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Melcorka Of Alba

Melcorka Of Alba

Book excerpt

Chapter One

The war drums sounded, louder and ever louder, sending bright parrots squawking for shelter, echoing through the humidity of the forest and vibrating in the sultry air.

'They won't be long now.' Melcorka touched the hilt of Defender, her sword, allowing the surge of power to thrill through her body.

'They'll hunt us down and kill us all!' The Taino woman clung to Melcorka's arm. 'Then they'll eat us.'

'No, they won't, Hadali.' Melcorka shook her head. 'Did you order the precautions that I advised?'

Hadali nodded. 'Yes, Melcorka.'

'You dug the ditch around two-thirds of the village?'

'Yes, Melcorka.'

'You readied the palisade?'

'Yes, Melcorka.'

'You sent the oldsters and children to the safest part of the village?'

'Yes, Melcorka.'

'Then all should be well,' Melcorka said. 'I have trained the men and women how to use spears.' She touched the hilt of Defender again. 'The Kalingo are not used to meeting resistance, are they?'

Hadali shook her head. 'The Taino are not a fighting people. We don't resist.'

Melcorka smiled. 'Between us, we will teach the Kalingo not to return to this island.'

'We are not a fighting people,' Hadali repeated.

'I am a fighting woman,' Melcorka said.

'And your man?' Hadali indicated the tall, long-faced man who leaned against the bole of a turpentine tree, thrusting his staff into the sand, listening to everything and saying nothing. 'He does not appear to be a warrior.'

'That is Bradan the Wanderer,' Melcorka said. 'He is a man of peace.'

Hadali eyed Bradan. 'Why are you wandering, man-of-few-words?'

'To seek knowledge,' Bradan said.

'Which knowledge do you seek?' Hadali stood beside him. 'There is much.'

'I seek the knowledge that belongs to me,' Bradan said. 'I saw it once, briefly, and have travelled the world ever since, hoping to recover what I only glimpsed.'

Hadali touched Bradan's arm. 'And Melcorka? Does she also seek your knowledge?'

'Melcorka is her own woman.' Bradan looked up. 'You will soon see what she does best.'

'It is strange for a man who walks in peace to accompany a woman who carries a long sword.' Hadali's gaze did not stray from Bradan's face.

'It is what it is,' Bradan said. 'Melcorka and I have travelled a long road together.'

'Is there an end to the road?' Hadali asked.

'Every road has an end. It could be on this island, at the point of a Kalingo spear, it could be at the bottom of the sea, or it could be in front of a peat fire flame in Alba.' Bradan gave a small smile. 'We will know when we get there.' He looked up. 'It sounds as if your friends are getting restless.'

'The Kalingo are nobody's friends,' Hadali said.

The drums continued, joined now by long blasts on war-trumpets and a rhythmic chant that raised the small hairs on the back of Bradan's neck. A pandemonium of parrots exploded from the trees, while the insects seemed subdued by the threat of the impending horror.

'Here they come,' Melcorka said. 'Keep out of the way until I say otherwise, Bradan. You are no warrior.'

'I know that well, Melcorka.' Bradan tapped his staff on the sandy ground. 'Keep safe.'

Melcorka's eyes were bright. She laughed. 'I was made to fight.'

'Sometimes I think you enjoy it too much,' Bradan said.

There was a clearing between the village and the sea, two hundred paces of animal-cropped grassland which the Kalingo had to cross. Taking a deep breath, Bradan looked around the settlement. He could sense the fear. It was in the sweat of the Tainos, it was in the air they expelled from panting lungs, it was in the shallow breathing and the sharp, nervous gestures of the near-naked men and women. Bradan nodded. He understood the Tainos. They were good people, and Melcorka was right to fight for them.

Standing along the line of the beach, next to the lean pirauas that had carried them to this island, were the Kalingos. They were a seething mass of warriors, preparing themselves for an attack as the thunder of their drums increased, raising the tension.

Amidst them stood a lone woman, staring at Melcorka across the bare ground.

'There are more than warriors among the Kalingos today,' Hadali said. 'Be very careful, Melcorka. There is evil here of a kind you may not have met before.'

They came at a run, hundreds of bare-chested Kalingos with clubs and spears, yelling as they attacked the seemingly defenceless villagers. Some wore a circlet of feathers around their heads, others sported face tattoos. A few stopped partway across the cleared ground to fire arrows into the air, with the shafts plunging down inside the village. Every warrior was painted with bright colours or hideous designs and they raised a war cry to terrify the people they had come to massacre.

'Steady now,' Bradan called, as some of the Tainos shuddered and turned to run. 'Trust in your defences. Trust in Melcorka.'

The Tainos looked at him and then at Melcorka, two strangers from across the sea, two aliens in this island of sunshine and colour.

Hadali stepped beside Bradan. 'If we run, they will hunt us down. I know it is not our way to fight. I know it is wrong to praise violence, but I want to see our babies grow into adults and our oldsters die peacefully in their own homes. I do not wish to see our children skewered above a Kalingo cooking fire, or smell the scent of roasting Taino on the wind.'

The Tainos shuddered, some muttered; only one man turned to flee. Bradan watched him run and said nothing. He understood.

'Now!' Melcorka yelled. 'Barriers!'

The Taino women dashed forward, fifteen paces beyond the edge of the village, to raise the barriers Melcorka had ordered them to create. Made of woven boughs within a wooden framework, they would not stop a serious assault but could slow down any attacker.

'Back!' Melcorka ordered, and the Taino women scurried back, their job done.

The Kalingos only hesitated for a moment, long enough for Melcorka to shout: 'Spears: ready: throw!' At her word, the men of the village stepped forward and threw the spears that Melcorka had them make. Not expecting to meet any resistance, the Kalingos stared as a hundred slim spears rose in the air, hovered at the apex of their flight, and then plummeted downward.

'Bradan!' Melcorka shouted. 'Take charge here.'

'Now you will see Melcorka.' Bradan pushed himself away from his tree. 'Spears ready!'

Melcorka strode forward with her right hand on the hilt of the sword that protruded from behind her left shoulder.

Five or six of the Kalingos were down, transfixed by the defenders' spears. The others gathered their resolve before this unexpected resistance. Two men stepped in front of the mass, one with his face heavily tattooed, the other with a circlet of red parrot feathers around his head and a massive wooden club in his hand. The woman remained in the centre of the warriors, watching.

'Spears… throw!' Bradan shouted. He saw some of the Tainos hesitate. 'Don't worry about Melcorka,' he said. 'You won't hit her.' Leading by example, he lifted a spear from one of the stacks that Melcorka had ordered them to prepare. Twelve feet long, it was lighter than those used in Alba, while the head was of chipped stone rather than steel. Hefting it over his right shoulder, Bradan balanced, poised and threw. He watched the spear rise up until it was only a speck in the sky before it wavered and sliced downward. The air whistled through the holes Melcorka had ordered to be bored in the shaft, making an unearthly noise that unnerved some of the Kalingos, as was intended.

'Here they come!' somebody shouted, as the two Kalingo leaders waved their warriors forward.

The defenders hesitated, with some of them turning to flee. They all knew what to expect if the Kalingos overran their village: slaughter, murder and a cannibal feast. The Tainos had always lived in fear of the Kalingos, whose pirogue fleets ravaged thousands of square miles of this sea and the myriad islands it contained. Only Melcorka's influence had persuaded the Tainos to stand and fight. Only Melcorka's sword could maintain their morale. Faced with the reality of hundreds of screaming Kalingo warriors, the Tainos' courage rapidly evaporated.

'Don't run!' Bradan shouted. 'Fight!' He could understand the defenders' fear. He also knew that if they ran, the Kalingos would be encouraged and would chase them, whatever Melcorka did. 'Lift your spears!'

A few of the men closest to him did as he ordered. Most did not. Some were crying in terror. Others accepted what they saw as their inevitable fate.

Bradan spoke to those Tainos who remained. 'Well done! Now poise, aim and throw! Follow my movements.'

The two leaders had rallied the Kalingos after their moment of hesitation. Unable to understand the Kalingo language, Bradan did not know what the leaders had said but he did know that it had worked, as the Kalingos surged forward again. The closer they came, the more ferocious the Kalingos looked, hundreds of painted warriors who had only ever known victory and savagery.

'Throw!' Bradan put all his strength into hurling his spear. He saw the missile land somewhere within the Kalingo ranks, to thrum in the sandy ground. The Kalingo leader with the red parrot feathers faced him directly, lifted his great carved club and shouted something.

'He says that he is going to eat you while you are still alive,' one of the Tainos said, dropping his spear.

Bradan felt a prickle of fear. He had faced Norsemen, Caterans and the warriors of Cahokia, yet these Kalingos were different again. They hunted humans for food, which was more chilling even than the ferocity of the Norse or the human sacrifices of Cahokia.

And then Melcorka acted.

Unsheathing Defender, she stood directly in front of the Kalingo warriors. Her voice sounded clear above the clamour. 'I am Melcorka of Alba, and who dares meddle with me?'

The front rank of the Kalingos hesitated before this tall, raven-headed woman with the shining sword, who openly challenged them.

Melcorka ran into the mass of the Kalingos, swinging Defender in a figure-of-eight against which it was nearly impossible to defend. The nearest Kalingos turned to face her. Defender sliced through the club of her first adversary and continued onward to hack off the man's head. Melcorka strode on, swinging.

'Come on, then!' Melcorka felt the power surge through her from Defender, the sword that stored all the skills of its previous owners. To Melcorka, the Kalingos seemed to move in slow motion, enabling her to block their blows and retaliate with ease. She stepped forward, lopping off arms, legs and heads, moving through a curtain of blood that covered her and the ground over which she travelled. Although the Kalingos were fierce warriors, they had never before encountered such resistance. While some lunged forward to meet the challenge, most hesitated; only a few turned to flee.

'You see?' Bradan shouted. 'Would you leave a woman to fight alone? Throw another volley of spears!'

The bolder of the Tainos were lifting spears and looking toward the Kalingos.

'Throw!' Bradan launched another spear. 'Come on! Help Melcorka!'

Some of the defenders followed Bradan's example. Most could not gather the courage to fight. Bradan shouted again, trying to encourage them as he saw that more of the Kalingos were turning from their assault on the village to face Melcorka. Now twenty, thirty, forty men were massing around the swordswoman, hefting their great wooden clubs or the long stabbing spears.

'Will you let Melcorka do your fighting for you?' Bradan lifted a spear as sudden worry flooded him. 'Come on! Support her! Come on, you men of the Taino! Help Melcorka defend your village!'

Striving to repress his fear, Bradan leapt over the flimsy barrier and ran toward the Kalingos. He hoped that his example would inspire some of the Tainos to follow him, for any one of the Kalingo warriors could kill him in seconds. If the Tainos did not come, well, he had no desire to be stuck so far from home if Melcorka was killed.

That prospect chilled him.

'Come on!' Bradan yelled.

For a moment or two, the Kalingos stared at him. Perhaps they thought he was one of the inhabitants of the village, until they realised he was clothed and knew he was a stranger. An arrow thrummed past him, missing him by a handspan. Another thudded into the ground at his feet.

'Melcorka!' Bradan yelled. 'I'm coming!'

What a place to die, thousands of miles from home on an island whose name I do not even know.

Bradan saw a mass of Kalingo warriors close around Melcorka, clubs rising and falling as they tried to penetrate her defences. Dodging a third arrow more by instinct than by skill, Bradan lunged at the flank of the Kalingos, thrusting his spear beneath the shoulder-blade of a brawny, tattooed warrior. The man stiffened at the unexpected agony, and half turned toward Bradan, who twisted the point to enlarge the wound and tried to withdraw.

The suction of the human body held the spear point fast. Cursing, Bradan wiggled the shaft as his screaming victim struggled to escape, and cursed again as he saw a yelling Kalingo running towards him with his war-club held high.

Bradan grunted. 'That serves me right for acting the part of a warrior. I never was any good at fighting.'

'You never said a truer word.' Melcorka stepped over the body of a man she had just gutted, thrust Defender through the chest of the charging Kalingo, ducked and hacked the legs off another warrior. 'What are you doing in this slaughterhouse, Bradan? I told you not to get involved.'

'I came to help you.' Bradan at last succeeded in freeing his spear.

'That was very kind of you.' Melcorka fended off the attacks of the screaming Kalingos that surrounded them. 'Foolish, but kind. Did you think I had forgotten how to fight?'

'I thought you were on your own against a multitude.' Bradan ducked as an arrow whizzed overhead.

'I was never alone,' Melcorka said.

Bradan winced as another Kalingo charged forward, swinging his great club. 'Who is with you?'

'Why, you are, Bradan. I see you as plainly as I see these savages.' Melcorka parried the swing of the Kalingo's club and hacked off the man's arm. Blood spouted scarlet. 'And you've brought some help.'

'Which help?' Bradan asked, and smiled as the Taino defenders finally struggled over their barrier to run at the Kalingos. 'Well, they took their time.'

'They followed the example of the bravest man I have ever known.' Melcorka began to walk toward the now withdrawing Kalingo ranks.

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