Union forever, p.1

Union Forever, page 1


Union Forever

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Union Forever

  Union Forever


  William R. Forstchen




  Copyright © 1991 by William R. Forstchen

  For Dr. Gunther Rothenberg and

  Dr. Bernard Foley, professors of history,

  mentors, and friends.


  "Now! Close the horns!"

  With a triumphant shout, Jubadi Qar Qarth, leader of the Merki horde, rose in his stirrups, clenched fist raised to the everlasting sky of heaven.

  Blood-red signal pennants snapped into the air around him, held aloft by the standard-bearers, showing brightly in the early-morning light. Looking east against the first light of dawn, he saw a red standard rise up out of the high grass, and beyond that, along a distant ridge, another scarlet square, and then yet one more, a tiny pennant, lost against the vastness of the endless steppe. Westward his gaze turned, and there upon a distant slope were yet more flags, the only splash of color to contrast with the endless sea of green.

  "Everyone back, keep moving!" Jubadi roared, and with a vicious swipe of spurs he urged his mount forward, his staff falling in around him.

  A hissing roar filled the heavens, and a shadow raced across the steppe, darkening the sky. Jubadi swung low, keeping his one leg in the saddle, dropping down against the animal's flank even as he turned his mount about, letting its body act as a shield from the feathered death racing down out of the morning sky. The horse reared, screaming in pain. With a wild kick Jubadi pulled himself back up and spurred his mount onward, covered now with the blood spraying out from the horse's neck.

  "My Qarth!"

  Jubadi looked over his shoulder. It was Hulagar, shield-bearer and blood guard to the ruler of the Merki horde. Jubadi could see the fear in his companion's eyes.

  "It is nothing," Jubadi shouted, laughing with battle rage even as he spurred his dying mount onward. Pulling out his war bow from its scabbard, Jubadi feathered a shaft. Turning in his saddle, he looked back over his shoulder. The hill behind him was bare, yet the thunder was near, very near, filling the world with its power. His staff closed in around him, leaving the dozen who had fallen under the last volley. Jubadi saw a tall graying form struggle out from beneath his dead mount and with a flourish pull out his two-handed sword and raise it to the heavens. The ululating cry of the lone Merki echoed even above the death coming down upon them. Jubadi smiled.

  Vorg would not feast with him tonight; it was his moment of death. But he would die with sword in hand, killing his enemy. His cousin would die well. Already the ancestors would be gathering above him, calling out encouragement to his ka, his warrior spirit, about to embark upon its final ride.

  They appeared at last, and his heart thrilled with the sight even as he drove onward, running from the death that reached out with feathered hands. The leading line of the Bantag Umen, warriors of the southern horde, cleared the ridge. A shower of arrows slammed into Vorg, who staggered and went to his knees. With a last wild cry he rose up, swinging his sword low, bringing down a horse and rider, and then he was gone beneath the crush.

  A cry of approval rose up from the fleeing Merki, urging Vorg to the everlasting sky. His song would be sung by the chanters of how alone he had faced ten thousand, singing his death song. Fate had been kind.

  Jubadi, raising his bow up, slammed out an arrow into the Bantag lines. Feathered death winged back, lifting a standard-bearer out of his saddle, red signal flag dropping. Hulagar swung in by his Qarth, holding his shield aloft, placing his body between the enemy and his ruler. Onward they drove, down into the grassy swale of high spring grass, and plunged onward up toward the next ridge a hundred yards away.

  "Now, they should strike now," Hulagar roared, looking to the grassy ridge before them, motioning to the standard-bearer by his side, who trailed a yellow pennant low to the ground.

  "Not yet!" Jubadi screamed.

  "Damn you, now! Their next volley will kill all of us!" Hulagar bellowed. Tossing aside his shield, he swung in by the standard-bearer, reached out, pulled the banner away, and snapped it upright.

  A dozen yellow standards rose up out of the high grass along a front of half a mile. The crystalline blue sky turned as dark as night as ten thousand arrows leaped into the air from behind the next ridge. The storm rushed ever higher and seemed to hang directly overhead for what appeared to be an eternity. A wild scream of fear and shock cut across the Bantag advance, who but moments before believed they were closing for the kill.

  Jubadi and his staff swung down on their mounts, knowing that some of the shafts would fall short. The rain of death swept over them, the steel-tipped shafts striking Bantag flesh, horses, armor with a thunder like iron hail.

  Jubadi reined in his trembling mount and rose up in his stirrups, holding his bow aloft, shouting with a fierce all-consuming joy. From over the crest the first wave of the Vushka Hush, the elite umen of the Merki horde, came storming down, bows drawn, slamming out another volley into the mad confusion of the enemy ranks.

  "Merki!" the scream arose from ten thousand throats. The lead ranks of the Bantag charge reined in, slashing out with a volley that dropped dozens of the advancing Merki even as the storm of arrows continued to fall around them.

  The first wave charged past Jubadi, who, roaring with triumph, turned his tortured mount to go back into the charge.

  "My Qarth!" Hulagar cut before Jubadi, grabbing hold of his horse's reins.

  "In, in and after them!" Jubadi screamed.

  "My Qarth, your place now is to command, and let the others lead!" Hulagar shouted. "Your mount is finished!"

  As if emerging from a dream, Jubadi looked at Hulagar, and could see the concern in the shield-bearer's eyes.

  Without a moment's pause, Jubadi regained control, shifting away from his lust, his fierce joy of battle shock. He was again Qar Qarth. Hulagar nodded with approval. As shield-bearer it was his appointed task to be the balance to the Qar Qarth's ka, his warrior spirit.

  Jubadi swung his mount about and continued up the hill even as the storm of the Merki horde thundered forward into the heart of the battle. Gaining the ridge, Jubadi turned to look southward, and there before him the battle was laid out, coming to fruition even as he had planned it.

  He had been the bait, a trap within a trap. The Bantag horde had come yet again, crossing to the preserve of the Merki horde, demanding of him the grazing, the lands, and the cattle that were his. So it had been across half a circling, ten years, vicious cruel years of deprivation. This time there had been a parley, under the protection of blood oath. But a Bantag oath, as it was said, was as permanent as words whispered in the wind.

  That was how they had killed his grandsire three circlings ago, under the guise of such an oath, and the story was remembered. They would lure him into a parley and then strike down the Qar Qarth of the Merki horde as he returned to his people.

  Jubadi laughed grimly as he watched the results. This time he was ready. He had left the parley and ridden out of the encampment at a gallop. The moment he had cleared the four marking posts of the neutral ground, the pursuit had started. They had chased him for two days, across a hundred miles, with ten thousand, the elite umen of the Bantag. They had chased him straight into this trap.

  "The horns close," Hulagar said, pointing to the east and west.

  From out of the folds of the rolling steppe Jubadi could see the two halves of the Vushka Hush, his elite umen, riding forward with red standards marking the advance, the Targa Vu, the ten thousand of the horsehead clan swinging out beyond the flanks already turning inward to close the trap. Each wing was a league or more away,
cutting in behind the enemy, closing all hope of retreat.

  "It is good, my Qar Qarth, it is as you said it would be," Hulagar said approvingly, while the roaring crash of the slaughter echoed across the hills.

  From across the ridge came half a dozen warriors, and Jubadi gave a wolflike grin of acknowledgment as Vuka, his firstborn, reined in his mount.

  "Magnificent slaughter!" Vuka called. "That will keep those bastards away from our lands."

  With a cold eye Jubadi looked back at the battle, which already was driven beyond the ridge where he had paused but moments before.

  "The Bantag are beyond counting," Hulagar said coldly. "Their warriors are as numberless as the stars."

  Vuka did not reply.

  "In the end our pastures must still be changed," Jubadi snapped. "All we can do is slow them for now."

  "After this victory?" Vuka shouted, the impetuousness of his angry youth showing through, something which left Jubadi with a cold sense of rage. Someday he would be the Qar Qarth—he must learn to see the truth when it was before him.

  "Yes, after this skirmish!" Jubadi growled. "It is merely an entertainment, an opening."

  Vuka looked at him coldly, as if his words were meant to shatter the joy of this moment.

  "While we were away, did the reports come back?" Hulagar asked quietly, as if they were talking by the evening fire, rather than on a field of deadly strife.

  "Yesterday," Vuka replied sharply, bridling with impatience.


  "It is true, the cattle have driven them. Our spies looked down upon the city and saw the wreckage of the battle. The reports of the strange weapons that can kill from afar are definitely true. Already the cattle are starting to rebuild their walls, and they were seen practicing with their weapons. Other scouts circled in close to the remnants of the Tugars. We counted but thirty thousand of their warriors left. It is reported that the next city of cattle eastward will fight as well. It is even said that the Tugars will beg for food in return for some mystery of healing craft that will end the sickness striking the northlands cattle. Such things almost cannot be believed."

  "They lost over seventeen umens, maybe twenty!" Jubadi gasped.

  "Believe it," Hulagar whispered, "for if it happened, then it must be believed. The cattle have new weapons, they have learned to fight."

  "Cattle that kill those of the people of the horde—it is disgusting to contemplate," Vuka snapped, his face wrinkled with disdain.

  "Disgusting or not, it must be faced," Jubadi retorted.

  Jubadi looked over at Hulagar, who smiled softly and nodded.

  "And the ship that vomits smoke and moves without sails?" Hulagar asked.

  "Even now he harries the Carthas of our domains. He has not returned to the fold."

  "Good, very good," Jubadi said with a smile.

  "Cattle driving those of the Chosen Race," Hulagar whispered. "It has never been done."

  "After all, they were only Tugars," Vuga sneered.

  "They were of the Chosen Race, even if they were our enemies," Jubadi snarled in reply. "Remember that—they were of the Chosen, damn you. They have failed, and it must be our problem if the old ways are to survive."

  Embarrassed by his father's rage, Vuka fell silent, looking sullenly at his staff, who lowered their heads so as not to see the shame of their leader.

  A triumphal shout rose above the thunder of battle, and turning, Jubadi could see where the cattle-skull standard of the Bantag Umen was now caught in the middle of the crush. It wavered for a moment and then went down.

  Vuka, like a fox scenting blood, looked back to his father.

  "Go on, boy," Jubadi said, a smile crossing his features. "There's blood to be taken."

  With a wild shout, Vuka unsheathed his scimitar and, standing high in the stirrups, charged down the hill, his young staff following in his wake.

  "Tamuka!" Hulagar shouted.

  A towering form nearly ten feet in height turned in his saddle and looked back at Hulagar. The shield-bearer of the Zan Qarth Vuka held up the heavy brass aegis of his office, nodded a salute, and then continued on, pressing in by his charge's side.

  "He'll have his realm, when the time comes," Jubadi said evenly, a note of fatherly pride showing as he watched his son charging into the fray.

  Jubadi looked over at Hulagar, who was silently watching as Vuka disappeared into the fray, and nodded as if to himself.

  "Then the rumors are true," Jubadi continued. "We might turn this to our salvation. The plan might come to pass after all."

  "Shall the next messengers be sent?" Hulagar asked, the relief in his voice evident.

  "Let it be done. Send them out tonight. We must move quickly."

  Jubadi turned to look back at the battle. The wings of the Vushka and Targa regiments closed inexorably around the Bantag, vast sheets of arrows darkening the sky. The steppes echoed with the shrieks of the triumphant, the wounded, and the damned.

  "It is almost beyond belief that the rumors of the Tugar fall were true," Hulagar said, bringing his mount up to Jubadi's side.

  Jubadi looked up and smiled.

  "Against cattle, it is disgusting."

  "Well, the boy was right," Hulagar ventured. "They were only Tugars."

  "Remember they beat us at Orki," Jubadi said evenly.

  "I have not forgotten, my Qarth," Hulagar replied, the slightest edge of anger in his voice. "Remember I lost my father there as well."

  Jubadi nodded, taking no offense, for after all, Hulagar was shield-bearer, the only one among all the warriors of the Merki horde who carried the right to speak to the Qar Qarth without fear. He was the other half of the ruling spirit, the one trained to advise, to guide, to provide the brake upon the ever-burning spirit of his Qarth's warrior ka.

  "As I wished to point out," Hulagar said quietly, "the Tugars have not fought against any of the Chosen Race since Orki. We can only hope that their edge has grown dull. When they mysteriously moved two years ahead of our march, I feared at first they were plotting to cut into our territories. At least now we know different. They have been removed.

  "They had grown weak from not fighting. It is only through blooding that a people are strong. When we ride against those cattle they will know terror."

  He looked over at Hulagar and smiled.

  "But we will not make the same mistakes as our northern brothers did. Their fall might save us yet. We have a year, perhaps two at most. We will use them wisely. First we learn how they lost. We will weaken them for the harvest before we bring them to our tables."

  "I still don't like the idea of arming cattle to fight cattle," Hulagar ventured.

  "Better that a cattle dies than a Merki," Jubadi replied. "Our numbers are stretched beyond the breaking point. The Bantag harry our southern flank without letup. We will let the cattle fight for us against those in the north and bring these new cattle under our control. We will observe, we will learn, and then we will take all that we have acquired and turn it against the Bantag. We will have two great advantages the Tugars did not—we will understand first how these ways of fighting are done, and we will have such weapons ourselves."

  "Remember, though," Hulagar interjected, "the cattle have tasted of our blood. They have sown the fields before their city with the bones of the Chosen Race. If we give such weapons to our own cattle, the gift might one day come back to haunt us all."

  "You have heard the reports that have come back," Jubadi replied. "Only the cattle know how to make such things. We must find a means to have our cattle make these weapons as well, to fight our battle in the north while we hold in the south. When the time is right, then we will gather all these weapons, these mysterious buildings they are made in, to our own hands and slaughter the lot of them. I will offer an exemption to the Carthas from the feasting pits, if they lay open the way to defeat these Rus, these Yankees, whatever it is they call themselves. That should give them a reason to do my wishes. What comes later is of no concern to
them now."

  "My Qar Qarth," Hulagar said formally, "we have debated this before. I obediently yield to your decisions, for I am but a shield-bearer and the things of war are beyond me. But consider my voice as a warning nonetheless. These things might very well be our salvation against the Bantag, but nevertheless I fear them."

  "We are between two fires," Jubadi whispered. "One will burn us, is burning us. But the other will warm us and give us strength. Then we will crush the cattle and have both the Tugar realm and our own. Let the Bantag take what is left. We can turn these new things to our advantage.

  "We must keep our wits about us, Hulagar," Jubadi said evenly, a smile crossing his features. "Send out the envoys tonight."

  "To the Rus as we first considered?"

  "That is useless. They are victorious and will fight us as they fought the Tugars. It would serve as warning to them as well. We must assume they will watch us, and are preparing, but they will never know our true intent until it is too late. We must abandon that idea. But to the others, yes."

  "As you command, my Qar Qarth," Hulagar whispered.

  Jubadi fell silent and looked back to the battle, which was now shifting southward, the slaughter pen closing in tighter and tighter. Thousands of forms littered the steppes, and already the bringers of death strode from warrior to warrior, cutting the throats of all those who could not rise.

  The songs of battle would rise high tonight, giving strength to the sires of the Merki horde who rode upon the endless steppe of the everlasting sky. Around the fire of the stars that shone in the great wheel of the nighttime new warriors would gather in the twilight. His thoughts drifted to Vorg, companion of childhood, cousin by birth, brother by the ritual of blooding.

  It was a good death, Jubadi thought. There was nothing more in the end but the hope for a warrior's death, sword or bow in hand. All else was meaningless.

  A shudder ran through his horse, and Jubadi could feel the animal sinking to its knees.

  Leaping clear of the stirrups, Jubadi alighted on the ground and looked down at the horse that had served him for half a circling, ten years of riding that had taken them halfway around the world.

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