Swords of the Horseclans by Adams Robert
Swords of the Horseclans by Adams Robert
Briskly, the column of horsemen trotted onto the long, ancient bridge, steel-shod hooves ringing on the worn stones. Behind them, an oncoming dustcloud heralded the advance of their army; before them, across the width of the river, the empty road wound into the dark density of a forest, beyond which rose the mountains that sheltered their foe, King Zenos of Karaleenos.
Leading the column, astride a tall black stallion of the Middle Kingdoms’ breed, was a flashily attired man of uncertain age but of obvious Ehleenoee antecedents. His three-quarter armor was plated with gold, silver, and burnished copper, and his lobsterback helmet bore a nodding crest of bright red plumes. The small buckler on his left arm was also gold-plated and bore the Three Rivers sign of his house executed in turquoise. Over his left hip jutted the hilt of his sword—solid gold, pommel and quillons set with rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.
Some few of the men who followed were garbed in a similar manner, but most were not. Only the courtier-officers aped the impractical equipage of Demetrios, Undying High-Lord of Kehnooryos Ehlahs. For the real soldiers, who constituted the bulk of the column, it was Pitzburk-plate iron-rimmed bullhide bucklers and steel-and-leather sword hilts wound with brass wire to give a better grip.
The courtiers rode on; silently, behind their perpetually smiling faces, they cursed the dust and the heat, the sweat and discomfort and thirst. But the true soldiers were troubled by other matters. They squirmed uneasily in their sweat-slicked saddles and exchanged worried glances. Those who might have communicated with their fellows by mindspeak kept their mindshields rigidly in place, for Demetrios, too, possessed mindspeak; further, he owned the power of life and death over every officer and man in the army and his temper was notoriously capricious.
Captain Herbuht Mai, commander of a thousand lancers contracted to the service of Kehnooryos Ehlahs, dropped his reins onto his big gelding’s neck and commenced to tighten the points securing his helmet.
He hasn’t changed, he thought. He’s the same arrogant, overconfident ass that he was forty years ago when grandpa served him! By my steel, he has campaigned with Lord Milo, he should know better. Irregulars should, this very minute, be harrying, nibbling at young Zenos’ army, reporting back to us of its strength … and its weaknesses. But that pompous popinjay up there doesn’t even send out flank riders or point riders, and here we are marching through hostile country.
Guhsz Helluh, a stocky, fortyish, graying man, had lifted his heavy target from its carrying hooks and was tightening the armstraps, even while his blue-green eyes attempted to peel back the tangle of forest ahead, that he might see what lay under those trees. Though his thin lips fluttered, his words were as silent as had been Mai’s, for if the High-Lord took it into his head to have him executed, all of his twelve hundred Kweebai pikemen would not be enough to save him.
Damn fool, he thought. Good fighter—oh, that I admit, in personal combat. But as a strategist or tactician, he can’t find his hairy arse with both hands! Three— count ’em—no less than three ambuscades in the last week, and that Undying imbecile still keeps sacrificing security for speed, hurrying good lads to their death for no good reason. He may be immune to steel, but by the Sacred Sword, the rest of us aren’t! And that copulating forest could hide anything—a thousand archers or five hundred lancers, even a battery or two of catapults or spearthrowers, and we’d never see them until they were ready.
But both men were wrong in their estimates of the High-Lord. Demetrios rode fully aware of the chances he was taking … and he was completely cognizant of the terrible cost should his judgment prove faulty.
Ever since that day, nearly two-score years ago, when he had fought his first single combat with old Aleksan-dros, goaded the aged strahteegos into giving him the death thrust that unexpectedly proved him to be immortal, then joined forces with Lord Milo and his tribe of barbarians, had he been afforded the treatment of a retarded child. True, he admitted to acting the fool in the first flush of his realization that there were but three others like himself in all Kehnooryos Ehlahs. No sooner had he granted equal status to Lord Milo, proclaimed him co-High-Lord, than his—Demetrios’—power began to flow away like water runs through a sieve. Then, Milo and his bitch of a wife chivvied him into marrying that renegade slut, Aldora. Even had he liked women, which he did not, Aldora would have been difficult for him to stomach— born an Ehleeneeas, yet she had become more of a barbarian than any other member in the tribe since her adoption into one of the clans.