© Ian Cox
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And Man reached for the stars...
...And took Woman with him.
The great starships ploughed the fire and blackness of
Space in search of habitable worlds. Survey/exterminator
vessels charted suitable planets and cleansed them of
life-forms inimical to Homo sapiens. A "seeder" starship
brought all the genetic material and equipment needed to
produce a core-stock of Earth's flora and fauna: cattle,
carrots, hunting dogs, Peruvian guinea pigs.... Then came
the dregs of humanity and Aunty Mable. Who else would you
send light years away?
Science made its usual mistakes, of course. Scientists
are rational fellows who work well in the laboratory, where
all their extraneous variables are held constant; but when
a harassed, colour-blind technician in the field connects
the red wire to the mauve one everything goes phut.
The planet Halcygen was one of those mistakes. Eighty
per cent of its land mass, comprising one vast continent
and a ripple of islands to east and to west, was cleansed.
But deep in those temperate valleys, those dark caves,
those benighted caverns, those gloomy forests which lurked
beyond the Northern Mountains, the remnants of two alien
species inimical to humanity escaped the cleansing. Both
were super predators at the apex of the Halcygen food
chain. Both were highly intelligent. One lived on flesh,
the other on blood. Mammalian flesh. Mammalian blood.
And the Peruvian guinea pigs escaped from their cages
and ate all the Cos lettuces. Halcygen became the first
Cos-lettuce-less planet in Man's domain.
In the depths of the Galaxy, another super predator,
this one far more technologically advanced than Homo
sapiens, watched the spread of humanity as you or I might
watch the flight of ants from their nest on a summer's day.
At first they viewed Man's exploration of Space with
curiosity. How amusing to see apes playing with starships!
Then, as the trickle of humanity became a plague which
remorselessly infested planets earmarked for future
exploitation, they became disquieted. The time had come to
curb these human infestations.
Man was arrogant and unprepared. Woman, as usual, was
preening herself. What could harm the conquerors of Space?
They came in starships as large as moons: huge, lumpy,
metallic monsters bristling with weapons of unimaginable
power. They had no need to use their full might against us.
They had no wish to exterminate an amusing and inventive
little ape that might be of some future value if it
developed along less violent and more altruistic lines than
those indicated by its current policy of planet cleansing.
So they hit humanity where it hurt least, but did the
most damage: our technology. Their starships orbited each
human world, sensors plotting every artificial source of
energy, from power stations to the smallest battery. They
located every working electrical device - even computer
chips driving artificial heart valves - and vaporized them.
They destroyed centuries of human technology as easily as
an adult might snatch a toy from a child.
Billions died, not because their attackers wished to
kill them, but because they were dependant on technology
for their survival. No human planet was spared. When the
aliens returned home, having scooped up our entire fleet of
starships for their anthropological museums, they left the
cheeky ape to rediscover its savage origins. Tribes of
cannibals hunted amid glass domes and concrete boxes.
Halcygen, having been newly colonized by pioneers ready
to till the soil and tend their crops under a natural sun,
suffered less than the inhabitants of Earth and of the
longer established colony planets. Within a millennium
the humans of Halcygen had developed a thriving network of
medieval communities. The farmers needed to be protected
from thieves, from despoilers of their crops and from
marauding guinea pigs. So weapons were forged and warriors
trained. Successful farmers bought or stole their
neighbours' lands and built castles to protect their
families and their troops. Codes of conduct distinguished
the honest soldier from the armed thug. Knightly chivalry
sanctified the dogs of war.
The farmers became lords, their fingernails cleansed of
soil. Peasants did the farming now. And, as one greedy lord
gobbled up the estate of another, the victors proclaimed
themselves to be kings. Eventually a line of emperors rose
to power, so that peace might be brought to the warring
kingdoms. Thus civilization evolved anew on Halcygen.
Mother Church grew fat on the labour of the peasants.
Mindful that ignorance breeds a devout flock, she collected
and guarded items which had survived the holocaust of Man's
technology - books, diaries, papers, artefacts, drawings,
photographs, plans - and locked them deep inside the vaults
of the Papal Archives. One book dominated society: the
Bible. The Third Testament reviled that evil combination of
humanism, science and godlessness which had incurred the
wrath of the Almighty and had brought the Second Cataclysm
upon mankind, not to mention Peruvian guinea pigs. Those
who committed heresy were consigned to the flames.
North-west of Holy Empire lived the Krorn: a nomadic,
brown-skinned race of hunter-gatherers who followed the
great herds of indigenous herbivores across the grasslands.
The warriors hunted on zebra-striped horses; their women
gathered herbs, roots and berries. The Krorn knew nothing
of kings and emperors, of Mother Church and hellfire. They
revered the spirits of their warrior ancestors, who glided
as eagles in the sky, proud and free. Missionaries who
attempted to bring God, guilt and serfdom to the Krorn were
martyred for their presumption. Krorns who fell into
civilized hands died in the firelit hell of that bulwark of
medieval Christendom: the torture chamber.
Hidden behind the towering, saw-toothed crags of the
southernmost range of the Northern Mountains, an alien
civilization developed in parallel to Man's. Those two
species of super predators which had dominated their planet
until the cleansing starships arrived recovered as their
invader had recovered. And they remembered.
They remembered their former dominance. They remembered
their cleansing. And they remembered Man.
The land they ruled was vast; but inhospitable mountains
reaching to the northern icecap formed the bulk of their
domain. The valleys and caves, forests, streams and lakes
could not support enough mammalian life to feed a
burgeoning population of super predators. Both species -
that which fed on blood and that which fed on flesh -
raised livestock to satisfy their hunger, but they needed
more. And to their south lived prey: an alien mammal they
hated with the implacable hatred of the dispossessed.
All they needed was a strong leader to unite them in
their long-awaited conquest and subjugation of the squishy
mammalian invader. In the year 995 P.C. (Post Catastrophe)
the prophecy of the ancients came to pass. A royal female
of the viviparous blood-drinkers gave birth to a male
infant with prematurely developed fangs. As his head
emerged from the purple slime of his mother's vent and
dangled between her scaly thighs, the midwife lashed her
tail with joy. Then his mouth hissed open to reveal the
truth of the ancients' prophecy! The midwife's roars
brought the household rushing to the royal bedchamber with
a tumultuous clatter of scaly bodies and hooked claws.
The Messiah had arrived.
His golden eyes opened to a world of adulation. When the
trembling midwife licked His body clean of blood and mucus,
He attempted to bite her. The watching reptiles marvelled
at His aggression. Their heavy tails thumped approval on
the stone floor. When the midwife licked His gonopodium, it
stiffened and flexed as though mature, and the household
hissed its admiration of His budding virility.
During the hours immediately following His birth, five
dead siblings descended from the mother's vent. All had
been sucked dry of blood. The neonate Messiah was plump
and well nourished. As each shrivelled corpse dropped to
the stone floor, the household writhed in awe and wonder,
verdant tails swishing and thumping a tumult of praise for
this killer of siblings.
The priests proclaimed His glory in the halls and
caverns of His species. Five dead to the newborn king! Hail
the killer in the womb! Hail the predator of predators!
The second indigenous species of super predators welcomed
the news that the Messiah had been born to their scaly,
genetically unrelated partners in the harvesting of prey,
formerly the larger herbivores of Halcygen. Stealth, superb
camouflage and the ability to mimic the shape of any animal
of comparable mass they had consumed took the place of the
swiftness and ferocity of their reptilian co-predators.
They knew that the Messiah would mature within two
decades and that He would lead His burgeoning hordes in a
bloody war of predation against the mammalian invader. So
they began to glide southward, wending their way through
the mountain passes during high summer, year after year,
leaving the skeletons of their prey and trails of gleaming
slime behind them. Their larval progeny - born the size and
shape of the bird-eating spiders of Earth - scuttled in
pursuit, devouring their mothers' protein-rich slime trails
as they headed into the promised land, where mammalian prey
in abundance awaited them.
And the Messiah grew to maturity: powerful, ferocious,
implacable. He mated with those who pleased Him and drank
the blood of those who did not. Surrounded by a wealth of
kin, feared and idolized by all who served Him, He became
the undisputed monarch of his species, ready to fulfil the
prophecy of the ancients in every detail.
He would reclaim humanity's domain. Reptilian fang and
claw would rule Halcygen once more. Hail the Messiah!
Chapter 1: Dawn Raid
The naked boy heaved himself out of the dark whooshing
river and clambered up a rock-strewn hillside into that
shaft of dazzling sunrise which lit the summit. His firm
muscles made him look older than twelve. Silver rivulets
flowed down his chestnut hair, his sun-tanned face and pale
body; drips sparkled diamond-bright in the clear air.
Towering above him, the snow-teats of the Northern
Mountains blazed in sunshine. Below him, the northernmost
valley of Man slept in the lingering shadow of night.
Duval flapped his arms, bounced up and down and turned
cartwheels on the grass, partly to shed cold water from his
tingling skin, partly to warm himself, but mostly to enjoy
the sensuality of frolicking in the nude!
Breathing deeply, he sat on a smooth boulder warmed by
the sun and waited for the remaining moisture to evaporate.
A wisp of smoke climbed into the sunshine, from his
father's smithy below him. The split-log roofs of house and
smithy showed as dull slabs against the darkness of the
valley. A burning torch flickered in the smithy: Gavvy, his
oldest brother, coaxing the charcoal of the forge into
life. Beyond the smithy, lower down the valley, candlelight
glimmered at a window in the village of Highwater.
Duval enjoyed sitting naked on his favourite boulder
after his early-morning swim, relaxing while the sun grew
into a fireball and sunshine crept down the western edge of
the valley, while birds twittered and the community below
him blearily emptied its chamber-pots out of unglazed
windows and shambled into the chores of another day.
Escaping his family and his carping mother added to Duval's
sense of well-being. If only the freedom and bright cheer
of early summer would last forever....
A cock crowed in the distance. Its raucous call echoed
across the valley, a familiar countryside sound from a
planet the boy would never see and never know: Earth.
Movement in his peripheral vision alerted him to
possible danger. He turned his head to discover a tall,
robed figure standing nearby, face hidden in the shadow of
a cowl. The man held a quarterstaff in his right fist.
The shock of a sudden, unknown presence breaking his
peace and solitude sent a ripple of fear over Duval's naked
skin. He twitched with alarm and fell off his boulder. What
might have been a painful tumble became a surprisingly
gentle descent. He floated down to land on soft grass,
staring wide-eyed at that outstretched hand which pointed
at him over the boulder. The hand retracted and the man's
cowled head took its place. "Don't be afraid, lad," said a
deep, cultured voice. "I mean you no harm."
Duval regained his bare feet faster than his dignity.
His ears flamed with embarrassment. His frisky young member
drooped. "You made me jump, sir!"
"Not intentionally," rumbled the deep voice, which
sounded familiar to Duval's scarlet ears. "My apologies,
lad. Please resume your seat."
Duval hesitated, not wanting to enter the man's reach.
As though reading the boy's mind, the cowled figure stepped
away and sat down on a neighbouring boulder. He drew back
his cowl to reveal a mane of dazzling snowy hair, grey eyes
and a white-bearded face Duval recognized.
"I know you, sir! You're...er...Master...Shelraw."
"Indubitably," smiled the ancient. "Well done, Duval."
"You remember me, sir!"
"Why not? You remember me. You think me in my dotage?"
"What's that, sir?"
"When one's mind becomes fuddled by age."
"Oh no, sir," came the swift reply. A polite boy doesn't
accuse social superiors of being in their dotage, even when
their snowy beards brush the tops of their sandalled toes.
Duval pulled a ticklish blade of grass from between his
buttocks and hopped on to his boulder to sit in the dawn
sunshine. A polite boy doesn't stand dripping and gawking
in the nude. Sitting primly in the nude is another matter.
"How is your vegetable patch, Duval?"
"You remembered, sir!"
"I thought we had agreed I'm not in my dotage."
"Whoops! Sorry, sir. I didn't mean...er...it's just
you've only visited Da twice an' grown-ups don't take much
notice of kids, do they?"
"Er...I don't know, sir. I s'pose we aren't important."
"Is the future important?"
"Children are the future, Duval. Adults should pay more
attention to them. Have you considered my question?"
"What...ah...yes, sir. I've got carrots, radishes an'
spring lettuces. We've been eating 'em for yonks. I've got
all the summer stuff sowed. My spuds are shooting up a
treat. I was lifting 'em last time you came, wasn't I?"
"Yes. Any pests this year?"
"Only my family, sir," grinned Duval. "Same as always."
Shelraw chuckled into his snowy beard. Duval noticed
something that had puzzled him before about this man: the
supposedly old face framed by white hair had no wrinkles.
Duval decided to ask. The deep voice forestalled him.
"You swim well, Duval."
"Thank you, sir." The boy smiled proudly. "Oh!" he added
in surprise. "You saw me swimming!"
"Yes, as much as I could in the gloom. This river flows
swiftly. I feared for your life. I have no doubt a weak
swimmer would have been swept away."
"You need to swim upriver to stay in the same place,
sir. Oh! Did you see me playing the fool just now?"
Shelraw smiled. His grey eyes held the boy's stare. "I
saw some excellent cartwheels and other acrobatics I
couldn't hope to emulate. Nothing to be ashamed of, lad."
"Ma says doing cartwheels an' stuff is daft."
"For an adult it would be; but not for a boy. You need
to test your body to find out what you can do with it.
Muscle coordination requires practice. How old are you?"
"You're a fit, muscular lad for your age. I assume your
swimming in these swift waters has played its part."
Duval noted that the grey eyes watched his face, not his
body. Although direct, Shelraw's gaze made no attempt to
stare the boy down. It roamed Duval's countenance in a
friendly, appraising manner that allowed his naked body its
privacy and made him feel secure. Duval liked and trusted
this fresh-faced ancient.
"Da's big, sir. So's Gavvy an' Ben. Course, you know
that. You've met 'em. Da says it runs in the family."
"No doubt your father is correct. Do you remember the
purpose of my previous visits to your father's smithy?"
"You asked us all if we'd seen any strange trails: big,
shiny trails like from a whopping great slug."
"Correct. On both occasions the answer was No. Has
anybody seen this type of trail since last autumn?"
"What of the villagers?"
"I'm sure we'd get told if one was seen, sir, specially
as you've got ev'ryone keeping an eye out for 'em."
"You think my reward of a gold coin tempts them?"
"Not half! It's a fortune! What makes 'em worth it?"
"A rare question. People are frightened of showing their
ignorance. The more obvious the question, the less likely
they are to ask it. You have an inquiring mind, lad."
The boy puffed out his chest with pride. Compliments
from this snow-bearded ancient came in a measured, positive
way that suggested wisdom and sincerity. He found himself
valuing the man's praise and wanting more of it. Then he
realized his question had been evaded!
"You didn't answer me, sir," he complained with some
indignation, suspecting a trick might have been played on
him. Grown-ups had a tendency to be sneaky like that.
The white beard fluffed out in a grin. "True. Your
curiosity is not deflected by flattery. Excellent."
Cock-crow ripped through the more melodic songsters of
the dawn chorus and probably caused some of them to wince
on their perches. Shelraw appeared to listen to it.
"Will you tell me, sir?" demanded Duval. A boy needs his
questions answered and no messing. "Please."
"A determined lad," chuckled Shelraw. "Good." He pursed
his lips. "Forgive my silence. I was wondering how much to
disclose. I don't want to frighten you; but I feel obliged
to warn you of a danger you might encounter. The trails of
slime are made by an unusual predator..."
"An animal that kills other animals for meat."
"Like us? I mean, we kill for meat, don't we, sir?"
"Yes, but we also eat fruit, grain and vegetables. That
makes us omnivores. True predators restrict their diet to
flesh, although they may ingest some vegetable matter by
eating the stomachs of their prey."
Shelraw ignored the yuk. "Predators don't usually hunt
humans. This one does. If you spot its trail, don't follow
it. Tell your father immediately. I warned him to alert the
men of the village and to form a hunting party."
"What's this animal look like, sir?"
"I don't know. I believe it can change its appearance.
It might assume the form of a rock, a bear, a man..."
"A man!" gasped Duval, horrified.
"Yes. Or a woman. This is the reason it must be hunted
by groups of men who know one another."
Shelraw straightened his posture. His movement broke the
spell created by his words. "Don't look so worried, lad. My
gold coin is unclaimed. Can you read and write?"
"Yessir. A bit. Da taught me. Monks taught him as a boy.
He can write lists of what he needs. He's got a book."
Shelraw's white eyebrows arched in surprise. "A book?"
"What is this book about?"
"Ailments of horses, sir. Da gets to shoe lots, an' it
helps him know what might ail 'em. Horses are always
throwing shoes an' going lame an' stuff. Da says it's good
for a man to have more than one string to his bow."
"A wise philosophy, Duval. Does your mother read?"
"No, sir. Ma says she don't need to read to know how to
have babies, raise kids, cook meals an' stuff. But she can
sign her name. Da taught her."
"How many siblings have you, Duval?"
"What's a sibling, sir?"
"A brother or sister irrespective of gender."
The boy didn't fully understand this reply, but he
caught the gist of it. "Six, sir."
"Do you want to be a blacksmith, like your father?"
Duval shrugged his bare shoulders. "It's okay, sir, hard
work, but it's a good craft. Da's taught me lots already.
There's not much else, is there? It's better than being a
serf, an' Da don't reckon much on monks, an' you've gotta
be real posh to be a knight, an' I don't fancy being a
man-at-arms. Who wants to kill folks for a living?"
"Indeed! What about becoming...mm...a healer?"
"Sticking leeches all over folks? Yuk!"
"I mean a real healer, not a doctor."
"I'd like to help folks. Is that what you are, sir?"
"It is one of my skills. Are you dry yet?"
Duval had forgotten his nudity. Suddenly embarrassed, he
hopped off his boulder and approached the rock on which his
doublet and hose lay warming in the sun. He was surprised
to notice how far the sunshine had crept down the hill.
"I will visit you again, Duval. Soon."
The boy swivelled toward the deep voice. Like a faint
after-image on his retina, he glimpsed a mane of snowy hair
and a pair of piercing grey eyes shimmering in the air;
then he blinked and the image vanished. "Wait!" he cried,
glancing round. "Don't go!"
Duval leapt upon his favourite boulder to get a better
view. He looked in all directions. Gone!
He felt a deep sense of loss.
Five hundred miles to the south-west and a thousand feet
lower than the smithy of Duval's father, dawn crept over
the rolling hilltops of the plains. A robed, cowled figure
stood against the trunk of a solitary tree. His grey robe
blended with the trunk. He watched the shadowy tents and
horses of a Krorn encampment in the vale below his vantage
point, then scanned the surrounding hills. Sunlight
flashed from metal on a hilltop east of the camp.
Ah! Coming out of the sun: a sound military tactic.
He moved round the trunk to obtain a better view, then
leaned against the rough bark. He planted his quarterstaff
at his side and tucked his snowy beard inside his robe.
Prince Michael led the double column of lancers to a
point below their prone lookout on the crest of the hill.
His cousin Norda and his bodyguard flanked him. These three
men wore sallets, the shadowy T-openings of which revealed
their eyes, noses and mouths. The lancers wore basinets with
dangling chain-mail neck-guards. A sergeant-at-arms in
gleaming sallet rode immediately behind the trio, followed
by two standard-bearers. He and Norda Crennar and the left
column wore green surcoats emblazoned with the golden
dragon of the Crennars. The twenty men who formed the right
column were all members of the Royal Guard, clad in scarlet
surcoats emblazoned with the royal golden eagle. Prince
Michael and the Guardian wore the same. Shields and
chain-mail hauberks and leggings protected every man.
Michael reined in his warhorse when his elongated shadow
had climbed the hillside to the feet of the prone Crennar
lookout, who glanced over his shoulder, saw the waiting
knights, and wriggled backward through the long, dry,
prairie grass. Below the crest of the hill, he rose to a
crouch and ran along the combined shadow of prince and
warhorse. He halted, straightened his body and saluted.
"Report," snapped Norda, who commanded the patrol.
"The camp's mostly asleep, Commander. Just a crone
lightin' a fire an' a few kids squattin' in the dirt,
gawpin' at 'er. There's some dogs sniffin' round."
A curl of smoke rose above the hilltop.
"It appears the crone has succeeded in her endeavour,"
observed Prince Michael. "How many horses do they have?"
"A score or so by the tents, me lord. More by a pond."
"Return to your post and count them."
"Yes, me lord."
The lookout saluted, turned away and ascended the hill
at a crouching run.
"Was that necessary, Cousin?" inquired Norda. "What does
it matter whether the Krorn scum have one score horses or
two. We have the advantage of numbers and surprise."
"Eager for blood, Norda?" commented Michael.
"Eager to exterminate the filthy bastards. Why wait?"
"As much accurate intelligence as possible should be
obtained before committing soldiers to battle."
"In what military codex did you find that gem, Cousin?"
sneered Norda. "I've been leading border patrols for years.
This is the first time dear Uncle Anselm has allowed his
cherished prince to tag along."
The cold stare of Michael's blue eyes would have warned
a man less arrogant than Norda that he had exceeded the
privileges of his rank. Although only eighteen years old,
Prince Michael already had the authority of a leader. His
patience with Norda had been wearing thin during their ten
days of uneasy comradeship at the head of this patrol.
"What say you on the subject of strategic reports,
Guardian?" he asked his bodyguard, a trusted veteran of
forty-three years who had guarded him since birth.
"It was a sloppy report, my lord. The number of horses
by the tents tells us the number of warriors inside. The
man now knows you demand detail. He will tell his comrades.
This will be good for discipline and for morale."
"Thank you, Guardian."
"You're welcome, my lord."
Behind them, the Crennar sergeant-at-arms gave up trying
to keep a straight face. A grin split his dark beard. The
Guardian had pricked Commander Norda's arrogance with the
skill of a diplomat. Living in the royal household for
eighteen years had clearly taught him more than military
skills. The sergeant-at-arms respected the Guardian's
toughness and self-discipline. Now he began to appreciate
the man's intelligence and subtlety as well.
The lookout returned, saluted and waited.
"Report," snarled Norda.
"Twen'y-six 'orses, Commander, 'obbled outside fifteen
tents in a circle. Fir'y-free 'orses at the pond below
camp. Five kids playin' round the fire in the cen're. Two
wenches cookin' food at the fire. No warriors in sight. No
sentries; but there's the dogs...er...seven of 'em."
"Did you count their fleas?" sneered Norda.
Prince Michael ignored Norda. "A good report. You paint
a picture I can see in my mind's eye. What is your name?"
"Jordun, me lord."
Michael turned toward the sergeant-at-arms, whose face
had resumed its usual stern expression. "Sergeant-at-arms,
I commend your man Jordun on the clarity of his report."
A brisk salute. "Thank you, me lord."
Michael returned his gaze to the lookout. "How far has
the sun entered the camp, Jordun?"
"It's lit the top fird-a the tents, me lord."
"Thank you, Jordun. Get mounted and tell your comrades
with torches to light them."
"Yes, me lord."
Michael glanced toward his cousin as the lookout
departed. "Norda?" he prompted the slightly older man.
"I thought you had assumed command, Cousin."
"No. I am not here to supplant you, but to gain
experience. You have led these men for some years. The
glory of leading them into battle is yours."
Norda performed a mock bow from the waist. His hauberk
clinked as he lowered his head and swept out an arm. "My
felicitations, Cousin," he replied sarcastically.
Michael gritted his teeth. A horse urinated noisily.
Norda straightened in his saddle. Torches flared. His
sword hissed from its scabbard. "Sergeant-at-arms..."
"We charge the camp, set fire to the tents and kill
every fucking Krorn. Follow my lead."
"Wait!" snapped Michael. "We do not make war on
children, Norda. Is this clear to you?"
Norda's eyes glared from the T-opening of his sallet.
"What damn scroll gave you that altruistic nonsense,
Cousin? This is no game. That's a Krorn camp down there.
Krorns give no quarter. They torture prisoners to death.
You saw what they did to those villagers..."
"We do not make war on children, Norda. That is my
direct order to you. Obey it or answer to the King."
Norda took a deep breath. "Sergeant-at-arms," he hissed.
"We spare the Krorn brats. Got that?"
"Then let's go before the entire fucking camp is awake
and spies the smoke from our torches. Now!"
Without giving the sergeant-at-arms time to relay his
orders, Norda spurred his warhorse up the sunlit hillside.
"Lances ho!" bellowed the sergeant-at-arms at the
double column behind him. He yanked his sword from its
scabbard. "Fire the tents. Spare the kids. Charge!"
He spurred his mount in pursuit of Prince Michael and
the Guardian. A golden eagle in a scarlet sky flew past
him: the royal standard. Guardsmen with raised lances
galloped in pursuit. They followed their duty and their
prince, not a Crennar sergeant-at-arms.
Michael and the Guardian crested the hill, tasting
Norda's trail of dust. In the vale, dogs stiff-legged with
aggression barked a warning. Norda swept into the circle of
tents and decapitated the crone at the cooking-fire with a
single cut and a fountain of blood. Her severed head
splashed into the cooking-pot. Norda chased a younger woman
who attempted to flee. Her scream of terror roused the camp
more urgently than the barking dogs. Norda hacked at her
spine with his sword, a hasty stroke that sliced her dress
to expose a ribbon of blood. As his warhorse overtook the
woman, he brought his blade down on her shoulder, smashing
through her collar-bone and the upper half of her ribcage.
She fell to the ground. Norda turned his mount and
deliberately crushed a toddler beneath iron-shod hooves.
Michael and the Guardian thundered into the encampment
as men spilled from the tents: naked, brown-skinned Krorn
warriors brandishing spears, bows or knives. Michael severed
the arm of a spear-wielding defender and trampled a warrior
who had fired an arrow at him. The Guardian rode at
Michael's side, eagle-emblazoned shield raised as much to
protect his prince as himself. He clove a warrior's skull
with a blow from his saw-toothed large bastard. It made a
rasping sound as it cut the bone.
Michael slowed his warhorse in the centre of camp,
intending to assess resistance, but the Guardian whacked
the flat of his sword across the beast's rump. The warhorse
leapt forward. "Ride on, my lord," bellowed the Guardian
over the thunder of hooves, the whistle of arrows, the
clash of weapons and the screams. "You're a target here."
Michael brought his warhorse under control outside the
circle of tents and turned the beast to confront two royal
guardsmen, one of whom bore the royal standard.
"Forgive me, my lord," growled the Guardian.
"No need to apologize, Guardian. You did your duty. I
put our lives at risk. May we return to the fray without
your punishing my steed for its rider's foolhardiness?"
"Yes, my lord."
Smoke and flames rose from the tents. An outer circle of
terrified Krorn horses struggled against their hobbles. One
of the striped beasts fell with an explosion of dust. In
the ring of fire, Crennar cavalrymen and royal guardsmen
lanced the defenders. Krorn youths and boys fought as
valiantly as their fathers, but their slim, naked bodies
were swiftly transfixed. Screaming women grabbed their
fallen sons' weapons. Lances sprouted from their backs.
A naked boy dodged away from one galloping horse to
fall beneath the iron-shod hooves of another. His crumpled
body rolled in the dust, ribcage crushed to a bloody pulp,
broken limbs flopping at strange angles. A raven-haired
little girl in a blue-beaded dress stood in paralysed shock
as a young woman trying to shelter her was dragged against
a Crennar horse and shoved into a blazing tent. Michael
brought his mount to a halt beside the little girl. Her
dark eyes, wide with terror, rolled up to meet the
T-opening of his sallet. The woman who had tried to protect
her ran shrieking from the burning tent, her hair ablaze.
The Crennar soldier spun his mount toward her, obviously
intent on returning his victim to the flames.
"Kill her cleanly, man!" yelled Michael.
Obediently the soldier swept his sword across the
woman's neck in a killing stroke. Her severed head
described a flaming arc. Her body collapsed beneath her
dress. The pungent stench of burning hair filled Michael's
nostrils. The paralysed child stared up at him.
Michael sheathed his sword, clutched his saddle with his
shield-hand and bent low to grasp the front of the little
girl's dress in his mailed fist. The beaded doeskin bunched
under her armpits as he lifted her, exposing her chocolate
nudity. He straightened in the saddle, holding the child at
arm's length. She dangled limply, her black eyes staring
into his sallet, her pretty face frozen in terror. She
emptied her bladder. A stream of urine fell between her
bare legs, unimpeded by any underclothes. Michael waited
until she had finished; then, hoping nothing worse would
be expelled from her body, seated her on his mount's
withers. He smoothed her dress to hide her nudity and
enclosed her in the armoured embrace of his shield-arm.
He surveyed the carnage, turning his mount on the spot.
The shrill screams of a naked young boy, standing between
burning tents, drew his attention. "Sergeant-at-arms!" he
yelled, raising his free hand to point in the direction of
the terrified boy. "Protect that child."
A bellowed "Yessir" issued from a haze of smoke. The
Crennar sergeant-at-arms rode to the boy, dismounted and
swept him into chain-mailed arms. A girl rushed at him,
knife in hand. A royal guardsman rode to intercept her,
swinging the point of his lance toward her slender torso.
She nimbly dodged his thrust, then backed away, crouching,
her knife brandished at arm's length in futile threat
against his blood-stained lance. Calmly he turned his mount
toward her and aimed his lance.
Michael urged his warhorse toward girl and rider.
"Guardsman, hold! She is a child, flat-chested as a boy."
"Yes, my lord."
Still crouching, the girl glared up at Michael. He found
himself staring down at a face of remarkably savage beauty
framed by a mane of hair so glossy it reflected the flames
of the burning tents. Her bared teeth gleamed as white as
snow against her brown skin. Her dark eyes glanced at the
child peeping over the rim of his eagle-emblazoned shield.
"Drop the knife, girl. You won't be harmed."
"Say who, dog-turd white?" she snarled, brandishing her
knife in Michael's direction.
"Says the Prince of this realm," growled the Guardian.
"A man of honour. Accept my lord's protection and you need
fear no man. Reject it and you die."
The girl rose from her fighting crouch. She stood taller
than Michael had expected. As her beaded doeskin dress fell
back against her body, the unmistakable thrust of two
small, firm breasts met Michael's gaze. With an effort he
tore his gaze from the delightful evidence of his error and
met the adolescent's angry stare. Her savage expression
faded as she considered the Guardian's ultimatum. Bitter
resignation claimed a face of indescribable beauty.
The spell cast on an eighteen-year-old whose code of
conduct hadn't allowed him to so much as pat the rump of a
serving wench was powerful. Michael felt paralysed by this
adolescent's glowering beauty, as the child in his arms had
been paralysed by fear. That he should gaze upon such
loveliness amidst the smoking ruins of her village and the
corpses of her family and friends! He knew he would never
forget this face, this look, this moment.
The girl broke the spell by flipping her knife to catch
its blade between her fingers. She raised the handle toward
Michael. Her eyes filled with tears. Sunshine had entered
the vale. It lit the silver trails running down her cheeks.
"I think your warrior lie, Warlord," she declared in a
tremulous voice. "Dog-turd whites not have honour."
Michael found himself admiring her defiant surrender
more than he had respected her futile attempt to fight. He
realized she tested, not trusted, the Guardian's assertion
of princely honour. She tested both of them with her young
life and her budding womanhood.
Michael took the proffered knife, examined its deer-horn
handle, then flipped it as she had done and caught the
blade. This isn't the easiest of tricks in chain-mail
mittens. Feeling rather pleased with himself for having
avoided a princely fumble, he offered her the handle.
"Please keep this knife as assurance of your protection,
my lady. Use it against any man who threatens you."
The girl stared up at him in amazement. She had expected
rape, not courtesy. She wiped a hand across her beautiful
face, leaving a smear of soot across her dusky skin; then
she grasped the knife in her other hand. Her arms dropped
to her sides. She frowned her puzzlement at Michael.
"Keep close, my lady," he advised her. "You are safe
beside my steed, until we find a horse for you."
"Humph!" exclaimed the little girl scowling over
Michael's shield. It sounded like an approving humph.
Michael turned to survey the scene of battle. The tents
had collapsed into smouldering ashes to reveal the
surrounding hills. Charred sticks and bloody corpses formed
the circle now, with an outer ring of hobbled Krorn horses,
some of which had fallen and were struggling to rise. Soot
flecked their stripes of cream and dun. Cavalrymen drifted
toward the centre of the ruined camp, anticipating the call
to regroup. None of them appeared to be wounded. Two of the
royal guardsmen carried young children in their arms,
Michael noted. Five saved. How many children had died
unnecessarily, by accident or brutality?
A hungry Crennar soldier prodded the contents of the
cooking-pot with his lance. He impaled the crone's severed
head and raised it dripping and glistening in the dawn
sunshine. "Anyone fancy Krorn stew?"
Michael observed Norda on foot - knife in hand, going
from body to body - and assumed his cousin was killing
wounded Krorns. Then he saw Norda approach a warrior whose
stomach had been gashed open and whose entrails had slid
into a steaming pool beside him. The warrior still lived,
but was enfeebled by his grave wound. Norda kicked the
warrior's legs open and bent down. He cut the genitals from
the dying warrior. The man screamed.
Michael felt sick. He turned his horse toward the
Guardian, belatedly shielding the little girl in the crook
of his arm from the horror of Norda's actions.
"I think I shall disgrace myself in front of the men,
Guardian. Have you seen what Norda is doing?"
"Yes, my lord. I suggest you remove your helmet and coif
and take a sip of water."
The Guardian unstoppered his canteen and dampened a
cloth while Michael removed mittens, sallet and padded
skull-protector. A cool breeze ruffled his corn-gold hair.
He felt his head begin to clear, his stomach to settle. The
child perched on his mount's withers leaned backward over
his high saddle to scowl up at him. The adolescent beside
his warhorse gawked. As her exotic dark-skinned beauty had
fascinated him, so his pale, handsome, youthful visage
fascinated her. She had imagined an older man behind the
sallet. This golden-haired young warlord appeared as boyish
to her as she had seemed child-like to him.
The Guardian handed his canteen and a dampened cloth to
Michael. "Just a sip, my lord, then wipe your face."
Michael followed this advice. His fear of vomiting or
fainting in front of the Royal Guard began to subside.
"Breathe deep, my lord, breathe slow. Take your time."
The Prince did as he was told. He became aware of
background sounds: soldiers chatting with their comrades,
horses snorting, children sobbing, dogs growling and the
Crennar sergeant-at-arms giving orders. He wiped his face
again and took another sip of water. He felt recovered.
The adolescent beside his horse belatedly inquired,
"Warlord, if you ill, you want I take Pulapree?"
"Pulapree?" wondered Michael, looking down.
"The little one you hold. She hurt if you fall."
"Thank you, my lady. I am well. Pulapree is safe."
He half turned the little girl toward him and wiped her
face with the damp cloth. He held the canteen to her lips.
She drank from it, her unblinking gaze fixed on his blue
eyes, a rivulet of water running down her chin. When she
had finished, Michael offered cloth and canteen to the
adolescent. She took a sip, then wiped her face.
"I thank you, Warlord."
Michael returned canteen and cloth to his bodyguard. "My
humble thanks, Guardian. As always you are a fount of sound
advice far exceeding your duties as my personal guard."
"I am honoured to serve the future king, my lord. And I
am proud to have ridden beside you during your first
battle. You acquitted yourself very well."
"Heroically, you think?" inquired Michael with a smile.
"No, my lord. I wouldn't go that far."
"I thought not."
That strip of grey-flecked beard which showed in the
T-opening of the Guardian's sallet twitched with amusement.
He knew that Michael regarded him as his sternest critic.
The Guardian had firm ideas about the sort of prince he
wanted to associate with and had spent the last eighteen
years bringing Michael up to scratch. He took great pride
in his contribution to the development of character in this
intelligent and honourable young man.
"Three mistakes too many," added Michael.
"I counted only two, my lord."
"Which do you count as the second, Guardian: my
mistaking a young wench for a child or feeling sick?"
"Neither, my lord. You avoided being sick and the girl's
breasts are too small for a manly squeeze."
"Steady on, Guardian!" commented Michael primly. He
found himself appraising the feminine protuberances in
question. Flushing with embarrassment, he lifted his gaze.
The adolescent glared up at him, a pugnacious set to her
jaw. He felt a chivalrous urge to defend the maligned
mammaries, but wisely decided to resist it.
The sergeant-at-arms handed the sobbing boy he had
rescued to a Crennar lancer and rode toward Michael. He
halted his mount in front of the Prince, saluted, then
waited for permission to make his report. Michael glanced
round in search of Norda and saw his knife at work
emasculating another corpse. The sergeant-at-arms followed
Michael's gaze. His bearded face remained impassive.
Michael made no attempt to hide his disgust. "Is the
collection of such repellent trophies common practice?"
"No, me lord. A few men sometimes foller Commander
Norda's example, but I don't 'old wiv it."
"Why does he commit this atrocity?"
The sergeant-at-arms hesitated, glancing at the Guardian
for support. He knew he could be on dangerous ground if he
appeared to be disloyal to his commander, who was of royal
blood, tenth in line to the throne. The Guardian remained
silent and impassive. The sergeant-at-arms gulped.
"Commander Norda gives the bollocks ter Lord Crennar ter
prove 'is vict'ry in battle, me lord."
"Is there no trust between father and son?"
The Guardian now chose to intervene, much to the
sergeant-at-arms' relief. "It is said Lord Crennar thought
his first-born son needed to be toughened to become a
strong leader. He often took the boy to his dungeons and
bade him torture prisoners. So it is said, my lord."
Michael understood the Guardian's reason for speaking
on behalf of the Crennar sergeant-at-arms. "Norda used to
brag of his prowess with the instruments of torture, but
he kept this unseemly trophy-hunting a secret from me. I
perceive the link, Guardian. Norda is his father's son."
"Indeed he is, my lord."
"Sergeant-at-arms, it wasn't our intention to question
your loyalty to your commander."
"Thanks, me lord."
"As Norda is busy proving his worth to Lord Crennar, I
shall accept your report in his absence."
"Thanks, me lord. We've got no wounded. We killed
twen'y-five warriors, twen'y-nine women an' two score kids.
Sorry, me lord. I gave yer order ter the men."
Michael nodded. "I heard you."
"Some got trampled be accident, but that ain't the arf
of it. Even young girls fought us. We..."
"Death better than capture by dog-turd whites," snarled
the adolescent beauty beside Michael's warhorse.
"Pulapree has no complaint," retorted Michael. Hearing
her name, the little girl swivelled round to give him a
pugnacious scowl. He ignored it. "Perhaps you will revise
your opinion, my lady. Continue, sergeant-at-arms."
"We saved five kids, me lord, none 'urt. I reckon some
got away; Krorns breed like rabbits. Two of our 'orses got
wounded, one bad. I've ordered it butchered fer meat. We've
got twen'y-six warriors' 'orses, two wiv busted legs, so
I've 'ad their froats cut. The nags down by the pond..."
A cry of anguish interrupted the sergeant-at-arms.
"Warlord, he cut my brother!"
Michael turned his head in time to witness Norda cut off
the immature genitals of the boy he had seen ridden down
and crushed. The raven-haired adolescent ran toward Norda,
the blade of her knife flashing in the sunshine.
"Your second mistake, my lord," growled the Guardian.