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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

 
Dúnedain Ranger outpost
Amon Tam
(Formerly Mt. Tamalpais)
Ithilien/Moon County, Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly Marin and Sonoma Counties, California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
May 10th (Lothron 9th), Change Year (Fifth Age) 46/2044 A.D.

 

Three kings in darkness lie
Gutheran of Org, and I
Under a bleak and sunless sky—
The third beneath the hill...“

 

Faramir Kovalevsky snorted. “Oh, shut the fuck up, Malfind,” he said. “That one sounds better in the Common Speech, anyway.”

It the late morning of a fine day, more than half-way through their eight-hour shift, with high white clouds in the blue sky. May was late spring, by the standards of their home here in Ithilien, and from the walls of this lookout station on the mountaintop you could see across a huge stretch of green-gold meadow, olive-green chaparral, leaf-green oak grove and ravines where conifers stretched tall. In the distance they faded to a dreaming blue-purple.

The Bay and the lost cities lay blurred with miles to the south, and westward long steep slopes led down to the white line of surf that marked the Mother Ocean three thousand feet below. Beyond were the black specks of the rocky islands called the Haeron Thavnath, the Far Pillars, just this side of the horizon. Gulls were thick along the shore below, white specks floating against the blue water, and sometimes the wind carried the echo of their massed quarrelsome squabbling. Closer a red-tailed hawk soared just below them, flight-feathers extended and moving with a subtle grace like a harper’s fingers on the strings as it danced with the currents of air.

Malfind Vogeler blew a raspberry at him, and then lifted his flute, which was shutting up, technically.

Behind them eastward were the valleys where human kind lived again, however thinly spread the new settlements were. Where the wheat would turn gold for the harvest in a few weeks, the folk whose fields and children and sleep the Rangers guarded, and beyond it all the faintest blue-white hint of the Sierra peaks. The air was cool enough to be comfortable wearing Dúnedain field gear with their cloaks around their shoulders. It smelled faintly of sea and more strongly of mountain herbs and the pink-and-white blossoms of the wild roses that grew shaggy over the chest-high walls, making them look like any other set of tumbled boulders and broken concrete in the ruins hereabouts.

Faramir was in charge of the lookout patrol at this outpost as part of his training and he knew his cousin would do whatever he was told, just as Faramir would when the positions were reversed. For example, if he told him to put the flute away, he would. Though he’d probably suggest Faramir putting it somewhere extremely uncomfortable while he tucked it into his haversack. The Dúnedain Rangers were highly disciplined and they all understood that you couldn’t get into the habit of sitting around arguing about what to do in the field.

They were also a family business and the three of them had grown up together, and they were all just eighteen years old. He wasn’t going to get the sort of deference an Associate nobleman expected up in the north-realm, even if it had been a much happier day than this. Dúnedain had ranks, but they didn’t have an aristocracy. Or to be more precise, they all thought of themselves as nobles whatever work they did. That meant he wasn’t going to get the sort of military punctilio you could expect from Boisean legionnaires or Bearkillers either.

Still, he took a breath to speak. This sort of thing was why you practiced being in command. Watching other people do it or talk about it was one thing, and helped you see the right thing to do and when it needed to be done. Doing it felt different, and less agreeable.

Malfind’s sister Morfind snorted from where she stood at the heavy tripod-mounted binoculars they were using to keep the western approaches to the Golden Gate under observation. At the same time she tossed a pebble at her brother over her shoulder... accurately and fairly hard.

“Ouch!” Malfind said, as it smacked into his forehead and then bounced away; it didn’t draw blood, not quite.

“Stuff the flute up the back way, dear brother,” she said. “This isn’t a Ring Day dance.”

“It’s makework,” Malfind grumbled, rubbing the red spot. “It’s staring at nothing!”

“So what? It’s still a scout, so play the flute when we get back. And if you ever miss the first sharp on Sing Ho To The Greenwood again I’m going to hang your severed head in a tree and say the yrch did it.”

Faramir turned his head so that he could smile for an instant. Malfind would take that from his sister and remember it better, since it didn’t involve butting horns with another young ram. He was bored; so was Faramir. He’d much rather be hunting, or fishing, or even singing along with Malfind’s truly terrible version of Sing Ho To The Greenwood, which the poor fool actually thought would help him with girls. Or working on a woodcarving project he had going to make illustrated printing blocks for the press. Or even just weapons drill or barnyard chores.

Malfind chuckled. “All right, I’d better practice where you’re not listening, beloved sister from Udûn.”

A lot of what Rangers did was pretty boring. Much of the rest was...

What was the old-world word? Stressful, that’s it. Stressful.

“You used the old loan-word, too,” Morfind said disapprovingly to Faramir, also without turning around. “You should use the pure Noble Speech when you’re telling someone to shut the fuck up in Sindarin. Particularly when they really need to shut the fuck up.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up, Morfind,” Faramir said, but this time he used the true term as she did, and smiled.

It was more authentic, but somehow... and it was the word the Sword of the Lady had given the High King when he returned from the Quest, before any of them had been born. There was a reason they were all feeling prickly today; it was an alternative to being depressed, and you couldn’t spend time on watch weeping and mourning.

The High King was dead, murdered by a prisoner right over in Napa.

And I sort of feel... numb about it, he thought. Like when you’ve just broken a bone and you’re looking at it and thinking, uh-oh, damn but that’s going to hurt in a second.

That had happened to him a few times. Falls as a child, since Rangers learned to climb like squirrels, and fractures in two ribs once in a fight in the ruins, from an Eater’s flung stone when they’d snuck around to attack the apprentices serving as horse-holders for the Ranger ohtar and roquen. There he hadn’t had time to feel anything but terror at how helpless he was with the maneaters near until a shower of arrows drove the savages off and friendly hands pulled him out of the hole where he’d been pinned, trying to hold a knife ready despite every breath feeling like blades in his body.

And after that it hurt a lot, but I almost didn’t mind even when they threw me across a saddle. Not at first.

He knew the pain from this loss was going to be even worse; it wasn’t just the death of a lord, however much respected and revered for his great deeds and firm hand and fair justice, but of an elder kinsman who he’d always liked. Though Stath Ingolf was a long way from the center of things his parents had gone on visits to wherever the Court was, or to Stardell Hall in Mithrilwood in the Willamette where the founding lords of the Dúnedain dwelt, and the High King’s kin were always welcome at Dun Juniper too. They’d seen one or the other every second year or so, and the High King and his family had visited here about as often. Sometimes just to see his half-sisters and his other old comrades from the Quest and their families rather than any reason of State.

I think part of that was getting away from the crowds and the pomp, here where there’s room to breathe and he could let the man out of the King, with people who knew him when he was a kid.

So High King Artos was also Uncle Rudi, his mother’s elder half-brother. A man he could remember telling stories that kept them all silently enthralled while the youngsters crowded around his feet at the hearth in Tham en-Araf—Wolf Hall in the Common Tongue—over in the Valley of the Moon. Or throwing ten-year-old Faramir Kovalevsky into the hill-pool reservoir there on a hot summer’s afternoon, and jumping from the Leaping Rock himself and sputtering and roaring with laughter and mock-growls as his nieces and nephews swarmed on and gleefully tried to drown him in the cold spring water.

Or once giving Faramir a quick wordless slap on the back after he’d done something needful and risky and just at the margins of his fifteen-year-old strength on a boar hunt, when a massive projectile of bone and gristle and goring tusks nobody had noticed had exploded foaming and squealing murder-rage out of a thicket.

And that man had died by treachery not a day’s travel from Stath Ingolf and none of the Rangers had realized it until a frigidly-polite messenger in the tartan of the Clan Mackenzie had delivered the tidings from Dun Barstow. He’d found everyone still getting ready for the Royal visit. That made it a matter of honor, too. Under the Great Charter the Dúnedain were direct vassals of the High King wherever they lived, holding from his hand and charged with the burden and proud duty of keeping the High King’s peace and borders.

His own father Ian and the twins’ sire Hîr Ingolf Vogeler had taken a keg of brandy into the woods when the news came and gotten monumentally drunk together, drunker than the legendary guards of King Thranduil, off on their own where they could...

I don’t know. Sob, I suppose, or howl. Or maybe just tell stories of their friend Rudi and not have to be formal in what they said about High King Artos.

He suspected they welcomed the pain of the hangovers as distraction and punishment. Mary and his mother Ritva had occupied themselves with drawing up new patrol and guard schedules, however far the horse was from the locked stable door. Which was why this mountaintop post was now crewed full-time. That was done on rotation out of the Ranger station in the Eryn Muir—named for a friend of trees. Back in those days forests had had few friends, and needed them badly. A number of Dúnedain families lived there full-time and others including his parents usually did during the summer. Which made the new arrangement easier, though not easy.

“We didn’t even make it for the cremation,” Malfind said morosely. “Not us, not one Ranger from Stath Ingolf. Our mothers are... were... the High King’s half-sisters and they and our fathers were on the Quest with him.”

Well, pretty much, Faramir thought.

His own father had joined the Questers as they came back through the Dominion of Drumheller, which was a northern realm friendly to Montival but not part of the High Kingdom. He’d won Ritva Havel’s hand, though, and fought through the Prophet’s War and joined the Rangers and helped found Stath Ingolf.

Ingolf Vogeler—widely known as Ingolf the Wanderer—had gone all the way to Nantucket on his own from his birth-home in the Free Republic of Richland in the Midwest, carried the message of the Sword to Dun Juniper, gone all the way back there with the Quest and returned, a feat nobody else since the Change had equaled. It would have been notable nowadays, when it was a lot easier to travel, at least between Montival and the Mississippi. Uncle Ingolf had done it when the Prophet’s bullyboys were running rampant over half a continent with orders to kill him on sight.

“And... you’re right, not one of us at the side of the pyre,” Faramir said. “I suppose there will be a delegation from Mithrilwood at the formal funeral in Dun Juniper, Hiril Eilir will be there of course, and Hîr Hordle, but...”

“We didn’t spot four ships sailing through the Glorannon either,” Morfind said, pointing to the Golden Gate. “Three ships chasing a fourth ship and shooting at it all the way to the mouth of the Napa. I’m not surprised the Princess is angry and didn’t want to see any of us.”

“Órlaith’s likely not angry,” her brother said. “She just wasn’t thinking about us at all, I’d guess. Just wanted to get it over with fast and take his ashes back to the High Queen Mathilda. The Mackenzies over east at Dun Barstow were pretty angry, though.”

Malfind’s a bit goofy, but he’s not stupid, Faramir thought.

They all brooded for a while; Malfind and he shared a glance and knew what it meant, and Morfind was probably thinking of the same thing. That was confirmed when she murmured:

“The Doom of Men.”

The death had been a shock for any number of reasons, but one was that their own parents were of the High King’s generation, pretty much. Ingolf the Wanderer was nearly ten years older than Rudi Mackenzie had been, and only just what the older generation called a Changeling, one born after the Change or too young then to remember the old world first-hand. Nowadays the term was less used, and less needed as the last who’d been grown then passed their three-score and ten and faded from the scene.

His own father Ian Kovalevsky was a few years younger than the High King. You didn’t like thinking of your parents as mortal, but they all were even if they were heroes of song and tale as well. As a child your parents were eternal and unchangeable as the stars, or the trunk of a redwood.

But even redwoods don’t live forever.

When you made the transition to being an adult yourself the thought came unbidden now and then. It would have been worse if Rudi Mackenzie had met his death from a heart-attack rather than an enemy’s knife, which after all was something that could happen to anyone at any time, but they didn’t expect their mothers and fathers to start staying safe at home just yet either.

“We weren’t supposed to keep a constant lookout for ships,” Malfind said defensively. “There have never been Haida raiders this far south before, not striking on land, there was nothing for them to steal except the lice in Eaters’ hair until we started resettling Westria. Haida don’t do salvage expeditions themselves, they just loot what other people find or make.”

Faramir blinked; Malfind was smart enough, but he tended to make assumptions and sometimes to take things everybody knew at face value. That was supposed to be a fault of guys their age, but Faramir Kovalevsky had never been prone to it. Possibly he was less happy than his cousin because of that, but all in all he preferred it. It couldn’t be in the blood, because neither Uncle Ingolf nor Morfind was that way. Mary Vogeler certainly wasn’t, since she was his mother’s identical twin and he strongly suspected that Ritva Kovalevsky was the smartest person he’d ever met.

“They don’t do salvage expeditions that we know about,” he said. “There isn’t to salvage up where they live. Not much but fish and fog and trees at all, and the Navy doesn’t let them into Vancouver, but we wouldn’t know if they’d been going to LA, say. Not unless they left a note with the Topangans there.”

Morfind nodded; Wolf Hall got the Crown’s intelligence reports, and she liked reading them.

“They make ships,” she pointed out. “By Ulmo Lord of Waters do they ever! Those orcas of theirs have plenty of range. They could have been sailing across the Mother Ocean to Asia, and we wouldn’t have a clue.”

“The only ships that call here are merchants and salvagers, and not many of those,” Malfind went on doggedly. “And nobody ever heard of any of those sets of weird foreigners with them—“

“Japanese and Koreans,” Morfind said. “Koreans chasing Japanese with Haida helping the Koreans.”

“That’s not going to make the Dun Barstow folk any less angry,” Faramir pointed out with what he knew was infuriating reasonableness. “It saves them being angry with themselves—they were a lot closer and didn’t do any better than we did. I bet they’re scared of what Lady Juniper is going to say.”

“Lady Maude’s the Mackenzie Herself now,” Morfind said thoughtfully.

The first Chief—and founder—of the Mackenzies was in her seventies and had stepped down in favor of her middle daughter a decade after the Prophet’s War, when the three of them were still toddlers. The Clan’s Óenach Mór had hailed Maude with no dissent. Beyond the inevitable joke candidacy of someone in a Green Man mask calling himself Robin Goodfellow Mackenzie, who’d run on a platform of universal drunkenness and fornication during the summer and sleeping the whole winter away, and gotten precisely one vote from each Dun in the dùthchas before he danced off into the woods waving his wapping-stick with two bladders on the end.

“And she’s the High King’s half sister, like our mothers, only shield-side,” Faramir reminded her.

“I know that! And Lady Juniper’s like everyone’s favorite grandmother, anyway,” Morfind said. “I can’t imagine her cursing anyone who didn’t really deserve it.”

She meant curse in a very technical sense, not just using bad language. They all nodded; they certainly liked her more than their actual maternal—shield-side—grandmother, Signe Havel.

Who is a grim old bitch, frankly, Faramir thought.

Their fathers’ families were impossibly far away for real contact, though they got a letter every couple of years. Their aunt Lady Maude was all right too, though rather serious and with a tendency to ignore youngsters beyond an occasional pat on the head.

“It’s just... mothers are different, you know?” Morfind said. “I mean, our mothers are pretty even-handed, but imagine how they’d react in her place.”

“Lady Fiorbhinn...” Malfind said, naming the youngest of Juniper Mackenzie’s four children. “She’s First Bard of their Clan. They say she can raise a blister on your face with a satire and after hearing her I sort of believe it. I bet she could make a Mackenzie just drop dead, or run off into the Wild and throw themselves into a pit, and she’s a lot more impulsive than Lady Maude or Lady Juniper. Or Hiril Eilir, of course. Not cruel, but sort of... wild.”

“Lady Juniper isn’t chief of the Clan any more but she’s still Goddess-on-Earth to the witchfolk, and her son got killed on their land over at Dun Barstow,” Faramir said. “Napa isn’t even in Stath Ingolf’s area of responsibility, after all. Our Charter stops at the ridge of the Mayacamas.”

Probably Lady Juniper will just mourn but they can’t be certain, so they take it out on us. And the Mackenzies really didn’t do any better than we did despite being right on the spot.

That last bit was comforting, in a guilty sort of way. Usually the Rangers got along fine with Mackenizes. After all Hiril Eilir, the other original founder of the re-formed Dúnedain, was the eldest daughter of Juniper Mackenzie, born before the Change. Most Dúnedain were of the Old Faith like them, though not witches strictly speaking. There was a certain rivalry as well, though. Not least, many Mackenzies thought the Rangers put on airs, and that the Clan’s folk were better archers and just as good in the woods. He thought some of them were, but most weren’t though they certainly had high standards... for outsiders. None of that had anything to do with the death of the High King, but it was certainly going to be part of how everyone felt.

“It’s not going to make us feel much better to know that they shouldn’t be blaming us, either,” he concluded with depressing realism. “Even if the Princess isn’t, we’re all going to feel like she should blame us.”

Órlaith was older than they were. But he liked her, beyond and above a wholehearted teenage-male appreciation of her looks; she wasn’t snotty with people just a little younger than she—

Well, over three years younger, he admitted to himself.

—the way most people the other side of twenty were. She hadn’t tried to act as if there was some sort of unbridgeable gap of experience between them. The three of them liked to tell themselves they were adults. He knew deep down that what they really were was just trembling on the brink of junior probationary adulthood, eager to prove themselves and secretly anxious that they weren’t ready. They all sat and brooded a little more, keeping watch with ingrained care in turn and trying not to think of Uncle Rudi.

When the time came they silently opened their lunch bag and spread the contents out on a flat-topped rock as the sun passed its zenith and turned the surface of the ocean westward to an eye-hurting brightness like hammered silver. The leather sack held two long loaves of brown bread fresh out of the oven that morning. Besides that there were three hard-boiled eggs, a flask of olive oil and a bowl to pour it in, some salty, sharp-tasting black pickled olives, filaree and chickweed, yellow-topped hedgehog mushrooms and other wild greens they’d picked on their way up, a lump of pungent sheep’s-milk cheese the size of a small fist wrapped in leaves, dried figs strung on straw twine and a few slices of the inevitable smoked roast venison from last night’s dinner for relish.

An old joke defined venison as Dúnedain potatoes.

There was a small clay jug of wine, too, to be heavily diluted with the water in their canteens; here in the south-country most drank wine with every midday and evening meal, it being a staple rather than a treat. Everything came from the Stath Ingolf house-lands except the bread; they got the flour from the settlers down in the Sonoma lowlands or the newer ones in Napa as part of their fees.

The three Dúnedain stood together facing the west for a moment before they ate, their right hands over their hearts.

To Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to That which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be, he thought, knowing the others did likewise.

The ritual was calming, reminding them of things beyond their own troubles. Then they sat to share the meal, in positions that gave them good views down from the lookout and half-rising occasionally to make sure no pirates were using the interval to sneak in. Faramir ripped a piece off a loaf, dipped his chunk into the oil, cut some cheese with the smaller knife he wore tucked into the top of his soft calf-high elfboot, smeared it on top of the bread and took a moody bite. Morfind tore her bread into small neat bits before dipping it, and her brother cut his with his knife, which was slightly eccentric though not actually bad manners. After a minute he passed around some sea-salt in a twist of rag to use on the greens.

“The stranger ships came in very early, in thick fog,” Faramir said thoughtfully.

His eyes narrowed as he swallowed a few mouthfuls of bread and oil and cheese and crunched up a nutty, slightly bitter mushroom. Then he tossed a few olives into his mouth, working off the flesh with tongue and teeth and spitting the pits over the wall. Something was teasing at his mind, a thought struggling to be born.

“Oh, let it rest, hethren,” Morfind said to him, spitting an olive pit over the wall herself and disturbing a blue-winged scrub jay that flew off with a peevish cry. “We Rangers of Stath Ingolf are going to be remembered as the ones who didn’t save the High King, and that’s all there is to it.”

Hethren meant cousin, and most Dúnedain of the same generation called each other that casually in day-to-day speech, just as they referred to each other’s parents as uncle or aunt whether there was a blood relationship or not. The equivalent was common in small close-knit communities throughout Montival... which was to say, most communities.

But the three of them here actually were first cousins by blood. Tow-haired Malfind and black-haired Morfind were fraternal twins themselves, similar in their sharp-featured looks and blue eyes, and very slightly younger than Faramir. Morfind was about an inch under Faramir’s five-nine, but Malfind was nearly up to his father’s six-two. Although he was lanky so far, while Hîr Ingolf was built like a balding, battered-looking bear with a beard that was broadly streaked with gray in the brown. Mary and Ritva were tall blond women; the Havels and Larssons ran to that, and to twins. Malfind and Morfind were the oldest of three sets in their family; Faramir had two sisters and a younger brother, but his mother grumbled that she’d had to do a lot more work for fewer kids since they were all singletons.

Faramir’s own father was fair-haired as well, which made his son’s pale yellow-gold locks no surprise, but Ian Kovalevsky was of no more than average height and slender and Faramir took after him in that too.

I wonder who provided the freckles, snub nose and high cheekbones? he wondered; and his eyes were dark blue with grey rims, unlike either of his parents. And Dad’s beard has always been sort of sparse, so I shouldn’t be surprised mine’s nonexistent so far.

Their mothers had been children of the High King’s father Mike Havel... but by his handfasted wife and consort among the Bearkillers Signe-born-Larsson, not Juniper Mackenzie. What it meant in essence was that through her father Crown Princess Órlaith was also their cousin.

Which now made the whole situation rather worse.

“No,” Faramir said thoughtfully. “That’s not what I meant, I’m not making an excuse for what happened. I’m just... I mean... I hope the old folks have thought of it too.”

The Vogeler siblings looked at him; sometimes they did things in disconcerting unison.

He wiped his smaller knife carefully, checked the edge, then rubbed a bead of olive oil over the metal with a fingertip before he slid it back into the boot sheath. It was the one he used for general camp chores and eating, being more convenient than the slightly curved ten-inch fighting blade at his belt. A little film of grease wouldn’t hurt it, quite the contrary, but you had to make sure there was no salt. Then he went on:

“I’m not just blowing smoke now to make us feel better. If we’d been here and watching we probably wouldn’t have caught them, not with darkness and mist. What are we... Stath Ingolf, that is... going to do about watching for ships at night or in fog, now that we know enemies might approach by sea? We get night every night, and the Glorannon has fog as often as not for half the year. Whoever they are, we can’t count on them making it easy for us by keeping running lights on their ships.”

They went on with the lunch in a less gloomy mood now that they had a problem to think about, rather than chewing the crust of failure. Most Dúnedain settlements were well inland, but this one included a big chunk of coast and a landing-place where ships called. They were more conscious of matters maritime than Rangers elsewhere.

“I can see why they—“ meaning their mothers, basically “—put us up here; it’s better than nothing. We’ve got a good view in daylight and it’s the only secure location with this view we have ready. But it’s... I mean, it’s not really good, you know?” he said. “Not to make sure ships aren’t sneaking in when the visibility’s bad.”

“We’d have to put watchers on the Glorannon Iant, for that,” Malfind said as they tossed the diminishing string of figs from one to the other, and jerked his thumb to what the old world had called the Golden Gate Bridge, which meant exactly the same thing in the Common Tongue. “On the bridge deck... or maybe up one of the towers? Hard to get up but you’d be safe enough.”

“No,” his sister said. “The fog lies low a lot, you know how you see the bridge towers rising out of it first thing? So you’d be nearly as blind to something on the surface as you would up here. Blinder than you would be on the actual bridge deck, at least. From the deck you’d be able to hear a ship most times.”

Good point, Faramir thought, and both the young men made gestures of agreement.

Wooden ships inescapably creaked and groaned a lot if they were moving at all, what sailors called working.

She went on: “Or maybe see the masts, unless the fog was really thick on a moonless night. And how would a ship run the bridge passage if it was totally fogged in or completely dark? The sailors say it’s bad enough in broad daylight.”

They all looked south for a moment. You could see the bridge from here, of course. The view all around was magnificent, which was the point of a lookout station, and it was a pleasure to see on a nice day like this and exciting in a storm, though they’d all been familiar with it from childhood. Even the bridge was beautiful, which was more than you could say for most of the giant works of the ancients; it would be a pity when it finally collapsed, in a generation or two or three.

Stath Ingolf had been established when they were about nine and they knew these hills and woods like the kitchens of their homes or the Stath’s dancing ground over on the other side of the valley.

“Row it in?” Malfind said. “Sweeps from the deck, or a longboat towing?”

“Even noisier,” Morfind said.

“You could probably hear or spot a ship from an observation post on the bridge even at night or in bad weather,” Faramir said.

Then he added: “But.”

Both the others pursed their lips as they followed his thought. They were young, but they knew the family business from watching their parents run it. They’d been helping out with it as they could all their lives, more so as they grew, the way children everywhere did with whatever their elders’ trade was. Just lately their help had been as ohtar, squire-warriors formally fit for anything but command.

“Yes, that’s one of those things that would work... if only it worked,” Morfind said. “Like, if the Eaters would only not do anything like the things Eaters really do.”

Most of the Ranger business here had originally been leading the effort to clear out the Eater bands roaming the wilds, the descendants of those who’d survived the collapse of the old world by preying on—eating—other victims. There hadn’t been many, for reasons made clear in the old tale of the Kilkenny cats. And they patrolled to keep more from filtering up from the ruins around the Bay. Some of the ones in the wild had been human enough by then to send back to civilization, just crude backwoods hunters whatever their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents had done to survive. Split up as individuals or small family groups they could fit in among the many places looking for more hands to work and not too picky about backgrounds, and make lives for themselves. Others had still been orc-like and bestial, with only the young children capable of forgetting and so spared.

The ones who still haunted the city ruins southward and their outskirts were mostly pretty bad. The rest were either very, very bad... or even worse than that. They were quite good hunters now, living in territory swarming with game and fish and fowl, and they lived the way they did because they wanted to rather than the necessity that had driven their ancestors. Being killed by them, or even killed and then eaten, was far from being the worst nightmare a Ranger of Ithilien faced. Which was why Rangers generally referred to their kind as yrch: Orcs.

Besides tending their own properties and ordinary peacekeeping the rest of the Stath’s work mostly involved salvage in the dead cities, or escorting outside salvagers for a fee and a cut of any unusual finds. Even with their experience and local knowledge that was still deadly dangerous, though also very lucrative and a great service to Montival.

It would take an army of thousands working for years to sweep the Bay cities clean the way Eugene and Seattle had been in the north, which wasn’t going to happen for a long time given the Crown’s other priorities, but the Rangers did what they could. They’d cleared the roadway across the bridge and some of the main roads of the wrecks of cars and trucks so that escort parties could reach the ruins more easily. Some of the springs had still been useful, and much else went to blacksmiths and glassblowers. Waste offended the Valar.

But as I said, there’s a big fat but involved...

“We can cross the bridge in daylight,” Morfind said, eating the last fig in two bites and tossing the little dried stem over the wall too. “We can go into the ruins in a strong armed party, though that means fighting. Especially if you’re there for more than a day.”

The young men nodded solemnly. They’d all three of them served on several escort patrols of that kind, a mark of their promotion to ohtar. That had involved fighting, or skirmishing and night work, and they’d all seen blood and faced blades at least a little. The Eaters didn’t challenge armored warriors marching in ranks during daylight, they’d learned better than that, but those steep tangled overgrown warrens were never safe. And they were riddled with hidden passages made by collapsing buildings and old tunnels and corridors. Despite attempts at mapping many of them were unknown, or worse still improved by the yrch knocking holes through walls and installing ladders over the years so they could move unobserved.

After dark the ruins were the stuff of very bad dreams. Drums and obscene shrieking war-cries in the night and knife-work done amidst inky blackness...

“But they’ll push back hard if it looks like we’re trying to run our boundaries further south, not just escort salvagers on an in-and-out. They know what happened to their kind up here north of the Gate. It would be like standing up in front of a target at the range to stay there on the bridge all the time. You’re right about that, Faramir. It would have to be a fortified post. With at least a dozen in the garrison, or they’d all get eaten some dark foggy night.”

“Better two dozen,” her brother added, and mixed more of the water-and-wine in their canteens. “And a couple of catapults. Or even better, flamethrowers.”

Faramir drank. It was good wine, though being mixed three-to-one with water didn’t help with the bouquet. He rubbed his obstinately smooth chin. Malfind had a point.

“Some of the yrch bands on the peninsula can muster fifty or so fighters, the ones further south are bigger, and four or five might get together if we left them a really juicy tempting target like that,” Faramir said.

“You think so?” Malfind said. “They hate each other like poison.”

“They don’t love us much,” Faramir said with what he thought was elegant understatement.

“Can’t imagine why,” Malfind said, and laughed.

“More to the point, they’re afraid of us. And they’re not stupid just because they’re crazy-bad,” Faramir said, staying serious. “They know we’re just the point of a spear aimed at them. The stupid ones all went into one stewpot or another long ago.”

Though sometimes they ate their prey raw over many days, hung up alive on rope or hook to keep it fresh. Morfind nodded and ran one finger over her lower lip with her eyes rolled up in thought.

“But twenty or more for an outpost garrison... building it would be a one-off and doable, but that many blades tied up in one spot full-time would be a big problem just by itself,” she said.

There were about three hundred Dúnedain within the bounds of Stath Ingolf’s patrol territory of Ithilien—Moon County in the Common Tongue—but that included all their noncombatants as well, from the hundred-plus children below fighting age to those who just didn’t have the inclination or talent or the physical abilities, and some were only fit to defend the home-places at the last gasp. There were a score or more ohtar from other Ranger communities here at any given time. Dúnedain youngsters often spent a few years going from Stath to Stath, usually from the less to the more active ones like this to get experience in varied environments, not to mention the social benefits. The Dúnedain had an exchange program with the Morrowlander Scout Pack of Yellowstone too, and Faramir had been trying to get into that.

But even including their visiting kin, there were only sixty or seventy or so warriors at any one time. Tying up every fourth member on the active list sitting in an improvised fort and watching the seagulls for month after month... and so far from quick help if they needed it...

“We’d have to get the galor militia to do it,” she said. “It’s not Ranger work. Too passive, and it would leave the rest of our ops too shorthanded.”

“And the farmers would say it is our job,” Faramir replied. “And not theirs to march far from their homes and stay under arms full-time, even in rotation.”

The word galor meant literally ‘grower’ and it was Ranger slang for ordinary outsiders. At least among youngsters, who did not use it as a term of endearment, though it wasn’t actually an insult. Not technically, since most people you met were in fact farmers at least part of the time; even Dúnedain, in the sense that they tended groves and gardens and ran livestock. Despite that their parents, Stath Ingolf’s leaders, tended to get shirty if they heard anyone using it, and downright testy if anyone did in front of... galor. On the grounds that the farmers knew it wasn’t an endearment, and it made it harder to get everyone reading from the same page. Not many outsiders knew the Noble Tongue, not least because it was Ranger policy to speak the Common Tongue to them, but a few always picked up a bit if there was a Dúnedain Stath around.

“The Mist Hills people might pitch in,” Malfind said. “The Baron’s always been a good friend to us.”

“Yeah, but that wouldn’t be enough either. We really need to get the Crown involved,” his sister replied.

Malfind nodded, but Faramir snorted.

“After what happened to the High King?” he said. “I should think the Crown will get involved! Everything’s changed now. We’re not out of sight and out of mind any more.”

They packed way the remains of their meal and settled into position again, taking turns with the binoculars, mostly keeping silent. Two hours past noon a bird called from not far away, one among many. Faramir inclined his head. It was a series of five buzzy calls, with the second-to-last high and sharp. Either a small black-gray-white bird was following its mate with nesting material rather late in the season, or...

He held up a hand for everyone’s attention and for silence, and gave the same call in return. It was answered with a repetition. All three of them had picked up their bows, gracefully shaped four-foot recurves of laminated horn and yew and sinew with risers of olive wood, set a shaft through the cutout and nocked it to the string. They watched alertly with their cloak-hoods drawn over their heads and their eyes just over the sides of the post, keeping a three-hundred-sixty degree lookout. Three more figures came cautiously into view, standing for an instant and throwing back their hoods to be recognized.

The Stath was still small enough that everyone knew each other by sight, even if their families lived at different ends of Ithilien. These were the Mangjŏls, Damrod the eldest at twenty-five, then Mablung and their sister Tathardes, who were younger by two-year intervals. Their grandfather had been a retainer of the Larssons somehow back before the Change when all that sort of thing had been different in ways he’d never bothered to study. Their parents had joined the Rangers very early, when they were barely pubescent and the reborn Dúnedain were very new, really just a band of teenagers playing in the woods up north under Hiril Astrid and Hiril Eilir. Albeit even then the games were deadly serious at times. All three had a strong family resemblance, narrow slanted eyes of brownish hazel with flecks of green, olive skin and hair as black as Morfind’s, except that Tathardes’ developed faint reddish highlights if it had been in the sun very long. Everyone relaxed and stood.

Mae govannen, i ‘wanur nîn. Prestad?” Damrod Mangjŏl asked as he and his siblings walked towards the post.

“Well-met to you as well, my kinsmen, and no, no trouble. Birds, deer, and a bear was around last night from the scat,” Faramir said. “Grizzly, I think; cinnamon-colored hair, at least.”

“Speaking of scat, no problem with monkeys throwing their crap in your hair, you two?” Mablung said to the twin brother and sister, grinning and taking a couple of ostentatious sniffs.

Faramir grinned himself and then suppressed it; that had been most of a decade ago, but he remembered his cousins’ discomfiture when he’d tricked them into climbing a certain tree during a children’s game they’d cheated at. That band of scat-slinging macaques no longer lived in the big live-oak near Hîr Ingolf’s hall, but the memory of the day lingered yet in local legend. The beasts were common enough all over the area that everyone knew their feces-slinging habits.

Malfind and Morfind didn’t think it was nearly as funny as other people did, for some reason; as he recalled, he’d danced after them chanting cheaters and poopy-heads.

“And some whales out to sea,” Faramir went on diplomatically. “Apart from that, nothing.”

Tathardes smiled now, though she’d remained tactfully poker-faced at her brother’s joke despite a sparkle in her eyes. He thought it made her look very pretty and extremely kissable when she smiled, except that it also made her look as if she thought he was a child to be teased and chaffed. Which was precisely what she did think. Maybe three years shouldn’t make that much difference, it didn’t seem to be any great matter with people in their thirties, but somehow when you were eighteen... just... and she was twenty-one...

“You cousins can go back home—“ she meant the station at Eryn Muir, where the Mangjŏls lived full-time “—and sit around moping there,” she said. “Why not, since everyone else is? Except me!”

When her brothers scowled at her: “Look, the High King, may Lord Mandos receive him with honor in his hall and give him Beren Erchamion’s old chair, was a great man. I loved him as our sworn lord and I would have fought and died for him, we all would. But he fell in battle... well, after a victory... and well, he was never going to end his life in bed surrounded by grieving great-grandkids! Everyone’s who’s listened to the Song of Bear and Raven knows that it was fated he not grow old. Vairë weaves all threads.”

“And the malice of the Shadow never sleeps,” Faramir agreed. “But look at all that he did with forty-six years!”

The older Dúnedain woman went on: “So... there’s no point in beating ourselves up. Grief, yes: guilt, no.”

Morfind laughed. “Well, at last someone’s being sensible.”

Gellon ned i galar i chent gîn ned i gladhog,” Tathardes said to her, bowing with her hand over her heart and a wink.

Ai! How come you don’t love the way my eyes shine when I laugh?” Malfind asked, half-seriously.

“Because you’re too young,” she replied.

“She’s my twin! I’m the same age minus fifteen minutes!”

“That’s in boy-years; they’re different, like with dogs. You’re a spotty kid, she’s just the right age for heedless play amid the spring flowers.”

“And then harsh waking to the real world ends your happy dream, willow-girl,” Morfind said dryly in the Common Tongue, punning bilingually on the meaning of Tathardes, and everyone chuckled.

The Mangjŏls climbed into the outpost and they all exchanged the hand-to-shoulder greeting Rangers used and helped with packing and unpacking respectively. The newcomers had more supplies and some basic cooking equipment with them because they were taking the two-to-ten shift and would be making their evening meal here. They also each had a ring-tailed pheasant hanging from their belts, gutted and headless and drained but not yet plucked of their iridescent blue and green feathers. There was very good hunting on the mountain, if you were alert and walked quietly.

Some liked to use pheasant wingfeathers for fletching their arrows, though Faramir thought it was showy and preferred goose, or seagull when it was available.

The center of the outpost’s floor held a deep pit where a cooking-fire would be invisible after dark with care, and Faramir noted Damrod’s eyes flick to make sure the stack of dry firewood had been replenished, along with the damp rotten branches needed to turn a blaze into a daytime fire-signal in an emergency. That was a day-shift duty.

The newcomers wore the same gear as the three cousins; loose tough pants and shirt-tunics of hard-woven linsey-woolsey twill, with leather patches on knees and elbows, mail-lined elk-hide jerkins cinched by broad equipment belts of the same, soft-sided leather boots that came to just below the knee and were fastened by horn buckles on the outside, and cloaks that had loops sewn to their outer surfaces and loose broad hoods. All had bows and quivers, climbing ropes, round shields and light helms slung over their backs, and tomahawk-hatchets through a loop at the back of their belts; tomahawks were something of a specialty of this southernmost Stath. Two-foot brush-swords hung at their left hips or over their shoulders, straight and thick in the back with a curved, waisted leaf-shape to the blade on the other side.

Everything was colored in muted, mottled shades, mainly olive and green, steel carefully greyed, copper and bronze fastenings let tarnish. Close up you could just see the blazon on the jerkins and shields, a tree and seven stars surmounted by a crown, but the whole faded into a blurred gray-green at more than a pace. Malfind picked up his spear in addition as they vaulted easily over the low wall to leave.

“Novaer, mellyn,” Damrod called after them softly.

“Good luck to you, too, comrades,” Faramir replied over his shoulder.

The downward path they took was very steep in parts. As a matter of course they were taking a different route back from the one they’d come on, or that their reliefs had used. The Dúnedain of Stath Ingolf had a network of trackways over the whole of their territory, and memorizing them was part of their education. On the more level parts the packed dirt still had crumbled remains of old asphalt, for there had been a road here once. Now it was much narrower and more direct, and only reinforced here and there with log or rock to keep it from washing out in the rains of winter. Nobody brought wheeled vehicles up here any more; backs served, or the odd packhorse.

A small group of twenty or so tawny-coated tule elk grazed on a ridge of open land covered in tall grass just turning from green to yellow. They threw up their heads and moved slowly away as they caught the humans’ scent. The herd were mostly spike bulls, young males without the antlers and heavy dark throat-ruff of grown herd-lords. The females would be dropping their calves about now. They liked privacy for that, though normally they were very social.

The three Rangers bent low to avoid being silhouetted against the sky as they went over the ridge and took a knee when they were below the crest to look down the slope. It had been a bit wetter than average this last winter, and the waist-high grass was still heavily starred with silène, the tall stalks bearing flowers white and purple and pink, and with crimson poppy and yellow mariposa-lilly. There was a strong minty aroma as they knelt, from the crushed leaves of a patch of low-growing herbs that the ancients had called Yerba Buena and Rangers knew as athelas.

Malfind leaned his spear against his shoulder and spoke with his hands to avoid spooking the elk further: all Dúnedain learned Sign in their earliest childhood along with the Common and Noble Tongues. Hiril Eilir, their co-founder, had been deaf since birth, but it was extremely useful for everyone.

Take one? Malfind asked, flicking his eyes towards the herd.

Faramir thought for a moment. The fresh-grilled liver and kidney were the hunter’s right, and always tempting because they tasted so marvelous right out of the beast with nothing but a little salt, but...

No. We don’t know if they need that much fresh meat at the Wood and it’s the wrong season for salting down.

Ranger law was strict that you ate what you killed, and frowned on wasting horn, hide, bone or anything else useful about the animal unless you really had no choice, that Oromë the Lord of the Trees be not be angered. Their supple, durable belts and jerkins and most of their boots were brain-tanned, for instance, and their bows needed sinew and horn and glue. Anything left over could always go for compost and then onto a kitchen-garden.

Morfind nodded. Anyway, one of those bulls will dress out at fifty pounds for each of us, not counting the hide. Do you want to pack that for hours, brother, and without carrying frames? It’ll be dark before we get back, especially if we have to take time for a stalk, and then draining and gralloching and skinning it.

That’s a fact, her brother admitted. It would take time since they know we’re here already.

Let’s go, Faramir concluded. Malfind, you’re point.

They were within the Stath’s regularly patrolled territory, but rather far south; Eryn Muir was only about an easy day’s stroll from the ancient bridge, much less if you really pushed it. It wasn’t absolutely impossible that a lone Eater might sneak across to try for a Ranger; eating the heart and bringing the head home would be strong magic and enormous status. They trotted across the savanna at an easy swinging pace. It was scattered with small round-topped oaks, and cinnamon bush with its pungent bay-scented leaves.

Then they took a path that cut through thick madrone chapparal. The twisted limbs were joined by coyote bush, with young golden-fleece standing like green plumes. They took care to avoid the poison oak, and the orange flowers of the sticky Monkeybush. You needed good eyes or a guide to realize it was a path, more an amending of naturally weak spots in the barrier of hard-leafed spindly scrub than a roadway, with an occasional inconspicuous mark in the Tengwar runes.

Then into a steep ravine, through tanbark oak with its serrated leaves, sweet-scented blueblossom and chamise with bunches of stiff white blooms, then dense Douglas fir and hemlock standing tall and thick and meeting in a canopy of scented green above. The air grew cooler and damper and smelled of wet earth, and the undergrowth was thick with moss and fern. Water trickled and tinkled.

They’d walked in silence among the chuck and birr and buzz of insects and birds, in a row each three yards from the next; Faramir was bringing up the rear, halting occasionally to glance behind them. Even their footfalls made little sound. The soles of their boots were complex constructions, tough but supple leather with a bottom layer of the increasingly hard-to-find tire-tread. That was much more expensive than conventional hobnails... but they also gave better traction and were much quieter. Stath Ingolf had finder’s claims on several large warehouses where their explorers had found vast numbers that had been stored away from sun and weather since the old world fell, still on their shipping pallets in buildings that were shapeless mounds of honeysuckle from the outside.

Further down the ravine were young redwoods, or at least young by comparison to the millennia-old giants of Eryn Muir that was their destination, trees that had been ancient in human terms when the first Hispano explorers arrived in this land. This canyon here had probably been logged a century or more before the Change, which you could see because the trees stood in rough circles where saplings had sprouted from around the long-vanished stumps. Young redwoods, the ones less than a hundred years old, put on better than a yard of height per year on a favorable site. These didn’t have the overwhelming mass of their elders, not yet, much less of their cousins in the Sierras, but while only a few were two hundred feet high many were respectably close to it. The ground beneath was open, thickly coated with their brown dropped needles and too shady for much other growth.

A stream ran down the ravine, still fresh with the spring and running quickly over brown stones, making a low chuckling music. They slid down beside it, sometimes jumping from rock to rock, and once down a sort of steep ladder carved beside the foaming jumps of a cataract-waterfall. The flow of the white water wasn’t very large, since the stream was only a few feet across, but it was refreshing in the still air of the canyon and comely enough that you half-expected to see a water-sprite tumbling in it. At the bottom Malfind leapt down and trotted half a dozen paces on to shed momentum along the shore of a small pond, prodding with the butt of his spear at muddy dirt and watching where he placed his feet.

Then he stopped, stiffened and thrust the weapon up. Faramir felt a cold prickle in his gut as he saw it. That was Battle Sign; it meant hostile tracks.

“Overwatch,” he said quietly to Morfind, who’d stiffened as well; then he joined her brother.

The black-haired Ranger went down on one knee and put a little draw on her bow, ready to snap-shoot as her eyes scanned the undergrowth. They’d been walking for about an hour, and the shade was dense here—the sun was far enough past noon to be partially blocked by the ridgeline to the west, but they’d have been back to base before the full night came and the stars came out in the east. The prickle between Faramir’s shoulderblades grew worse as he squatted where the butt of Malfind’s weapon pointed. Nobody hostile should be around here, not this close to the Ranger station in the Wood where his folk dwelt.

Malfind was an indifferent-good archer by Dúnedain standards, but a fine spearman. Wordlessly he took the scabbard off the head of his spear and tucked it into his belt; it was normally worn on to keep the edges from glinting if they caught sunlight. Then he slid the round shield off his back and took it in his left hand by the central grip beneath the boss, before he faced in the opposite direction from his sister, weapon poised for the quick underarm gutting thrust.

The sharp edges did glint, a very little, though the rest of the steel was a bonderized gray. It was about nine inches long, starting out as broad as a man’s palm and tapering to a vicious point; the spearshaft was seven feet of seasoned brown-gray ashwood, thick as a quarterstaff, with a foot of stainless-steel wire wound around below the head and a similar length of butt-cap at the other end. A strong man with long arms could reach twelve paces with a single darting lunge.

Faramir opened his eyes and his mind and looked at the tracks; then he closed his eyes, thought, opened them again and repeated the process for several seconds. They called the technique Kim’s game in his folk’s schools, and he’d always been rather good at it besides liking the book it came from. That way he could call back and move the images like cutouts in his head, like multiple drawings, without needing to keep staring down at them. A good deal of Dúnedain training had come from Lady Astrid’s consort Lord Alleyne, and Lady Eilir’s, Lord Hordle. As youths they’d both joined an esoteric warrior brotherhood over the eastern sea just before the Change, known for some reason as the SAS.

The tracks were of bare feet. They were broad across the ball, and you could draw a straight line from the tip of the big toe of one particularly good print through the middle of the heel at the rear. There were distinct gaps between all the toes, with even the little toe turned noticeably outward. As if the foot were a hand, with the fingers splayed. Those were the marks of someone who had never worn shoes for any length of time; if you’d gone shod from childhood your foot was narrower and the toes all pointed ahead, or even inwards if the shoes were bad.

Yrch,” he said softly, rising. “Eaters. At least a dozen just here.”

Individual bare feet were as distinctive as palm-prints, and as easy to tell apart. That there were so many meant...

“Moving fast and taking chances to do it.”

The others didn’t look around, but he could feel a subliminal crackle. That sort of enemy raid hadn’t happened since the very early years of Stath Ingolf. There weren’t any Eater bands left north of the Bay and hadn’t been since before they reached their teens. That meant a war-party from south of the Glorannon, and that was very bad... and hadn’t happened in many years either.

He blinked again and the images were summoned back; the mark of the right foot was twisted in a bit from that of the left, pigeon-toed but only with one foot. An old injury that had healed not-quite-right, sufficient to affect the man’s stride just a little. Not many who ran with the Eater bands down around the Bay lived through an injury that needed time and help to heal. Not in the grisly game of stalking and hunting and dreadful feasting that made up their lives. One who did would be very tough and very cunning, and probably a leader whose followers feared losing his wits and ferocity more than they did the effort of keeping him alive until he was strong again.

“I make it less than an hour since they passed,” he said very softly.

The edges of the footprints had just begun to blur a little, soft soil flowing, water seeping into the bottoms.

His voice was gently soft but not a whisper—the sibilants of a whisper carried, if not the meaning of the words. A quiet tone died closer to the source.

“Cousin?” he asked.

“About the same,” Malfind replied, concurring.

He didn’t turn his head towards Faramir, or stop its slow tracking across a hundred and eighty degrees of forest. When the track was made said absolutely nothing about where the yrch had gone. They could have left it deliberately as a trap and be hiding half a bowshot from here ready to ambush anyone following them.

“Further down, Morfind,” he said. “Sweep for signs. I think there may be other bunches.”

Moving through brush in hostile country you split a party of more than ten or a dozen up into a number of small columns moving in parallel whenever you could. That put them close enough to support each other but far enough apart that your group’s progress didn’t turn into an inchworm crawl and become utterly obvious to anyone looking or listening. At least Dúnedain did, and he was willing to bet whoever had made these tracks did as well. A dozen Eaters was either too many to try and cross Ranger-patrolled country, or too few. Any others would have to cross the little stream too, and the soft ground was where they’d leave evidence.

“Malfind, take my back. Morfind, across.”

She took two strides, leapt, and landed on the other side of the pond near where the rapid fell into it. Faramir walked quickly along his side as she paralleled him, and Malfind walked behind him a little further with his attention on their surroundings. Morfind was walking a little bent over; Faramir looked up occasionally to scan behind her, and kept his bow ready.

“Here,” she said, in the same soft tones they’d all been using.

They didn’t want to face each other for Sign, not when the brush might spew howling cannibals at them any instant. He knew this ground intimately, but suddenly it felt strange and alien, like a dream of Mirkwood.

“Not yrch, but not ours,” Morfind amplified.

“Overwatch,” he said again, and she turned to face the woods.

Faramir trotted to the spot opposite her, went down on a knee and looked at the ground again. There were no tracks in the soft dirt, but someone had scratched and furrowed the ground with a branch and then used it to drag leaves and litter over the spot. He gently brushed some of the dead vegetation aside with a finger, and the pattern of water in the scratches became more obvious.

“Covered their tracks,” he said.

He might have missed it altogether if his cousin hadn’t made him examine this spot with extra care, and the stroke with the brush had destroyed detail anyway.

“Malfind, follow.”

He jumped the stream himself; it would only be knee-deep, but there was no point getting your boots and socks wet if you didn’t have to. Where Morfind had been looking were scuff-marks a little further from the bank—tracks, but nothing specific, where the ground was dry and covered in dead needles. Conifer forest made for bad tracking ground. That and the shelter of the canyon walls from viewers at a distance were probably why the yrch had taken this route.

A little bit closer to the water was a fern just in the right position to sway aside when a shin brushed it and then sway back quickly to hide the resulting footprint. He used the tip of his bow to move it, and beneath was the mark of a boot or shoe. Not any form of footwear he was familiar with, not even the shapeless home-made ones local farmer-settlers often used. It was canoe-shaped, but broader at the front as if the toe of the shoe were upturned. And deep, either a heavy man or one carrying a full load. Armor, perhaps.

“Two parties, traveling southeast about a hundred yards apart, say thirty all told, maybe as many as fifty,” he said. “One Eaters, one some sort of foreigner and Eaters. No Haida moccasins that I can see, but there might be some of them as well, they’re supposed to be good woodsmen.”

“Foreigners? And the Eaters didn’t eat them?” Morfind said.

“Good point,” her brother said. “That means something odd. Something bad.”

Faramir’s hand went to the signal horn hung at his belt, a bull bison’s horn carven with the story of the Three Hunters In Rohan and with a mouthpiece and reed, the raw material imported from the far-off high plains beyond the mountains. Unfortunately they were still far too distant from the nearest point they could be sure Dúnedain were listening.

“The report said there was only one shipload of Japanese to start with,” he said. “So the only foreigners who could possibly be around here I can think of are the ones who killed the High King.”

He was surprised for a moment at the way his lips curled back from his teeth and flood of hot lust behind it. They said revenge was a dish best eaten cold, but right now it didn’t feel that way. Hot and steaming seemed more attractive.

“Especially if they’re keeping company with Eaters.”

“But they all died or were... oh,” Malfind said.

Faramir nodded. “They were all killed or captured that we knew of. I’m point.”

He was the best tracker.

“Malfind, you behind me.”

He wanted that spear nearby if he suddenly ran into anything hostile within arm’s reach.

“Morfind on rear.”

She was the best archer of the three of them, particularly at quick instinctive shots.

“Helms on.”

They all reached over their shoulders and put on the light open-faced sallets Dúnedain wore for scouting work when there was a real risk of a fight, simple ridged pots with enough of a flare that they protected the neck but blocked neither sight nor hearing, covered in the same mottled cloth as their cloaks. He worked his with a hand to set it properly and buckled the strap under the chin; the feel of the internal felt pads clamping around the crown, brow, sides and back of his head made him swallow a bit.

Gwaem,” he said. “Go!” and lead off at a swinging lope.

Now that he knew he was following a band, it was much easier, easier than following a running deer though not nearly as obvious as a sounder of boar. He didn’t try to look for specific sign every moment, just for an impression of dislocation, a wrongness in the overall feeling of the woods, and every score or so of paces something stood out from the background. A twig broken, a branch bent, ground-cover crushed down, a human hair caught in bark.

With only three Rangers it was a hideous risk to pursue such a large yrch band—not to mention the foreigners, the reports had said they were much better armed and organized than either Eaters or even Haida. Leaving an ambush party behind you was one of the standard tactics of a pursuit, and the only way to completely avoid it was to travel so slowly that you couldn’t keep up with the people you were chasing.

They simply didn’t have any choice, though. From the angle that the tracks had cut the path he didn’t think they were headed directly for the Eryn Muir. They were probably trying to reach the water of the inner Bay where they’d hidden boats. Aluminum canoes lasted like the hills and some Eaters were skilled watermen with them.

Why they were doing this was a complete mystery right now. But that path might well take the yrch across hunters or foraging parties... which might be a few children gathering herbs and mushrooms with only the sort of guard needed to make sure no bear or tiger got ideas, or a school party being taught plants and terrain and wildlife. He had absolutely no doubt what the yrch would do then, whatever their other motives were. And evidently the enemy from over the sea were a hard and cruel tribe as well. There might be Haida pirates with them both, and the northern raiders were slave-takers though not maneaters.

They had to follow the enemy, and they had to get within signal range of the Eryn Muir, whichever came first. He knew what his cousins knew; when they did, he was going to sound that horn.

Whether it brought the yrch down on them or not.

 

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