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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

 
Ithilien/Moon County, Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly Marin and Sonoma Counties), California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
May 10-12th (Lothron 9-11th), Change Year/Fifth Age 46/2044 A.D.

 

Faramir leapt over a rock and ducked under a madrone limb as he ran, bow pumping in his left hand and right a little up to protect his face. You could run full-tilt along a rough trail you knew well, even if it was through thicker brush than this, if you didn’t care how much of a track you left. They’d all practiced that many times over the years, on paths all over Ithilien. You could even talk as you ducked and wove and leapt and sweat rolled down your face to sting in your eyes and in scratches and nicks.

Of which he now had plenty. You couldn’t run this way and never get lashed across the face, not on this sort of narrow track. If he hadn’t been wearing a helm there would have been raw scrapes in his scalp too from times he’d ducked to save his eyes.

“What... the... fuck... was... that?” Malfind gasped as he hurdled a log.

Even with the effort of the run his teeth seemed to be chattering. Faramir understood how he felt, but they couldn’t stop to have hysterics now, strong as the impulse to gibber and beat his head on a rock was.

They were gambling that the Eaters and Haida and whatever wouldn’t leave two ambush parties behind them. It also just felt good to be running away from what they’d seen, even if they were running straight towards more of the enemy.

“Gollor,” Morfind said waspishly. “A magician, or didn’t you notice?”

Skaga,” Faramir agreed. “Slow down to sustained pace, you two. We may need our wind pretty soon.”

There was just no time to be terrified right now, though some things were much more exciting in the Histories than when they happened in real life. Or more heroic in print and less... obscurely disgusting than they were in reality, somehow. The more he thought about it, the more he profoundly didn’t want what had just happened to have happened, or even be a possibility.

“Malfind, when we get there, you and I will distract them. Morfind, fire the woodpile when you hear the horn. Then we all run for the Eryn Muir or a good hide, whichever you reach first.”

That gave them some chance of living through this. Though not much.

Morfind slid the arrow on the string of her bow back into her quiver and took out another to replace it, something that needed real agility to do without looking around, especially when you were moving along at a pace one step down from a dash. Then she took out a second just like it and held it between her index finger and the riser of her bow. Both were slightly longer than normal arrows, and they had heads that were pointed cylinders shaped like fat pencils as long as a man’s thumb. From the point of each extended a stubby pin with a flattened end; you twisted that until it clicked, then shot.

“Break left!” Faramir said to her.

The trail forked here. She turned and dashed down the left-hand branch. Faramir and her brother took the right-hand way; the trees were larger and fewer here.

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, he thought. Come on, Ranger, just keep breathing.

They were in deep shade, the crowns of the trees meeting high overhead, but he could see the diffuse golden afternoon gleam of an opening ahead. Three hundred yards, then two hundred—ten-score paces was long bowshot for him. Hopefully just beyond long bowshot for the Eaters.

How far... I’ve got to give Morfind a decent chance... closer...

The underbrush got thicker as they neared the beams of light spearing down from above. There was a glitter of metal ahead, which there shouldn’t have been. Then he could see several dozen figures ahead and downslope, instants before they saw him. Eaters, more of the Cut-Noses, but also Mud Hairs and Sharp Teeth, squatting in separate clumps. No more Haida that he could catch at a glance—thank the Valar!—but at least four or five men in helmets and mail-coats.

He jerked to a halt and raised the mouthpiece of the horn to his mouth. He had to work his lips and spit because his mouth was so dry, and then he took a deep breath and blew, the fingers of his right hand moving across the three holes.

The sound that it gave was brighter than most trumpets made from the horns of beasts, higher and truer and with less of the deep braying note. Two long blasts, then three rising ones, and repeat. The echoes spread off through the forest, fading as they carried in every direction—mostly, he hoped, straight south to the Eryn Muir. The Eaters would most certainly know that call, though the Dúnedain changed the others now and then.

It was: Enemy! Enemy! Enemy!

Heads jerked around, yelps and snarls rose, metal blinked as blades and spearheads pointed towards him.

Lacho calad! Drego morn!” he and his cousin shouted in unison, the ancient Dúnedain war-cry. “Flame Light! Flee Night!”

Some deep corner of his mind gave an actual giggle, and the temptation to shout can’t catch me you poopy-heads was strong.

The men in mail turned and would have started running towards him if the Eaters hadn’t thrown themselves in the way, yammering. That was notably altruistic of them, but it was probably simply reflex born of the long war: just chasing someone hell-for-leather was a good way to get ambushed. A squat but massive Cut-Nose led the effort, putting his hands against the mailed chests and pushing. Then he turned and snarled at the yrch, and instead dozens of bows were raised. All of them seemed to be aimed at Faramir... which was more or less true, if you included his cousin.

As the big orch moved to shove his archers into position there was the slightest hint of a limp to his movements. This was the one whose twisted track beside the creek had drawn his eye. His hand chopped towards the Rangers.

“Shoot!” Faramir shouted, and did; Malfind followed suit.

The shafts from the recurves arched out. Two hundred yards wasn’t easy, but he could hit a man-sized target that far away about seven times in ten, if the air was still. Targets didn’t dodge, though; these did, and he couldn’t tell whether he’d hit anyone or not. It didn’t really matter, since two bows weren’t going to make much impression on that mob.

There have to be at least— he began to think.

Whrrt. Whrrrt. Whrrtt.

Arrows started going by.

—at least fifty of them, he completed.

Some of the shafts went thock into the tree he jumped behind, but not very hard. Others were falling short. The ski-limb bows weren’t nearly as powerful as the weapons the Dúnedain crafters made, though even a minor wound now didn’t bear thinking of.

He put a shaft to the string, dodged out again and shot, and there was a shriek of pain an instant later. The yrch were coming forward in short rushes, pausing to shoot betweentimes. They probably hadn’t coordinated it, but the fact that there were three separate bands of them meant that they were covering each other... and once they got close, their bows would be quite deadly.

Then: crack.

A shaft transfixed an oak sapling not ten feet to his right, the end emerging in a shower of blond splinters through a trunk over three inches thick. It was long and made of bamboo, with a narrow pile-shaped point of tempered steel—designed to pierce armor—and fletchings of pheasant feathers, four of them rather than the three vanes common in Montival. The strangers from over-sea had gotten into the act, and there was nothing at all wrong with their bows.

A quick glance around the tree showed them starting forward with three men in the forefront holding up big strong-looking rectangular shields, with only their eyes and the peaked helmets showing behind them, crests of horsehair tossing from their tops. The second rank were the archers, though they also carried swords and wore the alien-looking armor of small plates held together with mail.

He grinned tautly, because he also saw wisps of smoke starting up from the great pile of split timber under the roof of the storage shed that stood on the other side of the clearing, near the firepits and the tables where feasts were held in summertime. The wisps turned to streamers in seconds, and yellow flame showed. Morfind had been at work, two arrows that nobody noticed and then away. It must have been tricky shooting to get them in under the eaves of the roof, unless she got very close.

When you turned the pin on a fire arrow, you aligned it with a groove inside the head. Then you shot, and the strike on impact drove the pin back and set a friction primer going, much like a match. That ignited the magnesium fuse, and that ignited the thermite packed inside the metal tube with a blaze of sputtering violence that was very hot indeed. At those temperatures steel would burn, much less the soft thin aluminum from salvaged beverage cans actually used. A bucket of water would just spread it faster. The Change hadn’t changed that reaction at all.

Dúnedain used fire arrows for many purposes, though swailing was the most common, controlled wet-season burns to manage the vegetation in wild areas. Arrows could be precisely placed in spots hard to get to safely on foot. When you shot a couple into stacked dry timber, though, the result was dramatic.

Noro lim, Malfind!” he called, and ran himself.

The danger was worse now, but he felt a curious sense of relief. Whatever happened, every Ranger in the area would see the pillar of smoke that was pulsing into the air. Gongs and horns would be sounding within seconds, bows would be strung and Rangers would assemble. And eventually the yrch and the foreigners and please the Valar, the terrifying skaga would all realize that their only hope was to get out of here as fast as they could.

More arrows went past him as he ran and dodged and hurdled obstacles; they hadn’t gotten the message yet.

“Look behind you, you Shadow-sucking idiots!” Malfind screamed as he ran not far away, spear held ahead of him like a plow. “Smoke! Stop chasing us and run away!”

Maybe some of them were taking his advice, since the rain of arrows was less. One would do, of course, if it hit in the right place. A shaft banged painfully against the shield slung over Faramir’s back, and he stumbled and cursed and recovered in a flailing scramble. He didn’t see the shaft or pieces of it go pinwheeling past or hear it crack, so it had probably pierced the sheet metal and boiled leather and plywood. There was absolutely no way of telling whether six inches of it was pointing at his liver right now, ready to drive through his jerkin and its light mail lining if he fell the wrong way at speed. The only consolation was that they were almost certainly gaining on the pursuers, because they weren’t in heavy armor and knew where they were going.

Correction. We’re gaining on those foreigners who are in heavy armor.

He’d had only a brief long-distance glimpse, but it looked like little rectangular plates set into a knee-length mail coat; at least forty pounds, not counting shields and helmets and swords. That precisely matched the report of the equipment of the men who’d killed the High King.

The Eaters aren’t wearing anything but loincloths or carrying anything but their weapons. On the other hand, at least we do know the path better than they do.

Another arrow hit the shield that covered his back from his neck to the base of his spine, and he swayed in midstride and recovered again. This one definitely penetrated; he could feel the outer, leather surface of his jerkin catching on the point a little with every long stride. The breath was burning in his lungs now and his pulse was loud in his own ears; he was young and strong, but he’d been walking and running and fighting all day. The sun was low on his right hand when he could see it, but that wasn’t often. The trees were higher now, and more and more were the king redwoods, ones that had been left to complete their natural cycle in a rare act of forbearance by the ancient world.

And that arrow had hit at the very bottom edge of his shield. Which gave him a chill even with sweat soaking his clothes and running in drops off his chin, because an inch lower would have gone right into his pelvis. But it also meant the foreigners with the powerful bows were further behind. The yelping of the yrch was a little fainter too, though he didn’t dare look over his shoulder.

After you with the ambush, foreign allies, he thought with flash of grim humor. That’s what they’re saying. Or may’be it’s a promise to eat their bodies afterwards.

He wanted to get out of this as soon as he could, but he couldn’t look back. He couldn’t run at this pace all the way to Eryn Muir, either. And if he slowed down, the Eaters would send their best sprinters after him, forcing him back to all-out effort and breaking his wind, leaving him exhausted and helpless when the main band caught up. That was standard hunting technique.

He saw a streak to his left past some bushes, left and a bit ahead. For one throat-squeezing instant he thought it was a yrch, and then he recognized Morfind... or at least another Ranger, and there wasn’t likely to be anyone else in this chase. And Morfind could run down deer; he’d seen her do it, and seen her outrun people with much longer legs over anything but a sprint course. About a hundred yards ahead she angled in to a two-hundred-foot giant with a body seven feet through at chest height.

It was good they were getting bigger; it meant they were closer to home. It also meant the view would open out, because ancient redwoods shaded out most undergrowth, and it would make it impossible to run fast, because they bombed the ground beneath them with a constant litter of branches and chunks of bark. Close to the Ranger station the falls were policed up because they had dozens of uses of which fuel was only one, and they needed the floor free of obstacles. Out here, they weren’t.

Morfind looked over her shoulder as she did what looked like a dance-step with her hands at her waist at the base of the tree. She gave him a grin for an instant before she turned, leapt and ran up the trunk nearly as fast as she’d been dashing through the undergrowth, only the motion of her cloak visible at all. Before they passed her chosen redwood she was out of sight in the crown.

The dance had been unlatching and swinging out the climbing spurs on her elfboots—you could do that with the toe of the opposite foot, with practice—and putting on her climbing gloves. You couldn’t wear them all the time because the claws on the palms meant you couldn’t carry anything else. Malfind gave a panting whoop of joy and relief as they passed the tree.

“Go sis!”

Faramir reached over his shoulder. Just beside the quiver was the haft of a short folding grapnel, and reeved through the loop at the end of the shaft was the end of a long rope of thin strong cord, knotted every yard. The blades of the grapnel were spring-loaded, rather like a fancy umbrella’s ribs, though there were only three and they were short and stout.

He’d use the grapnel if he could, because redwood bark was up to a couple of feet thick, soft and dry and fibrous. That made it marvelous for everything from insulation to fishing floats, but it tore away far too easily for him to trust himself to a spur-and-claw climb like Morfind’s, not at speed, not when he couldn’t take the time to test each grip and foothold. She was lighter than he was; even so it had been odds-on a foot or hand would come loose fifty feet up, and big redwoods didn’t have branches to grab until just below their tops. Trying to do the same would be insanely risky for him, and outright impossible for Malfind.

The tines of the grapnel came out with a sharp metallic click. Faramir began whirling the instrument on the end of its rope as he ran, paying out more and more to increase the speed. Ahead a redwood had fallen in some storm well before he was born, possibly before the Change. The great trunk lay moldering, but the nutrients it had released and the water around it meant that it was thickly grown with moss and ferns and the shoots of larger vegetation clawing for the light the giant’s fall had let penetrate. Beyond it was a living tree, but it had taken a scar from the same storm or perhaps a later fire. The opening in the bark had let fungus penetrate to the vulnerable sapwood, and a cavity grew. Eventually it might heal over, but right now there was a dark slit twenty feet up.

He leapt to the six-foot height of the log and cast with a looping overarm throw as soon as his feet planted solidly. The line paid out across the palm of his right hand, twisting behind the head of the grapnel like a coil of smoke. One of the tines of the instrument clunked against the lip of the scar and Faramir’s throat clenched for the precious seconds already lost, but it spun into the hole and locked solidly in place when he slung his bow and gave it a two-handed tug.

“Clip and brace the line!” he called over his shoulder to Malfind as he ran towards the tree taking the rope in hand-over-hand to keep the tension on.

The other Ranger grabbed the end and snapped the fastener there to a loop on his belt. When Faramir reached the base Malfind was right behind him, and he knelt and braced the rope so that it didn’t fall flat against the trunk of the tree either. Faramir leapt, caught the line by a knot twelve feet from the ground and went up it in a writhing scramble, arm-over-arm lift and driven by the quick inchworm thrust of his legs. It bit at his callused palms, but each knot provided a good lifting point to be clamped between his boots. Though the rope was strong he didn’t want to test the set of the tines in wood against the combined weight of himself and his cousin and their gear. Having two men going up the rope would also make it sway enough that it would be slower that having each climb in succession.

He tumbled into the hollow and instantly turned, bracing a boot-sole against the grapnel to make sure it didn’t tear free. Malfind weighed nearly thirty pounds more than he did to start with, and there was the spear besides.

“Go!” he said, tossing aside his cloak and shield and unlimbering his bow.

The little cavity had contained human bones when the Dúnedain came, apparently some luckless victim of the Change who’d climbed there and then died of injuries or sickness or thirst. The Rangers had buried them, though without much ceremony; even then after nearly four decades there had still been too many to do otherwise, especially the resistant skulls, and you found them in the most astonishing places. Then they’d smoothed the interior, and left a few essentials like sealed glass and metal containers of water and hardtack and raisins, a bucket and so forth, checked and renewed regularly. If he could just get Malfind up here, they’d be cramped but safe while the enemy ran for it. However long that took. Or until the gathering Dúnedain caught the Eaters.

He could hear the other Ranger wheezing as he climbed; the spear was over his back to free his hands, with the shaft thrust beneath the bandolier that held his quiver. Looking north Faramir could also see the thick column of black smoke rising from the woodshed at Estolad Rhudaur. It would be visible over half of Ithilien by now.

Just a moment more...

“Shit!”

A flicker of movement. He drew and shot, but half a dozen arrows came back; one thunked into the wood near the entrance to the hollow as he ducked back, the soot-darkened feathers brushing against his cheek. It would be like standing up against the bull’s-eye in a little kid’s target range. He stepped back into the opening, shot, ducked... he could see half a dozen Eaters and this time an arrow came right through the slit and chunked into the soft wood at the back of the little cave. He thought he’d hit one of the yrch, but that left far too many. Aragorn son of Arathorn couldn’t have fought his way out of this situation.

Malfind gave a bitten-off cry and the tension came off the rope. Instants later there was a muffled thud below as he struck the ground.

Shit!

Faramir dropped his bow—he’d need his hands for this—stepped out of the crack, turned in the air and caught the line. That jerked him to a halt, and nearly jerked his arm out of its socket, but it stabilized him long enough to get the rope between his crossed ankles. He wasn’t going to do his cousin any good with broken legs; he probably wasn’t going to do much good anyway, but...

The knots bumped between his boots as he came down in a controlled fall, getting out of the way of arrows as fast as he could. One went into the redwood above his head with a muffled thump, but that was the closest. Malfind was down at the bottom of the rope with one right through his thigh. The point came out just above his knee, with the fletching pointing down on the other side. It was bleeding badly; he clutched it with his left hand and waved his knife with his right. It wobbled.

Faramir let go ten feet up and landed with a grunt at the impact that drove him into a crouch. As he steadied he’d already stripped the spear free of Malfind’s harness; his cousin gave a hoarse cry of pain at the way it wrenched him around, but there wasn’t time to be gentle. The yrch were charging, four of them with blades out. Behind them the big one, the Cut-Nose leader with the slight hitch in his stride, waved a double-bitted axe back the way he’d come and yelled in a thick gobbling dialect:

“Na! Ufukinrun, a’ puzzis! Na, na, ufukinrun!”

The four rushing at the two Rangers ignored him, squealing in their eagerness. Something else curved through the air; it was Morfind, swinging down from somewhere near at the end of her own climbing line, cutting a long arc through the air and doing what his folk called a tarzan.

“Lacho calad! Drego morn!” rang out in a hawk-shriek from above.

One of the Eaters whipped his head back to look over his shoulder as she let go of the rope and landed in a crouch. That gave Faramir time to snatch up Malfind’s shield and jerk the point of the spear up with the butt braced beneath the instep of his foot. One of the Eaters ran right on to it with a smack that vibrated all the way down through the shaft and the Ranger’s hand and boot. The broad point ripped through his body above the navel and came out his back, carving a palm-broad slice through several major organs and veins and arteries as it went. He looked down at the shaft, goggling, then shrieked and grabbed at it with both hands and collapsed backward.

Faramir was already whipping out his brush-sword as he let the spear go and bounced up. He blocked one blow with the shield, another with the sword, a flat cracking sound and an unmusical crash. Something else ripped along his ribs, hard enough to make him gasp, but the mail lining of the jerkin stopped the edge reaching for his guts. Morfind was dancing about another orch with a long knife in one hand and her tomahawk in the other...

The Cut-Nose leader came bounding forward, screaming in rage—at his own followers, probably. He wasn’t very tall but broad enough to look squat, with thick scarred arms and a network of white tissue on his face that lifted a corner of his mouth even when he wasn’t shouting. Morfind spun and slashed at his leg; he hopped over it and cut with impossible speed for the heavy weapon he bore. She flew backward, a plume of blood lifting from her face like an arch of red feathers. The backswing came down and hit Faramir’s borrowed shield so hard that it spun out of his hand with the frame cracked across and a section hanging loose. He tried to stab at the ridged belly of the orch, and this time something hit his helmet.

The ground hit him next. There was a sound like thunder through the earth. Blackness.

 

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Are these the Halls? Faramir Kovalevsky thought.

That would be interesting.

I could talk with Hiril Astrid, and maybe they’ll let me do some sightseeing in Valinor before I move on to wherever it is Mortal Men go.

Then he stifled a scream; mostly stifled it, and the rest came out as a dry croak. He hurt too much to be dead, unless his people were extremely wrong about the afterlife. Though it was very dark indeed.

His eyes fluttered open. There was a tube down his nose and throat; he coughed and choked as it was withdrawn.

Right. They were closed. That’s why there wasn’t any light.

It wasn’t dark, though it was after sunset and the soft yellow-blue glow of the lamp still pained his eyes. Faramir recognized where he was, as much by the cool, somehow bright scent as anything else. It was the infirmary at the Eryn Muir. Like most buildings and all dwellings in that station it was well up in one of the great trees, built in a circle round the trunk. His head hurt, with a throbbing that went in from his temples in time to his pulse. His neck hurt too, and his ribs.

There was nothing that didn’t hurt; some parts just hurt more.

A hand reached gently under the back of his head and he whimpered. He hadn’t been conscious of anyone else’s presence until now, which showed how out of it he was. It was Ioreth, the senior Ranger medic here, a woman of about his mother’s age with close-cut greying brown hair and a ready smile, though she was grave now.

“Here,” she said, examining his pupils for an instant and then holding a cup to his lips. “You’ve been out for more than two days.”

He drank a little, coughed—which hurt too—and then took some more. It was rainwater collected as it dripped through the boughs above and tasted faintly of them. Presumably water had been going down that tube, but his mouth and throat seemed to drink the water like dust in an ancient tomb.

It also seemed to start his mind up again. Is there anything missing? he thought, with rising panic. Am I crippled? Is that why it hurts so bad?

“You’re all right, Man of the West,” Ioreth said. “You had a concussion, and your neck was sprained, and there are contusions and cuts and bruises. You’re very lucky there wasn’t neurological damage.”

Something in her expression suggested an unspoken codicil: as far as I can tell. So far.

“The others got there just in time, a mounted party. Most of the yrch got away, though.”

He turned his head, very slowly and carefully. The bed to his left was empty, blankets tight and brown linen sheet neatly folded above. The one to his right was occupied. Most of Morfind’s face was covered in bandages, but he recognized her anyway. Her mother Mary sat on the other side of the bed, holding her hand and talking softly. She and his mother Ritva had been identical twins, until Mary lost her left eye fighting a magus of the CUT on the Quest; the black eyepatch on its silk cord had been familiar all his life.

The single bright blue eye looked at him for an instant. He rolled his head back and looked up at the whitewashed beams and planks of the ceiling.

“Malfind?” he said; his throat felt a little more like working.

Ioreth shook her head. Faramir winced again when he heard a stool clatter on the planks beside his bed. A hand gripped his, long and hard and careful in its strength.

“Faramir.”

He looked up into the beautiful, damaged face of his mother’s sister. Wisps of sun-faded blond hair haloed it, too fair for the first gray threads to show.

“So sorry—“ he began.

“Faramir, I know everything that happened. There was absolutely nothing more you could have done. Vairë weaves all threads.”

Something relaxed a little in the back of his head, and that let the pain wash over him again. It wasn’t that which made his eyes fill and slowly drip tears, though.

ú-belin cuina... I may not live while the slayer of my kinsman walks beneath the stars,” he whispered.

Lips touched his forehead. “Ritva is coming, but you should sleep now,” she said. “You’re going to need all your strength. We all will.”

Ioreth was back. A sting in his arm. Soft black washed over the world, life falling very slowly.

 

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