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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Kalksthorpe, Norrheim
(Formerly Robbinston, Washington County, Maine)
March 13th, Change Year 24/2023 A.D.

 

“They attacked us!” Kalk said furiously.

His voice rose under the high roof of the three-quarters-empty warehouse the town was using to muster its fighters.

“They’re pirates,” he half-shouted.

“They are pirates, and they did attack, and most of them are dead. The survivors are forty-four first-class fighting men, and neither you nor I can spare them. Nor are folk who make viking a term of honor in a position to be... what was the word they used... picky,” Artos said.

It was becoming more natural to think of himself by that name.

Artos is my name, he thought. It always was, in the Craft. Rudi... Rudi I can be in private, I suppose.

Most of the Kalksthorpe fighters were mustering here, ready to leave at dawn; it was hard cold outside the town wall, and the granular snow was still thick enough for skis. Their families were there to see them off, and a low murmur of voices sounded. Most of the goodbyes were quiet and solemn, with fewer embraces or tears than there would have been among Mackenzies, even when a mother tucked the last bundle of fruitcake or rolled socks into a young man’s haversack. Everywhere about love met necessity with a fierce dignity.

Rudi turned to the Moors, who stood in a clump amid a circle of empty space. Abdou al-Naari was there, and his son beside him, a slim young man just old enough to journey with a war-band; his arm had healed while his father was in Nantucket. Abdou’s blood-brother Jawara stood by his other hand, smiling grimly as he fingered the edge of a broad-bladed spear. He looked to have shed years or gained inches with a weapon in his hand again, a leopard’s hunting eagerness on his broad features.

“Is it agreed?” Rudi said. “You join us for this one fight. If we win, you get your ship and enough food to sail her to your home, and pledge your word of honor by your own God that you will trouble these lands no more. The cargo is still forfeit.”

“Agreed,” Abdou said. “May God destroy me if I break the oath. Inshallah, God willing, we will begin our revenge on those who tricked us and blasphemed the Faith.”

He turned slightly and repeated the words in his own language. An eager baying snarl ran through the corsairs.

“And an equal share of any loot,” Abdou added, in a more matter-of-fact tone.

“Agreed, though the savages aren’t likely to have more than hard blows to give us. Stay close to my band, Abdou al-Naari. These folk may accept the bargain but they don’t love you for it.”

Abdou shrugged and smiled. “I not love ugly pagans either, we same-same so there,” he said.

Artos turned to Kalk. “The cargo is worth more than the ship; consider that were-gild.”

“I’d rather have blood for blood,” the Norrheimer said.

The Mackenzie smiled at him, and the grim old man blinked a little at the savagery of the expression.

“And so you shall,” he said quietly. “Do you think they’ll all come through such a campaign as this unhurt? They could have stayed safely here waiting for an English ship to pick them up. Instead they’re offering their lives. For their own reasons, but that won’t make their blood flow any the less red, eh? When a man takes up the spear of his own will in a country not his own, he consents to his death and makes himself a sacrifice whose blood blesses the land.”

Heidhveig chuckled mirthlessly. “I told you he used his head for something besides a helmet-rack,” she said. “Now do you see why the High One said he would found a line of kings that lasted forever in the tales of men, if he lived and won his victory?”

Kalk nodded wordlessly and turned away to his sons. Artos looked at her: “If you can keep up, you’re welcome,” he said bluntly. “But if you can’t, Lady, then you must ask the Gods for protection for I cannot stay to offer it.”

The seeress inclined her head. “My sleigh should be enough.”

“Pray for cold, then. If we get a thaw and then mud...”

“I will. We’ve held our blot and spoken with the wights and cast the runes. Now it’s in Victory-Father’s hands.”

Rudi turned his head. “Matti?”

“Arms and armor in good condition, enough arrows, and the food supplies look adequate assuming we can restock at Eriksgarth,” she said.

“Ignatius?”

“Our medical kit is full—the healers here are excellent. Enough are coming along that I can be spared for combat duty.”

“Ingolf?”

“They’ve got no cavalry at all,” the Richlander said in frustration, and Virginia Thurston scowled agreement. “Mounted infantry at best.”

Rudi sighed. “You fight with the army you’ve got, not the one you might wish. The ideal one that has a core of well-drilled pikemen and longbowmen, with field artillery to suit, three thousand good light cavalry, and a thousand knights on destriers... It would be a nightmare getting enough fodder anyway. Wait until we get further west! Fred?”

Frederick Thurston turned his hands upward, the pink palms contrasting with the chocolate-brown of his skin.

“There’s not much unit articulation in this lot,” he said, frowning slightly. “They fight by households. Given a week or two—and if they listen to me—I could at least get them to sort by the way they’re armed.”

Artos hid a smile. Fred was young—still short of twenty—but he was very intelligent and very well trained in his father’s army. The problem was that the army of the United States of Boise was a superbly disciplined precision instrument, and he judged everything by that standard. As village militias went, the Kalksthorpe fyrd weren’t bad at all. He’d have to learn to be a bit more flexible.

“We’ll do that along the way; but Fred, remember it’s the art of the possible. Ritva, Mary... I need to know more than there are thousands of them and gather at Staghorn Dale, and I need to know it quickly. Can you do it?”

The two Dúnedain gave identical nods. “We can travel three times faster than this bunch,” Mary said.

“There and back again,” Ritva added, despite her sister’s glare.

Rudi signed agreement; a war-band travelled at the speed of the slowest. And the Rangers trained hard in just that sort of scouting and endurance-trek. He himself could keep up with his half-sisters cross-country, but he didn’t know many others who could.

“Go, find out who’s where with what, and get back to me. Hopefully by the time I reach Eriksgarth.” Then he added: “Hortho le huil vaer, muinthel nín.”

That meant fair winds speed you on, sister. He’d never had the time to spare to learn the Ranger’s special tongue, but he had a fair assortment of stock phrases. Ritva and Mary both put their right hands to their hearts.

Harthon cened le ennas, muindor nín,” Ritva said solemnly: “I’ll see you there, my brother.”

Mary spoke to Ingolf: “Unad nuithatha i nîr e-guren nalú aderthad vín.” When his lips began to move in silent translation, she leaned close and whispered: “Nothing will stop the weeping of my heart until we are once more together.”

Ritva added a wink—he thought at Hrolf Homersson—and they picked up the skis that leaned against a pillar, put them over their shoulders and left with a tireless springy trot.

Artos took a deep breath and sprang to the top of a great hogshead full of something heavy.

“Folk of Kalksthorpe,” he called.

His voice wasn’t pitched very loud, but absolute silence fell; he could hear the cold wind hooting around the logs of the walls.

“You’ve agreed to follow me to this war-muster,” he said; his glance went to Thorleif Heidhveigsson.

The man nodded soberly. “I did,” he said.

Kalksthorpe didn’t exactly have a chief, besides Kalk himself; they settled matters by a folkmoot where every adult had a voice, much like a Mackenzie dun. The settlement was small enough for that to work, just, if most were sensible. But the seeress’ son was a leading trader and craftsman, a respected man whose word carried weight. Hers carried even more, and the word of the Gods through her.

I’m not going to quarrel with the High One’s opinions about war,” the householder said, confirming Artos’ thought. “Who here is fool enough to do that? He’s the Father of Victories.”

Nobody volunteered to put on the offered shoe; Artos held his grin within himself. He didn’t doubt for a moment the truth of Heidhveig’s vison, but it was politically convenient as well, and no mistake.

“Do you all swear to it?” he said.

A moment’s silence, then a crashing shout of agreement from the two-hundred-odd fighters; most of them hammered weapons on shields, a hollow booming thunder that turned into a roar as it echoed back from the rafters.

We swear!

“Then hear my word! You will obey my orders; a war band without a leader is like a ship at sea without a captain, food for the carrion-eaters. And you will take those orders through those I appoint as if from my own mouth. Doubtless there are many men of mark among you, but we’ve no time for me to make their acquaintance. Frederick Thurston here is my chief of staff—“

The dark young man nodded. He had the specialist training for it... and Fred had come to follow the same Gods as the Norrheimers, over the past year or so; the Lord of the Ravens had personally claimed him as a follower through Heidhveig. That would give him added authority.

“—and Ingolf the Wanderer is my second-in-command.”

Ingolf crossed his muscled arms on his chest over his mail hauberk. Even to someone who didn’t know him, he looked to be exactly what he was; a fighting-man vastly experienced, shrewd, and dangerous as an angry bear when the steel came out. And unlike Fred Thurston he was accustomed to making do with scratch bands of amateur warriors.

“Princess Mathilda is in charge of our logistics... our supplies; she will set rations and give all orders concerning forage and shares. Virginia Thurston is horse-mistress.”

The rancher’s daughter nodded. She also snorted a little; to her way of thinking nobody here knew anything about the beasts.

“Father Ignatius is master of the making of camps, the setting of watches, and all matters concerning health and order. Edain Aylward is master-bowman and chief of archers. Don’t waste my time quarreling with any one of them. Understood?”

Sober nods. These Norrheimers were more stiff-necked than his clansmen at home, and almost as fond of argument and dispute, but also a bit more practical. Vastly more so than, say, nobles of the Association.

“Then let’s be off. March!

 

@@@

 

He paused a half-hour later, to look back over the cleared snow-covered fields to Kalksthorpe, squinting against the sun before they entered the shade of the low pines.

“What’s wrong, Rudi?” Mathilda said, snow-plowing her skis to a stop beside him and thrusting her poles down.

He frowned and rubbed his left hand across his face. The right stroked across the pommel of the Sword; he often did that now, a habit that felt ancient already.

“I... I don’t know,” he said. “It’s... as if I’m concentrating all the time.”

She snorted. “You’re a king and running a war, Rudi!”

He shook his head. “It’s not just that. It’s like I’m concentrating all the time, sure. As if it stops only when I make it, instead of the other way around. Just now I found myself looking through the list of candidates for Chancellor of the Realm in Montival! Which is not only odd, but premature in the extreme!”

She smiled at him. “Oh, that’s easy. Father Ignatius.”

She’s right, he thought; something clicked in his mind in acknowledgment as she went on: “Though you may have to hit him alongside the ear and throw the chain of office over his head while he’s dazed.”

Artos chuckled. He does take that humility business rather seriously, he thought.

Aloud: “And I feel like a pipe a lot of the time. Like a pipe with something rushing through it, and being worn away by it.”

Her thick brows frowned in concern. “What does that really mean?” she said.

I don’t know!

He made a gesture of apology as she flinched a little; he seldom raised his voice. Then he looked down at his clenched fist and forced the long sinewy fingers to unfold.

“You know that engine they have down in Corvallis, at the university? The one that can be set to do all sorts of calculations?”

She nodded, and he knew they were thinking of the same thing. The great room, and the cogs and gearwheels and cams, moving smoothly as the hydraulic turbine whined, and the white-coated attendants like priests of a mystery, or a glimpse of the ancient world.

“The Difference Engine.”

His mouth quirked a little bitterly. “Thinking about what the Sword does... I feel like a dog in that room with the Engine, looking at it and trying to understand it, with my nose going around in circles and my ears drooping!”

Forlornly, she tried a joke:“I didn’t understand it anyway, Rudi!”

He sighed and rubbed his forehead again. “And sometimes I can feel things happening through the Sword. As if it was carving a path from... somewhere... to somewhere... to do... something. But I haven’t the least idea what.”

 

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County of the Eastermark
Barony of Dayton
Portland Protective Association
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly southeastern Washington State)
March 16th, Change Year 24/2023 A.D.

 

Eilir ghosted through the chill darkness to where her mother waited beneath a big lodgepole. She slid the knife back into the sheath along her boot after she’d wiped it, and sank down beside the older woman. This was as far as they could get towards the encamped enemy convoy, even with Dúnedain doing the Sentry Removal. The United States of Boise’s army was extremely disciplined and tended to operate by the book; the problem was that they used a good book, one that had definite things to say about putting out a wide net and checking on it often. The raiding party had a hundred Mackenzie archers along too, and they wouldn’t have gotten this far without open fighting, although they hid and skulked quite adequately once the way had been opened for them. There were five times that number of enemy troops camped down on the roadway.

Ready? she said in Sign.

Juniper Mackenzie’s face was in shadow, hidden by the fold of her plaid that she’d pulled over it like a hood. She was on one knee, with her rowan staff leaned across her kilted thigh. The head was the Triple Moon in silver, waxing and full and waning, two outward-pointing crescents flanking a circle.

Readier than I wish, Juniper signed.

The moon was down, and starlight hid her face. Eilir Mackenzie hadn’t seen her mother in some time and had been a little shocked at how much she’d aged; the once molten-copper hair was faded and heavily streaked with gray now. Whatever it was that had happened back at her ceremony back at Imbolc—that voice tolling in her head and the flash of light like nothing since the Change—it hadn’t made her any happier.

Be careful! Eilir signed laying a hand on her shoulder. If they see you too soon—

Juniper’s hand covered it for an instant. I’m the one who taught you how to move through the woods, my girl!

Eilir’s eyes prickled. For a moment she was struck by an almost unbearable memory, of herself as a little girl with her mother in the woods on the mountainside above Dun Juniper... or what had just been their house in the hills then. Her mother’s hands parting the grass ahead of them, and the fox-cubs tumbling over each other in the little clearing ahead, drunk with play and prancing in the moonlight. The way she’d taught her daughter to move quietly, even when Eilir couldn’t hear noise herself.

Now Juniper took a deep breath and stood. Then she walked towards the enemy camp in the valley below with her rowan staff moving in precise scribing motions in her right hand, glittering and swooping. The silver head glinted in the faint starlight, but no more brightly than the hoarfrost that covered rock and brush and pine-tree. The snow-clad tips of the Blue Mountains were the merest hint behind; not far away a waterfall brawled down a rocky slope, heavy with spring melt. Most of the men ahead were in their little tents, or shapeless mounds of sleeping-bag under the wagons. Breath puffed white where the draught-horses dozed, their bridles tied to a picket-ropes each strung between two trees.

Eilir Mackenzie’s breath caught as she saw a sentry rise and heft his long iron-shod javelin, the big oval shield marked with Boise’s eagle and crossed thunderbolts up under his eyes. Things were moving in the air about her mother, things the eyes couldn’t see but the mind sensed as a tangle of something like lines of bright and dark.

Uh-oh. Mom’s in Spooky Mode. Heavier than I’ve ever seen.

Eilir made the Horns with her left hand. She couldn’t hear what her mother said—sang, rather, soft and eerie and gentle. She’d been deaf since birth, but she knew the words. The little hairs along her spine tried to rise, and her belly wanted to cringe beneath the armor and padding where it rested on the dirt. The soil beneath her seemed to hum, somehow.

 

“Sleep of the Earth of the land of Faerie

Deep is the lore of Cnuic na Sidhe—“

 

The sentry’s challenge came slow, and then slower, softer, his lips barely moving. He swayed as she let the staff stop and blew across her bunched fingertips into his face. The Boisean soldier’s face went from hard suspicion into a tremble; then he wept, sitting down and burying his face in his hands as sobs shook his armored shoulders.

 

“Hail be to they of the Forest Gentry

All dark spirits, help us free —“

 

Another sentry came running; he seemed to stumble, to draw into himself. Then he halted for a moment, set the butt of his spear against the earth and the point to his throat. Juniper moved, her staff knocking the javelin aside so that it merely gave him a nasty cut on the face; the rank salt-and-iron scent of blood filled the air, and it seemed to smoke with Power. He lay face down, hands and feet making vague gestures. Juniper paced between the banked fires with her left hand going to her belt and then out in a sowing motion as the rowan-wood of her staff passed over the sleepers:

 

“White is the power of the state of dreaming

Light is the song to make one still 

Dark is the power of Death's redeeming 

Mark but that one word can kill—“

 

The longbowmen around Eilir were all wearing war-cloaks. They shed them as they rose, a wave of motion and a quiver through earth and air and forest, a gleam on the bodkin points of the arrows and the savage swirls of war-paint on their faces. She came to one knee herself, hand going to the wire-and-leather wrapped hilt of her sword. Then she began to move forward, flitting from tree to tree to rock and on, until she was close enough to see faces. The chant continued:

 

“Sleep!

Poison in your dreams

Some will not awake

Nothing's as it seems

Iron bonds will break

Hearts will be set free

Wrongs will be made right

Sleep and death will be

Justice in the night

Sleep will be

Justice in the night

Death will be

Justice in the night!

 

Sleeping men twitched and whined and thrashed and called for their mothers. Then one rose, and he was in command of himself. The robe he wore was the color of clotted blood, almost black in the night. Jeweled color showed on his wrists as he lifted his hands and the loose sleeves fell back.

I... see... you... little witch. You... are... too... late. The end... of... everything shall... swallow the light in... perfection.

Even lip-reading, the words thudded into the world, as if language itself strained and buckled under their burden. She remembered the reception room at Pendleton last year, and looking into the Prophet Sethaz’ eyes, like a window into nothing, a caterpillar eaten out from the inside by larvae. The missing part of her left ear seemed to throb.

“And we see you,” Juniper replied. “Dark sun-light and shining Moon; the balance of the light and dark; perfection is un-life. We are living Mind and living World and we will never be perfect. Go!

The two figures locked into stillness, but she could have sworn that they were fighting... or were they dancing?

Not my business. I’m a war-chief of the Dúnedain Rangers. Get working, woman!

She drew her sword and slid the shield onto her left arm. The soldiers were getting up and that was her concern. But mostly they were staggering, mouths open in shouts or cries or howls, their eyes seeing things that weren’t there... or at least things that she couldn’t see, and was very glad that she couldn’t see. None of them were putting on their armor; one she could see was thrusting his hands into a banked fire, into the bed of hot embers beneath the ash. Another blundered towards her, his shortsword jabbing the air in front of him. She twisted aside—he wasn’t really trying to strike her—and knocked it out of his hand with the metal-shod edge of her shield. For good measure she slammed it into his head behind the ear with precisely calculated force and dropped him cold as a banker’s charity.

A wave of the blade, and the hillside erupted. The Rangers came first, to secure the enemy commanders and the field-pieces that squatted on their wheeled mounts. The Mackenzie archers were just behind them; they moved among the Boisean soldiers, binding hands behind backs with spare bowstrings and making sure they didn’t harm themselves further. All of them gave her mother and the Corwinite magus a wide berth. She was Chief of the Clan; she was also Witch-Queen and Goddess-on-Earth, and right now that was more obvious than anyone liked, especially after what had happened at Imbolc.

Which left her daughter free. The problem was that while the CUT’s adepts were not invulnerable, she knew by experience that they were very hard to kill.

Back of the neck... she began; then the thought was interrupted.

A huge figure trotted down the broken asphalt of the road from the northward, six-foot seven and three hundred-odd pounds of John Hordle, her handfasted man... or as he usually put it, she was the missus. She pointed with the blade of her sword, and he nodded grimly. He’d been in Pendleton too. His own weapon was slung over his back, and it had a four-foot blade. His great auburn-furred paw went up to the long hilt and the bastard sword came out as he spun, astonishingly light and quick for a man his size.

The red-robe tried to turn. Even before the heavy steel struck he crumpled, his attention divided. Hordle gave a grunt as the edge struck.

“They’re tough, but that’ll put the bugger down, roit enough,” he said with satisfaction as the body pitched to one side—the head went considerably further.

Juniper Mackenzie collapsed as well; Eilir had her arms about her mother’s torso before she was halfway to the ground. The green eyes blinked at her, and then rolled up in her head. Her mouth opened; Eilir could feel the vibration of the shriek through the throat. She pinched one earlobe sharply; the rigid shaking stopped, and Juniper looked at her with her waking gaze.

“I’m—“ she began, then turned aside and was copiously sick.

Eilir held her until it was finished, produced a handkerchief and wiped her face, snagged a nearby bedroll to place beneath her head. One of Hordle’s ham-sized hands came in sight with a canteen, and she helped her mother rinse and spit.

A tap on her shoulder, and she looked up. John spoke, waiting until she had her eyes on his lips: “Is she roit, then?”

No, Eilir signed bluntly. This sort of thing backlashes at you. That’s the price. The more oomph you have, the worse it is. And someone... Someone or Something... was giving Mom lots of oomph.

“... like wrestling with a rotting corpse,” Juniper whispered.

Eilir gave her more water. Rest! She signed.

“I’m not a baby!”

The protest was feeble; her daughter smiled. You took care of me long enough. Let me return the favor.

John squatted as Juniper’s eyes fluttered closed; they looked sunken.

“We’ve got to clear out as soon as we’ve looted the wagons and put thermite on them field pieces. Thurston’s men respond bloody quick, and Corwin’s lent them more cavalry. Let me take her.”

He did, lifting the slight body as if she were a child’s straw dolly.

“Lighter than she was,” he said soberly. “She’s wearing herself down to a nub.”

We all are, Eilir signed.

She looked eastward for a moment, where the first hint of dawn was paling the stars over the mountains.

I just hope they’re coming.

 

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That’s them, Ritva signed.

All Rangers learned Sign; the younger generation from their cradles. Partly that was because of Eilir Mackenzie, their co-founder with her anamchara Astrid, the Lady of the Rangers. And because it was simply so useful, almost as much as Sindarin... which nobody outside the Fellowship ever had the patience to learn either.

She peered carefully around the pine-trunk, body and head shrouded in the hooded war-cloak with its mottled green-brown-white surface and loops for bits of pine-twig.

I make it about two thousand in this bunch, she estimated. The tail of them is over about a mile thataway.

Damn, I’m still not as good with estimating distances as I was before I lost the eye, Mary replied fretfully. Oh, well, one more bit of payback, coming up.

Then she silenced herself by raising her monocular, tilting it cautiously to keep the bright pale morning sunlight from making a revealing glint on the lens. Or her palantír en-crûm, as it was called in Edhellen. Down on the coast where the Greyflood, the St. Croix that had been, merged with the Atlantic in a tangle of little islands, you could tell that spring was coming, even if it wasn’t quite there yet. Even the snow had a grainy, tired look.

Up here near the edge of the North Woods it might as well have been February, except that the days were a bit longer. Their breaths smoked, and even the scent of the big tree’s sap was faded to a ghost of itself, the rough bark hard as cast iron beneath her gloved hands. The fresh snow glittered. More of it made a fog about the feet of the Bekwa column, kicked up by their snowshoes.

If you can call it a column, she thought snidely. I’m not expecting Bearkiller standards, but really!

The wild-men the Norrheimers called Bekwa—apparently only some of those gangs called themselves that, but it served—came on in no particular order, in clots and clumps and straggling files, a dozen here, a score there. Some of them grouped around standards on long poles—the antlers of a moose, the skulls of tigers and wolves and men, bits of leather or cloth scribed with crude symbols. A few carried the rayed sun of the CUT, gold on scarlet. Others just trudged; a few drew sleds, or walked behind others drawn by dogs or ponies. One of those keeled over as she watched, going to its knees and then struggling to rise as its owner beat it with a stick. Then it fell; the man drew a long knife, cut its throat and whipped off his crude steel cap to catch the blood. Hoots and yells rose as others crowded close to butcher the animal, many of them haggling off bits of raw meat to eat before it cooled. Inside five minutes nothing was left but the raw bloody skeleton and some of the guts. Others scrambled to add the sled’s cargo to their backpacks or toboggans.

They’re not organized, exactly, but they seem to get things done, Mary signed thoughtfully. They’re a lot better equipped than the Southside Freedom Fighters were when we first met them, too.

Ritva nodded. I don’t think they crashed quite as hard after the Change as happened in Illinois, she replied. Bit more space between the cities, maybe. Not good, but less absolutely bad.

All the Bekwa seemed to have a spear at least, solid weapons with heads ground down from pre-Change steel and well-hafted. Belts bore knives of various sizes, and hatchets. Quite a few had shields, usually the archetypical barbarian’s Stop sign nailed on a plank backing, although many read Arête instead. There was the odd ax, filed and cut down from woodchopping models; the originals were far too heavy to fight with, of course. Plenty of metal-headed clubs, too, or war-picks. Distance weapons were equally divided between buckets of javelins and real bows; it was impossible to tell how well those were made at this distance, but the sentry-scouts they’d met on their way in had had a straightforward wooden-stave self-bow, competently made but light in the draw.

Hard to tell if there’s much body-armor, Mary signed. But I’d bet on a fair bit.

Could be underneath their coats and furs, Ritva agreed.

She didn’t expect mail-coats or brigantines, much less articulated plate. But the Bekwa could make leather; a jack of boiled moose-hide was pretty good protection, enough to turn a glancing cut or a thrust that didn’t hit straight-on and hard. Even better if you fastened bits and pieces of metal to it, and washers and lengths of chain and the like could be found in any of the dead cities. Certainly a number of them had bowl helmets—literally, made from old stainless-steel kitchenware. Not nearly as good as what a workshop in Montival or Iowa made, or for that matter the spangenhelms the Norrheimers used, but better than nothing.

It could be taken for granted that all the wild-men were skilled fighters, and tough as old shoes; if they weren’t, they’d have gone into someone’s stew-pot over the past generation, or ended up with their heads on a stick if the local tribe had put its Change-era culinary indiscretions behind it. The two Rangers waited patiently, pitting muscle against muscle in motionless exercise to avoid stiffness. When the last of the Bekwa had passed they slipped their hands into their climbing-claws and went down the big white pine cat-fashion. It was as natural as walking, when you’d spent a lot of your life in and out of flets in forests that made these look like brushwood.

The twins landed softly, not far from the body of the Bekwa sentry; Sentry Removal was a Dúnedain specialty.

Then six men rose from behind a curtain of blueberry canes, the points of the bolts in the firing-grooves of their crossbows glittering and the thick steel prods bent.

Calisse de Tabernac!” one of them swore, the tassle on the end of his knit cap dangling over a villainous squint. “What we got here, eh? Biggest dam’ raccoons I ever see!”

“Uh-oh,” Mary said, keeping her hands carefully motionless and in view.

Dulu!” Ritva said. Help!

 

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