength to rip a barbed bolt out where a normal soldier would have no chance of doing the same.

A pilum smacked into the shield. I remember that. I remember seeing Turko hoisting the shield up, seeing bolts glancing from it, seeing the way he held it despite the dragging effect of the pilum. For a space we were clear of the press. Dust and blood and the shrieking screams of wounded and dying men created that insane horror of a battlefield all about us.

Turko bent and ripped the pilum away—

And then I remember looking up at the night sky and seeing the Twins eternally revolving one about the other sailing across the sky, cloud wrack driven across their faces giving them the illusion of movement. Turko at my side lay senseless, blood clotting his hair. He wore a red band around his head now, as a reed syple, and I knew why.

All about us the horrid moaning of hundreds of wounded men, Migla and apim, rose into the cool night wind.

Occasionally shrill shrieks burst out, to sputter and die away. Canops were out with lanterns searching among the dead. I discovered the blood dried along my head. All the famous bells of Beng-Kishi rang in that old head of mine; but my skull is a thick one, and I had bathed in the pool of baptism in the River Zelph in far Aphrasöe, and so I was able to hunch up and get Turko on my back and stagger away from that awful and tragic field.

There was nothing to be done here, the disaster was on so great a scale, that all there was left for us was to save our own skins. Then, I vowed, then we would come back and do properly what we had so signally failed to do this day on the field of Mackee.

A voice hailed.

“Over here, dom.”

Armed Canops, with samphron-oil lamps and flaring torches. If I ran they would split Turko and me with accurate bolts. I took Turko across to the fire. Many Canops lay on blankets around the fire, and I saw Canop women tending them. The smoke drifted in the cool wind.

“Let’s have a look at you, soldier.”

This Canop, this one with the lined haggard face, the haunted eyes, must be a doctor. In mere seconds he had stuck his acupuncture needles into Turko and so could banish my comrade’s pain while he tended the gash on his head. My own wound needed merely cleaning and poulticing and bandaging.

“A nasty crack that one, soldier.” The doctor handed me to a Canop woman, a mere slip of a girl with dark hair and eyes I knew would be merry in other circumstances. Her long slim fingers bandaged my head. We were apim; therefore we were Canops. We were not Miglas, we were not the enemy.

The situation was not without its piquancy.

Turko breathed easier now. We had both been wearing armor taken from Canops, and we would pass.

We were put down carefully on blankets in a ring around the fire, and broth — good vosk and onion soup — and a rolled leaf filled with palines were handed to each of us. We drank and ate with relish. Later there was wine, rough army issue wine, but refreshing and invigorating at the time.

“Those old cham-faces,” said a soldier next to me, who had a bandage covering most of his stomach. “They stuck me in the belly. But I feel sorry for ’em.”

“Sorry for ’em?” I was genuinely surprised.

“Well, look at the crazy onkers, charging us like that.” The soldier moved and suddenly, unpleasantly, he groaned and I saw his face go set into drawn haggard lines.

“Nurse!” I called, and the girl hurried over. She knelt, her yellow tunic and skirt, not unlike the kilts worn by the men, glimmering warm in the firelight. There were many fires over the battlefield, each with its ring of wounded. She looked cross.

“Have you been drinking, soldier?”

He winked at her.

“You silly onker! You’ve been cut up in the belly — no more wine until the doctor orders. Understand?”

She had given one of the needles sticking in him a twirl and his pain receded. He looked properly subdued. “Orders is orders, nurse. But I’m fair parched.”

“Suck palines, soldier.”

When she had gone in answer to a muffled scream from across the ring of wounded men, I returned to the source of my puzzlement. “Those Miglas. They were out to kill—”

“Well, wouldn’t you be? If your land had been taken from you?”

The disorientation of all this could not be explained merely by his mistaking me for a soldier and a comrade. The soldier next along lifted on an elbow. He had a broken leg which had been expertly set and splinted. He spoke over the man with the stomach wound.

“How much do we get out of it, then, I ask you? We do the fighting — aye, and I’m proud to fight for Canopdrin. But I’d like a little more booty.”

These men I had already summed up as soldiers fighting for their country, not mercenaries, and therefore urged on not by cold greed but hot patriotism. They talked on, quietly, and I came to understand the viewpoint of the Canoptic soldier much better. A rough lot, like soldiers almost anywhere, they enlisted for enormously long periods and expected hard fighting, for they had had a long-standing feud with a neighbor island of the Shrouded Sea. When Canopdrin had been made uninhabitable they had welcomed the decision of the king and his pallans to make a new home in Migla. But, as was usually the way, the high-born reaped most of the benefits.

The man with the belly wound, whose name was Naghan the Throat — he was always thirsty — rambled and muttered and I feared that he would be gripped by a fever and so taken off. He suddenly tried to sit up, his eyes wide and brilliant, and he cried: “I fought, by Opaz! I fought!”

Then the man with the broken leg, one Jedgul the Finger — I was too delicate to inquire why he had acquired the name — sat up sharply and dragged himself toward Naghan’s blanket and took Naghan and thrust him down, his hand splayed over the face.

“Quiet, you onker!” He spoke breathily, quickly, and then, in a louder voice: “By the Glorious Lem, you will live!”

The picture came clear to me in those few words. Lem, the silver leem, was the supernatural being worshiped by the Canops, and his statue was everywhere, for a soldier most noticeably in the form of a silver leaping leem atop the standard. This leem cult had broken the religion of Migshaanu. But Naghan the Throat had cursed in his delirium by Opaz, the great twin deity, invisible and omnipotent, that represented the major religious beliefs of the peoples of Pandahem and of Vallia and of many other civilized places besides. So, I reasoned, Lem, the debased silver leem, had ousted the followers of Opaz before he had started in on Migshaanu. Now I have made no attempt to outline the beliefs or practices of the religion of the Invisible Twins, of Opaz. I have told you of the long chanting processions streaming in torchlight through the cities and all chanting “Oolie Opaz, Oolie Opaz, Oolie Opaz.” The stresses come on the first syllables of the words. It is always “Oolie Opaz!” over and over again.

But — there is a very great deal more to it than a mere chanting procession.

Jedgul the Finger looked at me over the prostrate form of Naghan and I saw his eyes glittering in the firelight.

“Naghan the Throat is a good comrade of mine, dom. You are a soldier. You would not betray him?”

“Never,” I said.

Jedgul slumped back, as though relieved.

“It’s all the fault of the officers,” he said, his voice low, grumbling. This is so common a complaint in every army I would have taken no notice of it; but Jedgul added, “They think themselves so high and mighty. A common ranker may never enter their shrines to Lem. Everything of the best is always theirs. I bet you your officers are doing what ours are now, drinking themselves silly and pestering shishis . . . You didn’t say what your regiment was.”

I had seen his shield, with the embossed image of the leaping leem at the top, below that a black neemu, painted on, with the figures eleven and one. He was of the first pastang of the eleventh regiment of foot. At the beginning of the battle I had made it my business to make a note of all the regiments arrayed against us, and now was able to choose one on the opposite wing from the eleventh. Also, in choosing this particular regiment I could exhibit a little hard-won knowledge.

“Third,” I said casually. And added, “Hikdar Markman will be occupying two shishis, if I know him.”

Jedgul chuckled.

“Aye, Nath,” he said, for I had told them I was called Nath. “And King Capnon can sleep safe in his bed this night.”

“Better get some sleep yourself. Here comes the nurse.”

“Aye,” he said, yawning. “Paline Chahmsix is a sweet kid. Her old man ought to be proud of her.”

“Six” is one of the common suffixes denoting daughter, as “ban” often denotes son. The nurse, Paline Chahmsix, came up, tut-tutting, and bid Jedgul and I sleep as soundly as Naghan. “Lem keep you,” she said, which is a way of saying good night.

Jedgul answered with a snore.

I turned over and closed my eyes. When the light tread of her little feet had gone I rolled across to Turko and shook him awake. The sounds around us were dying. The wounded were finding peace in sleep. Tomorrow would see the collection and burial of the dead, with their memories dedicated to the greater glory of Lem, the silver leem.

“We have to leave now, Turko. And don’t make a sound.”

He was awake quickly enough. He touched his bandaged head and checked the needle. “What—?”

“A doctor attended you, and a charming little girl not really old enough to be out here at night with all these desperate soldiers. We’ve been lucky, Turko. Now let’s get out of here without a fuss. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to little Paline Chahmsix.”

His glance contained all that old quizzical appraisal; but he rose, and together we silently crept away from the glow of the fire out into the moon-drenched shadows of Kregen.

Late on the following day we caught up with what was left of the army of Migla and with these sorry remnants we returned to the camps in the back hills. We had lost a sorrowful lot of men. Hamp and Med had both been wounded; but they were unrepentant when I started to tell them a few home truths.

“We were not ready, as you said, Dray. But we have learned. We know now we can beat them next time.”

“There will be no next time,” I said. I was savage and cutting and angry and contemptuous — of myself. For, I, too, had seen my own crass stupidity. “There will not be a next time until I give the word.”

Mog waved her arms about at this, and quieted Mag, who had been about to try to say something, and she yelled: “I am the high priestess! We must strike, and strike again!”

“Agreed. But we do it my way. The common soldiers of Canopdrin are just ordinary men. They are driven into fighting by their masters, who crack the whips over them, and who dazzle their eyes with statues of Lem, the silver leem.”

As I spoke these words Mog and Mag and the others shuddered and put up their hands, warding off the evil of that foul name.

“Opaz,” I said fiercely, proddingly. “Aye, Opaz is known among them and some still love the Invisible Twins. They would welcome you of Migshaanu if a way could be found.”

“They would cut us down with swords if we tried,” said Med.

“Agreed. You cannot face them in battle, not for a long time. You must accept this as a truth. But there is a way, and I shall take that way, and bring you help. You must wait here, recruit more men, train them up as I have shown you. When the time is ripe Turko here, or one bearing a message from me, Dray Prescot, will come to you. Then, my friends, strike at Yaman!”

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