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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

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


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Norrheim, Land of the Wulfings
Six-Hill Field
(Formerly Aroostook County, Maine)
March 25, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Garbh lifted her nose and growled very softly; there wasn’t much wind, but what there was came from ahead. Then she pointed, silent now, the thick shaggy barrel of her head trained to the northeast. Artos flung up his right hand, clenched into a fist, and eased back in the saddle. Rhiannon wasn’t quite what her dam was, but she was an intelligent horse and very well trained; she stopped instantly, with only a white puff from her nostrils as she snorted.

His own warband stopped too, then spread out to either side with minimum fuss as he waved the hand from left to right—there was a clop of hooves muffled in snow-covered pine duff, a rattle of bits and bridles, but much of that was because many of their horses were local mounts picked up catch-as-catch-can. The Kalksthorpe levy and the rest of the Norrheimer fyrd were slower, but they managed it, and few spoke questions; those mostly got a hard hand across the mouth from their neighbors. Scouts fanned to the sides and forward.

It was dim here, and quiet, though from ahead he thought he could almost hear a dim confused burring sound like heavy storm-surf beating on cliffs a long way away.

Sound’s deceptive in forest, he thought. The more so when there’s snow on the branches.

They’d come along an overgrown road most of the day through oddly uniform stands of pine that all looked about fifty years old, but now they were in mature forest or old second-growth tall enough to shade out most underbrush; white pines, hemlock and leafless sugar-maples. Dry powder-snow lay thick on the boughs, fetlock-deep on the horses.

Edain looked a question at Artos, who held up three spread fingers, turned them towards his eyes and then tapped them forward towards the brightness ahead. There the sun of mid-morning broke through a generation’s scrub growth of birch and alder that was spreading out into the open ground.

Edain nodded, caught two others with his glance and slid to the ground himself, moving forward through the brush as easily as his totem Wolf might have done, bow in hand. Asgerd followed him; she was good at skulking in these woods. Ulfhild went too, and she was very good indeed; a little surprising, since you didn’t expect that degree of slinking marten grace from someone built like a white-oak barrel. Garbh ghosted along at her master’s heels, head low and thin black lips drawn up silently over long yellow fangs that knit together like edges of jagged broken glass. The mottled grey-white-brown wool of the scouts’ coats and hoods disappeared almost instantly.

The rest waited, apart from dismounting to spare the horses; there wasn’t much point in doing anything else until they knew the facts. After a half-hour a raven went gruck, or something that was very close to the real thing, and from what sounded like the forest-edge ahead. Eyes came up, and spearpoints and drawn bows; Artos let one corner of his mouth quirk up, and then answered with the same call. Garbh trotted into sight, and the three scouts after her. Asgerd looked grimly tense; Ulfhild was grinning, blood on the Norrheimer broadsword naked in her hand; Edain jogged with the same tireless hunter’s pace he always used unless he was sprinting.

“Action?” Rudi asked.

Acht, nothing but a scuffle, chief. The Norrheimers are there, all right, and they’re between us and the enemy. We met a few of the Bekwa, stragglers, is all, the which was unluckier for them than us.”

Fred Thurston had the map out before he arrived, and the young Mackenzie sketched on it with one finger.

“On all the six hills. They’re close enough to support each other—half-bowshot. Well, half for Mackenzies; three-quarters, here. We got close enough to shout, and the Bekwa are led by a red-robe right enough... but only the one bachlach, the exceeding luck and good fortune of it. The fighting-men are all Bekwa, none of our old friends from Corwin.”

Artos nodded. “They could send a few missionaries to convert men,” he said. “Easier than armies.”

“That’s a good formation, if they keep coming at straight at him,” Fred said, his black eyes narrow on the map and then glancing up abstracted as he built a model in his mind. “Good when neither side has field artillery, that is.”

“They will keep coming,” Ignatius said. “From all our experience with the CUT, most of their... priests... can think of nothing but hammer blows.”

“Numbers?” Mathilda asked. “Hammers work, if you have a big enough one.”

“Eight thousand Norrheimers, eight thousand and a bit,” Edain said. “Half again as many of the enemy, maybe, but it’s harder to tell because they’ve about as much order as so many rats in a grain-bin. The Norrheim men are holding their own. High ground, and I don’t think near as many of the savages have armor, or real swords. It’s a big battle, though. Big as that one in Idaho.”

Fred swallowed slightly; that had been where his father died. At the hands of his own brother, at that. His voice was steady as he spoke: “Father Ignatius is right; Corwin’s soldiers know their jobs, but their... spook-pushers... aren’t soldiers.”

“No,” Artos said softly. “But they are accomplished at what they do, and that is why we must bring the Sword into play, and quickly. This isn’t just a battle of men.”

“And the Bekwa aren’t soldiers either,” Ingolf said. “I know their kind.”

He’d been a leader of salvagers in the dead lands by trade; that had taken him to Nantucket, and from that...

“They’re not quite the animals, the Eaters, you’ll find in places like the east coast, but they’re still wild-men, savages. Hunters and raiders, not soldiers,” he went on. “They can fight, but stand-up, toe-to-toe... it isn’t their style, sure as shoot it isn't.”

“Right you are, brother,” Artos said.

He looked into the white-hazed blue of the morning sky; it was odd to see it serene and beautiful, while men tormented the earth. Two more ravens launched themselves from an ash tree, circling overhead and heading out over the battlefield ahead. Possibly chance, but he felt things moving within himself as he rested the palm of a gauntlet on the hilt of the Sword. Like planes of greased crystal, turning, moving, coming to a now.

Artos began to strip off his parka and the brigandine beneath, unsnapping the latches under on his left flank.

“Destriers forward and barded,” he said quietly. “Everyone gear up; full panoply. We’re close.”

I would have suspected that, before I found the Sword. Now I know it, he thought.

The war-mounts were led forward, and the pack horses with the armor. Many hands made quick work of the task. The men of the Southside Freedom Fighters had practiced since he took them into his service last year, and even the Norrheimers he’d sworn at Yule had had enough time to be useful at it.

Epona came of her own accord, and stood still save for a stamping of a forefoot; she knew what all this meant, and tolerated others touching her as they worked the straps and buckles of the barding, the horse-armor. It was of fine-wrought steel plates jointed with strips of mail and riveted to leather that was padded on the inner side. Chamfron for the head, articulated crinet on her neck, peytral on her breast and flanchards for the shoulders. Epona tossed her head, and the gear clattered on its backing. Her breath puffed white in the cold midmorning air, and the pale sun seemed to shatter on the coal-black of her hide and the gray metal of the horse-armor, and the silvered spike between her eyes.

Heavy cavalry—knights and men-at-arms—were unknown outside Montival, and common only in the Association territories there. Raising and training them took endless trouble and expense, and there were other drawbacks besides. A horse so burdened could run fast but not for very long, not even the tall muscular warmbloods, and it couldn’t travel far with the barding on and an armored man in the saddle, so that every knight needed a train of attendants and palfreys and pack-beasts. Light horse with room to run could melt away before a charge and then swarm back to sting like wasps around a tiger. The problems went on from there.

But when they were used just right, they hit like a mailed fist punching down on a ripe tomato.

So Matti’s father wasn’t simply obsessed with the ancient days of knights when he put so much effort into bringing them alive once more, Artos thought.

He stood as hands lifted a long tunic-coat of quilted linen over his head; it had mail sleeves, extended to cover the vulnerable spot beneath the armpit. Mail-covered chaps laced onto its skirts, covering the outside of his legs; plate greaves went on his shins, with linked steel splints to protect his feet. He slapped the vambraces onto his forearms; after the brigandine was buckled back over the padding on his torso he ducked his head for the coif, more leather covered in mail, making a tight-fitting hood and covering his neck and a semicircle of chest and back.

Then, wryly: Or he wasn’t just obsessed with the days of the knights, sure. And if he hadn’t been obsessed, he wouldn’t have learned those skills in a world where they were no more use than tits on a boar. I don’t blame him for loving the ancient stories, either. For being a red-capped brute of a powrie in the flesh, yes, now there I do blame him. Yet Matti his daughter and I Mike Havel’s son will wed, if we live, and our children will unite the blood of the Bear Lord and House Arminger and Clan Mackenzie. Let the dead past bury its feuds. We Changelings have our own wars to win.

Mathilda looked at him as she adjusted her own coif, smiling a little as the lustrous titanium-alloy mail framed her slightly, pleasantly irregular strong-boned face.

“Are you sure you’re not going to set me to waiting and cooking stew instead of fighting?”

He grinned at her, lifted a little out of his thoughts. “When you’re pregnant or nursing, that I will, by the Blessing! If I have to chain you to a rock to do it, too. Or lock you in a castle solar to look out the tower window and comb your hair and pine, like a princess in a story.”

“You could try!”

“Ah, but acushla, beat of my heart... then we’ll be married, and by your Christian rites that means you’ll have to promise your God to obey me, won’t you? The which our Mackenzie witch-girls do not, by the way. And I’ll be able to command you as High King to vassal lord.”

She stuck out her tongue at him; he winked back and settled his sallet on his head, tightening the chin-cup. Twin tufts of raven-feathers stood upright from each temple of the helm, and the surface was scored in patterns set with niello that made more feathers. Close-tailored pads of old sponge rubber and new felt gripped brow and head within; he flicked the visor down and up. Then he twisted and bent, squatted and sprang upright, to make sure everything was settled and nothing was going to shift at a—critically—wrong moment. Uncoiling, his long legs drove him to a chest-height leap before he landed again; not exactly lightly, but with a tensile grace on the balls of his feet and flexed knees.

One of the Norrheimers behind him swore softly in amazement. Artos—Rudi for that moment—caught Mathilda’s eyes as she lifted one eyebrow; yes, it was a bit of a boast, but why not?

The gear weighed about seventy pounds, not counting his slung shield, and hung mostly from his shoulders; a suit of the latest modern plate would have been no heavier, better distributed, better protection and just as flexible, but they were impossible to repair in the field away from the Association’s experts. Any good smith could fix what he was wearing; he could do most of it himself, given the tools.

“Ready,” Ignatius said.

“Ready,” Mathilda said.

“Ready,” Artos replied.

“Ready,” Ingolf said in turn.

They checked each other’s gear, squire’s duty back in Montival. The four of them were the ones with the mounts and training to fight knight-fashion.

“And we lugged this stuff all the way from home,” Mathilda said. “How many times have we used the full set in all that time?”

“Three or four, that I recall, my child,” Ignatius said calmly. “But when we’ve needed it, we’ve needed it very badly, Your Highness.”

Virginia snorted. She and Fred were in western light-horseman’s gear of the sort used all through the ranch-lands of the Plains and the mountain-and-basin country, waist-length mail shirts with short sleeves and bowl helmets, armed with recurve bow and curved sword.

“That stuff slows you down,” she said. “’specially the tinware on the horses, and in snow at that. If God—“ she glanced at her husband “—the Gods had meant horses to be arrer-proof, they’d have given ‘em scales like an armadillo.”

“No, it’s worth it, when the target doesn’t have room to run,” Fred said, ignoring her frown. “Paper beats rock, and scissors cut paper, but rock smashes scissors.”

He has a strong personality, sure and he does, Artos thought.

He was half-amused, half making notes for the future. The High King would have to deal with his vassal lord of Boise... and his lady, and his heirs... all the rest of his life. Assuming they all survived, of course.

Hers is the stronger will, though; she hides it most of the time, but usually he ends up taking her position when they argue. Yet his father trained him so well that when it’s a matter of war-craft, nothing else matters to him but the rightness of it.

Abdou al-Naari and his son and several of their men were in gear halfway between that of the plainsmen and the knights, armed with bow and broad-bladed spear and scimitar, exotic in spired helmets and armor with Koranic verses worked into the mail with brass links; evidently nobles such as he fought on horseback in his homeland as well, and he rode as easily as he conned a ship. Most of the others looked...

Like sailors on horseback, Artos thought whimsically. Or as a sack of oats would, if it could fear falling off. Fishermen at home, I’d judge, when they’re not pirating, or farmers too poor to own a horse.

Hrolf Homersson handed Artos back his sword-belt; the big Norrheimer was a very brave man...

Not least because he dared take up with Ritva!

... but he was notably cautious about the weapon, avoiding touching anywhere near the hilt. Artos himself felt a slight easing as he swung the heavy studded belt around his hips again and drew it tight; being out of reach of the Sword made him uneasy now, as if he’d lost a sense like hearing or sight. Which made him uneasy itself in turn. Was he to be forever incomplete without it, a cripple without that fifth limb of not-really-steel?

“Ready!” he said crisply. “Make your peace with your Gods, comrades, for now we do battle.”

Mathilda crossed herself, kissed her crucifix and tucked it back beneath her hauberk. Ignatius did likewise, and murmured under his breath:

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Angels, I am your servant and your chosen knight. Strengthen me in soul and body, that I may be worthy of your trust and vanquish the enemies of God and our people. Intercede for us all, comrades and foemen, now and at the hour of our deaths. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Amen.”

Then a little louder: “Deus lo vult!

Allahu Akbar!” the Moors chorused, which meant approximately the same thing.

The rest of his own warband all had horses to carry them to the fight, if not to fight from. He looked at Thorleif, the leader of the Kalksthorpe folk; they were on foot or ski.

“Follow as quickly as you can and keep good order,” he said.

Thorleif nodded. “Swine-array!” he said aloud.

The Kalksthorpe men shook themselves out into a blunt wedge; Thorlief and the man bearing the banner of an orca black-and-white on silver were three men back from the point. Lighter-armed fighters with bows and slings spread out from the base of the triangle.

“I wish Odard were here,” Mathilda said quietly.

Artos nodded, a little surprised at his own sincerity. “Ach do làmhansa bhi, Odard, mo chara. I wish his hands were with us now.”

He was a trained knight, and a good one. And by the time he died, he was a true friend—a prickly and difficult friend, and one given to saying things that disquieted a man, to be sure. A king could have worse companions.

Artos paused a fraction of an instant for his own prayer: “Morrigú of the Crows, Red Hag of Battles, to you I dedicate the harvest of the unplowed field of war. Be with Your children now; and when my hour comes, I will welcome You.”

When he did that, Someone always answered. Often with fire-shot darkness, so that he woke later scarcely knowing what he’d done, save for the blood. Now it came on him in cold certainty; the world seemed to recede until everything was small and bright and perfect, seen through panes of crystal. He took up a clod of snowy earth where Epona’s hooves had torn through winter’s coat to bare the soil’s flesh, and touched it to his lips:

“Earth must be fed.”

Behind him Edain did the same, and the Southsiders who’d come to follow the Old Religion. It was acknowledgment that you only borrowed your body from Earth the Mother for a little while. And that to slay in battle was to consent to your own mortality and make your killer free of your blood.

Then they swung into the saddle, with no more than low grunts of effort. One of the tests of knighthood in the Association was to vault into the saddle full-armed, but nobody felt like showing off right now. Artos held out his hand and Edain tossed him the lance. He caught the twelve-foot length of it in his left hand below the bowl-shaped guard, resting the butt on his thigh. They’d had them made up in Richland, Ingolf’s homeland in Wisconsin, to a west-coast pattern, and stowed at Eriksgarth with their horses when they came through at Yule.

Lances didn’t last long in use, either.

A little wind dropped powdered snow on their heads from the pine-branches overhead. The long man-at-arm’s shield slid onto his forearm. Its surface was painted with the new arms of Montival, blue field with a green mountain topped by a crown of white snow, and the silver Sword across it. He left the reins of the bitless hackamore bridle knotted on the high arched steel-sheathed pommel. Even an ordinary destrier didn’t need much rein control in battle, and Epona and he talked at a level far beyond that.

“Forward, my friends,” he said, and dipped his lance.

 

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Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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