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Authors: William R. Forstchen

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Terrible Swift Sword

BOOK: Terrible Swift Sword
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MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY ..."

It started off with a deep bass, the men picking up the words, their voices echoing across the plains. Ramrods clattered in fouled muskets, cartridges were run home, pieces were raised, bayonets poised.

He clicked open his carbine, sliding a last round in, and cocked the hammer.

The breeze was blowing fair and clear, the standards fluttered in the wind.

There seemed to be a far-off place now. It wasn't here. No, it was Antietam again. The young terrified officer standing there, looking like a lost boy. He had watched him grow, grow to lead a regiment, an army, an entire world.

The son he never had, the son in fact that he now did have. That was enough to leave behind.

"He has loosed the fateful lightning . . ."

"God keep you, son."

The nargas sounded. . . .

THE LOST REGIMENT #3

TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD

William R. Forstchen

RoC

A ROC BOOK

ROC

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books USA Inc.. 375 Hudson Street.

New York. New York 10014. U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd. 27 Wrights Lane,

London W8 5TZ. England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd. Ringwood,

Victoria. Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books
Ltd.,
Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published
by
Roc,
an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

First Printing, February, 1992 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

Copyright William R. Forstchen, 1992 All rights reserved

Roc is a trademark of New American Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

Printed in Canada

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT QUANT ITY DISCOUNTS WHEN USED TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE WRITE TO PREMIUM MARKETING DIVISION, PENGUIN BOOKS USA INC..
375
HUDSON STREET. NEW YORK. NEW YORK
10014.

If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen properly. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

For Eleanor Wood. It's wonderful to have the best agent in the business; it's even better when that agent is also a close and trusted friend.

For Joel Rosenberg, who has always been there as an adviser for so many tough questions both personal and professional.

And finally, for L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp, who inspired me so many years ago with their wondrous tales and more recently with their friendship, which I shall always cherish.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A special thanks goes to Professor Dennis Showalter, who helped with many an obscure and difficult question regarding logistics. A general acknowlegment should go out as well to my professors and fellow graduate students with the history department at Purdue for their advice and encouragement. Finally, a long overdue acknowledgment to Dean Miller for all those lunchtime conversations that wove together the world of academia with the universe of science fiction and fantasy.

Prologue

"Ship oars."

Somehow it had all gone too easily this time. He waited expectantly, sniffing the air, as if one could actually catch the scent of the Merki on the wind. The air was damp with the sea. Coiling vapors rose around him in the darkness, the only sound the gentle lapping of the waves on the rocky shore.

Where were the cloud-flyers, and the patrolling galleys dogging their flanks?

It just wasn't right, and yet he was close, too close now to turn back.

Hamilcar Baca, exiled leader of the Cartha, leaned against the prow of his galley, nervously stroking his oily black beard, intently watching the darkness to the west.

"There it is," a rower whispered, pointing to the flash of light winking in the gloom. It disappeared, then flashed twice more.

"That's it," Hamilcar whispered. He nodded to the signalman beside him who, facing aft, unsheathed his lantern, flashing the all-clear to the flotilla of ships a league further out to sea.

"Take us in," Hamilcar whispered, feeling somewhat foolish for speaking softly.

If Merki were waiting, he thought, they would know we are here, loud voices or not. He looked up at the double moons, one rising in the east, the other fat and gibbous on the western horizon. The sea was a crisscross of shadows highlighting the ships, which drifted ghostlike through the patches of fog.

The rowers dropped their blades, the muffled oars dipping into the light chop of the Inland Sea. The late-night mist swirled and eddied, glowing dimly with the moonlight and the reflected lights of the city of Cartha, half a dozen miles to the south. The fishing village ahead was dark, quiet.

It would be the largest rescue attempted so far, and the one most important to his heart. It was strange to come back to his own shore, a fugitive, slipping in and out to rescue a lucky few from the Merki pits.

Two years ago he had been king. To be certain, he knew the Merki were coming, but what concern was that in the end, for as a noble he and all those close to him were exempt. Certainly he had harbored dreams of rebellion—who hadn't?—especially when word came of the Yankees' decision to fight the Tugars. How he had coveted the few weapons they offered in trade, gazing upon them in the night, and wishing that somehow he could forge such things as well and cast the Merki out!

He shook his head sadly with the memory. Yet I sold my soul again he reflected, when the Namer of Time had arrived at the gates, bearing a warning not to resist.

He cursed the uncaringness of Baalk, who had blinded him thus, and in the end led him to this destruction. I became their tool, he thought bitterly, and in my cowardice lost everything. And now I skulk through the night, hoping against hope to save a precious few.

To his amazement Keane had stood by his promise, keeping none of them as prisoners, and offering a safe haven for any who would fight the Merki.

It was an offer he'd had to take. When the
Oqunquit
had gone down he had hesitated for a moment between swimming to the west bank and the Merki lines, or swimming to the east and capture. He had thanked Baalk a thousand times that he had gone east, for the Merki would surely have sent him to the pits for the defeat they had suffered.

Twice in the last forty days he had run down the Inland Sea, the first time leading six ships, which had brought back nearly five hundred refugees. The second time, with twelve ships, they had saved a thousand, but the damned cloud-flyers of the Merki had found them and sunk two of the galleys on the way back.

Yet in coming back both times he had proven something—that he was committed to the alliance— and now Keane had given him forty galleys and two gunboats to offer some form of protection. There was even a regiment of Suzdalian infantry with him, acting as rowers, but also armed with muskets, with four-pound guns mounted on swivels for use against the cloud-flyers. If Andrew had offered such an arrangement on the first trip he would have felt they were along as a guarantee of his return; now he saw it as the offer that it was, armed protection to help him get the families of some of his men out of Cartha.

They had not seen the cloud-flyers all the way down—the cold winds of autumn had most likely kept them in their sheds—and he could only pray that this time they would escape unscathed.

Two lanterns appeared on the shoreline, marking the area between which the galleys could safely approach and land. His hands felt damp, sweaty.

The feel of a musket was still unusual, the wood hard and ungiving compared to the leather-wrapped hilt of his blade. But a musket could kill a Merki at a hundred paces, a sword could not.

"Twelve feet."

Hamilcar looked over at the leadsman, and waited.

"Ten feet, eight feet."

The beach was visible at last, marked by a thin ripple of white from the low curling waves washing ir. from the sea.

"Up oars."

The boat lifted slightly, racing in on curling wave, scrapping over the gravelly beach.

Leaping over the side, musket held high over his head, Hamilcar waded in, men pushing ahead of him with weapons raised. It could still be a trap. All they needed was for one person to find out and to sell the information to the Merki in return for an exemption.

A low cry rose up from the beach, and he tensed. A woman appeared, running into the water, carrying a child under either arm. More and yet more appeared, and within seconds wild shouts of joy were shattering the darkness as hundreds swarmed down to the single boat.

"Hamilcar?"

The voice drifted down from the beach.

"Over here!"

A shadowy form emerged out of the darkness. A lantern was unhooded, shining into his eyes and blinding him.

"Thank Baalk!" the man cried, and in obeisance went down to his knees in the surf.

Hamilcar smiled as he pulled Elazar, his oldest friend from childhood, back to his feet. Elazar had been raised beside him from infancy—they had even been born on the same day. It was through him as well that he had learned discipline. For his little crimes of childhood it was Elazar that had been beaten, since it was forbidden to strike one of the royal line. He had learned forbearance soon enough: Actions that he would have risked if the punishment were to be his alone he had never dreamed of doing out of fear for his friend.

"Elazar, just what in the name of Baalk and all the gods is going on here?" Hamilcar roared, looking in amazement at the mass confusion of the mob that was pouring out of the village and into the surf.

"It got out of control!" the man cried, tugging at his graying beard, his eyes rolling in fear. "Word spread through the city of your coming back; thousands of people have been pouring into the countryside. It seems like the Merki are taking everyone for the pits. Tens of thousands of others are being driven to make yet more weapons of war. There is talk they will invade the Rus lands come the spring, and they are preparing."

"Damn all of it," Hamilcar growled. This time it really was out of control. Nearly twelve thousand of his men had been captured in the war against the Rus and Roum. Nearly all had elected to take Keane's offer of sanctuary. He had promised to get as many families as possible out from under the Merki rule. Several hundred men had volunteered to slip back into Cartha to round people up and get them down to the coast. The Inland Sea had turned into a battleground as a result. Individual ships foraying out, hitting the coast at nightfall and running back towards Suzdal the following morning burdened down with refugees.

Yet a slow but steady toll was being exacted as well. The Merki air machines would come floating in on the still air of dawn. If a ship was sighted by them it was as good as dead.

"If this many people found out, the Merki must know as well," Hamilcar said, looking nervously at the shouting crowd, which was now pouring down to the beach.

"We were smuggling people up here as planned," Elazar replied, "and then this afternoon it started— hundreds of people coming out of Cartha."

"The Merki?"

"No sign of them. But they are coming." And he nodded to a man standing behind him.

Hamilcar turned his attention to what appeared to be a Rus standing expectantly behind Elazar, the man looking vaguely familiar. His once blond hair had gone to streaks of gray. He was lean of build, obviously inured to harshness, yet his dress was not of a peasant but was made of rich cloth, the tunic even trimmed with threads of gold. The cut was vaguely like that of the traditional Rus tunic and crosshatched leggings, but the tunic was slit up either side to make it more comfortable for riding.

"Rus?" Hamilcar asked warily.

"Once, but long ago, a full circling gone," the man replied in the tongue of the Merki, the words sounding strange, guttural, and vaguely obscene coming from the lips of a human.

"A pet of the Merki shield-bearer Tamuka," Elazar said coldly. "He came here shortly before you arrived, saying that the Merki were coming."

"Before Shagara disappears," the Rus stated, nodding towards the gibbous moon to the west, "they will be here."

"Why are you telling us this?"

"I wish to return to my people. In exchange I brought you the warning of the Merki closing in, and some additional information as well."

"What information?" Hamilcar asked, looking over at Elazar.

"He wouldn't tell me," Elazar replied, looking at the Rus with contempt.

"I left him for you to decide," Elazar whispered in Carthinian. "Never trust one who had been with them for a circling as a pet—they will eat the flesh of their own people to survive. Most likely this bastard's eaten the leavings of the pits, the flesh of his own race. I heard they force them to do that."

Hamilcar looked at the Rus closely. The man stood before him, calmly staring straight back, his blue eyes wide. There was no fear.

"What information do you have, then?"

The Rus smiled.

"The Merki and the Bantag Qar Qarths will meet at the next moon feast to discuss peace. I know the details of what will be offered, and when they will attack, but will reveal that only to the one called Keane, after I am safely returned."

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