Such was the nature of grass that it continued to grow despite the wind. It bowed to the wind. Its roots spread under the soil, anchoring it, leaving no room for other plants to find lodgement. The grass had always been there. It was the wind which was more recent-and the bite in it.
The great exhalations from the north carried with them a fast-moving sky, comprising a patchwork of black and grey cloud. Over distant high ground the clouds spilled rain and snow. Here, across the steppelands of Chalce, they purveyed nothing worse than a neutral obscurity. That neutrality found an echo in the monotony of the terrain.
A series of shallow valleys opened one into the next, without definite feature. The only movement to be seen was among the grasses. Some tufts bore insignificant yellow flowers which rippled in the wind like the fur of a supine animal. The sole landmarks were occasional stone pillars marking land-octaves. The south-facing sides of these stones sometimes bore lichens, yellow and grey.
Only keen eyes could have discerned minute trails in the grass, used by creatures which appeared at night or during dimday, when only one of the two suns was above the horizon. Solitary hawks, patrolling the sky on motionless wings, explained the lack of daytime activity. The widest trail through the grasslands was carved by a river which flowed southwards towards the distant sea. Deep and sluggish in movement, its waters appeared partly congealed. The river took its colour from the tatterdemalion sky.
From the north of this inhospitable country came a flock of arang. These long-legged members of the goat family loosely followed the tedious bends of the river. Curly-horned dogs kept the arang closely grouped. These hardworking asokins were in turn controlled by six men on hoxney-back. The six sat or stood in their saddles to vary their journey. All were dressed in skins lashed about their bodies with thongs.
The men frequently looked back over their shoulders, as if afraid of pursuit. Keeping up a steady pace, they communicated with their asokins by whoops and whistles. These encouraging signals rang through the hollow spaces round about, clear above the bleat of the arang. However often the men glanced back, the drab northern horizon remained empty.
The ruins of a place of habitation appeared ahead, nestling in an elbow of the river. Scattered stone huts stood roofless. A larger building was no more than a shell. Ragged plants, taking advantage of the windbreak, grew about the stones, peering from the blank window sockets.
The arangherds gave the place a wide berth, fearing plague. A few miles farther on, the river, taking a leisurely curve, served as a boundary which had been in dispute for centuries, perhaps for as long as there had been men in the land. Here began the region once known as Hazziz, northernmost land of the
North Campannlatian Plain. The dogs channelled the arang along beside the river, where a path had been worn. The arang spread into a fast-moving line, face to tail.
They came in time to a broad and durable bridge. It threw its two arches across the wind-troubled face of the water. The men whistled shrilly, the asokins marshalled the arang into a bunch, preventing them crossing the bridge. A mile or two away, lying against the northern bank of the river, was a settlement built in the shape of a wheel. The name of the settlement was Isturiacha.
A bugle sounded from the settlement, telling the arangherds that they had been sighted. Armed men and black Sibornalese cannon guarded the perimeter.
“Welcome!” shouted the guards. “What did you see to the north? Did you see the army?”
The arangherds drove their animals into pens already awaiting them.
The stone farmhouses and barns of the settlement had been built as a fortification along its perimeter. The farms, where cereals and livestock were raised, lay in the middle. At the hub of the circle, a ring of barracklike offices surrounded a tall church. There was continual coming and going in Isturiacha, which increased as the herdsmen were taken into one of the central buildings to refresh themselves after their journey across the steppes.
On the south side of the bridge, the plain was more varied in contour. Isolated trees betokened increased rainfall. The ground was stippled with fragments of a white substance, which from a distance resembled crumbling stone. On closer inspection the fragments proved to be bone. Few pieces measured more than six inches in length. Occasionally a tooth or wedge of jawbone revealed the remains to be those of men and phagors. These testimonies to past battles stretched across miles of plain.
Over the immobility of this doleful place rode a man on yelk-back, approaching the bridge from the south. Some way behind him followed two more men. All three wore uniform and were equipped for war.
The leading rider, a small and sharp-featured man, halted well before he reached the bridge, and dismounted. He led his animal down into a dip and secured it to the trunk of a flat-topped briar tree before climbing to the level, where he stood peering through a spyglass at the enemy settlement ahead.
The other two men presently joined him. They also dismounted and tied their yelk to the roots of a dead rajabaral. Being of senior rank, they stood apart from the scout.
“Isturiacha,” said the scout, pointing. But the officers spoke only to each other. They too scrutinised Isturiacha through a spyglass, conferring together in low tones. A cursory reconnaissance was made.
One officer-an artillery expert-remained on watch where he was. His brother officer galloped back with the scout to pass information to an army which advanced from the south.
As the day passed, the plain became broken by lines of men-so me mounted, many more on foot- interspersed by wagons, cannon, and the impedimenta of war. The wagons were drawn by yelk or the less sturdy hoxney. There were columns of soldiers marching in good order, contrasting with baggage trains and women and camp followers in no order at all. Above a number of the marching columns waved the banners of Pannoval, the city under the mountains, and other flags of religious import.
Further back came ambulances and more carts, some carrying field kitchens and provisions, many more loaded with fodder for the animals involved in this punitive expedition.
Although these hundreds and thousands of people functioned like cogs in the war machine, nevertheless each underwent incidents peculiar to his or her self, and each experienced the adventure through his or her limited perceptions.
One such incident occurred to the artillery officer who waited with his mount by the shattered rajabaral tree. He lay silent, watching his front, when the whinnying of his yelk made him turn his head. Four small men, none coming higher than his chest, were advancing on the tethered mount. They evidently had not observed the officer as they emerged from a hole in the ground at the base of the ruined tree.
The creatures were humanoid in general outline, with thin legs and long arms. Their bodies were covered in a tawny pelt, which grew long about their wrists, half concealing eight-fingered hands. The muzzles of their faces made them resemble dogs or Others.
“Nondads!” the officer exclaimed. He recognised them immediately, although he had seen them only in captivity. The yelk plunged about in terror. As the two leading Nondads threw themselves at its throat, he drew his double-barrelled pistol, then paused.
Another head thrust itself up between the ancient roots, struggled to get its shoulders free, and then rose, shaking soil from its thick coat and snorting.
The phagor dominated the Nondads. Its immense box-head was crowned by two slender horns sweeping backwards. As the bulk of it emerged from the Nondad hole, it swung its morose bull face between its shoulders, and its eyes lit on the crouching officer. Just for a moment, it paused without movement. An ear flicked. Then it charged at the man, head down.
The artillery officer rolled onto his back, steadied the pistol with both hands, and fired both barrels into the belly of the brute. An irregular golden star of blood spread across its pelt, but the creature still came on. The ugly mouth opened, showing spadelike yellow teeth set in yellow gums. As the officer jumped to his feet, the phagor struck him full force. Coarse three-fingered hands closed round his body.
He struck out again and again, hammering the butt of his gun against the thick skull.
The grip relaxed. The barrel body fell to one side. The face struck the ground. With an enormous effort, the creature managed to regain its feet. It bellowed. Then it fell dead, and the earth shook.
Gasping, choking on the thick milky stench of the ancipital, the officer pulled himself to his knees. He had to steady himself with a hand on the phagor’s shoulder. In amid the thick coat of the body, ticks flicked hither and thither, undergoing a crisis of their own. Some climbed onto the officer’s sleeve.
He managed to stagger to his feet. He trembled. His mount trembled nearby, bleeding from lacerations at its throat. Of the Nondads there was no sign; they had retreated into their underground warrens, into the domain they knew as the Eighty Darknesses. After a while, the artillery officer was sufficiently master of himself to climb into the saddle. He had heard of the liaison between phagors and Nondads, but had never expected to confront an example of it. There could be more of the brutes beneath his feet . . .
Still choking, he rode back to find his unit.
The expedition mounted from Pannoval, to which the officer belonged, had been operating in the field for some while. It was engaged in wiping out Sibornalese settlements established on what Pannoval claimed as its own territory. Starting at Roonsmoor, it had carried out a series of successful forays. As each enemy settlement was crushed, the expedition moved farther north. Only Isturiacha remained to be destroyed. It was now a matter of timing before the small summer was over.
The settlements, with their siege mentality, rarely assisted each other. Some were supported by one Sibornalese nation, some by another. So they fell victims to their destroyers one by one.
The dispersed Pannovalan units had little more to fear than occasional phagors, appearing in even greater numbers as the temperatures on the plains declined. The experience of the artillery officer was not untypical.
As the officer rejoined his fellows, a watery sun emerged from scudding cloud to set in the west amid a dramatic display of colour. When it was quenched by the horizon, the world was not plunged into dark- ness. A second sun, Freyr, burned low in the south. When the cloud formations parted about it, it threw shadows of men like pointed fingers to the north.
Slowly, two traditional enemies were preparing to do battle. Far behind the figures toiling on the plain, to the southwest, was the great city of Pannoval, from which the will to fight issued. Pannoval lay hidden within the limestone range of mountains called the Quzints. The Quzints formed the backbone of the tropical continent of Campannlat.
Of the many nations of Campannlat, several owed allegiance through dynastic or religious ties with Pannoval. Coherence, however, was always temporary, peace always fragile; the nations warred with each other. Hence the name by which Campannlat was known to its external enemy: the Savage Continent.
Campannlat’s external enemy was the northern continent of Sibornal. Under the pressure of its extreme climate, the nations of Sibornal preserved a close unity. The rivalries under the surface were generally suppressed. Throughout history, the Sibornalese nations pressed southwards, across the land- bridge of Chalce, to the more productive meadows of the Savage Continent.
There was a third continent, the southern one of Hespagorat. The continents were divided, or almost divided, by seas occupying the temperate zones. These seas and continents comprised the planet of
Helliconia, or Hrl-Ichor Yhar, to use the name bestowed on it by its elder race, the ancipitals.
At this period, when the forces of Campannlat and Sibornal were preparing for a last battle at Isturiacha, Helliconia was moving towards the nadir of its year.
As a planet of a binary system, Helliconia revolved about its parent sun, Batalix, once every 480 days. But Batalix itself revolved about a common axis with a much larger sun, Freyr, the major component of the system. Batalix was now carrying Helliconia on its extended orbit away from the greater star. Over the last two centuries, the autumn- that long decline from summer-had intensified. Now Helliconia was poised on the brink of the winter of another Great Year. Darkness, cold, silence, waited in the centuries ahead.
Even the lowest peasant was aware that the climate grew steadily worse. If the weather did not tell him as much, there were other signs. Once more the plague known as the Fat Death was spreading. The ancipitals, commonly referred to as phagors, scented the approach of those seasons when they were most comfortable, when conditions returned most closely to what they once had been. Throughout the spring and summer, those ill-fated creatures had suffered under the supremacy of man: now, at the chill end of the Great Year, as the numbers of mankind began to dwindle, the phagors would seize their chance to rule again-unless humankind united to stop them.
There were powerful wills on the planet, wills which might move the mass of people into action. One such will sat in Pannoval, another, even harsher, in the Sibornalese capital of Askitosh. But at present those wills were most preoccupied with confounding each other.
So the Sibornalese settlers in Isturiacha prepared for siege, while looking anxiously to see if reinforcement would come from the north. So the guns from Pannoval and her allies were wheeled into position to aim at Isturiacha.
Some confusion reigned both at the front and the rear of the mixed Pannovalan force. The elderly Chief Marshal in charge of the advance was powerless to stop units who had looted other Sibornalese settlements from heading back to Pannoval with their spoils. Other units were summoned forward to replace them. Meanwhile, the artillery situated inside the walls of the settlement began to bombard the Pannovalan lines.
Bruum. Bruum. The short-lived explosions burst among the contingent from Randonan, which had come from the south of the Savage Continent.
Many nations were represented in the ranks of the Pannovalan expeditionary army. There were ferocious skirmishers from Kace, who marched, slept, and fought with their dehorned phagors; tall stone- faced men of Brasterl, who came kilted from the Western Barriers; tribes from Mordriat, with their lively timoroon mascots; together with a strong battalion from Borldoran, the Oldorando-Borlien Joint Mon- archy-Pannoval’s strongest ally. A few amid their number presented the squat shape of those who had suffered the Fat Death and lived.
The Borldoranians had crossed the Quzint Mountains by high and windy passes to fight beside their fellows. Some had fallen ill and turned for home. The remaining force, fatigued, now discovered their access to the river blocked by units which had arrived earlier, so that they were unable to water their mounts.
The argument grew hot while shells from Isturiacha exploded nearby. The commandant of the Borldoranian battalion strode off to make complaint to the Chief Marshal. This commandant was a jaunty man, young to command, with a military moustache and a concave back, by name Bandal Eith Lahl.
With Bandal Eith Lahl went his pretty young wife, Toress Lahl. She was a doctor, and also had a complaint for the old Chief Marshal- a complaint about the poor standards of hygiene. She walked discreetly behind her husband, behind that rigid back, letting her skirts trail on the ground.
They presented themselves at the Marshal’s tent. An aide-de-camp emerged, looking apologetic.
“The Marshal is indisposed, sir. He regrets that he is unable to see you, and hopes to listen to your complaint another day.”
“ ‘Another day’!” exclaimed ToressLahl. “Is that an expression a soldier should use in the field?”
“Tell the Marshal that if he thinks like that,” Bandal Eith Lahl said, “our forces may not live to see another day.”
He made a bold attempt to tug off his moustache before turning on his heel. His wife followed him back to their lines-to find the Borldoranians also under fire from Isturiacha. Toress Lahl was not alone in noticing the ominous birds already beginning to gather above the plain.
The peoples of Campannlat never planned as efficiently as those of Sibornal. Nor were they ever as disciplined. Nevertheless, their expedition had been well organized. Officers and men had set out cheerfully, conscious of their just cause. The northern army had to be driven from the southern continent.
Now they were less buoyant in mood. Some men, having women with them, were making love in case this was their last opportunity for that pleasure. Others were drinking heavily. The officers, too, were losing their appetites for just causes. Isturiacha was not like a city, worth the taking: it would hold little except slaves, heavy-bodied women, and agricultural implements.
The higher command also was depressed. The Chief Marshal had received word that wild phagors were now coming down from the High Nyktryhk-that great aggregate of mountain ranges-to invade the plains; the Chief Marshal suffered a fit of coughing as a result.
The general feeling was that Isturiacha should be destroyed as soon as possible, and with as little risk as possible. Then all could return quickly to the safety of home.
So much for the general feeling. The fainter of the suns, Batalix, rose again, to reveal a sinister addition to the scene.
A Sibornalese army was approaching from the north.
Bandal Eith Lahl jumped onto a cart to peer through a spyglass at the distant lines of the enemy, indistinct in the light of a new day.
He called to a messenger.
“Go immediately to the Chief Marshal. Rouse him at all costs. Instruct him that our entire army must wipe out Isturiacha immediately, before their relieving army arrives.”
The settlement of Isturiacha marked the southern end of the great Isthmus of Chalce, which connected the equatorial continent of Campannlat with the northern continent of Sibornal. Chalce’s mountainous backbone lay along its eastern edge. Progress back or forth from one continent to the other entailed a journey through dry steppeland, which extended in the rain shadow of the eastern mountains from Koriantura in the north, safe in Sibornal, all the way down to perilous Isturiacha.
The kind of mixed agriculture practised by the Campannlatians had no place in the grasslands, and consequently their gods no foothold. Whatever emerged from that chill region was bad for the Savage Continent.
As fresh morning wind dispersed the mist, columns of men could be counted. They were moving over the undulant hills north of the settlement by the river tracks along which the arangherds had come the previous day. The soaring birds above the Pannovalan force could, with the merest adjustment of their wingtips, be hovering above the new arrivals in a few minutes.
The sick Pannovalan Marshal was helped from his tent and his gaze directed northwards. The cold wind brought tears to his eyes; he mopped absently at them while regarding the advancing foe. His orders were given in a husky whisper to his grim-faced aide-de-camp.
The hallmark of the advancing foe was an orderliness not to be found among the armies of the Savage Continent. Sibornalese cavalry moved at an even pace, protecting the infantry. Straining animal teams dragged artillery pieces forward. Ammunition trains struggled to keep up with the artillery. In the rear rattled baggage carts and field kitchens. More and more columns filled the dull landscape, winding southwards as if in imitation of the sluggish river. No one among the alarmed forces of Campannlat could doubt where the columns came from or what they intended.
The old Marshal’s aide-de-camp issued the firstorder. Troops and auxiliaries, irrespective of creed, were to pray for the victory of Campannlat in the forthcoming engagement. Four minutes were to be dedi- cated to the task.
Pannoval had once been not merely a great nation but a great religious power, whose C’Sarr’s word held sway over much of the continent and whose neighbouring states had sometimes been reduced to satrapy under the sway of Pannovalan ideology. Four hundred and seventy-eight years before the confrontation at Isturiacha, however, the Great God Akhanaba had been destroyed in a now legendary duel. The God had departed from the world in a pillar of flame, taking with him both the then King of Oldorando and the last C’Sarr, Kilandar IX.
Religious belief subsequently splintered into a maze of small creeds. Pannoval, in this present year of 1308, according to the Sibornalese calendar, was known as the Country of a Thousand Cults. As a result, life for its inhabitants had become more uncomfortable, more uncertain. All the minor deities were called upon in this hour of crisis, and every man prayed for his own survival.
Tots of fiery liquor were issued. Officers began to goad their men into action.
“Battle Stations” sounded raggedly from bugles all over the southern plain. Orders went out to attack the settlement of Isturiacha immediately and to overwhelm it before the relieving force arrived. Whereupon a rifle brigade began almost at once to cross the bridge in a businesslike way, ignoring shellfire from the settlement.
Among the conscripts of Campannlat, whole families clustered together. Men with rifles were accompanied by women with kettles, and the women by children with teething troubles. Along with the military chink of bayonet and chain went the clank of dishpans-as late r the shrieks of the newly weaned would merge with the cries of the injured. Grass and bone were trampled underfoot.
Those who prayed went into action along with those who scorned prayer. The moment was come. They were tense. They would fight. They feared to die this day-yet life had been given them by chance, and luck might yet save that life. Luck and cunning.
Meanwhile the army from the north was hastening its progress southwards. A strictly disciplined army, with well-paid officers and trained subordinates. Bugle calls sounded, the snare drum set the pace of advance. The banners of the various countries of Sibornal were displayed.
Here came troops from Loraj and Bribahr; tribes from Carcampan and primitive Upper Hazziz, who kept the orifices of their bodies plugged on the march, so that evil spirits from the steppes should not enter them; a holy brigade from Shivenink; shaggy highlanders from Kuj-Juvec; and of course many units from Uskutoshk. All were banded together under the dark-browed, dark-visaged Archpriest-Militant, famed Devit Asperamanka, who in his office united Church and State.
Among these nations trudged phagor troops, sturdy, sullen, grouped into platoons, corniculate, bearing arms.
In all, the Sibornalese force numbered some eleven thousand. The force had moved down from Sibornal, travelling across the steppelands which lay as a rumpled doormat before Campannlat. Its orders from Askitosh were to support what remained of the chain of settlements and strike a heavy blow against the old southern enemy; to this end, scarce resources had been assembled, and the latest artillery.
A small year had passed while the punitive force gathered. Although Sibornal presented a united face to the world, there were dissentions within the system, rivalries between nations, and suppressions on the highest level. Even in the choosing of a commander, indecision had made itself felt. Several officers had come and gone before Asperamanka was appointed-som e said by no less than the Oligarch himself. During this period, settlements which the expedition had been designed to relieve had fallen to Pannovalan onslaught.
The vanguard of the Sibornalese army was still a mile or so from the circular walls of Isturiacha when the first wave of Pannovalan infantry went in. The settlement was too poor to employ a garrison of soldiers; its farmers had to defend themselves as best they could. A quick victory for Campannlat seemed certain. Unfortunately for the attacking force, there was the matter of the bridge first.
Turmoil broke out on the southern bank. Two rival units and a Ran-donanese cavalry squadron all tried to cross the bridge at the same time. Questions of precedence arose. There was a scuffle. A yelk slipped with its rider from the bank and fell into the river. Kaci claymores clashed with Randonanese broadswords. Shots were fired.
Other troops attempted to cross the waters by ropeline, but were defeated by the depth of the water and its surly force.
A conflict of mind descended on everyone involved in the confusion at the bridge-except possibly for the Kaci, who regarded battles as an opportunity to consume huge libations of pabowr, their treacherous national drink. This general uncertainty caused isolated misadventures. A cannon exploded, killing two gunners. A yelk was wounded and ran amok, injuring a lieutenant from Matrassyl. An artillery officer plunged from his steed into the river, and was found, when dragged out, to exhibit symptoms of illness which none could mistake.
“The plague!” The news went round. “The Fat Death.”
To everyone involved in the operations, these terrors were real, these situations fresh. Yet all had been enacted before, on this very sector of the North Campannlat plain.
As on earlier occasions, nothing went exactly as planned. Isturiacha did not fall to its attackers as punctually as was expected. The allied members of the southern army quarrelled among themselves. Those who attacked the settlement found themselves attacked; an ill-organised running battle took place, with bullets flying and bayonets flashing.
Nor were the advancing Sibornalese able to retain the military organisation for which they were renowned. The young bloods decided to dash forward to relieve Isturiacha at all costs. The artillery, dragged over two hundred miles in order to bombard Pannovalan towns, was now abandoned, shelling being as likely to kill friendly as enemy troops.
Savage engagements took place. The wind blew, the hours passed, men died, yelk and biyelk slipped in their own blood. Slaughter mounted. Then a unit of Sibornalese cavalry managed to break through the melee and capture the bridge, cutting off those of the enemy attacking Isturiacha.
Among the Sibornalese moving forward at that time were three national units: the powerful Uskuti, a contingent from Shivenink, and a well-known infantry unit from Bribahr. All three units were reinforced by phagors.
Riding with the forward Uskuti force went Archpriest-Militant Aspe-ramanka. The supreme commander cut a distinguished figure. He was clad in a suit of blue leather with heavy collar and belt, and his feet were shod in black leather turnover boots, calf-high. Asperamanka was a tall, rather ungainly man, known to be soft-spoken and even sly when not issuing commands. He was greatly feared.
Some said of Asperamanka that he was an ugly man. True, he had a large square head, in which was set a remarkably rectangular face, as if his parents had had their geometries at cross purposes. But what gave him distinction was a permanent cloud of anger which appeared to hover between the brows, the bridge of the nose, and the lids, which shielded a pair of dark eyes ever on the watch. This anger, like a spice, flavoured Asperamanka’s least remark. There were those who mistook it for the anger of God.
On Asperamanka’s head was an ample black hat and, above the hat, the flag of the Church and of God the Azoiaxic.
The Shiveninki and the Bribahr infantry poured forward to do battle with the enemy, fudging that the day was already turning in Sibornal’s favour, the Archpriest-Militant beckoned his Uskuti field commander to one side.
“Just allow ten minutes until you go in,” he said.
The field commander protested impatiently, but was overruled.
“Hold back your force,” said Asperamanka. He indicated with a black glove the Bribahr infantry, firing steadily as they advanced. “Let them bleed a little.”
Bribahr was currently challenging Uskutoshk for supremacy among the northern nations. Its infantry now became involved in a desperate hand-to-hand engagement. Many men lost their lives. The Uskuti force still held back.
The Shiveninki detachment went in. Underpopulated Shivenink was reputed the most peaceable of the northern nations. It was the home of the Great Wheel of Kharnabhar, a holy place; its honours in battle were few.
A mixed squadron of Shiveninki cavalry and phagor troops was now commanded by Luterin Shokerandit. He bore himself nobly, a conspicuous figure, even among many flamboyant characters.
Shokerandit was by now thirteen years and three tenners old. More than a year had passed since he had said good-bye to his bride-to-be, Insil, on leaving Kharnabhar for military duties in Askitosh.
Army training had helped remove from his body the last traces of the weight he had gained during his period of prostration. He was as slender as he was upright, generally carrying himself with a mixture of swagger and apology. Those two elements were never far from his manner, betokening an insecurity he sought to hide.
There were some who claimed that the young Shokerandit had attained his rank of lieutenant ensign only because his father was Keeper of the Wheel. Even his friend Umat Esikananzi, another ensign, had wondered aloud how Luterin would conduct himself in battle. There remained something in Luterin’s manner-perhaps an aftereffect of that eclipse which had followed his brother’s death-which could dis- tance him from his friends. But in the saddle of his yelk he was the picture of assurance.
His hair grew long. His face was now thin, hawklike, his eye clear. He rode his half-shaven yelk more like a countryman than a soldier. As he urged his squadron forward, the excitement tightening his expres- sion made him a leader to follow.
Driving his beast forward to the disputed bridge, Luterin rode close enough to Asperamanka to hear the commander’s words-“Let them bleed a little.”
The treachery of it pierced him more than the shrilling bugle. Forcing through the press, spurring on, he raised a gloved fist.
“Charge!” he called.
He waved his own squadron forward. Their lily-white banner bore the great hierogram of the Wheel, its inner and outer circles connected by wavy lines. It flew with them, unfurled above their heads as they surged towards the foe.
Later, when the struggle was over, this charge by Shokerandit’s squadron was reckoned one of its pivotal moments.
As yet, however, the fight was far from won. A day passed, and still the fighting continued. The Pannovalan artillery got itself marshalled at last and began a steady bombardment on the Sibornalese rear, causing much damage. Their fire prevented the Sibornalese guns from pulling forward. Another artilleryman went down with the plague, and another.
Not all the settlers in Isturiacha had been employed shooting down Pannovalans. The wives and daughters, every bit as hardy as their menfolk, were dismantling a barn and ripping out its planking.
By next Batalix-rise, they had built two stout platforms, which were thrown across the river. A cheer rose from the Sibornalese. With thunderous sound, metal-shod yelk of the northern cavalry crossed the new bridges and burst among the ranks of Pannoval. Camp followers who, an hour before, had considered themselves safe were shot down as they fled.
The northerners spread out across the plain, widening their front as they went. Piles of dead and dying marked their progress.
When Batalix sank once more, the fight was still undecided. Freyr was below the horizon, and three hours of darkness ensued. Despite attempts by officers of both camps to continue the fighting, the soldiery sank to the ground and slept where they were, sometimes no more than a spear’s throw from their opponents.
Torches burned here and there over the disputed ground, their sparks carried away into the night. Many of the wounded gave up the ghost, their last breath taken by the chill wind rolling over them. Nondads crept from their burrows to steal garments from the dead. Rodents scavenged over the spilt flesh. Beetles dragged gobbets of intestine into their holes to provide unexpected banquets for their larvae.
The local sun rose again. Women and orderlies were about, taking food and drink to the warriors, offering words of courage as they went. Even the unwounded were pale of face. They spoke in low voices. Everyone understood that this day’s fighting would be decisive. Only the phagors stood apart, scratching themselves, their cerise eyes turned towards the rising sun; for them was neither hope nor trepidation.
A foul smell hung over the battlefield. Filth unnamed squelched underfoot as fresh lines of battle were drawn up. Advantage was taken of every dip in the land, every hummock, ever}’ spindly tree. Sniping began again. The fighting recommenced, wearily, without the previous day’s will. Where human blood was voided it was red, where phagor, gold.
Three main engagements took place that day. The attack on the Isturiachan perimeters continued, with the Pannovalan invaders managing to occupy and defend a quarter of the settlement against both the settlers and a detachment from Loraj. A manoeuvre by Uskuti forces, eager to make amends for their previous delay, was held south of the bridge, and involved sections of either army; long lines of men were crawling and sniping at each other before engaging in hand-to-hand fighting. Third, there were prolonged and desperate skirmishes taking place in the Campannlatian rear, among the supply wagons. Here Luterin Shokerandit’s force again set the pace.
In Shokerandit’s contingent, phagors stood side by side with humans. Both stalluns and gillots-the latter often with their offspring in attendance-fought, and male and female died together.
Luterin was gathering honour to his family’s name.
Battle lust made him secure from caution and, seemingly, injury. Those who fought with him, including his friends, recognised this fearful enchantment and took heart from it. They cut into the Pannovalan enemy without fear or mercy, and the enemy gave way-at first with stubborn resistance, then in a rush . The Shiveninki pursued, on foot or in the saddle.
They cut down the defeated as they ran, until their arms were weary of thrusting and stained to the shoulder with blood.
This was the beginning of the rout of the Savage Continent.
Before the forces from Pannoval itself began to retreat, Pannoval’s doubtful allies cast about for a safe way home. The battalion from Borldoran had the misfortune to straggle across the path of Shoke-randit, and came under attack. Bandal Eith Lahl, their commander, valiantly called on his men to fight. This the Borldoranians did, taking refuge behind their wagons. A gun battle ensued.
The attackers set fire to the wagons. Many Borldoranians were slain. There came a lull in the firing, during which the noise of other encounters reached the ears of the protagonists. Smoke floated over the field, to be whipped away by the wind.
Luterin Shokerandit saw his moment. Calling to the squadron, he dashed forward, Umat Esikananzi at his side, throwing himself at the Borldoranian position.
In the wilds of his homeland, Luterin was accustomed to hunting alone, lost to the world. The intense empathy between hunter and hunted was familiar to him from early childhood. He knew the moment when his mind became the mind of the deer, or of the fierce-horned mountain goat, the most difficult of quarries.
He knew the moment of triumph when the arrow flew home-and, when the beast died, that mixture of joy and remorse, harsh as orgasm, which wounded the heart.
How much greater that perverted victory when the quarry was human! Leaping a barricade of corpses, Luterin came face to face with Bandal Eith Lahl. Their gazes met. Again that moment of identity! Luterin fired first. The Borldoranian leader threw up his arms, dropping his gun, doubling forward to clutch his intestines as they burst outwards. He fell dead.
With the death of their commander, the Borldoranian opposition collapsed. Lahl’s young wife was taken captive by Luterin, together with valuable booty and equipment. Umat and other companions embraced him and cheered before seizing what loot they could gather.
Much of the booty the Shiveninki gathered was in the form of supplies, including hay for the animals, to ease the return of the contingent to their distant home in the Shivenink Chain.
On all quarters of the field, the forces of the south suffered mounting defeat. Many fought on when wounded, and continued to fight when hope had gone. It was not courage they lacked, but the favour of their countless gods.
Behind the Pannovalan defeat lay a history of unrest extending over long periods. During the slow deterioration of climate, as life became harder, the Country of a Thousand Cults was increasingly at odds with itself, with one cult opposed to another.
Only the fanatical corps of Takers had the power to maintain order in Pannoval City. This swom brotherhood of men lived inside the remotest recesses of the Quzint Mountains. It still clung to the ancient god Akhanaba.
The Takers and their rigid discipline had become a byword over the centuries; their presence on the field might have turned the tide of defeat. But in these troublous times, the Iron Formations judged it best to remain close to home.
At the end of that dire day, wind still blew, artillery still boomed, men still fought. Groups of deserters wended their way southwards, towards the sanctuary of the Quzints. Some were peasants who had never held a gun before. The forces of Sibornal were too exhausted to pursue defeated foes. They lit camp fires and sank down into the daze of battle slumber.
The night was filled with isolated cries, and with the creak of carts making their way to safety. Yet even for those who retreated to distant Pannoval, there remained other dangers, fresh afflictions.
Enmeshed in their own affairs, the human beings had no perception of the plain as other than an arena on which they made war. They did not see the place as a network of interrelated forces involved in the continual slow mechanisms of change, its present form being merely the representative of a forgotten series of plains stretching into the remote past. Approximately six hundred species of grass clothed the North Pannovalan flatlands; they were either spreading or in retreat under the dictates of climate; and with the success of any one kind of grass was bound up the fate of the animal and insect chains which fed on it.
The high silica content of the grasses demanded teeth clad in strongly resistant enamel. Impoverished as the plain looked to a casual human glance, the seeds of the grass represented highly nutritious packages-nutritious enough to support numerous rodents and other small mammals. Those mammals formed the prey of larger predators. At the top of that food chain was a creature whose omnivorous capabilities had once made it lord of the planet. Phagors ate anything, flesh or grass.
Now that the climate was more propitious to them, free phagors were moving into lower ground. To the east of the equatorial continent stood the mass of the High Nyktryhk. The Nyktryhk was far more than a barrier between the central plains and the horizons of the Ardent Sea: its series of plateaux, building upwards like steps of a giant staircase, its complex hierarchies of gorge and mountain, constituted a world
in itself. Timber gave way to tundralike uplands, and those to barren canyons, excoriated by glaciers. The whole was crowned nine miles above sea level by a dominating plateau, a scalp on nodding terms with the stratosphere.
Ancipital components who had lived the long centuries of summer in the high grasslands secure from man’s depredations were descending to more abundant slopes as their refuges were assailed by the furies of oncoming winter. Their populations were building up in the labyrinthine Nyktryhk foothills.
Some phagor communities were already venturing into territories traversed by mankind.
Into the area of battle, under cover of darkness, rode a company of phagors, stalluns, gillots, and their offspring, in all sixteen strong. They were mounted on russet kaidaws, their runts clinging tight against their parents, half smothered in their rough pelages. The adults carried spears in their primitive hands. Some of the stalluns had entwined brambles between their horns. Above them, riding the chilly night air, flew attendant cowbirds.
This group of marauders was the first to venture among the weary battle lines. Others were not far behind.
One of the carts creaking towards Pannoval through the darkness had stuck. Its driver had attempted to drive it straight through an uct, a winding strip of vegetation which broke the plain in an east-west direction. Although much reduced from its summer splendour, the uct still represented a palisade of growth, and the cart was wedged with saplings between both axles.
The driver stood cursing, attempting by blows to make his hoxneys budge.
The occupants of the carts comprised eleven ordinary soldiers, six of them wounded, a hoxney- corporal, and two rough young women who served as cooks, or in any other capacity required. A phagor slave, dehorned, chained, marched behind the vehicle. So overcome by fatigue and illnesses was this company that they fell asleep one on top of the other, either beside the cart or in it. The luckless hoxneys were left to stand between the shafts.
The kaidaw-phagor component came out of the night, moving in single file along the straggling line of the uct. On reaching the cart, they bunched closer together. The cowbirds landed in the grass, stepping delicately together, making noises deep in their throats, as if anxiously awaiting events.
The events were sudden. The huddled band of humans knew nothing until the massive shapes were on them. Some phagors dismounted, others struck from their saddles with their spears.
“Help!” screamed one of the doxies, to be immediately silenced with a thrust to the throat. Two men lying half under the cart woke and attempted. to run. They were clubbed from behind. The dehorned phagor slave began to plead in Native Ancipital. It too was despatched without ceremony. One of the wounded men managed to discharge a pistol before he was killed.
The raiders picked up a metal pot and a sack of rations from the cart. They secured the hoxneys on trailing leads. One of them bit out the throat of the groom-corporal, who was still living. They spurred their massive beasts on into the expanses of the plain.
Although there were many who heard the shot and the cries, none on that vast battlefield would come to the aid of those on the cart. Rather, they thanked whatever deity was theirs that they themselves were not in danger, before sinking back into the phantasms of battle slumber.
In the morning by dim first light, when cooking fires were started and the murders discovered, it was different. Then there was a hue and cry. The marauders were far away by that time, but the torn throat of the groom-corporal told its own tale. The word went round. Once more that ancient figure of dread- horned ancipital riding horned kaidaw- was loose in the land. No doubt of it: winter was coming, old terror-legends were stirring.
And there was another dread figure, just as ancient, even more feared. It did not depart from the battlefield. Indeed, it thrived on the conditions, as if gunpowder and excreta were its nectar. Victims of the Fat Death were already showing their horrifying symptoms. The plague was back, kissing with its fevered lips the lips of battlewounds.
Yet this was the dawn of a day of victory.