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Bladesman of Antares

Bladesman of Antares by Alan Burt Akers
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The ninth book of the Dray Prescot series.

The problem with being a spy is that you have to make friends with the enemy. Dray Prescot, Earthman, who had become prince of Vallia, was the kind of man who always stood by his friends. So in his quest to learn the war secrets of Hamal, empire of the aircraft-makers, Dray found himself not only becoming comrade to some of its greatest warriors but of championing the very life of its cruelly beautiful queen. Although Dray's devotion to his glorious princess Delia never flagged, his mission, and his life, was perilously balanced upon the razor-edged blades of loyalty versus duty...

Mushroom Publishing; March 2006
ISBN 9781843194019
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Bladesman of Antares
Author: Alan Burt Akers



Dray Prescot is a man above medium height, with straight brown hair, and brown eyes that are level and dominating. His shoulders are immensely wide and there is about him an abrasive honesty and a fearless courage. He moves like a great hunting cat, quiet and deadly. Born in 1775 and educated in the inhumanly harsh conditions of the late eighteenth-century English Navy, he presents a picture of himself that, the more we learn of him, grows no less enigmatic.

Through the machinations of the Savanti nal Aphrasöe — mortal but superhuman men dedicated to the aid of humanity — and of the Star Lords, he has been taken to Kregen under the Suns of Scorpio many times. On that savage and beautiful, marvelous and terrible world he rose to become Zorcander of the Clansmen of Segesthes, and Lord of Strombor in Zenicce, and a member of the mystic and martial Order of Krozairs of Zy.

Against all odds Prescot won his highest desire and in that immortal battle at The Dragon’s Bones claimed his Delia, Delia of Delphond, Delia of the Blue Mountains. And Delia claimed him in the face of her father the dread Emperor of Vallia. Amid the rolling thunder of the acclamations of Hai Jikai! Prescot became Prince Majister of Vallia, and wed his Delia, the Princess Majestrix. One of their favorite homes is in Valkanium, capital of the island of Valka, of which Prescot is Strom.

Through the agency of the blue radiance sent by the Star Lords, the Summons of the Scorpion, Prescot is plunged headlong into fresh adventures on Kregen in the continent of Havilfar. Outwitting the Manhounds of Antares and fighting as a hyr-kaidur in the arena of the Jikhorkdun in Huringa in Hyrklana, he becomes King of Djanduin, idolized by his incredibly ferocious four-armed warrior Djangs. But Hamal, the greatest power in Havilfar, is bent on conquest, and Prescot has slaved in their diabolical Heavenly Mines. Now, his mission is to discover the secrets of the Hamalese airboats for his own people . . .

Alan Burt Akers



Chapter One

Into Hamal

All my thoughts centered on Hamal. There, in that progressive and yet violently barbaric country, I felt confident that the secrets of the marvelous airboats of Havilfar were to be discovered. And if I, Dray Prescot, of Earth and of Kregen, did not quickly guide this little flier out of the gale hurling me about the sky like a dead leaf, I was likely to discover the biggest secret in two worlds.

Wind-driven rain razored against my face over the smashed windscreen. Rain soaked my hair and face and stung into my eyes. The little flier stood on her nose, dived, swooped sickeningly, flew upward, spun about like a child’s kicked top. I clung on, hoping to Zair the leather straps would stand the strain and not snap, to send me pitching into the hard ground beneath.

The darkness of the darkest of nights hung about me, and yet somewhere high above, the twin suns of Antares were flooding down their rich ruby-and-emerald fires. I dashed water from my face, and cursed, and thrust uselessly at the control levers. The flier did not respond.

This was not the swift racing voller I had taken from Sumbakir, where she had been built. With my natural greed I had left that superb craft back home in Valka and had instead taken an ordinary little Hamalese flier, which had seen much use. My frugality was likely to cost me dear.

With a shocked oath I ripped instinctively at the controls as from the gloom ahead a wide-branched tree whirled toward me. The tree appeared instantaneously from the murk and as suddenly was gone. The craft spun end over end above the tree. I felt the gonging blows of branches as they battered the canvas-skinned wooden frame. A rough-barked branch punched through and beat at my leg before that mad onward movement wrenched the branch free in a weltering sound of ripping canvas.

Everything was streaming water, everything was in violent motion, everything was going up and down; the world spun dizzily about me — that wonderful if terrible world of Kregen, four hundred light-years from the planet of my birth.

In some fashion or other I had to land. More trees flashed past, their gray arms reaching out to destroy my frail craft. I peered ahead, drenched by rain and buffeted by wind, half deafened by the racket.

At any minute I was likely to get myself killed and packed off to the Ice Floes of Sicce. There were certain things I must do before that happened, which, in the ordinary course of events, should happen in a thousand years or so.

“By Zair!” I shouted, and thumped the useless controls. “Go down, you onker!”

End over end the flier whirled from the darkness. Rain fell for a space, and then cleared, and I was blinking in doubled sunshine. A swift look to my rear showed the malevolent stormclouds boiling blackly as they poured over the land, darkening the greens and yellows below. I was low, perilously low. A circling gust had cast me from the main path of the storm. But the controls would not answer and the flier roared on, driven by the breeze, for she was of that build which is susceptible to winds. I looked ahead.

The land spread flat before me, ocher and dun, with scattered clumps of trees, threaded by the sparkle of narrow watercourses. This was grazing land, I considered, and to confirm that observation I saw herds of animals, running. Far on the horizon lifted a range of mountains, glittering under the opaz fire of the suns. These, if my navigation had been correct, were the Mountains of the West of Hamal. I was heading due south, having come over the sea from Valka and penetrating well into the country down the hook-shaped expanse of water of Skull Bay. I’d never lift over those sharp fangs. This little voller would be driven directly onto the rocks. The gale had let me slip from its clutches, but I was still in danger.

The flier remained now on an even keel, but as the wind pushed her, so she swung and drifted aimlessly. This would not do. I had come to this strange country of Hamal to discover what I needed to know about fliers so that my own country of Vallia might construct reliable models. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Here I was, scheming to obtain the secrets of the vollers, being thwarted and threatened for my life by the very Opaz-forsaken monstrosity I wished to discover!

The crystalline glitter in the air with its mingling of streaming colors from the twin suns of Antares that, on a fine day, should be bottled up and shipped to Earth to banish all the fug and despondency — and to make the shipper a fortune — darkened again with sudden and ominous power. A swirling arm of the storm, wind-driven, black and boiling, swooped up abaft of me and in seconds I was once again enveloped in gloom.

The flier pitched about, corklike, and I knew that beneath now the keel, now the stem, now the ripped canvas decking, the ground streamed past, ready to shatter both my craft and me. This second tempestuous whirlwind howled past with maniacal force and rushed away ahead, leaving the flier to be sucked along limping in its wake.

The blackness ahead covered the land.

Rain had formed into torrential rivulets that joined and broadened and foamed in cataracts into the narrow streams. I saw herds of animals rushing in frenzy, their long horns an upthrust and savage forest of spears.

The ground rushed up.

I gave a last frantic belting to the control levers. To this day I do not know if my hammering made the difference, whether something freed itself in the mechanism, whether some other movement helped; but, for whatever cause, the nose of the voller lifted. For agonizing seconds I hung, still going down, still aimed to smash headlong into the earth. The stem rose a little more as I bashed the levers again and we were rising, and the ground sped past below, so close I could smell the scent of fresh rain upon dust.

The voller rose and flew straight.

Maybe it was the merciless bashing I gave the controls; I do not think it was from any actions of the Star Lords or the Savanti.

The mountains were now much closer, the storm coalescing into weird black shapes as the clouds roiled against the rock faces. A column of black smoke attracted my attention, and a single look convinced me I was witnessing an all too familiar sight on many parts of Kregen. The world is beautiful and wonderful; it is also dark and terrible, and I have had my fair share of the vaol-paol — the end and the beginning, the light and the dark.

Delia had insisted I pack so much gear aboard the flier that I had teased her I would have no space for myself. And she had replied, unsmiling, that perhaps that would be a better idea than this insane, impulsive journey to Hamal to discover the secrets of their fliers . . . I took up the spyglass and clapped it to my eye, and with that old familiar, unthinking seaman’s instincts swaying the telescope with the swayings of my craft, I spied out the mischief ahead.

Well, it was no business of mine.

That was the first thought that crossed my mind.

Down below, still smoking after the drenching it must have taken from the rain squall, a village burned.

Here in the northwest of Hamal, in this forgotten tongue of land that stretches between the southern end of Skull Bay and the westerly curve of the Mountains of the West, they build villages snugly. The dense tropical jungles lie to the north. Farther south the land is parched. Here is good grazing land. The houses of the village were built with their backs facing outward, in an oval formation. Their front doors opened onto the village square, and the well, and the shade trees, and the busy life of the community. One or two houses were of three stories, higher than the rest. But they were all burning.

As I approached, I judged the walls to be mud brick; the roofs must have been of thatch, or leaves, for they had completely disappeared. Cow dung makes a useful roof. A number of people were running about, and it seemed to me they ran aimlessly.

No business of mine.

Even when the flutsmen rose into view, urging their fluttrells away from the smoke and down onto the frightened people, I still said it was no business of mine.

The flutsmen, as you know, are the mercenaries of the skies; mounted on their flying steeds, they hire themselves out to any who will pay the high cost of their employment. I guessed that this bunch had been hired by aragorn, slave-masters, to round up a fresh batch of slaves.

I do not care for slave-masters.

I have not much time for slavers.

I would, given the circumstances, as lief split an aragorn in half as give him the time of day.

Old customs die hard. Many men professing faith, men of integrity, can make out a good case for slavery. One useful test to put to them is to suggest that they take a turn at slavery themselves, put on the torque, the chains, the thongs, the yoked stick, carry out hard and unrewarding tasks with a beating for wages. I believe they might then suffer a change of heart, that if they were slaves they would see the old custom in a new light.

But . . . this was not my business.

I had not been bidden here by the Star Lords to save anyone from a cruel fate, so I needn’t fear their punishment for failing that task — to be thrust back to Earth, four hundred light-years away. I was a free agent. The decisions were mine. In this matter I was not a puppet.

Like old customs, old habits die hard.

I took up the great Lohvian longbow given to me by Seg Segutorio, who had himself built it with loving care, built it as only a master bowman of Erthyrdrin can build a longbow. I had practiced with this bow, and I knew her ways. I could split the chunkrah’s eye at unbelievable ranges. Each arrow had been manufactured under the intolerant eye of Seg. Each shaft was true, as near the others in weight and balance and size as any skill could make it by hand, without the standardization of mass production. Each shaft was fletched with the brilliant blue feathers of the king korf. Each head was of tempered Kregan steel, for Seg would acknowledge that high-quality steel did, indeed, possess advantages over his well-tried flint. There were heads for different purposes: wide-cutting flesh-slicers, narrow and heavy bone-smashers, thin bodkins for deep penetration, even a few blunted shafts for bird-ratching. I eyed the flutsmen.

So absorbed were they in their evil work they did not see the silent approach of my flier. Their fluttrells curved against the sky, swooping down. Ropes flew, barbed with cunning iron, and snagged screaming fugitives, upending them, dragging them through the dust.

The flutsmen had set the place afire, but the rain squall had swirled upon them, and now they were busy trying to bring their slaving activities back to the order I guessed they usually experienced. The rain had given the village a chance. I frowned. I could see no resistance. With a chance . . . surely there were men below with weapons, men who would fight for their women and children, for their own lives and liberty.

The shafts were set before me, arrayed in their quick-draw sleeves along the rim of the voller.

I took the first shaft between the fingers of my right hand.

This was no business of mine.

I should let the wind drive my craft on, past the burning village, past the flutsmen, past the shrieking people. If I was killed here, what good would that do my Delia, my Delia of Delphond, my Delia of the Blue Mountains? How would that give the protection I owed to my young twins, Drak and Lela? How would my death here bring the prosperity I so urgently desired to my people of Valka and of Strombor, of Djanduin, and of the clansmen of Felschraung and Longuelm?

At last I saw the foolishness of the question, for those wild clansmen are so perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, there on the limitless expanses of the Great Plains of Segesthes, and with Hap Loder to chivy them along when necessary, that I could, and did, Zair forgive me, leave them to their own rascally devices for seasons at a time.

No, with or without the Star Lords, with or without the Savanti, with or without all the duties I owed my people, this petty slaving affray below was no business of mine.

So I took up the first shaft, notched it, drew back the string, and loosed.

The shaft took the nearest flutsman under the ear.

He pitched from his saddle, hanging from the clerketer, the straps beating in the wind as his mount reared aloft.

The next shaft dispatched a flutsman whose swung line had barbed a man, who simply sprawled forward, his hands clasped together, his body limp.

Then it was a matter of shooting as fast as I might haul the shafts from their sleeves around the rim of the voller, of drawing the string and of loosing. Shaft after shaft sped; I think only two missed their mark.

Now the slavers could not fail to take notice of me.

Standing braced as I was in the tiny forward compartment, I must have presented a target to them they considered easy, a mere man to be swept away with a swift attack and a shower of stuxes. They hurled their javelins, true enough. But I snatched up a shield and hung it on my left shoulder. This was a trick I had been practicing, to the enormous amusement of Seg and my other friends in Valka, and, I admit, to the worried annoyance of Turko the Shield. Stuxes banged and slithered against the shield. I could still shoot. If a javelin was launched at my right side — and be very sure I kept a sharp lookout to starboard — I could duck or sway away from its flight. Only three times had I to release the string of the longbow and so reach out and pluck the flying javelin from the air. These three went back whence they came, to bury their broad heads deeply into the bodies of their late owners.

Fluttrell wings blattered the air about me. Stuxes flew. Now the enraged flutsmen swooped in, closer and closer, and they tried to stick me with their long lance-swords. The blades sliced and slashed, and chunks of the voller’s wooden frame splintered and strips of the canvas cover ripped away.

I let the great Lohvian longbow slide to the deck.

The feel of the longsword in my hands, as always, gave me that uplifting and yet fallible feeling I have so often described. With the naked brand in my fists I prepared to deal blow for blow.

This longsword was a true longsword. It was not a Krozair longsword. But it was as close as I could make it in the smithy at home in the high fortress of Esser Rarioch overlooking Valkanium. Naghan the Gnat, the cunning armorer, and I, with the best swordsmiths I could find, had labored long to produce this weapon. I had debated whether or not to bring that true Krozair longsword with me but — for the same reasons I had brought this inferior flier, the same reason I wore a sober gray shirt and blue trousers over the old scarlet breechclout — I had decided not to bring that marvelous brand with the letters KRZY incised on the blade.

Naghan the Gnat had proved a first-class armorer and swordsmith. Together we had folded and refolded the glowing metal, producing that cunning interlay of many thicknesses demanded of a true blade. With varying thicknesses of clay during the annealing process we had developed a diamond-hard cutting edge from the point up both edges, and that more tough and flexible central spine. We had labored amid heat and smoke and sweat to fashion this blade. It was as true a longsword as might be found outside the Eye of the World; but, even so, it still was not a Krozair longsword.

But, here, in an affray with miserable aragorn-hired flutsmen, it would serve to lop a few heads, to dismember, to rip the smoking guts out of these evil slavers.

The feel of the silver-wire-wound hilt was all I needed to go to work.

And then, in that moment when, with the blood singing through my veins and the beginnings of a juicy little encounter shaping up, I fancied I might discommode these cramphs, the flier jerked, yawed, flummoxed in the air, and then plunged straight for the ground.

In a matter of moments my flier would smash headlong into the earth and smash me along with it.