The Coming of the Horseclans [Horseclans Series Book 1]
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by Robert Adams
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: Prophecy Written in Blood! After two hundred years of seaching for other immortals, the Undying High Lord Milo Morai has returned to the Horseclans to fulfill an ancient prophecy and lead them to their destined homeland by the sea. But in their path wait the armed might of the Ehleenee and an enemy even more treacherous--the Witchmen--pre-Holocaust scientists who have survived the centuries by stealing other men's bodies to house their evil minds and who have in their hidden stronghold the means of destroying all who will not become their willing slaves. Can even Milo save the Horseclans from the bloodthirsty Ehleenee and the malevolent Witchmen who would rip him to shreads to discover his secret of immortality?
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 1975 1975
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
18 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [353 KB]
Reading time: 220-308 min.
"The Coming of the Horseclans was a great read with excellent descriptions of horsemanship, swordplay and bowmanship. If you want a story that has really despicable bad guys and really noble good guys this book is for you."--Shown Rolfe, Yet Another Book Review Site
"Robert Adams really knows how to build a complete world all his own! A post-apocalyptic realm of nomads and Ehleenee lords, he brings it to real, and sometimes all too graphic life. A wonderful escape into a strange and almost familiar world."--Nomadxiii, Canada
"And, in His time, the God shall come again,
From the south, upon a horse of gold,
To meet the Kindred camped upon the plain,
Or so our Sacred Ancestors were told..."
--From The Prophecy of the Return
The big man came ashore at the ancient port of Mazatlán, from off a merchantman out of the equally ancient port of Callao, far to the south. The men of the ship professed little sure knowledge of their former passenger, save that he was a proven and deadly warrior, certainly noble-born, though none seemed quite certain of the country of his origin.
This man, who gave his name as Maylo de Morré, stood a head and a handsbreadth above even the tallest of the men of the mountains who, themselves, towered over the men of the lowlands and coast. His hair was strippled with gray, but most of it was as black as their own, though not so coarse, and his hair, spadebeard and moustachios were cut and fashioned in the style of noblemen of the far-southern lands.
Silver he possessed, and gold, as well, but no man thought of taking it from him by force, not after they saw his smooth, effortless movements or looked but once into those brooding, dark-brown eyes. At his trim waist were shortsword, dirk and knife, another knife was tucked into the top of his right boot and the wire-wound leather hilt of a well-kept, antique saber jutted up over his left shoulder.
After he had secured lodgings in the best inn of the upper town, his first stop was at the forge of Mazatlán's only armor-smith, where he stripped for measurements and ordered a thigh-length shirt of double-link chainmail, paying half the quoted cost in advance in strange, foreign, but pure, gold coins. And that night the smith told all the tavern of his customer's hard, spare, flat-muscled body, covered from head to foot by a veritable networked of crosshatched lines denoting old scars--battle wounds, for certain, the smith opined.
The next morning, Morré sought out the town agent for old Don Humberto del Valle de Castillo y de las Vegas and shortly the two were seen to ride out toward the local nobleman's estancia. When they returned the next day, the Don himself rode with them, trailed by ten of his lancers, and Morré was astride one of the fine war-stallions which it was the Don's business and pleasure to breed and train. This stallion was of a chestnut hue that shone like fine gold, with mane and tail that seemed silvery ripples in the brisk breeze blowing in from the sea.
Two lancers fetched the stranger's effects from the inn and, for the next month, he resided at Don Humberto's townhouse as a clearly honored guest. He no longer visited the shops; rather, uniformed lancers summoned and escorted the various artisans to the mansion--the saddler, the bootmaker, the best of the sailors, a merchant who was ordered to bring with him several of the rare and hideously expensive but immensely powerful hornbows made by horse-nomads far and far to the north and east, and the armorer.
Julio, the saddler, had to confer with the goldsmith, Pedro, since some of the decorations the foreign nobleman wanted on his saddle and harness were beyond the skills of a provincial worker of leather. And the bootmaker, José, had to have words with Diego, the armorer, if the boots he was to construct were to be properly fitted with thin sheets of steel and panels of light mail.
The tailor, Gustavo, was nearly ecstatic, seeing great future profits from the new and unique designs of clothing this great nobleman had brought from overseas. His only outside need was to haggle with the tanner, Anselmo, for the extra fine grade of leather to line the esteemed gentleman's riding breeches.
Sergio Gomez--who was a bastard half-brother of the Don and had, himself, done a bit of soldiering before bringing several years' worth of loot back to the town of his birth and setting himself up as a merchant--could talk of nothing save Don Maylo's horsemanship, bowmanship and skill with lance and saber.
Sitting in the smoky tavern with his pint-cup of mild-white pulque before him on the knife-scarred board and eager ears hanging upon his words, old Sergio puffed at a thin, black cigarro and opined, "Muchachos, I certify, el Senor Maylo de Morré is un hombre formidable. With either lance or saber, he is more than a match for any caballero I have ever seen fight ... and I have seen many in my day."
"But with the bow, now" he whistled softly, "I tell you, it smacks of wizardry. Within minutes after he had selected the bow of his choice and strung it to his satisfaction, he was plunking arrows into a bale of straw with such speed and accuracy as to make my poor old head to spin."
"Then that splendid palomino stallion came trotting over, though no one had called him and the Senor had not even looked in that direction. The Senor hooked a full arrowcase to his belt and was up on the stallion with bow in hand in the blinking of an eye, without either saddle or reins or even a bare halter."
"He rode far out, then came back at a hard gallop, guiding the stallion Senor Dios alone knows how, since both hands were busy with the bow. Muchachos, he started loosing shafts at a hundred meters or better from that bale of straw, and here to tell you is this one that not one of the dozen shafts he loosed was outside a space I could cover with my palm and fingers."
"That would be good shooting from a firm stand at fifty meters. But from a galloping, barebacked horse at a hundred? Angel Gonzales, Don Humberto's sergeant, is himself a bowmaster and has, as we all know, won many, many gold pesos in competition, and he told me that there can be no man in all the Four Kingdoms of Mexico with such skill."
The merchant took a long draught of his pulque, puffed his cigarro back to life, then lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Don Humberto avows that the Senor Malyo de Morré is but a noble traveler from somewhere in the Associated Duchies of Chile, who is passing through on a leisurely trip; but Andel opines that he is none other than one of the famous Defensores Argentinos, on loan to our Emperor from the Emperor of the Argentinas and traveling secretly, incognito and in a most roundabout route to meet with his new master."
Of course, all of them were wrong. Maylo de Morré was much less than they thought, but far more than they could imagine.
The long, difficult and dangerous journey across the Sierra Madre Occidentals to the Grand Duchy of Chihuahua was accomplished--through the good offices of Don Humberto, who seemed to have highly placed friends and/or relatives at the courts of all four kins and of the Emperor, as well--in company with a heavily guarded caravan which had wound down from the Emperor's alternate capital at Guadalajara and was proceeding slowly up the coast roads, making frequent stops so that the merchants might offers their wares and the attached imperial officers could collect the yearly taxes from the various local officers, such as Don Humberto.
Despite the numerous and well-armed guards, Don Humberto would not hear of his guest departing with less than a full squad of his own lancer-bodyguards, a quarter of servants, and a fully equipped and provided pack-train to afford the estimable Conde Maylo de Morré security and civilized comforts on the long trek over the mountains. Don Humberto had never been able to obliquely wheedle--for of course gentlemen did not demand or even inquire about unoffered personal information from other gentlemen; it would have been most impolite--any particulars of el Senor's true origin, nationality, family or rank from him. But he had proclaimed him a count so that his "rank" would match that of the commander of the caravan, who then would treat el Senor as an equal. The old Don felt that it was the least he could do to repay his guest for the many hours of pleasure his tales of the lands and peoples and their singular customs and mores had brought him here in his isolated and provincial little backwater empire.
For his own part, Don Ramón, Conde-Imperial de Guanajuato and Colonel-General of the Imperial Tax Service, had not needed old Don Humberto's assurances. He knew a well-bred man when he saw one--the air of relaxed self-assurance, the strict observance of the courtesies and proprieties, the matchless seat which made a single creature of him and his fine destrier, the easy and natural assumption of command, like a hand slipping into an old and well-worn glove. Indeed, Don Ramón suspected that this foreign "Conde" had deliberately misled the aged Humberto, which his true rank was likely several notches higher, and throughout the first two legs of the journey, he deferred to his guest as he would have to his own overlord, el Principle de los Numeros. High nobles were often wont to travel incognito--this Don Ramón knew well from his years in and around the imperial court--and while he diligently played the game and always addressed the foreigner by his nombre de guerra and his assumed title, he never failed to treat him and see that he was treated like a prince of the imperial house.
The ambuscade was sprung in a rock-walled pass, high in the Sierras. While rocks crashed about them, throwing off knife-sharp splinters, and arrows hummed their dead song, while horses and mules and men screamed, whips cracked and confusion of those in authority was reflected in their torrent of often contradictory orders, Don Ramón caught a glimpse of Conde Maylo.
Despite his evident fear--his rolling eyes and distended nostrils--the palomino stallion stood still as a statue, while his noble rider calmly uncased and strung his hornbow. Behind him, his ten lances tried hard to emulate him, their efforts frustrated partially by less biddable mounts. Only the short, scar-faced sergeant managed to get his mount under sufficient control to allow him to ready his own bow and follow his lord when that worthy moved at an easy walk up into the pass.
When he was where he wished to be, the Conde once more brought his horse to a rigid halt. With rocks bouncing about them and arrows occasionally caroming off their helmets, the sergeant and his lord commenced--before Ramón's half-disbelieving eyes--such a demonstration of superior archery as not even the ancient rocks could ever before have witnessed.
Soon, the falling rocks had been completely replaced by falling, screaming bodies, and after the good dozen of the bandit archers had hurtled, dead or dying, to the floor of the pass or had dropped their bows to sink back against the rock walls, shrieking in agony and clutching at the feathered shafts which had skewered various portions of their anatomies, their so-far living and whole comrades faded back among the boulders.
So it was that, when the heavily armed and mounted element of bushwhackers struck the head of the column, they found not a shattered, disorganized and demoralized party to slaughter and plunder at leisure, but rather a rock-hard line of disciplined troops.
Even before they came into physical contact with the waiting soldiery and gentry--almost all of whom should have been down, crushed by rocks or stuck full of arrows--volley on well-aimed volley of shafts rose up in a hissing cloud from the rear ranks to wreak havoc and death amongst the attackers.
Those who had set and activated the ambuscade were not soldiers but hit-and-run banditti, so they could not have been faulted for breaking and running immediately they saw their leaders hacked by sabers and broadswords, lifted writhing from their saddles on dripping lance points or hurled to death amid the stamping hooves by blow of ax or mace. Run, the survivors did and pursued they were. Very few escaped alive, nor were any prisoners taken, though several dozen heads were.
Few of the captured horses were of much account, so they were simply stripped of their ratty gear and turned loose. Those, which looked as if they might bring a price or a reward, were added to the packtrain, loaded with bags of bandit-heads and bundles of captured weapons, valuable for the worked metal.
For the rest, a few pieces of jewelry were taken from the corpses and a scant handful of gold and silver coin were garnered, as well as two battered, antique helmets and an assortment of arm rings of brass, copper and iron. None of the robbers had possessed boots or armor of any description or even decent clothing, only rags, rope sandals and jackets of stiff, smelly, ill-cured hide sewn with strips and discs of horn and bone.
Ramón had noted, despite the confusion of the melee, that Morré's skill with his exotic saber was superior to that of most swordsmen if not quite the equal of his astounding talent with the hornbow; on the lance he could render no judgment, since his guest's shaft had splintered on the first shock. But he was satisfied that this Don Maylo de Morré was a most competent warrior, by any standards, as well as a natural and accomplished field commander.
And all of this simply deepened the mystery, in the Conde-Imperial's mind.
While men were sent to climb the crags to detach the heads of those ambushers who had not fallen from their perches--for each bandit head would bring half a peso in silver upon delivery to the proper authority--Ramón circulated, taking stock of his own casualties. That was when he saw Morré, leading his golden chestnut down the rocky defile, with young Don Caspar de Garrigo reeling in the saddle and the stocky archer-sergeant with the scarred, pocked face straddling the animal's broad rump and gripping the high cantle. From both men, steady trickles of blood dripped down to streak the stallion's glossy hide.
After his aides and other hurriedly summoned men had lifted down the swooning hidalgo and the agonized and creatively cursing sergeant, Ramón offered his own, sweat-soaked scarf to "Conde" Maylo, who was dabbing at the blood streaks on his destrier's flanks.
"No, thank you. Count Ramón," croaked Moire from a dry throat. "The only thing that will really help El Dorado, here, is a good wash. I'd settle for a pint of cool wine ... or even a bare mouthful of stale water, right now."
Ramón proffered the miraculously unbroken saddle-bottle. "Brandy-water, my lord, the best I fear I can do until we get on about a mile and set up camp."
After a long, long pull at the flask, Morré said, "A mile, in those wagons, over these rocks? The young knight will likely be dead when we get there. Why not camp here? That riff-raff, what's left of them, won't be back."
"My lord's pardon, please," said Ramón. "But this is not my first such trip. I know these mountains. This pass doubles as a seasonal riverbed. If my lord will regard those watermarks"--he indicated discolorations at least twelve feet high on the rock walls of the gap--"in this season, a storm could blow in from the west at any moment. But a mile beyond this place there is a fine plateau, with a spring and grass and a few trees.
"As for Don Gaspar, he is a tough hombre. And your sergeant, well, he looks to be the consistency of boiled leather. But I shall see that they are constantly attended and well-padded."
In camp, Ramón and Morré watched the gypsy horse leech-cum-physician--all they now had, as the master physician of the Conde-Imperial's staff had been brained by a 'boulder early on in the ambush'--fumble and blunder his way through a wound-closure, nearly burning himself with the cautery.
Sergeant Angel Gonzales, whose deep wounds in thigh and upper arm assured him next place in line, had also been observing the less than efficient performance. Raising his good arm to attract his lord's attention, he said, laconically, "Don Maylo, if it please you, I be a old sojer and I've survived right many wounds and camp fevers and I think I'd as life take my chances with dying of blood-losing or the black rot as put my flesh neath the iron of that faraon fastidioso. Like as not, he'd miss his pass at my thigh and sear off my man-parts."
Morré smiled reassuringly down at his follower. "His lack of skill is not calculated to breed confidence, is it, Angel? Would you trust my hand guiding that cautery more?"
The sergeant's ugly head bobbed vigorously. "For a surety, Don Maylo. But ... your pardon, my lord. My lord has burned wounds before?"
"I, too, am an old soldier, Angel." He said, gravely, "Yes, I have closed many a wound, over the years. And," he added with a grin to lessen the palpable tension, "never once have I toasted valuable organs ... by accident."
With Angel and a couple of other lancers behind him, Morré and the men attending to the brazier and the dead physician's other instruments proceeded with Ramón to his tent, wherein waited Don Caspar de Garrigo.
At Moire's direction, the young knight was lifted off the camp bed and onto a sheet of oilskin spread on the earth. To Ramón's questioning look, he answered, "That bed has too much give to it. Count Ramón, and we need above all things a firm surface beneath him. Have your men get his breeks off and his linens as well. When the iron burns his flesh, his body will release its water and probably its dung, too. You saw that outside, there."
Morré reflected silently that chances were good the boy would die of lockjaw--tetanus infection--no matter what was done for him. "Short of," he thought, "tetanus toxoid and antibiotics, but this poor lad was born five or six hundred years too late for such medical sophistication."
A crude spear--really just an old knife-blade riveted to a shaft--had been jammed completely through the calf of the right leg, two thicknesses of boottop-leather, the tough, quilted saddle-skirt and deeply enough into the horse's body to kill him, outright. Then Don Caspar had suffered the ill fortune to lie pinned beneath the dead horse until Morré had chanced across him. Likely, the horse's body fluid had seeped into the man's wound.
But Morré resolved to do the best he could with the primitive tools at hand. He sought through the bag of instruments until he found what he assumed was an irrigation instrument--a bulb of gut attached to a copper tube--then rinsed it inside and out with brandy from Ramón's seemingly inexhaustible stock. He poured another quart bottle of the fiery beverage into a small camp-kettle, added half the measure of clear, cold spring-water and nodded to the waiting lancers who knelt to pinion the half-conscious knight into immobility.
Filling the bulb with the liquid. Moire scraped away the clots at either end of the wound and, disregarding the fresh flow of blood, thrust the nozzle of the copper tube into one end, pressed the gory flesh tight about it and gave the bulb a powerful squeeze. Diluted blood squirted out of the opposite opening.
And Don Caspar, his raw flesh subjected to the bite of the brandy, came to full, screaming, thrashing consciousness. He was an exceedingly strong young man and the six lancers were hard-put to hold him down, much less still, so before he proceeded with his treatment, Morré called for three or four more men.
But such was the pain of the second flushing of the penetrating stab that the hidalgo again lapsed into an unconscious state, though still he moaned and thrashed fitfully. When the wound was as clean as he felt he could get it. Moire took a thick strip of tooth-scarred rawhide from the physician's bag, swished it about in undiluted brandy, then placed it between Don Caspar's jaws, securing it with an attached strap around the patient's head.
While one of his helpers sopped up the fluids--blood, brandy, water, serum, sweat and urine--from the oilskin, Morré looked to the cauteries in the glowing brazier, selected one and wrapped a bit of wet hide around the shaft.
"All right, hombres, turn the senor over, then hold him as if your lives depended on it. Put your weight on him. You, there, sit on his buttocks. Pablo, take your best grip on that knee. If your hands slip, I swear I'll burn them for you."
The patient had the misfortune to regain consciousness bare seconds before Morré was ready. Ramón knelt, gently dabbed the younger man's brow with a bit of wet sponge and softly admonished, "Be brave, now, Caspar. Remember the honor of your casa. Set your teeth into the pera de agonia and implore Nuestra Senora that She grant you strength. Don Maylo is most skilled and it will be done quickly."
It was. Morré lifted the pale-pink-glowing cautery from its nest of coals, blew on it once to remove any bits of ash, took careful aim, then laid it firmly upon the entry wound, holding it while he counted slowly to five. He tried vainly to stop his nose to the nauseating stench of broiling flesh, his ears to the gasps and whining moans of his patient.
Morré returned the cautery to the brazier and examined his handiwork, critically, while Don Caspar relaxed, sobbing despite himself, and a lancer cleaned his buttocks and legs of what had come when his anal sphincter failed. Ramón, himself, sponged away the mucus, which had gushed from the tormented man's nostrils, all the while softly praising his bravery and self-discipline. Moire decided he could hardly have done a better job and, as he turned again to the brazier, hoped that the second and last burning would go as well. * * * *
After that day, if Morré had revealed himself to truly be a pretender to the throne of the Emperor of the Four Kingdoms and in league with El Diablo, himself, atop it all, not a noble or man of the tax train but would have raised his banner and his war cry, and Conde-Imperial Ramón would have been first.
During the lengthy stay of the caravan in Ciudad Chihuahua, Ramón saw to it that his newfound friend, "Conde" Maylo de Morré, was feted and honored by his cousin, Duque-Grande Alberto. The shrewd Conde-Imperial also arranged an exhibition of archery so that his tales of Morré 's expertise might be believed in future days, and further took advantage of the day to realize more than a few golden pesos by confidently backing Morré against any and all local contenders.
The way of the tax train now lay south--through the grand-duchy of Durango and so back to Guadalajara and the imperial court--and Ramón tried every argument and enticement he could muster to attempt to persuade Morré to accompany him, rather than following his announced course north, through the inhospitable and bandit-infested desert to Ciudad Juarez and El Paso del Norte. But it was all in vain. Moire was determined. The best that Ramón and his cousin, Duque-Grande Alberto, were able to accomplish was to convince their honored guest that he should delay his departure a couple more weeks and ride north in company with a detachment of replacement troops bound for Fortaleza Bienaven-turanza, just north of the river which separated the sister cities.
At one of the informal dinners a week or so prior to Ramón's scheduled departure, the subject of old Don Humberto, lord of Mazatlán, came up in conversation.
"Ay, poor Umbo," sighed the Duque-Grande, dabbing at his beard and flaring moustachios with a linen napkin, "our two fathers were old comrades, you know, and he and I soldiered together forty years ago, both of us young ensigns in the Dragon Regiment. Ah, those were brave days!"
Morré, looking every inch the hidalgo in his silks and tooled leathers and sparkling jewels, set down his goblet of chased silver and asked, "You said, 'poor Umbo,' my lord duke. May one inquire why? During the month I guested with him, Don Humberto seemed happy enough to me, and Ramón, here, tells me that the old man is a favorite of his overlord, loved by his people and much respected at the imperial court. He takes much pride in the horses he breeds, and rightly so. My own El Dorado is one of the finest and best-trained mounts I have ever straddled."
"Alas," answered the Duque-Grande, "those horses are all that Umbo has left, these days. All four of his fine sons were slain while fighting bravely for the Emperor in Yucatán, these twenty years agone. Then the great plague, which decimated the Four Mexicos three years later, took his entire household--his wife. Doña Ana, his three young, unmarried daughters, the widows of two of his sons and all his grandchildren.
"When he dies, there will be none of his casa to swear the oaths and take over the fief. The overlord will have to take the oaths from some outsider and then there will be trouble in Mazatlán ... mayhap, much trouble. There often is when one casa replaces another, especially a native other, on a fief. Good old Umbo knows this too, and you can be certain the knowledge grieves him, for he is a good man, a good lord and loves his lands and people."
Morré shrugged. "It seems a problem simply enough solved, my lord. He appears a lusty man, even yet, so surely he has a bastard or six living nearby. Why does he not just recognize a likely man of his siring as legitimate? In his position, I would do such."
The Duque-Grande loudly cracked a knuckle. "Other lands, other customs, Conde Maylo. Yes, Umbo has many bastards of both sexes and ranging in age from mere toddlers to not many years his junior. And not just in his homeland, either--he always was mucho hombre. But, Conde Maylo, in the Mexicos, a common born bastard cannot so easily be legitimatized, not if lands and succession are involved.
"Umbo could recognize every bastard of his casa in all of Mazatlán, but he would not be allowed to name any of them heir to imperial fiefs. To inherit lands, obligations and privileges, a man must be born to the hidalgúia or, failing that, be a formally-invested caballero, elevated for conspicuous bravery in the service of the Emperor."
Morré stared into the dark-purple depths of his wine, for a moment, a smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. He was privy to some knowledge to which these two noblemen were not, and it had required time and cunning to set them up so perfectly for consummation of his plan.
"My lord Duque-Grande, if a commoner soldier should take his stand over a fallen knight and fight long and hard, sustaining grave wounds himself, to protect that knight from a horde of foemen, would that be considered grounds for his elevation in rank?"
The Duque-Grande nodded vigorously. "Of a certainty, but at least two noblemen must witness the act."
Morré went on. "You claim friendship of old with Don Humberto and you recognize his predicament. Were you presented a bastard of his who had the requisite noble witnesses to stand for him, would you undertake the investiture?"
"Why, of course, Conde Maylo!" snapped the Duque-Grande. "I should be more than overjoyed were it only possible for me to do such for my old comrade."
Then, Morré told his secret.
Angel Gonzales, sometime sergeant of lances, was knighted in the spacious chapel of the grand-ducal residence by Duque-Grande Alberto, assisted by Conde-Imperial Ramón. The Duque-Grande's gift to the new caballero was impressive in the extreme--a fully trained destrier and all equipage. The Conde-Imperial gave a fine, thigh-length hauberk, mail leggings and a helmet.
Young Don Gaspar, whose life Angel's courage and ferociousness had saved, presented a beautifully wrought dagger-belt of interwoven chains and plaques of bronze and steel, a splendid dirk, eating knife and skewer (with matching hilts) and the gold-washed spurs which he buckled onto the new caballero, himself.
Morré proffered the finest broadsword that many of the assembled throng of nobles had ever seen. Duque-Grande Alberto had truly hated to part with the magnificent weapon, but Conde Maylo had readily paid its full value--in honest-weight, undipped gold pieces--and he had known to whom its buyer would present it.
From the noblemen of the grand-duchy came an oaken battlelance and a triple-bullhide target, rimmed and bossed in iron. The noblewomen gave a silken pennon and two sets of fine plumes--one for his helmet, one for his horse's headgear. Both the target and the embroidered pennon were executed with his device--suggested by Morré--a drawn bow, silver, with an arrow nocked, gold, on a field, black; the plumes reflected the colors of the arms--black, gold and silver.
Throughout the solemn proceedings, Morré had to refrain from looking at Angel's face, lest he burst out laughing. Ever since the moment three days ago when then-Sergeant Gonzaies had been summoned to the formal proceedings at the palace, before the Duque-Grande himself and heard himself praised to the very skies by Conde-Imperial Ramón, Conde Maylo, Don Gaspar and all the other hidalgos of the tax train, the poor, humble soldier's expression had been that of a man just kicked in the head by a pack mule.
And throughout the long, formal dinner which followed the investiture and elevation, he simply sat, obviously bemused, at his place of honor on the Duque-Grande's right Morré, who flanked the new caballero, had to constantly remind him to eat and drink.
Most of the night before his train's departure, Conde Ramón spent with Morré and several bottles of the Duque-Grande's best brandy. As the empties accumulated, he suddenly leaned across the low table and spoke in a hoarse whisper.
"Since first we met in Mazatlán, my lord and friend, Maylo, I have known what you are, though I played your game by the rules you laid down. But in the time since that meeting, we have, together, seen both life and death and shared many a bottle. Now we must take separate roads, for you ride north and it is my bounden duty to ride south with the morrow's dawning. It well may be that we two never shall meet and drink and talk again.
"As you know, by now, I am a man who never fails to render due honor to those whom Senor Dios has seen fit to place above me, for I hold this to be the only right and proper way for any man of any station to live his life. But, please, my friend Don Maylo, try to forgive the impertinence of my great curiosity. On this last night, can you not tell me your true rank and allegiance, on my word of honor that none other ever shall hear it from my lips?"
Conde Maylo smiled. "Very well, Don Ramón. I really am a chief of the northern horse nomads. I am six hundred years old and I have spent the last two hundred years roaming the world in search of a fabled island whereon men never age or die."
Ramón stared at him for a long moment, open-mouthed and goggle-eyed. Then he sank back into his chair, chuckling and shaking his head, ruefully.
"For a second, there, you almost had me believing you, Don Maylo; your forbearance, please, but you are a convincing liar, when you wish to be. Very well, my friend, it was a most courteous refusal and gave me a good laugh, in the bargain. I shall not again pry into matters, which must not concern me.
"Come, then, we have two full bottles left."
The dawn leavetaking was emotional in the extreme. Tears streamed from Don Ramon's black eyes as he clapped his arms about Don Maylo in a fierce abrazo. Between strangled sobs, he said, "My dear friend, I assure you that I never shall forget you and ever shall I pray for your continued health and welfare. If ever your travels lead you to the Condado of Guanajuato, be you assured of a welcome in keeping with your station and my sincere love and respect for you.
"In regard to the other matter, immediately I have discharged my duty to the Emperor and to my overlord, I shall dispatch Don Caspar and an escort to Don Humberto at Mazatlán, to advise him of the elevation and investiture of his son, Don Angel Gonzales. By the time Don Angel returns to Mazatlán, no doubt he will be legitimate in the eyes of the law.
"Don Angel gained much respect in the eyes of the hidalgúia, hereabouts, when he refused to accompany me back south. His decision to carry out the orders of Don Humberto, despite his elevation, and see you safely to your destination was both proper and honorable. He will make a good caballero ... and our Four Kingdoms stand always much in need of such men." * * * *
In all times, all lands and among all peoples, military operations very seldom proceed on schedule, and the northernmost kingdom of the Four Mexicos, circa 2550 A.D., proved no exception to the norm. The last contingent of replacements for the fortress on the Rio Grande marched into Ciudad Chihuahua two full weeks after their supposed date of departure from that city and yet another fortnight elapsed before the column finally formed up just beyond the north gate of the city and, with brilliantly dad and equipped hidalgo officers on glossy, prancing horses in the lead, followed by a troop of lancers and one of dragoons, three hundred pikemen and crossbowmen marching to the beat of their massed drums, a long, rumbling train of heavy wagons and a final troop of lancers, they were on the road.
Capitán Don Jorge de las Torres was pleased and flattered with his guests--one a new-made caballero of about his own age and the other a somewhat mysterious foreign nobleman. He and his lancers escorted these convoys three or four times each year and, after the first year or so, they became boring, routine and tedious. Therefore, he eagerly anticipated this novel element added to the journey.
There was seldom even the brief excitement of a raid or an ambush. For all that the barren land through which they passed swarmed with ruffians of every description and for all that it was well known that among his wagons was the three-month payroll of the northern garrison and that of the government officials of the sister-cities, not to mention stocks of food, wines, clothing, equipment and special consignments of luxury-items, few banditti were willing to take on three hundred infantry and nearly a hundred horsemen.
The captain was not a born hidalgo, though he had lucked into a marriage with a born hidalgo, so his children would all be hereditary nobles; he had become a caballero in the same way as had Angel--well-witnessed bravery during the wars which had ended the brief secession of the Kingdom of Yucatan some twenty years earlier. He knew that he probably would die still a captain, as he could never seem to accumulate the funds necessary to purchase a higher rank, not with a household to maintain, sons to arm and outfit and daughters to decently dower. But soldiering was the only trade he owned and he had no option but to pursue it.
His taste and meager purse did not run to fine brandies, but rather to raw tequila and mescal, though he was unstintingly lavish to his guests and officers with what little he did have. He and Don Angel seemed cut of the same bolt--they thought similarly about almost all topics, they spoke the same language and both were more than a little wary of the young hidalgos who were Don Jorge's lieutenants--so they quickly became fast friends.
The winding road across the desert--blisteringly hot by day, bitterly cold by night--measured almost five hundred kilometers from the north gate of Ciudad Chihuahua to the south gate of Ciudad Juarez, usually a two-week journey. But this trip proved anything but usual.
Three days out, a wagon axle broke just as the day's march was commencing. Then the axles of two more gave way that afternoon. Nor was there anything for it but to halt the entire column while sweating, blaspheming drivers and infantrymen offloaded the vehicles, jacked them up and set about fitting on spare axles. While one of the afternoon crews was gathering flattish rocks to help brace the jack, a sergeant of infantry was bitten in the cheek by a huge rattlesnake and died within minutes of fear-induced heart failure. And that day was only the beginning.
Two days further on, the point galloped back to report the discovery of a battlefield. With Don Maylo, Don Angel and his handful of lancers, plus a couple of squads of his own, Captain de las Torres followed the point back to where the other scouts waited.
The sight was grim enough. The bare-picked bones of at least thirty men and a dozen horses lay in and around a shallow depression. No weapons, equipment of man or horse or even boots were left, but such bits of stained, ragged, sunbleached cloth as remained caused the bandy-legged captain to frown, squint and purse his chapped lips.
"Lancers and dragoons, a mixed troop of them," he said softly to Dons Maylo and Angel and the lieutenant of scouts, Don Esteban. "Either from La Forteleza or from Fuerte Media, surely, but in either case, why in hell were they bound south? To meet us? Why?"
But the grinning skulls about his feet could give no answer.
The column's marching order was immediately tightened and van- and rear-guards were reinforced, two echelons of flank riders were set out to pace the advance, infantry marched and cavalry rode in full gear with ready weapons. The perimeters of night camps were tightly patrolled by alert sentries walking overlapping posts. But the train reached the halfway point, Fuerte Media, without incident.
The low, adobe houses surrounding the desert fort were almost deserted, all the inhabitants being packed within the strong walls, apparently with all their livestock and personal possessions. No room remained for the wagons and horses or even for more than a bare handful of the men of the column, so Captain de las Torres disgustedly billeted both men and animals in the empty homes, blocked the one street and the interstices between the houses with his wagons and ordered a strong guard while he went to confer with the fort commander.
With the formalities completed amid a chorus of chattering men and women, screaming, scurrying children, the ceaseless lowing of cattle, the barking of dogs and the hubbub attending the sudden onslaught of one burro stallion against another, Captain Juan Alvarez led his three visitors to his office, where a reddish hen sat in the middle of his cluttered desk. With a wave of a short, pudgy arm, the commander sent the fowl fluttering and scolding out the window, leaving a brown egg behind.
When all had been seated and served with half-liter mugs of tepid pulque, the short, stout, florid infantry officer gave what little information he had, most of it secondhand.
"It was a fortnight ago, Don Jorge, that Major Don Vicente rode south with his mixed troop, all that were left, he averred, of the cavalry contingents of La Fortaleza."
"A little over a troop?" snapped Don Jorge, incredulously. "Out of six troops of lancers and two of dragoons?"
Alvarez just shrugged his shoulders, spreading his hands, palms upward, over his bulging belly. "Senor, I relate only that which was told to me. Don Vincente said that the peoples of the wastes had banded together and were attacking anyone who tried to either enter or leave the cities or the fortress. Worse, they were creeping under the very walls by night, loosing fire-arrows into the cities or killing the wall guards and scaling the walls to loot and rape and murder, to set fires and destroy food stocks."
The commander raised his mug and gulped noisily, then went on. "In the beginning, lancers were dispatched every time these outrages occurred, but losses were so heavy, what with ambushes in the dark, that the Commandante forbade any more night patrols, no matter how serious the matter. Instead, he sent infantrymen to reinforce the wall- and gate-guards."
Don Jorge nodded. "The wisest decision, of course. But how, by the four-and-twenty balls of the Twelve Apostles, could over three hundred cavalry have been lost in a few piddling skirmishes?"
"They were not so lost, Don Jorge," stated Alvarez. "They were killed in a battle. Raiders had gotten into the northern city one night and opened the north gate to admit scores of their ilk; the guards had fought all night long to hold the citadel and the wall towers, perforce leaving the poor citizens to their terrible fates at the bloody hands of the barbarian butchers.
"With the dawn, the brazen swine commenced to troop out of the blazing city, laden with loot of every description, mules, horses and livestock and even female captives. When this dreadful sight was seen through long-glasses from the walls of the fortress, the Commandante himself had all of the cavalry assembled and led them out in pursuit of the reavers."
The fat officer's voice dropped almost to a whisper. "Within sight of the fortress, a thousand or more men rose up from hiding places or rode out of arroyos and completely surrounded the Commandante and his men, piercing dozens, scores with clouds of arrows, like fish in a barrel, before closing with lances, spears, sabers and axes.
"Three officers and twenty-nine men fought their way back to where the wall archers in the fortress could cover them, and those were the men commanded by Major Don Vicente when he passed through here, bound to report the disaster to El Duque-Grande at Ciudad Chihuahua. The good God rest his soul, he was a gallant caballero." The fat man signed himself, reverently.
Captain de las Torres and Don Angel also crossed themselves, then the captain asked, "And that is the reason why your fort is so overcrowded, eh?"
The commander had again been applying himself to the mug of pulque. Hurriedly lowering it, he shook his head vigorously. "No, Don Jorge, the night after Don Vicente and his men had ridden onward, many, many fires were seen in the hills to the northwest. The next morning, several scores of riders were seen no more than a half-mile away, riding south. That was when I felt it would be best if the families, of my garrison and the other folk of the village, came within the fort."
"And these hombres, when did they ride back?" demanded Captain Jorge.
"For all that any of us knows," replied the plump officer, "the bastardos are still in the south, or out there in the hills."
Captain de las Torres' tone betokened both exasperation and disgust. "You have not at least scouted out the flanking hills. Captain Alvarez?"
The officer leaned as far over his desk as his belly would permit "Captain Don Jorge, as you know, my garrison includes one squad of lancers. What could ten men do against so many? Call me coward if you will, but I thought it better to simply wait, without risking my men's lives, until either your train or a relief column from Ciudad Chihuahua reached us."
Captain de las Torres sighed. "No, I'll not name you coward, overcautious, perhaps, but ... hell, who can say what I might have done in your place. Well, assign a man of your squad to each of my patrols and I'll have the hills scouted out today.
"For tomorrow, hmmm." He sat for a moment or two pulling at his spade beard. "I think it might be better if you, your garrison and all these civilians marched on to La Fortaleza with my column. A force of hostile men as large as that mentioned by the late Don Vicente could overrun this dung heap within hours. You'll all be safer, and your troops will be of more value, at La Fortaleza, than huddling here, so overcrowded that you'll likely all die of a fever if the enemy doesn't get you first." * * * *
Later, as the captain, Dons Maylo and Angel and two of de las Torres's lieutenants sat about a round, knife-scarred table in the main room of what bad been the village cantina, now requisitioned for their headquarters, the train commander stated bluntly, "This whole business is so fantastic as to smack of downright impossibility--save that I've known Fat Juanito for many a year and, while be has many vices, lying is not one of them. But all the same, never within the memory of man have the riffraff, bandits and skulkers combined into a force of such numbers. Usually, they spend more time fighting each other than they do attempting to prey on us, on our columns. And to attack walled cities and annihilate a reinforced squadron in open battle, such a thing would be called an impossibility by any officer who heard of it. Yet, we all know that they ... that someone wiped out a troop, at least.
"We could, of course, go back to Ciudad Chihuahua and march back with a relief column, but it is probable that our men and our supplies are now desperately needed by the folk to the north. Possibly another officer might decide it best to stay here, at Fuerte Media, send dispatch riders back to Ciudad Chihuahua and hope for the best; but I feel that this place is now untenable, for many reasons.
"No, senores, it is my intention that we march north in the morning, with Captain Alvarez's garrison and their dependents, all supplies and military materiel and such stock as can easily be transported or driven. This is my decision. However, I am always open to suggestion."
So saying, he leaned back in a creaky chair and sipped at a measure of mescal, his black eyes roving from one to the other of his companions.
Teniente Gregorio, slender, foppish and always keenly conscious that he was an hidalgo--Don Maylo's clearest recollection of the eighteen-year-old junior officer during the march was of his two-day sulk after Captain de las Torres countermanded his order to have the men laboring to repair the wagons whipped in order to speed their progress--lisped, "Capitán, I agree that we should take most of the garrison of the fuerte, but why should we burden ourselves with this useless gaggle of women, children, pigs and chickens? They probably lack decent transport and will slow our advance to a crawl, robbing us of such little maneuverability as we now have."
De las Torres set down his cuplet and leaned forward. "Teniente, even with your limited military experience, you must be aware that Puerto Media would not withstand any really determined enemy for a day, even with a full garrison. For us to strip the best part of the garrison and then march away would be to condemn those left behind to the uncertain mercies of an enemy, and I, for one, could not do so coldly callous a thing. Besides, just how dependable would our impressed troops be, knowing that their families had been left behind unprotected, eh?"
Teniente Gregorio's handsome face twisted as if to spit out something distasteful. "Pah! The Capitán should have been a priest. Such soft sentimentality is not for soldiers." He looked at the other men for approval. Don Maylo's face was a blank, Don Angel looked cool and wary, the other junior officer, however, allowed the ghost of a smile to flit momentarily over his full lips, and this was enough to fuel further remarks from Gregorio.
"Besides, these so-called soldiers, from their gross commander on downward, are nothing but ignorant peones. They will fight when told to, or the gibbet and the whip will reward their insubordination. Were you wise, you'd leave old Capitán de Puerco behind. He's too fat to march, and no doubt he'd quickly wear out a horse." He grinned.
De las Torres did not grin. The other lieutenant took one look at that glowering countenance, shivered and applied himself to his tipple.
'Teniente Gregorio," grated the captain from between clenched teeth, "has treated us all to the philosophy gleaned of his vast experience at soldiering. Just how long have you been in uniform, Teniente, all of six months? Eight? An entire year?
"Know you this, you pompous puppy, the man you name 'pig' is, for all his recent gain of girth, more man than you likely will live to be. Juan Alvarez was fighting in Yucatán when you knew not enough to wipe the milk--in which, I piss!--of your mother from your mouth."
The young fop knocked over his chair, stood on his spread feet, his hand upon his saberhilt, his face crimson. "I ... I'll not take such from lowborn scum like you, de las Torres. Draw your blade!"
A lazy smile on his lips, de las Torres arose and lifted the baldric supporting his scabbarded broadsword over his head. "Teniente Patricio, your saber, por favor. My good sword is both longer and heavier than most sabers, and I would not have men say that I took unfair advantage of our exquisite and hot-tempered young comparero. So, take you my weapon in exchange, and bar and guard the door."
De las Torres took the hilt of the saber in his big, horny hand, quickly found its balance and swung it experimentally a few times, then tested various areas of the keen edge on a calloused thumb, before releasing the hilt long enough to fit the saber-knot around his wrist with great care.
At this last, the impatiently waiting Gregorio barked a harsh, scornful laugh. "Dear Capitán, do you fear that your clumsy, peon's paw will lose its grip?"
"Don't try to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs," muttered the captain, scuffing his bootsoles in the straw on the floor. Then, to Dons Maylo and Angel: "This is no concern of yours, senores. It is a matter of discipline in my command. And unless I miss my guess, it bears overtones of class conflict and personal animosity on the part of el rey de los maricónes, yonder."
His face working with rage, the younger man stamped forward, his saber blade swept downward in a bluish blur; but the captain simply sidestepped and the edge rang on the stone-hard dirt floor. De las Torres could easily have slain the raging officer then, and all present knew it. All he did, however, was to sink less than an inch of blade into the teniente's flat buttock.
"Puppy, mine," he laughed, "mastery of the light sword does not automatically confer mastery of the saber or the broadsword, you know."
Hurling his blade about in a wide swing at his tormentor, the young man swayed, off balance, when that rage-driven swing again failed to connect. And, again, his opponent deliberately passed up a chance to end the duel in a permanent and deadly manner, only pricking the teniente's other buttock.
"Baseborn peon coward!" snarled the young hidalgo. "Why do you run away? A gentleman or a real man of any kind would stand and fight, blade to blade."
The captain only smiled his infuriating smile of condescension. "What would you know of fighting, puppy? By the way you handle yours, one unknowing would think a saber was used for sickling grain or chopping wood."
Recovering his balance at last, the slender youth stamped forward and lunged at the captain's lower belly and crotch. The middle-aged officer, still smiling, sidestepped yet again and, rather than sinking his blade into the exposed body, flicked a quarter-inch off the top rim of an ear with a twist of the wrist.
"Nor, puppy, is the saber used for spearing fish," he admonished, in such tone as might be used to a backward child. Then, more conversationally, 'To allow your anger to surface in a sword fight--or in any other kind of fight, for that matter--is to drive reason and elementary caution from the mind ... usually, just a few moments before life leaves the body."
All at once, the teniente made as if to thrust again, then abruptly changed the movement to a backhanded upward slash at the captain's chin and throat. For the first time, their two blades met in a ringing clangor as de las Torres beat down the opposing saber.
His smile was no longer mocking and his voice not quite so bantering. "Now, Gregorio, that was better. You're beginning to let your mind fight, as well as your body." He did not pink his foe, this time.
For ten minutes more, the captain parried increasingly shrewd lunges, thrusts and cuts and slashes, always on the defensive, never using his obvious opportunities to maim or kill the younger man.
Finally, when the teniente was panting, gasping, streaked and soaked with sweat, and his swordwork was become slower and less accurate, the captain put a quick end to it by sending the teniente's blade flying out of the tired, slackened grip, to clatter into a corner. Teniente Gregorio, suddenly white as fresh curds, fumbled off his soft, velvet cap with one trembling hand while signing himself with the other, then he stood immobile, his lips moving in his final prayers and his eyes fixed upon the gleaming blade in his captain's hand.
The captain grinned. "Now, young sir, you can appreciate the value of the saber-knot, eh? But stop troubling the saints, Gregorio, I have no intention of killing you today."
"But ... I would've meant to ... kill ... you ... Capitán," panted the junior officer.
The smile became gentle. "There never was any danger of that, lad. I was a saber-master before you were born. You see, even we campesinos can master the sword if you take us early enough and give us good, patient teachers."
The young man's gaze dropped and his pale face reddened again. "I ... I should not have ... I insulted you, Capitán, and you ... no man has control of his birth. I should be ... Should I consider myself under arrest for my insubordination?"
De las Torres stepped forward and threw his left arm about the young officer's shoulders in a bone-cracking hug. "Lord love you, no, lad! We'll likely have to fight our way up to La Fortaleza and I'll need every sword, lance and bow. You go back there to the well and draw up a bucket or two of water and wash yourself. We don't want the men to think we've been fighting among ourselves, do we? Bad, very bad, for their morale, you know."
When the two tenientes had left, the one to help the other, de las Torres mopped his own slightly damp brow, whuuffed a couple of times, then downed the rest of his cup of mescal, before addressing the foreign Conde and Don Angel.
"It's an old story, senores. These lads come into my command thinking that because they are born to the hidalgúia their dung doesn't stink the same as any other man's. One session of sabers brought this one down to size. Sometimes it takes two or even three. Occasionally, God help me, I have to kill one."
Don Angel's brow wrinkled. "Is there not danger in killing the sons of hombres ricos, Don Jorge? Even for one of your rank?"
"Not really, Don Angel, no," answered the captain, soberly. "Both army and Empire value my services. Mine is basically a seasoning command, both for troopers and officers, and I turn out a good product, a fact well-known to those in authority." * * * *
Don Esteban Femandez was, as his captain's children would be, half-hidalgo, son of an hidalgo mother and a commoner father who had been knighted thirty years before. He was a senior lieutenant, in his early twenties, de las Torres's executive officer and his only officer with combat experience. During most of the march up from the south, he had commanded the scouts and, at de las Torres's order, had headed the patrols of the hills surrounding Fuerte Media.
The broad-shouldered young man strode into the temporary headquarters, covered with dust and stinking of man-sweat and horse-sweat After sketching the briefest of salutes, he sank into one of the chairs and, ignoring the cups, drank long and deeply from one of the bottles, before commencing his report in a tired voice.
"Capitán, there are no bandidos within two miles on any flank of the fuerte ... Not now, but they have been damned recently. There were two camps, one to the east and one to the west, a total for both of eighty to one hundred mounted men, plus twenty or thirty head of spare horses, possibly a small remuda, possibly pack animals."
"Or possibly," put in the captain, "those horses of Don Vicente's command not killed in the massacre."
The dusty officer nodded once, brusquely, then went on. "They camped there at least a week, living mostly on wild game from the looks of it, but they must've brought their own water, because we could find no springs or wells up there. They moved out, north, either last night or early this morning, merging into a single column just out of sight of the fuerte."
De las Torres nodded. "Then they'll be waiting for us, up ahead, somewhere. There were no tracks leading back south, Esteban?"
Lowering the bottle from his lips, the officer sighed. "No, Capitán, I checked carefully. All the malditos rode north."
The captain nodded again. "A clear message, then. If we turn about, we'll be allowed to go in peace. If we march on toward La Fortaleza, we'll have to fight.
"All right, Esteban, choose four men who know the country, put them up on the best and freshest horses you can find. Give them both written and oral messages to the Duque Grande, telling his grace what has occurred with our column, what Capitán Juan told of and what I intend. Send them out in twos; if they are attacked, one is to stay and fight, one is to ride on. Comprendes?" * * * *
Teniente Gregorio had been right about one thing. The addition of the dependents and other civilians to the column slowed the march to a snail's pace, and keeping the heterogeneous elements closed up to a defensible unit was a constant and nerve-fraying task for the officers and noncoms. But it was done. The scouts often reported fresh sign and occasional sightings of distant riders, but they were allowed to proceed for more than a week without interference from the enemy.
It was during an unofficial conference in his tent, the ninth night out of Fuerte Media, that Capitán Don Jorge told his assembled staff and guests, "Senores, Don Esteban and I discussed a matter this afternoon with several of the lancers from the command of Capitán Alvarez and we now think we know what these bastardos are up to, where they likely intend to hit us. If you gentlemen will help to anchor this."
Taking a tightly rolled parchment map from its case of oiled leather, he spread it out on the camp table. "We are here." He used his long dirk for a pointer. "Tomorrow morning we should pass through the ruins of a small village that dates to the time before the Plagues of God. It has not been inhabited since then--for one thing, the campesinos all swear that it is haunted, for another and more practical reason, there is no longer any reliable source of water thereabouts. But some of the walls are still standing and it would make a marvelous site for an ambush.
"But if we are not struck there"--his dirk point moved on--"there is this deep, narrow arroyo, a kilometer northwest, you see."
"The Capitán has a plan to deal with these murderous scum?" asked Teniente Gregorio, respectfully.
When the column formed and rode out the next morning, an observer would have had to have been extremely close to note that quite a few of the "lancers" and "dragoons" were actually civilians, some of them women, mounted on spare horses and mules, decked out in uniforms and armor from the wagons and spare lances brought from Fuerte Media.
Guided by men from Capitán Juan Alvarez's lancer squad and by amateur copies of Don Jorge's map, forty picked men, commanded by Don Esteban and Gregorio, had quit the camp in the dead of night and now were resting in hiding places just outside the ancient ruins of the abandoned village. With them were Dons Maylo and Angel, their arming-men and six lancers.
Widely scattered in arcs on both sides of the road, the watchers could clearly pick out the knots of men squatting in the concealment offered by the half-tumbled walls. As no horses were in evidence, it was apparent that there must be more men somewhere nearby keeping the animals out of sight.
The rocks, which hid Don Maylo, were still cool from the frigid night, but the rising sun already was giving promise of the oven-like atmosphere that presently would envelop the desert and all it contained. Most of the inhabitants of this sun-blasted terrain were, perforce, creatures of the night, and were either already in their cool burrows and dens or would soon be there.
Don Maylo's keen peripheral vision detected a movement far to his left, and as he watched, a small desert cat--his companions would have called it a jaguarondi--crossed the space between the line of soldiers and the ruins in a series of swift rushes from one bit of concealment to the next, aided by the color of her coat--a brownish-tannish-gray, almost the same shade and texture as the rocks and pebbly clay.
Knowing from times long past that many felines were telepathic, Don Maylo sent his powerful mind ranging out. "Was the hunting good last night, cat-sister?"
But it clearly was not the small cat that answered him. The answer came on a beam of thought as powerful as his own, if not more so. It shocked him to the very core of his being, for he knew of old that power, knew that the mindspeaker could be nothing other than one of the prairie cats of the Horseclans far to the north, beyond the still-distant river called Rio Grande.
"The hunting never is really good in this place Sacred Sun seeks to destroy, as any Cat well knows. But ... your mind, it is not of Cat, it ... You are a two-leg! How do you speak the speech of Cats, Two-leg? Two-legs in this place do not speak to us, they only kill us, as they killed our mother and our brothers. Unless...?"
Another, equally powerful mind entered the "conversation." "Unless, sister mine, this be one of the good two-legs, of whom our mother spoke so often. Do you ride from the north, from the lands of tall grasses and good hunting. Two-leg? Are cats and horses your kindred, then?"
"Yes, cat-sisters, my stallion is my dear brother," replied Don Maylo. "Cats, too, once were my kindred, but in the many years since I left the lands of tall grasses, all those cat-kindred with whom I hunted plump deer and swift saber-horns and the fierce rams of the high plains have surely gone to Wind. But I would gladly be brother to two cat-sisters."
"If truly you be who and what you say," said the first cat, suspiciously, "then promise us The Promise."
Don Maylo did not need to ask what promise, for he had framed the words of that ancient pledge himself, to the first clans-born generation of prairie-cats.
"I will care for you when you are nursing and for your kittens, should you be slain. I will send you quickly to Wind when age has dimmed your eyes and dulled your teeth."
Then, Don Maylo felt his very skin prickle under the great wash of long-bottled emotion that swept into his mind from those two feline minds. "They are the proper words, the Promise that binds cat and two-leg, one to the other. Since the time when the Undying Uncle rode among His children, the clans. Leave your mind open. Brother, and we shall come to you."
"NO!" Don Maylo beamed forcefully. "No, cat-sisters. I am with two-legs who are not as am I. They cannot speak with you and would consider you dangerous animals and kill you.
"I am near to the ruined Dirtmen-place. There will soon be a battle here. Is your den near to this place?"
"Yes, cat-brother, a short run, no more," was the reply.
"Then den up until Sacred Sun goes to rest, sisters. I shall try to come to you tonight."
"You could never find our den, brother," one of the cats projected, assuredly.
"No," agreed Don Maylo, "probably not. So one of you must keep your mind open and ranging in this direction from ... say moonrise to moonset. That way, we can make contact and you two can come to me. But be sure to broadbeam soothingly, as you come, for my stallion is not Horseclans bred." * * * *
The dark-yellow moon rose clear and full over the still, chill desert landscape. From horizon to horizon, the black velvet of the night sky was bespangled with an untold myriad of twinkling stars. Within a small arroyo half a mile from the camp of the caravan Don Maylo's golden stallion, still saddled but bridleless, lazily wandered, browsing halfheartedly on the few rough plants, stamping and whiffing now and again at the tiny, scuttling creatures of the night.
On a ledge six feet up one wall sat Don Maylo, himself. Pressed close to either side, and reveling in the caresses of his strong, gentle hands as much as in the rapport of their three joined minds, sat the cat-sisters--big as jaguars of the far south they were in body, but with longer legs, legs made for the run rather than the short charge; their heads were as large as his own--larger, the cuspids of the upper jaws equipped with yellow-white fangs a good four inches long, their big, amber eyes glinting with intelligence.
They had opened their minds, their memories, to this new and so-satisfying brother, so that he now knew the story of how two three-year-old female prairiecats found themselves immured in this all but waterless place so far from their natural habitat. It was a tale of a raid-in-force by the warriors and cats of three southerly-ranging Horseclans, of a great and bloody battle somewhere in this desert and of a wounded cat crawling off from a stricken field to recover in a den found among the rocks. She bore the litter she had been carrying there, weaned the two' males and two females and taught them to hunt the small, elusive game. She also filled them with tales of the Horseclans--of men who could speak with, were the very brothers of, prairiecats.
Finally, when the kittens were large enough to travel long distances, the little family set out northward, toward the lands of the mother's birth. But disaster had struck at the wide, shallow river. Yelling men on horses had fought and slain and skinned the mother and both the brothers, who had bravely held the foe that the two sisters might win free. In the years since, the two cats had roamed, becoming creatures of the desert nights, avoiding men, their places and the river that barred their way north to the fabled lands of tall grasses and plentiful game and men who were brothers not foes.
They still went by the kitten-names, which their long-dead mother had given them, Mousesqueak and Skinkkiller. Though neither was fat--their diet and life did not allow for the accumulation of adipose tissue--Mousesqueak had grown to be slightly larger than her sister, perhaps one hundred and fifteen kilos. But the smaller cat did most of the speaking for the two and seemed to have the better memory, as well.
Skinkkiller asked, "Brother, how went your battle? I see that neither claw nor fang gashed your hide."
"It was no real battle, sisters," Maylo replied. "It was a slaughter. The ambushers were themselves ambushed, caught in the meshes of their own trap and either arrowed or ridden down before they could reach their horses."
"And so, now that your battle is done, brother, will you not lead us--my sister and me--back to the lands favored by Sacred Sun and Wind?" asked Mousesqueak, plaintively.
Don Maylo had given much thought to that very matter. To take the two cats among the folk of the caravan would be very sticky, to say the least The destination of that caravan, Gudad Juarez and the other city and the fortress, were really much farther west than he had intended going--he had originally intended crossing the Rio Grande somewhere near its confluence with the Rio San Francisco, then riding due north through the area which had been, hundreds of years ago, the State of Texas--but the friendships of first Conde Ramón and then Don Angel had kept him.
This was as good a time and place as any to part company with the column, and the loss of his one sword would not overly weaken the force. According to the information tortured out of the few survivors of the ambushers, the shaky alliance of bandido bands had already broken apart, and the couple of hundred annihilated by them yesterday morning had been the last large or really well-armed group. Nor had he aught to worry about in setting off alone, not with his advance scouted by, his flanks and rear guarded by, the two formidable cats.
Back in camp, he took Don Angel aside and spoke in low tones. "Well, old friend, the time has come when our trails must part. No, allow me to finish."
From under his hauberk, he drew his worn, sweatstained moneybelt and proffered it. "This will be of no use to me whence I am now bound, Angel. Give one onzas to each of our men and two onzas to the families of the two who were slain. The rest is yours, about forty onzas, or so."
The bandylegged sergeant-become-knight weighed the dark leather belt in one hand. "Con su permiso, Don Maylo, I am rich enough." He flexed a leg so that his horny fingers might tap the gilt spurs on his bootheels, meaningfully. "I shall give two onzas to each of our muchachos and bear four to the wives of the dead, the rest I shall 'lose' to Don Jorge at the dicecup, one night soon. Then he can afford to purchase a higher rank and better life.
"But as for you, surely you will need escort across this dangerous land. One lone man cannot..."
Don Maylo shook his head, smiling. "I shall not be alone, not exactly. Which brings us to my last request of you. Have our men take three of the best of the captured horses and fit them with packsaddles. On one, pack water for three men and three horses for a week, jerked meat, cheese and dried figs, my sleeping robes and two cases of arrows. Oh, and see if you can find me a wolfspear. You may have my lance in trade for it. Take my shield, as well, it's too heavy. Bring me a lancer's target instead, and a light horseman's axe."
As dawn paled the eastern sky, Don Angel rode out of camp, leading the three captured horses to the agreed point of rendezvous. Don Maylo met him at the mouth of the small arroyo on foot, but Angel could not greet him, for something was making the four horses fractious. After a few moments, however, they quieted as if by magic.
"All those things you asked are packed on the one horse, Don Maylo, as well as two fifty-kilo bags of grain, a pan, a stewpot, some clothing from your chest, some dried chilies, garlic and salt. The two bottles of mescal are from Don Jorge, who wishes you a safe journey, but respects your wish for an unannounced departure. Capitán Alvarez sends his best wishes and four dozen cigarros.
"But, please, Don Maylo, Don Humberto's--my father's--injunction was to see you safe to your journey's end or to the border of Mexico, whichever came first. The muchachos stand ready, even now. Cannot we guard you as far as the border?"
The tall man shook his head. "Thank you, Angel, but no. And fear not for my safety. I shall have better guards than a full troop of lancers could be."
"Then," insisted the short man, "may I not at least meet these, your new companions?"
Don Maylo smiled. "Very well. Angel, but leave your sword and dirk here, please."
Treading at Don Maylo's heels, Angel first saw the golden-chestnut stallion pulling at a bit of tough scrub. Then, he spotted the two cats sitting erect on the ledge above.
His eyes never left the huge predators as he slowly laid a hand on his companion's arm, saying in a low voice, "Don Maylo, there are a pair of monstrous cats crouched on a ledge just above your stallion. If we back up carefully, perhaps we can get my bow and..."
"No," said Maylo. "They will do us no harm. Angel. They are my friends and will be my companions on the rest of my journey."
"This two-leg you call 'brother' stinks of fear, fear and hate. He would slay both of us if he could," stated Skinkkiller.
"He was unprepared," Maylo mindspoke. "He had thought to see other two-legs, not you. Come down and greet him in friendship." * * * *
On a day when the river lay not to their north but far to the south, Skinkkiller's excited mindspeak ranged Don Maylo. "A cat lies just ahead, brother, a male cat, bigger even than Mousesqueak, he is! And a young two-leg male with a spear sits a small horse just beyond. And the vale beyond them is full of the blatting food-beasts with white, curly fur."
"Mindcall the male cat, sister. Tell him that a man of the Horseclans approaches." The man on the golden horse said, "Tell him that the man is Milo, of the Clan Morai." * * * *
Blind Hari then struck upon the strings of his telling-harp those notes, which signaled the conclusion of a tale. "And, in the following season did I first meet Milo of Morai. With the spring thaw, we two quitted the winter camp of Clan Morguhn and rode north, together with the young cat whom he had found in the desert of the south, Skinkkiller. By then, she had been war-trained and blooded and bore the name Elkkiller. And she was the mother of the mighty and much lamented Horsekiller, who led the Clan of the Cats to these new lands.
"This tale is ended, my children."