Viriconium, p.7

Viriconium, page 7

 

Viriconium
 



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  “I am not a courier, Lord Waterbeck,” said Cromis. “My purposes are military, and may be embarrassing to us both.”

  “I see. I’ve never run in to you in the city, my lord. Our haunts must be different. Each man to his own, hm?”

  He stood up and extended his right hand across the table, palm up.

  “You will have some identification provided by Her Majesty, I take it?”

  “I began my journey with such proofs,” said Cromis, aware of how foolish he must sound. The man was giving him no help at all. “But due to a failure of my own, they were lost. However, the Queen will vouch for me. I suggest you dispatch an airboat to the-”

  Waterbeck laughed. He sat down. He shook his head slowly.

  “My dear man,” he said. “My dear man. I might be addressing a simple adventurer. Or even, though I am most reluctant to suggest it, a Northman. I cannot spare an airboat merely to check the credentials of every wanderer who comes in here with a mysterious-and unexplainedproposition.

  “If you wish to fight, well then, I will sign you on; but I cannot even listen to whatever it is you propose without some concrete, immediate proof of your identity.”

  Birkin Grif scowled hideously. He leaned over the desk and put his face close to Waterbeck’s. He hissed:

  “You are a damned fool, or you would use different words to a Methven. At least listen to what we have to say. Lord Cromis led the sea fight at Mingulay-and won it, too-before you were able to lift a practice sword-”

  Waterbeck got to his feet.

  “There is an official recruitment booth a few steps away from here,” he said quietly. “I do not wish to hear any more of this.”

  Later, they sat on the tailboard of Tomb’s caravan, watching the dwarf as he made final adjustments to his peculiar device.

  “He knew,” said Grif. “He knew why we were there. He sensed it.”

  “You cannot tell that for sure. He was within his rights, if shortsighted. I did not have the ring, and even with that to ease the way it would have been a difficult meeting. He would have resented our command.”

  Grif made a chopping motion in the air, both hands locked together. He spat into a swirl of dust raised by the wind.

  “He knew, all right. If he’d heard us out, he’d have been forced to dispatch that boat.”

  Tomb the Dwarf chuckled obscenely. He put down his tools and wiped his hands on the back of his leggings.

  “Watch this here,” he said. “When I’ve got this thing together, I’ll visit Lord Waterbeck. I’ll cut his onions off. I’ll slice them thinly with my axe.”

  He had spread the immense skeleton on the ground, so that its legs stuck straight out and its arms were set close to its sides. Now, he lowered himself gently down until he lay supine on its cold bones.

  He slid his feet into the stirrups on its thighs, and tightened the metal straps round his ankles. A complicated harness fastened his upper body into its rib cage.

  “A cold embrace,” he said.

  He positioned his hands so as to reach certain levers that projected from the bones above its elbow joint. Its jawless skull he hinged forward to fit over his head like a helmet. He lay there for a moment, strapped to the thing like a man crucified on a tree of insane design.

  “I power it up now,” he explained. He worked levers. A low, distinct humming filled the air. A smell of ozone reminded Cromis of the airboat disaster at Balmacara. “Ah,” said Tomb. He manipulated studs and switches.

  The skeleton twitched its huge steel bones.

  Tomb sniggered.

  He moved his arm, and a fleshless metal hand rose into the air. It made grasping motions. It flexed its fingers.

  Tomb bent his legs, and came slowly to his feet. He was eleven feet tall.

  “Where’s my chopper?” he said. And, having found that weapon, he broke into a grotesque, capering dance, swinging it round his head in ecstatic but deadly figures of eight, lifting his new legs high to display them, pointing his nimble silver-steel toes.

  “I’ll shorten them!” he screamed, the wind whistling through his mechanical limbs. He ignored the helpless, delighted laughter of his friends. “I’ll cut the sods!” He didn’t say who. “Beautiful!” he crowed. And he stormed off, a gigantic paradox suspended on the thin line between comedy and horror, to test his machine by completing a full circuit of the encampment under the amazed eyes of fifteen thousand sensible fighting men.

  Neither the Methven nor their tiny force of brigands ever signed up officially with Lord Waterbeck’s army. His estimation of the Moidart’s rate of progress toward Duirinish proved to be a little optimistic. An hour before dawn the next day, ten airboats bearing the sigil of the wolf’s head and three towers howled over the northern ridge, their motors in overdrive.

  Cromis was to be haunted for the rest of his life by his failure to understand how a general could become so concerned with the administration of his men and the politics of his war that he neglected the reports of his own reconnaissance corps.

  6

  Cromis was asleep when the attack began. In the soft, black space of his head a giant insect hovered and hummed, staring gloomily at him from human eyes, brushing the walls of his skull with its swift wings and unbearable, fragile legs. He did not understand its philosophy. The ideographs engraved on its thorax expressed a message of Time and the Universe, which he learned by heart and immediately forgot. The whine of the wings deepened in pitch, and resolved itself into the monstrous wail of the Moidart’s aircraft.

  Birkin Grif was punching his shoulder repeatedly and yelling in his ear. He stumbled up, shaking the dream from his head. He saw Tomb the Dwarf scuttle out of the caravan, fling himself onto his exoskeleton, and begin powering up. All around, men were shouting, pointing at the sky, their mouths like damp pits. The noise from Waterbeck’s camp was tremendous; fifteen thousand simultaneous inarticulate cries of anger and fear.

  He strapped on his sword. “We’re too exposed!” They could do nothing about it. Long, fast shapes gyred above them, dim in the light of false dawn.

  Evil red flares lit the valley as a section of the attacking squadron located Waterbeck’s airboat park and began to bombard it with barrels of burning pitch and large stones. The remainder of the fleet separated and shrieked low over the encampment, dropping their loads at random to panic men and horses.

  A detachment of Waterbeck’s troops began firing one of the only three operative power-cannon that remained in the kingdom, its pale violet bolts flaming up like reversed bolide trails against a dark sky.

  Grif harried his men. Between them, they regained control of the horses.

  Despite the efforts of Waterbeck’s own airboat men, two machines were destroyed-their spines broken, their ancient energies earthing away- before the rest of his meagre wing hurled into the sky. The energy cannon ceased firing immediately once they were airborne, and the battle moved away from the ground.

  Two boats, locked together and leaking strange pastel fireflies of released energy, drifted slowly over the encampment and vanished behind the southern ridge. Cromis shuddered: small dark shapes were falling from them, soundless and pathetic.

  “Had I made a different choice, I might be up there now,” murmured Tomb the Dwarf, looming up out of the red glare of the pitch fires. He sounded almost wistful.

  “Cromis, there’s something wrong with your vulture.”

  The bird was strutting to and fro on the roof of the caravan, where it had perched during the night. It extended its neck as if to vomit, beat its great iridium wings together, and squawked insanely. It made short, hopping sallies into the air. Suddenly, it shrieked:

  “Go at once! Go at once! Go at once!”

  It launched itself off the roof and fastened its talons on Cromis’s arm. It bobbed its head, peered into his face.

  “tegeus-Cromis, you should leave here at once and go to-”

  But Cromis hardly heard. He was watching Canna Moidart’s captains as they swarmed down
the face of the northern ridge and into the valley- their standards raised high, thirty thousand Northmen at their backs, and the geteit chemosit coming on in dark waves before them.

  Time bucked and whipped like a broken hawser in Cromis’s head, and for a moment he existed at two separate and distinct points along its curve In a dark glade by a stinking pool, he fought a great black shadow some seven or eight feet high. Its limbs were thick and heavy, its head a blunted ovoid, featureless but for three glowing points set in an isosceles triangle. Its movements were powerful and controlled. It hissed as it wielded its enormous energy-blade, and left strange, shapeless imprints in the mud beneath it. There was an alien coldness about it; a calm, calculated intelligence Simultaneously, in the irrefutable present of the Great Brown Waste, he observed with unemotional preciseness the terrible skirmish line that advanced into the valley ahead of the Moidart’s horde. Each of its units was a great black shadow seven or eight feet high, wielding an immense energy blade. Their movements were alien and silky and controlled, and their unpleasant triplex eyes glittered yellowly from blunt, ovoid heads “Beware the geteit chemosit!” cried the vulture on his arm.

  Sick and shaking, he explored an understanding that had been open to him since his fight in the Metal-Salt Marsh.

  “I should have listened,” he said. “We have no chance,” he whispered.

  “We have more than poor Waterbeck, perhaps,” murmured Birkin Grif. He put a hand on Cromis’s shoulder. “If we live, we will go to Lendalfoot and see the metal bird’s owner. They are golems, automatic men, some filthy thing she has dug up from a dead city. He may know-”

  “Nothing like this has been seen in the world for a thousand years,” said Tomb the Dwarf. “Where did she find them?”

  Unconcerned by such questions, Canna Moidart’s black mechanical butchers moved implacably toward the first engagement in the War of the Two Queens: a war that was later to be seen as the mere opening battle of a wholly different-and greatly more tragic-conflict.

  Their impact on Waterbeck’s army was brutal. Already disorganised and disconcerted by the airboat raid, scattered, separated from their commanding officers, the Viriconese milled about their ruined encampment in a desperate and feeble attempt to form some sort of defensive position.

  Faced by a human antagonist, they might have held their shaky line. Certainly, there burned in all of them a hatred of the Northmen which might in other circumstances have overcome their tactical weakness and stiffened their resistance. But the chemosit slaughtered their self-possession.

  They sobbed and died. They were hastily conscripted, half-trained. Powered blades cut their swords like cheese. Their armour failed to armour them. They discovered that they did not belong there.

  In the moment of first contact, a fine red mist sprayed up from the battleline, and the dying inhaled the substance of the dead while the living fought on in the fog, wondering why they had left their shops and their farms. Many of them simply died of shock and revulsion as the blood arced and spurted to impossible heights from the severed arteries of their fellows, and the air was filled with the stink of burst innards.

  When the Moidart’s regular troops joined the battle, they found little but confusion to check them. They howled with laughter and rattled their swords against their shields. They flanked Waterbeck’s depleted force, split it into small, useless detachments, overran his pavilion, and tore him to pieces. They ringed the Viriconese and hammered them steadily against the grim anvil of the still-advancing chemosit. But there was resistance In the dead airboat park, someone managed to depress the barrel of the energy cannon enough to fire it horizontally. For some seconds, its meteoric bolts-almost invisible in the daylight-hissed and spurted into the unbroken rank of the mechanical men. For a moment, it looked like it discomfitted them; several burned like torches and then exploded, destroying others. But a small squad detached themselves from the main body, and, their power-blades chopping in unison, reached the gun with ease. It sputtered and went out, like a candle in the rain, and the gunners with it And, from a vantage point on the roof of Tomb’s caravan, Lord tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium, who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, chose his moment. “They make their own underbelly soft. Their only strength lies in the chemosit.” His head was full of death. The metal bird was on his arm. “To the south there, they are completely open.” He turned to Birkin Grif. “We could kill a lot of them if your men were willing.”

  Grif unsheathed his sword and smiled. He jumped to the ground. He mounted his roan mare (in the grey light, her caparisons shone bravely) and faced his ugly, dishonest crew. “We will all die,” he told them. He bared his teeth at them and they grinned back like old foxes. “Well?”

  They stropped their evil knives against their leather leggings. “What are we waiting for?” asked one of them.

  “You bloody fools!” yelled Grif, and roared with laughter. “Nobody asked you to do this!”

  They shouted and catcalled. They leapt into their saddles and slapped their knees in enjoyment of the joke. They were a gangrel, misfit lot.

  Cromis nodded. He did not want to speak, but, “Thank you,” he said to them. His voice was lost in the clangour of Waterbeck’s defeat.

  “I am already halfway there,” chuckled Tomb the Dwarf. He adjusted some of his levers. He swung his axe a couple of times, just to be sure.

  Theomeris Glyn sniffed. “An old man,” he said, “deserves better. Why are we wasting time?” He looked a fool, and entirely vulnerable in his battered old helmet. He should have been in bed.

  “Let’s go then,” said Cromis. He leapt down from the roof. He mounted up, the iridium vulture flapping above him. He drew the nameless sword. And with no battle cries at all, forty smugglers, three Methven, and a giant dwarf hurled themselves into a lost fight. What else could they have done?

  The dead and the half-dead lay in mounds, inextricably mixed. The ancient, unforgiving dust of the Great Brown Waste, recalling the crimes of the Departed Cultures, sucked greedily at these charnel heaps, and turned into mud. Some five thousand of Waterbeck’s original force were still on their feet, concentrated in three or four groups, the largest of which had made its stand out of the bloody morass, on a long, low knoll at the centre of the valley.

  The momentum of the charge carried Cromis twenty yards into the press without the need to strike a blow: Northmen fell to the hooves and shoulders of his horse and were trampled. He shouted obscenities at them, and made for the knoll, the smugglers a flying wedge behind him. A pike-man tore a long strip of flesh from the neck of his mount; Cromis hung out of the saddle and swung for the carotid artery; blade bit, and, splashed with the piker’s gore, the horse reared and screamed in triumph. Cromis hung on and cut about him, laughing. The stink of horse sweat and leather and blood was as sharp as a knife.

  To his left, Tomb the Dwarf towered above the Northmen in his exoskeleton, a deadly, glittering, giant insect, kicking in faces with bloodshod metal feet, striking terror and skulls with his horrible axe. On his right, Birkin Grif whirled his broadsword unscientifically about and sang, while murderous old Glyn taunted his opponents and stabbed them cunningly when they thought they had him. “We did things differently when I was your age!” he told them. And, like a visitation from Hell, Cellur’s metal vulture tore the eyes from its victims but left them living.

  They had cut a path halfway to the knoll, yelling encouragement to its labouring defenders, when Cromis glimpsed among the many pennants of the Northern tribes the banner of the wolf’s head. He determined to bring it down, and with it whatever general or champion fought beneath it. He hoped-vainly-that it might be the Moidart herself. “Grif!” he shouted. “Take your lads on to the hill!”

  He reined his horse around and flung it like a javelin at a wall of Northerners who, dropping their gaudy shields in panic, reeled away from the death that stared out of his wild eyes and lurked in his bloody weapon.

  “Methven!” he cried.

 
He couched the butt of a dead man’s pike firmly underneath his arm and used it as a lance. He called for the champion under the standard and issued lunatic challenges. He lost the lance in a Northman’s belly.

  He killed a score of frightened men. He was mad with the horror of his own bloodlust. He saw no faces on the ones he sent to Hell, and the face of fear on all the rest. He spoke poetry to them, unaware of what he said, or that he said it in a language of his own invention-but his sanity returned when he heard the voice of the man beneath the wolf’s head.

  “You were a fool to come here, tegeus-Cromis. After I have finished, I will give you to my wolves-”

  “Why have you done this?” whispered Cromis.

  The turncoat’s face was long and saturnine, his mouth wide and mobile, thin-lipped under a drooping moustache. A wrinkled scar, left long ago by the knife of Thorisman Carlemaker, ran from the corner of one deep-set grey eye, ruching the skin of his cheek. His black, curling hair fell round the shoulders of a purple velvet cloak he had once worn at the Court of King Methven. He sat his heavy horse with confidence, and his mouth curled in contempt.

  “Waterbeck is dead,” he said. “If you have come to sue for peace on behalf of his rabble”-here, the surrounding Northmen howled and beat their hands together-“I may be lenient. The Queen has given me wide powers of discretion.”

  Shaking with reaction to his berserk fit, Cromis steadied himself against the pommel of his saddle. He was bemused. A little of him could not believe what was happening.

  “I came here for single combat with Canna Moidart’s champion. Have I found him?”

  “You have.”

  The traitor nodded, and the Moidart’s foot soldiers drew back to form an arena. They grinned and whistled, shook their shields. Elsewhere, the battle continued, but it might have been on another planet.

  “What did she offer you? Was it worth the pain you caused Carron Ban?”

 

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