The Pirates of Ersatz-Twenty-Nine
Hoofbeats. Thal on a horse that shied and reared at the flames and confusion. Other horses, skittish and scared, with the smell of spilt blood in their nostrils, fighting the men who led them, their eyes rolling.
Thal called names as he looked about him. There was plenty of light. As he called a name, a man climbed on a horse. Men thrust swords, spears–all manner of weapons upon them. Some of the chosen men swaggered because of their choice. Some looked woefully unhappy. But with Don Loris glaring frenziedly upon them in the smoky glare, no man refused.
Hoddan climbed ungracefully upon the mount that four or five men held for him. Thal, with a fine sense of drama, seized a torch and waved it above his head. There was a vast creaking, and an unsuspected gate opened, and Thal rode out with a great clattering of hoofs and the others rode out after him.
There were lights everywhere about the castle, now. All along the battlements men had set light to fire-baskets and lowered them partway down the walls, to disclose any attacking force which might have dishonorable intentions toward the stronghold. Others waved torches from the battlements.Thal swung his torch and pointed to the ground.
“They rode here!” he called to Hoddan. “They ride for Ghek’s castle!”
Hoddan said angrily:
“Put out that light! Do you want to advertise how few we are and what we’re doing? Here, ride close!”
Thal flung down the torch and horses trod it underfoot as the knot of men rode on. Thal boomed:
“The pickings should be good, eh? Why do you want me?”
“You’ve got to learn something,” snapped Hoddan. “Here! This is a stun-pistol. It’s set for single-shot firing only. You hold it so, with your finger along this rod. You point your finger at a man and pull this trigger. The pistol will buzz–briefly. You let the trigger loose and point at another man and pull the trigger again. Understand? Don’t try to use it over ten yards. You’re no marksman!”
There on a galloping horse beside Hoddan in the darkness, Thal zestfully repeated his lesson.
“Show another man and send him to me for a pistol,” Hoddan commanded curtly. “I’ll be showing others.”
He turned to the man who rode too close to his left. Before he had fully instructed that man, another clamored for a weapon on his right.
This was hardly adequate training in the use of modern weapons. For that matter, Hoddan was hardly qualified to give military instruction. He’d only gone on two pirate voyages himself. But little boys on Zan played at pirate, in dutiful emulation of their parents. At least the possibilities of stun-guns were envisioned in their childish games. So Hoddan knew more about how to fight with stun-pistols than somebody who knew nothing at all.The band of pursuing horsemen pounded through the dark night under strangely patterned stars. Hoddan held on to his saddle and barked out instructions to teach Darthians how to shoot. He felt very queer. He began to worry. With the lights of Don Loris’ castle long vanished behind, he began to realize how very small his troop was.
Thal had said something about horses being hamstrung. There must, then, have been two attacking parties. One swarmed into the stables to draw all defending retainers there. Then the other poured over a wall or in through a bribed-open sally-port, and rushed for the Lady Fani’s apartments. The point was that the attackers had made sure there could be only a token pursuit. They knew they were many times stronger than any who might come after them. It would be absurd for them to flee….