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The Helliconia Trilogy: Book Three
By Brian W. Aldiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Brian W. Aldiss
All rights reserved.
THE LAST BATTLE
Such was the nature of grass that it continued to grow despite the wind. It bowed to the wind. Its roots spread under the soil, anchoring it, leaving no room for other plants to find lodgement. The grass had always been there. It was the wind which was more recent—and the bite in it.
The great exhalations from the north carried with them a fast-moving sky, comprising a patchwork of black and grey cloud. Over distant high ground the clouds spilled rain and snow. Here, across the steppelands of Chalce, they purveyed nothing worse than a neutral obscurity. That neutrality found an echo in the monotony of the terrain.
A series of shallow valleys opened one into the next, without definite feature. The only movement to be seen was among the grasses. Some tufts bore insignificant yellow flowers which rippled in the wind like the fur of a supine animal. The sole landmarks were occasional stone pillars marking land-octaves. The south-facing sides of these stones sometimes bore lichens, yellow and grey.
Only keen eyes could have discerned minute trails in the grass, used by creatures which appeared at night or during dimday, when only one of the two suns was above the horizon. Solitary hawks, patrolling the sky on motionless wings, explained the lack of daytime activity. The widest trail through the grasslands was carved by a river which flowed southwards towards the distant sea. Deep and sluggish in movement, its waters appeared partly congealed. The river took its colour from the tatterdemalion sky.
From the north of this inhospitable country came a flock of arang. These long-legged members of the goat family loosely followed the tedious bends of the river. Curly-horned dogs kept the arang closely grouped. These hardworking asokins were in turn controlled by six men on hoxney-back. The six sat or stood in their saddles to vary their journey. All were dressed in skins lashed about their bodies with thongs.
The men frequently looked back over their shoulders, as if afraid of pursuit. Keeping up a steady pace, they communicated with their asokins by whoops and whistles. These encouraging signals rang through the hollow spaces round about, clear above the bleat of the arang. However often the men glanced back, the drab northern horizon remained empty.
The ruins of a place of habitation appeared ahead, nestling in an elbow of the river. Scattered stone huts stood roofless. A larger building was no more than a shell. Ragged plants, taking advantage of the windbreak, grew about the stones, peering from the blank window sockets.
The arangherds gave the place a wide berth, fearing plague. A few miles farther on, the river, taking a leisurely curve, served as a boundary which had been in dispute for centuries, perhaps for as long as there had been men in the land. Here began the region once known as Hazziz, northernmost land of the North Campannlatian Plain. The dogs channelled the arang along beside the river, where a path had been worn. The arang spread into a fast-moving line, face to tail.
They came in time to a broad and durable bridge. It threw its two arches across the wind-troubled face of the water. The men whistled shrilly, the asokins marshalled the arang into a bunch, preventing them crossing the bridge. A mile or two away, lying against the northern bank of the river, was a settlement built in the shape of a wheel. The name of the settlement was Isturiacha.
A bugle sounded from the settlement, telling the arangherds that they had been sighted. Armed men and black Sibornalese cannon guarded the perimeter.
"Welcome!" shouted the guards. "What did you see to the north? Did you see the army?"
The arangherds drove their animals into pens already awaiting them.
The stone farmhouses and barns of the settlement had been built as a fortification along its perimeter. The farms, where cereals and livestock were raised, lay in the middle. At the hub of the circle, a ring of barracklike offices surrounded a tall church. There was continual coming and going in Isturiacha, which increased as the herdsmen were taken into one of the central buildings to refresh themselves after their journey across the steppes.
On the south side of the bridge, the plain was more varied in contour. Isolated trees betokened increased rainfall. The ground was stippled with fragments of a white substance, which from a distance resembled crumbling stone. On closer inspection the fragments proved to be bone. Few pieces measured more than six inches in length. Occasionally a tooth or wedge of jawbone revealed the remains to be those of men and phagors. These testimonies to past battles stretched across miles of plain.
Over the immobility of this doleful place rode a man on yelk-back, approaching the bridge from the south. Some way behind him followed two more men. All three wore uniform and were equipped for war.
The leading rider, a small and sharp-featured man, halted well before he reached the bridge, and dismounted. He led his animal down into a dip and secured it to the trunk of a flat-topped briar tree before climbing to the level, where he stood peering through a spyglass at the enemy settlement ahead.
The other two men presently joined him. They also dismounted and tied their yelk to the roots of a dead rajabaral. Being of senior rank, they stood apart from the scout.
"Isturiacha," said the scout, pointing. But the officers spoke only to each other. They too scrutinised Isturiacha through a spyglass, conferring together in low tones. A cursory reconnaissance was made.
One officer—an artillery expert—remained on watch where he was. His brother officer galloped back with the scout to pass information to an army which advanced from the south.
As the day passed, the plain became broken by lines of men—some mounted, many more on foot—interspersed by wagons, cannon, and the impedimenta of war. The wagons were drawn by yelk or the less sturdy hoxney. There were columns of soldiers marching in good order, contrasting with baggage trains and women and camp followers in no order at all. Above a number of the marching columns waved the banners of Pannoval, the city under the mountains, and other flags of religious import.
Further back came ambulances and more carts, some carrying field kitchens and provisions, many more loaded with fodder for the animals involved in this punitive expedition.
Although these hundreds and thousands of people functioned like cogs in the war machine, nevertheless each underwent incidents peculiar to his or her self, and each experienced the adventure through his or her limited perceptions.
One such incident occurred to the artillery officer who waited with his mount by the shattered rajabaral tree. He lay silent, watching his front, when the whinnying of his yelk made him turn his head. Four small men, none coming higher than his chest, were advancing on the tethered mount. They evidently had not observed the officer as they emerged from a hole in the ground at the base of the ruined tree.
The creatures were humanoid in general outline, with thin legs and long arms. Their bodies were covered in a tawny pelt, which grew long about their wrists, half concealing eight-fingered hands. The muzzles of their faces made them resemble dogs or Others.
"Nondads!" the officer exclaimed. He recognised them immediately, although he had seen them only in captivity. The yelk plunged about in terror. As the two leading Nondads threw themselves at its throat, he drew his double-barrelled pistol, then paused.
Another head thrust itself up between the ancient roots, struggled to get its shoulders free, and then rose, shaking soil from its thick coat and snorting.
The phagor dominated the Nondads. Its immense box-head was crowned by two slender horns sweeping backwards. As the bulk of it emerged from the Nondad hole, it swung its morose bull face between its shoulders, and its eyes lit on the crouching officer. Just for a moment, it paused without movement. An ear flicked. Then it charged at the man, head down.
The artillery officer rolled onto his back, steadied the pistol with both hands, and fired both barrels into the belly of the brute. An irregular golden star of blood spread across its pelt, but the creature still came on. The ugly mouth opened, showing spadelike yellow teeth set in yellow gums. As the officer jumped to his feet, the phagor struck him full force. Coarse three-fingered hands closed round his body.
He struck out again and again, hammering the butt of his gun against the thick skull.
The grip relaxed. The barrel body fell to one side. The face struck the ground. With an enormous effort, the creature managed to regain its feet. It bellowed. Then it fell dead, and the earth shook.
Gasping, choking on the thick milky stench of the ancipital, the officer pulled himself to his knees. He had to steady himself with a hand on the phagor's shoulder. In amid the thick coat of the body, ticks flicked hither and thither, undergoing a crisis of their own. Some climbed onto the officer's sleeve.
He managed to stagger to his feet. He trembled. His mount trembled nearby, bleeding from lacerations at its throat. Of the Nondads there was no sign; they had retreated into their underground warrens, into the domain they knew as the Eighty Darknesses. After a while, the artillery officer was sufficiently master of himself to climb into the saddle. He had heard of the liaison between phagors and Nondads, but had never expected to confront an example of it. There could be more of the brutes beneath his feet ...
Still choking, he rode back to find his unit.
The expedition mounted from Pannoval, to which the officer belonged, had been operating in the field for some while. It was engaged in wiping out Sibornalese settlements established on what Pannoval claimed as its own territory. Starting at Roonsmoor, it had carried out a series of successful forays. As each enemy settlement was crushed, the expedition moved farther north. Only Isturiacha remained to be destroyed. It was now a matter of timing before the small summer was over.
The settlements, with their siege mentality, rarely assisted each other. Some were supported by one Sibornalese nation, some by another. So they fell victims to their destroyers one by one.
The dispersed Pannovalan units had little more to fear than occasional phagors, appearing in even greater numbers as the temperatures on the plains declined. The experience of the artillery officer was not untypical.
As the officer rejoined his fellows, a watery sun emerged from scudding cloud to set in the west amid a dramatic display of colour. When it was quenched by the horizon, the world was not plunged into darkness. A second sun, Freyr, burned low in the south. When the cloud formations parted about it, it threw shadows of men like pointed fingers to the north.
Slowly, two traditional enemies were preparing to do battle. Far behind the figures toiling on the plain, to the southwest, was the great city of Pannoval, from which the will to fight issued. Pannoval lay hidden within the limestone range of mountains called the Quzints. The Quzints formed the backbone of the tropical continent of Campannlat.
Of the many nations of Campannlat, several owed allegiance through dynastic or religious ties with Pannoval. Coherence, however, was always temporary, peace always fragile; the nations warred with each other. Hence the name by which Campannlat was known to its external enemy: the Savage Continent.
Campannlat's external enemy was the northern continent of Sibornal. Under the pressure of its extreme climate, the nations of Sibornal preserved a close unity. The rivalries under the surface were generally suppressed. Throughout history, the Sibornalese nations pressed southwards, across the land-bridge of Chalce, to the more productive meadows of the Savage Continent.
There was a third continent, the southern one of Hespagorat. The continents were divided, or almost divided, by seas occupying the temperate zones. These seas and continents comprised the planet of Helliconia, or Hrl-Ichor Yhar, to use the name bestowed on it by its elder race, the ancipitals.
At this period, when the forces of Campannlat and Sibornal were preparing for a last battle at Isturiacha, Helliconia was moving towards the nadir of its year.
As a planet of a binary system, Helliconia revolved about its parent sun, Batalix, once every 480 days. But Batalix itself revolved about a common axis with a much larger sun, Freyr, the major component of the system. Batalix was now carrying Helliconia on its extended orbit away from the greater star. Over the last two centuries, the autumn—that long decline from summer—had intensified. Now Helliconia was poised on the brink of the winter of another Great Year. Darkness, cold, silence, waited in the centuries ahead.
Even the lowest peasant was aware that the climate grew steadily worse. If the weather did not tell him as much, there were other signs. Once more the plague known as the Fat Death was spreading. The ancipitals, commonly referred to as phagors, scented the approach of those seasons when they were most comfortable, when conditions returned most closely to what they once had been. Throughout the spring and summer, those ill-fated creatures had suffered under the supremacy of man: now, at the chill end of the Great Year, as the numbers of mankind began to dwindle, the phagors would seize their chance to rule again—unless humankind united to stop them.
There were powerful wills on the planet, wills which might move the mass of people into action. One such will sat in Pannoval, another, even harsher, in the Sibornalese capital of Askitosh. But at present those wills were most preoccupied with confounding each other.
So the Sibornalese settlers in Isturiacha prepared for siege, while looking anxiously to see if reinforcement would come from the north. So the guns from Pannoval and her allies were wheeled into position to aim at Isturiacha.
Some confusion reigned both at the front and the rear of the mixed Pannovalan force. The elderly Chief Marshal in charge of the advance was powerless to stop units who had looted other Sibornalese settlements from heading back to Pannoval with their spoils. Other units were summoned forward to replace them. Meanwhile, the artillery situated inside the walls of the settlement began to bombard the Pannovalan lines.
Bruum. Bruum. The short-lived explosions burst among the contingent from Randonan, which had come from the south of the Savage Continent.
Many nations were represented in the ranks of the Pannovalan expeditionary army. There were ferocious skirmishers from Kace, who marched, slept, and fought with their dehorned phagors; tall stone-faced men of Brasterl, who came kilted from the Western Barriers; tribes from Mordriat, with their lively timoroon mascots; together with a strong battalion from Borldoran, the Oldorando-Borlien Joint Monarchy—Pannoval's strongest ally. A few amid their number presented the squat shape of those who had suffered the Fat Death and lived.
The Borldoranians had crossed the Quzint Mountains by high and windy passes to fight beside their fellows. Some had fallen ill and turned for home. The remaining force, fatigued, now discovered their access to the river blocked by units which had arrived earlier, so that they were unable to water their mounts.
The argument grew hot while shells from Isturiacha exploded nearby. The commandant of the Borldoranian battalion strode off to make complaint to the Chief Marshal. This commandant was a jaunty man, young to command, with a military moustache and a concave back, by name Bandal Eith Lahl.
With Bandal Eith Lahl went his pretty young wife, Toress Lahl. She was a doctor, and also had a complaint for the old Chief Marshal—a complaint about the poor standards of hygiene. She walked discreetly behind her husband, behind that rigid back, letting her skirts trail on the ground.
They presented themselves at the Marshal's tent. An aide-de-camp emerged, looking apologetic.
"The Marshal is indisposed, sir. He regrets that he is unable to see you, and hopes to listen to your complaint another day."
"'Another day'!" exclaimed Toress Lahl. "Is that an expression a soldier should use in the field?"
"Tell the Marshal that if he thinks like that," Bandal Eith Lahl said, "our forces may not live to see another day."
He made a bold attempt to tug off his moustache before turning on his heel. His wife followed him back to their lines—to find the Borldoranians also under fire from Isturiacha. Toress Lahl was not alone in noticing the ominous birds already beginning to gather above the plain.
The peoples of Campannlat never planned as efficiently as those of Sibornal. Nor were they ever as disciplined. Nevertheless, their expedition had been well organized. Officers and men had set out cheerfully, conscious of their just cause. The northern army had to be driven from the southern continent.
Excerpted from Helliconia Winter by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1985 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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