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Warrior of Scorpio

Warrior of Scorpio by Alan Burt Akers
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The third book of the Dray Prescot series.

Once again in the grip of the Star Lords of the Constellation Scorpio, Dray Prescot finds himself torn from the battles of the Inner Sea for a mission in the air. For it was now his mission to carry his beloved Delia by airboat to that far kingdom, Vallia, from whence she had come. But the route lay across the gaunt mountains and the shadowy jungles of the Hostile Territories -- and there Dray was to be plunged among stranger peoples and more fantastic challenges than even his Kregen princess had known...

Mushroom Publishing; December 2005
ISBN 9781843193531
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Warrior of Scorpio
Author: Alan Burt Akers

Chapter One

Pawn of the Star Lords

“I will stay on Kregen!”

In my nostrils stank the odors of blood and sweat, oiled leather, dust, and my ears rang with the sounds of combat as swords clashed and clanged and pikes pierced mail and crossbow bolts punched into armored men. I could smell and hear, but I could see only an all-encompassing blueness lambent about me, and my gripping fist closed on emptiness where I should be grasping the hilt of my long sword.

“I will not go back to Earth!”

Everything was blue now, roaring and twisting in my head, in my eyes and ears, tumbling me head over heels into a blue nothingness.

“I will stay on Kregen beneath the suns of Scorpio! I will!”

I, Dray Prescot of Earth, screamed it out in my agony and despair. “I will stay on Kregen!”

A wind riffled my hair and I knew that old vosk-skull helmet with its panache of yellow paint had vanished with my long sword.

I was lying flat on my back. The noise of combat flowed away, dwindling. The screams of dying men and wounded sectrixes, the grunt and harshly indrawn breaths of men convulsed with the passions of battle, the clangor and scrape of weapons, all died. And the blue brilliance of light about me wavered and I sensed the inward struggle as obscure forms moved and merged past the edges of my vision. Against my back pressed hard earth — but was it the dirt of Kregen or of Earth?

That last battle against the overlords of Magdag had been violent and emotional and transforming, but any taint of battle-lust or battle-fever in me had been banished at a stroke by the unexpected intervention of the Star Lords. I have, I confess, sometimes been overwhelmed by the lustof battle, not often, and have little time for those who prate of that red curtain that falls before their eyes and to whose existence they point as an excuse for actions of the most barbarous and savage kind. Oh, yes, the scarlet curtain before the eyes exists, but it is capable of manipulation by those whose humanity has not been destroyed.

You who listen to these tapes spinning through their little cassettes will know how often I have succumbed, to my shame, to that red-roaring tide of exultant conflict.

So it was that as I sat up on that hard-packed ground the blood-lust of battle had cleared from my mind. But the fever of instant action still gripped my body. As I sat up, then, expecting I knew not what, a vast odiferous mass of squelchy straw laid me flat down on my back again.

Dung and straw smothered me. Spitting out a mouthful of vile-tasting straw I sat up, blinking, trying to see, vaguely making out a barn door black in the light as the blueness faded, and — smack down again I went as another heaping forkful of straw-laced manure slapped me across the face. I spat. I blinked. I cursed. With a roar of fury generated as much by indignation and a sense of the ludicrous as much by anger I leaped to my feet.

This time I could dodge the flying forkful of dungy straw.

Thoroughly annoyed, I started for the barn door. As I expected, I was completely naked. The Star Lords had snatched me from Magdag; where they had deposited me I did not know — but I had urgent problems before finding out, problems to do with people who threw dungy straw into my face.

A voice shouted something I didn’t recognize, but even in the midst of intending to deal with dung-hurlers I took comfort from the conviction that the language was not of Earth. It had that ring peculiar to the languages of Kregen, and I felt a surge of thanksgiving.

A man stepped out of the barn door.

My vision cleared and I saw this man bathed in the mingled streaming light of the twin suns of Antares. Then, without doubt, I knew the Star Lords had not snatched me from Kregen altogether and hurled me contemptuously back to Earth. Contemptuously, for I knew that in some way I had failed them, that I had not accomplished what they had brought me to Kregen and sent me to Magdag to do.

Staring at this man who stared back at me I was conscious only of a great and all-engulfing thankfulness. I was still on the same world as my Delia! I was not sundered from the only woman for me in two worlds by four hundred light-years of empty space. Somewhere in Vallia on this planet of Kregen my Delia of the Blue Mountains, my Delia of Delphond, lived and breathed and laughed and, I hoped and prayed, did not despair of me.

This man carried a pitchfork to which wisps of greasy straw still clung. He stood tall and lean, with the most infernal mocking smile taking in my nakedness and the dungy straw clinging to my skin and broomsticking my hair — and then he saw my face. He lost his smile and the pitchfork came up in quick automatic response. He possessed a mane of intensely black hair. His eyes twinkled brightly blue upon me. There was about him an air of recklessness and of action-before-thought-of-consequences, and I judged he had not been slave for very long.

My thought of Delia had halted me — in the glory of knowing I was still treading the same ground as my princess — so that this man was spared time enough to speak.

“Llahal!” he said, in the universal nonfamiliar greeting of Kregen. Had we been friends he would have said: “Lahal.” He went on without waiting for my reply or for the making of pappattu. “You look a sight, dom!” And then he laughed. It was a light laugh, all mockery of myself gone from it and filled only with a delight in the circumstances. Any man who cannot laugh at himself is truly dead. But, as I think you will know, I, Dray Prescot, do not, for others and out loud, laugh easily.

I started for him again with the intention of wrapping the pitchfork around his neck and then deciding what to do with the tines.

He skipped aside, still laughing.

His laughter changed to puzzlement.

“You must be one of the new slaves, dom. I am Seg Segutorio. If you’ve been sent to help me you’d better get started before we’re both in trouble and tasting ol’ snake.”

The tines of the pitchfork looked exceedingly sharp. This man, this slave, handled the implement as a warrior handles a spear. Now he had recovered from the first shock of seeing that expression on my face that I have heard many men call the look of the devil; he balanced easily with the farmyard weapon covering me, confident in his own prowess. About to disabuse him of that idea, I checked.

We stood in a farmyard, with low buildings surrounding this stable area, with the rustic odors of dung and straw, urine and dust, heavy on the air. Over all the glorious rays of the twin suns of Scorpio streamed down in an opaline mingling of colors. Only moments before I had been leading the slave phalanx of my old vosk-skulls into headlong conflict with the mailed overlords of Magdag. Now, once more, I heard the shouts of men in furious strife and the screams of wounded, the shrilling of sectrixes, and the clamorous clangor of sword on sword.

A dog ran whining across the farmyard, his tail tucked down in between his legs.

Following him, a bedraggled band of slaves ran and fell and picked themselves up to stagger on. They were a mixed bunch of humans and half-humans, all wearing the gray slave breechclout, and their screams and crying panic made my hand reach out for a weapon. On Kregen a man without a ready weapon to hand is a man with a foot in the grave.

Flames shot up beyond the stable buildings and I guessed the great house itself would be burning. A rout of bloodied men-at-arms stumbled after the slaves, their mail coats ripped, their helmets dented and awry, some lost altogether. There were men and Rapas and Chuliks among the mercenary men-at-arms. Some had flung away their weapons in order to run faster.

“A raid!” Seg Segutorio hitched up the pitchfork. I didn’t like the look on his face. “Those Froyvil-forgotten rasts of sorzarts!”

Now I could see them pelting around the stable buildings, squat on scaled legs, bedecked with gaudy strings of clanking bronze and copper ornaments, befeathered, cockscombed of helmeted head, fierce and predatory and shrilling war cries that struck absolute horror into the fleeing people of the peaceful farm. They wielded cut-down long swords and throwing spears not unlike narrow assegais, and they presented a sight calculated to overawe peasant opposition in the twinkling of the first blade. The few mercenary guards maintained by the farm had been powerless to halt this raid.

Although I had heard of these sorzarts, I had not previously encountered them. They inhabited a cluster of islands toward the northeastern end of the inner sea and were the subject of endless speculation among the other peoples of the Eye of the World as to who would instigate the great crusade against them and who would follow the Banners and when; but while the bitter enmity between the green north and the red south persisted the sorzarts were left unmolested. Their faces were vaguely lizard-like in their wide cheeks and virtual absence of forehead, but their eyes were quite unreptile-like, being dull and deeply set.

Everything, as is usual in moments of crisis, happened at breakneck speed and by the time Seg had leveled his pitchfork and broken into a run the sorzarts had mostly vanished beyond the opposite stable building. A woman clutching a child to her bosom ran into view, saw the last three sorzarts, swerved in her run, saw Seg Segutorio, and screamed at him. Her bared legs beneath the lavender gown covered the ground rapidly, but it was clear to us that the sorzarts would cut her off and catch her before she could reach us.

“Help me!” Even in her terror and despair the words cracked with the snap of habitual command. “Seg! Help me!”

“The mistress.” Seg bounded forward afresh. “She bought me ten days ago and I have no love for her — but — but she is a woman.”

That was an irrational thought in a culture possessed of many types of beast-humans and human-beasts encountered daily in ordinary social intercourse.

Now I knew why the Star Lords had condescended to keep me here on Kregen and why they had not flung me through the interstellar gulfs back to the Earth of my birth. They had found another task for my hands. As usual, they had dumped me down naked and defenseless in the midst of a situation of extreme peril. I knew that away in Magdag my slaves, wearing their old yellow-painted vosk-skulls and wielding the weapons I had created and taught them to use, were fighting with savage intent against the might of the overlords and, most probably now I had gone, losing. But I had been snatched from them and in return for not being banished to Earth had been presented with this crisis to resolve.

I scooped up a heaping double-armful of odiferous manure-fouled straw and sprinted after Seg. I passed him with ease and then I was beyond the woman and her child and facing the three sorzarts. They looked mean and ferocious and they held their weapons with the skill of long experience.

The nearest flicked his cut-down long sword at me and I angled my run so that he obscured the view of the second, who lifted his assegai in frustration, balked of his cast. I checked, lifted on my toes, and hurled my dung-straw full in the face of the first sorzart. He ducked lithely enough and avoided the straw. But his movement slowed him and then I was up to him. His back broke with a soggy snap and I had his sword and snatched it aloft to parry the assegai cast. The shaft rang against the blade. I lunged forward. The sword felt good in my fist. Longer than the short sword as used by my Clansmen, this brand balanced oddly; but it served its purpose and as I withdrew the blade befouled with the sorzart’s blood there was time to meet the challenge of the third. He hesitated.

“Hai!” I said.

He eyed me warily from those deep-set eyes. Abruptly, like a striking lizard, with a bunching of muscles and a jangling of bronze and copper disks, he hurled his assegai. I brushed it aside. Seg saved me the final thrust, for, as I waited for the sorzart to draw his sword, the pitchfork flew past my ear and buried its two center tines deeply into the scaly neck.

“Why did you hesitate?” demanded Seg, panting. “You know these sorzarts are the most treacherous of beasts.”

I wiped the blade on the sorzart’s brown apron.

“I have killed a man before he has drawn to defend himself,” I told Seg. “And, sink me, no doubt will do so again, Zair forgive me, if it is necessary. In this case it was not.”

He looked at me oddly. Reckless and wild, as I was to find him, his ideas of warfare were also extremely practical.

The unpleasant sounds of raiding half-men reached us from beyond the stable block and the wind drew coils of greasy smoke from the burning house about our faces. The woman caught her breath. I had looked at her once, and then gone about my business. There has been more than enough in my life of seeing screaming women clutching their infants to them — the tears soaking into their dresses, their faces distraught, running blindly from rapacious reavers of all kinds — for me ever to treat such scenes lightly. People prate of the values of human life, and of how nothing outside the context of human activity is of worth, and on Kregen, willy-nilly, the existence of half-human, half-beast peoples must figure into that context, and yet I wonder how often such academic postulators have been presented with situations in which their actions must match their words. Of course I was not insensitive to this woman’s naked bloody feet, the tears on her cheeks, the infant mess around her child’s mouth and nose, his inflamed eyes and his crying blubbering. But raiders of the stamp of the sorzarts know well the weakness of men unmanned by women’s sufferings.

I said: “We must leave here. Now. Come.”

Without bothering to await their reply I stripped a length of brown cloth from a dead sorzart — the cleanest length — and wrapped it around my waist, pulled the end through between my legs, and tucked it in to form a breechclout. I balanced all three of the cut-down long swords and selected the one I felt the best. The belt and scabbard were neatly stitched from the skins of the little green and brown lizards called Tikos and as Seg picked up a sword and an assegai I thrust the sword I had chosen into the scabbard, took the third up together with the three assegais remaining. I ignored the helmets. This took but little time and during it the woman stood first on one leg and then on the other, hoisting her child up on her hip and shushing it, and staring at me with an uncertainty I had no time to bother over just then. She would know well enough I was not one of her slaves.

We set off in a line directly away from the burning house.

I felt completely confident that this woman and her infant were the people I had been sent here by the Star Lords to succor. Just why I should be so sure I did not know. My natural instincts sometimes coalesce with a darker and rarer judgment. I had saved Gahan Gannius and Valima there on the edge of the Grand Canal when, for the third time, I had found myself on Kregen. They had given me no thanks but had taken themselves off. Now I assumed they must play some part in the complicated games with destiny played over the years by the Star Lords — with assistance and interference from the Savanti. That these thoughts were true and just how the world of Kregen was influenced by my own interference, you shall hear.

We spoke little. I was concerned to find a riding mount for the woman. The stables were empty — the men out on an expedition and leaving the estate vulnerable to just this kind of sudden raid — and the quicker we found a sectrix, one of the six-legged riding animals of the inner sea littoral, or a calsany, or even an ass, the better. When Seg asked my name I had no hesitation in choosing my own among the plethora of names I already possessed — a quantity of nomenclature I found, to be honest, more amusing than otherwise.

“I am Dray Prescot,” I said. And then: “Of Strombor.”

The name meant nothing to them.

It was unlikely that they would know of Strombor as a place, for until I had resurrected that enclave in Zenicce with the gift of Great Aunt Shusha — who was not my great aunt, I must remember — the name of Strombor had been obscured for a hundred and fifty years by the house Esztercari. But since they had not heard the name of Pur Dray, Lord of Strombor, Krozair of Zy, renowned corsair upon the Eye of the World, it surely indicated the cut-off nature of their life. I had convinced myself that I must still be within the sphere of occupation around the inner sea, as witness the sorzarts, and so I was not unduly alarmed. Had I been so minded I might have chuckled at the haughty reception such ignorance of their noble names and deeds would have received from some of the swifter captains and Krozairs and Brethren of my acquaintance.

“This is the Lady Pulvia na Upalion,” said Seg Segutorio, and despite the situation and his clear detestation of his slave status, some respect was evident in his words.

I looked at the woman. Nothing about her impressed me so much as the way her head came erect and her eyes widened to meet my regard. She was in no sense beautiful, rather she was a sturdy, strong-limbed woman habitually in command, conscious of her position, and no doubt in normal times somewhat in despair over the hint of a moustache beginning to darken her upper lip. I reached out my hands.

“Give me the child.”

Instinctively she clasped the infant closer to her breast where tears and mucus stained the lavender material. She wore a gold and ruby trinket upon a slender gold chain. I gestured impatiently to her naked feet. She looked into my face and I saw her eyes darken in shock. Then, silently, she let me take the boy from her. He was no great weight. In a little group we left the stables and at once were among the standing crops, tall green-stemmed bloin loaded with golden fruit in which we were hidden as though by a million tongueless cathedral bells.

From the rear, black and oily smoke rose and spread to cast dark shadows from the mingled light of the twin suns of Scorpio.

Any thoughts I may have had that my task for the Star Lords was thus easily accomplished were speedily dispelled. With the three spare assegais tucked under my left arm which cradled the child, the second sword naked in my right fist, I brought up the rear, with Seg in the van.

The sorzarts must have landed from their raiding ships — for they habitually disliked voyaging with only a single ship — and marched inland to fall on this estate of Upalion, which I had already seen enough to know was composed of broad acres and rich land, heavy with crops. Upalion, some distance from the sea, had considered itself secure, as the weak mercenary force of men-at-arms testified.

Now the sorzarts burst into the wealth of golden bloin fruits, seeking our blood.

“You go on, Seg,” I said, and handed him the child, pushing past the woman unceremoniously. “I will hold them.”

“The mistress can take the child,” said Seg. His eagerness to stand to die with me was surprising.

“Sink me!” I exclaimed, not angrily but exasperatedly amused. I can find amusement in strange situations. “She can barely walk, let alone run with the child. You must get her away, Seg, for the sweet sake of Zim-Zair. Do not argue!”

“By the veiled Froyvil—” began Seg, his black mane of hair wild among the golden fruits.

I cut him off, with a rolling Makki-Grodno oath.

“Go on!”

I own, then, that a deal of that unpleasant rasp must have sharpened my tones, a dominating, domineering almost, way of talking I assumed in automatic response to opposition and that came from many years walking the quarterdecks of King’s Ships, of handling my Clansmen as Zorcander and Vovedeer, of reaving as a Krozair captain of a Sanurkazz swifter. Seg took a look at my face. He took the child.

“There are ruins of the sunset folk about a dwabur south,” he said. That was all.

I felt I could get to know this volatile yet practical man.

Seg and the Lady Pulvia vanished among the golden bells.

The swords I now held had once been regular long swords. Now they had been cut down and sharpened with wedge-shaped points into a blade-length of some twenty-four inches. For a tiny nostalgic moment I thought of those superlative Savanti swords with which we had so lightheartedly gone from Aphrasöe the Swinging City clad in our Savanti hunting leathers in bloodless pursuit of the graint. Maybe these sorzarts knew more of swordsmanship than I guessed, more, even, than the Krozairs of Zy, although in my pride that seemed so remotely possible as to be unthinkable. Well, I would soon find out.

Harsh cries rose into the air and the golden bells of the bloin hanging from stems curving in such subtle beauty from their straight green stalks waved and twisted over our back path as agile scaled bodies thrust their way through.

A fighting-man’s life is stitched together with vivid scarlet incidents patching the gray drabness of days and my experience had taught me that on Kregen the scarlet outweighed the gray. I thought of my Delia of the Blue Mountains, and prayed she would not despair of me away in her awe-inspiring Vallia.

Then, with weapons in my hands, I turned to face the dangers that had ensured my continuance on Kregen beneath Antares. It would need many swords to force me to flee from all that kept me on Kregen under the suns of Scorpio.