The Barbarians can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



If Worlds of Science Fiction February 1958.

The Barbarians

by Algis Budrys

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...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.