Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
“We can put ten arrows into the air while they wind up their monstrous contraptions.”
“We will have need to. We cannot take all the men I would wish for.”
I had conceived that the Emperor would prove a problem, and had not been altogether pleased he was here on my island of Valka when I would have thought him safely back in his capital of Vondium in Vallia. But since the abortive revolution had been put down, as I have told you, he was a much freer man. Now he surprised me by wholeheartedly flinging himself into preparations for the venture to Havilfar. He would be the mainspring that would enable me to collect airboats and men and to transport them to Migla. If he questioned why we must go to Migla and aid a halfling race against the Canops, who were apims like ourselves, he did not mention it. He did say, however, that the Miglas did not manufacture airboats, did they, Dray?
And I said they did not, but that they would be useful allies to us for the future.
He had a long eye, had the Emperor of Vallia. He nodded and set about collecting men and weapons and fliers.
If this was a confidence trick I was pulling on the empire of Vallia, it was on a gargantuan scale, and I was gleeful at my thoughts.
Vomanus, who was my half-brother-in-law, was away in Port Tavetus at this time, on the eastern coast of Turismond, no doubt drinking and wenching in his reckless way, and so was unavailable to come with us. Korf Aighos was in the Blue Mountains. But with Seg and Inch I wanted no other companions. Except for Nath and Zolta, my two oar comrades, those two rascals I had not seen for long and long.
In all this preparation Turko wandered like a man in a dream, dazed, and every time he saw me he would say, “Prince Majister,” and shake his head. Then he would flex his muscles and so I would know he was all right. He would get on with my comrades, with Seg and Inch, for all that they were Kovs these days.
The day dawned when our preparations were ready. In the end his Pallans persuaded the Emperor it would be folly for him to go with us, and grumbling and reminding us of how he had fought the last bloody remnants of the third party led by Ortyg Larghos outside his own palace, he gave way. I felt relief.
Seg was bringing three thousand of his Crimson Bowmen of Loh. Tom ti Vulheim was bringing a thousand Valkan Archers. There were five thousand of my old Valkan fighters, men I had trained myself in the arts of war and with whom I had thrashed the aragorn and the slave-masters and so cleansed my island of Valka. Many of them still addressed me as Strom Drak. I did not mind. It was a name of honor.
We did not take a single mercenary. I had no desire to lead Chuliks or Rapas or Fristles up against the apims of Canopdrin. I had received a new insight into them, on the battlefield of Mackee, around the fires, among the wounded. They were men. We must deal with their noble masters, and then, I devoutly hoped, we could come to terms.
By the Emperor’s express commands we collected an impressive fleet of fliers. They might fail us on the way. We had to accept that. The Vallian Air Service, trim in their blue uniforms and orange cloaks, would do all they could to bring us through. Chuktar Farris, the Lord of Vomansoir, would lead. I was pleased, for although we had met and got on well, our paths had not crossed as often as I would have wished.
We even had a few commercial airboats, and I was amused to see a couple of ice boats there, gray and ugly — but fliers, able to take a platoon of men into Havilfar.
So it was that under the light of the Suns of Scorpio we took off, a great aerial armada of better than a hundred and fifty fliers, slanting up against the rays of the suns, heading due south.
I had bidden farewell to the twins, Drak and Lela, and wondered what they made of this ugly-faced old graint of a fellow, who claimed to be their father. I could not find Delia. This was odd. I raged about the high fortress of Esser Rarioch, shouting, and maids and servants and guards ran hunting, but she was not to be found. My flier, which should have been up there leading the host alongside that of Chuktar Farris, waited on the flight platform overhanging the sea.
Then I slapped my gauntlet down on my thigh.
I should have known my Delia!
Seg and Inch had left, each leading his own contingent, and Inch had brought eight hundred bonny fighters from his Black Mountains, for we had not called on Korf Aighos for any of his Blue Mountain Boys. We were remiss in that, as Delia had prophesied, and the Korf followed us, in what fliers he could scrape up, swearing and cursing and his fingers itching for plunder.
So I vaulted up into the flier, and nodded to young Hikdar Vangar ti Valkanium, who had been a Deldar when I had been in most desperate straits in Vondium, and who now commanded my airboat. He saluted and started to yell his ritual orders to cast off, for he had seen how I had observed the fantamyrrh as I came aboard.
In the aft cabin, and hidden beneath a great pile of silks, I saw a rounded bottom in tight buff leathers only half concealed. I did not slap. The itch was there, but I did not.
I hauled her out.
She came, laughing, joyful, her gorgeous face glowing with fun and pleasure, that marvelous hair tumbled about her, her glorious brown eyes filled with the light of love.
I stood back and looked at her, and I put an expression on my face that would have cowed a leem and she laughed — she laughed! — and shook me and kissed me and so I was done for.
She wore buff leathers, and a brave scarlet sash around her waist, so narrow, so slender, so beautiful. Her form was something to take a man’s breath away. She wore buff boots of supple lesten hide, reaching to the knee. At her side swung a rapier, and opposite the Jiktar she wore the Hikdar, the main-gauche. Her face glowed upon me.
“You did not think, darling Dray, that you could escape me again?”
“I had thought to leave you mewed up, in Esser Rarioch, to care for the sewing and the darning, the pot-washing and the clothes-scrubbing and the floor-cleaning. They seem fitting occupations — and the twins?”
This was a serious note.
“They are safe and cared for as no other children in all the world, my heart. Aunt Katri is there, and Doctor Nath the Needle, and there are so many nurses and handmaidens the children will never remain unwatched. And, Dray, they are so young! And, too, there is my father . . .”
“All right, you female schemer. But remember, as soon as we have freed the Miglas from the Canops — it is home for us!”
“Amen to that, my heart.”
So we pressed on through the air levels. Due south we drove, keeping mainly over the open ocean and retracing the course taken by Turko and myself. We passed the Koroles, the group of islands extending tongue-like from the eastern seaboard of Pandahem. We kept a lookout, for the Pandaheem do not buy airboats from Havilfar, but they had a few examples, all the same, and we wished for no trouble from the ancient foes of Vallia. I wondered how Tilda the Beautiful fared, and her son Pando, the Kov of Bormark, an imp of Satan if ever there was one. And Viridia the Render — was she still pirating away over there up the Hoboling Islands?
Over the northern coast of Havilfar we passed, crossing Hennardrin but too far east to see the White Rock of Gilmoy. Now we crossed the vast plains and the enormous areas of cultivation, until we sped above the wild lands. We avoided that area where no flier would go — but not by much — and we saw only a few spots in the sky to indicate we might be observed. We understood the risks we ran. More than one flier had to descend because of these infernal faults of the airboats supplied to us by the manufacturers in Hamal. We pressed on, and those left behind carried out repairs and so took up the chase again. Straight to the northwestern shore of the Shrouded Sea we flew, independent of air currents or winds, and so swung away to the west and gave Yaman a very wide berth, to land within the circle of the back hills of Migla.
The Miglas greeted us in stupefaction.
Hamp and Med Neemusbane gaped, their ears flapping, their eyes goggling. Only Mog retained her composure. She cackled and her old nutcracker face snapped at me.
“I always knew you were no ordinary man, Dray Prescot. You conjure an army out of thin air—”
“An army I should have brought at the start. Then you would not mourn so many of your dead.”
“Migshaanu the All-Glorious counts the cost. We who serve her do not. Go out to war, Dray Prescot, and the light of Migshenda the Stux shine upon you.”
Which was all very nice and magniloquent; but the idea still rankled that I had allowed these cheerful flap-eared, rubber-toy Miglas to march off singing to a war which was quite outside their experience. I knew those gathered here would be by far a fitter and more efficient army than that first one; but the cost came high, too high for me, I fear, and thereby I betray just how soft I had become.
That evening as the final plans were made and the Miglas caught a little awed insight into the way my fighting-men of Valka and those other fighters from Vallia behaved, Delia and I stood looking up at the last of the suns’ glow.
The giant golden and scarlet form of the Gdoinye swept over us. I pretended to ignore it. The Star Lords were observing me and making sure they received their pound of flesh.
“That bird, Dray. I have seen it before.”
“Possibly. It is of no consequence—”
She put her arms on my shoulders and forced me to look into her face. How sweet she was, clean and fresh and smelling so delectably of all the fabulous perfumes of paradise!
“Do not put me off, Dray. We both know the strange things that have happened to us — we have only to think back—”
“There is little I can tell you, dearest heart. I am constrained by forces I do not understand. I love only you. I love only you, and yet I love the twins, and I love this beautiful and cruel world of Kregen. I would not choose to leave all this—”
“How could you leave Kregen — unless you were dead? Oh, Dray! I did not mean to speak like this, on the eve of a battle.”
I kissed her, a long, long kiss, and so silenced her.
When we drew back, I said, “Remember always, my Delia of Delphond, my Delia of the Blue Mountains. I love only you. Whatever I may do, that is why I live and breathe, that is why I am anything at all. If what I do seems strange, think only that I love only you.”
I could not go on. I would have to tell her something, but I quailed from opening my weird story to the one person in two worlds from whom nothing should be hid. I would tell my Delia, one day . . .
The sound of laughter and loud voices heralded the arrival of Turko, Seg, and Inch. Turko had been telling them of the Canops, and of the Battle of Mackee, and of how the army of Canopdrin used the shield. I, also, had told my men of the uses of the shield. But, as I have earlier told you, the men of Segesthes and Turismond, as of Vallia and Pandahem, rate the shield as a cowardly weapon, something to hide behind. I knew they would find out differently in the morning, and I prayed the discovery would not come too high in blood.
The plans were laid. If the Canops scouted us with their aerial cavalry, we would deal with them. Seg had the skills for that. We had both watched an army cut to pieces from the air, when the impiters of Umgar Stro destroyed the army of Hiclantung in the Hostile Territories. Now, we had bowmen who would do more damage than a hundred stux-men.
Of shafts the Emperor had scoured his empire and we had brought so many arrows that I had devoted all the draft animals and all the totrixes we could spare to bring them onto the field. Our fliers were equipped with efficient varters, varters and gros-varters made in Vallia. They would not fail us.
The Miglas with their shields were apportioned to the various formations from Valka. I bore down all opposition. I told them, in a very high and mighty fashion, that I was the Prince Majister of Vallia. I was also Strom of Valka. My men
shielded by the Migla shield-bearers.
“If I see a man wantonly exposing himself to the Canops’ crossbows, Seg, and you too, Inch, I will be most severe.” And to Tom ti Vulheim, in command of the Archers of Valka, I said the same things. “We use our superior rate of discharge, and we swamp them with shafts. When we get to close quarters they will be shot to pieces. Then your rapiers, daggers, and glaives will have to stand against thraxter and shield.” I didn’t like that bit of it at all. But I showed my officers a few passes that would serve, and the Jiktars passed these on to the Hikdars, who in their turn instructed the Deldars. The Deldars with their brazen lungs bawled it out to the men, and I fancied that at least some of the instructions would penetrate those blockheaded if valiant warriors of mine. One day I would forge an army that was an army, here on Kregen . . .
The day dawned brightly. She of the Veils had risen late and her pale orb gleamed bright pink against the blue, fading as the suns climbed, but remaining. I pointed this out to the men as an omen of good fortune. The ranks formed up after breakfast was eaten. My cavalry scouts informed me that the Canops, who I was sure had not spotted the fleet of fliers, had scouted the camp and that the main force, confident of an even greater victory than the last, had marched out. They would be breaking camp at about the same time as we were, and would be marching west as we marched east. I frowned. The suns would be in the eyes of my men.
Orders were given to the Vallian Air Service to prevent any aerial scouts from observing our movements. We saw one or two skirmishes in the hazy distance, dots swarming and sweeping about our fliers. The Canoptic vollers put in an appearance and were quickly seen off.
I said to Seg, “Take over the command, Seg. Keep them moving, but slowly. I do not want to engage with the suns in our eyes.”
Hikdar Vangar had my airboat ready. She was the voller we had taken from Faol and flown to Valka and back. We rose into the air and swept toward the army of Canopdrin. From up here I was impressed by the dressing and alignment of the Canops. The silver gleam from their standards, where Lem, the silver leem, was flaunted, splintered into my eyes. Their whole mass advanced with a steady tread, perfectly confident. They were disciplined, professional fighting-men. My Bowmen of Loh were professionals too, but of the rest of my army all were rough and ready warriors, some drilled and trained by me, but ever ready to let warrior passions inflame them. Oh, we were not a wild undisciplined body of men claiming to be an army, as my savage clansmen were. We were a drilled army. But Vallia has been famed for her navy. She has always hired mercenaries for her fighting. This was, as I knew, the first time since beyond any memory, when Vallians themselves had stepped onto a foreign field in such numbers to do battle.