The Battle of the Tam Valley
‘By dawn it was clear to General Young that General Wikwot’s drive to capture Varanor had ground to a halt. The Colonial Army had displayed remarkable courage in the face of a frenzied assault. Yet the lemming men pressed on. Unable to disgrace himself with acts of selfpreservation, General Wikwot threw his reserves into the fray as the 112th Army prepared to strike the deathblow. . .’
The Official History of the War Against the Lemming Men, Galactic War Office
‘Many and arrogant were the Yull, sure that their early success would bring them certain victory. Yet we M’Lak made ready, and our humans too, and fiercely the Yull were met among the trees. Not cowardly were our warriors, and not light the grievous slaying in that gory vale. For severed heads, piles of lemming men, the squeaking of fallen rodents: these are pleasing things to us. . .’
The Saga of Varanor, Verse 613WRATH OF THE LEMMING MEN
‘In an unprovoked act of self-defence, the offworlder scum turned on our friendly and entirely non-genocidal army. The dirty foe fought unreasonably for their lives, and urgently the splendid General Wikwot ordered our reserves under noble-born Colonel Vock to attack from the north and mercilessly butcher the enemy – for their own good, of course. . .’
Final (Terminal) Report of Lieutenant-General Prang, Divine Amiable Yullian Army
* * *
Agshad Nine-Swords leaned back in his deckchair and studied the sky above. It was a clear, hot day, and the sun streaked through the high trees, throwing bars of light across the glorified pillbox that he called home. The sun made Agshad feel strong and keen. It was a good day for adventurous deeds, and so he had taken the accounts books into the garden.
He sat outside on a deckchair, calculator on his lap, sleeves rolled up, occasionally looking up from his books to frown and stroke his mandibles and chin. Later on, he decided, he would lock up the little fort, take the jeep across the bridge and say hello to the main garrison five miles east, at Tambridge.
A running figure appeared at the far side of the bridge. Agshad shielded his eyes and peered: it was a man in army uniform, his arm in an improvised sling. He vanished behind one of the great timber pillars of the bridge, reappeared, looked behind him, stumbled, rose and lurched on.
Perturbed, Agshad got up and strode out to meet him. As he looked down the length of the bridge he recognised the man.
‘Eddie?’ he called. ‘Are you alright?’
Eddie half-collapsed on him. ‘They’re in the trees!’ he gasped.
‘Them! The Yull!’
‘But the Yull are miles away, Eddie.’
‘No, no.’ Unable to speak, Eddie bent over and panted.
‘The garrison’s down,’ he managed. ‘All dead. Yull came – thousands of them. They killed everyone – Brian, Clarrie, even Old Joe. Tambridge is fallen!’
‘Oh my ancestors,’ Agshad said.
‘We fought to the last man. Can’t let ’em get you, the bastards. They sent me – to warn you.’
‘How many –’ Agshad began, and as if to answer him high voices pulsed through the forest beyond the bridge, a hard, impatient chant: ‘Yull, Yull, Yull!’
‘It’s an army,’ Eddie gasped. ‘We’ve got to warn HQ!’ Drums and gongs through the trees, the sound of wild shrieks and cracking whips. ‘Yull, Yull, Yull!’
‘We’re too late!’ Eddie cried.
Agshad rooted about in his pockets and took out a key. ‘I’ll deal with this,’ he said. ‘Take the jeep and go and warn headquarters. I’ll delay them as long as I can.’
Eddie looked hard at him for a moment, then nodded. ‘Alright. Good luck, Agshad.’
‘You too,’ Agshad said mildly, and as the battered jeep coughed into life behind him, he strolled onto the empty bridge
The Yull rushed over the horizon like a tidal wave of fur. A thousand sleek bodies slipped between the trees. Axes glinted, forage-caps bobbed, banners flapped, human skulls grinned and shook on banner poles. And amid the horde came the squeaky voices of the looting, murdering lemming men of Yull.
They poured down the hill, squeaking and yelling, the officers beating their maddened soldiers on to the river’s edge. Agshad picked up the broom he used to sweep the bridge.
Suddenly a voice barked ‘Huphup! Harp-huphephop!’ and the lemming men stopped dead. They halted at the edge of the bridge in a crowd, desperate to pour across but lacking the orders to do so. The army stretched along the opposite bank as far as Agshad could see. To the right, a lemming man pointed into the swirling waters of the Tam and made excitable sounds until a sergeant tripped him and tore out his heart. The Yull did not tolerate indiscipline.
The horde parted before Agshad and a figure stepped onto the bridge. He wore the cuirass, helmet and enormous shoulder-pads of a high-ranking officer, but Agshad could have told his status had he been naked. The puffed-out chest, the swaggering walk – the Yullian officer class were not only vicious sadists, but insufferably pompous as well
‘You!’ the officer barked. ‘Dirty offworlder!’
‘Morning,’ Agshad said.
‘Harruph! I am Colonel Mimco Vock of the sacred army of Yullia! The war god of the Yull, in his divine wisdom as interpreted by the high-priests of the Yull, has decreed that it is to be the Yull who will rule this galaxy.’
‘There’s a surprise.’
‘Shup! This bridge is now the property of the Greater Galactic Happiness, Friendship and Co-operation Collective – so beat it, M’Lak trash, or I will torture you to death!’
Agshad reached out and tapped a small brass plaque fixed to the timber. ‘I think you will find that this bridge is the property of the army of the British Space Empire. I represent their accounts department and, as the highest ranking officer present, I forbid you to make use of it.’
‘British Space Empire? Pah!’ Vock snorted, hands twitching towards the axe at his waist. ‘I am not here to speak with animals! How dare you address me so, human coward lackey! Surrender at once so I can tear out your still-beating–’ a look of rudimentary cunning stole across his whiskered face and he calmed himself with a shudder ‘–liberate you from the yoke of serving the British oppressor.’
Agshad shook his head. ‘Sorry, no. I refuse to join an army which practices human sacrifice and has no adequate pension plan. We M’Lak are wise to you. Which, incidentally, is why we are helping the humans trounce your army downriver.’
‘Lying offworlder who is lower than a beast and smells of cheese! The Divine Migration cannot be halted by scum like you!’
‘Then why are you here with all these reinforcements? The truth is that your furry legion came down to the woods today, and you got a big surprise. Not a picnic any more, is it?’
‘Nobody compares me to a soft toy!’ Vock yelled back. ‘Dirty weak offworlders get nothing but death! You are lucky if I kill you quick, big smelly coward! You will die slow, yes – slow!’
Agshad thought of Eddie, and imagined him tearing down the dirt road in the jeep. He would probably have reached the main camp by now: perhaps he was in a tent with General Young herself, pointing out the Yullian advance on the map. He smiled.
‘You smirk at me? If you had whiskers I would pull them out, nice and slow! I will wear your kneecaps on my. . .’ Vock paused, speechless with fury, ‘On my knees!’
‘But you are brave, for an offworlder,’ Vock hissed. ‘Most would have begged for mercy by now.’ He leaned forward, and spoke more gently. ‘I will give you something for your defiance. If you turn away and leave now, I will let you live. And when we are done killing your allies as gradually as possible, I will reward you and make you a retainer of my house. A fair offer, I think.’
‘Indeed.’ Agshad leaned in as if to reply quietly. ‘It sounds good, but–’ He tilted his head back, sniffing the air.
The lemming frowned. ‘But what?’
‘I smell a rat.’
For a moment, Agshad thought Colonel Vock was going to pop. The Yull drew back as if struck, shook violently, turned on the spot and punched one of his lieutenants in the eye. ‘Right! That’s it!’ Vock gestured to his men. ‘Hup-hup!’
Agshad glanced over his shoulder. Sixty feet beneath the bridge, the waters of the Tam slapped and broke upon the rocks. Agshad thought: they would be three abreast on the bridge, and it would be hard for them to fight the urge to jump. He could keep them back – for a while.
A Yullian knight shouldered his way through the horde, a fat brute in blue plate armour. He braced himself, raised his axe over his head like an executioner, screamed a battle cry and charged.
‘Yullai!’ he shrieked – and stopped dead as the bristle end of Agshad’s broom struck him in the mouth. He made muffled noises, chewing at the bristles in his rage, and Agshad turned and deftly shoved him over the railings. Vock’s champion dropped into the rapids, whooping with demented glee. The Tam had claimed its first victim.
Agshad felt tranquil and absolutely confident, as if the sun had risen anew and bathed him in its rays. He was where he was meant to be. His whole life had been leading to this moment: decades as a warrior, followed by the rigorous discipline of accountancy. He looked down at the river, where the body of the Yull bumped against the bank.
‘One,’ Agshad said.
The Yull poured howling onto the bridge. Agshad whirled the broom, braining one and knocking a second flat. The third lemming man fell over the second, and Agshad leaped up and kicked a fourth in the snout. The bodies of the Yull began to pile up and more clambered over them. Agshad pressed on, tallying his kills as he waded into the foe.
It was turning into a beautiful day: a morning’s bookkeeping and then a fight to the death, all in very clement weather. One could not have wished for a better end to life. Agshad’s only regret was that his offspring could not see him; they would have been quite impressed. He kicked a lemming man over the railing.
‘Fourteen!’ he cried. ‘Ancestors of mine, children of mine, watch me now, for this is how I die!’
Suruk the Slayer was suddenly awake. He had been sleeping in the traditional way, squatting on a stool like some great bird of prey – in one movement he sprang down from his perch and landed softly in the middle of the room, silent except for the hiss of the blade as he slid it from its sheath.
He stood there in a fighting-crouch, tasting the air, his shrewd eyes flicking around the room. I felt something, he thought. Something was here. . . something very wrong.
‘Who is there?’ he asked softly, speaking the language of his forefathers for no reason he could understand. ‘Father? Is it you?’
The shadows did not answer.
‘It must have been the curry,’ Suruk said, and he shrugged and went back to sleep.
© Toby Frost 2009