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The ice wars of dominia, p.3
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       The Ice Wars of Dominia, p.3

           Hylton Smith
 
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  Altocotl nodded and asked how Ventaninho would ensure there was no ambiguity in his offer. The reply was accepted. “I have come to learn the various dialects of Korellian Dominesque language in my time here. It will not be a problem.” He set off with two hundred warriors.

  *

  Ragna had, in his leafy refuge, avoided the guard and his ten subordinates who were now hunting him. They had clearly become frustrated while he had been in orbit with the other Travellers, and testimony to this was all around. Corpses with agonising facial contortions confirmed the purpose of physical restraints, and the extent of the brutality was sickening. There were Korellians and Aurorans amongst the victims. Ragna was dumbfounded by such disregard for the lives of their own citizens. He had thought that acquisition of the spoils of war was enshrined in some kind of code of hypocrisy; this was outside his concept of sentient behaviour. He decided to challenge the guard in front of his underlings.

  When he appeared suddenly in a clearing during their midday break, a slow, evil grin permeated the guard’s increasingly erratic demeanour. The prospect of having this stranger surrounded with spear-bearing elite soldiers was uplifting – for all of thirty seconds. The command to hurl their weapons at the brazen quarry was executed with admirable precision. Eight of the eleven projectiles struck their intended target. They were then just as quickly plucked out of his torso by the rather puny-looking prey, and all but one thrown to the ground. This lone spear was a blur as it hurtled through the recipient’s chest and protruded through his dorsal skin. Ragna picked up the skewered, screaming guard with the free end of the weapon, and planted it into the sodden forest floor in a perfectly vertical attitude. The wriggling, dying guard pleaded for mercy, but his cohorts simply ran off in all directions. Ragna was confident that this would be reported to Grenthe as some kind of wraith in their midst – but happily not extra-terrestrial presence. He was equally sure that he would be pursued with even more vigour.

  News of this incident had reached Dominia and therefore Khaled, via his contracted Korellian mercenaries. They had themselves been hunting this Auroran guard, who had tortured some of their people to death. His impaled body was gratefully discovered by one of their patrols. They celebrated the find by carving up the corpse and eating most of it. The remnants were taken back to their camp for others to enjoy. Many Korellian tribes had been forced into cannibalism after the great impact, but most had gradually drifted away from this kind of ritualistic devouring of foes. Some tribes still honoured their dead by ‘transferring the spirit of their kin by digestion’, but the North Korellian habit was still simply driven by scarcity of food, although it was officially against the law. Those from the more fertile east and west declared such consumption as unclean compared to eating one’s ancestors, but even that was a diminishing ritual.

  Khaled summoned Reda and Karim to his palace.

  “We must have more reliable knowledge of the death of this guard in the northern wastes. Certain stories have spread of how he met his death. They may have been conceived out of fear, but the North Korellians are not normally prone to exaggeration; in fact they rarely speak of anything remotely out of the ordinary. I want you to bring me the leader of the North Korellian tribes. I may have further business to offer him.”

  The Commander of the Dominian army, T’slane, stepped forward but was immediately halted by Khaled. “This is a diplomatic opportunity T’slane, your delegation of a melee unit to Reda will suffice for such an exploratory exercise.”

  The Commander bowed respectfully but wasn’t happy at the prospect of two civilians leading one of his elite praetorian squads into diplomatic peril with cannibals, still he deferred. Karim knew from the influx of stories that Ragna had to be involved in this episode. He would go along with the plan at present, but would also want to talk to his fellow Traveller at some time, in order to know the real truth behind the hysteria.

  *

  Kiozo had presented outline ideas for the construction of man-powered chariots, armed with multiple pikestaffs pointing at variable angles to groups of the enemy. He felt that the tactics of the East Korellians were based purely on concentrated, swiftly employed phalanxes of men. They were effective in an offensive sense, but he determined that these chariots would stiffen the defences against them, and offer mobile retaliation capability. The chariot would have a single occupant who would have steering control. The drive would be from four others pushing from protected shielding at the rear. Each unit would be flanked by conventional front line soldiers. When it was sketched out as a line of up to fifty, capable at any time of forming a defensive circle, it could also act as a lure to the enemy, leaving their rear vulnerable to further units emerging from cover. Kiozo had deliberately dumbed down the design to fit with the expected obstinacy of the military. He would need to establish a credibility bridgehead with these overly proud and dogmatic Generals.

  *

  Rubina was struggling to placate a client of the flesh. He had insisted on getting what he had paid for, whereas she pleaded that she hadn’t been informed of such acts of barbarism being on the menu. She tried to distract him by saying she had reliable information about the now widely feared wraith in Northern Korellia.

  “There is a rumour of a reward of a parcel of land to anyone who captures him alive.”

  His interest did precede a new, powerful flush of testosterone, which made him even more insistent on deliverance of her obligation. When she squirmed away he swung a heavy, carved club at her, thinking the only way he was going to obtain his craved relief was when she was unconscious. As the club seemed to pass through her body without impairment, he hesitated while examining the knurled end of the weapon. The absence of blood puzzled him. Rubina now knew that this had to end abruptly. Grabbing the club from the startled aggressor, she delivered several accurate blows to the face. As he sank to the floor, the mush that was once recognisable Korellian ethnicity began to spurt fountains of blood in all directions. It was a peculiar feeling which now possessed Rubina – she couldn’t escape the sensation of swift, clinical resolution compared to the discomfort of persuasion earlier in the encounter. It was quite pleasurable. A subsequent fleeting self-rebuke was eclipsed by waves of justification. He had asked for it, she would do it again. She had to get the corpse out of the room, but the fracas had brought her employer to the doorway. He gaped in horror at the carnage.

  “You are a mad woman, do you not know who this is – or was? He is the brother of Kyklos, chief of the eastern corridor dwellers of Korellia. You will forfeit your life for this; I must summon one of the Patrols. Come with……”

  It was a blow of amazing force which almost severed his head. This time she did not wait for visitors. She ran out into the night and requested the other travellers to meet up.

 

  Chapter 4

  Karim, Ventaninho and Kiozo declined as they were heavily focussed on their respective tasks in hand. Ragna agreed to meet Rubina in orbit. When they linked up Rubina said she had to abandon her watch on the Korellians.

  “These people are no more than wild animals; sentience is wasted on such barbarians. Our original mission was to help restore this planet to balance. The Korellians will not benefit from our assistance, so they should be left alone. What have you observed?”

  Ragna recounted his first run in with the guard, followed by the incident which created the wraith.

  “I have not had any success yet in meeting the real leaders, but from my initial contacts I would also question whether the Aurorans are ready for our help. I am being hunted by both North Korellian and Auroran patrols. It will be difficult to convince them that I could be an ally, without them demanding an explanation of our abilities.”

  “Perhaps that would not be such a bad idea. At least we could then access their rulers and determine if we are simply wasting our time. If we are, it would not be too late to conserve our shifting energy and then try to find a way to return to relative immortality. Do you think it
would be worthwhile for us to work together?”

  Ragna said that this would constitute an alteration which would require the other Travellers’ input. They agreed to approach them again.

  *

  Karim and Reda had located signs of a recent North Korellian camp. They despatched a small scouting party, carrying the accepted banner of desire to meet with the head of Korellian tribes. The black flag with a white circle denoted respect of the territorial boundaries. This was being observed from well camouflaged hides. After moving to several locations the party was ready to return when they were surrounded by heavily armed warriors. The scout leader offered food and trinkets to the most regaled individual. This provoked a command from him, to a lower ranking soldier, to retrieve the gifts. The scouts were asked to sit while the offerings were assessed. Eventually they were asked to explain what they wanted in return for the items. The scout leader explained that spokesmen from Khaled the Great would like to speak with their leader. It seemed like this was a mistake, judging by the threatening display of warlike gestures. It calmed slowly and the senior figure stepped forward.

  “You will not find Lupus in this territory, and you will risk your life by mention of his name. State your reason for requesting to speak with the chosen one.”

  The scout leader selected his words carefully. “Khaled has a proposal which may be of great interest to your leader. It is not another simple contract he is considering – it is much more. We do you the honour of speaking to Lupus first. If what you hear is not to your liking then we will approach another.”

  This seemed to be respectful enough to cause a huddle of the most decorated warriors. The same senior presence then announced, “Follow us.”

  The scouts were not at all sure whether this was a trap, but they realised that there were more than enough of these Korellians to dispose of them at any time of their choosing. They complied.

  When they emerged from thick forest on to an almost inaccessible ledge of rock, just below the tree line of a majestic mountain, they were asked to wait. The senior figure disappeared into a dwelling and then several minutes later, after a crowd of curious onlookers had assembled, the imposing figure of Lupus emerged with his Commander.

  He had a disturbing presence. The ornate helmet was so large it created a virtual centre of gravity well above waist level, and the facial scars told of a life of violence and survival. The two most striking examples were carved across the bridge of his now grotesquely disfigured nose, or what was left of it. This in turn distorted his voice, and it was not easy to hear precisely what he said, but they need not have been concerned, he mostly spoke through his Commander.

  “We will hear your offer now.”

  The scout leader nervously replied, “It is only for the ears of Lupus and Khaled.” He deliberately emphasised the order of the two, implying total respect for the former. The Commander, Negrosa, wanted to know where his leader was expected to meet Khaled. There was no negotiation offered.

  “It must be at the palace of Khaled.”

  This sounded risky to Negrosa, but Lupus intervened impatiently, “Convey to Khaled that I want to hear what he has to offer, but it can be handled in the same way as his contracts – in a scroll, securely delivered by one of his trusted aides.”

  The scout leader asserted that the only way for such a delicate discussion had already been explained.

  “This is a matter of such importance that it cannot involve others. My instructions are to pledge on behalf of Khaled, that you will be totally safe, and Khaled, as you must know does not offer pledges lightly. Here is his invitation, with the said pledge and you surely recognise his seal.”

  Lupus and Negrosa retired to the dwelling, and only the latter re-emerged. He was clearly unconvinced, but dare not say so, and was instructed to agree to the meeting. The proposed time was two days hence.

  *

  Meanwhile, Ventaninho, who had no experience of commanding anyone, let alone two hundred mean-faced troops, decided to pass this precarious task to Aquades, a time served, hard-headed battalion leader. This relaxed the men and allowed Ventaninho to concentrate on diplomacy. The camp of Berbus was near, and not too difficult to find. Straying into it unannounced was however another matter. Aquades waved the obligatory black flag with white circle, or Pax-Insignia, as it had come to be known. A delegate arrived at the edge of the camp, no doubt covered by invisible archers, and enquired as to the purpose of the column of fighting men. Ventaninho cut off the reflex response of Aquades.

  “We bring an offer of friendship from our deity, Altocotl. There is much for you to gain by accepting his invitation to assist you with the establishment of a reliable food supply. We also bring his solemn undertaking of avoiding military conflict with the West Korellian tribes.”

  The messenger reported this to another, who disappeared into the shadows. Upon his return he motioned for Ventaninho to accompany him.

  “No,” said Aquades, “this is not wise; to venture into their domain alone is inviting trouble.”

  Ventaninho reassured him that it would help Berbus to see that the offer was genuine. He proceeded to follow the second messenger and found that they had entered some kind of elaborate maze. They soon arrived at the entrance to a large tent of extremely opulent design. He was ushered inside and presented to Berbus. The craggy face in front of him bade him to sit. From his perch-like seat, he had to look up to Berbus, and he saw a very rotund frame. Silence prevailed until Berbus had completed his thorough visual checks of this person with the soft hands.

  “You are not a soldier. You fight with words. Speak.”

  Ventaninho articulated the principles of Altocotl’s offer, and stressed that if he declined, it wouldn’t offend the Machu chieftain.

  “It is purely to explore how we can best live alongside one another. He feels this is important because we will not withdraw. We have travelled too many decades running away from the white death to turn back. Our esteemed leader is also willing to share our knowledge with the region’s tribes so that there can be gains of a mutual nature.”

  The old man eyed him steadily without speaking. He then conferred with an advisor who was patently not born in this part of the world. The statement finally came.

  “If we are to progress this offer I must be able to study your leader. A place of mutual satisfaction will be considered. That is all we will agree to for now.”

  Ventaninho acknowledged the test of trust and assured Berbus he would return with the reply from Altocotl. When he re-joined Aquades there was visible relief on the faces of the entire contingent. They set off in search of Salamand.

  *

  The meeting in orbit was tetchy to put it mildly. When Ventaninho, Karim and Kiozo heard the proposal they accused Rubina of manoeuvring, simply to overturn the allocation of their tasks. She protested vehemently.

  “I surfaced close to the loosely agreed boundary between the northern and eastern tribal lands of Korellia. In my employment at the tavern I heard many stories similar to my own, and the accounts of Ragna fit with the probability that they are just not capable of changing their concept of what will help them survive. Even the accounts of Ventaninho and Karim suggest the Korellians will not alter their deep rejection of trust. Only Kiozo has so far avoided direct contact with them. At least if I was to work with Ragna and the Aurorans it would help the nation with the greatest disadvantage by far, in terms of numbers.”

  Kiozo was keen to return and signalled his willingness to compromise. Ventaninho was eyeing the potential benefit to the Machu which Ragna and Rubina could deliver. The proximity of the unpredictable North Korellians to their western neighbours could become a problem. He saw a window of opportunity in having more time to bring the West Korellians into line before the inevitable confrontation with Dominia.

  “I suppose it could be worth trying on a provisional basis. They are after all prone to fight amongst themselves without much provocation. I withdraw my objection to this trial
period.”

  Karim began to see this as isolating Dominia. He was worried that the Tor-Azen, with an undistracted Kiozo, and their technology plan, would be troublesome, even without the unhindered build-up of Machu resources. If Ragna and Rubina inadvertently managed to fuel more rebellion in North Korellia, Khaled would become more vulnerable.

  “I cannot agree. If Rubina will not accept the challenge as it was given, then let her withdraw. This proposal changes the entire plan.”

  He was outvoted and demonstrated his anger by threatening to ignore all of the other rules they had agreed.

  “From now, I will not attend any more of these meetings. The campaign will be decided by other means, and I will remind you at that time Rubina, that you were the cause of that outcome.”

  The session terminated bitterly as the others noted Kiozo was already gone. A new dimension of time entered the theatre, because of this discord.

  *

  Kiozo pressurised Nakamukin to get Sendzai to authorise a simulation to evaluate his new chariot. This was declined simply because the way of the Tor-Azen was to avoid first strike. They were confident that they could absorb East Korellians as they had done with other cultures. Having the new chariots would simply reinforce such strategy. Kiozo was disappointed. He had however learned from one of the cliquot, that Sendzai had retained the outline technology for the production of gunpowder. Without the complementary precision in tooling, firearms had been considered as unattainable for the present. Kiozo had a new challenge.

  *

  Ventaninho and Aquades had located Salamand. The contrast with Berbus was stark. He had an easy manner. His long blond hair and fair skin were unusual for a native of these parts, let alone a tribal leader. He was also confident enough to dispense with subordinates at the meeting. He wanted to hear what they had to say in isolation. They were offered sustenance, a noble gesture in a land of famine. They respectfully declined. When Ventaninho had concluded his presentation of the offer, Salamand surprised them by accepting the invitation immediately.

 
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