Title: The Barbarians
Author: John Sentry
Summary: History was repeating itself; there were moats and nobles in Pennsylvania and vassals in Manhattan and the barbarian hordes were overrunning the land.
Word count: 9451
Public Domain Mark (PDM)
Image: Worlds of Science Fiction February 1958
IT WAS JUST as he saw The Barbarian’s squat black tankette lurch hurriedly into a nest of boulders that young Giulion Geoffrey realized he had been betrayed. With the muzzle of his own cannon still hot from the shell that had jammed The Barbarian’s turret, he had yanked the starboard track lever to wheel into position for the finishing shot. All around him, the remnants of The Barbarian’s invading army were being cut to flaming ribbons by the armored vehicles of the Seaboard League. The night was shot through by billows of cannon fire, and the din of laboring engines, guns, and rent metal was a cacophonic climax to the Seaboard League’s first decisive victory over the inland invaders. Young Geoffrey could justifiably feel that he would cap that climax by personally accounting for the greatest of the inland barbarians; the barbarian general himself. He trained his sights on the scarlet bearpaw painted on the skewed turret’s flank, and laid his hand on the firing lever.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of another tankette rushing up on his port side. He glanced at it, saw its graceful handcrafting, and knew it for one of the League’s own. He could even see the insigne; the mailed heel trampling a stand of wheat; Harolde Dugald, of the neighboring fief. Geoffrey was on coldly polite terms with Dugald—he had no use for the other man’s way of treating his serfs—and now he felt a prickle of indignant rage at this attempt to usurp a share of his glory. He saw Dugald’s turret begin to traverse, and hastily tried to get the finishing shot into The Barbarian’s tankette before the other Leaguesman could fire. But Dugald was not aiming for The Barbarian. First he had to eliminate Geoffrey from the scene entirely. When he fired, at almost point-blank range, the world seemed to explode in Giulion’s eyes. Somehow, no whistling shard of metal actually hit him. But the tankette, sturdy as it was, could not hope to protect him entirely. He was thrown viciously into the air, his ribs first smashing into the side of the hatch, and then he was thrown clear, onto the rocky ground of the foothills; agonized, stunned to semi-consciousness, he lay feebly beating at his smoldering tunic while Dugald spun viciously by him, almost crushing him under one tread. He saw Dugald’s tankette plunge into the rocks after The Barbarian, and then, suddenly, the battle was beyond him. Dugald, The Barbarian; all the thundering might that had clashed here on the eastern seaboard of what had, long ago, been The United States of America—all of this had suddenly, as battles will, whirled off in a new direction and left Giulion Geoffrey to lie hurt and unconscious in the night.
He awoke to the trickle of cold water between his teeth. His lips bit into the threaded metal of a canteen top, and a huge arm supported his shoulders. Broad shoulders and a massive head loomed over him against the stars. A rumbling, gentle voice said: “All right, lad, now swallow some before it’s all wasted.”
He peered around him in the night. It was as still as the bottom of a grave. Nothing moved. He drew a ragged breath that ended in a sharp gasp, and the rumbling voice said: “Ribs?”
He nodded and managed a strangled “Yes.”
“Shouldn’t wonder,” the stranger grunted. “I saw you pop out of your tank like a cork coming out of a wine bottle. That was a fair shot he hit you. You’re lucky.” A broad hand pressed him down as the memory of Dugald’s treachery started him struggling to his feet. “Hold still, lad. We’ll give you a chance to catch your breath and wrap some bandages around you. You’ll live to give him his due, but not tonight. You’ll have to wait for another day.”
There was something in the stranger’s voice that Geoffrey recognized for the quality that made men obey other men. It was competence, self-assurance, and, even more, the calm expression of good sense. Tonight, Geoffrey needed someone with that quality. He sank back, grateful for the stranger’s help. “I’m Giulion Geoffrey of Geoffrion,” he said, “and indebted to you. Who are you, stranger?”
The darkness rumbled to a deep, rueful laugh. “In these parts, lad, I’m not called by my proper name. I’m Hodd Savage—The Barbarian. And that was a fair knock you gave me.”
Young Geoffrey’s silence lasted for a long while. Then he said in a flat, distant voice: “Why did you give me water, if you’re going to kill me anyway?”
The Barbarian laughed again, this time in pure amusement. “Because I’m not going to kill you, obviously. You’re too good a cannoneer to be despatched by a belt knife. No—no, lad, I’m not planning to kill anyone for some time. All I want right now is to get out of here and get home. I’ve got another army to raise, to make up for this pasting you Leaguesmen have just given me.”
“Next time, you won’t be so lucky,” Geoffrey muttered. “We’ll see your hide flapping in the rain, if you’re ever foolish enough to raid our lands again.”
The Barbarian slapped his thigh. “By God,” he chuckled, “I knew it wasn’t some ordinary veal-fed princeling that outmaneuvered me!” He shook his head. “That other pup had better watch out for you, if you ever cross his path again. I lost him in the rocks with ease to spare. Bad luck your shot smashed my fuel tanks, or I’d be halfway home by now.” The rolling voice grew low and bitter. “No sense waiting to pick up my men. Not enough of ’em left to make a corporal’s guard.”
“What do you mean, if I ever cross Dugald’s path again? I’ll have him called out to trial by combat the day I can ride a tankette once more.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure, lad,” The Barbarian said gently. “What does that look like, over there?”
Geoffrey turned his head to follow the shadowy pointing arm, and saw a flicker of light in the distance. He recognized it for what it was; a huge campfire, with the Leaguesmen’s tankettes drawn up around it. “They’re dividing the spoils—what prisoners there are, to work the mills; whatever of your equipment is still usable; your baggage train. And so forth. What of it?”
“Ah, yes, my baggage train,” The Barbarian muttered. “Well, we’ll come back to that. What else do you suppose they’re dividing?”
Geoffrey frowned. “Why—nothing else. Wait!” He sat up sharply, ignoring his ribs. “The fiefs of the dead nobles.”
“Exactly. Your ramshackle little League held together long enough to whip us for the first time, but now the princelings are dividing up and returning to their separate holdings. Once there, they’ll go back to peering covetously at each other’s lands, and maybe raid amongst themselves a little, until I come back again. And you’re as poor as a church mouse at this moment, lad—no fief, no lands, no title—unless there’s an heir?”
Geoffrey shook his head distractedly. “No. I’ve not wed. It’s as you say.”
“And just try to get your property back. No—no, it won’t be so easy to return. Unless you’d care to be a serf on your own former holding?”
“Dugald would have me killed,” Geoffrey said bitterly.
“So there you are, lad. The only advantage you have is that Dugald thinks you’re dead already—you can be sure of that, or it would have been an assassin, and not me, that woke you. That’s something, at least. It’s a beginning, but you’ll have to lay your plans carefully, and take your time. I certainly wouldn’t plan on doing anything until your body’s healed and your brain’s had time to work.”
Young Geoffrey blinked back the tears of rage. The thought of losing the town and lands his father had left him was almost more than his hot blood could stand. The memory of the great old Keep that dominated the town, with its tapestried halls and torchlit chambers, was suddenly very precious to him. He felt a sharp pang at the thought that he must sleep in a field tonight, like some skulking outlaw, while Dugald quite possibly got himself drunk on Geoffrion wine and snored his headache away on the thick furs of Geoffrey’s bed.
But The Barbarian was right. Time was needed—and this meant that, to a certain extent at least, his lot and Savage’s were thrown in together. The thought came to Geoffrey that he might have chosen a worse partner.
“Now, lad,” The Barbarian said, “as long as you’re not doing anything else, you might as well help me with my problem.”
The realization of just exactly who this man was came sharply back to young Geoffrey. “I won’t help you escape to your own lands, if that’s what you mean,” he said quickly.
“I’ll take good care of that myself, when the time comes,” the man answered drily. “Right now, I’ve got something else in mind. They’re dividing my baggage train, as you said. Now, I don’t mind that, seeing as most of it belonged to them in the first place. I don’t mind it for this year, that is. But there’s something else one of you cockerels will be wanting to take home with him, and I’ve a mind not to let him. There’s a perfectly good woman in my personal trailer, and I’m going to get her. But if we’re going to do that and get clear of this country by morning, we’d better get to it.”
Like every other young man of his time and place, Geoffrey had a clear-cut sense of duty regarding the safety and well-being of ladies. He had an entirely different set of attitudes toward women who were not ladies. He had not the slightest idea of which to apply to this case.
What sort of woman would The Barbarian take to battle with him? What sort of women would the inland barbarians have generally? He had very little knowledge to go on. The inlanders had been appearing from over the westward mountains for generations, looting and pillaging almost at will, sometimes staying through a winter but usually disappearing in the early Fall, carrying their spoils back to their mysterious homelands on the great Mississippi plain. The seaboard civilization had somehow kept from going to its knees, in spite of them—in this last generation, even though the barbarians had The Barbarian to lead them, the Seaboard League had managed to cobble itself together—but no one, in all this time, had ever actually learned, or cared, much about these vicious, compactly organized raiders. Certainly no one had learned anything beyond those facts which worked to best advantage on a battlefield.
So, young Giulion Geoffrey faced his problem. This ‘perfectly good woman’ of The Barbarian’s—was she in fact a good woman, a lady, and therefore entitled to aid in extremity from any and all gentlemen; or was she some camp follower, entirely worthy of being considered a spoil of combat?
“Well, come on, lad,” The Barbarian rumbled impatiently at this point. “Do you want that Dugald enjoying her tonight along with everything else?”
And that decided Geoffrey. He pushed himself to his feet, not liking the daggers in his chest, but not liking the thought of Dugald’s pleasures even more. “Let’s go, then.”
“Good enough, lad,” The Barbarian chuckled. “Now let’s see how quietly we can get across to the edge of that fire.”
They set out—none too quietly, with The Barbarian’s heavy bulk lurching against Geoffrey’s lean shoulder on occasion, and both of them uncertain of their footing in the darkness. But they made it across without being noticed—just two more battle-sore figures in a field where many such might be expected—and that was what counted.
The noise and confusion attendant on the dividing of the spoils was an added help; they reached the fringes of the campfire easily.
IT WAS VERY interesting, the way history had doubled back on itself, like a worm re-growing part of its body but re-growing it in the wrong place. At one end of the kink—of the fresh, pink scar—was a purulent hell of fire and smoke that no one might have expected to live through. Yet, people had, as they have a habit of doing. And at the other end of the kink in time—Giulion Geoffrey’s end, Harolde Dugald’s time, The Barbarian’s day—there were keeps and moats in Erie, Pennsylvania, vassals in New Brunswick, and a great stinking warren of low, half-timbered houses on the island of Manhattan. If it had taken a few centuries longer to recover from the cauterizing sun bombs, these things might still have been. But they might have had different names, and human history might have been considered to begin only a few hundred years before. Even this had not happened. The link with the past remained. There was a narrow, cobbled path on Manhattan, with sewage oozing down the ditch in its center, which was still Fifth Avenue. It ran roughly along the same directions as old Broadway, not because there was no one who could read the yellowed old maps but because surveying was in its second childhood. There was a barge running between two ropes stretched across the Hudson, and this was The George Washington Bridge ferry. So, it was only a kink in history, not a break.
But Rome was not re-built in a day. Hodd Savage—The Barbarian, the man who had come out of the hinterlands to batter on civilization’s badly mortared walls—clamped his hand on Giulion Geoffrey’s arm, grunted, jerked his head toward the cluster of nobles standing beside the campfire, and muttered: “Listen.”
The nobles were between him and the fire, and almost none of them were more than silhouettes. Here and there, a man faced toward the fire at such an angle that Geoffrey could make out the thick arch of an eyebrow, the jut of a cheek, or the crook of a nose. But it was not enough for recognition. All the nobles were dressed in battle accoutrements that had become stained or torn. Their harness had shifted, their tunics were askew, and they were bunched so closely that the outline of one man blended into the mis-shaped shadow of the next. The voices were hoarse from an afternoon’s bellowing. Some were still drunk with the acid fire of exhausted nerves, and were loud. Others, drained, mumbled in the background like a chorus of the stupid. Gesticulating, mumbling, shouting, shadowed, lumped into one knot of blackness lighted by a ruddy cheekbone here, a gleaming brow there above an eye socket as inky and blank as a bottomless pit, they were like something out of the wan and misty ages before the Earth had had time to form completely.
Two arguing voices rose out of the mass:
“Those three barbarian tankettes are mine, I say!”
“Yours when I lie dead!”
“They surrendered to me!”
“Because I pounded them into submission.”
“Into submission, indeed! You skulked around their flanks like a lame dog, and now that I’ve taken them, you want your bone!”
“You were glad enough to see me there when the battle was hot. Call me a dog again and I’ll spit you like a rat on a pitchfork.”
No one else in the group of nobles paid the two of them any attention. No one had time to spare for any quarrel but his own, and the whole squabbling pile of them looked ready to fly apart at any moment—to draw sidearms and knives and flare into spiteful combat.
The Barbarian spat quietly. “There’s your Seaboard League, lad. There’s your convocation of free men. Step out there and ask for your lands back. Care to try?”
“We’ve already decided that wouldn’t be wise,” Geoffrey said irritably. He had never cared much for these inevitable aftermaths to battle, but it made him angry to have an inland barbarian make pointed comments. “I suppose it’s different when you win, eh?”
“Not very. But then, we’re not civilized. Let’s get moving, lad.”
Silently, they skirted the fire and made their way toward the parked vehicles of The Barbarian’s captured supply train. The ground was rough and covered by underbrush. More than once, The Barbarian stumbled into Geoffrey, making him clench his jaw against the pain in his chest. But he saw no point in saying anything about it.
“There she is,” The Barbarian said in a husky growl. Geoffrey peered through the brush at an armored trailer whose flat sides were completely undecorated except for a scarlet bearpaw painted on the door. A lantern gleamed behind the slit windows, and The Barbarian grunted with satisfaction. “She’s still in there. Fine. We’ll have this done in a couple of seconds.”
In spite of the incongruity, Geoffrey asked curiously: “What’s a second?”
“A division of time, lad—one sixtieth of a minute.”
“Oh. What on Earth would you want to measure that accurately for?”
“For getting women out of trailers in a hurry, lad. Now—let’s look for sentries.”
There were two guarding the trailer—men-at-arms from Dugald’s holding, Geoffrey noticed—carrying shotguns and lounging in the shadows. One of them had a wineskin—Geoffrey heard the gurgle plainly—and the other was constantly turning away from the trailer to listen to the shrieks and shouting coming from among the other vehicles of the train, where other guards were not being quite as careful of their masters’ new property.
“I see they’ve found the quartermaster’s waggons,” The Barbarian said drily. “Now, then, lad—you work away toward the right, there, and I’ll take the left. Here—take my knife. I won’t need it.” The Barbarian passed over a length of steel as big as a short-sword, but oddly curved and sharpened down one side of the blade. “Stab if you can, but if you have to cut, that blade’ll go through a man’s forearm. Remember you’re not holding one of those overgrown daggers of yours.”
“And just why should I kill a man for you?”
“Do you think that man won’t try to kill you?”
Geoffrey had no satisfactory answer to that. He moved abruptly off into the brush, holding The Barbarian’s knife, and wondering just how far he was obligated for a bandaged chest and half a pint of water. But a man’s duty to his rescuer was plain enough, and, besides, just what else was there to do?
The blame for it all went squarely back to Dugald, and Geoffrey did not love him for it. He slipped through the bushes until he was only a few yards from the man who had the wineskin, and waited for The Barbarian to appear at the opposite end of the trailer.
When it happened, it happened quite suddenly, as these things will. One moment the other sentry was craning his neck for another look at what was going on elsewhere. The next he was down on his knees, croaking through a compressed throat, with The Barbarian’s arm under his chin and a driving knee ready to smash at the back of his neck again.
Geoffrey jumped forward, toward his own man. The man-at-arms had dropped his wineskin in surprise and was staring at what was happening to his comrade. When he heard Geoffrey come out of the underbrush, the face he turned was white and oddly distended with shock, as though all the bones had drained out of it. He might have appeared fierce enough, ordinarily. But things were happening too fast for him.
Geoffrey had never killed anyone but a noble in his life. Not intentionally and at close range, in any case. The completely baffled and helpless look of this one somehow found time to remind him that this was not, after all, one of his peers—that the man was hopelessly outclassed in fair combat—or in anything else, for that matter. Geoffrey did not stop to weigh the probity of this idea. It was the central tenet of his education and environment. Furthermore, there was some truth in it.
He couldn’t kill the man. He swept up his arm and struck the flat of The Barbarian’s broad knife against the side of the guard’s head, and bowled the man over with his rush. But the guard had a hard skull. He stared up with glazed but conscious eyes, and squalled: “Lord Geoffrey!” Geoffrey hit him again, and this time the guard stayed down, but the damage was done. Scrambling to his feet, Geoffrey ran over to The Barbarian, who was letting the other guard ooze to the ground.
“We’ll have to hurry!” Geoffrey panted. “Before that man comes back to his senses.”
The Barbarian gave him a disgusted look, but nodded. “Hurry we shall.” He lurched to the trailer door and slapped it with the flat of his hand. “Let’s go, Myka.”
There was a scrambling sound inside the trailer, and the light went out. The door slid open, and Geoffrey found himself staring at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
She was lithe almost to the point of boyishness, even though she was clearly some years older than Geoffrey. She had short hair the color of hammered copper, high cheekbones, and tawny eyes. She was wearing a tunic and short trousers, and there was an empty pistol holster strapped around her waist. Obviously, she was not a lady. But it was much too late for Geoffrey to care about that. She stopped in the doorway, shaking her head slowly at The Barbarian. “I swear, Hodd,” she said in a low, laughing voice, “one of these days you won’t come back from the dead, and I’ll be surprised.”
“It was close enough, this time,” The Barbarian growled. He jerked his head toward Geoffrey. “That young buck over there knows how to handle his enemies. Once he learns what to do about his friends, I may have to retire.”
Myka arched her burning eyebrows. “Oh? What’s the story behind that, I’d like to know.”
“We can always talk,” Geoffrey said a little edgily. “But we can’t always find an empty tankette.”
“Quite right, lad,” The Barbarian said. “I saw some vehicles parked over that way.”
“Those belong to the nobles. There ought to be some captured ones of yours somewhere around here.”
“With plenty of guards on them. No, thanks.”
“That didn’t trouble you earlier.”
“Myka, as you may have noticed, is more than a tank. This time the prize isn’t worth it. I’d rather just slip over to where I can get transportation for the choosing.”
“Not with my help.”
The Barbarian looked at him and grunted. He seemed oddly disappointed. “I would have bet the other way,” he muttered. Then the shaggy head rose, and he circled Myka’s waist with one arm. “All right, I’ll do it without your help.”
“Is Myka trained to drive a tankette and fight at the same time?”
“Then you’d better do it my way. You’d make a poor showing, kicking drive levers with a broken leg.” Geoffrey nodded toward The Barbarian’s right shin. “It’s been that way since before you picked me up, hasn’t it? I saw it wobble when you kneed that man-at-arms.”
Myka looked at The Barbarian sharply, worry on her face, but the man was chuckling. “All right, bucko, we’ll do it your way.”
“Fine.” Geoffrey wasn’t so sure it was. Suddenly he was committed not only to helping The Barbarian escape, but also to escape with him. He was faintly surprised at himself. But there was something about the man. Something worth saving, no matter what. And there was the business now of having been recognized. Once Dugald learned he was still alive, there would be a considerable amount of danger in staying in the vicinity. Of course, he had only to stoop over the unconscious guard with The Barbarian’s knife….
With a quick motion, he tossed the weapon back to its owner.
That one was an easy choice, Geoffrey thought. Simply stealing—or was it recapturing?—a tankette and using it to drive away with Myka and The Barbarian didn’t mean he had to go all the way to the barbarian lands with them. Let the guard revive and run to Dugald with the news. All Geoffrey had to do was to remove himself a few miles, find shelter, and bide his time.
One recaptured barbarian tankette might not even be missed. And the guard might not be believed—well, that was a thin hope—but, in any case, no one had any reason to suspect The Barbarian was still alive. There’d be no general pursuit.
Well … maybe not. There was a man-at-arms choked to death, by a stronger arm than Geoffrey’s, and it was The Barbarian’s woman who would be missing. There might be quite a buzz about that.
Geoffrey shook his head in impatient annoyance. This kind of life demanded a great deal more thinking than he was accustomed to. All these unpredictable factors made a man’s head spin.
And then again, maybe they didn’t. The thing to do was to act, to do what would get him out of here now, and leave him free tomorrow to do whatever thinking tomorrow demanded. With a little practice, too, thinking would undoubtedly come more easily.
“All right,” he said decisively, “let’s get moving over in that direction, and see if the guards haven’t gotten a little careless.” He motioned to Myka and The Barbarian, and began to lead the way into the underbrush. He thrust out a hand to pull a sapling aside, and almost ran full-tilt into Harolde Dugald.
Dugald was almost exactly Geoffrey’s age and size, but he had something Geoffrey lacked—a thin-lipped look of wolfish wisdom. His dark eyes were habitually slitted, and his mouth oddly off-center, always poised between a mirthless grin and a snarl. His long black hair curled under at the base of his skull, and his hands were covered with heavy gold and silver rings. There was one for each finger and thumb, and all of them were set with knobby precious stones.
His lips parted now, and his long white teeth showed plainly in the semi-darkness. “I was coming back to inspect my prizes,” he said in a voice like a fine-bladed saw chuckling through soft metal. “And look what I’ve found.” The open mouth of his heavy, handmade side pistol pointed steadily between Geoffrey’s eyes. “I find my erstwhile neighbor risen from the dead, and in the company of a crippled enemy and his leman. Indeed, my day is complete.”
The one thing Geoffrey was not feeling was fear. The wire-thin strand of his accumulated rage was stretched to breaking. Somewhere, far from the forefront of his mind, he was feeling surprise and disappointment. He was perfectly aware of Dugald’s weapon, and of what it would do to his head at this range. But Geoffrey was not stopping to think. And Dugald was a bit closer to him than he ought to have been.
Geoffrey’s hands seemed to leap out. One tore the pistol out of Dugald’s hand and knocked it spinning. The other cracked, open-palmed, against the other man’s face, hard enough to split flesh and start the blood trickling down Dugald’s cheek. The force of the combined blows sent Dugald staggering. He fell back, crashing into a bush, and hung against it. Stark fear shone in his eyes. He screamed: “Dugald! Dugald! To me! To me!”
For a second, everything went silent; nobles quarreling, guards roistering among the captures—suddenly the battlefield was still. Then the reaction to the rallying cry set off an entirely different kind of hubbub. The sound now was that of an alerted pack of dogs.
Once more, Geoffrey swept his hand across Dugald’s face, feeling his own skin break over the knuckles. But there was no time for anything else. Now they had to run, and not in silence. Now everything went by the board, and the nearest safety was the best. Behind them as they tore through the brush, they could hear Dugald shouting:
“That way! The Barbarian’s with him!” The Barbarian was grunting with every step. Myka was panting. Geoffrey was in the lead, his throat burning with every breath, not knowing where he was leading them, but trying to skirt around the pack of nobles that would be running toward them in the darkness.
He crashed against plated metal. He peered at it in the absolute darkness this far from the fires and torches. “Tankette!” he said hoarsely. “Empty.” They scrambled onto it, Geoffrey pulling at The Barbarian’s arm. “Down, Myka—inside. Ought to be room between steering posts and motor.” He pushed the woman down through the hatch, and dropped back to the ground. He ran to the crank clipped to one track housing and thrust it into place. “You—you’ll have to hang onto—turret,” he panted to The Barbarian. “Help me start.” He wound furiously at the starting crank until he felt the flywheel spin free of the ratchet, and then engaged the driveshaft. The tankette shuddered to the sudden torque. The motor resisted, turned its shaft reluctantly, spun the magneto, ignited, stuttered, coughed, and began to roar. The headlights flickered yellowly, glowed up to brightness as the engine built up revolutions. The Barbarian, clinging to the turret with one arm, pushed the choke control back to halfway and advanced the spark. Geoffrey scrambled up the sharply pitched rear deck, clawing for handholds on the radiator tubing, and dropped into the turret seat. He took the controls, kicked at the left side track control without caring, for the moment, whether Myka was in the way or not, spun the tankette halfway round, and pulled the throttle out as far as it would go. Its engine clamoring, its rigid tracks transmitting every shock and battering them, the tankette flogged forward through the brush. There was gunfire booming behind them, and there were other motors sputtering into life.