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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

 
Ithilien/Moon County, Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly Marin, California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
May 10th (Lothron 9th), Change Year/Fifth Age 46/2044 A.D.

 

It was the smell that alerted Faramir Kovalevsky and made him suddenly fling up his clenched right fist, open the hand and swing it down. All three of them went to ground within a stride, and he chose the moss-grown trunk of a Douglas fir that had been as thick through as his body before it fell. His cloak spread out over him as he did a controlled fall, which it was designed and cut and weighted to do. The loose hood wasn’t so different from the color of the dead tree that it would betray him as he raised his head just high enough for his eyes to clear it, and it broke the distinctive outline of a human head.

Nothing to see.

Nothing except the trees, a mixture of goldcup oak and fir and pine and eucalyptus, green and silent with long slanting rays of sunlight breaking through and painting spots in shivering gold. Bright yellow broom edged them where the light penetrated.

They’d been heading southeast along the tracks of the yrch bands, downslope and into thicker woods again. That had taken them almost to the Estolad Rhudaur, an ancient campground as the name—Eastwood Camp—implied. It was more a thinning of trees than an actual clearing now, but there were ancient water taps that had been repaired, with tables and firepits and an open-sided roofed structure to keep firewood dry and shelter travelers in the rainy season. Which gave him an idea, if they could reach the spot. The outer layer of that wood would still be damp.

Beyond this stretch the land flattened out into the valley-bottoms of southern Ithilien, much of which had been built up before the Change, though not with large structures for the most part; it was still an unbelievably perverse way to treat such good farmland. The wooden buildings had all burned to the ground in the summer of the first Change Year, and much of the forest immediately around them. Then they’d been overgrown with brush and scrub, but the woods were reclaiming them fast. Not least because the runoff from bits of old roadway and foundation pads concentrated enough water for large trees to grow quickly, and their roots in turn ground the stony parts of the ruins to rubble and then slowly to dust and shaded out competitors.

Those trees included species from all over the world, descendants of those in parks and lawns, but the undergrowth was still thick and spiny beneath the canopy in many spots, or wound into tangles that only boar could penetrate by masses of feral grape and multiflora rose. Right beyond that were vast swampy tidal longshore marshes scattered with small creeks and inlets and overgrown spots of firm land where it would be easy to hide small boats... or in spots, even large ones. They were also favored dwellings for boar and Tule elk and the tiger who fed on them, but that just meant you had to be careful.

While his mind reviewed the terrain his eyes were still busy, and his nose. The scent came to him again faintly on a sough of wind, hard and dry, a combination of never-washed bodies and badly-cured hides and an undertone of rot. The wind was from the east, giving him an advantage. And precisely because of times like this Stath Ingolf’s Rangers always washed themselves and their clothes with soap that included essences taken from a dozen types of local vegetation. Except at point-blank range, they smelled like forest and grassland or even the mass of matted vegetation that covered much of the dead cities. Or just vaguely green.

More silence. Then, off to his right—southward of due west, three o’clock in the system his people used—a flock of birds broke out of some brush. More and more of them, spiraling upward like smoke amid a clamor of harsh screaming cries.

Bornaew, he thought.

They were medium-sized iridescent long-tailed green birds with fiery red heads and heavy hooked beaks, common all over this area except in deep closed-canopy forest, and they swarmed in the ruins. This flock was medium-sized, five hundred or so; he’d seen thousands together in late summer, and farmers and gardeners cursed the sight of them. And they were quite sensitive to certain types of disturbance by mankind. Dúnedain didn’t eat them, but yrch did, along with anything else they could catch, something at which they were actually fairly good.

They didn’t need to eat men any more. It was more in the nature of a tradition, and possibly a sport.

He lowered his head, smoothly and neither too quickly or too slowly. His hands moved, and both Morfind and Malfind were close enough to see if he exaggerated the movements a little.

Did you notice the bornaew?

Nods, and he went on: The yrch are circling to our flank, that’s what spooked the birds, I think they know we’re coming but aren’t sure of our exact location or our numbers.

Dúnedain didn’t travel alone around here, but a pair would be common enough or the standard three for a patrol.

I’m good here, but Malfind, shift so you’re covered from that direction. Morfind, up and snipe on your judgment or when you hear me call. And for later... do you have an incendiary in your quiver?

She nodded. Two.

Both of you, rally point is Eastwood Camp if we get separated. Fire the woodpile if you can, they’ll see that at home. Go!

Malfind found a section of concrete, broken long ago and sticking up from the earth like a tilted slab and overgrown with creeping fig like fur on a really shaggy dog. His sister slung her bow, leapt, caught the lowest branch of a live oak and swarmed upward at the same speed as a brisk walk on the ground; she didn’t need to extend the climbing spurs built into Dúnedain elfboots or slip her hands into the similarly-equipped gloves they all carried. In instants she disappeared behind the rustling leaves.

Malfind was almost as invisible burrowed into the glossy mass of the creeping fig, his mottled cloak nearly disappearing even to Faramir, who knew where he was and wasn’t more than twenty paces off either. Usually that plant was an absolute tree-killing nuisance, but he blessed the Lord of Woods for letting it grow there now. The other Ranger put his spear down just to hand, but with the head concealed under more of the vine. Then he put his shield leaning beside him with the grip-side out and made his bow ready.

Everything depends on how many there are, Faramir thought, easing his own shield off likewise.

He took three arrows out of his quiver and put them in his left hand, held against the wood of his bow’s riser by his index finger, an old speed-shooting trick.

They wouldn’t have left too many behind... I hope. Not when they have to pick them up again when they hit the water and their boats. Assuming they are heading for the water and boats, but it doesn’t make sense to try getting all the way around the Bay on foot.

His mouth was dry enough to make him think of his canteen with longing, and he was suddenly glad he’d stopped to water a tree not long ago.

Tulkas the Strong, You who laughed as You wrestled with Morgoth Bauglir, lend me from Your strength and courage, he thought.

Slowly he raised his head again, just enough to bring his eyes over the log, and brought out a pre-Change relic from a pouch at his belt. It was a treasure his mother given him last Midwinter Feast, a little metal tube known as a Vanguard monocular. Through it the distant became close. Hiding was important, but if you didn’t keep the approach to your hiding-place under observation the first hint that the enemy had found you would be a blade through the kidney.

That gave him a good view as the first Eater eeled through the screen of madrone about five-score paces away. The Ranger was slightly shocked he hadn’t seen him before, since that was no more than easy bowshot. The foliage barely moved more than the wind would have done and the man’s bare feet touched down without so much as a twig crackling.

The Eater was short and wiry, his muscles not huge but knotted and moving taunt under his skin as he stepped with the loose-tight care of a cat on a stalk; to Ranger eyes he looked to be thirty at least and was probably no more than two or three years older than Faramir. The monocular let the Ranger see his eyes flicker, bright blue and tracking back and forth.

Not all the scars were from battle or accident. Three parallel ones marked his nose like the rungs of a ladder, and there was a bone—almost certainly a human finger-bone—through the septum, and two more through his earlobes. His skull was crudely shaven except for a lock at the back, and he wore a twisted loincloth made of a wisp of ragged pre-Change cloth, a more intact-looking belt, and a whole deerskin worn as a cloak and tied around his neck by the forelimbs.

A Cut-Nose, Faramir thought.

Their usual territory was far south around the southwestern corner of the Bay and down into Imrath Ivor, the Valley of Crystal: they called themselves the Altos, from a pre-Change place-name. They were a biggish group by Eater standards, and they’d been pushing north lately against the many small Peninsula bands weakened by the long struggle with the Montivallans.

More worrisome was the rest of his gear. The Eater bands had taken to imitating Ranger bows lately, as best they could. They didn’t have anything like the craftsmanship needed to make composite bows from scratch... but they had access to a lot of salvage. Some cannibal genius with a vocabulary of a few hundred words had decided that the top couple of feet of two skis could be cut off to make good limbs for a bow, proving his Uncle Ingolf right when he pointed out that you shouldn’t confuse education with native wit. All the Eaters had to do was carve a piece of hard wood into a riser-grip like those of the Dúnedain weapon and carefully peg the curved fiberglass shapes to it.

That was within their skill-set and required no toolcraft more sophisticated than a knife, a hammer and an experienced eye. The result wasn’t nearly as good as what Montivallan bowyers turned out and the draw-weights were modest, but it was also very much better than the nothing the Eaters had had before. Faramir’s father had once told him that if you played chess with good players long enough, you got good. That axiom was from his far-northern homeland in the Peace River country where there wasn’t much else to do over the long dark winters, but it was proving to be dismally true here in sunny Ithilien too.

It was two generations since the Change. The stranded urbanites so helpless without their machines that they were unable to catch anything but other humans as ignorant as themselves had become fairly effective savages. And apparently the inhabitants of pre-Change San Francisco and environs had been mad for skiing, despite having to travel all the way to the Sierras to do it, judging by the abundance of raw material resting in ancient buildings.

This orch had a perfectly workable if odd-looking recurve made in that fashion, with bits of leaf and straw stuck to the limbs to disguise it, and a bark quiver full of shafts fletched with gull-feathers at his hip. He also had a long knife and a machete, modern rawhide grips on pre-Change steel, and a hatchet with a yard-long lemonwood handle much like the Dúnedain tomahawks if less graceful and well-balanced.

The Eater padded forward. Faramir didn’t move; the monocular was well under the shadow of his hood, which would disguise the regularity of the outline as well as the distinctive curve of a human head. If he stayed immobile, at a hundred yards the orch would almost certainly miss him despite being alert and good at the work. Miss him long enough to think the coast was clear at least.

There’s going to be a fight, the Ranger knew. At least it’s not them ambushing us from close range.

That would have been a very short fight.

The teeth of the Cut-Nose were yellow, except where broken ones had turned black. They all showed in snarling rictus of rage and fear. The Eater knew that he’d been sent forward as an animated target to draw fire, a provocation to a keyed-up hidden enemy to reveal themselves with a couple of well-placed broadheads. A watching eye and a prepared mind could trace the first arrow’s flight back to the bow without even really thinking about it. It must have taken some powerful compulsion or persuasion to shove him into the open like that.

Minutes passed. The Cut-Nose relaxed fractionally and stood more erect. Faramir remained just as motionless; if anything, the man’s peripheral vision was probably better now. His instructors had taught him that most people’s sight closed in like a tunnel when they were in fear of sudden death. The effort required for relaxed stillness helped the Ranger keep his breathing and heartbeat under control too, which improved his ability to see and sense.

The orch scout made a chittering noise and four more Eaters came forward out of the undergrowth, all Cut-Noses. One didn’t have a nose and there were other things wrong with her as well, though they didn’t seem to affect movement or senses. The Eaters were notably careless about eating fish and seals and birds from the Bay.

The life there was swarmingly abundant now, probably more than it had been for hundreds if not thousands of years, but there were still some spots livid green and iridescent blue and blood-crimson from leaking poisons that concentrated worse and worse as they went up the food-chain, and others more dangerous still because they were invisible. Stath Ingolf kept continuously updated maps based on careful tests and mostly confined their fishing to migratory species like salmon anyway, but the savages just ate anything that didn’t look or smell too wrong.

Two of the gang had bows like the first, and another carried an axe, an old woodchopper, which made it too heavy for a good battle tool even in a very strong man’s hands. The third had a spear whose head was a butcher-knife ground to a point, and a shield made from an old trash-can lid, hammered out until it was a shallow bowl around the handle and then covered in wet hide that turned iron-hard when it dried.

And then one more...

No. Not all Eaters. That one must be Haida. Six in all, damn.

Not many Dúnedain had fought the northern raiders, since the PPA nobility didn’t like having the Rangers set up Staths on Association lands. But some had, and pictures had circulated from the office of Marshal d’Ath. Most of the Cut-Noses were shorter than Morfind and none were taller than Faramir, but this man was between him and Malfind, nearly six feet.

He wore a close-fitting blackened steel helm shaped like the upper half of a raven’s head with the bill projecting over his face and a spray of feathers across the crown. The countenance beneath the bill was square and strong-boned and heavy-jawed, sparsely bearded with brown hairs and somewhere between ruddy and olive in complexion, the eyes long and narrow and nestled in a seaman’s net of squint-wrinkles. His clothes were a long leather tunic sewn with small iron rings like miniature bracelets, with trousers and boots of sealskin. A cape over his shoulders was fashioned of a mixture of wool and the soft inner pith of cedar-bark, woven with a subdued pattern Faramir couldn’t make out, and a long fringe around the edges; around his throat was a necklace of bear and beaver teeth and his hands were densely tattooed.

All the gear looked worn with use and stained by the sea but well-kept, and of good materials and workmanship to begin with. There was a serviceable-looking sword of cutlass style in a scabbard of sinew-bound whalebone splints at his side and a sheathed dagger like an elongated triangle clipped to one of the rings on his jacket. His hand held a short carved staff shaped like an oddly elongated double-ended paddle with puffin beaks strung to it, rather than a weapon. The markings were colored and highly stylized, but Faramir thought main shape was two orcas eating a seal, the bodies of the great sea-predators in turn carved with ravens and eagles and oddly, frogs. Something similar was painted on the leather surface of a small round hand-drum hanging at his side over the scabbard of his sword, shaped rather like a Mackenzie bodhran.

He doesn’t look nearly as mean as the yrch.

The Eaters looked like vicious, half-mad killers and barely human; which of course was precisely what they were. The Haida just looked like a man, albeit a hard, formidable, competent man about a decade or a bit more older than Faramir.

But they’re afraid of him, the Ranger realized. And it can’t be because he’s such a great fighter. That would just mean more of them would mob him.

It sent an icy trickle even through his concentration. The Cut-Noses were openly cringing as they did to acknowledge a superior in their own band. That left a gap of yards between themselves and the Haida, and they were shooting him the odd worried glance even though they were on Ranger territory and suspected Dúnedain were hiding somewhere near. Eaters had a simple concept of social rank, what learned humorists of his people called a Great Chain of Beating. Though it also functioned as a food chain sometimes.

If the yrch feared this man so, it was with good reason. He must be a skaga, a shaman. There were stories... The raven-billed helm swept back and forth.

He can’t see me. He really can’t see me, or he’d be pointing and shouting. He’s still looking, I think.

The thought would have been more reassuring if he’d been absolutely confident that the Haida was just looking in the conventional sense. The man took a few shuffling steps forward, stooping and lifting his feet in what was almost a dance, then went down on one knee. He slapped one end of his staff into the earth with a rattle as he did so and brought his left hand down sharply in the same motion to bang out a rhythm on the little drum.

The sounds skittered over Faramir’s nerves like blows of a padded club inside his head, and then the man spoke. Or chanted, since it had the rhythmic feel of someone reciting, even though the language was so wholly unfamiliar that the syllables twisted away from him almost as soon as he’d heard them:

 

Gíisgaay uu k'asdláang?
Xáldaang!
Dáakw st'i us?
Xáldaang!
K'adii hláa!

 

The Haida barked it out, in a high singsong almost like a wail. The call wasn’t particularly loud, but it seemed to make the earth ripple beneath the watching Ranger in an entirely non-physical way. That was interesting, even fascinating—how could the fabric of the world flex without moving at all?—but not enough to make him pay much attention. His head was too heavy. Everything was heavy, soft, drifting, like the feeling you got the night of the Ring-bearer’s Birthday Party festival when everything was winding down. So heavy and sleepy and contented. Though he also felt like he was about to throw up, and that once he started he’d keep going until his guts were hanging out his mouth raw and red. He would feel better if he just put his head down and—

A high shriek from above and behind him, the alarm call: “Tiro! Tiro!

Faramir barely managed not to scream in panic as he jerked his head back up, tasting bile at the back of his throat burning like acid.

Thock!

The Haida had—impossibly—jerked his little wooden staff into the path of an arrow that had come slashing down from the big oak, and the shaft spun to one side. A paler spot marked where it had taken a chip out of the wood, and the shaman looked down at it with a frown of annoyance. Morfind must have shot somehow; perhaps whatever the skaga had done hadn’t been pointed up. The Cut-Noses were bounding in a full-tilt zigzag across the ground towards the hidden Rangers, screeching every time a foot hit the ground:

Meat! Meatmeatmeatmeat!”

It rose into the wordless insane trilling of the blood squeal, and the ones with bows were loosing on the run. That meant they would hit only by accident, but an accidental hit would kill you just as dead and they were putting plenty of arrows into the air, going past him with whrrrt sounds or slapping and chunking into dirt or wood. Even a mild wound meant death now if it slowed him. The skaga was walking along behind the Eaters, frowning and twirling his staff in one hand like a baton.

“Malfind!” Faramir shouted. “Dago hon! Kill him! Dago i ngollor! Kill the magician!”

Meanwhile the Eaters were coming straight at him, looking five times the number they were. Black-fletched arrows buzzed overhead and by his ears. Faramir rose to one knee and drew, the limbs of the recurve bending into a deep U-shape. He had only seconds until the Eaters were on him. Targets, just targets, let everything but the target zone blur out of sight...

The flat unmusical snap of his bowstring sounded. There was a tick as it struck the very edge of the Eater spearman’s shield. Then at almost the same instant the wet smack of impact: tick-smack. The shaft went into and transfixed the shoulder of the Cut-Nose, not immediately fatal but slicing muscle and vein and hammering into bone, taking the man out of the fight.

Faramir was stripping the next shaft out of the three held under his finger almost before the first struck. It had been chancy with the shield covering most of the man’s torso, but he wanted that spear out of the balance or they weren’t going to survive past the next few seconds. The decision wasn’t something he thought of; it just happened, far too fast for the waking mind.

His eyes had shifted away from the man the instant the arrow came off the string, but his peripheral vision saw him make a neat heel-to-face turn that started with the mailed-fist impact of the arrow. Then he ran, clutching the wound and making hoarse grunting sounds. The Eaters’ habit of devouring their own wounded helped with their supply situation, but it had tactical drawbacks.

Whap-whap, and he shot twice, even less conscious of the hard physical effort of repeatedly lifting ninety pounds weight than he had been in interminable hours on the range and the hunt. More of Morfind’s arrows went by overhead, from her invisible perch in the tree; none of the Eaters had even realized she was up there yet. Some distant part of him was mildly surprised that having cover and a steady shooting position when under direct attack was just as big an advantage as his teachers had said it would be.

Another of the yrch went down, an arrow through the thigh next to the groin, bright blood spouting from a femoral artery slashed across—unconsciousness in seconds and certain death afterwards, the axe flying from his hand. Faramir didn’t know who’d shot that one, but he half-expected the survivors to flee. Instead the three of them came on, screeching, steel naked in their hands. Possibly more frightened of running away with their backs bare in a hundred-yard killing zone, or just crazy, or more terrified of the man behind them than they were of death itself.

Malfind was concentrating on the skaga as Faramir had commanded. And while he wasn’t the best archer in Stath Ingolf he wasn’t the worst either, and he was shooting at less than fifty yards, point blank range, zero deflection with a target coming at him at walking pace. The Haida shaman flicked out his staff again, knocked an arrow aside with a hard tock sound, turned his torso to let another go by an inch from his chest, ducked under a third as he tossed the staff into his left hand and drew his sword. There should have been at least two solid hits.

He wasn’t moving blurring-fast, more at a pace that was brisk enough but unhurried somehow, despite the fact that the arrows he was dodging and deflecting were streaks through the air moving at two hundred feet per second. It was as if time itself was passing at a slightly different rate for the man from the far northern isles, and even in the midst of battle it was the most terrible thing Faramir had ever seen.

Maybe it’s at least distracting him!

The last Eaters threw down their bows and made their final bounds. The one coming for Faramir had a knife in one hand and a hatchet in the other, spreading out in unison like the claws of a crab. The Ranger came up, drawing his knife as he did. But instead of trying to fall into a full fighting position he simply rammed himself forward, neck tensed, head tucked and chin on his chest as he head-butted the man in the middle of his screaming, contorted face with the front curve of his helmet.

Dúnedain called it i vidh dath galen, the Kiss of Greenhollow.

The Eater had strings of gummy froth flying from his lips; he almost certainly had too many of the juices of rage and fear in his blood to notice most ordinary wounds. Faramir was a young man of average height, a little slender though fairly broad-shouldered, but all of that height was hard solid muscle and bone. He weighed a hundred and sixty pounds not counting his gear, and he was driven now by leg muscles that let him jump straight up to chest height from a standing start with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. The head-butt effectively slammed a two-hundred-pound, metal-tipped club into the Eater’s face at their combined speeds.

Faramir didn’t feel the blow immediately. Instead white light flashed through his brain and the universe vanished. The impact threw him back on his heels, so dazed that he almost fell over and almost lost his grip on the knife. The orch was two inches shorter and skinny, plus being naked except for a deerskin loinclout and in mid-leap off the ground rather than solidly planted. Nose, jaw, cheekbones and several teeth shattered with a crackle like breaking ice as he flipped backward in the air. He didn’t quite do a full circle around his center of mass, but he hit the ground face-first. That might well have broken his neck, but he was dead by that time anyway. The body fell so limp that there wasn’t even any final twitch.

Faramir flogged himself back to function by sheer willpower; it was easier if you expected a hard blow to the head. And if you knew right down in your gut and groin that someone was going to kill you very soon if you weren’t at ten-tenths. And if you were wearing a steel helmet with internal padding, of course. And if you knew you had to help your kinsman right away, regardless.

My neck’s going to hurt like a bastard in a little while, he thought. Unless I’m dead and on my way to Mandos, of course.

When his eyes had cleared enough to see again less than two seconds had passed. He sheathed his knife, stooped to grab his bow and shove it into the case that was part of the quiver, and snatched up his shield by the central grip in mid-stride with his left hand as he stepped toward Malfind. At that instant the spear in his cousin’s hand snapped out like the tongue of a frog licking for a fly. The left-most of the pair of Eaters dodged almost quickly enough, caught the sharp edge along the side of his neck just under the hinge of the jaw where the carotid ran, and sat down to die.

The other darted in with his machete raised; he was on Malfind’s spear-side and inside the range that the point of the weapon could be used. The counter to that involved clouting the attacker with the spearshaft, or with the butt if you were strong enough to twirl the whole weapon like the blade of a winnowing-fan... though both were long-shots. Faramir solved the problem for his cousin more directly, though it involved forcing himself to move fast when he just wanted to lie down and cry: he punched with his left hand still gripping the handle of his shield and the disk parallel to the ground. That rammed the metal-shod edge into the Eater’s neck. It also let him swing the shield up between him and the skaga as he drew his bush-sword and put the two Rangers shoulder to shoulder.

It was only then that he noticed he was wheezing like a pump with a loose cylinder, and the point of the bush-sword was shaking a little. Morfind had run out on a waist-thick branch of the spreading oak above them and had her bow drawn to the ear. He opened his mouth to shout... But Malfind was already making a stepping lunge. The Haida stopped and flicked his sword up in an arc. Ting and the flat of it deflected the spear, and hard enough that the spearman was thrown off balance. Morfind shot, less than twenty feet away and she was a first-rate archer, more than good enough to aim so close to her own. The arrow should have taken the skaga in the chest; instead it deflected off the steel rings on his shoulder.

They were close enough now that Faramir could hear the sharp ringing sound, and his enemy’s slight grunt as the force of the blow staggered him a little. Swordsman’s reflex told him to step in with a lunge to the throat before the shaman could recover.

There seemed to be plenty of time to know what to do, but much less to actually do it. Faramir shoved his shield-arm across Malfind’s body and heaved him back in a half-stagger.

Noro lim!” he shouted.

That meant run fast; it was the order for hair-on-fire flight.

“Now! Do it!”

The three turned and bolted into the forest.

 

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Behind them the skaga looked after the fleeing Dúnedain, sighed, and looked around as he sheathed his sword. Then he knelt beside the dying Eater and grasped him by the back of the head with a hand that felt like a hydraulic grab.

Look... at... me...” he said, and his voice seemed to stretch the world, like a heavy boot on taut canvas. “Háws... hl... díi.”

Or like a very bright light, one that left everything washed-out and unreal. The flow of blood from the severed arteries slowed as muscles clamped involuntarily around them. The Eater obeyed, and then screamed like a rabbit caught in a wire snare as he met the skaga’s eyes.

“Just a moment, and you may die,” the shaman said soothingly. “And death is only the beginning. There is another we must speak to. Aid me, Orca-might...”

The Eater’s second scream was fainter only because there was less strength and breath behind it. The whimpers that followed continued for a little while after the man had died.

 

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