May, Year 9 A.E.
(April, Year 10 A.E.)
"dapa… Oh, God…"
Swindapa laughed softly in the darkness; the breath fluttered cool against the damp skin of Alston's neck. They wound arms and legs around each other; Marian sighed again with contentment at the closeness, the sheer satisfaction of touching and being touched. She tasted the sweat on Swindapa's neck and shoulder, nuzzling, hands stroking.
"Why couldn't we have the lamp on?" the Fiernan chuckled in her ear. "I like watching your face."
"Put it down to inhibitions," Marian laughed softly. Silhouettes showed through backlit canvas. "Bad enough you're going to yell later."
Growing up in a Fiernan greathouse, with scores of a single intermarried cousinage living from conception through birth to death under one big circular roof, did not breed an American sense of privacy. Swindapa had some inhibitions of her own, but none of them applied to making love.
Nice to have some time to relax, Marian thought, running her fingers down the other's spine. Ship about ready to launch. No sign of the Tartessians for weeks, so they'd cleared out. And right now, the camp was good and quiet; their daughters soundly asleep next door, tomorrow the day of rest-make-and-mend, no reason not to sleep in, so-
Swindapa groaned, gripped her tighter, and mouthed "Go away" silently. Alston rolled her eyes and carefully kept resentment out of her voice. Uneasy lies the head that bears final responsibility, for everyone feels entitled to interrupt you, she thought.
She went on aloud: "Yes?"
"Commodore, it's the local." The voice was Lieutenant Jenkins; he was OOD for this watch. "The one with the sore ankle? He's real upset, trying to tell us something. I thought you'd want to know."
"It's two o'clock in the goddam morning," Marian whispered under her breath. In a normal tone: "Thank you, Lieutenant. That was entirely correct. I'll be right there."
They rose, splashed water on themselves from the basin on the table-cabin furniture hadn't been reshipped yet-toweled down, and dressed. The air was cooler on her face after the close, musky heat of the tent and their bed. She took a deep breath and pushed her mind to alertness. The moon was down and it was dark except for a heavy frosting of tropical stars overhead and a few watch fires along the edge of the camp.
And we just dismounted the cannon to reship them, she suddenly remembered. They were on the Chamberlain's gun deck; they'd been lucky with the tidal scour in the outer passage, and it was deep enough to take the ship fully laden. But from the ship, they wouldn't bear on the shore, and they couldn't leave until the stores were all aboard. Uh-oh.
Jenkins was waiting patiently; his arm was still in a cast and sling, but he was walking well again, well enough to stand watch. X'tung'a the hunter was behind him, with a shaken-looking sailor behind him, rifle slung over her shoulder and cutlass at waist.
"Ma'am… he was just there, all of a sudden, right beside me on the parapet!"
"At ease, sailor. That's their specialty." And they could track a ghost over naked rock; she'd learned that hunting with them these past brace of weeks.
X'tung'a made an impatient gesture at the conversation in a language he didn't understand, then composed himself with an effort, squinting as Swindapa came out of the tent with a lantern. The pool of yellow light grew as she turned the screw that raised the wick; for a moment he forgot everything with the mercurial swiftness Alston had noticed among his folk, smiling with a child's delight at the wonder. Then he shook his head again and signed to her.
Alston crouched as he did, the posture for serious conversation among his people. X'tung'a pointed southward, then walked two fingers over his palm. He reached out and touched the pistol at the commodore's belt and made a scowling face.
"Ba'ad!" he said. "Many-many."
The walking gesture again, and then he pointed to a particular bright star. When he was sure she'd fastened on the right one his pointing finger traced an arc down to the horizon.
"Uh-oh," Marian said aloud. If that means what I think it means…
She mimed the walking movement, then traced the star down to the horizon and pointed around her. X'tung'a nodded vehemently, then made scowling grimaces and drew the Nantucketer bowie knife at his waist to make a cutting gesture next to his own throat.
"Tartessians," Marian said.
X'tung'a nodded again; he couldn't pronounce the word in any fashion an English-speaking ear found meaningful, but he did recognize it.
"Kawaka," Swindapa said softly behind her. "Shit," in Fiernan- not normally an oath in that language. She'd picked the usage up from speaking English so long.
"Goddam right there, 'dapa," Marian muttered. This part's going to be tricky. She pointed southward.
"Ba'ad many how many?" she asked, and opened and closed her fingers repeatedly.
X'tung'a shrugged and stood, pointing all around to the camp, then opening and closing his fingers in imitation of her gesture. About as many as you, maybe more, she translated mentally.
The problem was that the San just didn't count the way twentieth-century Westerners did, or the way Fiernans did, either. X'tung'a could probably describe every antelope in a herd of dozens after a single glance, but as far as she could tell, the concept of a number as an arbitrary symbol applicable to anything-a hundred men, or zebras, or trees-was utterly foreign to him. Each object in the universe was unique.
Marian Alston sighed and rose, smiling and gesturing thanks. "All right," she said. "As near as I can tell, we've got a serious problem. A group of Tartessians-almost certainly the ones we saw-is headed this way and they'll be here at dawn or a little before. X'tung'a thinks there are at least as many of them as there are of us. It's suspiciously well timed; they're arriving just the day before we planned to launch the ship-the cannon are mostly down on the beach."
Jenkins swore. "How'd they know that?" he said. "To get that close-"
"With a good telescope, they wouldn't have to get that close. There's high ground all around here." She held up a hand for silence, lost in thought.
Then she smiled. Swindapa sighed at the carnivore expression; she was a fighter herself at need, but she kept the Fiernan distaste for it. X'tung'a grinned back. His people didn't practice war, but they were no strangers to feud and vendetta, and the Tartessians had managed to pile up what she thought was a formidable store of bad karma in their visits to the region. The Bad Ones were about to get a nasty surprise.
"We can stand them off easily enough, now that we're warned," Jenkins said.
Swindapa shook her head. "No, Lieutenant. I don't think that's what the commodore has in mind."
"No, indeed," Marian chuckled. "And have them hanging about, sniping at the camp, harassing us while we relaunch the Chamberlain!" Sniping at a camp with my daughters in it, she added to herself.
Orders began to form in her mind. The hardest part would be getting across to X'tung'a exactly what was required.
"Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant Jenkins, I want the camp turned out, but quietly. No lights, no alarms. Then-"
"Mnbununtu! How much further?"
The man the Tartessian captain called Mnbununtu winced in his mind at the hail, although his face might have been cut from scarred obsidian.
There were two reasons for his discomfort. The first was an old, niggling one-Mnbununtu wasn't his name. In the language spoken six thousand miles to the northwest, that word just meant "man" or "person." It was the word he'd used when the strangers landed on the beach where he'd been hunting and made an interrogative noise while pointing at his chest. Of course he'd said he was "a man." How could he have known they were human beings too? He'd thought they were teloshokunne, ghost-spirits; the tribe name "Tartessian" sounded like that. The word had stuck, though.
The second reason was an instinctive anger at the noise his companions were making. Blind, log-footed buffalo, he thought. Then: No. That is an insult to all buffalo.
Tanchewa-the name meant "leopard" in his tribe's language- turned and trotted back down the trail. The Tartessians had mostly been farmers or fishermen before they became sailors, and they were lost and frightened in this alien wilderness; many of them flinched at his swift, noiseless passage. He considered himself a peaceable man, on the whole, but he'd demonstrated more than once to the Tartessian crewmen that he wasn't to be trifled with. That memory remained.
Alantethol was in the middle of the sweating huddle of sailors. Not from fear-Tanchewa would never have followed him, no matter what the gifts, if he was a coward. It was the best position from which to command if something went wrong. Plans usually did, in his experience.
"Quiet, Captain," Tanchewa said flatly. He obeyed willingly on the ship, where Alantethol was the skilled one. The woods were a different matter. "We are close. But I am not easy in my liver."
"Why? The wild men?"
"The mnbuil" he said. The little brown hunters here were not exactly like the pygmies who dwelt near his village far to the northwest, but he thought of them as essentially similar. After all, they did not grow yams or keep goats, and those were the marks of civilization.
Tanchewa shrugged. "Perhaps. They are good trackers and hide well. But it is…" He stopped. Tartessian wasn't a good language to describe what he felt. "… something that makes my liver curl. We should go quietly, and swiftly, to fall on the strangers. Let me scout ahead first."
"Go, then. The Jester hold his hand from you, and the Lady of Tartessos protect."
Word passed down the line of sailors from the Stormwind and the Sun Dancer. They sank gratefully to their haunches, silent under the ferocious gaze of the quartermasters and steersmen, but taking pulls at their water bottles and scratching at itches. Tanchewa trotted back down the trail to the south, landing softly on the balls of his feet as he moved. As he put the head of the column behind him he slowed, drifting into the side of the trail that offered most shelter. The long killing spear was ready in his right hand, the small rhino-hide shield held in his left. Over his shoulder was his war bow, the same one he used to hunt elephant, and a dozen arrows the length of his leg.
Alone in the woods, he could feel the irritation and jangling of the crowd dropping away. These were not his woods; the woods of home were denser, hotter, with larger trees and many great rivers rich in hippo and crocodile, but he was still Tanchewa the Leopard, greatest hunter of all the People. He felt the night wind and took a deep breath of its scents, strong and rank with growing things and their decay. Sounds flowed past his ears; he did not consciously attempt to listen, instead sensing the patterns in the small tickings and rustlings, the squalls and creaks. In a little clearing he moved through the tall grass in a slow crouch, bent nearly double. You couldn't see detail at night, not even if you were Tanchewa, but always the patterns showed if they were disturbed.
He stopped, his eyes flaring wide. Then he turned and ran back northward with all his speed, hurdling obstacles with a long, raking stride, careless of noise. His lungs filled and he shouted, a long, high, carrying yell.
The Tartessians leaped to their feet. The weird yell coming from the south seemed to mean something to them; Marian Alston could hear officers calling orders. Maybe it's Tarzan, she thought. Sounds like him. She bared her teeth in harsh amusement at the thought; just the sort of thing the damned interfering bare-assed bukra of Burroughs's imagination would do.
"Now!" she shouted.
The mortar team dropped their round into the stubby barrel of the weapon. Shoonk, and a blade of fire speared man-high into the night.
Alston came up on one knee and raked back the hammers of her pistol with the pink-palmed heel of her hand.
Whonk. The star shell arced up through the leaves and burst. The bright actinic light froze the Tartessians in place for a crucial instant, startled into immobility, blinded by the light they hadn't been expecting. Her crews had been warned beforehand to look away.
Ninety Westley-Richards rifles volleyed at the enemy. Alston trained her weapon and fired, letting the weight bring the heavy pistol back into line before she used the second barrel. The Islanders were spread out along the trail behind fallen logs and folds in the hilly ground, twenty to sixty yards back. X'tung'a had picked the ground, and he seemed to know it the way she did her own quarterdeck.
BAAAAMMMM. A dozen or so of the Tartessians were down, some screaming and writhing. Not bad, she thought with the part of her mind that was cold, detached analysis. Rifles weren't Guard crewfolk's primary tool, and it was dark. The enemy were leveling their muskets and firing back. They probably couldn't see a thing to shoot at, but there were a lot of them. Muzzle flashes winked at her like malignant red fireflies, and something went crack past her head, an ugly flat sound. Bullet-clipped leaves and twigs fell on her, and her mouth was a little dry. It always was, times like these.
Most of that was the knowledge that Swindapa was within arm's length and very definitely in harm's way. Campaigning with your lover had a nerve-racking quality all its own…
Ain't no friends like the friends you make in combat. Her father's voice, remembered from the porch on a spring day when she was barely up to his navel. Hell, the bukra in my platoon, we was tighter 'n brothers, even them 'Bammy rednecks went around in white sheets back to home. Gooks didn't pay no never mind if you was white, black, or green.
The Islanders were replying, a steady crackle of independent fire, and the mortar team switched to explosive rounds and began walking them down the trail. Beside her Swindapa leveled her rifle over a log and squeezed carefully, then reloaded without having to look down and watch her hands work. A Tartessian officer doubled over and fell limp in the midst of waving his men on. They were doing the best thing you could in an ambush-attack.
Or most were. A few turned and shoved their way into the brush on the other side of the track. Alston snarled to herself. Just about now…
Whudump! A crashing blast and stab of red fire like a sword blade into the dark, rank belly of the jungle. A Claymore was a very simple weapon, really; just a curved iron plate with the concave side facing the enemy, a layer of explosive, and a layer of lead shot inside a thin tin cover. Friction primers weren't as lasting or reliable, but they'd usually work when somebody's leg hit the trip wire-
More screams. Another schoonk… whonk! as the mortar team fired more star shell. The Tartessians came on recklessly, many of them throwing aside their guns and drawing cold steel, or carrying the guns by the barrels to use as clubs.
Whudump! Whudump! Whudump!
Alston's snarl grew wider as the flashes strobed, and the burnt-sulfur stink drifted through the hot night. There were Claymores between this position and the trail, too. The Tartessians froze again as men fell or stumbled back screaming and bleeding; they went to earth and began firing back. Loading a musket like theirs while lying down could be done, but you had to be a contortionist, and it was slow. Only a few of them had breechloaders.
"Ready!" Marian called through the shadow-lit night. "Take it slowly and do it right. Now!"
Beside her, Swindapa laid down her rifle and pulled an iron egg out of a pouch on her harness. A metal ring protruded from the top; she hooked her right index finger through it, twisted sharply and pulled. In the darkness Marian could hear the scritch as the friction primer ignited, the hissing of the fuse. Then the Fiernan rose and threw it with a snapping twist of arm and torso.
I hate those things, Marian thought. Most of Ron Leaton's weapons were unavoidably less advanced than their equivalents up in the twentieth. The grenades were unavoidably less reliable; they scared her.
More were arching out from the Islander ambush; they began exploding crackcrackcrackcrack, quick red sparks among the huddled Tartessians.
And there was a whistling shunk from behind her. Swindapa's drop back to cover behind the huge rotting fallen log started as gracefully as all her motions. It turned into a tumble and a cry of startled pain. A long black arrow was through the fleshy part of her thigh; she stared at it for an instant, wide-eyed.
From behind us. Marian knew, suddenly and crystal-certain. Someone knows where our leadership is and they're trying to take it out.
Her body was reacting without any need for her mind's prompting; she grabbed Swindapa under the arms and rolled over the log with her, ignoring the small shriek as the rough movement twisted at the shaft through the Fiernan's leg. Another arrow went vhwwweept through the space she'd occupied a second earlier, close enough to make a shallow cut across one shoulder blade before she was belly-down to the earth.
'"s not bad," Swindapa said through clenched teeth. "Not bleeding much. I can't use the leg."
Thunk. Another arrow, this one driven through the top curve of the log. A scream from nearby, as someone took a shaft in the back.
"One man behind us!" Marian called. "Torwnello, Reuters, Johnson, Aynaraxsson, about-face!"
"Torwnello's down, ma'am!" a voice called. "We're watching!"
More grenades were arching out behind her. She could ignore that for the moment, though; the Tartessians weren't going anywhere, and the bullets they were putting out were essentially a random factor. Let whoever it was come to her. Whoever it was was good.
Tanchewa threw down his bow. His eyes speared the gloom- there. The two women were on the other side of the log and had enough sense to lie tight along it. If he could kill the dark-skinned woman chief, the others might well flee, or at least be thrown into enough disorder that his comrades could escape. He took his shield by the central handgrip and charged, moving like his totem beast, feet landing light and sure among the vines and brush and fallen trees. Rifles barked at him, tongues of fire, and something scored along his ribs like a hot knife. That made him miss one stride, until the extent of the pain told him it was only a flesh wound-time enough to tend it later, if he lived.
Noise and motion in the fire-lit darkness; screams, the shit stink of death, the iron-copper-salt of blood, the rotten-egg smell of gunpowder. Chaos. Marian Alston let it flow through her as she reached over her shoulder and drew the katana. Distraction was a state of mind; if you weren't distracted, you would always see what was necessary and never be surprised. A rushing black shadow coming toward her. Smooth, very quiet, very fast-but not hurrying in the least, at full speed through brush, in near-total darkness.
She came to her feet with a long sibilant hiss of exhaled breath, and the sword flowed upward to jodan no kame, high and very slightly to the right, hilt level with her eyes. Neither anger nor fear, beyond intention and desire. A knee relaxed and she swayed out of the line of the thrust. The sword floated down, diagonal cut, elbows coming in, wrists locking, gut muscles tensed and throat open for the kia as the long curved blade blurred. A sliver of silver as starlight caught the layer-forged steel.
A jarring shock, flowing through her and gone, as the man's buckler shed the steel. He was pivoting, whirling, striking again in the same motion, one move flowing into another, shield, spearhead, the butt of the shaft. She parried again, blade down, right hand with the heel of the palm braced against the pommel. Scrinnngg as the tough wood slid along her sword. She felt the essence of the man she was fighting in that instant, the long-limbed quickness, the deadly balance.
Teki ni naru, Musashi had called it: to become the enemy.
They were moving together in a dance, the sword an extension of her back and shoulders, feet at right angles, weight centered over her chi. She let the rhythm of the combat form in her mind, a gestalt that made their interaction a single construct…
Alston sensed the rhythm of the attack and knew where the spearhead would come. Bang of steel on wood, and they were past each other. The sword flicking, reversing, stabbing-an iado move, to strike behind without turning. Soft, somehow thick sensation as the slanted-chisel point met skin. Sword looping up into the ready position as she turned, cut coming down with the stamping fall of her left foot.
Crouched in the follow-through, blade out and level with the ground, she came back to herself. Seconds only had passed; Swindapa was lowering her pistol, the firefight was dying-
"We surrender!" someone shouted from the Tartessian position. "Please!"
Marian Alston looked down at the broken body of the tribesman, suddenly conscious of an enormous sadness. The face was contorted, the light painting it ghastly red as blood flowed from his mouth, but the features were still kin to hers-the features of the Dahomey, the Mandinka, the Yoruba, of tribes yet unborn in the tides of time. Of an ancestor, perhaps.
Strong, long-fingered hands clawed into the forest duff as the man tried to form words. A language she did not know, and they were gurgled through blood. Heels drummed for an instant, and he died in the usual human squalor.
Alston turned and shouted toward the Tartessians: "Throw down your weapons! Come forward with your hands up!"
Swindapa echoed it in their own language. When they obeyed, Marian shouted in her turn, for a corpsman. The medic came at a run, kneeling by the Fiernan and taking out his kit.
Swindapa winced and raised herself on her elbows. "Fast… he was so fast, I couldn't fire."
Alston knelt for a second to close the staring eyes. "Very fast," she said, with a wry quirk of her full lips. "But that's a race we all lose, in the end."
"You make the bluff," Alantethol said, despite the rough hemp of the noose about his neck and the hangman's knot under his ear. "Your law forbids you to torture prisoners of war. I will tell nothing you."
The eighty surviving Tartessians-less the wounded too injured to stand-stood sullen under the Islander guns in the waist of the ship. Alantethol and his officers stood on chairs, under the gaff of the Chamberlain's mizzenmast. The lines from the nooses ran up over that, through beckets, and down to be secured to stanchions and belaying pins along the port rail. The ship rocked slightly at her moorings, and Alston could see eyes widening and tongues moistening lips as the men shifted to keep themselves balanced. That wasn't easy, with their hands tied behind their backs.
Marian Alston smiled-at least that was technically the name for her expression. Swindapa sat in a folding chair behind her, one leg thickly bandaged. The corpsman said it would heal within a month or two, with no loss of function. Two of the Islander crew were dead, and three more unlikely to live. That the Tartessians had suffered more altered Alston's determination not at all.
"You're right," she said, looking up at the sweat-slick face of the Tartessian captain, catching a whiff of the rankness of it mixed with the olive-oil-and-garlic odor of his body.
He was in fear of his life, but the aquiline features were set, the little gold-bound chinbeard jutting with the determination that firmed his mouth.
Alston set her hands on her hips and went on: "The thing is, Tartessos and the Republic are at peace. We have a treaty. You broke it, of your own will. So you're not prisoners. You're pirates. And we don't torture pirates, either. We hang them, 'dapa, repeat that in Tartessian, would you?"
The Fiernan sighed and did; her tone was regretful, but no less determined than her partner's.
Alantethol lifted his chin toward the east, where the first hint of dawn was paling the stars, lips moving in a silent prayer.
Alston went on: "On the other hand, if any of you were to tell me what arrangements you had with your ships, signals, and so forth, I'd pardon them… and give them sanctuary in Nantucket and a thousand dollars in gold. Oh, and I'd spare the others, too; I have the authority to do that. So, who'll save his life, and his friends, and be a rich man?"
Alantethol's mouth worked again; she stepped aside smartly to avoid the gobbet of spit. It arched past her to land on the scrubbed boards with a tiny splat. Considering what the human body did when it was strangled, the deck might well be a lot messier before long.
The translation took a few moments; Tartessian was a less compact and economical language than English. Choppier than Fiernan, too, she thought absently, eyes on the faces of the men standing with the nooses around their necks.
Brave man, she thought, looking at their commander. Sadistic bastard-the San had made clear how the Tartessians had abused their hospitality, and needlessly, too, when you considered their eagerness to please a guest-but a brave sadistic bastard. She wasn't all that impressed; physical courage was not a rare commodity, particularly not here in the Bronze Age, and particularly not among those picked for a voyage of exploration by as good a judge of character as Isketerol of Tartessos.
On the other hand, human beings were variable. Brave one day and timid the next; or a lion in the face of storm or battle but unable to contemplate the slow, choking death that awaited them. Some of the other Tartessian officers tried to spit at her as well as she walked down the line; some were standing with their eyes closed. One, younger than the rest, was silently weeping.
And one had a spreading stain on his tunic below the crotch. She caught the sharp ammonia stink of urine as she walked over and put one boot on the stool he was standing on.
"You first," she said, rocking it slightly. Her Tartessian was good enough for that. "Good-bye, pirate."
The man's lips opened just as the third leg of the stool came off the deck. He began screaming words through thick sobs; several of the others were shouting as well-curses and threats, she thought, directed at the man who'd talked.
"Marian!" Swindapa said quickly. "Two red rockets at dawn- they'll be standing off the coast. That's the signal for them to come in, that we've been captured."
And raped and murdered, most of us, Marian thought, her face a basalt mask as she let the leg of the stool thump back to the deck.
"Get them down," she said to the waiting master-at-arms. "Below, in irons-except for that one."
Alantethol seemed as much startled as furious as he was bundled past her. Alston sighed as she felt the tension ease out of her neck.
"Why is it," she said softly, "that cruel bastards like that think they have a monopoly on ruthlessness?"
"I don't know," Swindapa said. "I don't like to kill, myself. There are many things that I don't like but that are necessary anyway. Moon Woman orders the stars so." After a moment: "How many would you have hung?"
"All of them," Marian said, her voice as flat as her eyes. "And then started on the crew."
"Who's Mr. Me-Heap-Big-Chief-Gottum-Chicken-On-My-Hat?" Alice asked. "Honestly, the people you bring home to dinner sometimes, Will."
William Walker hid his smile. The northern chieftain did look a little absurd, in his high, conical helmet with a wood-and-boiled-leather raven on it; the way the wings flapped when he moved didn't help, either.
Hong came stepping daintily down the middle of the brick pathway; the horses in the stalls on either side raised their heads and snorted a little, as if they could smell the blood and madness in her eyes. Her riding crop tapped against her high, glossy boots and kid-skin jodhpurs as she looked the visiting barbarian up and down.
"Hello, big fellah," she said in English. "If I pull on those long droopy mustaches, will the wings flap?"
Tautorun was a son of the high chief of a considerable confederation of proto-demi-God-knew-what in the Danube valley, in what would have become Hungary in the original history. They reminded Walker of his first followers, among the Iraiina of Alba. The language was similar too, sort of like the difference between Spanish and Portuguese up in the twentieth. Most people from Russia to Alba spoke similar dialects in this period, from what he'd been able to gather.
"This is High Chief Tautorun son of Arimanu, lord among the Ringapi," Walker said slowly in Iraiina, trying to make the sounds more like his guest's language-dropping initial h before e was one, he'd noticed. "Lord Tautorun, my wife the wisewoman Alice Hong."
Tautorun bowed, smiling and exchanging a few words with Alice before she sauntered off. If he thought her appearance strange-and he'd certainly never seen an Oriental woman before, much less one in pants-he gave no sign of it. No sign of being afraid of her reputation, either. They switched back to Achaean after that, which the visitor spoke quite fluently, albeit with a strong accent.
Smoother than the Iraiina ever were, Walker thought.
Rather advanced barbarians, in fact; they made his former father-in-law Daurthunnicar's bunch in the White Isle look like hillbillies from the deep hollows. Tautorun didn't wear a leather kilt, but instead trousers of well-woven cloth in a check pattern; his coat was wolfskin, but beautifully tanned and sewn, as were his bull-hide shoes. The long leaf-shaped bronze sword at his side was as good as anything Agamemnon's smiths had turned out, the sheath tooled leather with chased-gold bands, and his jewelry was splendid in a lavish sort of way, arm-rings like coiled snakes and a necklace of gold, amber, and carnelian.
The visiting chief ran a thoughtful hand over his chin; the Ringapi even shaved there, although they were fond of long, sweeping mustaches. Tautorun's hung halfway to his collar, tawny like the hair that spilled out from under his ceremonial helmet. It was a considerably closer shave than he'd had before he was introduced to steel razors and lathering soap, of course, about which he'd been wildly enthusiastic- those and a number of other things.
As far as Walker could tell, the Ringapi were interested in more than trade-sniffing for opportunities, and feeling him out for an alliance. There had been naked greed in the barbarian's gray eyes for most of his tour through Mycenae and Walkeropolis, too.
Not least about the horses. "By the Lady Eponha," he said, viewing Walker's quarter horse stallion Bastard over the bar rails of the box. "I don't know why you've been buying horses from us, if you have many like him."
Bastard was getting a little long in the tooth, now-fifteen or so, and Walker had retired him from anything but stud duties years before. He was still a fine figure of a horse, though, a fast, sleek giant by the standards of 1242 B.C., and with luck he'd be siring colts for another decade.
I'm getting fond of horses again, he thought, taking a deep breath of the smells of a well-kept stable. It's a lot more fun with some slaves to shovel the shit, of course. And maybe the local attitudes were rubbing off on him. Certainly his kids old enough to walk were all horse-mad.
"We don't have all that many more like him," Walker went on aloud. "Several hundred three-quarter, half, and quarter breeds from him, though. I could give you one of his sons, for your return."
"That is a chief's gift indeed!" Tautorun said, hiding his eagerness as best he could. "I shall tell all at home of the riches and generosity of the Achaean lands."
Walker nodded. And I'm smelling horse shit from more than the stalls, dude, he thought.
Tautorun's people had always traded a little with Mycenae, through a long chain of middlemen; Walker had set up a base at the mouth of the Danube to speed things up, although that still meant paying protection money to the Trojans on the way. The new flood of trade had brought more information as well, both ways. The Ringapi lived on the Middle Danube, their lords charioteers dwelling in fortress-towns and taking tribute from scores of villages. They themselves were horse breeders and herdsmen as much as farmers, their trade stretching from the Adriatic to the Baltic along the ancient amber routes; they had more-tenuous contacts further still, east and west among distant kin from the English Channel to Central Asia.
They were also warriors, who kept an ever-more-greedy eye on the wealth of the Aegean countries, and they were being pressed by their neighbors-the tribes were on the move across much of Europe, to a rumble of chariot wheels and crackle of torched hill forts. According to the references he had (and thank God he'd managed to get a copy of the Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe among the Yare's cargo, when he hijacked her) a big volkerwanderung was due in another couple of generations. A bit like the fall of Rome with Attila the Theodoric and their horsey-set biker gangs of Vandals and Goths and Huns and whatnot.
Kingdoms would fall and cities burn all across these seas and far into Anatolia and the Canaanite country; from hints in the books and what he'd learned of the Ringapi and their neighbors, Walker suspected that that horde of Bronze Age Vikings that Ramses III fought would include a lot of Central and North Europeans as well as Achaeans, Sardinians, and odds-and-sods from everywhere. There was no reason why not; you could walk from Denmark to Greece in a month or two. An army or migrating horde could do it between spring and winter, provided they could threaten or muscle their way through and didn't mind leaving famine-desert in their wake.
Or all that would have happened, without him. He certainly didn't intend to have barbarian hordes wandering around territory he planned to conquer himself and pass on to his heirs.
But on the other hand, they could be useful. Walker sat on a bench that looked out over an exercise yard where handlers were leading two- and three-year-olds around, and Tautorun sat beside him. It was a little chill and damp, but the horses in the building gave warmth, and southern Greece never got really cold by his standards, or by those of the man beside him. A slave came up with wine in gold-rimmed glass goblets, and the northerner drank deep-they were wildly enthusiastic about wine too, an expensive luxury up in the woods. Walker sipped and schooled his face to charm.
"I'm glad you've enjoyed my hospitality," he said mildly. "Keep the glassware, by the way; no, I insist… I hope you do tell of Mycenae's wealth and generosity when you return."
"To make trade grow faster?" Tautorun said shrewdly.
A little way from them, a brace of his retainers squatted on their hams, leaning their arms on their grounded spears. A squad of Walker's Royal Guards stood at parade rest near them, in their gray uniforms and armor, with their new breechloaders slung at their shoulders-Cuddy finally had acceptable copies of the Nantucketer Westley-Richards coming out of the workshops in some numbers.
"Trade, yes," Walker said. "We can use more horses."
Best not to go into too much detail about what they were using them for-mostly to pull reaping machines, although artillery teams were also a major user. Agamemnon's nobles, whose ancestors had been northern horse-barbarians, hadn't been happy about it, either. All that breed felt that putting horses to farming work was some sort of obscure social demotion for themselves, too.
Walker went on: "And we need metals, tin particularly. Raw wool, too, and hides, more than we can raise ourselves. If we can pacify the river route well, possibly other goods."
"And we your tools and weapons of steel," Tautorun said. "Wine and oil, this fire-wine, glass, fine cloth… there is no end to what we need."
No end to what you'd like to paddle your paws in, you mean, Walker thought and winced mentally at the thought of these goons rampaging through what he'd built up. They might be sophisticated barbarians, but they still had all that breed's love of destruction for its own wild sake, and they would smash even more through sheer ignorance.
"Well, we always need more slaves as well," Walker said. "You tell me you're often at war with your enemies-we'll buy all you can catch."
"That would be easier if we had better weapons."
Oh, wouldn't it just, Walker thought. They'd do anything to get their hands on guns. Though… hmmm…
"Of course. Yet we could scarcely hand over the secrets of our power, unless…"
He let his voice trail off.
"Unless-" Tautorun said eagerly, his voice a little slurred and his expression less guarded. It was amazing what spiking the wine with a little brandy did to those not used to it.
"We might be able to use fighting men soon," he said. "We've always hired mercenaries, but we need more. Possibly… possibly we could use allies as well. In the lands to the east of here."
The Ringapi chieftain's eyes grew bright with interest. "Ah, Hatti-land," he breathed.
If there's a folk-migration building up, I might as well put it to use. Let 'em smash things up in the right places, keep the opposition distracted, and soak up bullets. We can always kill them all later. Maybe even civilize them, if they're good little doobies and useful to the Walkerian Dynasty.
The talk went on for some hours, until a chill nightfall. Tautorun took off the raven-crested helmet that marked him as a feeder of the Crow Goddess-She whom the Iraiina called the Blood Hag of Battles-and ran a hand through his barley-colored mane.
"Strong talk," he said. "Some would say wild-but this is a time of wolf and raven, of ax and spear, when new things walk the earth. Perhaps it's the time of the great War of the Gods that the songs foretell! I'll bear a word from you to the other chiefs of the Rangapi, and maybe a word from them to you in turn."
"And then men might go from here to there-skilled men," Walker said. "Men and goods, and oaths between us and the Ringapi lords."
"We'll talk further of this tomorrow," Walker replied. "Now let's feast."
He nodded; across the fencing of the paddock rose terraced gardens, and above those the white marble and bright windows of Walker's palace. Tautorun's eyes rested on it with a mix of envy, awe, and greed. He nodded.
"You set a noble table, too," he said, grinning. "My hand on it."
They stood and grasped wrists, squeezing a little; they were both strong men. "You've guested with me; perhaps we'll fight together someday," Walker said.
"That would be a fight to feed Her ravens and make the long-speared Sun Lord smile," Tautorun said, shaking his right hand a little. He hesitated slightly. "That must have been a fight to remember too, the one that took your eye."
Walker's smile turned chill. "It was," he said. "I lost the battle, but got something better than one victory."
"It must have been a mighty booty, that you think it was fair exchange for such a wound."
Walker nodded. "I don't miss the eye. You see, I sacrificed it for wisdom."
Tautorun took a step back and shuddered slightly in his wolfskin jacket.
"Wave and smile, you son of a bitch, or I'll spit you here and now." Marian Alston smiled, a somewhat grim expression, as she heard the bosun's mate hissing to the Tartessian standing by the rail and saw the light jab of the bowie knife resting over the prisoner's kidney. A thick scattering of the enemy prisoners stood there at the bulwark, and the officer who'd agreed to fink on his compatriots was standing on the rail with a hand on the ratlines. More Islanders were mixed in with them, in the clothes of the Tartessians, who sat in their loincloths under guard on the shore. They'd run the Tartessian flag up to the top too.
There was a slight hint of rose-pink over the jungled hills to the east and a layer of mist lying in the blue-green valleys. Already the air was warming, and sweat ran down her flanks under the uniform. Alston stood on the third rung of the rope ladder that lay along the starboard, landward side of the Chamberlain. That put her above the level of the deck and gave her a good view of the Tartessian vessels standing in through the narrow channel into Port Luthuli's roadstead.
Nice-looking ships, she thought for a moment. She could see how the hull form was derived from the Yare, the Nova Scotia-built topsail schooner that Isketerol and Walker had stolen, 'bout a five-to-one hull ratio, she decided. Long and low and black with pitch, the sharp-prowed hulls were throwing a chuckle of bow wave under the dying breeze. Fast ships, then, although they were doing no more than three knots in these sheltered waters. The masts were tall and raked well back; two on the schooner coming in first, the Sun Dancer, three on the Stormwind following-that was about half the size of the Chamberlain, and brig-rigged, square sails on the fore and main, fore and aft on the mizzen.
Wish I was as certain as Heather and Lucy are that this is going to work, she thought wryly. The girls had given them a rousing send-off, although they'd been shocked underneath at Swindapa's wound. The Fiernan sat by the wheel on the quarterdeck, a kerchief hiding her bright hair and a cheese of gun wads supporting the injured leg. Alston felt naked, going into a fight without her partner by her side. It had been long years, since that first time down in the Olmec country.
The hyacinth eyes met hers, warm and fond. Alston nodded, and returned all her attention to the oncoming…
Targets, she told herself. Think of them as targets and nothing else. No boarding netting rigged, and their decks were crowded with men. Maybe Isketerol had them sniffing around Australia, she thought. He knows about the gold there from the books Walker took. That would explain stuffing men in that way.
The enemy ships were gliding closer. On each stern was a small platform with a statue on it, a grotesque juju with three legs, six arms, and a single staring eye-Arucuttag of the Sea, Lord of Waves, Master of the Storm, to whom the captains gave gold and man's-blood.
Closer, closer. How close before they could see through the fiction? And even when the schooner was well within range, the brig would be further out-it was the harder target. Plus, I want to capture the ships, if I can. For one thing, they and the prisoners would be valuable counters in whatever diplomatic game the Republic ended up playing with Tartessos. And God alone knew how she'd get the men back without another couple of hulls. It was tempting just to maroon them here, but that was either a sentence of slow death or a trip back home if other Tartessian ships called, both unacceptable.
Swindapa looked over at her, a question on her face. Alston shook her head, waiting. She raised her binoculars and focused on the man by the schooner's wheel, standing with his hands on his belt and a saffron-dyed cloak fluttering in the wind.
He had a spyglass; Isketerol's artisans were beginning to turn them out. She ignored the eerie conviction that he was looking at her and waited yet again, until she saw him lower the glass and open his mouth to speak. It might be some harmless order, but… and the distance was about right.
"Now!" she shouted.
Deck crew snatched up a line and heaved. It ran to a spring on the anchor cable, and the long hull of the clipper-frigate pivoted smoothly under that leverage, presenting her full broadside to the Tartessian ships.
A rumbling thunder as the bosun's pipe relayed the order and the waiting crews heaved on the gun tackle. She couldn't see the port side, but she knew exactly what the Tartessians were seeing, and it justified the gaping horror on their faces. The frigate's main battery was running out, the portlids swinging up to reveal the black maws of the eight-inch Dahlgrens. On deck, crewfolk were shoving and hustling the prisoners down the hatchways with savage enthusiasm. And- BOOOOOOMMMMMM.
One long, rolling crash as the gun captains jerked their lanyards and the twelve heavy cannon fired within a second of each other, at point-blank range.
"All yours, 'dapa!" Marian shouted and dropped down the rope ladder with reckless speed.
"Stretch out!" the middie shouted at the tiller of the longboat she landed in, her voice crackling with stress.
They heaved at their oars with panting, grunting effort that made the slender boats sweep forward, despite the weight of the Guard sailors who packed them to the gunwales, armed and cheering.
Four boats were pulling for the Stormwind, two for the smaller schooner. That looked to be out of action; she could see blood running in thin streaks through the ship's scuppers. Christ, and I thought that was a figure of speech.
Stormwind had taken bad hits too. Alston was relying on speed and surprise and the stunning effect of those first broadsides to keep them away from their cannon. The next thirty seconds would tell if it was enough.
"Thus, thus!" Alston shouted. Suddenly it was there, looming huge from the low-riding longboat. " Up and at them! "
"UP AND AT 'EM!" roared the laden boats.
A Tartessian cannon did fire, but too late-the ball went overhead, close enough for her to feel the ugly wind and know that fifteen seconds earlier it might have decapitated her as cleanly as a guillotine. Then they were up against the forepeak of the Stormwind, wood grinding on wood. Marian leaped up and swarmed up one of the ropes with a shout of "Follow me!"
Her head came level with the rail, to see a Tartessian bleeding from half a dozen superficial wounds rushing at her with a boarding pike. She drew her pistol one-handed, raked the hammers back against her thigh and fired. The long steel head of the pike scored across her side like a line of cold fire.
A flip put the barrels of the pistol in her hand. She smashed it into the man's face, and his nose went flat in a spurt of blood. He roared and reeled backward. That let her get her legs down on the Stormwind's deck and take a full-armed swing. Bone crumpled; she threw the pistol in the next Tartessian's face and swept out her katana. That draw turned into a cut, diagonally down from the left with her foot stamping forward. The ugly jar of steel in meat and bone hit her wrists, and she ripped the blade through its arc with a whipping twist of arms, shoulders, gut.
Something slapped her head around, stinging pain; the sensory data were distant, nothing to pay attention to unless it crippled her-she felt calm and utterly alive at the same time, information pouring in through ears and eyes and skin and out in the movements of her sword and orders. For a moment the two forces were locked together, blows given and received chest to chest. Her katana jammed in bone, and someone kicked her feet out from underneath her while it was stuck, by accident or design.
Training saved her, making muscle go limp as she fell to the blood-slick boards. She drew the shorter wazikashi and her tanto-knife, but there was no way to parry the clubbed musket that a short, thick, heavy-bodied Tartessian sailor was raising to beat out her brains. Then the Tartessian screamed and fell back, his face half sliced off by a boarding ax in the hands of a Chamberlain. The crewman was a Sun People tribesman, and the battle madness of his folk was on him, eyes showing white all around the iris, moving with a lethal, inhuman fury…
Alston flipped herself back to her feet. "You!" she shouted, grabbing the bosun. The fighting had surged past her a little. "Get that!"
She pointed to a small stubby carronade standing to port of the enemy ship's wheel, a flintlock piece with the hammer cocked- ready, but the enemy had been surprised before they could use it. The bosun nodded, understanding her gesture if not her voice in the overwhelming noise. He and she and half a dozen others grabbed the little cannon and ran it forward.
"Way, there!" they called.
The Guard fighters parted, and there was a single moment to see the appalled faces of the Tartessians before she jerked the lanyard. It leaped backward, right up the quarterdeck and through the stern rail, but it had done its work… and it was loaded with grape.
The enemy gave way, turning and running down into the waist of the ship. Marian paused an instant to recover her sword, aware in some distant corner of her mind that the sensation of her feet sliding greasily in a pool of blood and body fluids would come back to her later. And the stink, the stink…
The Marines among the boarders fell out, reloaded their rifles, and volley-fired from fo'c'sle and quarterdeck, effective beyond their numbers in their crisp discipline and the ordered glitter of their bayonets. A Tartessian threw down his cutlass and fell to his knees, holding out his hand for quarter. There was an instant's wavering, and then the enemy's morale broke like a glass jar dropped on a granite paving stone.
"Cease fire!" Marian called as the rest of the enemy joined the first. "Belay fighting, there-cease fire!"
She stood, suddenly conscious of pain and of blood pouring in a wet sheet down her neck and her side. Her fingers went to one ear as a Tartessian in an officer's gaudy tunic came and knelt, offering his sword. She took it, wincing at the same time.
Well, there goes the earlobe, she thought, as the boarders began cheering, loud even after the memory of combat. One ran cat-nimble up the Stormwind's rigging, slashed the crowned mountain of Tartessos down from the mast and ran up the Stars and Stripes.
The cheering spread across the water, and the Republic's flag was flying from Sun Dancer too. Alston felt her knees begin to buckle and clamped her fingers on the wound despite a sensation like a red-glowing steel spike thrust through the side of her head. Head wounds always made you bleed like a pig for some reason; the one in her side was deeper but not leaking as badly.
If this keeps up, eventually I'm going to be held together entirely by scar tissue, she thought, then called aloud:
"Ensign! Get the first aid going for the wounded and signal for the medics. Bosun, I want these prisoners disarmed and under hatches. You, there-"
Despite fatigue, despite the grief of losses and the pain of wounds, she felt a surge of sheer joyous relief. They were going home.
Home. Most beautiful word in the language.