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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

Dùthchas of the Clan McClintock
(Formerly southern Oregon/northern California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July 9th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

Edain Aylward Mackenzie blinked and coughed in the late-morning sunlight and batted a hand at the flies crowding around his face.

“Now we know why there was so much of a howling and growling in the distance among the beast-kind last night,” he said.

He’d thought it might just be natural here, some quarrel over a predator’s kill; these southern fringes of the McClintock dùthchas weren’t like the Cascade forests he knew best. Though he’d been through them more than once, it being the only way to get down into the southernmost province if you didn’t take ship. It was just as steep, but drier, much of it dense woodland but more open in some spots on the south-facing slopes. They were well into what the old world had called California and the High Queen’s mother had renamed Westria after some tales she was fond of, and the forests even smelled different—spicier and harsher somehow, with less of the green mossy scent. Though right now...

“If we’d camped any closer we’d have winded it sure. Well, well, well!”

“Or if we’d been downwind. ’tis the tale of the three wells, that it is,” his second-in-command agreed.

Her name was Báirseach. She’d been just old enough to go to the Prophet’s War in the Mackenzie levy as an Eoghan, an apprentice-helper, and had joined the Archers in time to catch the final nasty toil of hunting down the last guerilla bands in the Bitterroot country away east. She stripped off a handful of needles from the branch of a young pine, crushing them and holding the results under her nose against the powerful musky-sweet rankness of the stink from the bodies.

Even standing carefully upwind it was strong enough to feel like rancid oil spread on the inside of your mouth and nose, and the buzzing of the flies was loud enough to seem like a great malignant cat purring at something vile. Several of the younger Archers were looking very pale, or green. There was nothing like a corpse lying unburied and unburnt for a while to remind even heedless youth that you were of the same very mortal flesh as any other animal.

“They’re just somewhat over-ripe,” she said. “A week?”

“Something like,” Edain said. “Hot days, but this high up nights are cool, even in summer and this far south. Yet we’re gaining on them, and that steadily.”

“Now, I’d be thinking these dead spalpeens were bandits,” Báirseach said, her red brows rising in a pale boney weathered face as she looked again and tried to reconstruct the scene.

“Aye, by their gear. Varied, and not much of it, and not well kept up,” Edain agreed.

His second’s blue eyes went around the site of the little battle... or possibly brisk little massacre would be a better term. Down to the little tarn where water pooled and then chuckled over smooth brown stones, then around the slope that led up from it under the tall sugar pines that turned the sunlight into a shifting dappled carpet. The coyotes and other scavengers had run or slunk or flown off when the High King’s Archers had followed their noses here, and by the marks a tiger and a grizzly bear had taken turns running each out of the location some time ago when the meal was fresher. Few predators turned such down when one came along. Some of the flesh had been reduced to dried tatters, others slumped into liquid, the maggots had hatched some time ago, and the tufts of hair looked the more grotesque for it.

She went a little closer, picked up an arrowhead with a stub of broken shaft, examined it and then flipped it to him as she retreated. Edain caught it carefully by the wooden bit—all things considered, he didn’t want to slice himself open to what was caked on it—and turned the metal triangle to catch a ray of sunlight.

“Broadhead, redcedar shaft,” she said helpfully. “One of ours. Clan make, hand-forged, not from a hydraulic trip-hammer in a Royal armory or a factory.”

“Dun Fairfax smith-mark in Ogham, right enough, it’s my idiot sons and their friends, who are half-wits whose vanity aspires to the lofty status of idiots, so,” he agreed; she was Sutterdown-born, from the closest thing the Clan had to a city. “Went through a body and broke off on a rock, most like. Easier to let it lie, when they were in a hurry. And a bit spooked at what they’d done. Training will take you through your first fight...”

“... but seeing the results is a wee shock, to be sure. I don’t remember the two days after the battle, back in the war time.”

When someone of roughly their age said the battle, there was only one they could mean. He nodded, having been there and in the thick of things. She went on:

“And I was just scurryin’ about with bundles of arrows and helping the wounded back during the fight, when I wasn’t crying or puking me guts out or both at the same time. So they might well have skimped on things like the policing up of the field.”

Mackenzies kept a number of spare arrowheads in a pouch on the war-quivers they took into the field, along with uncut flight-feathers from geese, and anyone could trim out and fletch a shaft at need. The razor-edged shapes like the one he held were cut and hammered out of a stainless-steel coffee spoon, with the stub of the handle wound around a mandrel, then heated and hammer-forged to make a tube that would fit the tip of a shaft. The spoons were one of the staples of the salvage trade though they were worth only pennies each, being so durable and to be had anywhere the ancients had dwelt—they were still used as spoons, for that matter.

This one had a tiny sigil tapped into the socket with a metalworker’s punch, a straight line with two branches to the left and another with three to the right—‘d’ and ‘f’ in the script of the old Gael. Mackenzie smiths made and stored the like by the thousands, working whenever there wasn’t anything more pressing to do. They went to the Chief’s Portion, or were bartered to hunters for meat and leather, horn and bone.

“But how... by Nuada of the Silver Hand, how did our youngsters get them to stand in a bunch like that, and them so agreeable about being shot at?” she said. “Look, there’s some hit running away—out in a fan, you see? As if they’d been taken under an arrowstorm sudden-like from the very ground they stood on, somehow.”

“And then fled in a panic; the which is more likely to get you killed than standing your ground,” Edain observed.

“Aye. Most often if you run, you find you’ve run towards the Shadow Queen’s scythe without knowing it. But those last—”

She pointed with her bowstave.

“—were shot running upslope, which is towards the only cover about the place, and away from which they’d have been dashing if they’d been ambushed. Then it looks as a few were cut down with the sword close to the brush. It’s impossible. Unless our youngsters had the féth fíada of Aengus Óg to render them invisible, the which I doubt, even if that McClintock with them is named Diarmuid.”

Edain had been grim enough. Now he grinned, despite the gruesomeness of the scene. He’d seen far worse, in one place or another. If you took up the spear of your own wish you made your life’s blood a free-will offering to the Dark Mother. By preference he’d die at home in the bed he’d been born in, with grandchildren about him ready to keen him to the pyre and then knock the bung out of the barrel at the wake. But he didn’t expect it, and hadn’t for a long time. Kings weren’t the only people who knew they were walking towards the scythe.

“Earth must be fed,” he murmured, then more briskly: “Take a look at the angles the shafts went in. Not the ones scattered up the hill. The most of them, right under the trees, where they were caught unawares and in a clump.”

“The bodies’ve been dragged about and broken up too much by the beast-kind to... wait, look at that one! He must have been on his hands and knees, that shaft went in his neck and near-enough came out where his arsehole used to be...”

Edain’s smile turned to a chuckle. He’d been leaning on his longbow, and he now shifted it to point upwards.

“How they got them to stand together so at the first, ignoring all else like youths watching the maidens dance skyclad about a Beltaine pole, I do not know and cannot guess,” he said, chuckling. “But if you were to climb those trees, and them so straight and thick and fine though less so than our Douglas firs, and look carefully...”

Aililiú” she blurted, then shook her head admiringly. “Hunting blinds in the trees! There’s one among them with a pleasingly and usefully wicked habit of mind.”

“Karl’s work, or forbye Mathun’s, but Karl would be my guess. He’s a clever young bastard, when he’s not thinking with his fists or his balls, that he is.”

“When he’s not being young, you mean,” she said, then added: “Young and male, that is. Why’s he not in the Archers, then? From the look of things we could use him.”

“He’s not overfond of being under my eye all the time,” Edain said. “I don’t altogether blame him for it, for all that he’s still not fit to be let out without a keeper. As this whole matter shows.”

“Oh, aye, plenty of the High King’s Archers enlist to get away from home. By the Daga’s dick, I did! Having your Da as your commander too, that would be... a bit of another matter, so to say.”

Edain chuckled. “For this I’m almost inclined to forgive him for making me miss going home for the harvest, forbye it’s been too long since I tossed a sheaf.”

The words were harsh enough, but he could feel the pride leaking out in the tone. Edain raised his voice:

“Scouts out, and the rest of us follow in skirmish column. Pursuit pace, wolf-trot—move!”

There were a few groans; he felt like groaning himself, after day upon day of relentless work. Not long after coming this way traveling northward, though that hadn’t been as brutal. He was forty-two years old come this Samhain and a bit, and the oldest of the band he was chasing was twenty-six. He had a decade or more on most of his own command too. It told. Sweat soaked the padding of his brigandine, his thighs ached, and there were raw chafe-marks in places he’d thought callused beyond that long years ago. But he wasn’t going to let them see it.

Them or my sons, he thought, as they fell into the wolf-lope again.

The seed doesn’t fall far from the tree, though, does it now? However you managed it, Karl-me-lad, I’m something impressed. How old Sam would smile... Perhaps I’ll kick your arse one time less if you tell me how! We’ll catch you at White Mountain, or close thereafter, I think. There will come a day when you’re better at this than your Da, but not yet. Not quite yet.

 

@@@

 

The Dun Fairfax band and their McClintock allies came out of the shaggy wilderness, the trees and rampant feral grapevines and the odd patch of straw-colored savannah that stretched north of the salt marshes where it wasn’t scrub forest over ruins. Karl Aylward Mackenzie had expected something of civilization soon, since there had been the odd lump of horse-dung and someone had been making a start on the road for the last few miles. Hauling away the rusted remains of automobiles and trucks, cutting back the larger bushes that had sprouted in the cracked asphalt and filling in potholes and digging away dirt where blocked culverts had flooded in the winter rains. And the scent on the breeze from the west was subtly different—tilled ground smelled a bit hotter and dustier.

Dogs barked and raced about as they came into the cleared stretch, a biggish square field in the faded but glittery brown-blond of wheat stubble. Shoots of green burr-medic clover pushed up between the ankle-high stalks the cutting bar of the horse-drawn reaper left. The clearing was edged with young dark-green cypress trees like man-high pencils. He blinked and shaded his eyes with a hand.

“Follow at heel, Fenris, Ulf, Macmaccon, Buagh, Dwyer, Uaid,” he said sharply.

The greathounds were too disciplined and too tired to do more than pad along with their tongues out, which was fortunate for the nondescript farm mongrels doing the challenge. Mackenzies bred them for hunting game like boar and tiger, or for war, and the great rangy beasts averaged about the weight of a smallish man, with fangs to match and jaws that could crack a bull elk’s thighbone.

A half-score of landworkers were at their tasks in the field, from a man with gray in his beard down to children as young as six or so scaring away birds and bringing dippers of water to their elders. The folk were carting the last of their wheat. It was earlier than that would be done in the Mackenzie lands, since summer came sooner and much hotter here. Otherwise much the same: pitching the stooked sheaves into a cart pulled by two big platter-hoofed horses and packing them on the high teetering precarious-looking golden heap. Gear lay piled under the shade of a big oak, under the guard of a woman nursing a babe.

Karl flung up a fist to halt his column, put a foot down to the left of his bicycle and took a swig from his water-bottle of salvaged aluminum encased in modern boiled leather. He was a young man not long past twenty, a year older than his brother Mathun and of a similar long-limbed build he’d gotten from his mother, along with hair much the same color as the reaped grain, and blue eyes. Their square cleft-chinned knobby faces were much like their father’s, and the broad bowman’s shoulders they shared, though both were still lanky with youth.

He corked the canteen, waved and called:

“Fair harvest, friends! Corn Mother and Harvest Lord be with you!”

They were far enough away they probably couldn’t catch the words, but close enough the tone and gesture should travel. And he’d used the general terms rather than a specific deity’s name, which was a witch’s way of being nondenominational. From their dress—loose shirts left in the natural pale gray of linsey-woolsey, pants tighter and dyed blue with the odd copper rivet, laced boots and round floppy straw hats—they were probably Corvallan countryfolk by origin. The weapons they’d grabbed for when they saw two-score of armed strangers, crossbows and the odd eight-foot half-pike, argued likewise.

He was glad of it. Corvallis folk had a reputation for keeping themselves to themselves; minding their own business and not sticking their noses in yours, they called it, or cold standoffishness as others might put the matter. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t pry now and gossip later, but they’d be slower and less insistent about it, and easier to shake off without giving real offense.

They relaxed as they saw the kilts of the Mackenzies and McClintocks, waved back at him, called greetings blurred with distance, and got back to work. That wasn’t surprising either; even in a place like this with reliably dry summers you never really felt secure until the sheaves were carted and in a nice well-thatched stack in the yard. If nothing else, birds were always too glad to take a share, whether it had fallen out of the ear to make fair gleaning or not. And then you itched to get it threshed and the grain in the sacks lest a careless spark send a year’s work and the flour for a winter’s loaves up in a whoosh.

After the threshing you worried about rats in the granary...

He’d missed the harvest back home because of this venture, and it felt a little unnatural. He could still remember his pride the first summer he was allowed to drive the reaper and take his turn binding sheaves and stooking. And watching his Da carrying the Queen Sheaf for the High Priestess to weave into a woman’s shape so She could preside over the harvest-home feast. And the dancing afterwards. It was a fine time to be a young man in Dun Fairfax, even if everyone was a little tired. Babes conceived in harvest-time were thought lucky.

Diarmuid Tennart McClintock’s folk came up from behind while the dozen Mackenzies were halted—it was their turn for rearguard—and did likewise. Karl carefully did not grin at the set look some of them had as they slowed and stood down; at least they weren’t falling over any more, even the ones with four-foot claidheamh mòr greatswords in hide slings over their backs. Some of them were openly kneading their buttocks under the baggy wrapped-and-pinned Great Kilts they wore.

It wasn’t that they weren’t hardy, though Mackenzies often gently mocked their pretensions in that direction. But McClintocks were woodsrunners, hill-and-hollow dwellers from the uplands south of the Willamette who lived thinly scattered and seldom saw even a two-wheeled cart; their dùthchas was mostly rugged territory where nature had been unkind to the old world’s works, roads among them, so it was pack-ponies and shank’s mare for them when they travelled. The Clan Mackenzie claimed plenty of mountain country—up to the crests of the High Cascades in the east—but they had a nicely large chunk of the Willamette Valley too, fat flat fertile land, and that was where most of them dwelt. They weren’t crowded even yet, but roads were good and bicycles common.

“Aught?” he asked Diarmuid.

The McClintock feartaic shook his head, but unconsciously looked over his shoulder. He was shorter than Karl and about five years older, a slim-waisted, broad-shoulder brown-haired man with the thin golden torc of the handfasted around his neck, a basket-hilted claymore by his side and a round nail-studded shield slung over a back clad in a light mail shirt. He’d sprouted a respectable close-clipped beard on the journey to go with his mustache, while Karl and his younger brother still scraped off all their whiskers... though as much for the fact that their scattering of fair down still looked embarrassingly sparse as for the fact that it was the custom for young single men among Mackenzies. It made the swirling blue patterns of his tattoos look a little odder to Karl’s eyes as they peeped out from under the hair.

Diarmuid had been Princess Órlaith’s lover, something of which Karl was frankly and wistfully envious. Presumably that was ended, but not a close friendship, not when he was ready to risk his life and leave a newly-handfasted bride at home as well to manage the Tennart steading with his mother, and her expecting their first babe.

Karl wouldn’t have wanted to face that on his homecoming. There were places where a man could just tell a woman to shut up and expect her to at least pretend in public to do it, but those most emphatically did not include the dúthchas of the Mackenzies or their McClintock cousins either.

Thank the Mother-of-All, Karl thought. And she didn’t outright tell him not to go... still, she was not joyous at the thought, no she was not altogether...

Though he supposed it would make a man reckless of death; he’d seen the young hearthmistress in question when they stopped at Diarmuid’s garth and she’d been silent on the matter in public but tight-lipped.

“Nae, no’ a thing I could see, wi’ the blessin’ of Cernnunos,” the tacksman said.

The McClintock accent was rougher than that of Karl’s folk, harsh with rolled r’s and throaty swallowing sounds. Karl grinned, though he imitated the other man as he made the sign of the Horns to show respect to the Lord of the Beasts, as was fitting. Both Clans were mainly of the same branch of the Old Faith, though with differences of emphasis.

“He’s the Lord of the Hunt and of the hunted both. Which face of Him do we call on?” Karl said.

Diarmuid smiled back and offered a silver flask from his sporran. Karl took a sip; the other man had refilled it with grape brandy at White Mountain. It wasn’t as good as the smooth sweet pear spirit from his own steading he’d had in it originally, but it was welcome. Neither of them was formally sole leader of this branch of the expedition, and the rivalry between McClintocks and Mackenzies was as old as the Change... though usually mild enough, a matter of teasing, rarely more serious than an occasional good-natured brawl. It was still best to be carefully friendly; and the feartaic was a man to respect anyway.

“That’s a matter for debate, but I hae nae doot at all of yer Da’s opinion o’ the matter,” Diarmuid observed pawkily.

“Oh, I think we’re a bit ahead, to be sure. Yet true, Da’s not the sort to give up.”

“Were truer words ever spoken?” Diarmuid said. “My ain father knew him in the old wars, ye ken. Think three times before ye cross that ‘un, Diarmuid he said tae me once; and this from a man who liked the hunting of bears, which was the death of him in the end. Well, I’ve done the thing now, but no’ lightly, I’ll hae ye know.”

Karl nodded, torn a bit between pride and what he grudgingly admitted to himself was resentment. As a lad he’d glowed every time someone sang the tale of the Quest, or badgered his father into telling a bit after a mug or three before the fire some long evening in the Black Months.

There in the story was his Da; the High King’s trusted right-hand man and blood brother, who’d gone to Nantucket and back, won the sword-maid of Norrheim, dared peril and black evil and saved his Chief’s life at the great battle of the Horse Heaven Hills. Yes, and he’d strutted and enjoyed the other children’s envy, when Da wasn’t around to tweak his ear for getting a swelled head, and tell him not to believe everything that came out of a bard’s mouth.

When you came to manhood yourself, though... it could make you feel as if you’d be a boy all your life, having that looming over you. Diarmuid seemed to have an easier time with his father’s memory, though that might just be that he was older or that his father had already passed the Gate or had simply been a well-respected and prominent man rather than a hero of legend and tale.

Well, I’m on my own journey now, and no mistake! If we can just get clear of Da, that is.

They were making good speed. Not as fast as the knock-down rail-riding frame they’d picked up at White Mountain and used down the great baking stretch of the Sacramento valley, pumping away at the pedals with the hot wind in their teeth like a horse galloping but for far longer. The dogs had loved it, lolling at ease with their noses in the breeze and their tongues flapping like pink banners of wet silk; keeping up with bicycles on their own four feet since they left the rails was hard for them.

Still, good time.

He assumed the High Queen would send Edain Aylward Mackenzie after them; that might be a bit of vanity, but he didn’t think so. Even if his father had come into White Mountain right on their heels—the High King’s Archers could move—they wouldn’t be here just yet. Since that had been the only set of railcar frames to hand at the outpost, his band would have at least a day or two on them by now.

The thought made him snicker a little.

“Still seeing Da’s face in your mind, when he finds the trick we played on him?” Mathun said, slapping him on the back. “And that last little detail you thought up—lovely! You’ve a right to laugh at your own wit.”

“That I do, brother of mine. That I do.”

“The wonder and joy of it, the more so as it’s a thing so seldom seen.”

Diarmuid joined in the laughter as the brothers cuffed playfully at each other. Inwardly Karl was a little worried, and glad to be past that stage along the rails, not least for the effort of knocking down the frames and carting them around the breaks in the ancient working. The scorching western side of the great central valley of the Province had been uninhabited after they passed White Mountain. By repute there were only a few tiny bands of skulkers in the hills that bordered it, and it had felt safe enough, but he didn’t like it.

I’m tired, maybe that’s what’s making me see things out of the corner of my eye, he thought.

He’d expected danger and weariness on this venture for the Princess, and found them, but not so much the loss of sleep.

This is much better than the great valley, the Sacramento, he thought; there were rolling hills not far away, and low mountains to the west blue with forest. Still hot, to be sure, but better.

Gwri Beauregard Mackenzie came up, a dark-skinned woman of a few years more than his own age with her hair in thin braids tipped by silver balls; she was his second on this venture. Her home was Dun Tàirneanach, over towards the Willamette and well south of Dun Fairfax, and he’d known her for years, since a memorable Beltaine feast, in fact. She was clever and a good archer and hunter, serious-minded and steady... and more to the point, her mother Meadhbh was a Priestess of the Triple Cords and a fiosaiche—seeress—of note. She’d done notable work with that talent during the Prophet’s War.

Gwri was neither High Priestess nor seeress, not yet, but she had some abilities along those lines. The Princess had left it to him to pick who came along, from those willing and able to keep their lips from flapping in the breeze. On a venture as uncanny as this, with the breath of the Otherworld on your neck, he wanted someone with a bit of those skills.

And so, I do not like it when she frowns that way and looks about her as if seeking for something not to be seen in the light of common day. Good never comes of it... though it’s best to know the threat before it strikes, or at least that there is one. Still, why could the foresight not predict a rain of beer, or roast pigs trotting by with knives and forks in their backs?

“I’ve an ill feeling,” she said, confirming his stomach’s verdict.

One of the landworkers—the middle-aged farmer, built like a knotted stump but with a slight limp to his stride—came over to the fence at the edge of the field, leaning eight feet of half-pike against it. The full sixteen-foot length was unwieldy for anything but serried ranks in a pitched battle, so throughout Montival they were made in two halves joined by a metal sleeve; that was easy to take down and left you with a top half that made a useful general-purpose spear and warstaff.

That he came by was no surprise, given that the cart was safely heading off. It was normal to be suspicious of outsiders, and just as normal to come and chat once you knew they weren’t hostile. News was always welcome, and would be more so here in this out-of-the-way place, and doubly so with the shock of the High King’s death nearby so recently making folk anxious.

What wasn’t expected was what he said: “Diarmuid Tennart McClintock, and Karl Aylward Mackenzie?”

Karl and Diarmuid glanced at each other, startled; Karl felt his mind stutter, and wished he had a reason to pause and gather his wits. Luck or the aes dana provided one. A little berry-brown girl with hair that was a mass of black curls hardly confined by a red ribbon had followed the farmer. She hid behind the man, gripping his leg and peeking repeatedly out from behind him at the worn strangers with their odd clothes and great shaggy dogs, sometimes clutching at the little golden crucifix that hung about her neck on a silver chain. The beasts gave their slack-mouthed dangling-tongue toothy look-it’s-a-puppy! grins at her and thumped the ground with their tails.

Not for the first time he reflected that dogs were better than men, on the average and in some respects.

Mathun crouched, grinning himself, and winked at her as he took a little figure of a running horse out of his sporran. It was well done, lively in the elongated and stylized fashion Mackenzies preferred; he liked to whittle with his sgian dubh when he had a little time. The farmer halted in surprise, then paused for a moment.

“Here,” the younger Aylward brother said. “Do you like horses, little lass? I’ve a sister about your age and near as pretty, and she’s mad for them.”

A wordless nod, and he went on: “This, ’tis Epona, the Lady of the Horses, a Goddess great and powerful. Forbye she’ll send you one of your own to ride in your dreams if you put it beneath your pillow, so.”

The little girl’s eyes went wide; the farmer laughed and urged her forward with a hand on her head and she snatched the toy, murmured thankyouverymuchsir and ran full-tilt back towards the oak with bare feet flashing and shift flying in the wind, waving the carving overhead and calling shrilly to her playmates.

“George Finney,” the man said in the blunt Corvallan way, and shook hands with their leaders. “I’m yeoman here, holding this land in free tenure as a Crown grant.”

When Karl and Diarmuid confirmed his guess he forbore to note aloud that Karl was an odd first name for a Mackenzie, or to ask about the famous-and-rare midname. He had been warned, after all, and evidently hadn’t asked questions then either. There were times when Corvallan customs were agreeable enough.

“We sent for your friends when we spotted you, figured it had to be the party they’d warned us about,” the man said instead. “They’ve been here since yesterday, camped out in my olives, and they told me you’d be by.”

“Ah,” Karl said, trying to look relaxed. “That would be Susan Mika.”

The man nodded. “The Sioux girl, the Courier, right. Odd to see a Lakota again after all these years... strange folk, wild men if you like, but by God they can fight!”

Diarmuid nodded in turn and offered his flask, which the landsman took with a nod of thanks, and a gasp of appreciation after he sipped.

“So me ain father said of them more than once; fair deadly in open country. You’d have been at the Horse Heaven Hills, then?” he said.

It was a safe enough bet for someone the farmer’s age with several visible scars, and there had been a contingent there from the folk of the Seven Council Fires as well.

The man surprised them a little by shaking his head. “I came in with a later draft, but then I carried a pike all the way from Walla Walla to Corwin—my regiment was one of the ones that fought their way in from the edge to the center and up the steps of the Temple. Met my Pía there, she was a healer with one of the outfits from the Free Cities and everyone’s field hospitals were taking whoever got brought in. There at the end they were as busy and as jumbled up as we were at the point of the spear.”

“I’ve heard the street fighting was... hard,” Diarmuid said.

“It gave a whole new meaning to cluster-fuck, those goddamned tunnels, the maniacs kept popping up behind us... Pía sewed up seven cuts and a stab on me and got me a transfusion, I had blood squelching in my boots by then. Couldn’t seem to settle after the war, so a bunch of us came down here...”

His eyes went distant. Karl cut in: “Friends, you said? There being more than Susan?”

“Yeah, the Sioux Courier, and two young Rangers from their station at Eryn Muir, but they left day before yesterday. The Courier should be here soon—I sent José over to the homestead, where she’s staying.”

He smiled. “Filling my kids’ heads with stories and doctoring people’s horses, she has a good touch with both.”

Karl nodded, smiled back, and winced inwardly; the more so when Diarmuid cocked a pawky eye at him. The dwellers had sent off a messenger, and he hadn’t seen it.

“We’ll wait here, then, and many thanks,” he said, and the man nodded, shouldered his half-pike and walked off after his grain-cart and family.

Everyone was glad of a bit of a rest, not to mention meeting someone who could give them some idea of what was going on here. They didn’t have long to wait; a rider came down the roadway at a canter, leading two remounts.

By then he had his own scout out, Boudicca Lopez Mackenzie of his own Dun Fairfax, who’d he’d picked for her skills as a skulker—the kind who said shooting game with a bow was a crude makeshift, because she could stalk deer and then cut their throats before they really noticed one of the human-kind was standing at arm’s length. He thought a bit of that was vaunting, but grudgingly admitted she was the best of the Dun of their generation at brushwork, though he thought himself a close second. She came out from under the war-cloak that turned her to an anonymous lump of vegetation and dirt and waved her arms in the all clear signal of Battle Sign.

The rider came on a bit, drew rein and hailed him. Susan Mika was riding a nondescript tough-looking little cob, and with a few individual touches—beadwork on the shoulders, fringes down the seams—to her tight leathers and more on her bowcase and the sheath of her shete. She’d been the go-between who’d brought Órlaith’s word to him in Dun Fairfax, using her place in the Crown Courier Corps... or just serving the Crown, though the High Queen might dispute the point if it were argued to her.

She was his age, give or take, but much shorter—the Couriers all were, to sit light in the saddle—and a slim wiry bundle of steel-wire sinews, with a high-cheeked, proud-nosed face of a tint like old bronze and with a complex set of black braids on her head. Even for her horse-lord people she rode easily, and with a young man’s automatic likerish appraisal he thought she’d probably be a wildcat in the blankets if you could get her interested.

“Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again,” he replied, which was the Mackenzie formal greeting.

Right now she was all business, though she gave him a smile. “Taŋyáŋ yahípi, friends,” she said, raising one hand palm-out. “Welcome. Good to see you at last.”

“The Princess isn’t here yet?” Karl asked.

“Not yet,” she said. “We’re expecting the ship anytime, but it’s not as if you can tell that sort of thing to the day. And Faramir and Morfind had to take a message north to Mist Hills. Too suspicious if they balked at a regular order, but they should be back soon; from what they say it’s only a long day’s ride if you have good remounts and push it.”

Karl nodded, though a Courier’s definition of only a long day’s ride if you push it meant twenty-four hours of torture by most other folk’s.

He knew Dúnedain customs well enough. They guarded the High King’s peace when there was no war, and were scouts and raiders when there was, and by preference they lived in woods and waste places. The Rangers thought it better than tilling the earth, and it certainly had its excitements and air of mystery, but it meant living a bit like full-time warriors under the discipline of command all your life, albeit it was also a family business.

“We’re not to press on to China Camp the now?”

“What people don’t see, they don’t have to take official notice of,” Susan amplified. “That’s what Faramir and Morfind said.”

“Ah,” Karl said, and Diarmuid grunted.

Both of them meant the same thing; what the rulers of Stath Ingolf—which was to say the Dúnedain pair’s parents—didn’t officially see they wouldn’t have to report to the High Queen. They might know, what with their own children involved; they might suspect; or they might just be very busy elsewhere. Nobody could tell for sure, which was pretty much the point.

“We’ll get you a bit further west, camp you out, and then rush for Círbann Rómenadrim when the ship comes in. Nobody actually lives there full-time, there’s just the wharf and some boats and some sheds for storing stuff when a ship comes in, but folks go back and forth from there to the Eryn Muir all the time.”

“Aye, that’s fair ca’canny,” Diarmuid said. “Good sensible caution,” he added, when he saw how the others were baffled by the dialect term.

“And we’ve set up a campground here on the Finney farm—there’s firewood, a spring and pool of good water, and supplies,” she said.

Then she smiled. “Fresh risen bread, vegetables. And a case of the red wine they make at Tham en-Araf. And a pig ready to over the fire, plus Faramir kicked in some of his mother’s chipotle BBQ sauce—it ain’t buffalo hump steak at the fall hunt, but I won’t kick.”

Tham en-Araf?” Diarmuid said.

“Wolf Hall,” she added. “Where Morfind’s parents live—Lady Mary and Lord Ingolf—over the other side of the valley. The Prancing Pony in Eryn Muir brews damn good beer, too, now that some of the settlers here are growing hops, and Faramir brought some crocks.”

Karl could feel ears perking up among his followers and Diarmuid smacked his lips; they were hungry, weary, and thirsty in more ways than one. That nasty little skirmish with the bandits had blooded the band without too much loss, no dead and only a few badly wounded who’d had to be left in the clinic at White Mountain. It had still left them all a bit shaken by the speed and brutality of the fighting, and they could all use a bit of a rest and a revel. His own ears pricked as well, but he turned an eye on Gwri. She was still frowning, and she shrugged reluctantly.

Maybe it’s Da at our heels. I’m too old for him to grab by the ear and wallop on the backside the now... but my guts are shriveling at the thought of him, that they are.

 

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White Mountain town was named for the towering peak just visible to the northwards, a volcanic cone whose top was still snowclad in July, tinged red now as the sun sank westwards; the ancient world had called it Shasta.

The commander of the High King’s Archers found that cool pale sight a bit of a taunt by the Powers, given the way the hot dry air was sucking at the sweat it brought pouring from your skin down here in the lowland, leaving a rime of salt behind to itch in sensitive places. There was a green smell in the air from the irrigated fields that started twice long bowshot ahead and a densely forested strip along the river to their left, but white salt-tasting dust coated his face and hands, and it was hotter than he could remember the Willamette ever being. For a moment homesickness was bitter.

Not hotter than deserts across the mountains in summertime, though, he thought sturdily. And Balor of the Single Eye knows I’ve seen enough of that country, on the Quest and in the war time and afterwards. Easier to take heat when it’s dry like this, too. Now the sunrise lands in summer, Iowa and the rest, that was hard to take. You felt as if mushrooms would sprout from your crotch and armpits at any moment.

“Nearly there, sir,” the mounted scout who’d met them said; his comrade had galloped on towards White Mountain to alert their officers.

Edain grunted in reply as he jogged along the road between pale fields of faded golden grass and patches of eucalyptus and Valley oak with his unstrung bow pumping in his left hand.

The outpost itself was not far south of the ruins of Redding, a settlement of the ancients at the northward end of the great central valley of Westria Province. The city had emptied in the year after the Change—it was just remote enough that the agony had probably been more prolonged than in the megalopolis further south. What was left after the fires had largely been swept away in the floods since, especially the monstrous crests that poured like tidal waves of water and rock and rubble down the valley of the Sacramento as the great dams in the mountains lost their battle with earthquakes and corrosion in the spillways and cresting waters in wet springs.

The rammed earth fort was new, and the earth mound it stood on, and the little town at its foot, all laid out since the Montivallans came. It was well back from the tree-covered floodplain, safer since the natural rhythm of retreat and advance had resumed, though there was a floating dock out into the water of the broad river with several craft tied up that ranged from canoes to sailing barges.

The two squat towers of the modest fort rising into sight as they jogged bore the Stars and Stripes as well as the Crowned Mountain and Sword of Montival, both of course flying at half-mast just now. When the High Kingdom reached its hand out to this part of the new province the particular finger was in the form of a battalion of troops from the United States of Boise—what some stubborn traditionalists in that inland member-realm of Montival insisted was the United States of America.

Edain admired the Boiseans wholeheartedly as warriors—he’d seen them fight on both sides in the Prophet’s War, which had been a civil strife for them—and they certainly worked like well-organized beavers, or bullocks, at whatever they turned their hands to. Their ruler for the first generation after the Change, Lawrence Thurston, had been a commander in the old American army, a Ranger in a different sense from the modern use of the term. Edain had met him once shortly before his death: a man very hard, and very able, and very much concerned with order and system. It had struck deep into the souls of his folk, under him and his son Fred.

People generally didn’t mention his elder son Martin, the parricide, usurper and traitor who’d become the Prophet’s puppet in Boise for a time.

Fred I like, what with the Quest and hence living in each other’s sporrans for a year the way we did, and fighting the war in company with him; you know a man well after that. His folk in general, though...

The Boiseans assigned here had thrown up the fort almost overnight, then sent for their families or made their own while they built much else; they called such settlements coloniae. It had been less than a decade, but now there was a ring of modest but comfortable-looking farmsteads stretching out in a checkerboard, rambling low-slung whitewashed dwellings with red-tile roofs set in colorful little gardens and each with its wind-pump spinning. The square fields of yellow reaped stubble or green-and-gold tasseling corn were interspersed by roads and irrigation ditches, surrounded by pasture where horses and cattle and sheep grazed. There were ancient but newly pruned silvery-gray olive groves cleared of the thickets of spindly saplings that had grown up in the long years of neglect, and young green vineyards and orchards of peach and fig and more.

All amid a pleasant bustle of carts and children and the clatter and hum of folk about the close of their working day. Woodsmoke scented the air, a little different from what he was used to because much of it was eucalyptus burning, and the good smells of cooking. The oddest part was that there were few adults over thirty. Or children past their early years, though full plenty of those.

A column of troops perhaps two-score strong came trotting out of the fort to greet the newcomers, to the thutter of a drum and a complex bugle-call from the hoarse tubae on the gatehouse wall. An officer marched at their head, a red crest cross-wise on his helm and a vine-stock swaggerstick in his hand. The soldiers following behind him wore a plainer version of his armor of polished hoops and bands over chest and shoulders and belly, with big curved oval shields marked with the eagle-and-thunderbolts, short leaf-shaped stabbing-swords worn high on the right hip, and heavy six-foot javelins with iron shanks.

Their legs moved in perfect unison like a centipede as they jogged along at the quickstep, chanting:

 

Yanks to the charge! cried Thurston.
The foe begins to yield!
So strike

 

—and each hobnailed right boot struck the road.

 

For hearth and nation!
So strike

 

—another stamp.

 

For the Eagle Shield!
Let no man stop for plunder,
But slay, and slay, and slay;
The Gods who helped our fathers
Fight by our sides today!”

 

—and they stopped with a final uniform crash of hobnails against the rock pavement.

They came to attention, rapped their long iron-shod javelins against their shields, then turned and made ranks on either side of the roadway, shield held against the left shoulder and spear to the side, the butt braced against the right foot, tanned faces like shapes carved from oiled wood and every point in precise alignment.

It was discipline for discipline’s own sake, formal as a dance, but with an undertone of grim relentless intent. He’d seen them, or more likely with this lot their fathers, maneuver just like that during real fights with arrows thudding into their shields and globes of hard steel and liquid fire arching across the sky from catapult batteries. While the wounded screamed like the Woman of the Mounds on a rooftree... And it worked, chewing through the murderous bewildering complexities of battle like a power-saw in a mill through tough wood.

He tapped his bow to his brow, thus returning the punctilious salute of the officer of the detachment; the Boisean form was the right fist to the chest, then thrust out at eye-height. Enlisted men in full gear did it with their spears to the shield, then the spear held out.

It was all rather impressive, given how far they were from home—or how close they were to the arse-end of nowhere-in-particular—and what they’d had to work with.

But for all their virtues they mostly have a serious pickle up the back way, that they do, besides being just wrongheaded about a good deal and stubborn withal, he thought. They’re an easier folk to respect than to like, and that’s the truth of the matter.

“Commandant von Sydow will be anxious to see you, Bow-Captain Aylward,” the young officer said. “Your command is welcome in our mess hall and the Commandant extends an invitation to dinner for you and—”

“It’s in a bit of a hurry I am,” Edain said.

Though the thought of a decent meal and a bath and a full night’s sleep in a good bed did arouse longing. The plain fact of the matter was...

That I am after getting a wee bit old for this shiite, he thought. Or have gotten, so.

He went on to the Boisean: “A party of Mackenzies and McClintocks? Coming through here also in a hurry, just now? My son Karl would be one of their leaders, and the tacksman Diarmuid Tennart McClintock the other.”

“Why, yes, they left yesterday morning,” the officer said with enthusiastic helpfulness; he had a faint blond fuzz on his upper lip, probably meant for a mustache.

Either that or a wee little caterpillar has crawled there and died and he didn’t notice. Sweet Blodeuwedd’s blossoms, they all look so young these days, like puppies, Edain thought.

Then, with a hunter’s thrill at a successful chase: Ah, good, we’re still gaining on Karl!

“Did they get bicycles here?” he asked.

One of the duties this outpost owed the High Kingdom in return for help and the land-grant was acting as a relay post on the overland route down to the Bay. It kept horses beyond its own needs for the messenger service as well as for official travelers, and stocks of bicycles salvaged, repaired and fitted with modern solid wheels. Elsewhere a stath of the Dúnedain might serve the same purpose, or a daughter-house of the Order of the Sword of St. Benedict with its surrounding hamlets, or a Mormon village, or a feudal grant to an Associate noble, or some other group willing to tame a strategic part of the wilderness.

“Well, not just bicycles... what they took south was our new rail pedalcars,” the lieutenant said helpfully. “Our engineers made them up after your party and the Crown Princess passed through earlier on their way north after the terrible news about the High King. So that bicycles can work on the rails, you see, the way you did in the Quest.”

“The line down the west side of the valley hasn’t been repaired, has it?”

He would most certainly have heard of a major project like that, one with military implications. Especially since this province was Crownland.

“Oh, no, sir. It’s dry country, mostly, which helps, but still it’s broken in a dozen places at least, flash floods and subsidence. Trampling by herds of mustangs, quite likely!”

For a moment the young man looked offended by the sheer messiness of nature; he was a Boisean, right enough. And probably by the way nature had reclaimed most of California-that-was. There was wilderness in Boise’s territories, but a lot of it had been wilderness before the Change. Uniquely in Montival, there were probably nearly as many people in what had been central and southwestern Idaho as there had been fifty years ago. They didn’t use the land there nearly as intensively, since it wasn’t producing food for distant cities any more, but it was all at least theoretically occupied.

Compared to the new Crownland of Westria, or even parts of the Willamette and Columbia Valleys, it was densely populated.

“It’ll be a long time before it’s worth the effort to repair that railroad,” the young Boisean went on. “Generations. But your story about the Quest gave the engineers in our machine-shop an idea about how we could use the intact sections anyway, for some things. Light knock-down frames to hold the bicycles, so the whole thing can be taken apart and carried around breaks...”

Edain flushed and snatched the Scots bonnet off his head and clenched it in one knobby fist. They had done that on their way back from Nantucket. The idea had come to Rudi in Norrheim, and it had gotten them through the empty lands far faster than they could have otherwise despite all the damage a generation of rain and fire and landslip had made to the rails of the ancients; he doubted it could be done again, not back there at least.

Most people were familiar with the story, Karl and Mathun more than most. They’d have seen the chance.

“Well, we need your takedown railcars too,” he barked. “And that at once.”

The lieutenant’s face fell. “Oh, I’m very sorry, sir—the first group of your party took them all. We’re making more, but it’s not the first call on the machine shops... we don’t have the right salvage metals on hand right now, we used up all our stock of aluminum pipe...”

Something about the way the Boisean had said first group of your party struck Edain as ominous, somehow. Now he was fumbling in a pouch on his belt.

“As a matter of fact, sir, your sons said you’d be paying for the equipment he commandeered, since it isn’t part of the fort’s usual obligations. Here’s the receipt he... Karl... signed. It was a bit irregular, but since it was them—”

The Boisean settler froze in shock as Edain threw his bonnet on the ground and stamped on it

Go mbeadh cosa gloine fút agus go mbrise an ghloine!” he shouted. “With the toe of me boot to your arse, Karl, and the flat of me hand to Mathun’s ear!”

Báirseach laughed until tears tracked dark and slightly muddy paths down through the dust on her face, leaning on her bow lest she collapse. A moment later Edain burst into laughter himself, picked his bonnet up again and dusted it off by slapping it against his kilted thigh. The Boisean was looking shocked and trying unsuccessfully to hide it. Mackenzies had a reputation for being open and carefree, but this was obviously beyond what he’d expected.

They wouldn’t be getting to Stath Ingolf before Karl and Mathun, no matter how hard they pedaled. Now all depended on when the Tarshish Queen made the Bay, which depended on the weather; or on how fast the frigate Stormrider came in pursuit, which depended on the Navy... and the weather. As for his own chase, Karl had beaten him fair and square, whether his sons were stuck waiting for the Princess while he caught up or were sails below the horizon when he arrived.

Or they beat me trick for trick. And such a trick!

“Well, we’ll be taking up Commandant von Sydow’s invitation, lieutenant. That we will, and a dinner will be welcome, though no more welcome than a bath first. And in the morning we’ll be off at dawn, on plain bicycles.”

It’s never a joy to be outdone, he thought. But when a man’s outdone by his own child, there’s a pride to it nonetheless.

For a moment he missed Rudi Mackenzie with a keenness that bordered on physical pain.

How the Chief would have laughed!

 

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