Authors: Mick Farren
Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Soldiers
THEIR MASTER'S WAR
All rights reserved
SPHERE BOOKS LIMITED
SPHERE BOOKS LTD
Published by the Penguin Group 27 Wrights Lane, London W8STZ, England
Viking Penguin Inc.,
40 West 23rd Street, New York, New York 10010, USA
Penguin Books Australia Ltd,
Ringwood, Victoria, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 2801 John Street, Markham,
IB4 Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, 1987
First published in
Great Britain by Sphere Books Ltd, 1988
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Richard Clay Limited, Bungay, Suffolk
As the particle beam accelerator came to bear on them, broken beams of green light sliced
through the area. A trooper simply blew apart. Hark didn't know who it was. Something hit him
violently between the shoulder blades.
'Get down, you idiot!'
For an instant, Hark thought that he had been hit. Then he realized that Helot was rolling off
'Dig in, you dumb bastard!'
Hark grabbed his trencher and twisted the grip, blowing the sand out from under his body.
There was a spiny outcropping way over on their right. The space in between was crisscrossed
by green flashes.
'Can we make it?'
'We can try.'
There had been a madness, and the river crossing had become a place of horror and death. The teroes had sensed the blood of men and mounts, and they were circling in the hot iron-gray sky, gliding on leathery wings and uttering hoarse, raucous cries. The bolder ones had already started to land, flapping and stretching, their long beaked heads turning this way and that, always poised for instant flight but, at the same time, always moving toward the fallen prey with their scrabbling sideways gait. A mount thrashed and contorted in its final agony, snapping at the hideous gaping wound in its stomach. The huge Brana-ma hunting dogs had caused this particular animal's downfall. The flying reptiles retreated to a safe distance and crouched, waiting for its dying struggles to end. The mount clawed at the loose sand, trying to rise, but the effort was too much for it. It shuddered and died. The teroes started to close in again. For a while, the waters of the scant, high summer river had run red, but now, once again, they sparkled clear. The awful stain of mortal combat had been borne downstream, and it had already become history. Har-kaan splashed through the shallows, staring with dull
horrified eyes at the wreckage that was left by the fighting. There was blood running down the side of his face from where a spinning platee had sliced his forehead. An angry, throbbing pain still pulsed through his shoulder and extended all the way up to the nerve clusters in the back of his neck. The Brana-ma warrior, the one with the black and yellow diamond-patterned snake painted on his left cheek, had been looking to finish him with a single blow from his war club. It had been intended to crush his skull, but at the last minute, Harkaan had desperately pivoted from the hip and the club had smashed down on his shoulder. In shock from the pain and driven by the strange new instincts of madness, he had gutted the man with his glassknife. The warrior's blood still stained his breechclout, his leggings, and his beaded chest piece.
Some of the bodies sprawled as though sleeping. Others were twisted into grotesque and unnatural parodies of what they'd been when alive. Harkaan avoided looking at the expressions on their faces. A mount lay half in and half out of the water. Its neck was stretched out, and its powerful back legs angled into the air. Spears stuck up like sinister leafless reeds, their points buried in the river mud or the dry, bare ground. The harsh hot Lawka-a wind that made men so quick to anger was still blowing, making streamers of the ribbons that decorated the weapons.
It was hard to remember how or why the conflict had started. When the twenty young men of the Ashak-ai had left the village, they had been nothing more than a simple hunting party, wearing the bands of ocher paint that designated them as such. Even then, though, there had been an awareness that something was wrong. The dry season had gone on far too long. Wells had run dry, and streams had dwindled until they were little more than trails of drying mud. The hot winds blew relentlessly. The nights brought no relief. A terrible lethargy had set in, punc tuated only by bursts of sudden, out-of-control anger. Game had become so scarce on the high plains that a hunting party could go out for days and return with nothing more than a single sobore. The reserves of meal and dried meat were dangerously depleted, and even water had to be rationed. The old people of the village had become so sere and brittle that they seemed in danger of blowing away. The children were wide-eyed with hunger, and very soon the bellies of the youngest would start to swell and and starvation death would be among them. The omens and portents offered no hope or consolation. Brood mounts dropped their eggs long before the appointed time, and two human babies were stillborn. The elders and the shaman spent long hours in the Lodge of the Spirits, offering prayers to the ancestors and even making supplication to Ka-La-Lan, the Mother of the Hunt, a deity who was never trivially bothered. No help came. If anything, the heat grew worse and the Lawka-a blew as hard as ever. For the first four days out, the hunting party found nothing; it was as if all life had fled from the plains. The grass itself was dying. As the hunters ranged farther and farther afield, they were increasingly aware that they were starting to infringe the treaties by moving into the traditional hunting grounds of other peoples. It was a serious offense, but they had little choice. They could not return to the village empty-handed.
When they saw the cloud of dust for the first time, a great surge of hope welled up in the heart of each of them. The meetha herds had returned. The cloud was relatively small, and there was no way that any of them could pretend that it was one of the huge armies of the waddling, duck-billed fehlapods whose vast migrations took them across the high plains soon after the start of the rainy season, but it might be an isolated group, thrown off track by the unnaturally long drought. What ever it was, it was certainly better than nothing. They could return to the village with both honor and the des perately needed fresh meat. It took another half dayforthe disappointment to fall on them. At first they resisted the unpleasant truth. It had to be a meetha herd. Finally they could deceive themselves no longer. The dust cloud was moving too quickly and with too much purpose.Itcouldn't be meetha causing it. If anything, it was a hunting party similar to themselves, most likely from the Brana-ma, also pushing to the limits of their accepted territory. Despite the gut-wrenching realization that there was still no game and probably none in the direction from which the other party was coming, a certain excitement spread through the Ashak-ai hunters. If they kept on going, there would undoubtedly be a confrontation with the young men of the other tribe.
This kind of confrontation wasn't uncommon, and it was conducted according to a time-honored protocol. The formal insults were exchanged, and then the warriors would engage in the largely simulated ritual violence of toucou, in which combatants would attempt to strike each other lightly with the blunt end of their stabbing spears. The worst that could happen was that a few tempers would be lost, heads might be cracked, or an arm or a leg might be broken.
The two parties had met at the Great Maru River* which had dwindled to a number of shallow rivulets that meandered between banks of damp sand. The riders of the Ashak-ai had halted at the top of a line of low bluffs that followed the outswing of the river's curve. Below them, across the riverbed, the Brana-ma also stopped. As the two hunting parties cautiously approached each other, a certain unease spread through the Ashak-ai. The Brana-ma—by then it was easy to recognize the tribal markings on their mounts—had a pack of large, semi-wild hunting dogs with them. And the Brana-ma them selves wore the swirling black and yellow devil paint of a raiding party. At first, the meeting had followed normal protocol, The insults were exchanged. Ga-Niru, the eldest of the Ashak-a hunters and the leader of the party, stood up in his stirrupss and yelled across the river. The young men of the Brana-ma must copulate with t.heir mothers and sisters! No normal woman would lie with them!"
The Brana-ma leader was a disturbing sight. His whole body was painted a uniform yellow—the paint of one who is no longer sane. But his reply was comfortingly normal.
And the young men of the Ashak-ai copulate with their dogs because their mothers and sisters are too filthy and hideous for even them to lie with."
Taunt and countertaunt had escalated until the leader of each party let out a bloodcurdling scream. They charged at each other.
Ga-Niru never had a chance. His stabbing spear was reversed in the position of toucou. The Brana-ma leader swung his war club in a lethal arc that ended by crushing the Ashak-ai's skull. The explosion of violence had been immediate. The two parties had hit head-on in the middle of the river in a flurry of clubs and spears. AD ideas of toucou were forgotten in the howl of rage. They killed and went on killing. At the end, the surviving Brana-ma had turned and run, but they had taken the remaining mounts with them. The Ashak-ai probably could have claimed some kind of moral victory, but by that time there were only three Ashak-ai on their feet.
As the Brana-ma fled the field, the yellow-painted leader reared his mount and screamed back at them.
"You think that this is Brana-ma madness, Ashak-ai? This is the madness of the wind." He'd thrown back his
head. "Sniff the air, Ashak-ai! Don't you smell the madness on the wind?" The words still rang in their ears. No one spoke. No one had the words. Harkaan, Valda, and N'Garth had taken the lives of men, and their shame was immeasurable. They could hardly face each other. They had no idea how the madness had come upon them or why the Brana-ma had triggered such a deadly combat. In the grip of shock and pain, they were beyond even grief. Their only course was to retreat into what they knew was their obvious duty. First they checked that their comrades were really dead. There was no good news in this operation. Two of the fatally injured mounts, though, still panted and thrashed in pain. The young men had to finish these creatures, to whom they were almost as close as they were to their own families, by hacking through their thick scales with glassknives until they hit a crucial vein. The work was agonizing and dirty. If more of the hunting party had survived, they would have felt bound to remain until all the bodies were buried, even those of the enemy. As this was plainly impossible, they simply dragged their own dead into a single pile and lit thornbush fires at regular intervals around it. The fires would keep the teroes at bay for a while.
With their obligations to the dead at least minimally discharged, they seated themselves in a small, close circle. One by one, they removed the feathers from their topknots and took off their chest pieces. They were no longer worthy of these hunters' tokens. N'Garth had brought the spirit bag from Ga-Niru's fallen mount. He took out the painting sticks. With slow, methodical strokes, they painted their bodies. The design was stark and unmistakable: one-half black, one-half white. It was the symbol of the ultimate outcast. It identified them as killers of men. Harkaan and Valda sat very still while the paint dried on their skin. N'Garth had removed the
prayer levers from the spirit bag. As he worked them through the complex sequence, rocking backward and forward where he sat, he recited the pattern of the dirge. The acrid smoke from the fires drifted around them. Finally they stood and, still without a word exchanged, started the long walk back to the village and whatever fate would await them there.
It took them twelve long days of thirst, hunger, guilt, and horror to walk back to the village. By the sixth day, even their grim determination had started to fail. They couldn't shake off the feeling that something was very wrong on the high plains. They were stumbling through the worst drystorm that any of them could remember. They had never seen the land and the sky in such furious conflict. The winds screeched and tormented, tearing and twisting the dust into shapes of tortured demons. Were they the dead demanding burial, even after the prayers and the lighting of the fires? Colored lightning split the sky, and in the brief periods when the wind let up, it was possible to see even more monstrous storms on the horizon. Was the world being consumed by violence? Through the dust, the moons appeared blood-red. More and more, it looked as if the insane Brana-ma leader had been right. There was a madness on the wind.