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Excerpt for The Steel Prince by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Steel Prince

by

Robert Shaw


Copyright © 1983, 2014, 2016, 2018 by Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw has asserted his moral right to be identified as the author of this work


All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.


This novella is a work of good-old-fashioned cheese ‘n corn fiction. Silly names, characters, places and crazy happenings are the product of the author’s overactive (and when first written, young) imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, other fictional characters, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. And like Darth Vader, it’s a good thing Sordak is only make believe, right?


The Steel Prince


In an age of darkness, they fight for light

(from The Age of Darkness)


Chapter One


Morning sun rode the sky somewhere above, but Great Forest was awash in sea-green light pouring from clouds that stretched to the southern mountains. The air smelled of dampness before a storm, the forest was alive with the wild activity of denizens expectant of the coming downpour.

Great Forest—old even in the days of the Gone-World, called another name in those times, now so ancient and widespread it blanketed the Outer Lands and for centuries had been known only as Great Forest.

Varin and Lena moved across the mossy ground, a lifetime of hunting and surviving by instinct and wits giving them the stealth of shadows.

Around them, unseen animals rustled through the undergrowth, some large, others small—none approaching close enough to be a threat or easy game. Countless birds flitted through the tree tops: ebon feathered crows, brightly plumed parrots and finches, and soaring high above even the tree tops, Phantom Eagles.

Lena was the taller of the two, twenty one years old, lithe, carrying firm curves, beautiful in a hard-edged way. She had cut her own light brown hair—hacked as her grandfather liked to say—to just above shoulder length to make it easier to manage. She hated her hair when hunting, so she always bunched it back and tied it. But she was not so devoid of vanity to hack it all off as grandfather had suggested at his first appraisal of her handiwork.

“I butchered it a bit but it still looks good enough for me when it’s loose,” she’d told him with a grin. He’d been joking and responded with a grin of his own.

Her agile body carried her with feline grace along the trail, skin-soled boots helping her soundless movement, deerskin frock, leggings and shirt blending her into the surrounding woods so that she looked like part of them come alive. A hunting knife was strapped to her waist but she carried no other weapons. Her Swiss long sword was hung in its scabbard on a rack in their cabin living room; she never brought it on a hunting trip.

At twenty-three and only five four, Varin was a dark contrast to his sister’s light graceful looks, a contradiction in anatomical physics, four inches shorter than Lena but making up for it in lean, supplely powerful muscle and an almost squat density. His black hair was hacked short, further evidence of Lena’s hairdressing skills, and kept that way at his request. He wore black canvas trousers, a battered pair of combat boots he’d found in the ruins of a gas station, and a vest that grandfather said was made of something called Kevlar and had once been worn by police in the Gone-World. He said the faded remnants of the word police were still on it but neither Varin nor Lena could see it; it looked like wear and tear to them.

Like Lena, Varin wore a hunting knife strapped to his waist, but on his belt in a leather scabbard was also a replica of a Roman Short Sword—as real and effective as any original—and on his back a quiver of crossbow bolts. In his hands was the crossbow itself, loaded for their hunt.

Lena watched the larger birds with interest, awed by the huge eagles she occasionally glimpsed through the canopy overhead. She was glad they chose not to shoot these beautiful creatures, no matter how long they ever took to find game. Better to kill a wild Pig or Dog-Bear, or an even uglier Bullkin.

“No meat on eagles to make them worth killing,” Varin would always say with nonchalant indifference.

But Lena knew that he too preferred to let them stay beautiful and free. It was one of the many things she loved about her brother, despite his ferocity as a hunter and a warrior he was a caring and gentle soul.

A piercing cry cut the silence and a crashing sounded in the forest to their left, coming directly at them. They spun in unison, Lena pulling her knife and Varin raising his crossbow, but relaxed as an eagle made its way to the sky with a baby pig in its talons, the little animal’s squeals growing faint as the bird rose. Lena felt a pang of sympathy. But it was the brutal way of nature and she did not dwell on the feeling. They shared a grin and continued on the trail.

“We’ll not get anything,” Varin said as they neared the southern edge of the forest. Beyond the trees, vast grasslands stretched farther than the eye could see.

A distant rumble crossed the miles. Lena looked to the grasslands and saw clouds falling in misty veils far to the south. “We’ll get soaked!” She skipped noiselessly on the ferny trail. She loved rain and thunder and being out in it.

Varin sniffed the air. “Damp grass and thunder. You always smell it before you cop it. But the storm’s moving east. It’ll break way out over the grasslands and fizzle before it reaches us.”

“Killjoy.” Lena scowled.

“And I meant we’re not gonna get any game.”

“I know. And I meant you’re a killjoy.”

Varin grinned. “Yep.”

She giggled. “Oh, I do hope we get some of it! I love the smell of the forest after rainfall.”

“We’ll get plenty soon, sis.” He pointed south with his chin. “Winter’ll fall on the southern ranges shortly and the rainy season’ll turn the grasslands into a swamp.”

“That’s weeks away though. I’d like—” She was cut off by a sharp hiss from Varin.

“Down!” He dropped and she followed. He was staring out at the grasslands. Her gaze went there too.

Strange shapes and colors lay out there, barely visible above the top of the grass but clear enough to reveal glossy yellows and blues painted on flat surfaces, and rust brown in some spots.

Varin recognized them first. He’d read the magazines and manuals at grandfather’s cabin countless times and his mind was a catalog of old cars and old tech. He’d used what he’d learned to do most of the restoration work on Hydra. “It was engines we heard earlier.”

He crawled to higher ground for a better view. Lena followed and they saw the cars clearly now, two of them, parked on the old road leading from the grasslands into the forest. It had once been famous if Grandfather’s old stories were to be believed, route fifty six or something. Nowadays it was famous for how dilapidated it was, so overgrown and undermined by roots that Varin often thought it’d be worse to drive on than going through the forest. In some places out where it stretched across the grasslands into distance, Grandfather said it was nothing more than broken chunks of asphalt, and he’d traveled it back in his youth so it had to be worse now. Many other roads threaded the region too, some worse than fifty-six. Varin and Lena couldn’t imagine how the cars could travel on them. In fact they couldn’t imagine venturing such distances; their entire lives had never had more than a twenty mile radius from their home. They could see no reason to go farther.

Lena almost hadn’t heard Varin’s words. Finally they sunk in. “But who came in those things? The hillmen don’t have machines and they’d never come this close to the grassland, let alone go out on it.”

Varin shook his head, forgetting Lena’s attention was also on the cars. “I don’t know,” he said in a far away tone, more interested in the cars and their contents than who they belonged to.

Staying low, they slithered to dense shrubbery on the edge of the forest and sat up for a better look, scanning the cars and grasslands for movement. There was nothing.

“Where’re you going?” Lena hissed as Varin stood and began moving toward the cars.

Without stopping he said, “I want to get a good look at these things. And you do too, so come on!”

Lena hesitated for only a second before following with an exasperated sigh. She hated when he was right, but she did want a good look.

The cars were like nothing that existed anymore. Hydra was thought to be the last, but these machines were heavily armored, fitted with an incredible array of advanced weaponry and electronic equipment from the Gone-World, and were in as good a mechanical shape as Varin and Grandfather kept Hydra.

“Someone’s been hiding their babies and taking real good care of them.” Varin wiggled itchy fingers that he couldn’t wait to get on the cars. They moved closer and he whistled as he marveled at the weaponry. A machine gun poked out the roof of the first car. Varin recognized it as a Swiss Brugger & Thomet MP9 machine pistol. It held a fully-loaded thirty round transparent polymer detachable box magazine.

“Holeee shit!” His eyes bugged at the full mag. “They’ve been hoarding ammo or they’ve got an armory somewhere to feed these things.” Then he saw the firing pin gone and his excitement faded. But he still might be able to take the magazine, or maybe these guys had more ammo stashed. He checked his prospects of jimmying the trunk open but it was sealed with a steel plate, which he gave a disgusted kick.

The first car’s roof had been cut and an open gun mount fitted to allow a three-hundred-sixty degree field of fire. The second car’s gun gleamed in the sun, its barrel a yard long and extending from what looked like a large battery mounted on a swivel pole. Wires ran from it down into the car. The battery and pole were chrome but the barrel was glass. More wires ran from its sighted end to the battery.

“No way this fires bullets,” Varin said. “It’d shatter.” Through the window he saw that the wires ran down to where the swivel pole was set into a large power unit on the floor. Lights and gauges winked out at him. He turned to Lena in awe. “It’s a laser!”

“It’ll burn a hole through you?”

“Through anything.”

Lena felt a sudden premonition. “No one has tech like this anymore!”

“No telling what anyone has anymore, sis. The world goes farther than we know. Could be all kinds of stuff out there. The Civilized States might still have working tech.”

“Even if they’re real, why would the Civilized States have weapons like this?”

“They’re real. Grandfather’s been there, remember? And they’d need weapons like this to help keep them civilized.”

Lena still wasn’t happy, she wanted to get away from the cars and back to forest cover. “Well no one leaves stuff like this alone for long.”

Varin peered inside the laser car. “They can’t be that worried. They left this unlocked.”

“Which means they could be back any minute so we need to leave.”

“Sure. But let’s see what we can steal first. I could use some of this stuff for Hydra.”

Lena sighed as he looked in through the passenger side window for anything that struck his fancy. Then he flashed a grin. “Don’t worry, sis, it won’t take long.” He went to open the door but paused as his fingers touched the handle. With a pensive expression he moved to the front of the car.

“I thought this wouldn’t take long,” Lena complained.

He squatted to examine the instruments behind the grille. Finding what he sought he pursed his lips and tapped his fingers on the hood. “There it is right there.”

“There what is?”

Varin answered by firing his crossbow. With a swish-thunk the bolt pierced the center of a large speaker behind the grille. Reloading, Varin went back to the side door. He placed the crossbow on the roof of the car, opened the door and climbed in.

As soon as the door opened a light began blinking on the dashboard and a muffled wheeze came from the alarm horn behind the grille.

Ignoring both, Varin reached under the dashboard and pulled a group of wires out, killing the horn altogether.

Lena looked about for any signs of movement but saw none. With a sigh she moved closer to the car. Varin was tugging at a computer box under the dashboard. “You’re not meant to take this long,” he complained when the box didn’t slide out on the first try.

“Neither’re you,” Lena scolded.

He ignored her and felt behind the box. “Great! These goons’ve got everything locked except their doors!” But he was determined to have it and began jerking it side to side. “I think I can jimmy it loose.”


Chapter Two


When Wulga’s ears twitched back toward the grasslands and she whined, Garrol almost kicked her. He hated the wilderness and was already in a foul mood for having to be out here looking for some slip of a girl.

Fragging forest.

What sort of girl lived in the wilderness anyway? One Garrol didn’t believe existed, that’s what sort. He’d rather be at the compound drinking shine and banging sluts, not out wandering nowhere looking for nobody.

But Sordak believed the girl lived out here and you didn’t dispute Sordak’s beliefs unless you had a death wish. There were four carloads of men searching, Garrol thought it a waste of time and resources but you didn’t tell Sordak that either. At least not to his face. Or what remained of it.

Wulga whined and pulled on the chain again. “Shaddup ya mangy cur!” Garrol decided he would kick her this time but then stopped and looked back the way she was pulling; she wasn’t a whiny dog and wouldn’t fuss for no reason. He could hear nothing but Wulga was too interested in that direction to be ignored now. It occurred to him that maybe some sort of dangerous animal was on his trail. Who knew what this fragging forest held? But no, Wulga was no coward, if it was some other beast she would be growling not whining.

Something was hurting her ears.

Garrol recalled another handler who had once told him dogs could hear sounds humans couldn’t. He’d thought the idea was horse shit but now wondered if it were fact. And wondering made him think of the cars—or more precisely the alarms on the cars.

He dismissed the idea and pulled Wulga roughly by her neck. The alarms made a racket anyone could hear, if one had been activated the sound would be wailing all over the forest and the seven warriors spread out ahead would’ve come running by now.

“I said shuddup!” He went to kick her but paused again. What if someone had disabled the alarms? Damaged them so that they now made a sound only Wulga’s ears picked up? He had no idea why that thought occurred to him, perhaps because he’d remembered the story about their hearing. He looked back along the trail, but they’d already come so deep into this stinking forest that you couldn’t see the grasslands anymore. And Garrol suddenly wanted to see the cars very much. More than just Wulga’s behavior had him feeling like someone was back there.

He whistle-called his men. A short wait and the huge warriors lumbered out of the trees, moving with incredible silence for such hulking, armor-clad men.

“Wulga’s onto something,” Garrol said. “Back to the cars.” He turned and let the dog lead the way.

The warriors followed as silently as they had emerged from the woods.


Chapter Three


Lena’s feeling of impending danger kicked anew. She scanned the area around the cars again but there was still no sign of trouble. Varin’s thievery was taking too long and making her edgy. “Will you come on?” she insisted, leaning back into the car.

He looked up from his wrestling match with the box, face flushed by his efforts. “I will if this thing will.”

“Forget that piece’a junk! I don’t like being near these things and I especially don’t like you burglarizing one!”

“All right.” Varin gave the box a last pull. It jumped loose and he hit his hands under the dashboard. “Frag!”

“Serves you right!”

“Guess so.” He emerged with his irrepressible grin still on his face and showed her the box. “A communicator,” he explained to her frown. “Gonna look great in Hydra.”

Lena’s frown became a sassy grin and she tapped the box with a finger, forgetting her unease momentarily. “And just who’re you gonna communicate with?”

Varin returned her grin and shrugged. “I might be able to tap into these guys.” He nodded at the cars. “Find out who they are and what they’re doing here. Or maybe even plug into the Civilized States if this thing has a powerful enough signal.”

“You go to a lot of trouble for nothing.” Lena shook her head. “Now can we please get out of here?”

“Don’t leave now,” Garrol said from behind them.

They whirled to see him standing there with the seven enormous warriors. Wulga’s eyes went to the box in Varin’s hands and she bared her teeth at him in a weirdly silent way.

“If you want to know why we’re here,” Garrol continued with an oily grin, “why don’cha ask us while we’re here.” He wasn’t looking at Varin or the box. Under normal circumstances he’d be furious that some kid was stealing from his car. But he was busy roaming his gaze up and down Lena’s tall, slender figure and wondering if she was the girl Sordak had sent them after. It’d be too easy and way too big of a coincidence—and Garrol didn’t believe in coincidence anymore than he believed in the girl—but this bitch was fine. She’d do as a consolation prize.

Varin and Lena took in the warriors and dog in the seconds it took the lead guy to finish speaking. Hard training kicked in and each knew the other was sizing up the situation and calculating a plan of action: eight guys all huge, all armored and armed to the teeth, even the lead guy’s dog was armored. They wore an assortment of makeshift suits of steel plates, chain mail and leather—odd-looking but no doubt effective, and carried a weird array of weapons: swords, crossbows, pike guns that were compact air compressors rigged to some sort of chassis that held a short pike—who made a weapon like that?—clubs spiked with nails, clubs covered in pointed studs—Varin knew they were called Maces. But the most shocking thing was that two sported shotguns—a Remington pump action and a sawed-off coach gun—and the guy with the dog had a Glock seventeen.

Holy shit that was a Gone-World cop gun!

Varin figured there was little hope that the guns weren’t loaded, not judging from the weapons and ammo on the cars. No, these guys were heeled and leaded for sure. Never mind. The guy with the Glock was still a dope for not having it in his hand, and for not having his holster’s safety loop locked down.

Varin and Lena gawked wide-eyed at the fearsome lot, deliberately looking more afraid than they actually were, a tactic designed to make them seem helpless and hopefully lend them an edge now that they’d been caught off guard. They noted that although the armor on these guys looked effective, gaps existed all over—at chest plates and sleeve guards, necks, throats, legs and hips—all necessary to allow the wearers freedom of movement, all weak points. It’d take some doing to beat these guys barehanded, but with skillfully wielded blades they’d not be indestructible. And well-placed bullets would render the armor useless.

But Varin and Lena had no firearms so that wasn’t an option.

Unless

Varin let the thought hang there because the plan was not to fight. That would be crazy and grandfather had always taught that the first rule of a fight was to avoid the fight if possible. The plan would be to distract and make a break for the forest and vanish. Once they got out of the line of fire, if they did, the dog would be the biggest problem. None of the warriors would catch Varin or Lena on the run with all that armor and gear weighing them down. But the dog would.

Oh well. Deal when it came down.

Without having to turn his head or even try to move his eyes to it, Varin knew the exact position of his crossbow behind him on the roof of the car, the image in his placing it there so vivid in his memory that it was like watching a reenactment. He knew Lena knew where it was too but he’d reach it the easiest so she’d let him go for it when the time came. And the time had come.

Varin offered a goofy grin. “Guys! What’s up? We were just checkin’ out ya wheels. Those ‘chines’re rippin’.” He looked at the box in his hands then back at the lead guy. “We found it on the ground and your door was open.” His tone was totally sincere. “I think you guys cars might’ve been broken into. But I couldn’t swear to it in a court of law—you know, if one existed still.”

The warriors began exchanging glances and chuckling. No one was buying, especially the lead guy, who was now sort of snarling silently like his dog.

“Sounds like wild bullshit, I know!” Varin laughed. “I mean, who’d steal from a dude with a Remington pump and a guy who looks scarier than his dog?”

Lena got the hints: go for the guy with the Remington shotgun. Check. Varin would deal with the dog and its owner. Check.

All that remained was to light the fuse.

Varin did that next.

“But the world today is full of crazy—” he seemed completely off-guard and like he’d babble in fear for the rest of the day. It was a great act. But in mid-speech he launched the box into the face of the warrior with the sawed-off.

The warrior fell back, dropping his gun, throwing hands to his face. Varin used the heartbeat in between to spin and snatch up his crossbow.

Garrol was caught by surprise, a second that would cost him. He released Wulga as the kid turned to grab his crossbow.

Varin whirled back, crossbow in hand and sunk the bolt into the dog’s right eye before it took two steps. It dropped without a twitch. He hated killing it but he’d hate it chewing on his throat even more. Next he faked throwing his crossbow at the lead guy’s head—as if he’d deliberately sacrifice the weapon. But the guy believed and threw his hands up—he really was a dope—and Varin ducked past him, snatched the Glock from its unsecured holster and legged it for forest cover.

The guy he’d thrown the box at had recovered and was scrabbling for his fallen sawed-off. Varin twisted round as he ran and opened up with the Glock. But with no chance to take proper aim the rounds spanged off the guy’s chest plate and whined away into the grass. Their impact only slightly knocked the guy off balance and he kept coming.

Then…click!

Empty?

But the Glock’s slide wasn’t locked back.

Jammed!

Varin shoved it in his belt.

Lena had moved a split instant before Varin chucked the box. She’d read his body language and knew exactly when his move would come. As he began the throw she drew her knife and sprang at Remington guy, putting him totally in shock by leaping high enough to hit his chest with her feet. Her weight and momentum knocked him on his back and she came down with both feet planted almost in his lungs. Air and blood blew out of him because Lena’s knife was already deep in his Adam’s apple.

Without slowing her momentum Lena withdrew her knife from his throat and the Remington from his dead hand and light-footed it after Varin. She was seconds behind him and had almost caught up when the Glock jammed. She turned and cut loose with the Remington. But the shots were wild, it was impossible to run and aim worth a damn.

The warriors didn’t flinch. One of them snatched up the sawed-off. Its barrels barked at Varin and Lena, buckshot sizzled close enough to smell.

A weird baying started up behind them and for a second they thought the dog had come back to life. But it was the warriors howling like blood-mad hyenas as they took up the chase.

“That doesn’t sound healthy!” Varin remarked as he and Lena hit the forest cover and raced back along the hunting trail.

“Especially if they catch us.” Lena fired the Remington till it racked empty. The warriors zigzagged and fell behind but none were hit. She hurled the empty shotgun back; it whirred and clanked the leader’s helmet, slowing him some more.

Varin reloaded his crossbow as he ran, securing a bolt in the weapon without taking his eyes off the trail. But his focus slipped for a split second and he paid by catching a toe on a bump in the trail. Damn! A buried tree root he’d known about since childhood. He felt like an idiot for forgetting it now. He hugged the crossbow to him as he tumbled.

Lena tripped over his sprawled form. She was quick, rolling over him, grabbing him as she fell and using her momentum to throw him back onto his feet. He kept going without losing much momentum.

“Thanks sis!” Not hearing her behind him he stopped and whirled and saw her just completing her own tumble when the warriors arrived.

She got her feet under her but Garrol caught her flailing arm as she tried to spring away. She slipped free but the tug slowed her enough so that Garrol got an arm fully round her now.

The warriors surrounded them. Garrol jerked his chin at Varin. “Kill that fraggin’ kid!”

Varin moved with soundless fluidity, springing into the grouped warriors, firing his crossbow at the lead guy’s eye, kicking another warrior down and drawing his sword all at the same time.

The bolt was dead on, swishing past Lena’s head by a hair’s breadth and straight at Garrol’s right eye. But he was fast and lucky, throwing his head to the side quick enough that the bolt slipped between his helmet and the side of his head. It pierced the flap of his ear and he screeched like a bitch.

And he wasn’t so lucky after all.

Lena rammed her elbow into the gap between his chest plate and sleeve guard. He let her go and she spun and rammed her knife into his scream. Garrol went down gurgling, the thought of shine and sluts his last.

Five warriors surrounded Varin; the one he’d kicked down was getting back up, odds Varin didn’t like at all. He kept moving, sweeping his blade up and slicing cleanly through the armpit of the guy with the coach gun.

The guy’s arm fell away, coach gun and all. He went after them both, spurting blood from his shoulder stump and screams from his wide open mouth.

Varin didn’t hear the scream as a club caught him a glancing blow to the head. His vision swirled and he fell.

Another warrior raised his pike gun to blast Varin.

Lena leapt forward, but she’d only just freed herself from the leader and killed him—she wouldn’t make it in time to save her brother.

She screamed and… boom!… a shot thundered and the guy with the pike was slammed to the dirt.

Everything froze, even the forest stilled, as if gunfire was a signal from the past come to remind the present that it shouldn’t be. A stranger stepped from the woods onto the trail, the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum in his fist still smoking. He was six-four, powerful-looking, face sun-bronzed. Varin figured he’d spent a lot of time in the weather. His short black hair was a nest of tight curls and his eyes were vivid blue. He wore a long-sleeved shirt of chain-mail, a leather glove on his gun-hand, and dark blue cargo pants tucked into what Varin could only think of as pirate boots.

“I’ve got five more rounds so back off,” the stranger warned the four remaining warriors. “Unless you want to debate which of you gets shot twice.”


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