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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

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


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Approaching Castle Todenangst, Crown demesne
Portland Protective Association
Willamette Valley near Newburg
High Kingdom of Montival
(formerly western Oregon)
March 24th, CY 25/2023 A.D.

 

“So, is this Toddyangst place really a castle?” John Red Leaf said to Juniper Mackenzie, standing in the stirrups and looking eastward. “Some sort of fort, I suppose it means?”

They’d gotten horses at noon in the Crown stables by the railway station in Newburg a little west of here, along with a Portlander escort to join her six archers; the sun was behind them now, throwing their shadows onto the damp off-white crushed rock of the roadway. Luckily the spring rains had relented today and the sky was blue, studded with drifting high-piled shapes of white cloud.

The two Sioux had changed into carefully-packed formal costumes back there; moccasin-like boots, doeskin trousers with fringes of hair down the outer seams, and leather shirt-tunics worked with shells and beads and porcupine-quill work. Red Leaf was the elder, a thickset proud-nosed man in his forties with a hard square face the ruddy-brown color of old mahogany, lined and grooved by harsh summers and worse winters; he added a headdress of buffalo-horns and mane on his steel cap and a breastplate of horizontal bone tubes. His son Rick Three Bears was in his twenties, either a Changeling or on the cusp of it; he had a look of his father but lighter of skin and narrower of face, with a broad-brimmed Stetson on his head and a few eagle feathers in his dark-brown braids. Both of them had the shoulders of bowmen and the instinctive seat of those who spent most of their lives in the saddle.

“No, Dun Juniper is a fort, and a village, and other things, my home being one,” Juniper said. “Todenangst is... hard to miss, you might be sayin’. And the huge and imposing castle it is, without doubt or question whatsoever.”

She’d had Rudi’s letters to describe his meeting with the Sioux leaders last year in what had once been South Dakota, and evidently they’d been impressed enough with her son to treat her as friend and ally from the beginning. Those letters and a day or so in Red Leaf’s company gave her the impression that the Sioux tribes who now dominated the northern High Plains bore a closer resemblance to their ancestors of the time of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull than her Clan Mackenzie did to the actual pagan Gael of the Táin Bó Cúalnge... but not all that much more.

Which was no surprise; she’d seen since the Change that you couldn’t recreate the past no matter how you tried, though myths and stories about the past could be a most powerful force in how folk built new ways to live in this new-old world.

“Way! Make way! In the Crown’s name, make way!”

The harsh cry of the golden-spurred knight who commanded the escort moved aside passers-by on foot or bicycle or pedicab or mounted horseback themselves, and once a group of villagers doing their corvée duty by filling in potholes looked glad enough to take a rest and lean on their shovels. They threaded around and through and by wagon-trains and stagecoaches and ox-carts, flocks of Romney sheep with their fleeces silver or gray or white, a little girl who stopped to curtsey, with an udder-heavy Jersey behind her on a leading rope, a gray-robed Franciscan friar telling his beads...

The plate-armored Portlander men-at-arms jogged along swapping jokes and stories with the half-dozen Mackenzie archers who accompanied Juniper.

Amazing and delightful it is, how a common enemy wears away old hatreds!

“Holy shit!” Red Leaf blurted a few moments later. “I thought Disneyland was in California!”

Juniper Mackenzie chuckled. “And we surpass it, these days. That’s not lath and plaster, by all the Gods and the fae as well!”

The laugh had a tired sound to it—she was always exhausted now, down to her very bones, and they’d come just as fast as they could up the valley. But her amusement was genuine.

“Are these people for real?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Most exceedingly so.”

The representatives of the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota tunwan had come much further and faster than she, and mostly by some very rough mountain back-roads still dangerously close to winter.

They are without doubt hardy men. But then, they live in tents through winters in Dakota!

Single-minded speed meant this was their first real glimpse of the PPA’s style when at home. She’d been here often enough in the years of peace since the War of the Eye that Norman and Sandra Arminger’s exercise in pseudo-medievalist megalomania seemed just another very large building most of the time. Now she tried to see it though a stranger’s eye...

“As I recall, they used the Château de Pierrefonds as a model. Scaled up considerably, to be sure. With elements of Carcassone, if that means anything to you, and a dash of Mad Ludwig of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein, the which Walt Disney also admired, and hence the family resemblance. With a little Gormenghast for flavor.”

The great fortress-palace on the butte ahead had a curious skyward thrust and delicacy to it, despite the brutal massiveness of the structure; it was built of ferroconcrete, since not even the first Lord Protector’s demonic will had been able to summon whole legions of skilled stonemasons from nothing. Mixing cement and aggregate and pouring it into molds had been much simpler, and the fact that it was coated in glittering white stucco helped with the effect, she supposed. A forty-foot curtain-wall formed the outer perimeter, studded with scores of thick round machiolated towers more than twice that height, and the butte below had been cut back to form a smooth glacis down to the moat. Gates punctuated the circuit in four places, with towers and defenses that turned them into smaller fortresses in their own right.

“And just a touch of Hearst’s San Simeon on the inside, which you will see,” she added judiciously.

The inner donjon reared where the summit had been; two towers at north and south were taller than all the others, the first sheathed in palest silver-gray stone, the second covered in some glossy black rock whose crystal inclusions glittered in the bright spring light. Conical roofs of green copper topped all the towers, save for the gilding that turned the tip of the dark spire into a sun-bright blaze, and colorful banners flew from the spiked peaks.

Light blinked from the spearheads and polished armor of soldiers on the crenellated parapets. Then a heliograph began to snap from the highest point, sending a message flashing towards the perfect white cone of Mt. Hood on the eastern horizon, beyond the low green forested slopes of the Parrett Mountains. In the middle distance northward another tower, toy-tiny with distance, began to repeat the coded lights to somewhere else.

“Christ, this was built after the Change?” John Red Leaf said. “That black tower must be a hundred and fifty, two hundred feet high! How did you manage it without machinery?”

We didn’t,” Juniper said dryly. “We Mackenzies, or Bearkillers or Corvallans or the Yakima League or the Kyklos or... well, all the others. We had other priorities, sure and we did.”

He’s what... perhaps halfway between forty and fifty? A man grown in 1998, but younger than me. Still, not a Changeling like his son there. He has more sense of what must have been involved.

Aloud: “The Portland Protective Association built it... which is to say Norman Arminger did. Quickly, too. Though furnishing the interior’s still going on.”

“Norman Arminger... he was Mathilda’s dad, right?” John said.

“That was him. Sandra... the Regent... uses the Silver Tower there as her headquarters; the black one was Norman’s lair while he was Lord Protector, but it’s full of bureaucrats now.”

And the whole of it bears the mark of him, she thought; it was like an arrogant mailed fist smashed into the face of heaven.

“There’s many a castle in the Association territories, they built scores to hold down the land, but only one like this. It goes with the flag, you see,” Juniper added.

John turned in the saddle to look at the pennants snapping from the lances of the men-at-arms in their suits of gleaming plate. They were troopers of the Protector’s Guard, and the narrow fork-tailed flags bore the undifferenced arms of House Arminger; a lidless slit-pupiled Eye, argent on sable, wreathed in scarlet flame.

“It’s an eye, Matti had something like that on her shirt. So?”

“That’s the Eye of Sauron, my dear. Or it was in origin, at least. And a good thing that copyright died with the Change, eh? Though it would be a bold lawyer who sued the Armingers in the seat of their power.”

His eyes flicked from the banner to the fortress. “Black tower... eye... Sauron... you’ve got to be shitting me, right?”

“No, that was Norman’s little joke. His sense of humor was just a wee bit eccentric, so to say. Though his main obsession was with the Normans... William the Conqueror, Strongbow—bad cess to him—and Roger Guiscard and Tancred and that lot.”

“The dude thought he was bad, right?”

“Oh, you have no idea. This is Castle Todenangst, for example.”

“Which means?”

“Castle of the Anguish of Death, roughly. Or Death-Anguish, to arrange the words Germanically. I’m afraid he was every bit as bad as he thought he was, too, the creature. They say there’s a man’s bones in the ground for every ten tons of concrete and steel in that thing there; when they didn’t just throw the bodies in the mix. Fortunately he wasn’t quite as smart as he thought he was, the joy and everlasting good fortune of it.”

Rick Three Bears whistled quietly to himself and said:

“Rudi’s father killed him, right? Not your husband, that Mike guy, I suppose he was your boyfriend then?’

“Very briefly,” Juniper said dryly. “That was just before he married Signe... who’s the mother of Mary and Ritva, who you met. Yes, Mike killed Norman, and vice versa, ochone... ah, he was a lovely man, Mike Havel was, and he’s badly missed now.”

“Rudi and his bunch didn’t want to talk about the details much, seemed to me,” Rick’s father noted.

“Understandable, and it wouldn’t be altogether tactful for either of you to mention all this in Sandra’s hearing. Remarkable it is to contemplate, but she really did love Norman. There’s no accounting for tastes.”

“So, you’re friends with these folks now?” Red Leaf said.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that. Ní dhíolann dearmad fiacha; a debt is still unpaid, even if put out of mind. Mathilda’s a wonderful girl—“

“I was impressed with her.”

“Rightly so. But then, she spent half of each year with us Mackenzies after the War of the Eye, in my household; that was part of the peace settlement. She’s like a daughter to me. Her mother Sandra, the Regent, is much, much more clever than ever Norman was, and Norman was no fool except where his hatreds and lusts blinded him.”

“What’s she like? Sandra.”

“Well, some say she’s a sociopath. Some say psychopath. Sandra says her chosen phrase would be: Very focused.”

The commander of the escort was riding ahead of them but well within earshot; she could see his helm jerk a little in horror, and then he slid his visor down as if to cut himself off from such sedition. Of course, you were a bit cut off from the outside world in a visored sallet, one smooth curve of steel from bevoir to crest interrupted only by the vision-slit.

“What’s your opinion?” Red Leaf asked.

“A little of all three. We spent ten years fighting each other, and fourteen since then as... allies of a sort. Not that she’s not good company, when she chooses, and she’s devoted to Mathilda, and looks after her supporters very carefully. I don’t think you could call her cruel, exactly, either. They don’t hang folk in spiked iron cages here. Not any more. But there’s more mercy to be found on the edge of a razor than in her mind or soul.”

His eyes went back to Castle Todenangst; they were closer now, and the sheer scale of it was daunting.

“I still can’t quite believe it. It makes you feel like a bug.”

“That was precisely the intention, I believe, and just exactly how Norman regarded everyone but himself, and perhaps his wife and daughter. The materials he scavenged... I think the ornamental stone came mostly from banks and office buildings as far away as Seattle, the concrete and steel from construction sites and factories.”

“But how did he get it all here?”

“Hauled on the railways, mostly. Horses were scarce then, so he used men for that and the rest. Used them up. They were going to starve anyway, he’d say, and might as well work first. The Pyramids were built by hand too, without even steel tools or wheelbarrows to help.”

He whistled silently and rode in silence for a few moments, craning his neck up.

“I see where your boy got his accent,” he said, changing the subject.

For which I do not blame him. He’s here to negotiate with all the countries of the Meeting at Corvallis... of the High Kingdom of Montival... and not to hear our old feuds. Though the man does need to know what he’s dealing with; I owe him that and more, for the rescuing of my son and Mathilda.

His own speech was a slightly twanging rural mid-American, with just a hint of something else and an educated man’s vocabulary. She shrugged ruefully.

“At least with him it’s genuine. My mother was Irish, from Achill in the west—she spoke the Gaelic to me in my cradle—and I can put on County Mayo at will. Over the years I’ve let it have free rein, so that at least the real thing is available as a model, so to speak. Most of my people—“

She glanced back at her own guard with fond exasperation as they rode along in kilt and plaid and green brigandine marked with the Moon and Antlers. The six-foot yellow staves of their bows slanted over their backs, and arrows fletched with gray goose feathers rattled in their quivers.

“—imitated what they thought was the accent, for all that I’d tell them they sounded like Hollywood leprechauns from Finian’s Rainbow. And their children grew up hearing that, with a result that is now wholly indescribable without using bad language, so it is, the more so as they don’t realize it. I try to think of it as just the way Mackenzies talk.”

Red Leaf grinned. “Yeah, I thought some of the others sounded like... I had a friend, this Mongol guy named Chinua, studying range management at SDSU while I was there, who was crazy about John Wayne. One night he ran a movie on his VCR where the Duke played this boxer who went to hide out in Ireland because he’d hit someone too hard...”

The Quiet Man,” Juniper said with a wince. “A fine movie if you don’t mind assuming my mother’s entire people were a race of happily drunken potato-faced wife-beating peasant yokels with room-temperature IQ’s who thought with their fists when they weren’t clog-dancing or killing each other in fits of mindless religious fanaticism. It’s annoying that sort of thing can be.”

“Tell me,” the Indian said dryly. Then, softly: “I miss VCR’s sometimes, though...”

They paused for a moment, both lost in memories of a world that had perished in an instant of pain and white light. Then they looked aside in mutual forbearance; there were some things that were too hurtful to be called back from their graves, best left in a time that was now remembered mostly as myth. If only because thinking of that made you think of what had followed, in the years of the great dying.

No wonder so many who survived sought escape in dreams of ancient times! As if that age just before the Change had never really happened, something to be passed over with a shrug.

Red Leaf cleared his throat, as his son rolled his eyes, very slightly and probably without conscious intent.

Arra, Changelings are often like that, when they hear their elders babbling of meaningless things like television and movies. Sadly: And soon there will be nobody who understands us, really, as we die off one by one, we survivors who remember the ancient world.

“Pretty country,” John said, looking towards the fields north and south of the road.

It was, gently rolling hills vivid green with the spring rains and burgeoning warmth of this mild and fertile land. The orchards of peach and plum, apple and apricot were in bloom, a froth that sent fragrance drifting on the mildly warm air to compete with the smells of dung and horse and sweat and metal, turned earth and woodsmoke. Willows dropped their drooping branches in the little river to the south, amid oak-dotted pastures studded with pink and blue hepatica.

“Makes me feel closed in, though,” Three Bears said unexpectedly. “Sort of... cramped.

“All what you’re used to,” Red Leaf said. “It sure ain’t the makol.”

When Juniper looked a question at him he translated that: “Makol, the short-grass prairie, the high plains. Our country.”

Peasants in hooded tunics rode sulky plows on the northern side, turning under green sod in their field-strips as the patient oxen leaned into the traces and soil curved rich and brown and moist away from the plowshares, the smell as intoxicating as fresh barley-bread. Others further away on a south-facing slope worked with hoes flashing in a vineyard whose stocks were still black gnarled stumps after winter’s pruning. Then the almost metallic bright-green of winter wheat, with its slight under-tint of blue. It grew ankle high and rippled away towards a line of poplars; a prosperous-looking village clustered there, brick cottages with tile roofs peeping through the trees around the gray square bell-tower of a church and a manor-hall’s roof.

The castle was south of that and across the highway and railroad right-of-way. A squad of crossbowmen in half-armor doubled out of the gate to stand with their weapons presented at the salute; the great steel leaves were already open. It wasn’t a full-dress ceremonial reception, though trumpets screamed beneath proud banners. The Lakota mission wasn’t exactly confidential but they weren’t trying to draw attention to it yet either; a mass of alarming unconfirmed rumors was the objective.

Red Leaf and his son stayed quiet through the massive gate-halls, shrewd eyes taking in the details of catapult and ballistae and firing-slits for flame throwers, and through the courtyards and gardens, fountains and roads and sweeping stairways and galleries where pillars supported pointed arches beyond, and into the dojon; the interior of Todenangst was like a small city in itself, a city and a building at the same time. It included a cathedral of some size, rows of houses against the curtain wall’s inner side as well as barracks, stables, armories, workshops, reservoirs, grocers and bakers and cobbler’s shops, cold-stores, granaries, taverns, schools, libraries and print-shops, jousting grounds and even a theatre. The escort vanished off to their quarters, save for the knight, taking her archers and the horses with them.

“My lady, my lords,” the man said. “This way.”

He accompanied it with a stiff bow—it was difficult to make any other sort, in a suit of plate complete, even one with an articulated breastplate. He also had a limp, and a pointed brown chin-beard and green eyes that showed when he pushed his visor up. His shield’s main blazon was the Eye, but an inescutcheon in the upper left showed a series of wedges of gold and black meeting in the center, with a flaming motorcycle painted over it.

Gyronny sable and or, a Harley purpure... the Weretons of Laurelwood; they were Hell’s Angels before the Change, when they decided to back Norman. They hold Laurelwood by knight-service; an armigerous family but not titled, enfeofed vassals of the Barons of Forestgrove in County Chehalis. And that’s a baton of cadency across the arms, and he’s very young, so he’s the tail-end of the second generation—his elder brother was about ten at the time of the Change and had that lance-running with Mike Havel in the War of the Eye. And I heard that—

“Ah, Sir Joscelin,” Juniper said, searching her memory. “Congratulations on receiving the accolade, and I hope your wound is healing well.”

“Thank you, Lady Juniper,” the young knight blurted, fighting down a smile.

He showed them through the entrance of the Silver tower into the vast hall at its base, with an arched groin-vaulted ceiling and great spiral staircases on either side, lit by the incandescent mantles of gas-burning chandeliers. It was fairly crowded; secretaries and clerks in plain tunics; visiting delegations; soldiers of all descriptions from hairy leather-clad foresters to military bureaucrats; a nobleman in a surcoat of blue silk lined with yellow whose extravagantly dagged sleeves dangled to his knees attended by pages and squires and a lady in sweeping dress and pointed headdress who was as gaudy and haughty as he; clerics from a bishop in crosier and mitre to tonsured monks and robed nuns... And one section blocked off by planters full of roses and lavender and set with tables and chairs.

“One double-cheese pizza, one chicken stew, two bacon cheeseburgers with fries, right, gentles?” a server in a commoner’s tunics-and-shift said with the singsong intonation of phrases infinitely repeated. “And two glasses of Pinot Noir and one mug of small beer. Bread, butter and cheese are complementary, but manchet bread is extra. That’ll be one silver piece and three pennies.”

John Red Leaf blinked. “A food court? The Black Tower of the Dark Lord has a food court?

“Well, even minions have to have lunch, and not all of them can go to their own hearths,” Juniper said. “And technically, this is the Silver tower. The pizza is fine, but I have my suspicions about the hamburgers, that I do; they taste far too bread-crumbish for honesty sometimes.”

“OK, OK,” he said. “What floor is she on?”

“The seventh, usually, a bit more than halfway up which is quite a climb, but—ah, here we are. The VIP treatment.”

At the rear wall, the one facing the interior of the donjon, was what looked like a small room lined with an openwork trellis of bronze wrought into vine-leaves; Sir Joscelin bowed them into it, stepped back, closed a door of the same construction and pulled on a tasseled rope.

“God speed and good fortune, my lords, Lady Juniper.”

Somewhere far below a bell chimed faintly. Young Three Bears did start in alarm when the elevator lurched into motion beneath them, and a slow chiming music sounded from above. His father grinned—he undoubtedly hadn’t ridden in an elevator since March 17th, 1998—and swore admiringly.

“All the comforts. How does this work?”

“Convicts on treadmills down in the dungeons turning the drums with the cables,” Juniper said, holding out one hand with the index finger pointing downwards.

Then she rotated it towards the roof, where the icy music sounded over and over, like the chiming of Elven bridles on a midnight heath:

“Rigged to a carillon as well.”

“Well, fuck me, elevator music isn’t dead after all.”

The elevator didn’t travel very quickly, but it was much faster than trotting up ten flights of stairs. They went from one story to the next and the light outside brightened as narrow arrow-slits turned to real arched windows with glass panes in their stone traceries, albeit with steel shutters that could be barred and bolted.

A young woman was waiting to greet them at the seventh stop, dressed in a long embroidered cote-hardie and a wimple of yellow silk bound with jeweled wire. The bright cloth complemented skin the color of chocolate truffles; she had an Associate’s jewel-hilted dagger at her woven gold belt as well as the usual rosary and embroidered pouch. Her narrow black eyes were somewhere between elaborately guileless and extremely shrewd, her delicately full features expressionless save for a bland smile of welcome.

“God give you good day, my lords from the east, my Lady Juniper,” she said, holding her skirts and sinking in a curtsey that let her trailing over-sleeves touch the birch-and-maple parquet. “I shall bring you to the Lady Regent.”

“Wait, demoiselle,” Juniper said. “You’re... Lady Jehane Jones, aren’t you? Lord Jabar’s youngest.”

“Yes, I have the honor to be the Count of Molalla’s daughter, my lady,” she said. “You and I have only met once, though. And also I have the honor to be amanuensis to the Lady Regent.”

Which meant something between confidential secretary and general gofer and was a post of considerable importance if your principal was high on the totem pole. Juniper stopped herself from raising an eyebrow; it was the first time Sandra had allowed that job to go to one of the greater nobility. There must be a story there. The Regent liked using people she had some strong hold on, ones whose fortunes were linked to hers, not those with independent power-bases and blood-links to the ruling houses of the Association. The young noblewoman went on:

“If you’ll follow me, my lords, my lady?”

She led them down a long corridor walled in pale marble streaked with darker grey. Arched windows to their left overlooked a rooftop garden surrounded by high walls grown with blossoming roses, and the interior wall held paintings—mostly Impressionists and Post-Impressionists along with some of the obligatory Pre-Raphaelites—or objects d’art in niches; a 13th century Persian bowl showing warriors battling around a tower, an ancient savage-looking Shang Chinese mask in jade and gold, and more.

Sandra still has her salvage teams at work, I see, Juniper thought; they’d gotten as far as museums and galleries in San Diego.

“Bet the economic pyramid comes to a mighty sharp point here,” Red Leaf murmured in her ear; she nodded silently.

Knights of the Protector’s Guard crashed gauntleted fist to breastplate outside the last door, burnished cocobolo, teak and maple carved with scenes from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. A tinkle and buzz of music from lute and rebec and hauteboy from within died away as it swung noiselessly open.

“My dear Juniper,” Sandra Arminger said, rising to greet them.

She was small and neat and elegant and smooth in her white-and-gray cote-hardi, a pearl-and-platinum headdress that wasn’t quite a crown over an elaborately folded white silk wimple. It framed a round slightly plump middle-aged face, entirely ordinary... until you looked into the brown eyes.

“And John Red Leaf and Rick Mat’o Yamni,” she said. “Hau kola!

The Presence Room in the Silver Tower emptied at the Regent’s gesture, with even her Persian cats being carried out protesting in baskets. Of the entourage there remained only Jehane and a tall blond woman in black surcoat, jerkin, hose and turned-down thigh-boots. The surcoat bore Sandra’s arms quartered with her own, sable, a delta or over a V argent. She stood behind Sandra’s chair with her left hand on the plain hilt of her longsword and her right turning a rose beneath her chin, watching with eyes the color of moonlit glaciers.

The room was uncluttered and elegantly spare, pale stone and tile, with the color mainly in the glowing rugs where tigers wound through thickets beside the Columbia gorge and lords and ladies rode out with hawks on their wrists through fields of asphodel. Before she left one last lady-in-waiting set out a coffee service on the blond wood of the table, along with petit-fours and nuts and dried fruits; the rich dark scent of the Kona Gold mixed with the lavender sachets and the floral scents from arched Venetian-gothic windows open on a little patio garden. They all sat silent for a moment, considering each other.

One thing clashed violently with the room’s décor. A long carved ceremonial pipe with a spray of eagle feathers along its underside rested in a wooden holder, along with bowls of sage, sweetgrass and tobacco and a brass censor of glowing coals.

Red Leaf’s brows went up as he saw it. “Why do I get the feeling that’s a sure-enough chanunpa, ah, Lady Sandra?”

“Why, it’s best to be prepared,” Sandra said with a slight smile. “In case we come to... serious matters.”

Red Leaf returned the smile. “You know, Rudi struck me as a really smart guy. And he’s sure-enough death on two legs in a fight. But I got the impression your girl Mathilda was more subtle. Twisty.”

Sandra’s smile grew to reveal a dimple and she spread her hands palm-up.

“Why, my lord Red Leaf, you say the nicest things!”

“And that’s real coffee, isn’t it? God, it’s been over twenty years!”

“By all means,” Sandra said.

Jehane put her shorthand pad aside for an instant and poured for all of them; Rick Three Bears gave her a shy smile and then struggled manfully to hide it; Juniper judged he was fascinated by her alien looks, as well as the fact that she was simply a very comely woman of a bit less than his own age. Black people apparently weren’t common on the High Plains. They weren’t all that common here in Montival either, but the twists and turns of post-Change politics had made them very well-represented among the PPA’s nobility.

Red Leaf sipped the coffee and sighed; his son followed suit, winced, and poured in more cream and sugar. The elder Sioux rubbed his palms together.

“Let’s get to business, then.”

Sandra held up a hand. “Before we do, let’s make our own positions plain. I am the Lady Regent of the Portland Protective Association; I make the Association’s foreign policy in peace and war. Jehane is my personal amanuensis and has my full confidence; you may speak as if we were alone. This—“ she indicated the tall woman behind her “—is my Grand Constable... supreme commander... Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath; she also enjoys my full confidence, and is here to give me any military advice I need. Lady Juniper you know. I represent the Association, which is about half of Montival. Lady Juniper is the Mackenzie, the Chief of the Clan and Name, and sufficiently influential that she can more-or-less commit the remaining powers as long as we don’t do anything too outrageous. Signe... the Lady of the Bearkillers... couldn’t be here, and Corvallis can’t get anything done without six days of debate. There are over a dozen minor states... cities... leagues... tribes... autonomous villages... kibbutzim... but as a matter of practical politics they’ll fall in with whatever the big four decide. Correct?”

She glanced over. Juniper shrugged:

“It would be more accurate to say that everyone else trusts you to do the negotiations... and trusts me to keep watch on you, Sandra. And that Corvallis can’t do anything without six days of debate, including deciding on what’s for dinner, much less who short of a committee of dozens should have plenipotentiary powers. Which is why the people there, if not the Faculty Senate, are keen for the High Kingship.”

John Red Leaf looked around, apparently noticing that he and his son were the only males in the room. “Ah... you folks got some sort of matriarchy thing going here?”

“Not exactly,” Sandra said dryly. “Though it can seem that way at times.”

Tipahine spoke for the first time; she had a strong soprano, with a tone like cool water sliding over gravel in a mountain stream:

“You might say that a lot of our first-generation leadership came down with mutually terminal cases of testosterone poisoning.”

Three Bears looked puzzled, but his father barked amusement. “Yeah! Seen a fair bit of that in our neck of the woods too. A bunch of guys who thought they were a lot more like Conan than they really were. Watching the wrong movies’ll do that to you.”

Then both he and his son took a sudden second look at the Grand Constable. Juniper had fought occasionally with her own hands in the early Change Years, but she didn’t claim to be any sort of warrior; at only a little over five feet she just didn’t have the heft, for starters. But she had a very good fighting-man for her handfasted husband, and been around many others for decades now. She knew exactly what they were looking at; details of stance and subtle movement, the wrists and hands, the thin scars that showed under the sleeves of the surcoat and shirt and on her tanned face. Other things that showed only in the chilly grey eyes, and the worn sweat-stained look of the leather and wire wrapping on the longsword’s hilt, shaped by constant use to fit the wielder’s palm. A sudden slight wariness showed on both their faces, and a small, brief, bleak smile on Tiphaine’s; she gave them a very slight nod.

The Sioux leader turned back to Sandra and hesitated. “Ah... you understand, this place has been a bit of a shock. I mean, your daughter Mathilda... the Princess Mathilda... and the others described things for us but I thought she was, ah, maybe being a bit colorful.”

Juniper intervened. “They’re finding the Association a little... picturesque, Sandra.”

“Perfectly understandable,” the PPA regent said.

One slim, tastefully plucked brown eyebrow went up at the headdress the Sioux leader had put aside on the table, and the rest of the tribal finery. Red Leaf’s heavy-featured face split in a smile.

“OK, I admit, you’ve got a point... Lady Sandra. This stuff’s your war-bonnet.”

“And then there’s Dun Juniper,” Sandra said.

“It’s as big as this?” Red Leaf said, surprised.

“No, not nearly as large, but it’s every bit as picturesque. I’ve heard it described as looking like... ah... the biggest, gaudiest Celto-Chinese restaurant in the universe.”

Juniper stifled a laugh, and Sandra went on: “But enough pleasantries.”

Her slight smile died: “Can you commit the Seven Council Fires, then, Chief Red Leaf?” she asked, with gentle implacability. “Can you say yes or no to this alliance?”

“In theory, no,” Red Leaf said. “Yeah, we’ve got a lot more organization than we did the last time we were independent, but we don’t have a king or bossman or dictator or anything like that. We didn’t want anything like that. Mostly the tunwan, the nation, handles foreign affairs and leaves us alone except for keeping us from fighting each other.”

“Except for horse theft, from the intelligence reports,” Tiphaine commented, in her cool water-over-rock voice.

“Yeah, that’s the national sport. That and football. But I helped put the whole thing together at the beginning, I talked things over with the other VIP’s before I left, I’m pretty damned influential, and this is about foreign policy. So I can make promises for all the Seven Tribes, provided I don’t go completely... off the reservation ...

Sandra and Juniper both winced very slightly. Red Leaf grinned and continued:

“Everyone will be together for me to talk to when I get back. We’ve got a mutual problem, and his name’s Sethaz, aka The Prophet and his merry band of fanatics and magicians and general all-around cutthroat scumbags out of Corwin. And his buddy in Boise, General-President Thurston.”

“Or his name is legion,” Juniper said.

Sandra nodded. “They are... alarming in some respects.”

“Yeah, our Sacred Men say the same thing, and I’ve met some of the Cutter... High Seekers they call them. Once was more than enough; those bastards seriously creep me out. They’re not natural; there’s something else living in there, like... what was that Howard guy, not the one who wrote Conan, the one who wrote the horror stories...”

“Lovecraft,” Juniper and Sandra said together.

“Yeah, like that. And just before we left to make this trip, all our Sacred Men and Wise Women and whatnot went bananas about something. Especially my uncle, who did the hunkalowanpi, the making-relatives-ceremony for your kids when we adopted ‘em last year. Started talking about the akacita wakan. That’s some...”

His mouth twitched ironically. “... heap big medicine.”

Akacita wakan:Sacred Messengers, specifically,” Juniper said clinically.

She’d studied more Ways than her own from her girlhood, and had looked up more when her son’s letters spurred her interest; that had led to her arranging this meeting.

Red Leaf spread his hands in a balancing gesture. “You know, I was always all for the old ceremonies. It reminds us of how we’re a people... which with all the, um, volunteers we got right after the Change was a pretty good thing. But I never took it all that seriously before, myself.”

Three Bears looked uncomfortable; his father nodded at him. “Right, I know it makes you antsy to hear it, Rick, but this is time for putting cards on the table.”

Sandra nodded. “I had very much the same attitude,” she said. “Allowing for local circumstances. Until recently, as you said.”

“Until recently, and that’s a mouthful. I was wrong. My uncle said the wakan people, the spirits, were finally getting real tired of the Cutters. About fff... time, if you ask me, the way their spirits seem to have been beating on everyone in the vicinity.”

“That would have been at Imbolc,” Juniper said crisply. “I doubt that anyone who has the Sight... anyone on this continent at least... didn’t sense that something had happened.”

“I’ve had a dozen new crazed preachers proclaiming that a Crusade against Corwin is God’s Will since then,” Sandra said. “One of them’s traveling around with a tame wolf, talking to the birds, too. Not to mention bishops. Even bishops I didn’t put up to it myself. Marvelous are the works of God.”

Jehane crossed herself, despite her liege-lady’s obvious irony; Tiphaine touched an owl-shaped amulet around her neck.

“What did happen back then?” Red Leaf said.

“Rudi told you of the Sword?” Juniper said.

“Ummm... yeah. That was the part I found hardest to believe.”

Et moi aussi,” Sandra murmured. “But it appears I was wrong too. We have that in common.”

Juniper took a deep breath. “When Rudi was very young, at his Wiccaning... it’s a rite of our Old Religion equivalent to baptism... I had a vision.”

Sandra raised a finger. “I was a sceptic myself. But please take this seriously.”

“I named him Artos then, in the Craft. And I spoke words.” Her voice deepened a little:

 

Sad winter’s child in this leafless shaw—

Yet be Son, and Lover, and Hornéd Lord!

Guardian of My sacred Wood, and Law—

His people’s strength—and the Lady’s Sword!

 

“And then Ingolf Vogeler showed up at Sutterdown a little over two years ago now, telling us what he found on Nantucket... and you know the story of that. What happened on Imbolc was that Rudi—think of him as Artos now—reached Nantucket, found the Sword of the Lady in the World beyond the world, returned and drew it in the light of common day. And at that moment Earth’s foundations shook, as they had not since the Change itself.”

“So, he’s got the Sword and he’s coming home, and he’s pissed?”

Juniper nodded; her leaf-green eyes looked beyond the wall for a moment. “The Sun Lord comes, the son of Bear and Raven,” she said softly. “Lugh of the Long Hand comes again, in His splendor and His wrath.”

Silence closed down for a moment. Nobody who heard her could doubt her perfect sincerity... and she judged that nobody here was altogether ruling out the literal truth of what she said, either. She went on more matter-of-factly:

“And in the meantime, the Cutters have been somewhat weakened. And all we who stand against them strengthened. At least as far as their ill-wishing and malignant abuse of the Powers is concerned.”

Sandra sighed and rested her chin on one small fist. “I must admit that... that was a real problem.”

Tiphaine nodded from behind her. “We lost castles in ways that just couldn’t be accounted for,” she said. “Lost more than we could afford; we’d been relying on our strongholds to delay them. But now apparently we can play that game too.”

She inclined her head towards the Mackenzie Chief: “Lady Juniper here bagged us an entire battalion of Boise’s troops just last week.”

“That was you?” Red Leaf looked at her, surprised. “I heard they surrendered, which is news ‘cause they’re tough bastards generally, but... you hexed them or something?”

Juniper winced and rubbed the fingertips of her right hand over her forehead. “I cast troubles into their dreams, and they’ll be none the worse for it. Eventually. Most of them. I wouldn’t have done it if there hadn’t been a High Seeker out of Corwin with them, because there’s a price to be paid for that. And I do not wish to discuss it, so.”

“But we must,” Sandra said. “If these things are possible now—“

“They were always possible!” Juniper snapped. “Magic is... not a matter of snapping your fingers and having boulders fall upwards. It’s a thing of mind and soul and will. I will admit—“ she said reluctantly. “I will admit that things have become... easier since the Change. And much easier since Imbolc. The Veil is thinner. Something... or Someone... moved through me; it’s not the first time, but it was the most disturbing. The which is linked to Rudi bringing the Sword. A new thing has come into the world.”

“Indisputably so,” Sandra said. “It’s disturbing, as you say, but I’m not going to deny the evidence of my senses. That would be irrational. Though I’ve tried prayer and it doesn’t seem to do any more for me than it ever did.”

“Of course it doesn’t!” Juniper said sharply. “You don’t believe in anything; you pray to nothing for something and you get... nothing!

“Is nothing sacred?” Sandra murmured.

Juniper made an impatient gesture; then she spoke very softly. “This frightens me, Sandra. More than it does you. I really know the implications, and you don’t. We’re not talking about a better breed of catapults or... or D&D hit levels. We’ve always walked with our legends. But what happens if our legends start to walk with us? What will the world be then? Will the Powers burst the everyday asunder in their contentions?”

“At least we’re not at a disadvantage in... non-material terms any more,” Tiphaine said. “Which just leaves the fact that we’re badly outnumbered.”

“Yeah,” Red Leaf said, visibly putting other things aside. “OK, I’ve seen enough here to know you guys can put up a stiff fight. But as matters stand, Corwin and Boise between them have you beat in the next couple of years, right?”

“It’s not inevitable,” Tiphaine said. “But when you’re fighting someone who can replace losses and you can’t—“ a shrug. “It’s the way to bet. Particularly if they don’t make any big mistakes or take big risks, and so far they haven’t. Grinding forward costs, but they can do it if they’re prepared to pay the butcher’s bill. They’ve already overrun most of our part of the Palouse, and even more south of the Columbia.”

“And having disposed of us, the Cutters will turn on you,” Sandra pointed out.

“Possibly,” Red Leaf said. “Or maybe Corwin and Boise will have it out and whoever’s left standing won’t have any attention left to pay to us. They’re partners now; that won’t last forever.”

“If this were merely a war of men, that might be so,” Juniper said. “But Corwin has no partners. It has only prey. They’re an infection that spreads like mold through bread.”

Silence stretched. “OK, you got something there, too,” Red Leaf said. “But we fought them once before and we got beat. Not whipped, but beat.”

“With us on your side, the odds would be much better,” Tiphaine said. “You could bring, what, fifteen thousand men into the field?”

“Ten to fifteen if they’re going to be away from home for a while,” Red Leaf said. “But—“

“But they’re all light cavalry, horse-archers,” Tiphaine said. “No siege train, no infantry, and no logistics beyond foraging and what they can carry in their saddlebags or drive along on the hoof. Plus they all need grazing for three horses each.”

“Yeah,” the Indian said. “Most of the Cutters fight that way too, Ranchers and their cowboys, but they’ve got drilled infantry, and they’ve got the Sword of the Prophet—regular troops. Not tin-plated like you guys in the Association here, but more punch than our riders in a stand-up fight. And they’ve got forts. With Boise on their side they’ve got another big tough army, lots of forts, and field artillery, too—how they square that with the crazy religious thing about no gears or machinery, God only knows. We don’t have a ban on machinery, but we just don’t run to that war-engine stuff. It doesn’t go with moving around the way we do. And we’ve had some painful experience with it.”

“We do have field artillery and a siege train,” Tiphaine pointed out. “Taking all of... Montival... as a whole, we’ve got a great deal of field artillery; we and the Bearkillers and the Corvallans make some of the best. And we have relatively recent experience at using it. Mostly on each other, back a decade and change.”

“Yeah, but you’re on the other side of them from us. It’s our guys who’d have to ride into the teeth of bolts and roundshot and balls of napalm at three times bow-range without being able to hit back, or try climbing stone walls on ladders while the people inside pumped flaming canola oil on them. Not good.”

Sandra almost purred as she held a hand out to Lady Jehane. The amanuensis slid a folder from an accordion file, and pushed it under her liege-lady’s fingers. It was correspondence, on heavy parchment-like paper, thick with official letterheads and seals.

“As it turns out, something can be done about that. You’re aware of what happened in Iowa while Mathilda and Rudi... Artos... were passing through?”

Three Bears spoke: “The Cutters who were chasing Rudi, and some of their local butt-monkeys, managed to kill the Bossman of Iowa while they were trying to get at Rudi and his friends. While they were his guests. The Iowans are totally ripshit and aren’t going to calm down anytime soon. But how did you guys find out?”

His father glanced at him; Sandra chuckled a little, a warm comfortable sound.

“No, it’s a good question. We have a route of communications around the Cutters now.”

“Through the Dominions?” Red Leaf asked sharply.

“Exactly.”

The Dominions of Drumheller, Moose Jaw and Minnedosa spanned what had once been the prairie provinces of central Canada from west to east. They had settled governments, and a scattered semblance of civilized life in farm and ranch and small town, as far north as the Peace River country. Drumheller abutted on the lands ruled by the Prophet, and also had a border with Montival, through the Association’s holdings in what had been British Columbia.

“How come?” Red Leaf asked. “They've always been pretty isolationist. I thought the Cutters had 'em spooked, Drumheller in particular.”

“They've reconsidered,” Sandra said. “Or possibly simply considered where they'll be when Corwin and Boise have destroyed us.”

“Or where they'll be if we win and they're surrounded by hostile neighbors they refused to help,” Juniper pointed out. “I think Iowa helped persuade them.”

Sandra gave her a considering glance and murmured: “Dear Juniper, occasionally you remind me that honesty isn't necessarily linked to stupidity.”

Louder, to the two Sioux: “And these letters are from the new Regency Council of the Provisional Republic of Iowa. In the names of the Regent, Lady Catherine Heasleroad, speaking for her son Thomas who is the heir to the Bossmanship, and the Chancellor, Abel Heuisink, for the rest of Iowa’s government. Both speaking for the Sheriffs, Farmers and People of Iowa, as they rather quaintly put it; or Barons, Knights and Commons, in our terminology. Offering a very substantial military force, from Iowa and the neighboring states. Fargo, Marshall, Richland, Nebraska, Concordia, Kirksville. They’ll be abundantly well-equipped and as numerous as the supply situation permits; that’s the most densely populated part of the whole continent from Guatemala to Alaska now.”

“The logistics are pretty good, too,” Tiphaine put in. “If the railroads were put back into commission—and they also have plenty of labor and good engineers, and even rolling mills for light rail—“

The two Sioux sat bolt upright; Red Leaf choked slightly on a mouthful of coffee and clashed the priceless Sevres cup down in its saucer.

“Now, wait a minute! We fought the Square Staters too, over the Red River Valley, for years. No way are we letting them get that sort of foothold on Lakota land. Railways and forts... where the hell have I heard that song before? Iowa alone outnumbers us something like ten to one. We held them off because they didn’t have any way of supporting armies on foot out in the short-grass country. Nobody was all that organized back then, anyway, but that’s changed too. People know what they can do now, and how to do it.”

Juniper nodded sympathetically. “Well, now, my dear, we have thought of that. Your fear is that having come to help you, the Iowans may decide to outstay their welcome and help themselves, to whatever they please?”

“Damn right!”

“Well then, think on this; if we go down, then not only will Corwin eventually turn on you, but you’ll be caught between two millstones; the Cutters’ empire, and Iowa and its allies. Alternatively, the Iowans could decide to fight their way through you to get at Corwin. Which would leave you after the war with no friends and no bargaining power at all.”

It wasn’t a pleasant thought and she could see both the Lakota mulling it over. The High Plains were a sparse hard land where the Mother’s gifts were given grudgingly; they could yield a decent living if the folk there had many acres per head and used the scanty grass and water skillfully, but they couldn’t support the great farms and towns possible to the east or west. Not in the world after the Change.

Ogma of the Honey Tongue, lend us your eloquence! For we are speaking for our lands and homes and folk.

She felt an impulse to reach out and shake sense into Red Leaf and his son... which would do no good whatsoever, of course.

“But,” Sandra said, raising one finger. “There is an alternative. One which will assure that the Iowans go home after the war.”

“Provided we win, of course,” Tiphaine qualified.

Sandra nodded. “Operating on that assumption, yes, Baroness d’Ath, since we’ll be too dead to care if we lose. Your Lakota country is drier than the Midwesterners like, anyway; they have land enough to feed twenty or thirty times their number lying idle inside their own boundaries, and more vacant to the east and south down the Mississippi Valley when they’ve brought all that under the plow. It’s one acre after another around there, fat black soil and well-watered, the best farmland in the world.”

“Yeah,” Red Leaf said. “They don’t need our territory. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want it if they were standing on it.”

He frowned, looking as stubborn as a bull bison, and as dangerous, almost ready to bellow out a challenge to the world and charge heedlessly. Then he took a deep breath:

“So, what’s your plan?”

Sandra made a graceful gesture. “You know Rudi’s to be High King in Montival?”

“Yeah. Whatever the hell a High King is, as opposed to just plain King or President or Bossman or whatever.”

Juniper took up the story: “An Ard-Rí... a High King... isn’t an Emperor or Bossman or anything like it. We haven’t settled all the details of the thing, but you may notice there are many peoples out here, with many ways of doing and living that have grown up since the Change, their own laws and ways and Gods.”

Red Leaf’s dark eyes narrowed above his high cheekbones.

“So?”

“A High King will... so to speak... reign over the whole of Montival lightly, more than rule it. All the peoples... city-states, clans, the Association, the monks at Mt. Angel, the Faculty Senate in Corvallis, and others besides... will keep their own laws and govern themselves. Each will guarantee the borders of the others and aid them if they’re attacked, under the High King’s direction.”

“Nobody gets to settle on our land without our permission,” Red Leaf said bluntly. “That’s non-negotiable. We learned that lesson real good.”

“Precisely. Nobody to touch so much as a blade of grass without your leave,” Sandra said soothingly.

“Free trade, of course,” Juniper put in; she wasn’t going to sweeten the pot with bad treacle. “The Ard-Rí won’t have a big standing army, only a guard, but everyone is to send contingents when needed, and there’ll be a tax—not much of a one, but to be paid, and the High King’s court will hear disputes between communities, or their members. You can consult the Three Tribes Confederation of Warm Springs if you like, and see that we around here keep our word. And while nobody is compelled to take anyone in, everyone is to be free to leave where he is, and most places welcome any pair of hands that go with a willingness to work, since land is so much more abundant than people to till it. Which means no slavery or serfdom anywhere, unless it’s truly voluntary—which would take away the whole point of such.”

“And in return you get our backing if anyone tries to attack you,” Tiphaine pointed out. “The Association’s knights, the Mackenzie archers, engineers and pikemen from Corvallis or the Yakima League. We are most assuredly not interested in anything to the east of you but we’re willing to push the border that far, and help hold it. As part of Montival you’d have enough weight behind you that even Iowa would have to think thee times before tangling with you.”

“And we could have our reservation as long as the grass grew and the sun shines,” Red Leaf said dryly; his voice was skeptical but not utterly hostile.

Juniper shrugged. “If you call everything you’ve got now a reservation,” she said. “And that’s what... half the Dakotas and chunks of Wyoming and Montana and Colorado and a bit of Nebraska? Which is more land and more people than ever you had in the old days.”

“Including... ah... volunteers,” Sandra observed. “There are more of you than there are Mackenzies.”

“Which means you'd also be a fairly big element in the High Kingdom as a whole,” Tiphaine said. “Not least in the number of troops you could field. Nobody would be in a position to bully you, even if they were so inclined.”

“What about Boise? And New Deseret?” Red Leaf asked. “They’re between us and you as well as the Cutters.”

Sandra steepled her fingers and raised her eyes slightly. “You may have noticed that the late General-President of the United States of Boise had more than one son. The elder killed him and usurped his position. The younger... you met. Traveling with Mathilda and, um, Artos.”

“Oh, ho,” Red Leaf said, and gave her an admiring look. “Well, yeah, that’s a definite possibility. You think Boise may come apart over that?”

“That and their alliance with Corwin, which we understand is not popular. Martin Thurston is trying his best to pin the blame on his brother, but the true story has been circulating... aided by us. And New Deseret is desperate, what’s left of it. We’ve been helping their guerillas in the occupied territories as we can. They’re very... upright people. Usually gratitude is worth its weight in gold, but they actually seem to practice it. Marvelous are the works of God.”

Red Leaf nodded and rubbed his hands together; the heavy stockman’s calluses bred of rope and rein, lance and shete, went scritch against each other.

“OK, woah, this is going to take a bit more thinking,” “I can’t commit all of us to this. Some of it sounds good, but I’m not going to say yes or no yet, and it’s above my pay-grade anyway.”

“Oh, certainly,” Sandra said. “We’ll have to have extensive talks even for a temporary alliance, and you’ll have to consult your Council about anything more. But... we do need the Iowans. And we need them to march in, fight, and then turn around and go back with hearty thanks ringing in their ears. And we need them now.”

“What do they get out of it? Besides hearty thanks and gratitude... which, you're right, are usually worth their weight in gold. Or diamonds.”

“A long-term menace disposed of,” Sandra said. “And in terms of their internal politics, in which my daughter had a hand, they get unity behind House Heasleroad—there’s nothing like a successful foreign war to rally support. Now let’s start with a few details—“

She settled into her chair, as content as one of her Persian cats confronted with a bowl of fresh cream and salmon on the side. Juniper sighed silently and settled herself as to a task that had to be done.

Rudi, my son! Where are you now?

 

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