Horvan rode proudly at the head of his army, controlling his great black stallion with practiced ease. Behind and to both sides rode his Six Companies, squat plainsmen on shaggy ponies. Fearless in battle, they were the shock troops who had taught half a continent to fear the name of Horvan.
Next came rank after rank of foot soldiers. Not flashy. No waving banners. Just dull armor and sharp weapons. The core of his army, and its real strength. With these men to hold what his cavalry took, he could conquer the known world!
The azure sky seemed to film over, and the brilliant sunlight faded. He shook his head and spurred the stallion into motion. It galloped a few yards before dropping back into a jarring lope. Behind him the army milled uncertainly as the will that drove them lost its focus.
"What's happening? What's wrong?" Maxill, his second in command spurred his bay gelding to Horvan's side.
"Some trickster's enchantment. Tell the men to hold fast..." But already the face of his companion was growing dim. Twice in the past few days he had felt this power dragging at him, but both times it had been in the lonely watches of the night with none to see but some drab of a camp follower. Each had died with this secret unspoken. He had fought the call off easily, but this time the Sorcerer had called him by name. It came fiercer, stronger, cutting the real world out from under him with a power that could not be denied.
Outside the palace an orange sun flickered and glowed in a streaky purple sky. Despite the fine weather the streets and plazas were all but empty. A few of the city's bolder citizens crept furtively from one ally to the next, and a lone guardsman gripped his weapon and flinched at unexpected sounds.
In a cell deep beneath the palace, guarded by a maze of secret passages three people worked with frantic haste. Under deft fingers a strange device grew in size and complexity.
"It is finished!" The voice reflected savage glee.
"But Princess, think! Do we dare do this thing?" The speaker was shriveled with age, his voice reedy.
"I dare! We must have this man. His genius can turn the tide that sweeps us to defeat."
They both ignored the third person in the room, a burly giant who would have been a commanding presence if his face had showed any trace of intelligence. Even when directly commanded "Gort do this" and "Gort do that" did he move, and then only slowly and clumsily.
"You are my Princess, but I still wonder if it is wise to tamper with such arcane mysteries. Your father..."
"King Harvilla Kan Karsh is dead these ten months, Kren. I am his only heir, and a woman may not, CANNOT command his army. I am barely able to drive this lout to the simplest of acts. You are too old, and have not the habit of command. Now! Let us proceed!"
"Princess Klia..." His protest died on his lips. Without another word he shackled the stolid giant to rings set into the stone wall. While Kren fastened chains to the mighty limbs, Princess Klia placed a circlet of coiled wires on Gort's head.
"The time is now!" She connected one last wire and the device stirred into sullen life. Gort's face lost its last trace of expression.
"It's GOT to work!" Her sharp nails dug unheeded into the palms of her hands. Gort's muscles writhed against the chains and a hissing roar of rage and pain bellowed forth.
Horvan was drowning! That was his first coherent thought. Waves of darkness pounded at his mind like surf from an ebon sea. He tried to scream, but heard only the crash and roar of forces pounding within his skull. He sensed dimly that he was chained, his body sagging limply against a stone wall. He forced himself upright, flogging unwilling muscles to obey his will.
The room was small and dimly lighted by oil lamps, but he could see enough to know that it was hewn out of solid rock. He ignored it for a moment, his gaze riveted by the room's other occupants. It seemed that he was seeing double! Two monsters from his worst nightmares! Clawed and fanged, scanty robes that parted to reveal scaly bodies that writhed to alien rhythms, hissing at each other like a den of serpents. Yet at the same time he could see them as a bent and withered old man who deferred to a beautiful woman whose every feature spelled out royalty.
"Where ... Who..." He struggled to free himself. His chains clashed from the strain, but held. "What have you done to me? Turn me loose!"
At his command the old man, some fragment of buried knowledge supplied the name 'Kren', started forward but Princess Klia's talons dug into his arm, halting him.
"Not yet. We must learn more of him first."
The language was strange, almost unrecognizable as words, yet it was his own native tongue. He shook his head, vaguely aware of a chaplet of woven wires that slipped from his skull and fell to the floor.
"You! What is your name?"
"Horvan. No, Gort. NO, my name is HORVAN! Who ... What are you? What have you done to me? My army! I MUST be with them!"
"Your army will not know that you are gone. A moment's dizziness is all that they will see. You will return in almost the same moment that you left. You are in another place, one with no bonds of distance or time to your own. Your essence has been drawn here to aid me in this, my time of disaster. Indeed, you are now my only hope."
"How can I help you, and why should I? I am just one man, if indeed I am still a man. What are you, and what manner of body is this that I wear? Are you demons?" Once again chains clashed as he tested his muscles.
"I must have a man to lead my armies. My father, the King is dead, and a woman cannot lead. Only a man's brain can reach the minds of my soldiers. This machine," she flicked a wire of the device that stood between them, "was built to place my mind in a man's skull. It failed, time and again. Or rather it succeeded, but each time the body swiftly died and I found myself back in my own body. I then sought a mind that could aid us. The mind knows no boundaries of time or distance, only the limits it places upon itself. We found you, and drew you to me. Now you live in the body of Gort, a soldier of my private guard. His mind, his essence has gone to join his ancestors. May he be reborn in good health and prosperity? Now, will you aid us, or shall I send your essence back to its rightful body?"
"Yes, I'll do your task." He eyed her drawn dagger warily. He had only her word and a few dim 'memories' to assure him that the death of this body would restore him to his army. And at her command, that death could be infinitely prolonged and painful. "Now release me!"
This time Princess Klia made no move to interfere as Kren responded to his command. The chains fell from his arms and legs and he flexed his muscles with growing appreciation. A monster he might be, but the body he wore was magnificent!
"Follow!" She led the way through a maze of corridors, choosing her path with no apparent pattern. They passed blocks of cells, not all of them empty, but she never paused. At last they reached a door that was barred on the other side.
"Open! It is I, your Princess."
"Who?" The voice through the tiny grill was coarsely mocking.
"Open this door! I COMMAND you!"
"Women don't command." The voice was contemptuous. "Now if you was to ask me real nice..."
Horvan shouldered her aside. "Open this door!" His voice thundered in the cramped passage, rage sending blood racing through his veins.
"Yessir!" The bars were thrust aside with a harsh clatter. "I didn't mean nothing, Sir."
Horvan didn't bother to reply. With an easy twist of a taloned hand he broke the guard's neck. Dropping the twitching corpse he loomed over the rest of the squad.
"Anyone else who won't take orders from the Princess Klia?" His voice was softly venomous. "No? After you, Your Highness."
Ignoring the shaken guards she led them to a suite of rooms on an upper floor of the palace.
"These rooms will be yours, Horvan. I shall send you a coterie of servants in the morning."
"General Horvan, if you please."
"General Horvan, then. There is much to be done. The Raketh Horde approaches the heart of my kingdom almost without opposition. My army is disorganized, leaderless. You've seen how even my own guard acted toward me, even if you don't remember what Gort experienced. How much do you remember of his life?"
"I know the language and something of the customs," he answered slowly. "I'm all right as long as I react without stopping to think. I remember your name, and Gort's. The soldier I killed was called Morvin. He was from Gort's village. None of the others knew me, so there won't be any awkward questions. How soon can I meet with your other generals?"
"They are here in the city, where there is no danger from invaders and they can plot together to take my throne. Their estates are here, and their families."
"Not at the palace? What is the time, evening? Good, have them here in the morning, right after first meal. Kren, you send the messages for them to be here. Tell them nothing else. Go and do it now!"
"Yes, General Horvan." Kren almost dashed from the room.
"Now, Your Highness. Come here."
"What are you doing? Take your hands off me!"
"Shut up!" He stripped off her scanty robes, shrugged out of his own. Cuffing aside her clawed hands he bore her to the floor. The body he wore was unlike his own, but the differences were easily solved.
"I'll have you killed for this!"
"This is a good body," he laughed. "Not quite like my own, but good. Now, this should be fun."
She twisted in his grasp, only to realize that this was what he wanted her to do. He handled her with contemptuous ease, applying pressure here, pinching and stroking there until she was lost in surging sensation. Again and again he took her, experimenting to find the limits of these bodies.
"Now you know what it is to be a soldier's woman," he laughed, towering over her when at last he was done.
She glared up at him from where she lay sprawled, rubbing a spot where her bare buttock had felt the stone floor under thick carpets.
"I will have you killed for this. Slowly and painfully. Your body is that of a dullard peasant, and my eggs must be Royal!"
"Kill me, and lose your new general? I think not. Get yourself dressed and send for food and wine. We've got a lot to talk about between now and morning."
"Did Kren tell YOU why we've been called here?" Dressed foppishly in robes of state Ossif whispered the question to Borrad, who was decked out even more richly.
"No. The city is full of rumors, of course. I'm sending my household to..."
He broke off as Porlack, the third of Princess Klia's staff of generals approached. There was no love lost between them, each seeing the other as an obstacle in his path to the hand of the Princess.
"Her Royal Majesty, Princess Klia. His Excellency, High General Horvan."
They turned abruptly as Kren held open the door to admit the two. HIGH General! The three generals snapped to attention even as their minds churned furiously, studying the man who entered a step behind their Princess. She was tall, but he was taller. As broad as she was slender, he radiated confidence and strength.
"Who is this man?" Ossif burst out, unable to hide his chagrin.
"Kren told you," Klia answered. "High General Horvan. He now commands all of my military forces. You will take your orders from him."
"But where does he come from?" Borrad asked timorously. "Why have we never heard of him?"
"You're General Borrad?" Horvan asked. "Don't ask. You don't want to know. How many divisions of cavalry can you call up on ten days notice?"
"Why, uh ... Cavalry?"
"Mounted fighting men. You're supposed to be in command of the Royal Cavalry. How many fighting men can you muster?"
"Uh, two thousand, more or less." His shoulders slumped as he looked away from that penetrating gaze. "Plus another five hundred in another ten days. Fully equipped and with spare mounts and supplies. But why... ?"
"The Kingdom is being attacked, remember. Or are you packing up all your household treasures because you're planning to go on vacation? Ossif! How many foot soldiers can you have on the way to meet the Horde by this time tomorrow?"
"Five thousand only, Your Excellency." Ossif smiled sardonically. "Another ten thousand within eight days. Full packs and supply wagons. If they will agree to march. Their morale is not of the best, and they prefer not to stray too far from the taverns of the city."
"They'll march. Assemble them in groups of five hundred outside the city gates. I'll address them before they set out. By the time they meet Raketh's Horde the cavalry will be there to aid them. You! What is your name?"
"General Porlack, Excellency. In charge of the city guard and head of Royal Intelligence. My scouts ring the Horde, and their reports reach me daily."