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Armada of Antares

By Theodore Ray,2014-11-04 17:00
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Kregen! That marvelous world circling the double-star Antares in the Constellation Scorpio has been the scene of many an exciting event as its myriad human and non-human races struggle with each other for ascendency. But for Dray Prescot, Earthman and Prince of Vallia, all of the electrifying aspects of his adventurous life on Kregen were to climax when the armies of Havilfar made their move toward his adopted homeland before he had fully solved the secret of their mysterious air fleets Armada of Antares is the culmination of all his experiences on Kregen so far -- a peril-pitched novel, complete in itself, of an alien world stirred up to a life-or-death frenzy. Published by Mushroom eBooks on 2006/03/16

Copyright ? 1976, Kenneth Bulmer

    Alan Burt Akers has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to beidentified as the Author of this work.

    First published by Daw Books, Inc. in 1976.

This Edition published in 2006 by Mushroom eBooks, an imprint of Mushroom Publishing, Bath, BA1

    4EB, United Kingdom

    www.mushroom-ebooks.com

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any meanswithout the prior written permission of the publisher.

    ISBN 1843194120

    Armada of Antares

    Dray Prescot #11

    Alan Burt Akers

    Mushroom eBooks

    A Note on Dray Prescot

    Dray Prescot is a man above medium height, with straight brown hair and brown eyes that arelevel and dominating. His shoulders are immensely wide and there is about him an abrasivehonesty and a fearless courage. He moves like a great hunting cat, quiet and deadly. Born in1775 and educated in the inhumanly harsh conditions of the late eighteenth century Englishnavy, 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 tothe aid of humanity — and of the Star Lords, the Everoinye, he has been taken to Kregen underthe Suns of Scorpio many times. On that savage and beautiful, marvelous and terrible world herose to become Zorcander of the Clansmen of Segesthes, and Lord of Strombor in Zenicce, and amember 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’sBones claimed his Delia, Delia of Delphond, Delia of the Blue Mountains. And Delia claimed himin the face of her father, the dread Emperor of Vallia. Amid the rolling thunder of theacclamations of “Hai Jikai!”

    Prescot became Prince Majister of Vallia, and wed his Delia, the Princess Majestrix. One oftheir favorite homes is in Valkanium, capital city of the island of Valka of which Prescot isStrom. Prescot is plunged headlong into fresh adventures on Kregen in the continent ofHavilfar. Outwitting the Manhounds of Antares, ghastly parodies of humans used as hunting dogs,and fighting as a hyr-kaidur in the arena of the Jikhorkdun in Huringa in Hyrklana, he becomesKing of Djanduin, idolized by his incredibly ferocious four-armed Djangs. But Hamal, thegreatest power in Havilfar, ruled by Queen Thyllis, is bent on conquest; Prescot acting as aspy under cover of the alias of Hamun ham Farthytu, has discovered half the secrets of theairboats that give Hamal so much of her power. Now Prescot must bend every effort intothwarting the egomaniacal plans of Queen Thyllis and her iron Empire of Hamal with whateverweapons he can find . . .

    This volume, Armada of Antares, sees the conclusion of the second cycle in the saga of DrayPrescot, the “Havilfar Cycle.” With the next book, tentatively titled The Tides of Kregen,

    we are launched onto the third cycle of Prescot’s adventures under the Suns of Scorpio which,because of the locale and the mystic order of which Prescot is so valued a member, I havecalled the “Krozair Cycle.”

    Alan Burt Akers

    Chapter 1

    Swordplay in a garden

    “Drak!” said the Princess Majestrix of Vallia, walking unhurriedly across the grass to thepool’s edge. “If you insist on climbing the tree I shall be cross.” She put one bare toeinto the water and shook her head, looking so gorgeously lovely that I marveled anew at herbeauty. “Of course, Drak, if you fall in I shall be more than cross. You are wearing your bestclothes.”

    “I’m not wearing my best clothes,” said Lela, higher in the tree. She looked down at herbrother, giggled, and threw a leafy twig at him. “Silly boy! All dressed up to see hissoldiers.”

    “I will climb up,” said Drak, with the solemn ferociousness of extreme youth. “And pull yourhair.”

    Delia’s smile vanished. Her face took on a most purposeful look as she stared up into themissal tree which overhung this small private pool in a walled garden of Esser Rarioch. Thegarden rioted with flowers, their colors and scents filling the air with brilliant beauty andsweet perfumes. And, over all, the high blue sky of Kregen smiled down, fluffed with cloud.From that sky shone the twin suns, the Suns of Scorpio, Zim and Genodras, the red and thegreen, streaming down their glorious mingled opaz radiance. Well, I was home. Home in my islandStromnate of Valka, off the coast of Vallia, and my Delia had very quickly led me to understandthat bringing up twins, a boy demon and a girl demoness, was a far cry from racing off intoadventure with my red cloak flaring and the glitter of a rapier in my eyes. I looked up atyoung Drak, whose vigorous body swung from the tree branch as he hauled himself up with adetermination of which I approved despite his mother’s stern admonishments about his bestclothes. “Drak,” I said, speaking in my relaxed at-home voice. “Drak, my lad. If you fallinto the water you will not please your mother. If you fall at all you will not please me. And,anyway, if you fall into the water you will hardly be ready to present the standards to yourregiment.”

    “I will not fall, Father.”

    “Humph,” I said. But he was right. The little devil could climb like a grundal, one of thoserock-apes of the inner sea.

    No doubt some deep realization that his mother meant what she said penetrated at last, makinghim heed her rather than his desire to scare his sister. For I had noticed that for all thebloodthirsty threats young Drak made against Lela, he did not carry them out — or not many ofthem and only very briefly. I had, like any parent, a deep concern and apprehension over therelationship of my children and, thank Zair, I saw they loved each other. Now he began toshinny down the tree, with a careless, casual abandonment that masked his exquisite care overhis bright buff clothes and the red and white sash. I smiled.

    Delia, I saw, contained a tremble at the corner of her mouth, that mouth which in its soft riperedness held the whole universe of beauty, and she half turned away so that her twins shouldnot see how easily they could move her. She wore a brief white tunic, flowing free, and I wouldhave stepped forward and taken her in my arms.

    The little wicket gate in the angle of the old red brick wall, drowned in white and purpleflowers, opened with a smash. A Valkan archer stumbled through. He wore the usual Vallian buff,bedecked with the brave red and white Valkan favor. His bow was broken in two, dangling by thestring. He had lost his wide-brimmed hat and his fair hair tumbled about his face. He openedhis mouth and tried to speak, one hand groping before him, the fingers outspread. Speaking wasdifficult, for a thick spear had passed between his ribs, and I did not think he had long tolive. But, before he died, this guard tried to cry out his warning.

    The comfortable little family scene had been ripped apart.

    “Largan!” cried Delia, and her hand went not to her mouth but groped emptily at her side. Shewas not wearing a belt and there was no long slender dagger scabbarded there.

    “Go up into the tree, Drak!”

    I spoke quickly. I must have used something of that old command voice, for Drak jumped andinstantly began to climb again.

    “Do not worry about your clothes, Drak! Climb up high, with Lela. Hide in the leaves! Climbquickly, my son.”

    “We will buy you new clothes if you tear them, Drak!” Delia spoke firmly, but I heard thechoked sob in her voice.

    “And you, too, wife,” I said. “Get inside and—”

    “There is no time, Dray.”

    They walked into the cool scented garden, arrogant, confident, vicious. There were four ofthem. They came like executioners into a schoolroom.

    I put my hand to my waist. I wore a white shirt and buff Vallian breeches and black boots. Idid not wear a sword. I cursed then, deep in my throat. Here. Here! In my own walled garden ofEsser Rarioch overlooking my capital city Valkanium and the Bay! This was incredible. It wasobscene. The four carried rapiers in their right hands, and left-hand daggers, and they walkedforward without haste. They were men who knew their work. They had been hired to do this. Theywere men accustomed to the quick and efficient dispatch of their business.

    Each of the assassins wore a steel domino-mask beneath the wide Vallian hat. Their clothes wereunremarkable: good solid Vallian buff. They spread out a little as they advanced. I wonderedhow much they knew of me, how much they had been told.

    Delia began to shout. She did not scream. She shouted, a high ringing call that should bringattendants, guards, and friends running.

    The first assassin’s mouth widened beneath the mask.

    “You are too late, lady,” he said. His voice sounded perfectly normal. To me, he said: “Youare the Strom of Valka?”

    “It is clear you do not know me,” I said. “Else a mere four of you, with rapiers anddaggers, only, would never have taken the gold.”

    He laughed.

    “Brave words, from a man about to die.”

    He was clever in his trade. Even as he spoke he sprang. He thought he would catch me completelyunprepared.

    The rapier lunged for my midriff. I leaned to my left and I swayed; I thrust my leg forward andstruck him a cruel blow between wind and water. As his face turned green and his eyes popped Itook the rapier away, jumped his collapsing body, and circled number two, spitting him throughthe guts. I saw number three’s dagger spin and glitter and extend into a streaking silverblaze as he hurled it at me. The old Krozair disciplines brought the rapier up; the daggerchingled against the blade and flew to splash into the pool.

    Number four yelled in a shocked voice: “The man is a devil!”

    Number three tried to meet my attack, but fell away with his face slashed open. I knocked himdown, and I said to this number four, who backed away, the rapier circling: “Yes, you pooronker. I am a very devil!”

    He tried to run and I thrust him through his kidneys. There is no chivalry in me when a mantries to slay my Delia. None whatsoever.

    Number one was holding himself and trying to get enough breath to gasp, making a mostdistressing groaning and hissing. I hit him on the head, enough to put him to sleep, and thenthe little garden filled with servants and guards.

I shouted so that at once everyone fell silent.

    ‘Take this offal away. Chain up the one who lives. I shall question him later. See to poorLargan.”

    Delia was halfway up the tree. I tilted my head back and called up: “Take your time, myDelia.”

    “Yes, Dray. But the little devils will have seen all, through the leaves—”

    “Yes.” This was true. “They live on Kregen. The quicker they understand what that means, thebetter.”

    But I felt a soreness at my heart. Innocence of youth should be continued for as long aspossible, in an ideal world. Kregen, under the Suns of Scorpio, is not ideal, even if there ismuch in that beautiful and terrible world I prefer to my own Earth, four hundred light-yearsaway. Delia glanced down, about to say something, but called up to the children instead. I knewI had spoken thoughtlessly, even after all the time I had lived on Kregen under Antares. How doyou explain to your wife that you were never born on the world she was born on, that you camefrom a distant speck among the stars of heaven?

    Like any weakling I had been putting off and putting off the time when I must explain to Delia.I had been brought from Earth to Kregen many times through the agency of the Scorpion, throughthat mysterious blue radiance that encompassed everything and which transported me from oneworld to another. The Star Lords, those unknown, aloof, supernal beings manipulated me fromtime to time, to carry out their wishes. Certainly I had been able to manufacture a crazy kindof strength that had given me some opposition to them; but I was always conscious that theirpurposes, dark and unknowable at that time, demanded more from me than I was prepared to give.As for the Savanti, those mortal but superhuman men and women of Aphrasöe, the Swinging City,their purposes were altogether more direct, for they wished to make the world of Kregen a fitplace for men and women to live, in friendship and peace, with dignity and honor.

    The four corpses and the unconscious would-be assassin had been removed. As stikitches thesefour must have been high in their trade. They had successfully penetrated the high fortress ofEsser Rarioch overlooking Valkanium, and managed to make their evil way right to the target. Ithad been their misfortune that their potential victim had been a ruffian called Dray Prescot.No stikitche would go around wearing a special kind of fancy dress proclaiming him an assassin,of course, for his days would be smartly numbered if he was so foolish. I bent and picked upone of the steel dominoes. There was blood clotting around the milled edges. This came from thefellow who, before he died, must have pondered the lack of half a face. The metal was stillwarm. It was merely an artifact, a lump of metal, fashioned into a mask with two eye-pieces, aswell for the nose, with straps to secure it in place. I had worn a similar steel domino duringthat fracas in Smerdislad. At once impatient urgings closed on me. I threw the mask to thegrass. Today a newly raised regiment of archers was to be given new standards. The importantthing to remember here was that in Valka, an island Stromnate which prided itself on its ownValkan archers, armed with the compound reflex bow, this new regiment had been raised and armedwith the great Lohvian longbow. The men had practiced religiously with this great bow and I hadreceived tremendous help and encouragement from that master bowman, Seg Segutorio, the Kov ofFalinur.

    He had said in his feckless way: “To make a longbowman you must start training with hisgrandfather!”

    To which I had replied. “But these Valkans of mine, Seg, are used to drawing the bow. Theyonly have to draw that extra notch, to snug the string under their ear, and to feel the extrapower across their shoulders. They will grow into it far quicker than you would credit.”

    And he had said, “I’ll train ’em for you, Dray. Aye, by the Veiled Froyvil! I’ll run ’emin little circles until they can shoot out the chunkrah’s eye!”

    He had been as good as his word. But then, I never expect anything less from Seg Segutorio, agood companion and a friend.

    So, with the honor of Hyr-Jiktar going to my son Drak, the regiment would receive the newstandards today.

    I bellowed up: “Come on, Drak! You must learn never to keep honest soldiers waiting on parade.Least of all bowmen, who are a rough lot at best.”

    “I am coming down, Father.”

    And down he came. He did not come down as he had expected.

    Delia let out a little ladylike shriek. Lela let rip an enormous laugh from so dainty a littlemaid. For Drak went down headlong from his high branch, a fluttering, yelling bundle that hitthe water with an almighty splash.

    We stood on the poolside as he swam across and climbed out, lily pads hanging around his ears.

    “Drak!” said his mother.

    Lela giggled.

    Drak tried to get at his sister to push her into the water; but I took him up into my arms, allwet as he was, and carried him off for one of the fastest dryings and changings of clothes hehad ever endured. The urgency in me was not just to have the standards presented to the longbowregiment. Thoughts of Smerdislad, where I had overheard much that still puzzled me, thoughts ofthe airboats that my country of Vallia must acquire for the coming struggle with theoverweening Empire of Hamal — these were the imperatives urging me on.

    Quite simply Hamal, the greatest power on the continent of Havilfar, which lay south of usbelow the equator, was bent on a road of conquest; abandoning her attempts to fight on threefronts simultaneously, she had concentrated her strength for the thrust north against Pandahem.Pandahem was the island to the north of Havilfar and to the south of us in Vallia. Vallia andPandahem were old-time adversaries on the oceans of Kregen. If all the countries of Pandahemwent down in ruin there was nothing to stop the ambitions of Hamal from turning against us inVallia. And Hamal possessed fleets of superb flying ships, airboats which they manufactured,which we did not. I had discovered some of the secrets of the air-boats and I wished to putthrough a big program of building. The Emperor of Vallia, Delia’s father, had promised to makeup his mind. The parade this afternoon would provide a good opportunity to force him to givehis consent, I had thought, for he was flying in to see his daughter and his son-in-law and, nodoubt, to find out what I had been up to in Havilfar.

    “Who were those men, Father?”

    “They were foolish fellows, Drak, paying a visit without telling us first they werearriving.”

    “But you hit them — you hit them hard.”

    By the lice-infested scaled hair of Makki-Grodno! How did you tell a little boy that men hadcome to slay his father, and his father had slain them instead? In cold words? Drak had seen.Maybe he thought this was a game in which one thumped a playmate over the head and fell down,shouting out that he was dead, and the next minute jumped up ready for further mischief.

    I said, “Sometimes you have to do that, and you will find out when to do it and when not to doit. I promise you, Drak, you will know. For now, you must always listen to your mother and doas she says—”

    “I know, I know! But, Father, why do you have to go away? Dray’s father doesn’t.”

    “And if you don’t hurry up Dray’s father will not be pleased.” That was true. Like myself,Seg Segutorio, the father of young Dray, intensely disliked keeping bowmen waiting on parade.So, spruced up, young Drak was hauled off to do his part in the presentation of the standardsto the First Regiment of Valkan Longbowmen.

    We met this same Seg Segutorio riding up at breakneck speed as we wound down the narrow pathfrom Esser Rarioch. The fortress pile reared stark above our heads, dominating Valkanium withits ordered streets of neat houses, the parks, the boulevards, the shops, the docks, all spreadout below. The industrial sections were over on the other side. Seg reined his zorca in, so

    that the animal scattered sparks from his four dainty steel-shod hooves. Seg looked extremelyupset.

    “Dray! Delia! By the Veiled Froyvil, my old dom! I heard — I thought—”

    “We do not yet know who it was. But one did not die.”

    “I give thanks to Erthyr the Bow you are unharmed.”

    The streaming mingled light of the twin suns cast those familiar and dear double shadows as wetrotted on, going down from the high fortress and out onto the paved kyro with colonnaded shopsall around. People there were, honest Koters and Koteras of Valka, who set up a shout as theirStrom appeared. I waved a hand to them, knowing some of them by sight, able to recall the lustydays when together we had fought the slavers and the aragorn for this rich and beautiful islandStromnate of Valka. Seg and my other friends, Inch in particular, had learned to accept thepuzzling aspects of my life, and I had made a half-promise to tell them all one day. We trottedon, a brave cavalcade, out through the new walls and so over the ditches and onto the wide anddusty plain called Vorgar’s Drinnik. This Mars Field now held a splendid array of bowmen,lined up in impeccable and yet not rigid ranks. Despite all our attempts at knocking some kindof discipline into these rough and hairy fighters of Valka they set up a hullabalooing cheer astheir Strom rode out onto the field.

    A knot of zorcamen waited at the saluting base, and many orderlies stood ready. The newstandards, cased, stood planted by the piled drums. Colors and panoply blazed everywhere. Atrumpet blew and flags and banners unfurled from staffs set in ranks along the edge ofVorgar’s Drinnik. Among that small group of waiting zorcamen I saw Lykon Crimahan staring atme beneath the brim of his helmet. I did not much care for the expression on his face. ThisCrimahan was the Kov of Forli —

    often called the Blessed Forli — and he had been one of that company with whom I had suppedwhen first presenting myself as the Strom of Valka to his Majister the Emperor of Vallia.During the time of troubles Lykon Crimahan had been fortuitously absent on his estates ofForli, which lay on one of the eastern tributaries of Vallia’s marvelous central water, She ofFecundity. His allegiances might lie with the powerful Racter party, with the panvals, with anyother of the many smaller political and territorial parties. I did not know. He had managed toretain both his head and his estates. Now he stared at me with a bright and merry look of evilthat made my back go up and made me sit straighter in the saddle.

    “Lahal, Prince Majister.”

    “Lahal, Kov Lykon.”

    Others of the group made their greetings, and Lykon Crimahan sidled his zorca closer. Thezorca, with that close-coupled muscled body and those four spindly tall legs of wind-blownfleetness, is a superb animal; I did not much care for the tightness of rein, the curb, thewhole way this Crimahan had harnessed his animal — a superb specimen, full of fire and spirit.

    “The Emperor is delayed,” said this Lykon Crimahan. His whole demeanor showed the zest hetook from conveying this news to me, Dray Prescot, the upstart barbarian clansman who had daredto woo and win the Emperor’s daughter. This Kov Lykon’s face grew a thin fuzz of dark beardbeneath his jaws, and his mouth rat-trapped shut when he stopped speaking. He was gaunt withprominent cheekbones and eyes as malicious as those of any pagan idol of Balintol. He kickedhis zorca and instantly kicked again as the animal objected.

    “Quiet, you rast of a beast!” he said. Then, to me, and as though the words were a merecontinuation of his thoughts: “The Emperor will arrive late, after the ceremony.”

    About to blast and curse, I halted as Kov Lykon went on, speaking smoothly, with the expressivepleasure he might feel as he drove his rapier into the guts of an opponent.

    “There has been much discussion in the Presidio about your plans to build a great fleet offliers. Your information from Havilfar has been laid before our wisest men. They expressdoubts—”

“Doubts! By Vox! There is no time for doubts.”

    “Nevertheless, Prince, the Emperor is not convinced. There will be no program to build an airfleet.”

    Give the rast his due. He probably believed what he was doing was for the good of his country.But his country was my country now. And I knew a damn sight more than he did. I could say thatin all humility, knowing it to be true.

    must have an air fleet!” “Vallia

    “You may shout and bluster all you will, Prince, but it will avail you nothing. The Presidiois firm on this decision. You must resign yourself.”

    He could not leave well alone.

    “After all, Prince, a clansman from the wastes of Segesthes is hardly in a position tounderstand the high politics of a great empire like Vallia.”

    I did not hit him.

    Chapter 2

    We argue in Esser Rarioch

    I had risked my life — for what that was worth — to steal the secrets of the fliers fromHavilfar and send them to Vallia. I had expected the Emperor and the Presidio which guided himto leap at the opportunity to construct fliers that would not break down, vollers we must haveto counter the threat from Hamal.

    And now, calmly, maliciously, evilly, they refused the opportunity. They sat in their pride andarrogance and said I had wasted my time and efforts, that this was no concern of mine, thatthey ran the country, not me.

    Well, that last was true, Zair knows.

    This was a matter of far greater importance than that four stupid stikitches had tried toassassinate me. I caught up my zorca’s reins and even then, through my rage, I refrained fromjamming my heels in hard. The zorca was Snowy, a priceless animal, a mount with whom I had agreat relationship. At my urging he trotted away from Lykon Crimahan, turning his hind quarterson him, and with this fitting gesture I trotted over to Seg.

    I spoke loudly. Many men in the ranks heard me. The news would circulate, scuttlebutt thatwould explain what was happening.

    “The Emperor has been delayed, Kov,” I said in a penetrating bellow. “And, by Vox, I won’thave these lads hanging around waiting! And they have a right to have the Emperor on paradewhen they receive their standards. So if you’ll have their Jiktar dismiss them and tell him toorder them a double ration of wine tonight, I will be much obliged.”

    Seg understood some of my ways. He responded in fine style.

    “At once, my Prince!” he bellowed and swung away, riding with a light rein, shouting theorders to the regiment’s Jiktar, its commanding officer.

    There followed a most unpleasant few murs with young Drak, highly incensed that he had been alldressed up and promised much — for nothing.

    “When your grandfather arrives, Drak, you will present the standards. It is important for theregiment. Do you see that, lad?”

    “If you say so, Father.”

    About to say: “It’s not if I say so!” I held my tongue as Delia trotted her zorca across andleaned down to speak to this young limb of Satan. Well, I’d had dealings with young limbs ofSatan before — notably Pando, a real rapscallion who was now the Kov of Bormark, and Oby whohad once dreamed of becoming a kaidur, and even the son of Rees the Numim, young Roban to whomI had given a dagger in time of trouble. If I cared to think that far back I could recall tomind some regular roarers who had been powder monkeys with me and had run on bleeding feetacross the scarred decks to bring the leather buckets of cartridges as the great gunsthundered. But the most confoundedly odd thing about it all now was that this particular younglimb of Satan, whose lower lip stuck out so threateningly, was my own limb

    — making me the Satan of the piece. I admit I am one of the biggest rogues in two worlds, butI wouldn’t father that on young Drak.

    “We shall have squish pie for tea,” I said very firmly. “And if Inch was here he would eatsome, because he cannot resist squish pie. Then, my lad — you tell me — what would happenthen?”

    Drak turned his face up from the cub-zorca he rode, a delightful little animal which couldcarry the child even though not fully grown itself. Drak’s face betrayed conflicting emotions,then his trembling lips parted and he laughed.

    “Why, Father, Inch would stand on his head!”

    “Aye, lad!” I said, feeling relieved. “And I need at least six cups of tea, not one lesswill suffice.”

    So we trotted back to the promise of that rich Kregan tea which is priceless above all wines oftwo worlds.

    If you, listening to these tapes spinning through the heads of your machine, now reflect thatthe Dray Prescot of whom you hear is a very different person from the Dray Prescot of hisearlier days on Kregen

    — you are absolutely right. And yet if, say, that Dray Prescot who had so intemperatelyrefused to bow his knee to the Princess Natema had lived through the scene on the parade groundon Vorgar’s Drinnik, would not Kov Lykon be lying on that dusty ground with a mouthful ofsmashed teeth? And, that being so, what of my fine and fancy plans for Valka and Vallia?

    Four armed men had tried to slay me. Well, there was nothing new in that. I did not think KovLykon had sent them. He might have, of course. But if I had acted as that old lusty, headstrongand foolish Dray Prescot would have, I’m absolutely sure that more than four stikitches wouldbe assigned my death. That was an eventuality I would have to face one day. But I had nointention of allowing my Delia to face any unnecessary danger. Nor would I allow danger totouch my twins if it was humanly possible. Now, of course, I recognize that I’m speaking likea bumbling, impractical parent, anxious to keep the world away from his family. As I have said,those children of mine led me as many a merry dance as ever I led when I was that oldheadstrong, willful Dray Prescot — as indeed I still am, to my shame, when the need arises.

    There was no need to take vove to catch a ponsho.

    So, filled with the self-satisfaction of the piously righteous, I walked into the Great Hall ofEsser Rarioch with the carved beams and the banners and the weapons along the walls and, likeany idiot stuffed up with pride, I was to fall long and heavily, headfirst, into disastroustroubles. Wild alarms and frantic action lay before me, and I sat at my ease with my friends,sipping fragrant Kregan tea all unknowing!

    But, first, there were important secrets to be unveiled.

    Naghan the Gnat, that crafty armorer, thin and wiry and full of sly humor, drank his tea downand said: “I have chained him up so that he does not even feel the kiss of the iron. Oh yes,my Prince. He will be in good shape.”

    A bit of a savage, the good Naghan the Gnat. He and I had shared a few scarlet moments in thearena of Hyrklana. Now with his invaluable assistance we fashioned weapons for the men of Valkain the coming struggle with Hamal.

    Balass the Hawk, fierce and predatory, laughed. “By Kaidun, my Prince! I think he will sing sothat all the shishis in Xanachang will yearn for him and his song.”

    “You are a bloodthirsty devil, Balass,” I said.

    “Aye! If a stikitche tries to kill me I serve him as I serve a stupid coy in the arena.”

    This Balass the Hawk had improved the burs in Valka by trying to organize a Jikhorkdun and hadbeen most put out when I had, very firmly, told him to desist. He might practice his skill, andteach Oby and the others, but the weapons must be of wood, and it must be practice only. Theitch to step out of the red’s corner and stand once again on the silver sand, clad in thearmor of the kaidur, and face his fate as thousands upon thousands roared from the stands ofthe amphitheater — yes, that passion had got into the blood of Balass the Hawk.

    He was a black-skinned man from Xuntal, with fierce predatory features and brilliant eyes, andhe was a fine fighter, a kaidur.

    The friendship we had been unable to allow full rein in the Jikhorkdun had grown since ourescape. Now Balass was in command of the training of recruits to the army. Oh, yes. I was inthe business of forming an army. I will speak of this later, at the proper time. Now, as we satdrinking Kregan tea, our conversation revolved around the fate to be meted out to the capturedstikitche. The matter was important.

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