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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

 
Dùthchas of the Clan McClintock
(Formerly northern California and southern Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
May 16th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

“It’s always sort of awkward meeting a former lover,” Órlaith murmured quietly, inhaling the scents of pine and cold spring water trickling over moss-grown stone. “Especially when you haven’t told him it’s former yet.”

The track still had fragments of old asphalt in it. That showed as grey-white flecks when dapples of light penetrated the swaying branches high overhead. It had been shored up in perilous spots with smooth rocks and logs but mostly it was a forest track now, kept open by hoof and paw as much as shoes or wheels. Up ahead Edain winded a horn, a long low sonorous huuu-huuuu-hurrr sound repeated once and twice and again, which was manners hereabouts—if you didn’t signal and come in by plain sight when you approached a home-place, by McClintock law you could be treated as hostile.

There were still outlaws around here, and until well within living memory there had been the odd Eater band filtering up from the death-zones of old California. The Royal party were expected and so it was a formality, but her father had always been punctilious about respecting local custom. The infinite varieties of which he’d also said was a large part of what made life interesting.

Former lover?” Heuradys said, raising a brow.

Diarmuid Tennart McClintock had his holding near here, and he had been her first man. Five years ago, almost exactly, at a Beltane festival in Dun Juniper, far north of here in the Mackenzie dùthchas. They’d met every once and awhile since, and enjoyed each other’s company, in and out of bed.

The Royal party came out into a hillside meadow with only scattered oaks, dropping away towards the river northward. Órlaith blinked in the flood of light after the deep green gloom of the forest of Douglas Fir and Jeffrey Pine and ponderosas; to east and west mountains lined the horizon, and some of the peaks of the Cascades on her right were still snow-clad. The bright green grass of the mountain spring was thick and starred with blooms: the last blue camas, the flower called farewell-to-spring with its four pink petals, a scattering of orange paintbrush and the purple blossom-balls of ookow nodding on their tall thin stems. It was cropped by a mob of three-score shaggy but bare-legged Icelandic sheep under the guard of a kilted shepherdess with a bow and two collies who ran silently to bunch the flock before they faced the strangers suspiciously, crouched belly-down.

Their mistress waved, but stayed near the ewes and the lambs that stopped their play to huddle close to their dams, pointing upward in explanation.

“Former lover, now, yes. Sure, and something tells me. Not in the mood anyway, of course.”

Órlaith glanced upward herself. A pair of Golden Eagles were turning in the updrafts overhead, their great wings stroking the air like caressing hands. She thought they were the most beautiful of birds, and they were her totem, the spirit she’d found in her dreaming quest. There was no denying they loved lamb, though. Of course, she did herself. Her stomach rumbled slightly at the thought of roast spring lamb with mint, and she suppressed a—totally senseless—stab of guilt at the way the body’s needs went right on even when fathers died.

Da would have laughed at her, and said Leave the guilt to the Christians, poor spalpeens...

“He’ll understand that,” Heuradys said. “And if he didn’t, his leman would explain what his dense male sensibilities couldn’t grasp. Caitlin’s a girl with her wits about her. He should get off his backside and marry her.”

Órlaith smiled a little; it helped to think about someone else. “Speaking of backsides, I’ll be just as glad to get mine out of the saddle for a day or so.”

They’d been winding through densely forested mountains for days, and not taking any more time than they must, gobbling trail-rations and falling into instant sleep every night. Her own retainers and escorts had born up well, though the knights and men-at-arms had left their tall coursers behind to be brought on in easy stages when they passed the courier station at the north end of the Central Valley near White Mountain. Everyone was on hardy sure-footed rounceys now, and the gear and supplies on pack-mules. Except the High King’s Archers, who’d left their mounts and just trotted afoot up hill and down dale at a pace that could have killed the horses and even the mules if Edain hadn’t taken pity and ordered a rest now and then.

“You look more tired than I’d have expected,” Heuradys said. “You’re sleeping well enough... something else?”

Órlaith suppressed a stab of irritation. Heuradys was concerned as a friend, and moreover it was her job, as Órlaith’s liege-knight.

As much as possible they’d followed the King’s Way—what the ancient world had called the I-5. Those works were proof of the awesome powers of the old Americans, who’d carved the bones of earth as if it were a Tillamook cheese. But half a century of wind and water, snow and frost and earthquake and the slow inexorable grip of growing roots had shown that the Mother was stronger still. A lot of the journey had been on rough trails. The light cavalry scouts were nervous; most of them were from the dry open ranching country of the interior beyond the mountains and found all this forest oppressive. Usually Órlaith loved being in the woods, but...

“Bad dreams,” she said quietly. “Not... not about Da. In fact, when I dream about him it’s happy. I keep getting this... I’m not sure. I don’t remember much of it, but there’s something to do with a desert. Not one I remember from the waking world, but it’s desperately important in the dream. And then there’s this castle... odd-looking castle, distorted... and eight heads...”

Heuradys frowned. “Well, you remember something.”

“A little more each time, actually.” Órlaith grimaced. “Probably it’s not important.”

Heuradys’ shrug was non-committal. They both knew that dreams could mean something, particularly the dreams of a monarch. Which didn’t mean they necessarily would; she’d dreamt of her first dog for years after the poor beast got run over by a carriage, and all it had meant was that she missed him and had had to put him out of pain herself.

She shifted her attention to their guests. The Nihonjin were keeping up; they were reasonable riders if not expert by her standards, and they were as hardy and uncomplaining as any Scout or Dúnedain Ranger.

“Though I get the impression that they’re not used to trips this long,” Heuradys said when she mentioned it. “They looked a bit stunned when I told them how many weeks we’d been on the road, and how long it will take to get back to civilization. Then wrote notes to check they hadn’t misunderstood. Twice.”

“Which makes sense, to be sure,” Órlaith replied.

“Why?”

“All the islands of Japan together are barely the size of Westria Province, and they only live on the smaller ones the now. Just starting on resettling the rest, from what they’ve let drop. At that, there are more folk alive there than anyone I know who considered the matter thought they’d have. At the Change they had four times the numbers of old California packed into the same space, and the flat land fit for tillage a smaller proportion—and look what California was like.”

Heuradys shivered. “It’s a miracle anyone’s left in Japan but Eaters.”

“The geography helped. Islands are easy to defend, so, and there’s a mort of tiny and not-so-tiny ones about the place there, with nobbut a few fishers and farmers on them when the Change came. Britain was the same, with Wight and Mona and the rest, from what I hear. Still, I’ve no doubt it took luck and hard fighting and careful organization. They’re not used to living any place else, though. Little islands like pimples on the sea’s broad backside.”

“Ah,” Heuradys said, then with a chuckle: “A day’s travel at most and then you hit salt water and have to take a boat. Hard to imagine. Sort of like being locked in Little Ease in Todenangst, actually.”

Órlaith winced slightly even as she made a gesture of agreement at the metaphor; Heuradys was an Associate noble, and even now they tended to be a little...

... hard-edged, she decided.

Little Ease was a dungeon cell under the Onyx Tower at Castle Todenangst up in the Protectorate, carefully designed to make it impossible to stand, sit or lie comfortably in the chill damp blackness. Designed by her maternal grandfather Norman Arminger, the first Lord Protector, in fact, in imitation of one his hero William the Bastard had built into the Tower of London. Though he’d outdone the Conqueror in many respects, as warlord and builder both. There were times she’d wished she could have met him, but mostly she was glad he’d died in battle more than a decade before her birth.

She’d known and admired and loved her mother’s mother, Sandra Arminger, who’d died of natural causes when Órlaith was in her early teens. But under a smoothly amiable, cultured exterior she’d had a cold ruthlessness that could make you blink in astonishment, or horror, when it did peek out.

Like a razor in a ripe fig, she thought.

Órlaith had just started realizing it before her Nonni’s final illness. Common story had it that the ancients had been rather soft, but that certainly didn’t apply to the ones who’d survived the Change Year. Doubly so to the ones who’d come to power then, for the most part.

And according to all the stories, Grandfather Norman made Nonni Sandra at her worst look like a loving auntie with a tray of cookies always in her hands. Da called him a bold bad man and said it was fortunate for his reputation he died when he did, when he talked about him at all. Mom rarely does mention him aloud; I think she loved him, but then she was only ten when he died and it wasn’t until long afterwards anyone talked truthfully to her about his deeds.

Her mother was Lady Protector now—it was a separate title from the High Kingship, specific to the Association territories, and she’d been that rare thing, an only child, and hence sole heir. She didn’t use Little Ease nearly as much as Nonni Sandra had, or the prerogative Court called Star Chamber that met in secret to send people there...

Perhaps when John becomes Lord Protector he can abolish it. It’s convenient, sometimes... but that’s just the point, it’s too convenient. What’s that old saying Grandmother Juniper likes? ‘Boys throw stones at frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest.’ It’s so easy to break things... break people... if you’re a monarch.

“I notice you haven’t been pushing our guests much for information,” Heuradys said thoughtfully, looking over her shoulder at where they’d clumped together where the road came out of the forest, looking down over the vast tumbled stretch of hill country ahead that vanished into blue distance. “Not even about how they ended up here on the other side of the Pacific.”

Órlaith nodded. “Yes, and that’s no accident. They’ve been honest—“ she touched the hilt of the Sword “—but a little close-mouthed about some things. Sure, and in their position, alone among strangers, even friendly strangers, I would be too until I had my feet beneath me. And until I knew what and who were where and what.”

“No hurry, I suppose,” Heuradys said. “But eventually ...”

“Yes, we need to know the details. But they’re here and they won’t be leaving any time soon, so.”

Heuradys raised her brows. “Not interested in getting a ship from Portland straight back home?”

Órlaith smiled despite her weariness; there wasn’t a real question there, despite the way it had been phrased. She had been raised at Court, and so had her friend.

“I think some of them would like nothing better. But not Reiko; she has something she wants to do here, wants very badly. Let their trust in us ripen. And let them see something of our land. It’s very strange to them, the size being not the least of it but by no means all, either.”

Montival was big—well over a million square miles, counting the wild lands—and many of the inhabited portions were widely scattered clumps separated by stretches empty of human-kind even now. It might well be the largest single realm on earth, though with well under five million people not nearly the most populous. That was almost surely distant Hinduraj, which might have ten times that number, and its storied, fabled capital of Sambalpur was the greatest of all cities now. People and the work of their hands were the wealth and strength of any kingdom, but she sincerely hoped Montival never had that many.

Both the young women had travelled with the peripatetic Royal court for many years, by horse and carriage and railway and ship, traversing thousands of miles, from the edges of glaciers to the fringes of the lowland deserts. Órlaith’s parents had made a point of spending some time anywhere there was a significant clump of people, to let them see the High King and Queen in person; monarchy was a personal thing, the living breathing persons of the royal kin, not some bloodless bureaucratic abstraction of laws and regulations. Traveling about gave the rulers perspective too, and it also meant you met plenty of dwellers who did not travel much. Most common folk never went more than a few day’s travel from where they were born unless war called or disaster struck.

The valley below was cradled in heights rising blue-green all about, in a sky where the distant snowpeaks seemed to float disembodied on the horizon under the noonday sun. Wildfowl rose like a twisting spiral of air and smoke from the water, and the first faint trace of the scents of damp turned earth and burning fir-wood hinted at men’s dwellings. It was a new note in the intense green freshness of the springtime forests, a benediction of that purity rather than a violation.

Reiko brought her horse up by theirs and paused to look east and west along the stretch of river. The far faint rumble of fast water over rock reached their ears from the willows and ash that grew in dense thickets along the shore. Below, field and pasture and orchard made a subtle patchwork of shades of green and textures of growth. It was an island amid the wilderness. A gust of wind scattered a last swath of white blossom from pear trees like distant white mist, and trailed smoke from a scattering of chimneys set in roofs of flower-bright turf.

Yūgen,” she said.

“Beautiful,” Órlaith said softly in her own tongue.

Koyama and Egawa nodded agreement behind their jotei. Then Reiko went on: “Yūgen, that is beautiful, yes, but also it means...”

Órlaith was a little surprised when it was the scar-faced soldier Egawa who recited:

 

To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill.
To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return.
To stand ashore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands.
To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.

 

Her father had been fond of saying that even a horse or a dog might always surprise you, and that the true inwardness of any among human-kind was like a forest at night, mysterious and full of the unexpected, with much hidden even from the self that dwelt there and walked beneath those trees. And prone to poking you in the eye if you moved heedlessly.

She blinked; the beauty of the view merged with the pain of missing him.

I will never share this with him, or anything like this, ever again.

She looked over at Reiko for an instant; their eyes met, shared a moment of communion across all boundaries of people and custom, then looked aside.

Yūgen,” Órlaith agreed.

They crossed the sloping pasture and headed into the valley of the Rógaire River on a track that switchbacked down a rocky slope overrun with purple-flowered deerbrush. The name of the stream was post-Change, bestowed during the years of chaos and violence when the Clan McClintock had taken form in these comely but rugged lands south of the Willamette Valley. Their first Chief, the McClintock Himself, had been a man of odd skills, esoteric knowledge and strong will who ended up founding his own small nation. One that modeled itself on him and his first core of helpers, as a saturated solution crystalizes around a seed; that part of physics hadn’t changed with the Change, and her instructors had demonstrated it in her chemistry lessons. It was much like what Órlaith’s grandmother Juniper had done in founding the Clan Mackenzie.

Only in a manner rather less sane, she thought.

One of the first McClintock’s many obsessions had been slapping names from the tongue of his ancestors on any piece of local geography that didn’t actively fight back, and by now many of the older terms had dropped out of living memory. Though he hadn’t quite been able to get his new clan to speak that language, if only because it would have taken too much time and effort when both were at a premium.

But they do mine it... or pull plums out of the pudding.

Diarmuid’s grandfather had been one of the first McClintock’s right-hand men, what they called a feartaic or tacksman, and Diarmuid had succeeded to this land when his father had demonstrated the risks of tackling a grizzly with a boar-spear several years ago.

Reiko came up again as the way broadened out from the narrow track into open oak-savannah, accompanied by her two closest advisors. She untied the chin-cords of that curious straw hat shaped like a flat-bottomed bowl and fanned herself with it for a moment; it was noticeably warmer in this sheltered hollow than up the mountainside.

“This man Di-ar-mu-id is... your... vassal?” she asked, in her own tongue and then in much-improved English that had even acquired a very slight Mackenzie lilt.

Órlaith nodded a little reluctantly; the knowledge she’d gained through the Sword warned her that vassal and fudai weren’t exactly the same thing. It wasn’t anything explicit, more a matter of a slight mental stumble, as if on an uneven pavement.

“More or less,” she said. “Through the McClintock himself himself, Colin, the ceann-cinnidh. Clan chief,” she added, again frustratingly conscious that shi and clan weren’t exactly the same thing either, nor was ichizoku.

Knowing a language was much better than not, but it didn’t mean perfect communication. Not even with Da’s magic sword. Her mother had said that once while she was teething her parents had come in to a room and found her gnawing on the pommel. There were times she still felt like doing that.

You have to work at getting across what you mean. And Reiko works, by Ogma of the Honey Tongue! She can follow most speech now.

“The McClintocks were early allies of my father’s birth-Clan, the Mackenzies,” she added, to clarify. “From their beginnings, soon after the Change. When my father returned from the Quest with the Sword of the Lady—“

She touched it with her palm on the crystal, the same gesture her father had used.

“—they were among the first to hail him High King; and they fought for him in the great battles of the Prophet’s War, and he confirmed them in their lands and a good deal more when Montival was founded and the Great Charter proclaimed. They... hmmm... resemble Mackenzies somewhat in their customs.”

Edain had trotted back, saluting and leaning on his bow to listen for a moment as she spoke. She’d been repeating each sentence in English and Japanese and he grinned at the last part.

“Resemble us? That they do. Somewhat as a donkey resembles a horse, so,” he said.

“That was not tactful, old wolf,” Órlaith said affectionately. To Reiko: “Some... ah... consider the McClintocks a little... I think you would say soya. Rustic.”

Edain snorted. “And some consider them a bunch of drunken savages from the arse-end of nowhere,” he said cheerfully; almost the first time since her father fell she’d seen him so.

Egawa spoke; Reiko started to translate and then made a graceful gesture of apology.

The Imperial Guard commander looked at his sovereign, tucked his head when she waved him on, and asked:

“How do they fight, your Highness?”

“Understand, General Egawa, I haven’t seen them in combat myself.”

In fact, that fight when we rescued you and Da fell was my first real battle. But not the last, by the Dagda’s club and the wings of the Morrigú! Not while those who killed Da walk the ridge of the Earth.

“My father’s appraisal was that they were fine skirmishers and raiders in broken country, especially in wooded land like this.”

She inclined her head to indicate the mountains and foothills they’d been traveling through.

“Good at scouting, good at ambushes—both ways. And very fierce in a massed charge, especially if their enemy isn’t expecting them. They’re weak against cavalry on open ground, or against disciplined foot-soldiers, if they don’t win by a quick rush. And they have no artillery—no field catapults—or engineers. They can’t take fortified places, except small ones by scaling ladder. Da would say... that they have all the courage in the world, but not so much staying power.”

Egawa nodded. “I knew your Royal father only by watching him command one small battle,” he said thoughtfully; it was a manner she recognized, a craftsman speaking of his trade. “But that was enough to show him to be a man whose judgments in war were to be taken very seriously.”

The words were praise, but they were sincerely meant. Órlaith swallowed and took a deep breath; it was getting a little easier to think of him without actual physical pain, especially when she had something to focus on.

“How many of them are there?” he asked. Casually, but there was a slight edge of tension in his voice.

“Nobody knows exactly,” she said. “They don’t take censuses, they had some... unfortunate experiences with that soon after the Change. The Lord Chancellor’s office thinks somewhere between one and two hundred thousand. They sent more than ten thousand warriors to the great battle in the Horse Heaven Hills the year I was born, and there are certainly more of them now, they’ve been spreading. They don’t like being crowded, which means to them being able to see a neighbor’s smoke.”

The Japanese were as difficult to read as any people she’d met, not least because they were also apparently free of the impulse to fill a silence with talk just for the sake of it. Reiko blinked quickly, and Egawa squinted thoughtfully. Koyama gave no reaction at all, simply noting what she said. She still thought they found that a large number.

“There’s a many of them at the tacksman’s steading now, Princess,” Edain said. “Gathered for Beltane, and stayed for a handfasting; the party was just splitting up and the wreath still on the bride’s head.”

She nodded; the May feast was a lucky time for joinings, as for beginnings in general, and weddings were common in this month among followers of the Old Faith.

“Whose handfasting?” she asked.

“The tacksman himself, to be precise. The bride’s name is Caitlin Banaszak McClintock, who I think—“

He raised his eyes tactfully, and did not grin.

“—I think you know.”

Órlaith exhaled slightly; that would simplify things. She had no intention of taking a consort until she came of age for the Throne.

Heuradys murmured: “Oh, good,” and the three of them shared a glance. “Cry hail to Aphrodite, and to Eros, You Goddess gentle and strong, You powerful God,” the knight added piously, but with a grin. “And may Hera of the Hearth bless them. She’s probably pregnant, too.”

I’ve never thought Diarmuid was ambitious that way, Órlaith thought. But being the High Queen Regnant’s consort might be tempting to any able man, if he thought he could gain it.

They came out into the pocket of flattish land on the south bank of the broad swift Rógaire, noisy with the spring melt and still rising as the mountains warmed and shed their white winter coats.

The river ran westward several hundred miles from the High Cascades to the Pacific at Tràigh òr, mostly through mountains and often in deep narrow canyons. Land that wasn’t too rocky or steep to farm came in patches along river and tributaries, some quite extensive and others small like this; canoes and rafts afloat and pack-beasts through the forests and folk on their own feet were the links that held the McClintock dùthchas together, as far as anything did. The mountain winters with their storms and huge snows hadn’t been kind to the ancient world’s roads and bridges, and the dwellers here lived widely scattered, each family or little kin-group to itself.

Hooves and feet thudded and drummed on the rutted trail that led them on, flanked by planted walnut trees. Diarmuid’s steading showed him to be a great man, by local standards, though in some places—Corvallis or Boise, for example—it would have been about what a well-to-do yeoman farmer might have.

Unless you count the warriors he could call out at need.

Sixty or so acres along the river were planted to wheat and barley and oats, hay and fodder and potatoes, orchards of cherry and apple and pears and other fruits, truck gardens and a small patch of gnarled goblet-trained grape vines. A shift of the wind brought a waft of smoky, pungent odor from long huts by the river that told of brine-cured salmon being smoked; the big fish swarmed thickly here in spring and even more so in the fall. A flume led from a creek to an overshot waterwheel, standing next to a small stone-built mill that would grind grain, saw timber, break flax and lift some of the labor of fulling woolen cloth for all the neighborhood. The forests themselves would yield as much or more than the fields, game for meat and hides, bones and fat and horn; wood and fuel; dyestuffs, honey and wax; nuts and other wild provender and pasturage for cattle and swine and sheep.

Eight crofts shared the land, little log-and-fieldstone cabins standing back from the bank and possible flooding amid their own gardens that included flowers as well as vegetables, and the intense blue of patches of blossoming fall-sown flax wove bands of color near the houses. There would be more homes tucked away in suitable pockets for many score miles around, and upstream and down. Families who followed the Tennart sub-chieftains to war when the Red Arrow went around, and met here for worship at the great feasts of the Wheel of the Year or in assembly to vote on disputes or for something like cobbler’s work when travelling artisans came through on their rounds.

Diarmuid’s house was larger, though quite modest compared to a north-realm manor or a rich merchant’s mansion in Corvallis. A two-story block of deep-notched logs rested on a foundation of mortared fieldstone; lower wings in a U shape stood around a cobbled court. High-pitched roofs reared above, shake and birch-bark covered in dense flower-starred green turf, and the rafter-ends snarled in the shape of dragons. The log walls were carved in sinuous running patterns based on a three-armed spiral where they weren’t covered with trellised roses just coming into full crimson bloom.

The house was on a rise of ground. Not far away, but beyond the scatter of tree-shaded barns and sheds, corrals and stables and workshops, was a low hill with a rough circle of tall trees. It was surrounded by a screen of the sacred Rowan, planted many years ago when the Old Faith swept this area. That was the nemed, the Sacred Wood. You couldn’t see the altar from here, but two carven trunks of old-growth incense cedar had been set in stones where the path wound up to it, each a thick baulk thirty feet high.

One was wrought at its top with the image of stag-headed Cernnunos, two torcs of twisted gold in His hands. The other was Flidais, with Her sacred white deer crouched at Her feet, the Goddess standing naked and bold, cattle-horns raised in Her grip. The colors of the figures glittered fresh under a coat of varnish.

The carving was cruder than it would have been in the Mackenzie dùthchas; for that matter, most of the northern Clan’s duns would have used Lug of the Many Skills leaning on His spear and Brigit the Bright holding the wheatsheaf of abundance and the flame of inspiration for the images, as they did outside the gates of Dun Juniper. But Mackenzies were village-dwelling farmers and craftsfolk who also hunted and fished; the McClintocks were hunters and fishermen who also farmed and practiced crafts. Here in the vast steep tangle of forest and mountain, glacial lake and swift tumbling river, their first worship went to the wild Powers of the lands beyond the tamed tilled fields, the Ones who dwelt in the rustling green silences that shaped their souls. There was a raw strength in the images that made her hand move in the Invoking gesture.

Flowers and boughs were piled at the feet of the god-posts, and a chain of flowers linked them, marks of the festival just past.

Diarmuid’s folk were gathered on a cobble-paved space before the outer doors of his house to greet the Royal party, about forty of them including some who must be guests. The shock-headed children might wear anything from nothing whatsoever save an anklet of luck-beads to a shift-like shirt. Adults were in the baggy wool Feileadh Mòr, the wrapped and pinned Great Kilt in the blue-brown-red tartan of their Clan. This folk preferred that one-piece garment to what Órlaith privately considered the more elegant philibeg version that Mackenzies used, with its separate plaid. Though it was a matter of opinion; McClintocks had been known to refer to the Little Kilt as a little pleated skirt, something which had started brawls. Some here wore the Great Kilt alone, with its upper part thrown over a shoulder, and very little else down to their bare callused feet; except in the coldest parts of winter it would serve as cloak and blanket as well.

Diarmuid himself wore ankle-boots, knee-hose, a broad tooled-leather belt with a golden dragon buckle to hold his basket-hilted sword and dirk and sporran with its edging of badger fur, and a sleeveless shirt-tunic of fine saffron linen embroidered with green thread at the neck and hems. A slim torc of twisted gold circled his neck now—the mark of the handfasted in both Clans—and two chased gold bands were on his bare muscular upper arms. He was a young man of medium height, slim but broad-shouldered, with dark-blue eyes and seal-brown hair in a long queue, his chin shaven unlike most McClintock males but a mustache on his upper lip.

His new bride stood beside him in a fine embroidered linen leine, a long shift, under a newly woven arsaid in the Tennart colors. An arsaid was the most formal of woman’s garb and not much worn by those below middle age on anything but the greatest occasions... such as a wedding, or a Royal visit. It was much like the everyday kilt that all usually wore, but with the lower portion far longer, down to the ankles, and only a dirk on the belt. She had high cheeks and narrow grey eyes above a snub nose. Hair the color of birchwood flowed down in many long plaits confined by a flower garland of creamy white meadowsweet, often called Bridesblossom when put to this use.

One of the Japanese muttered: “Tattoos!”

Well, yes, Orlaith thought, suddenly conscious of them through a stranger’s eyes. And the way he says it... it feels like tattoos are something... dangerous and risqué.

It was what you’d first notice if you weren’t used to McClintocks, which not many apart from their immediate neighbors were. Diarmuid himself had elongated blue curves on his arms and legs, body and face; his lady Caitlin had the wings of a monarch butterfly around her eyes, the colors tawny-orange and black. Many of the others were both more gaudy and more crude.

There were a few non-McClintocks present. Their leader seemed to be a stocky man of medium height with ruddy-brown skin and his greying black hair in braids, dressed in plain homespun trousers and deerskin hunting-shirt and moccasins, and a few others with a family resemblance.

Yurok, she thought, nodding in his direction and getting a sober inclination of the head back. Have I met him?

She’d have guessed his tribe even without the Sword and the newfound communion with the Land of Montival—that was curiously muffled and incomplete as yet, probably because she hadn’t gone through the Kingmaking.

The Yurok folk still dwelt along the Klamath River south of here and more towards the coast, very far out of the way. Which accounted for their survival in their ancient homeland both in the days of the Americans and after the Change; her parents had made one visit there, when she was eleven, and it had been a hard trip. The Yurok had become autonomous again when the ancient world fell, absorbing most of the other dwellers in the region, and they’d made alliance with the first McClintock chieftain for mutual help against bandits and Eaters. Though they were part of the High Kingdom, such few dealings as they had with outsiders were mostly through his Clan.

And didn’t Diarmuid once tell me a family story of the Tennarts... yes, there’s some of that heritage on his father’s side. When the ancients first came to these lands two centuries ago one of his ancestors married a Yurok woman and brought her north to the valley of the Rógaire. He wasn’t the only one hereabouts. Not surprising. Even conquerors as hard and stark as the old Americans rarely sweep a land absolutely clear; some of the blood of the vanquished endures, however scattered or unknown, as water moves unseen through sand. Da’s father Mike Havel was a quarter Anishinabe, after all. Nonni Sandra had a Nez Perce great-grandmother married to a Quebecois trapper, and Grandmother Juniper had some Cherokee, very far back.

Órlaith reined in and raised her hand in greeting. The McClintocks cheered, a high ululating sound, pipers added the raw wail of the drones, and a drum boomed.

The adults—which with McClintocks meant anyone big enough—all brandished their weapons thrice in the air as they shouted, a gesture of greeting and fierce loyalty. That included a good many yew bows, spears, tomahawks, gruesome-looking Lochaber axes with their hooks and two-foot blades on six-foot poles, and swords that might be either basket-hilted claymores or the original claidheamh mòr, greatswords with blades four feet long worn over the back in a rawhide sling. Nobody was wearing armor, beyond round nail-studded shields with a central spike, they’d come here for a festival-feast and a wedding after all—the nailheads were polished bright. But McClintocks didn’t so much as go out to the privy without something in the way of a weapon. That was a habit that had been fading elsewhere lately, but it remained quite lively here.

The Japanese attracted looks and murmurs and some plain dropped jaws—most of these forest-dwellers would never have been outside their dùthchas in their lives, save for some of the older ones who’d marched off to the Prophet’s War and come home to tell the tale. A few started to bristle dangerously at the strangers, and Órlaith cut in before scrambled backwoods rumor about who’d been responsible for what got out of hand. These were a fierce folk, readier with their steel than her father’s people.

“These Nihonjin are our guests, and they share our feud,” she called, her hand on the hilt of the Sword to remind them that she could not mistake the truth of the matter. “As our guests and allies, they are under the Crown’s protection.”

The scowls turned to smiles, or sheepish foot-shuffling when Diarmuid turned and glared at them for breaking the peace of his greeting. She dismounted and handed off the reins of her horse before she went to one knee briefly and took a clod of earth in her hand to touch to her lips.

When she rose she spoke formally:

“I, Órlaith, daughter of Artos and Mathilda, of the House of Artos and the line of the High Kings of Montival, ask welcome on the lands of Clan McClintock and the sept of the Tennarts. I come as a guest claiming guest-right for me and mine, by the leave of the Clan and its Gods and its folk, and of the aes dana of rock and tree and river, bird and beast.”

Diarmuid and Caitlin stepped forward and each exchanged the ritual kiss on both cheeks with her. Diarmuid’s clean male scent of hard flesh and woodsmoke and wool was familiar and comforting even just as a friend, and Caitlin’s garland of brideblossom had an overpowering sweet lushness that had soaked into her hair.

“The House of the Ard Rí and our Bana Ard Rí to be are always welcome on this land and among our folk,” he said gravely. “For our land is the land of Montival and we are of the High King’s people.”

His voice had the McClintock accent, a deep burr that rolled the ‘r’ sounds and swallowed others: our became ooorr and to became tae. That was a legacy of the first McClintock too, as the soft Mackenzie lilt was of Grandmother Juniper. The early followers of both had adopted the habits of speech as a sign of belonging and it had spread as more joined them. To their children and grandchildren and now great-grandchildren it was simply the way they spoke, changing slowly as a living speech rooted in a settled place and people did. Few realized it had ever been otherwise, or that many had thought the original fashion excruciatingly artificial.

Especially Grandmother Juniper. Whereas the McClintock reveled in it. Ah, well.

“A hundred thousand welcomes, tae ye and all yours!” Caitlin added, with what seemed like perfectly genuine enthusiasm.

It is, Orlaith knew with a slight chill. She means it... and sure, I can tell that she does. Useful, but I can see now why Da thought the Sword a burden and a danger to the bearer.

“In the name of the Mother-of-All and the Horned God and all the kindreds o’ land an’ water and sky who dwell wi’ us here,” Caitlin went on.

One of Diarmuid’s followers handed Caitlin a carved cedarwood platter piled high with little wedges of dark wholemeal bread beside a bowl of salt. His eldest sister Seonag was about twelve, and stood with a frown of grave concentration on her face and a great carved ox-horn in her hands, brimming with red wine, its tip and rim bound in pale gold. Their mother Gormall—who was also High Priestess here, in the usual way—wore a white robe bound with the Triple Cords and carried a carved rowan-wood staff tipped with the waxing and full and waning moons in wrought silver. She signed the plate and horn with it before it was brought forward.

Órlaith took a piece of the bread and dipped it into the salt in the carved wooden bowl, ate the morsel and took the horn, raising it to the four Quarters before pouring out a small libation, taking a sip of the full strong liquor and passing it on; when it came back she drank the last drops and ceremoniously turned it upside-down. Mackenzies would probably have used mead instead, but the ritual was much the same as that of her father’s birth-folk.

So were Gormall’s words, more or less: “Holy and peace-holy is the guest beneath our roof and on our land,” she said proudly; she was a gaunt woman in her late forties, with graying dark hair. “Keep ye all the geasa of a’ocht, of sacred guest-right, or suffer the anger of the Keeper of Laws and the Wise One.”

With the formalities out of the way, Diarmuid’s face was intent as he studied hers.

“So it’s true, then, Orrey?” he said quietly.

She nodded, and he bit his lip and shook his head. “Och, he was a man in ten thousand, a hundred thousand,” he said. “We bewailed him here when the courier came, but I’d hoped...”

His mother shook her head as well, in disagreement rather than negation. Her voice was somber:

“Naen wi’ the Sight could hae doubted it. The Earth’s very self wept and keened him, when his blood lay upon it. It weeps yet, and rages, that the sacred King was slain untimely by the weapons of foreign men, and that his life was spilled on the holy eve of life’s beginnings.”

Órlaith swallowed and nodded. “I’ve no wish to darken your handfasting,” she said. “Or to strain your stores, it being spring—“ the hungry season, furthest from the last harvest and before the earth yielded much in the way of crops or garden stuff “—and you having had your own feast to find these past days.”

Diarmuid smiled a little. “Nae, we’re well-placed for food-stores this year. The first salmon run was very good, and the wildfowl abundant, thanks be tae Modron, and the wild herds are as thick as I’ve ever seen now that they’re moving up tae the high country.”

Edain nodded, and flicked the string of his bow with a thumb. “We took two elk and a young boar yesterday. Cernnunos was generous; fair ran into us, they did, and us so many and making enough noise to fright the fae. They’re gralloched and slung over a pair of mules, but I’m thinking they’d do more good in your kitchen than over a campfire, if you don’t mind being offered your own, feartaic.”

That was both true and tactful. The prime cuts would go on the table tonight and however long the Royal party stayed, and the rest would go into the icehouse and help stretch the household’s supplies for days to come.

“I don’t mind in the least, master-bowman, ye’ve lang had leave tae hunt oor land,” Diarmuid said. “Enter then, a’, and be welcome; the bath-house is heating and the stoves are ready.”

 

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The bagpipes sounded, overpowering within the little hall as the pipers strutted around the inner side of the hollow square the tables made, their plaids swinging as they paced. Behind them solemn youths and maidens carried the platters—mostly grilled salmon brushed with oil infused with garlic, onions and ginger, baked on cedar planks that still smoked and sputtered aromatically. But they were accompanied by roast boar and elk and a smoked bear-ham, baskets of loaves, vegetables in the wicker containers used to steam them, and salads of wild spring greens and much else. Órlaith found herself sniffing at the scents with interest; they’d been many days with nothing but trail rations.

“Ith gu leòir!” Diarmuid called.

The pipers downed their drones, the helpers set their burdens within everyone’s reach between the butter-crocks and wheels of cheese, and sat on the benches themselves; the thirty or so diners said their thanks in their various ways. Órlaith drew the Invoking pentagram over her plate and murmured the Blessing.

“Eat plenty!” Diarmuid added, translating the ritual cry into the common speech.

His new wife smiled up at him, and his mother fondly at both of them. The older woman had a wistful look to her, probably because she saw her man in her son, and her own youth in her daughter-in-law. Diarmuid himself beamed around with pride.

He’d seen the splendors of the north at court and on visits; Órlaith thought the better of him that his standards of judgment remained solidly grounded here in the land that had born and nourished him, in his own heimat.

Her father had picked up that word from one of his companions on the Quest to Nantucket, a Midwesterner called Ingolf the Wanderer by many. Though she’d mostly known him as Uncle Ingolf, since he was married to her father’s half-sister Mary.

Heimat meant the little homeland of the heart, the patria chica, small and very dear, the place your kin dwelt in a landscape dense with their stories and deeds and where you expected to lay your ashes in turn and your children after you. This was Diarmuid’s however he named it, the house his father and mother had built, the land they tilled to feed him, the river that had sung him to sleep in his cradle, the nemed where he worshiped with his clansfolk and the hills where he’d hunted and dreamed as a boy.

That didn’t lessen his loyalty to the High Kingdom; if anything, it strengthened it with the strength he drew from deep-rooted heartstrings. Montival was a mosaic of little homelands within the greater, some very strange indeed, but all rightly and greatly beloved by their dwellers.

And I don’t really have a heimat, she thought a little sadly.

She didn’t grudge Diarmuid his contentment, even if her heart was still raw; if anything it was comforting. This...

Normal life, she thought. Just... life, with its ordinary sorrows and its sweet common joys as one generation follows another.

... was the reason for the Royal kindred’s powers and its burdens. But she was inclined to see the melancholy side of everything just now, and supposed she would be for the natural term of grief.

Da was a Mackenzie at seventh and last; the dùthchas was his heart-place, Dun Juniper especially. And Mom is an Associate—for her it’s the core of the Protectorate, the Crown’s demesne land around Portland and Todenangst, castle and manor and village. But I’ve traveled all my life. I love those places but they’re not mine in quite the same way. Because everything is, so nothing is. Not in that special fashion.

The core of Diarmuid’s house was a rectangular hall with a second-story gallery around it. Many of the wedding guests had tactfully—though reluctantly—departed homeward to leave room for the newcomers. Most of the stripped-down numbers of the Royal party were being feasted in the outbuildings where they’d doss for the night. That left room for the ones seated at the trestle tables if they didn’t mind touching elbows. Diarmuid’s kin and retainers were there, and the core of the Royal party and Reiko and her closest advisors of the Nihonjin guests. The spring night in the mountains was cool enough that the low flickering of the log fire on the hearth was welcome.

That and the lanterns on the gallery rails cast uneasy light on pillars carved in the shapes of Gods and heroes, walls covered in pelts of wolf and bear and tiger, or with the horns and skulls of beasts preserved to honor their beauty or bravery, or weapons and shields and a few helms and mail-shirts. Equipment in the corners under the overhang—disassembled looms and spinning-wheels and more—showed that this room was used for crafts as well, though mostly during the short days and long nights of winter when snow and rain and mud bound field and forest. Up on the gallery were shelves with several hundred books, some of tales, more of instruction on everything from magic and ritual to how to compost manure, volumes which the feartaic kept but all the neighborhood could consult.

Órlaith sat at the head table nearest the hearth, in the seat of honor on Diarmuid’s right. That put Reiko and her advisors within hearing distance despite the buzz of conversation, and the fact that it was in another language made it easier to pick things up from what they said. She heard the Imperial Guard commander mutter:

“Majesty, how do these people manage to avoid eternal constipation, with all the meat they eat?”

Her folk don’t seem to be vegetarians, or most of them aren’t, but I’m not surprised they look on red meat as an occasional treat, Órlaith thought.

Heuradys nodded too when she murmured it in English.

“Not much land to use for pasture,” she said. “Not surprising that they like seafood, either, if they can’t have big herds and they all live close to saltwater.”

Órlaith looked at the four Japanese leaders and thought of the others in their party. “Notice they’re none of them what you’d be calling big men?” she said. “They’re very fit and they all seem strong, but not one of the men is as tall as you or I—most of them are shorter than Diarmuid, and he’s middling to our eyes. Reiko is what, five-six? And she looks tallish in their company the way you or I do in Montival.”

“That might be hereditary, like their looks. Height runs in families, sometimes.”

“To be sure, though both my grandmothers were short women and I’m after being a bit of a tall poppy. But you know how feeding works.”

They both did; even in generally prosperous Montival there were places where you could trace the history of the last half century simply by looking at successive generations—the few tall elderly survivors who’d been near adult at the Change and who came of long lines of the well-fed, their shorter children born to grinding want, and then their children and grandchildren inching—literally—back up. It was largely a matter of how long it had taken each to adapt to the new world.

Heuradys looked at the Nihonjin. “They’re a bit short but not scrawny. On the other hand, they’re nobles or nobles’ retainers where they come from, right? If they live on those little islands you mentioned, maybe even the gentry are used to eating sparely—enough but only just, and not of rich foods.”

Reiko was deftly using her chopsticks to free a morsel of the salmon fillet before her while the two Montivallans spoke. She and her followers had all chosen the fish, except for one who’d taken a slice from the haunch of the boar and was eating it with relish.

“This salmon is excellent, General,” she said to the older man who’d grumbled, and ate the morsel with catlike precision. “Different, but not in the least repulsive. And there is plenty of fiber in this bread.”

She broke a piece from her loaf and nibbled delicately. Órlaith noticed she was averting her eyes from most of the feasters. Even Mackenzies considered McClintocks a little rowdy at table, though nothing outright disgusting was going on—the Tennarts were tacksmen, after all; this wasn’t a woodsrunner’s single-room cabin twenty miles from the nearest neighbors. No doubt the woodsrunner would consider Diarmuid a trifle citified and sissy, or awesomely sophisticated, because he used a fork and napkin and didn’t chuck gnawed bones directly to his dog.

“It’s not entirely different from anpan,” Reiko went on; thanks to the Sword Órlaith knew that meant a sort of bread-like dumpling. “No bean-paste filling, of course, and it’s a little sour, but fine if you make an effort. They are providing us with the best they have; it would be ungracious to quibble.”

Even Reiko was avoiding the cheese and butter, Órlaith noticed. All of the Nihonjin seemed to find dairy products viscerally repulsive. The dried fruit pastries that ended the meal were well-received. Heuradys leaned forward slightly and spoke to Reiko:

“One of your men seems a little uncomfortable, Your Majesty. Perhaps it’s the chairs?”

“Which one?” Reiko said.

“The younger, handsome one.”

Órlaith looked herself. One of the Japanese was shifting a little when he didn’t focus on it, as if the wool-stuffed leather cushions were rasping something tender and he had to remind himself to sit still.

And yes, he’s sort of handsome; sort of dashing in fact, all whipcord and that slightly tousled hair despite the odd haircut, and he’s got a nice smile. Younger than the others, too, and a bit less dour. Altogether more pleasant to look at; I wonder why he’s here with the leadership?

The rest of Reiko’s close associates reminded Órlaith all too much of her father’s advisors, only more so and all men; rather grim middle-aged men at that, of the sort who’d been irritating her for years by refusing to acknowledge that she wasn’t twelve any more... often without realizing they were doing it, which was doubly irritating. A few still expected her to be playing with dolls and chattering about her new pony or goshawk.

She hadn’t gone through the butting-heads-with-father stage many teenagers did; that seemed to be more of a thing for boys anyway. She had had her quarrels with her mother, though that was years past, and there had been a while when she found both her parents excruciatingly embarrassing. Which was embarrassing and sad too now that she looked back on it.

But those old men made her sympathize with the boys’ tantrums at times; and she admired the way Reiko seemed to have hers well in hand.

“Ah, Ishikawa Goru,” Reiko said, giving him a look.

Suddenly she laughed a little, holding one hand over her mouth as she did; it was the first time Órlaith had seen her lose her solemnity, and it made her look much younger for an instant. Then she spoke in her much-improved but still somewhat shaky English:

“I will not tell him that you say. He also thinks he is handsome. But he is one sailor, ship captain is not used to be on horseback long time. Sore, neh? Not... not so dignified as he like to be.”

The three young women shared a chuckle; Ishikawa had caught his name, looked up to see their eyes and smiles on him, started to preen and then winced again as straightening his back rubbed the sensitive portions of his thighs and buttocks the wrong way. Then he smiled ruefully himself.

Yes, quite a charming smile.

McClintocks had no greater proportion of drunks among them than most folk, despite what Edain might say, but they did drink deep at a wedding feast—or at a wake. After the wine that went with the food on this special occasion, decanters of brandy and fruit cordials and a smoky, potent whiskey were set out, with bowls of nuts and raisins as accompaniment. Órlaith took a glass of the barley spirit and sipped, welcoming the way it put a slight wall between her and the pain.

After the first toasts, the Yurok she’d noticed rose and stood before Diarmuid. In the ritual of the place he reached out and the head of the household touched his hand; the buzz of speech died down at the sign that someone was to address them all. From behind the chief table the firelight made his craggy brown face a thing of gullies and mysteries. He looked at Órlaith and raised his hand in a gesture of greeting.

Hoyeee,” he said, which meant hello in the Yurok language—though in their own tongue they actually called themselves Puliklah, which meant downstream people.

She would have known that much without the Sword; the Yurok spoke English among themselves for the most part, but they kept the old language alive for ceremony and she’d heard it when her parents brought her there.

Hoyeee, Segep,” she said. “Hello, Coyote.”

She wasn’t sure whether his name was her own memory of that visit a decade ago or supplied by the Lady’s gift. It was actually a nickname. The Downstream People had an elaborate system of taboos on what name could be said where and when and by whom, formal names were often limited to use by close kin, and all of them changed names at least once during their lives. Using the right name was important, because the wrong one or the right one in the wrong context could be a mortal insult, extremely bad luck, or both—

And I suddenly understand how to use the names, she thought. It’s the Sword, sure and it is.

Hoyeee, Sun Hair Tall,” he replied, then dropped back into English: “I remember your visit.”

“You showed me the sea-otters,” she said.

And smiled slightly at the sudden image of that tumbling playfulness in the waves. That at least was her own and unaided, and she could suddenly recall how she’d run to her parents jumping with the wonder of it.

“And... ayekwee,” he said: the sorrowing farewell to the dead.

After a moment of silence he went on: “I came because my sister said it was a... wise thing that we meet. She is... mahrávaan.

Órlaith felt a prickle of alarm as that woman came to stand beside her brother. Literally that term meant One Who Hunts, or Tracker. In English, it was most commonly rendered as shaman. Among the Yurok they were almost always female. She must have hunted true, to be here just when the Crown Princess and her folk passed through. There weren’t any heliograph nets in the McClintock dùthchas, and doubly so in the Yurok land; they’d have had to start before the High King’s party met their foes down in Napa to be here now.

Segep’s sister was quite a bit younger and somewhat less stocky than he was, and had a hard face that Órlaith would normally have called clever. Right now she looked...

Alarmed, like me, Órlaith thought.

“I had a dream, Sun Hair Tall,” the Yurok woman said, in the old tongue of her people. “I went into the mountains, up the Stair, and I danced, I took pain, I sang.”

She came forward, but when she spoke it was to Reiko, and in English... mostly. “You from across the western sea,” she said. “Uema’ah are after you, they track you, they seek you.”

“Devils,” Órlaith whispered to her, and her face changed; it wasn’t a word the Yurok used lightly. “She says devils are after you.”

The shaman continued: “They run through the night, they make black flame, they seek to shoot you with the obsidian arrows of death. You need a... a great thing to defeat them. Like the war-club of a hero, like Puelekuekwar, Downriver Peg. It rests here in this land, the thing you need, somewhere, somewhere south, through the lost City of Sky Spirits, toward the Valley of Death. It shouldn’t be here; it should be yours in your own country. A good thing can become a bad thing in the wrong place, and my... helpers... can see it because they are altogether of this land, they know what fits and what doesn’t. You have to go and get it and take it home to its proper place—but you will need the help of everything that does belong here.

Then something seemed to go out of her, and she licked her lips and spoke in a more normal voice.

“And don’t ask me what that means, because I don’t want to think about it again. Once was enough. And damn, but I need a drink.”

Reiko had been straining to make sense of the unfamiliar language.

“I am... I am afraid I do know what it means,” she said, when Órlaith had explained a few things she had missed.

The shaman and her brother returned to their places at table, where she did begin to punish the plum brandy, to nobody’s surprise. Another buzz of conversation arose among the McClintocks. Órlaith pointedly did not listen to the jotei’s conversation with her countrymen, whose eyes were widening as she explained.

Diarmuid stood after a moment. “This is a serious matter, and aa’ o’ we should take the words of these oor Yurok kinsmen and friends seriously,” he said, as complete silence fell. “Sae heed the wisewoman’s foresecht.”

His mother the High Priestess nodded vigorously, and her son went on.

“We’re at feud for certain, blood feud, and soon at war, like enough. Don’t chatter like magpies, or foemen may hear an’ tak advantage.”

“Aye, or things worse than foemen,” his mother said bluntly. “I know you’re aa’, each and every one, clapperdins who love tae chew the claik better than meat, and spilling secrets better than suppin’ whiskey, but you’ll keep yer mouths shut aboot this.”

Diarmuid glared to make sure everyone had taken his message and his mother’s, then turned to two of the young men sitting down towards the end of the table on his left. They might well be relatives and were certainly retainers, probably living with him and helping with the family’s work for a few years to get a little polish and see a bit of the world beyond their parents’ crofts up in the hills.

“Dòmhnall na Cluaise—” this Donald was indeed missing an ear, from the looks via an encounter with something’s, or possibly someone’s, teeth “—and Ìomhair a' Bhogha Mhaide”—Ivor who might well be a bowman, from his shoulders “—get tae it.”

The household men sprang up and pulled a blanket from a shape in the middle of the room; it was a harp, the tall triangular Clàrsach, strung with metal and with its long soundbox hewn from a single trunk of willow.

The smooth curves of polished wood glittered, wrought with knotwork patterns, and a sigh went through the room as the tension flowed away. Diarmuid’s mother went to take the stool before it, and his sister stood beside. The brilliant notes of the harp rang out as the older woman’s hands moved, and Órlaith recognized the slow tune.

Suddenly the whiskey was no protection at all, and she bent her head as the young girl’s sweet pure voice rose in ancient unbearable lament:

 

“The Flowers of the Forest,
that foucht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land
are cauld in the clay...”

 

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