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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER ELEVEN:

 

Círbann Rómenadrim
(formerly China Camp)
Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July/Fumizuki/Cerweth 14th
Change Year 46/Fifth Age 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.

 

Órlaith knelt against the stempost with her hand tight on the gunwale. The sailors were pulling hard in all the longboats, half-rising from their benches with a grunting chant and hauling until the strong ash shafts of the oars bent, anxious to get the heavy cargo of passengers ashore and get back to their floating home. With pirates close they’d feel as naked out here away from their ship as a turtle without its shell. Water purled back from the bow, and she could feel the dip and bite and surge, almost as alive as a horse. The Tarshish Queen carried more boats than most ships did because its master voyaged so often in places where regular docks and wharfs didn’t exist. He’d taken on an extra set for this venture, just in case, and it thankfully meant that they didn’t need multiple trips right now. Órlaith liked the way he prepared carefully.

You prepared as best you could. And then, as her mother had put it once when she was talking about the campaigns and perils of her youth, you rolled the iron dice.

Now to get ashore, pick up Karl and Diarmuid and their parties, and Morfind and Faramir and Susan Mika, hotfoot it over to Albion Cove—I’m fairly sure Baron Godric will help, that I am—and meet the Tarshish Queen again. This is getting to be far too much like the joke about the sheep, the wolf and the cabbage! Then—

Her head whipped back as one of the rowers found the breath to curse in amazement, and there was a huge rushing sound not quite like anything she’d heard before. The shore of the bay north of them, to the right, was a maze of small islands and stretches of renascent salt marsh and little wandering estuaries, intensely green with reeds and starred with great patches of golden jaumea and pinkish-blue gumplant. Trees were thick on the higher points, mostly willows.

The sound had been birds taking flight—thousands, tens of thousands, rising upward in twisting black skeins like veils of air and smoke, more and louder than she had ever heard.

Then she saw what they’d been fleeing and her cornflower-blue eyes went wide despite the sun-dazzle. Boats were coming out of the marshes. None of them were very large—most of them could be rightly called canoes—but there were...

Morrigú!” Órlaith blurted, invoking the Shadow Queen in a voice that was half curse and half genuine prayer to the Goddess.

In Her aspect as the Battle Crow. Badb Catha, She who was terrible in majesty amid the shattering of spears.

“Holy Mary and St. Michael!” her brother John blurted from the rear of the longboat.

Forgetting to be suave and worldly for a moment, or grim and determined, and reverting to a very young man who’d trained to be a knight but never actually had anyone try to kill him.

“How many of the bastards are there?” he said.

Her mind gibbered slightly. Scores of boats at least! Maybe more than a hundred!

Then something in her mind said:

Ninety-eight visible just now. From one to a dozen Eaters in each. Over five hundred fighters, and there’s more coming.

It was her own thought, but it had the same bronze-bell note as the Sword gave her when she heard sincere belief. She could have counted the canoes and boats herself given time, but it was something to have a precisely accurate tally at her fingertips.

Heuradys spoke, but not to her. Quietly under her breath:

“Bright-Eyed One, Defender of the City, Lady of the Vanguard, lock shields with me today, I pray. And harken, O Alala, daughter of Polemos, to whom soldiers are given for their homeland’s sake in the holy sacrifice of death. If this is the day the Spinners cut the thread of my life, I am ready to pay the ferryman.”

And more boats were emerging as Órlaith watched, some showing as the Eaters cast off the nets of woven foliage that had hidden them. Canoes, and small pleasure craft of the ancient world—nothing more than twenty or thirty feet long, most smaller, all being paddled rather than rowed, though skillfully enough. She’d heard that the Eater tribes of the Bay used the like, fishing and hunting and fowling from craft they couldn’t have made but could employ after a fashion—the aluminum and fiberglass hulls would last for a very long time. Perhaps if they’d been left to themselves long enough, another two or three or four generations, they’d have ceased to be Eaters at all, and become mere ordinary savages.

But they hadn’t been left alone, and now they were taking the boats to war.

“Not feeling fey, I hope,” she murmured to Heuradys.

From long practice they could understand each other with their voices pitched too low for others to follow.

“Oh, just touching all the bases, Orrey,” she said.

“Well, this is indeed adventure, is it not?”

“No, then we’d be listening to someone like Johnnie here sing it,” she said. “Now we’re just doing it and it’s a lot less enjoyable.”

“I’m taking notes, don’t worry,” John said. “Evrouin has my pad, eh?”

The valet-bodyguard grunted sourly. He did have the lute-case over his back, but his hands held a glaive, the wicked blade and point of the polearm glinting and the hook at the rear sharpened like a razor on the inside of the curve.

Paddles flashed in the bright summer sun, throwing strings of jewel-like flashes into the air. The closest were long bowshot away, and she could hear the harsh rhythmic chanting of the paddlers as they whipped sprays of droplets aloft:

Ha-ba-da, ha-ba-da, endlessly repeated.

The chant spread like ripples in a pool, until the whole Eater host was grunting it in unison, and their paddles flashing in the same smooth unison as a well-practiced galley’s crew... which was profoundly unnatural. You couldn’t just duplicate the effects of long training. It took weeks of concerted effort to teach even willing and reasonably intelligent young recruits things like pikes-up-files-left-face without everything dissolving into a chaotic farce of collisions and tripping.

Moishe Feldman’s ship had turned her prow south as soon as the boats were away, at anchor but with the sails loosely furled and ready to be hoisted in an instant when the boats were swung up again. She’d noted without understanding why that the sailors had rigged a second line to the anchor cable. Now faint commands came from the merchantman and deckhands hauled frantically on that stout cord that dipped out to meet the anchor’s main line.

One of the oarsmen—they had to look behind—grunted in time with his efforts: “Skipper’s got... a... spring... on... the... anchor... swing... her... ‘round! Fast!”

The ship was swinging around, smooth and quick enough to make the hull heel over a little as it pushed against the still water of the anchorage. Suddenly it was hiding some of the onrushing small craft; another faint yell of orders, and then a massive tung-CRACK sound. It was tooth-gratingly familiar, heavy springs releasing and each set of twin throwing arms smacking into the hard-rubber stops at the end of their arc as a war-catapult cut loose.

She’d heard it hundreds of times or more in her life, at field-days when her parents watched troops drill, at feasts and festivals when they were used to throw bright colored lights into the night sky, or occasionally getting knocked out of a sound sleep when a castle garrison practiced, since her parents were most emphatically not given to disrupting training routines for their own convenience... but this was the first time she knew it was with deadly intent.

It was repeated eight times, one discharge treading on the heels of the last, and then the ship swung again, pivoting around the anchor cable even as it heeled and rocked back under the punch of recoil. The bow and stern chasters pivoted on their trackways and cut loose as the ship moved.

A whistling sound went beneath the crashing noise of discharge; they were using beehive, canisters full of four-inch finned steel darts that flew free in a spreading cone just beyond the weapon’s launching trough. Glimpses over the bulwarks showed the teams pumping at the rocking levers of the hydraulic cocking mechanisms. The Eater mass parted around the ship, streaming past...

Straight at us! she thought. And none of them are running away!

Turning around and paddling fast wouldn’t actually help, but it was the natural reaction of undisciplined skulking savages suddenly caught in the open by modern weapons they couldn’t understand or counter. If they were very fierce, trying to close with and board the Tarshish Queen and slaughter the crews of the catapults would be natural too. Instead the Eaters were doing the tactically perfect thing to accomplish the mission... if the mission was to kill her. And John and Reiko, of course.

They are acting like automatons with no thought for their lives. Like breathing puppets. I don’t think that happened even in the Prophet’s War. Not on this scale, anyway.

The end of the T-shaped wharf was directly ahead. The decking there was lower, floating on a thick raft of timbers so that it could adjust to the tides and linked to the pier running shoreward by a jointed section. It was much easier to get to from the water than the pier behind it, which stood about man-high above the surface for most of its length now that the tide was out.

Her cousins Morfind and Faramir were waiting on the dock, arrows on the strings of their powerful four-foot recurve bows of horn and wood and sinew; even then Morfind’s fresh scar was a little shocking, the more so as her face was flushed with effort and excitement and brought out the purple of it. It must have gotten infected, but then, who knew what... no, she did know what would be on the blade of an Eater’s ax. Both of them were in the mottled clothes Dúnedain wore as field gear, heavily coated with tan-colored dust and with the white Tree and Stars and Crown just visible on their jerkins if you looked carefully.

Let what’s beneath your feet fight for you, her father had joked once, when he and some of his old friends were talking on a hunting trip and she’d been a silent presence hugging her knees at the edge of the light while the venison grilled. It’s so much easier that way than doing it all yourself, sure and it is.

They could...

“Sir Aleaume, get your detachment out fast and form up at the base where the floating wharf joins the pier,” she said crisply. “You from the Queen’s crew, you too, just leave the boats when we hit the wharf and everyone’s out. You’re not going to get back through that—”

She jerked her head at the mass of pursuing small craft and their chanting cannibal crews.

“—alive. You can rejoin your ship at Mist Hills with us, but stay back as much as you can.”

Her mind was racing quickly; what could the sailors do? They were vastly more vulnerable to arrow-fire.

“Get ashore. Guard those horses,” she added, pointing to the Dúnedain mounts, standing where the pier met the firm ground of the shore.

The bosun’s mate in charge of the boats nodded; she thought he looked relieved that someone was taking charge of his group, because the choices ahead weren’t the sort anyone sane wanted to be responsible for.

Because nobody wants to be on that wharf when those canoes arrive. Which many of them are going to do, catapults or no. But every one Feldman kills is one we don’t have to face... still, we can’t just run, they’ll catch us and swarm us under. We have to knock them back on their heels, give us time to find a point we can defend. How to do it, how to do it...

Then she called to Reiko in the next boat, voicing her thoughts and adding:

“Your Nihonjin take the south side. We’ll throw them back together and then retreat to the hills to make a stand on good ground—conform to our movement, there’s no time for anything more complicated.”

She got a nod and a brisk wave; the word was relayed to all four of the big launches. Reiko called:

“Captain Ishikawa and his sailors will keep the pier secure and retreat along it ahead of us!”

Órlaith waved assent. The Nihonjin seamen all carried naginatas, polearms that gave them reach; if any of the savages waded through the mud to the pier they could strike downward.

Behind her the manyfold tung-CRACK! sounded again. The sound that followed was subtly different this time, a whistling moan, and she could hear something like hail on a tile roof combined with the sound a butcher’s spring-driven bolt gun made when he stunned the beast before its throat was cut. Repeated many times. There was even a liquid shurrussh, as of water beaten into froth. This time they must be shooting canister, half-inch steel balls at point-blank range.

Mother-of-All, be merciful unto all Your children, she thought grimly. We slay from need, not vainglory, to ward our lives and our friends, our homes and folk, obedient to our oaths and knowing that for us too the hour of the Hunter must come. As we are all Your children, so welcome all who fall here today to Your embrace, comrade and foeman. Greet them beyond the Western Gate, in the Land of Summer where no evil comes and all hurts are healed.

Then the fresh redwood timbers of the wharf were approaching with shocking speed; there was a faint lemony scent to them, under the silt and fish and mud and tar—like any wooden structure in contact with the sea it had been painted with boat soap. Stronger than that was the harsh male sweat and leather and oiled metal of the men-at-arms around her.

As the boats approached the two Dúnedain drew and shot over the newcomers’ heads, then shot again and again, a smooth steady knock-draw-loose almost worthy of a Mackenzie. They were shooting high, loosing with the points up at forty-five degrees, to drop the arrows down at maximum range.

She could hear the flat snap of the bowstrings and perhaps even the faint rushing whistle of the shafts. She could most definitely hear the shrieks of rage and pain where they struck.

Órlaith felt the skin between her shoulderblades crawl, underneath the armor and doublet. She knew exactly what that meant: if the enemy were in bowshot for the two Rangers, pretty soon they’d be shooting back. There would be a little time of grace, since the Eaters weren’t as formidable with the bow, and they’d be in their canoes, but there were a lot of them. Her own bow and quiver were over her back, but the boat was too crowded and too unstable to make that worthwhile.

“Sir Aleaume, Droyn, we’ll hold just in front of the pier,” she said.

The knight had been taking a close look. He nodded and turned her general instruction into something more detailed:

“Men-at-arms and spearmen in walking castle formation. Droyn, crossbows firing rank-and-retreat on command at close range, we don’t have many spare bolts.”

He looked at her and she nodded confirmation before she went on:

“The Japanese will handle the other side. We’ll back up to the pier, retreat down that to the shore and then make for that hill—”

She pointed to one not far from the shore, probably the one the smoke signal had come from; there was a low wooded strip just beyond the beach and sheds, then a fairly steep rise and higher rolling hills inland with scattered trees amid long golden-colored grass. She’d studied maps... but somehow she knew the lie of the land there now, the steepness of the slopes, the old laneway at the top of the ridge, the dense forest at the base of the ridge.

The knowledge had fused, into an old-shoe familiarity like the woods around Dun Juniper or the streets of Portland. And the ground ahead felt welcoming, like a clap on the shoulder... from her father, at that. Possibly that was wishful thinking, but possibly not.

“—then we’ll make a stand as they come up the slope at us. We can’t outrun them, they’re not wearing anything but loincloths and bones through their noses, but they’ll have no more coordination or discipline than a pack of feral dogs. I don’t know why Eaters are after us—

Though she suspected, particularly given the Dúnedain report of them cooperating with a Haida this spring. Doing certain things, living certain ways, made you more vulnerable to control by what her father had called the Malevolence and what Christians considered their God’s great rebel Adversary. It opened a pathway... and then you walked down it and after a while there wasn’t any way back and you didn’t want to turn anyway. The Prophet’s War had proved that, how it could steal on a person a little at a time.

Unfortunately it still seemed to be true, and she couldn’t think of a better way to attract Its close attention than the existence of an Eater band. That attention would twist them to something even worse, and so on down a spiral that led to an oblivion with fangs at the bottom of the maelstrom. Best not to speak that aloud, though. It was uncanny enough to daunt even a brave man. The Royal kin stood for human kind with the Powers here in Montival; dealing with things of that sort was part of her job. Monarchs were High Priest or High Priestess as much as war-leaders and rulers.

“—but if we kill enough we may sicken the rest, and eventually the Dúnedain will come.”

The two nobles nodded grimly, probably glad they were in their complete suits of plate—the men-at-arms had brought them on general principle, since they didn’t take up significant room or weigh much on the scale of a cargo ship, though they hadn’t planned on carrying them once they landed down south and set out overland into the interior desert. There hadn’t been time to don hers in the scramble to leave the ship. Half-armor would have to do, and shields.

Things were starting to move very fast. Which was fortunate; there was no time to be afraid. Not so much afraid of death, as of dying with so much undone...

Out on the water the Tarshish Queen had slipped her cable and sheeted home her sails, with a final good-bye broadside of canister shot at the passing swarm of Eaters. The sails filled with a crack as a ripple of screams rose, but the thudding chant of the paddlers never ceased as they bobbed across the wake of the departing schooner.

A slightly larger boat held a man-sized drum, and as the canoes closed in on the wharf a savage with a finger-bone through his nose and his hair teased up into a thicket of bleached spikes began to beat it two-handed... with sticks that looked like and probably were human thighbones: boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom...

Órlaith didn’t blame Feldman for making off in the least; for starters she’d just now told him to do exactly that. A moment more and the ship could have been swarmed by the Eaters and would certainly be pinned in this inlet by the approaching quartet, depriving her of any chance of a seaborne way to where she needed to go. And there was no time for the captain of the Tarshish Queen to ask her for fresh orders. In the ancient world there had been ways to talk over distances instantly, so that you could change plans on the fly. Modern times didn’t work that way.

The floating wharf’s decking was about a yard above the surface of the water. The whole construction was tarred, a massive raft held together by stainless-steel bolts and finished with a surface of three-by-four redwood planks, with tall piles driven deep in the harbor mud running through rings at each corner to keep it in the same place as it rose and fell with the water. Right now it was as low as it got, not quite touching the bottom of the bay but not far from it.

Two of the Protector’s Guard reached out and caught the bumper of old cables along the edge with the hooks on the reverse of the blades of their glaives. They grunted with effort as they hauled on the shafts to hold the longboat tight against it. The Japanese poured ashore on the other end of the wharf, with Reiko calmly tying the chin-cords of her helmet as she stood among them. It made her face more of the bronze mask Órlaith had first seen, before the life behind started to peek out. Egawa was beside her, giving an occasional command in barking Japanese, and a young samurai behind her had the rayed rising sun of the hinomaru banner standing up from a holder on the back of his cuirass.

Órlaith caught a bollard and stepped up with Heuradys at her heels unobtrusively ready to give her a shoulder in the backside. The sailors had leapt out with monkey agility; the armored warriors a bit more cautiously, not anxious to end their part in the battle early by drowning ingloriously in seven feet of muddy water. Even the massively buoyant structure swayed and dipped as nearly eighty humans swarmed over the edge in fighting gear, and several of her followers looked down at it dubiously as it moved under their feet.

The Japanese were a little less inhibited. Órlaith supposed it was because they came from a realm of islands where sea-travel and sea-fighting were part of everyday life. Montival was fringed by the ocean but most of her people would never see salt water all their lives, much less voyage on it.

The warriors of Nihon instantly shook themselves into a well-organized mass, as colorful as a rank of exotic wasps with the lacquer of their suits, but as grimly businesslike as Boisean legionnaires in their own fashion. The long blades of the su-yari spears stood out as they were leveled; the men behind the rank of polearms had their seven-foot higoyumi bows in hand and the two swords tucked through their sashes and tied securely with the sageo cords. The Japanese sailors were further back, their naginatas ready. They didn’t have the fine gear or ferocious stoicism of the Imperial Guard, but she thought they’d give a good account of themselves.

Hands seized Órlaith, and she almost drew and struck by blind reflex. Then she realized it was two of her men-at-arms, and that another pair were hauling the rest of her suit of plate out of a canvas sack someone had grabbed from her quarters during the scramble to get off the ship. The armor went on with a murmur of Pardon, Your Highness, and Heuradys got the same treatment a moment later, with less deference. The whole process was very quick with four pair of skilled hands working on the buckles, clasps and ties; everyone who fought in plate learned how to help other people on and off with it and she already had the cuirass on, which was the foundation. When they were finished she was covered from the bevoir around her neck and chin to the articulated sabatons on her feet.

“Thank you, messires,” she said shortly.

Fortunately they’d picked the foot-fighting set of faulds, the one that protected your backside too, rather than leaving it bare to help the leather on the seat of your breeches grip the saddle. The royal suit’s relatively slight weight still surprised her, on the visceral level of memories graven in bone and muscle; the metal was a little thicker than its steel equivalent, but rustless, much stronger and much lighter.

Sir Aleaume blushed slightly when she shot him a glance but kept his eyes steady. He was her personal vassal now... but that didn’t mean a noble wasn’t supposed to exercise initiative, and she hadn’t actually forbidden him to do it. She almost laughed aloud when she looked over at Reiko again, and saw the same process going on.

Onegai itashimasu,” Reiko said frigidly to her vassals as they began, though their actions were obviously unexpected.

That meant thank you for this favor you’re about to do, more or less.

And a bitten-off: “Domo,” followed.

Which meant very much literally, and a brief curt thanks in terms of true equivalents.

The two men strapping the protective suneate to her legs both bent their foreheads to the dock for an instant after they finished, presumably in apology for touching the sacred and quasi-divine Imperial person, before she snapped brusquely that they should get back to their places.

Órlaith turned and looked seaward, sparing only one swift look at the departing schooner, a shape of strangely calm beauty as it heeled to the wind and its sails made a geometric off-white tracery against the dark blue of the water and bright blue of the nearly cloudless sky. The lunging bows of the canoes of the cannibal host were much closer and uglier, a clash with the warm comeliness of summer land and sea.

She gave a quick glance to either side. The Japanese and her own men-at-arms had formed up quickly; everyone looked concerned, and well they might, but nobody was panicking.

Not even me, and how I wish I could! she thought with some distant part of her mind. This would be a lot easier if Da or Mother was here to tell me what to do!

She’d been determined to strike out on her own, as her parents had done on the Quest. Now she was getting what she’d wanted... Someone was always listening when you made a wish, and some of those Someones had a pawky sense of humor.

John had his shield settled on his arm, with the Sword and Crown of House Artos on it crossed with the baton of cadency. He looked a little white about the mouth, enough to remind you that he was still short of twenty years, but steady enough.

Says the crone of twenty-one! she thought. And to be sure, he isn’t responsible for how this turns out!

“The plumes on the helm work, Johnnie. You finally look taller than your big sister,” she said lightly, and got a smile in return, and a lessening of the tension around his eyes.

Whatever she decided, folk would die because of it. It would almost be easier to die herself.

“Shields and visors!” Sir Aleaume snapped. “Blades! Protective formation!”

The men-at-arms knocked their visors down with the edges of their shields, a multiple metallic shink-shink sound, transformed from men to steel figures faceless save for the menacing black vacancy of the vision slits, like the fabled robots of ancient times. They drew their longswords with a slight hissing slither of steel on wood and leather greased with neatsfoot oil and held them in the ready position over the shoulder, hilt first. The front rank knelt, their kite shields braced against shoulder and the wharf’s deck to make a wall, and then the second did likewise in a smooth ripple. Only the best few applicants were allowed into the Protector’s Guard, and they practiced continually.

The points of glaives bristled forward as the footmen in their three-quarter-armor stepped up behind the knights and squires whose duty and honor it was to put their bodies in the front line against the foe, poised ready to chop and hook and thrust around and between them.

“Cousins!” Órlaith called to the two Dúnedain; they were literally that, the children of her father’s half-sisters.

She pointed to the dozen large barrels on the south end of the wharf, which were full of something from the way they were making the structure dip in that direction even with the men-at-arms on the other end.

“Those tuns! What’s in them?”

There wasn’t much doubt, she could smell it and it was among the most familiar of scents around any sort of dock, but best to make sure. Faramir replied as he shot again.

“It’s boat soap...”

Then with a double-take while his hand reached for his quiver, and he blurted in amazement:

“When did you start speaking perfect Sindarin, my lady kinswoman?” he said in that language.

Just now! Órlaith realized, as the elegant liquid complexities settled into her mind.

She’d had no more than a few words before. Rangers all spoke what they called the Common Tongue as well, though they mostly used Edhellen among themselves.

She had the Sword... but it was a little eerie even so, and his eyes widened as she tapped her hand on the hilt. Then she dismissed it for now.

What mattered was the information and the idea it spawned, not how she’d gotten it. Rock the enemy back on their heels while we break contact suddenly became something much more concrete.

 

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