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Swordships of Scorpio

Dray Prescot #4

Swordships of Scorpio by Alan Burt Akers
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The fourth book of the Dray Prescot series.

What does a man do when fate makes him the protector of the royal head of the land of his enemies? If it is Dray Prescot, Earthman on Antares, he sets aside his quest to do his duty. His duty was to reach Vallia and his princess Delia and help her claim her throne. His duty was to defend Vallia's ancient foe and place its rightful heir on its throne -- sworn to attack Vallia. So when the third force, the pirate fleets known as the swordships came between the two contending demands, Dray sees that only by following his own personal star could the contradiction be resolved...

Mushroom Publishing; December 2005
ISBN 9781843193616
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Swordships of Scorpio
Author: Alan Burt Akers
 
Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

I march toward Vallia

On my own two feet, then, I would march all the way across the Hostile Territories and take ship at whatever port I came across and sail to Vallia, and there I would march into the palace of the dread emperor of that proud empire and in sight of all claim from him my beloved, my Delia, my Delia of Delphond, my Delia of the Blue Mountains.

I would!

The deadly Krozair long sword felt good in my fist.

My head still ached from the effects of the poison and my insides felt as though an insane vintner of Zond were trying to stamp a premier vintage from my guts. But I went on. There was no stopping me now — or so I thought then, wrapped about in rage and frustration and the unhealthy desire to smash a few skulls. . .

The plain continued on in gentle undulations to the low hills ringing the horizon. Long pale green grasses blew in the wind sweeping past. Over all the scene that streaming mingled light of the twin suns of Antares scorched down. The water bottle was half-full. Evidently, whoever had poisoned me and thrown me into the hole beneath the thorn-ivy bush had tossed down the scarlet silk wrapped about weapons and food to fool those aboard the airboat. The food and water had not been meant to keep me alive; I had a shrewd idea that the poisoner thought me dead.

If I, Dray Prescot, with weapons at my disposal could not live off this land, then I did not deserve to survive.

As you will know I was no soft innocent from a big city who always walked on stone sidewalks, who took automobiles everywhere riding on concrete pavements, who pressed buttons for light and warmth, who ate pre-packaged food. Although I am a civilized man from Earth, I was then and have remained when circumstances require as much a savage barbarian as any of the primordial reavers ravaging out from the bleak northlands.

The first river I came to I swam across and the devil take what monsters might be lurking beneath the water.

Along the banks were mounds of bare earth. These I skirted respectfully.

Ahead the tall grasses gave way to a lower variety, and the ground lay bare and dusty in patches here and there. The long black and red-glinting column I did not wish to see advanced obliquely from my right. I had no hesitation whatsoever in turning in my eastward tramp and heading off to the northeast.

From a low hillock — a natural hillock — I could see the seemingly endless stream of ants. I give them their Earthly name, for the Kregen names for the varieties of ants would fill a book. These were shining black, active, prowling restlessly toward some destiny of their own. The twin suns sank slowly behind me and the land ahead filled with the flooding opaline radiance from Zim and Genodras.

The first screams ripped from the gathering shadows.

Now I knew where the stream of ants was headed.

Soldier ants, large fierce fellows, their mandibles perfectly capable of shearing through ordinary leather, kept watch on the flanks of the columns of workers. The soldier ants, I judged, were all of six nails in length. Six nails make a knuckle. A knuckle in Kregen mensuration is about four-point-two inches, say one hundred and eighty millimeters.

These were big fellows.

The screams continued.

I hurried on, parallel to the column, seeing the sinking suns-light glancing off armored bodies, glinting red from joint and mandible.

Ahead the column spread out. It seemed to me like some blasphemous inkblot, spreading and pooling, ever-fed by new streams.

The man had been staked out.

His wrists and ankles were bound with rawhide to four thick stakes, their tops bruised and battered from the blows of hammers. He twisted and writhed; but the tide of black horrors swarmed over him, a living carpet eating him to the bone.

There was only one way to get him out of it.

My Krozair long sword had been in action against mighty foes before; now it would have to go up against tiny killers four inches long.

Four quick slashes released the thongs. I bent and hoisted the man, holding him in my left hand, swatting with the sword. Already the horrors were scuttling up my legs, over my back, along my arms. Agonizing pains stabbed my flesh. I danced and jumped and ran and shed crushed black bodies like a mincer.

The man was clearly dying. I had merely saved him from the kind of death the people — or things — had planned for him.

By the time I had got rid of the last ant, and had rubbed my skin and felt the slick blood greasy there, and had placed the man down gently against a grassy bank, I knew he had mere moments to live. Most of his lower abdomen and legs had been eaten away, his chest cavity was partially exposed, only his head — with the exception of the eyes — remained to appear as a reasonable facsimile of a man.

He was trying to speak, now, croaking sounds from his throat, gargling, his useless arms attempting to lift toward me.

“Rest easy, my friend,” I said in the universal Kregish. “You will sleep soon, and have no more pain.”

“So—,” he said. “Sos—” He choked the words out. “Sosie!”

“Rest easy, dom.” I uncorked my water bottle, filled it at the river, and poured water over his face and between his lips. His tongue licked greedily. Some of the blood washed away.

“Save my Sosie!”

“Yes.”

He knew he was dying, I think, and his voice strengthened.

“I am Mangar na Arkasson. Sosie! She — the devils of Cherwangtung took her — they took her — they — the ants! The ants!”

I moistened his lips again. “Easy, dom, easy.”

His black skin shone now with a sweat-sheen in the pink radiance from She of the Veils, the fourth moon of Kregen. He had been a proud and imposing man. His face, despite the contortions his agony wrought in his countenance, still showed hauteur and pride. His features were not the hawk like ones of Xoltemb, the caravan-master I had met on the plains of Segesthes, who came from the island of Xuntal. This man, this Mangar na Arkasson, had features more Negroid in their fashioning, hard and firm with a generous and mobile mouth.

“Swear!” Mangar na Arkasson whispered. “Swear you will save my Sosie from those devils of Cherwangtung. Swear!”

He was dying. He was a fellow human being.

I said, “I will do all I can to save your Sosie, Mangar na Arkasson. You have the word of Dray Prescot, Krozair, the Lord of Strombor.”

“Good — good—”

His mind was wandering now and although I knew he did not have the slightest notion what a Krozair was, and had never heard of Strombor, yet I believe that he took with him into the grave the conviction — and I hope the comforting one — that I was a man who would do as I had sworn.

When he died, after a few mumbled and almost incoherent blasphemies and pleas, cries of strange gods, and, at my questioning, the statement that Cherwangtung stood at the confluence of two rivers, by a mountain, away to the northeast, I buried him. There was no way of judging what marker or memorial he would want, so I contented myself with manhandling a great stone over his grave. That would hold the plains lurfings at bay, for a time at least.

Few lurfings would attack a single man, even, unless there were a round dozen of them. Low-bellied, lean-flanked, gray-furred scavengers are lurfings, equipped with probing snout-like faces well-suited to the tasks nature has set them.

I stood up.

Four moons wheeled across the sky now, and their combined radiance lit up the night-land of Kregen, here on the eastern plains of Central Turismond. Far away to the east lay the coast. On the coast stood port cities, of Vallia, of Pandahem, of Murn-Chem, of a number of trading countries from overseas. I had to reach one, take ship, sail to Vallia. . .

But, first, I had given my word to a dying man.

I do not believe you, who listen to these tapes cut in this stricken famine-area of your own Earth, can condemn me for what I had sworn to do. I knew my Delia was safe. She was even now aboard the Vallian Air Service airboat Lorenztone securely on her way back to Vallia and her father the emperor. I need no longer suffer the cruel tortures for her safety I had recently gone through, when I believed her dead, then the captive of Umgar Stro whom I had slain, and so released her. No. With a clear conscience I could do what I had sworn.

My Delia, Delia of the Blue Mountains, would understand.

At that time I had, of course, had no experience of motive power for shipping other than the wind and the oar. The swifters of the inland sea with their massed banks of oars could sail independently of the wind — but I had gained the strong impression that I should judge the Vallian Air Service more from my own experience as a naval officer of a King’s Ship of my own planet rather than from the wild times I had spent as a swifter oar slave and captain on the Eye of the World. I had in the nature of my profession heard of Claude Francois, Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, who in 1783 had invented a paddle-boat and sailed her on the Seine at Paris, thus being, as far as I knew, the man to sail the world’s first successful steam vessel. The first practical steamer had been built by the Scotsman, William Symington, whose Charlotte Dundas in 1801 proved herself by towing exercises. Robert Fulton, an American who would work for whoever paid him, had designed a paddle-steamer, Demologos, with the paddles between two hulls and armed with twenty-four thirty-two pounders. I wondered, then, as I strode across the pink-lit night-lands of eastern Turismond, just what this independence of the wind would mean in a vessel, in these sky ships built in far Havilfar.

All of which meant that I had no idea how long it would be before Delia reached her home in Vallia.

If the plans of the man who had poisoned me and dumped me under the thorn-ivy bush went as he envisaged, would Delia believe I had run off? Could she think I had quailed from meeting her formidable father, the emperor?

If she did so think — then I refused to contemplate that

If she did not think so she would very well do as she had done before and send a fleet of airboats scouring the world for me. That, I confess, was a comforting thought.

The men of Cherwangtung, having staked out Mangar na Arkasson for the soldier ants, had merely removed themselves from that immediate vicinity before they got up to their devil’s tricks with Sosie na Arkasson.

She was not screaming and so the first sounds I heard were the stamp of naked feet on hard earth, the throbbing of drums, the chanting and leem-keening of the men of Cherwangtung as they danced around the central stake.

This was a scene I did not relish.

Bound to that stake the lissome form of Sosie gleamed in the torchlight, her black skin in startling contrast to the fish-belly white of the men who danced about her shaking axes and spears, their ankles festooned with bells and bones and feathers. They danced two forward, one back, stamp, stamp, slide, stamp, stamp, slide, and they shook their weapons and in the torchlight their faces showed corpse-white and lascivious and incredibly evil.

Sosie held her head up proudly. They had stripped her garments from her. Her hair, done in the fashion we know on this Earth as Afro, bristled. Dust and grass stems covered it, and there were long scratches on her thighs. I could not see her back, lashed to the stake; but I guessed that, too, was lacerated in like fashion as these men had dragged her here for sacrifice.

What the sacrifice was about, what they were going to do, what blasphemous gods they worshiped — of all that I knew nothing. It could be I was interfering in a ritual demanded by law and custom. Both Mangar and Sosie na Arkasson could have been criminals, meeting a just end.

But no civilized man binds a young naked girl to a post and dances around her in the torch glare, his every intention obvious. I felt sure that I was not committing a gross error as I took the bow contemptuously tossed down from Lorenztone into my hand. This was not a great longbow of Loh. I shut my mind to thoughts of Seg Segutorio, who was of Erthyrdrin, and who was a master bowman, and who was now — I had seen him fall beneath the nactrix hooves — dead and gone and best forgotten.

How could anyone forget Seg Segutorio?

I lifted the bow. I must put thoughts of Seg from my mind. There were twenty of them out there, and after perhaps the fourth or fifth shaft the rest would flee into the pink-lit shadows. They would not escape by running; but I would have to be quick.

If only Seg were at my side now!

Angrily — furious that thoughts of my comrade Seg, who was gone, smashed into my mind — I loosed the shafts as fast as I could snatch up the arrows, draw back the string, and let loose.

One, two, three, four — the four went down, coughing, with shafts feathered into them.

The chanting and drum-throbbing ceased.

One of the men yelled and I put a shaft through his mouth.

Others were shouting, and running, their naked white rumps gleaming in the pink moons-light.

I pinned three more and then they were gone, in every direction. From now on I would be the hunted, not they.

Speed. . .

Sosie regarded me as though I had appeared through the screen of a shadow play, in the round, flesh and blood, miraculously taking the place of a phantom.

“Sosie,” I said. I spoke harshly. “I have come to take you away from these evil men. Mangar has sent me—” All the time I spoke I slashed her bonds free. As the ropes released, she buckled and fell. The agony of her returning circulation meant I must carry her. She was no Delia, who had been running fleetly at my side, wielding a sword, moments after I had cut her loose.

“Mangar, my father,” she moaned. “I saw — I saw what they did! The ants! The ants!

“Zair has him in his keeping now,” I said.

Then, for a shocked instant, I wondered if these people of Arkasson worshiped Grodno, the false green-sun deity of the green sun Genodras. But Sosie gave no sign that she understood. I ran. Out from the torchlight and into the pink-shrouded darkness where that darkness was illusory, where the moons in Kregen’s night sky cast down enough light so that one might read the small print of a directory, I ran — and then I stopped running. Sosie was bundled down by a small bush — not a thorn-ivy but, blessedly, a paline bush. Immediately she began to stuff the appetizing yellow palines into her mouth, drawing sustenance, refreshment, and surcease from them.

I scanned the horizon, lying down and looking up. One of the torturers showed against the skyline and he went down with an arrow in his guts.

His scream attracted two more, who ran, like fools, over to him, to be slain in their turn.

How many more were there? Another ten, I estimated, at least.

This crouching down was no way of fighting for me.

“Sosie.” I spoke with an urgency that was not altogether feigned. I had to drive through to her mind. “Sosie! I am Dray Prescot. Your father made me swear to save you. Now, you lie hidden in this paline bush. Do not move. I will return for you.”

She understood enough of that in her dazed condition for me to think it safe to leave her.

Then I went a-hunting men who tied girls to stakes, all black and naked, and tortured them.

They went down, one by one, until in the end five of them clumped together, brandishing their axes and spears, and charged me as I shafted one of their number who attempted to cast his spear into my belly.

Now was the moment I had hungered for, to my shame.

The bow went into the grass. The Krozair long sword ripped from my belt — that belt given me aboard the airboat by Delia — sliding against the fold of scarlet cloth on my thigh. I gripped the hilt in both fists, spreading them, the left against the pommel, the right hard up against the guard. That way the two-handed sword wielded by one cunning in its use could strike past and through the spears and axes of these white-skinned barbarians. They rushed against me, whooping, charged with anger, probably unable to comprehend just where I had come from or who I was — a man like themselves and no half-beast half-man of Kregen.

Like any man of Kregen who carries weapons they were skilled. But they could not match the swordsmanship of a Krozair. There is no boast in this; I merely state a fact.

By the time they had realized this, it was too late, and as I chopped the last of them — a wild and reckless stroke that took his head clean away from his shoulders — I was aware of the ostentatiousness of my behavior. They were men and not half-men; but they had been behaving like subhumans. That, I submit, is the only excuse I can offer for my savage conduct.

When I reached Sosie she was crying. Her slender body shook with her sobs. As tenderly as I could I lifted her.

“Where lies Arkasson, Sosie?”

“Over there.”

She pointed due north.

I grunted. North in the compass bearing had bedeviled my progress through the Hostile Territories.

So, bearing a naked black girl in my arms, I set off to take her home.

ISBNs
1843193574
9781843193579
9781843193616