A stand-alone fantasy novel from the bestselling author of the Spellsinger & the Flinx series.
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On the fertile, grassy plains of Nasid Huedril, where the fortified city of Kyll-Bar-Bennid sticks like a rough gray thumb into the broad sweep of the glassy green river Drimaud, the armies of the Gowdlands assembled to await the arrival of the Totumakk Horde. Yet for all the Horde's fierce fighting skills, for all its rumored ruthlessness and raging brutality, it was not the Horde that the defenders of the Gowdlands feared. Among their own steadily swelling number they could count numerous brave fighters and famed warriors, skilled mercenaries and professional soldiers of considerable experience and ability. These were men and women who cowered before no wielder of spear or swinger of sword. Only a name struck fear into them. A name of the Unknown, a fearful shadow given substance only by reputation.
Reputed monster, master, and soulless slayer of men and despoiler of women, it was said. The dark arts were his province, the despair of others his pleasure. Human flesh sated his appetite and blood slaked his thirst. Where his Horde passed, the land was laid waste and the earth oozed pus. It was believed that he would not be content until all the civilized world cowered at his feet and licked the night soil from between his toes. The foulness of his countenance was alleged to send strong men into shock, his touch to cause convulsions in the most courageous of women. The gathering defenders of the Gowdlands drew encouragement from the realization that no one individual, no matter how evil and depraved, could possibly be the equal of such a reputation. Little did they know the truth of the matter.
The promontory of Kyll-Bar-Bennid formed the gateway to the Gowdlands, with the city commanding by far the best and most accessible of the approaches to the fertile territories farther east. Twelve bridges spanned the river Drimaud, encouraging exchanges and facilitating commerce. In the months since the first rumors of the approaching Horde had changed from a whisper to a roar, trade across the great river had slowed to a crawl, and finally to barely a trickle. Now, with the advance body of the Horde so near, the swollen flood of refugees had shrunk to a few last, terrified wagonloads.
A hard man to please, the stocky, silver-haired General Goughfree was quietly gratified by the decline. The flight of civilians from the other side of the Drimaud made his work that much easier. Of the dozen thoroughfares across the river, eight were narrow or fragile enough to be held by small squadrons of determined defenders. Equipped with cannon, they could sweep any attacker, no matter how determined or accomplished, into the swift current below.
The remaining four bridges required more attention. Broad of aspect and fashioned from solid stone, they commanded the main approaches to the city and the plains that lay beyond. All four had to be held. Should even one be captured, an attacking enemy would acquire a direct route into the city. Beyond the bridges lay the town itself, circuitous of street and convoluted of thoroughfare, and beyond it the castle, whose strong high walls were well defended. Goughfree and his colleagues felt confident it could be held against any assailant. But withdrawing into the castle would mean sacrificing the city and its treasures to the ravages of the enemy. The champions of the Gowdlands had no intention of allowing the prosperous metropolis to crumble beneath the boots of the Totumakk.
As for the supposed malignant powers of this Khaxan Mundurucu, the defenders of the Gowdlands could count among their number several powerful virtuosos of the mystic arts. Having consulted with the hastily constituted council of war, Goughfree had come away convinced of the ability of these several mages and wizards to deal with this Mundurucu individual, whose arrogant reputation must perforce exceed whatever arcane abilities he might actually pos sess. Armies would repulse any military assault by the Totumakk, while the necromancers of the Gowdlands would repel any sorcerous affront to the city's defenses.
Thus reassured, Goughfree spent the days supervising the strengthening of the city's fortifications, concentrating on the vital bridges while not neglecting the castle or the inner wards, until he was of the opinion that, seeing the strength of Kyll-Bar-Bennid, the Totumakk might well decide it was not in their interest to hurl themselves uselessly against it.
Languorous clouds filled the sky, and the air was suffused with the dank, clinging humidity of Final Summer when scouts at last brought word of the Horde's approach. Their confirming words were not needed, since from the topmost castle heights the defenders of the city had been able to observe the expanding glow of burning fields and homes for many days now. When finally the killing teams of the Horde began to emerge from the woods on the far side of the river, the soldiers and citizens of Kyll-Bar-Bennid had their first glimpse of those who threatened their destruction.
Even on a small scale, the sight was dauntingly horrific. Bent and twisted, gap-toothed and cloven-skulled, clean-shaven or eruptive of beard, there was not a man or woman among the amassing Horde who did not reek of corruption and decay. They were a vileness upon the land-and that was only the humans among them. At least half the Horde was made up of-other things.
There were creatures with curving, slanted eyes and narrow, heronlike beaks as long as a man's arm. Black-furred bipeds reptilian of aspect boasted oval mouths fringed with long hairs that might have been borrowed from fleshy catfish, while stockier companions carried pikes and lances on shoulders hunched unnaturally forward. There were massive red-furred hulks with warty, leprous countenances and eyes devoid of lids, who gazed upon the world with unblinking ferocity. Smaller fighters in this army of the damned hopped or lurched or shambled their way into camps that sprang up around central fires, above which roasted and dripped huge chunks of meat whose origins the saner among the city's defenders made a conscious effort not to identify.
Officers in gleaming black armor moved among their diabolic troops like sharks through schools of shad. Using whips and prods, they doled out grisly imprecations and sharp blows in equal measure. None of the Horde rebelled against this harsh treatment. None dared, and there were those truly sick ones who reveled in it.
On the bridges, within the city proper and the castle on the heights above, the defenders saw, and heard, and were appalled. The hellish vision of the enemy camps was enough to induce some to desert on the spot, fleeing under cover of night, carried away by fear. Most, however, remained, their number continuously reinforced by a steady stream of resolute new arrivals. Anyone with any sense knew that here was the place to stop the invaders, before they could reach the prosperous, broad plains of the Gowdlands. Keep them on the far side of the Drimaud, and everything and everyone to the east would be safe. Let them cross, and chaos would surely triumph. To give way now was to embark upon a life of eternal, hopeless flight from an unspeakable nightmare that would never end.
All they had to do, Goughfree and his fellow officers knew, was hold the bridges. While the aspect of the Horde was certainly terrible, the invaders had so far exhibited nothing capable of instilling despair in the heart of a well-trained soldier. The enemy did not even appear to have artillery, giving a distinct advantage to the well-prepared defenders. Let them come!
On the morning of Twelfth Day, beneath a glowering sky and in defiance of a sultry, obscuring rain, that is what they did.
Goughfree had established a forward command post atop the Hidradny Tower, which defended the largest and most prominent of the bridges that spanned the Drimaud. At the midpoint of the structure, a succession of battlements had been erected, one behind the other. The same defensive bulwarks had been put in place on all of the eleven other bridges. The idea was to funnel the mass of the enemy onto one or more of the resulting narrow concourses rather than meet them on an open field. This would prevent them from bringing superior numbers to bear. Should they succeed in surmounting or battering their way through a fortification, the defenders would retreat to the next one immediately behind. In this way, the attacking enemy force would be gradually reduced at each wall, while the defenders would grow progressively stronger thanks to reinforcements waiting to be brought up from behind.
When the moment was right, Goughfree or any of the generals commanding the other bridges could draw upon well-rested reserves for a devastating counterattack to drive the attackers back across the river. The defenders would not attempt to follow, but would instead try to reduce the enemy as severely as circumstance allowed before returning to the defense of the bridges. In the event the Horde succeeded in fighting its way across the entire length of a bridge, tall entrance gates and heavily defended city walls awaited them.
It was a good plan, a sound plan, uncomplicated and easy to implement. Goughfree, Chaupunell, Zisgymond and the other senior officers had a great deal of confidence in it. With luck, it would result in the elimination of the Totumakk Horde as an effective fighting force or threat to the Gowdlands for all time.
When battle was finally joined, standing atop the Hidradny Tower and squinting through the rain, Goughfree could see that all was going as planned. Shattering the air with a frightful ululation interspersed with individual war cries, many of which did not arise from human throats, the Horde proceeded to assault all four main bridges simultaneously. If in so doing they hoped to discover a weak point, they failed miserably. Only on the Salmisti Bridge were the defenders overwhelmed by the fury of the attack and pushed back. Hastily reinforced by cavalry held in reserve for just such a purpose, the defense stiffened at the last wall before the city gate.
Taking personal charge of the counterattack, General Zisgymond of the Grand Moied of Viezshry led a charge through the gate of massed heavy cavalry drawn from four kingdoms. The impact of the armored horse and antelope on the invaders was terrible. Those who were not trampled under hoof or cut down by lance, pike, and sword either fled back across the corpse-strewn bridge or leaped into the river to escape. Those whose weighty armor did not drag them to the muddy bottom to drown were carried off downstream by the swift current of the Drimaud and away from the field of battle. It was not a defense: it was a rout. Within the city, an elated citizenry filled the air with a spontaneity of cheers.
The effect on the rest of the enemy was profound. Seeing their hitherto indomitable colleagues slaughtered or forced into the water, the columns of attackers assaulting the other three main bridges faltered in their conviction, hesitated, and were, bridge by bridge, driven back to the far shore from whence they had come. As planned, their triumphant adversaries halted there, thrusting their weapons into the air while jeering their enemy, and returning to reconstitute their defensive positions.
That evening, Chaupunell and the rest of the senior staff took the time to congratulate Goughfree and one another.
"It's not done with yet." Goughfree had been too long a soldier to sail easy upon a sea of acclaim. "They were only testing us."
"A costly test." A euphoric commander of archers was leaning against the stone fretwork, peering through the mist. The gentle rain softened the aspect of the slaughter, whose bloody aftermath still stained the rough stone of the bridges. The Salmisti and Breleshva crossings in particular benefited from the cleansing shower, restoring the sheen of their smoothly paved surfaces from bright red to flinty gray.
"We have suffered losses of our own," Chaupunell pointed out. "The wounded must be seen to, and possible weak spots shored up." He and Goughfree in concert with a pair of senior engineers set to devising revised fortifications for the endangered Salmisti Bridge.
The Horde did not wait for morning. Hoping to catch the defenders of Kyll-Bar-Bennid off guard, and before they could renew themselves with a good night's rest, the invaders launched a second attack just after midnight. Darkness allowed them to approach the defensive palisades more closely this time before they were discovered, but the surprise they achieved was only partial.
Responding with energy and determination, the defenders gave ground grudgingly on all four bridges, doing as much damage as possible before falling back where and when necessary. When the Horde threw cavalry of its own into the attack, some desperate moments ensued. Riding atop hollow-eyed hoarbeasts boasting sharp, forward-facing horns and snouts filled with serrated, snapping teeth, the Horde scattered the defenders of the previously unbreached Zhisbrechar Bridge, seriously weakening the left flank of the city's defense and threatening to breach the tower that anchored that end of the city wall. Massive as gryphons, fleet of foot as elk, the hoarbeasts were not turned by the cavalry sent to reinforce the bridge.
That was when Goughfree called forth the Shandrac Thunder. From strategically superior positions atop hills behind the city walls, the famed assembled artillery of the Twin Dominions poured fire and destruction upon the invading Horde. Explosions ripped through the rain and split the night as projectiles fell like hail on the bridge and the far shore. Terrified by the flash and sound of exploding shells, panicked hoarbeasts whirled in retreat, trampling their own reinforcements underfoot and sowing panic and confusion among all manner of befuddled attackers. When the defenders of the Zhisbrechar followed the bombardment with a furious counterattack of their own, they were met with little resistance. Debased beast and brute homunculus alike went down beneath scything sword and thrusting pike.
Once more, victory belonged to the defenders. Once again, the enemy had failed even to mount a persistent assault on a city gate. Around Goughfree, senior staff and attendant guard celebrated gleefully. Only the general himself did not participate. Though chided for his reserve, he explained that he could not bring himself to rejoice. Something worried his thoughts like a nipping eel that had clamped its jaws around his ankle and would not let go.
Where was Khaxan Mundurucu?
For the next three days, nothing more threatening than heavy rain pummeled the defenders of the Gowdlands. From a strategic standpoint, the pause made no sense. Chaupunell in particular was surprised by the hiatus-surprised and pleased, since it gave the defenders time to rest, to recover, and to repair some of the damage done to their forward defenses on the four main bridges.
Of course, Goughfree knew the enemy was using the time to recuperate as well. The Horde had suffered terrible losses. Hundreds of bodies, some too ghastly in appearance to touch, washed up on the narrow shingle beaches at the base of the city walls and docks. The defenders, too, had suffered. But if anything, morale within and behind Kyll-Bar-Bennid was higher than ever, thanks to the unified forces of the Gowdlands having repulsed not one but two attacks of significance. And while their flow was reduced in number, reinforcements continued their steady trickle into the city.
On the morning of the fourth day after the midnight attack on the bridges, the interminable rain gave way to a light fog. Hanging over river and city, shore and plain, it imparted an eerie and unnatural peace to the panorama of devastation. Even the local waterfowl, who in the absence of battle had been slowly returning to favorite haunts beneath the bridges and along the silent shores, were strangely quiet.
The trio of forward lookouts who saw the first lumpenkin were so shocked they nearly failed to report the advance before they were cut down, torn to pieces by sinewy, muscular arms longer than their own bodies. As the towering, dull-eyed, blond-furred bipeds shambled forward, heads hanging low from long necks and the backs of massive hands scraping the ground as they walked, accompanying dramunculi swept the bridge with pyrovomitus, scorching the precisely set stones and incinerating anything flammable. Behind these striding horrors came the main body of the Totumakk Horde, even grimmer of countenance than usual, led by officers in terrifying armor who had heretofore remained in the background, giving orders without participating directly in battle.
Hastily struggling into his uniform, Goughfree knew as soon as he reached the high parapet and descried what was coming that this was to be the Final Battle. Today the Horde would hold nothing back. Today would bring the final, unconditional triumph of the peoples of the Gowdlands. It was with eager anticipation that he buttoned the collar of his weather jacket and heard the Shandrac Thunder begin to boom vigorously behind him.
Once again, explosive shells began to fall among the invaders, easy targets where they were packed together and concentrated on the eastern approaches to the four bridges. Once again, blood and bone, steel and stone, erupted in grisly fountains from the already battered but still intact stone arches and from the far shore. And then a strange thing happened.
The shells continued to fall, the Shandrac gunners placing them with unerring accuracy in the midst of the invaders. Explosions continued to split the air, and the fog became flavored with the acrid stink of gunpowder. But the enemy was not affected. Something was protecting them. Gazing down in disbelief, the members of the senior staff charged with the ultimate defense of the city and the Gowdlands saw that the falling shells were exploding before they reached the ground. It was as if a transparent shield of impenetrable glass had suddenly come into being above each bridge, to hover above the massed columns of advancing invaders.
"There!" shouted Colonel Borallos. The slim, dark-haired Master of Horse was accounted the sharpest of eye among all the general staff. Following the ramrod-straight line of her arm, Goughfree squinted into the fog, and finally saw what she saw.
Well back in the body of each of the four attacking columns, flanked by hairless, slate gray lumpenkin more massive of body than their taller, blonder counterparts, and attended by bird-things that sported quills instead of feathers and spatulate beaks lined with fine, needle-like teeth, was a wizard. In lieu of lustrous, flowing robes, the Four Warlocks of the Totumakk were clad in black cowls spattered with crimson paint intended to simulate flowing blood. Other than their attire, they were alike only in the evil they served up and dispensed.
One had four arms that picked invisible somethings from the air and flung them in the direction of the defending troops. Another was bloated and porcine, while a third was so squashed and profuse of jowl as to appear bodiless, as if its legs were growing right out of the bottom of its neck. The fourth, who was sorcerously assisting the assault on the Salmisti Bridge, wore a high, fat red cap the same color as its bulbous nose. Thin white wire spectacles rode that protuberant organ, while pointed teeth protruded forward and out from a slightly underslung lower jaw. The creature was reading from a handful of papers, reciting in detail those spells it had not wholly committed to memory.
In addition to sustaining the nefarious, necromantic shields that protected the advancing hordes from the effects of the Shandrac Thunder, the four warlocks called down burning sulfur and white-hot phosphorus on the defenders of the city. Small snapping fish fell among the archers and crossbowmen, while biting, stinging insects bedeviled the waiting cavalry.
As the spell-invigorated enemy threw itself against bulwark after bulwark, high on the city wall a worried Chaupunell and Zisgymond caucused with Goughfree.
"Our soldiers are brave and determined." Along with the rain, lines of concern streaked General Zisgymond's noble face. "But they cannot fight incantations. Hexes do not bleed." He gestured toward the wall, in the direction of battle. "Already the defenders of the Salmisti and Hidradny Bridges are being forced back to the towers. If these fall, the enemy will enter the city. Soon thereafter, they will be here, laying siege to the castle itself."
"Look at our people, suffering and dying beneath that which they cannot understand." Confidence could be seen slipping from Chaupunell's face, like a party mask whose strap had broken. "They fight on, but their morale is degenerating rapidly. Something must be done! Where are our own magicians?"
"Conferencing, or so I am informed. Trying to decide how best to counter this unexpected assault."
Chaupunell's face was set with concern as he surveyed the field of battle. "We cannot wait for bickering oldsters to agree upon a course of action. We must do something now."
"Do you not think I am aware of this?" Goughfree was as troubled as any of them. "We must find a way to stop the necromancers who are leading the attack, or at the least, find a means of reducing their influence." He called to several nearby couriers, who stood waiting for orders. "Inform those commanding the defenses of the Salmisti, Breleshva, Hidradny, and Zhisbrechar Bridges that they are to hold their towers at all costs. In twenty minutes we will launch a coordinated counterattack, with cavalry, at all four points." As supreme commander of the city's defense, it was within his provenance to issue such an order. He turned to the rest of the general staff.
"I want the best archers not engaged in the immediate defense of the bridges to be formed into four squads. Each is to be escorted by heavy cavalry. When the counterattack begins, they are to be rushed forward in chariots. They must penetrate the enemy lines and kill the four warlocks, or at least cause them to retreat from the field of battle. If they can do that, I think the enemy, whose confidence has presently been restored by unnatural means, will break." He indicated the castle keep behind them. "I have the utmost respect for our own learned scholars, but we cannot wait for them to concur."
It was a sound plan, the best that could be propagated under the circumstances. Even the weather must have thought it auspicious, for when the massive counterattack began, the rain turned to a light mist that was to the benefit of the waiting archers.
The Horde was hit hard. Heavy cavalry from Blest-on-Yoor and the Kingate of Hrushpar slammed into the enemy, trampling those in front, stunning those behind, and bringing the assault on the Salmisti, Zhisbrechar, and Hidradny Bridges to a shocked halt in front of the defensive towers. Only on the bridge of Breleshva did the counterattack slow and begin to falter. Narrowest of the four main bridges that spanned the Drimaud, it offered the least room for heavy horse to maneuver.
Furthermore, the attackers there were led by the wizard of the bloated red cap. Strewing balls of orange flame in front of the counterattacking cavalry, he blinded the horses while the enemy Horde surrounded them and, one by one, brought down their armored riders. Urged forward by their blood-thirsty brethren behind, those attackers in front succeeded in pushing past and over the defenders, leaving chariot-borne archers and steel-clad cavalry bobbing behind like boats trapped in a churning back-eddy at the bend of a river.
A bleak-visaged Goughfree turned away from the unsettling scene. Though he carried the sword slung at his side primarily for reasons of ceremony, he now knew that it was soon to be employed in more prosaic pursuits.
"The tower of the Breleshva Bridge is breached, and the enemy is entering the city."
Zisgymond took a step backward. "With your permission, General, I go to take personal charge of the defenses there. There is a chance we can keep them bottled up in the Plistina District. Fighting house to house, street to street, we can prevent them from flanking and taking any of the other bridges from behind."
That was the great strategic danger, of course. Once across the river, the enemy would be able to fan out and attack the defenders of the other bridges from the rear. This posed the danger of the city's defenses collapsing completely. Of course, the castle and the plains beyond could still be defended, but glorious, beautiful Kyll-Bar-Bennid, city of elegant avenues and a thousand spires, would be lost to pillage and destruction. It was a scenario that threatened to break Goughfree's heart.
They could only pray for the success of Zisgymond's efforts. If anyone could mount a successful counterattack under such rapidly developing desperate circumstances, it was the senior officer from far Xolchis.
Zisgymond had been gone for only a few moments when a courier arrived, breathless and excited. Her expression bespoke good news, a commodity that had been sorely lacking since that morning's sodden sunrise. Whatever it was, Goughfree knew, it did not involve the struggle below. Warriors of the Horde continued to pour through the captured Breleshva tower, fanning out into the city streets behind. Already, tongues of flame and the shadows of smoke from other incipient blazes could be seen rising from homes and businesses that the Totumakk had begun to put to the torch.
Still, any good news was welcome. Absently, he acknowledged the courier's salute. "Yes, what is it?" Perhaps a prediction of worse weather to come, he hoped. A heavy downpour might help to slow the enemy's alarmingly swift advance.
The courier swallowed as she struggled to catch her breath. She was very young, Goughfree saw, and quite attractive. No time for such fond contemplations now, he reminded himself sternly.
"Noble s-sirs," she gasped as droplets of mist pearled her exhausted face, "the convocation of the Gowdland mages has deferred all action upon receiving word that Susnam Evyndd has just entered the city!"
Copyright (c) 2001 by Thranx, Inc.
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I thought it was amusing and a bit fun. Overall, however, it was really not something I normally read and enjoy.
This book can be enjoyed by everyone from pet lovers, fantasy lovers, and good old book lovers! Wonderful and enchanting. It has such a beautiful and funny ending.
The Goblin horde led by warlock Khaxan Mundurucu successfully overwhelm the Kingdom of Gowdlands, killing the wizard Susnam in the process. The victors remove all color from the once peaceful realm. However, Susnam managed one last spell changing his three cats, a terrier, a bird, and a boa into humans with a quest to find the Pure Light that will return the color to the drab kingdom. As Oskar, Mamakitty, Taj, Cezar, and Cocoa begin their journey, they struggle to adapt to their new form and not allow instinct to take charge. Having to fool human and goblin alike, they cross a spectrum of colors ruling kingdoms in their obsession to complete their master¿s final quest. Anyone who enjoys an old fashion good vs. evil fantasy quest in which the outcome is preordained in the first few pages will want to travel on Alan Dean Foster¿s latest adventure. The well-written story line is often amusing even in the darkest light as the quintet of animals turned human struggle to adjust. This makes for more lighthearted moments, but never fully provide a complete character package of the five heroes or the deadly Goblin leaders. Still, Mr. Foster is a wonderful author whose latest novel KINGDOMS OF LIGHT will easily convert into a fabulous feature length animated tale. Harriet Klausner