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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Near the nemed of Dun Barstow
County of Napa, Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly Napa County, California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
April 30th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie bore the first unlit torch forward to her father’s pyre as the sun touched the low mountains to the west.

All I want is to crawl alone into somewhere dark and greep like a little lass, she thought. Or run to my mother that we may weep together. But I’ve more than twenty summers now, Mother is far away in the north building the Dún na Síochána, I’m his heir. I must do this for him.

His big long-fingered hands were crossed on the hilt of the Sword of the Lady as he lay on the bier, shapely though scarred and battered. He was dressed plainly in the simple kilt and shirt and plaid, ankle-boots and knee-hose of the people who’d born him. There was an inhuman peace now to the face that had been so lively with the play of thought and feeling, and the golden torque around his neck hid the wound that had killed him. Rudi Mackenzie—High King Artos—had been a tall man, still broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped in his forty-seventh year; his red-gold hair held no trace of gray, or his short-cropped beard, though there were deep lines beside his eyes. It was if he was withdrawing before her eyes, from the living man who had sired her to the sculptured image of the King who’d forged a realm that stretched over half a continent.

From the light of common day into the time of legends.

At least she was among Mackenzie clansfolk, mostly, so they wouldn’t expect her not to weep. Following the steps of ritual helped, she found. The tears trickled down her face, but her voice was steady as she laid the torch at her feet and raised her arms in her faith’s gesture of prayer:

“He was High King and father to all the land, but to me he was my Da,” she said. “This memory I give, and it is my first of him: my mother lets me go and I run stumping towards him and he sweeps me up, high, so high, and he laughing up at me with the wind and sun in his hair, his hands as strong as the bones of Earth and gentle as the Lady’s love. We will miss you, I and mother and the sibs. Wait for us in the Summerlands beyond the Western Gate, Da, where no sorrow or evil comes and all hurts are healed.”

She knew that would be so; as he lay dying they had grasped the Sword of the Lady together, and they had met and spoken in the world beyond the world. The eeriness of it was still with her a day later, but it was colder comfort than she would have thought. He’d said grief was for the living, and it was so. He still was... but he was gone.

The symbol of the High Kingdom lay naked on his breast now, by his own longstanding command for the day of his death-pyre. In its form it was a knight’s weapon, what they called a hand-and-a-half sword; thirty-six straight inches of tapering double-edged blade, a shallow crescent of guard, a long double-lobed hilt of silver-inlaid black staghorn ending in a pommel of moonstone gripped in antlers. Merely a sword of superlative quality, until you looked closely. Then there were patterns in the metal and crystal—not quite seen—that led the mind inward and inward...

She’d heard her father say that the blade he had brought back from the Quest might not be a thing of matter at all as human kind understood the word. Instead somehow an embodied concept, a thought in the mind of the Goddess, one that could be touched in the light of common day. Though that was a perilous thing, very dangerous indeed to anyone not of the Royal kin.

The pyre was a large one, set in a deep pit so that the top was breast-high to the ground about, with a narrow trench to provide draught. Mackenzies gave their dead to the fire and the ashes to Earth for the most part, and the High King had long made clear that he wished that rite. Dun Barstow was a new settlement that had spent hard labor clearing land here in the renascent wilderness that had once been California, and it was the eve of Beltane, a festival always celebrated with bonfires; there was any amount of dry timber on hand, even with the other funeral pyres that had been needed.

Edain Aylward Mackenzie came up next, to stand at the northern end of the pyre. He was commander of the High King’s Archers, a stocky broad-shouldered man of about her father’s age with a square weathered face, oak-brown curls and grey eyes. His voice held the Mackenzie lilt, stronger than hers:

“He was my Chief, and my friend from my earliest years, the brother of my heart, the one I chose, the one I followed on the Quest to Nantucket. My father Samkin Aylward taught us both the bow. This memory I give: when I first carried the Silver Arrow at the Lugnasadh Games, my Da gave me a nod and a hand on the shoulder I prized more than the Arrow itself. Then Da turned and cuffed him upside the head and said he was a natural, he’d been slacking on his practice or he’d have done better than third place. He grinned, that smile that could bring the birds from the trees, and said: Edain has the blessing of Llew of the Steady Hand as much as I, Sam, and he works harder at it; he earned it, it’s his. Ochone, my Chief, would that I could have died for you! But I’ll look to the lass and Prince John and Vuissance and Faolán so long as a man may, I promise you that. We’ll have a mug together and talk it over, in the Land of Summer.”

The headman of Dun Barstow was Oak Barstow Mackenzie, a tall rangy graying man, one of the few here who’d been born before the Change—though he’d been a child of nine and couldn’t remember it beyond fragments. He’d been First Armsman of the Clan Mackenzie for many years. When he laid it down he’d lead a party of pioneers south to found Dun Barstow, including many of his own children and grandchildren.

He stepped forward and nodded somberly.

“I was an orphan of the Change, reared in Dun Juniper, and I knew Rudi Mackenzie first as a brat running about underfoot, then a wild youngster always in a scrape. When he returned from the Quest with the Sword of the Lady and was hailed the Ard Rí, the High King, it was as a story from the old tales to me, and I cheered it mainly because I saw how it gave our folk heart in those dark times and united the alliance. This memory I give: when I led the full levy north from our dùthchas in the Prophet’s War, I told him: This is all we have, Ard Rí. If we lose it, the Clan dies. And he nodded, and told me what he’d planned. As he spoke the memory of him tumbling with the puppies before the hearth dropped away, and my heart said within me:

This man is a King you may follow to the death. You may leave your bones on foreign soil, but he will save our folk.

The great battles lay ahead, and the march to Corwin, but I never doubted again.”

Heuradys d’Ath came to the eastern side. Alone of them she wasn’t a Mackenzie, though she was of the Old Faith: she was a noble of the Portland Protective Association from the north-realm, Órlaith’s liege-sworn knight and her best friend. And of her own generation, only two years older, like her one of those who’d grown up wholly in the world the Change had made, children of those who had laid its foundations.

“This memory I share,” she said. “When I came to be a page at Court, only Órlaith was my friend at first, and the High King seemed godlike to me, to be honored from far away. The other Associate pages were all boys and all Catholics, and... Then the High King came to the salle d’armes, and I’d just lost a practice bout. I was sitting there rubbing my elbow—and telling myself I would not cry where anyone could see me—and he just stood at the back, arms crossed, making this little gesture to the teacher to keep going, and watching. I got back up and picked up my practice blade and stepped into another circle and lost again. He watched me keep losing and keep going back time after time. I was the youngest there, and the smallest, and the others didn’t dare bully me too badly in the open but they thought they could make me so miserable I’d leave anyway.

“I got back up... and he walked over and said to me: And so you wish to be a knight, do you? My knight? And I said: No, Your Majesty. I’ll be Princess Orrey’s knight and fight by her side and be the shield on her shoulder!

And he smiled, and rested his hand on the Sword and looked... looked through the wall for a moment. And then he looked back at me and said, so that everyone could hear:

And so you will be, girl, and glad of it I am, for I want only the best backing my Princess in the hour of her deadly need.”

Heuradys lifted her gaze and smiled, though her eyes were wet. “And after that, First Armsman Oak, I also never doubted that I would win the victory, hard as it might be.”

She turned to the bier and lifted her hands. “Go in peace to the Shades, my King, and rest content in the flower-meads of Ēlýsion pedíon before you drink of Lethe and return. I will fulfill my oath.”

There was a moment of echoing silence, with the sound of the birds greeting the sunset the loudest noise, that and the wind in the treetops. Then a set of bagpipes began to play, a slow mournful pibroch of lament. The piper paced slowly ahead of the High Priestess of the Dun’s coven, Oak's daughter Rowan, a lanky brown-haired woman in her thirties. She wore a black cloak over her white robe and a black scowl on her fair face as she raised a staff topped with the Triple Moon, waxing and full and waning. Behind her two muscular women carried a large wooden yoke, holding a cauldron loaded with coals, and another pair and another pair came behind them, each with a cauldron packed with oak burned down to a savage white heat. A dry smell of scorched bronze and silver and iron filled the air, under the sap of the cut wood in the pyre.

A song began as the piper paced in a circle around the High King’s resting place, walking deosil, sunwise, as the spirit traveled to the Western Gate.

 

We all come from the Goddess
And to Her we shall return
Like a drop of rain
Flowing to the ocean—

 

Órlaith met the angry hazel eyes calmly, more calmly than she felt. They'd had words; Rowan had thought the day wrong. This was Beltane Eve—which was the festival of love and life, as Samhain was of death and endings and the Otherworld. Few gainsaid a High Priestess of the triple cords in her own dun, and this one had all the bull-headed stubbornness Oak had shown on the battlefields of the Prophet’s War, and all the strength of will of her grandmother Judy who’d been the Clan’s first healer and Maiden of the Singing Moon coven before the Change. The cross-talk had rent the afternoon as the women washed the High King's body while the men had laid out clothing and gear to wear on his final journey. Finally Oak had stepped in, his gnarled hand gentle on his daughter's shoulder.

"A leanbh na páirte; hush now. Beltane is the rite of life and love, yes. But the High King has fallen on this eve, leaving us the young Queen to pick up the reins. So does her life as Queen begin; and his death is the sacrifice that renews the life of the land, his blood freely spilled upon it bringing the growth of spring, as the Lord of the Corn dies and is reborn. From death comes life. She is the Spring Queen indeed, her strength and youth that of the kingdom. So it is fitting that he should be sent on his way on the holy day, and by her hand.”

They'd been silenced, and Rowan had bowed her head and agreed to the pyre this very night. But ill feeling lingered. And Órlaith was too shaken to be diplomatic.

Rowan came to Edain's side, the priestesses with the black cauldron following her. The white and the brass cauldrons were brought equidistant along the pyre, closer to Órlaith. Rowan looked across to the Princess and her face changed as she thrust back the cowl and shook free her hair. Each Priestess copied her, and after a second, Órlaith, Heraudys, Edain and Oak did likewise. Rowan cut a long lock of her hair and held it in her left hand. The small crowd beyond milled and seethed. Órlaith glanced back to see them holding up their hands, holding locks cut free. She swallowed, her throat tight again. That was the rite for close kin or anamchara—oath-sword brothers or sisters of the soul, for it sent part of your very self to the otherworld with the dead. Her father had been respected by all, feared by enemies of the peace he’d brought... but he’d also been loved by many. Her own grief was a wave on a great sea of sorrow that would wash over the kingdom. That didn’t make it less, but it did make her feel a little less alone.

Rowan opened her mouth and took a breath... and let it out, again, and shook her head, tears suddenly running down her face; Órlaith heard them clogging her throat as she tried to speak through them. Edain turned and tugged out a handkerchief from his sporran and handed it over. Rowan gave a half-hysterical laugh that hiccuped and skidded sideways.

"I wanted to be so solemn, so perfect for the High King!”

“The honest voice of your heart is a greater tribute,” her father said gently.

Órlaith felt her own anger fade. There had been times in her childhood when she was jealous of the way her parents seemed to belong to everyone—the King was father to the land, and the Queen stood for the Mother. Right now seeing the echo of her grief brought a sense of fellowship.

The High Priestess turned to those watching—the folk of Dun Barstow, the archers and men-at-arms and varlets of the royal party, and the others from half-built Castle Rutherford who’d answered the courier’s call to arrive horror-struck to find the High King dead, killed by a prisoner’s treachery after the short victorious fight. The Nihonjin who’d been rescued stood at a further remove, and kneeled as they sat back on their heels, heads bowed in respect. Not that they hadn’t born their share of the fight, and more, and their own Emperor had fallen in it.

Rowan’s voice rose, soaring sure now, as if something or Someone else joined its strength to hers:

“As it was said in the ancient days and now again—The King is dead! Long live the Queen!

The crowd took up the cry, and Órlaith bowed her head a little at the crushing weight of it. In strict law according to the Great Charter she wouldn’t be assuming the throne until she was twenty-six, still a few years from now. Her mother the High Queen Mathilda had always been her father’s right hand and closest councilor as well as his handfasted wife, and Órlaith knew she would be doing the bulk of the work for years to come, she and Chancellor Ignatius and Edain and High Marshal d’Ath and the others.

Rowan was speaking as the Lady’s priestess, at a level beyond human law and politics; or above or behind or beneath it. She went on, her voice ringing:

“And I say, Mourn! Mourn! You have seen the death of greatness; the swift daring strength of his youth and the steady hand of his ripe manhood we have had, but the wisdom of his deep age is taken from us and that we will never have, spilled with the blood he shed for us! Mourn, then, mourn! For he is lost and gone and we will send him to the sky and the earth and the sea. For his soul has gone on, gone on and left us here, bereft, but not unconsoled. Princess! Light the balefire!"

Órlaith shook herself and took up the torch. Edain, Oak and Heuradys copied her. Two steps took her to the brass cauldron and she thrust the soaked head into the glowing coals and pulled it swiftly out as it took flame with a sudden flare and dragon-hiss. Oak, Heuradys and Edain followed suit and she spun it around her head as a wordless cry of pain burst from her chest. She and thrust it deep into the pile of wood, to the prepared pot of tallow, oil and spirits. A scream like a Harfang, a roar of the bison, the howl of a wolf echoed on the trailing edges of her voice as the others called on their totems. The fire roared up from the four quarters, huge and hungry and the Priestesses grabbed the yokes and tipped the coals in a stream along the edges, moving widdershins as the chant rose:

 

"We all come from the Maiden—
And to Her we shall return.
Like a budding flower, blooming in the springtime.
We all come from the Mother—
And to Her we shall return.
Like a stalk of wheat falling to the reaper’s blade.
We all come from the Wise One—
And to Her we shall return.
Like the waning moon, shining on the winter’s snow."

 

Órlaith raised her voice into the dying fall at the end of the verse:

"God of Light, You of the Long Hand, Swift Striker, Lover, Warrior, wise Father, Knower of Roads and Ways, in Your form he came among us, ever walking in Your power. Take him to Yourself now!”

She threw her handful of yellow hair at the fire and it flared, caught the air currents and danced even as it glowed, crisped and charred. With a shout, the crowd moved forward to do the same. The keening rose with the flames, the wail for the beloved dead. The flames caught swiftly...

She felt a prickle of awe break through the intense self-focus of grief as she flung up a hand to warn the others and stepped backward, and then again. The rest retreated behind her.

Yes, the wood was tinder-dry and cunningly placed furnace-style and there were tons of it, around the well-stacked kindling. But surely this torrent of red and gold reaching for the purple sky of sunset was something else again. Sparks flew upward, turning in a widening gyre like a dance of hot stars. There was no scent save the intense dry smell of the fire, and the tears dried on her face. She had to look aside, as the blaze grew to a white heat where steel itself might burn, a roaring amid a wind that torrented towards it from every side and cuffed plaids and hair and robes. That wind seemed to blow through her as well, a storm of fire and power and light, filling her and shining as if she were turned to glass that contained the very Sun.

Rowan looked at her, and her eyes widened as if she saw something as well. She turned her gaze away from the King’s daughter, and then her breath caught again as she raised her staff in a gesture half of reverence and half of warding. More heads turned to follow. A raven was flying out of the setting sun, down the slanting rays that came from the piled clouds above the mountains.

“Morrigú,” someone murmured, and then Órlaith realized it was herself. “Badb-Macha-Nemain. Moro-rīganī-s, Shadow Queen.”

The pyre burned down swiftly, consumed in minutes and dying as if the flames were falling back into the Earth. That left the drifting circle of sparks. Gasps rose from the crowd as the raven banked about them, midnight against gold, its wings a yard across and its beak a slightly curved blade like the spike on the back of a war-hammer. And in the middle of the hot glow—

She hadn’t expected the Sword of the Lady to be harmed. Her father had been certain it could not be, not by any flame kindled by men, not by the fires at the heart of Earth or the core of the Sun itself. But now it hung suspended, point-down in the middle of the golden coil. And it blazed, the crystal pommel a star brought down from the heavens. She advanced towards it step by step, each feeling as if miles passed, or distances of time and space beyond conception. Edain started to cry out in alarm as she reached for the hilt, but the staghorn and silver were cool and solid beneath her palm, and the blade swung upward like a living thing in her grip.

Chambers opened within her mind, currents of thought too vast and strange to even be given names, then surged away leaving a sense of potential, as if her soul was stretched like an iridescent bubble vanishing-thin, hollow and waiting to be filled. She would have staggered, would have cried out, but it was too swift and too large. Eons passed in an instant. When she came to herself again the raven hung before her, its wings beating about her head once and twice and thrice. The flint-sharp beak stabbed forward, landing between her brows with a quick pain that grounded her again, like her very self pouring back into her body. The little trickle of blood was cool fire, and the darkening wilderness glowed with meaning, a thousandfold millionfold dance with herself at the center.

She fell to her knees, panting, as the raven circled above her and turned back into the West.

“Are you all right, Orrey?” Heuradys asked.

Edain was at her other side, looking for once as if he could not decide what to do. Rowan grounded her staff and bowed her head, and the crowd had fallen silent.

“Are you all right?” Heuradys asked again, sharply.

“I’m—“ Órlaith began hoarsely.

She rose. Earth spoke in her as she did, one sharp syllable that left an echo that faded but never quite died. The land of Montival, all of it from the deeps of the Ocean of Peace to the hot heart of Valley of Death, all of it her.

“I’m... I’m what I need to be, Herry,” she said.

A moment, then to the people: “Go, and feast in my father’s memory. We keen the dead, and then we make merry at the wake. Sorrow, but also take what joy you may on this day. For there will be much to do before what begins here is finished.”

When her father had finally found the time and labor to begin building a capital for the High Kingdom, he’d called it Dún na Síochána, the Citadel of Peace. Peace was good—in fact, it was divine, a face of the Mother, She who loved all Her children without distinction.

But Justice is also a Goddess.

And from the images they made of Her, even the ancients knew—

—that Justice... Justice carries a sword.

 

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Copyright © 2013-2014 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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