The Pirates of Ersatz-Thirty-One
Hoddan swore from the depths of a very considerable vocabulary.
“You (censored)–(deleted)–(omitted)–(unprintability)”, he roared. “Get back up on your horse or I blast you and leave you for Ghek’s men to handle when they’re able to move about again! Get back on that horse! One–two–“
The man got back on the horse.
“Now go on ahead,” rasped Hoddan. “All of you! I’m going to count you!”
The dozen horsemen from Don Loris’ stronghold rode reluctantly on ahead. He did count them. He rode on, shepherding them before him.
“Ghek,” he told them in a blood-curdling tone, “has a bigger prize than any cash you’ll plunder from one of his shot-down retainers! He’s got the Lady Fani! He won’t stop before he has her behind castle walls! We’ve got to catch up with him! Do you want to try to climb into his castle by your fingernails? You’ll do it if he gets there first!”
The horses moved a little faster. Thal said with surprising humility:
“If we force our horses too much, they’ll be exhausted before we can catch up.”
“Figure it out,” snapped Hoddan. “We have to catch up!”
He settled down to more of the acute discomfort that riding was to him. He did not think again of the ambush. It had happened, and it had failed. Four-fifths of the raiding party that had fought its way into Don Loris’ stronghold and out again, had been waiting for pursuers atop a certain bit of rising ground. They’d known their pursuers must come this way. There were certain passes through the low but rugged hills. One went this way or that, but no other. Their blood already warmed by past fighting, when Hoddan and his dozen seemed to ride right into destruction, they flung themselves into a charge.But Hoddan had a stun-pistol set for continuous fire. He used it like a hose or a machine gun, painstakingly sweeping it across the night before him, neither too fast nor too slowly. It affected the rushing followers of Lord Ghek exactly as if it had been an oversized meat-chopper. They went down. Only three men remained in their saddles–they’d probably been sheltered by the bodies of men ahead. Hoddan attended to those three with individual, personalized stun-pistol bolts–and immediately had trouble with his men, who wanted to dismount and plunder their fallen enemies.
He wouldn’t even let them collect the horses of the men now out of action. It would cost time, and Ghek wouldn’t be losing any that he could help. With a raging, trembling girl as prisoner, most men would want to get her behind battlements as soon as possible. But Hoddan knew that his party was slowed down by him. Presently he began to feel bitterly sure that Ghek would reach his castle before he was overtaken.
“This place he’s heading for,” he said discouragedly to Thal. “Any chance of our rushing it?”
“Oh, no!” said Thal dolefully. “Ten men could hold it against a thousand!”
“Then can’t we make better time?”
Thal said resignedly:
“Ghek probably had fresh horses waiting, so he could keep on at top speed in his flight. I doubt we will catch him, now.”
“The Lady Fani,” said Hoddan bitterly, “has put me in a fix so if I don’t fight him I’m ruined!”
“Disgraced,” corrected Thal. He said mournfully, “It’s the same thing.”