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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

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


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

Norrheim, Land of the Bjornings
Eriksgarth
(Formerly Aroostook County, Maine)
March 29, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

The crowd stirred. It was a raw day, gray-overcast but much warmer even at dawn than it had been on the day of the battle. A few lanterns shed yellow light, and torches smoked and guttered and paled as the glow behind the clouds strengthened. The tall carved runestone that fronted the grave-mound glinted, where flecks of mica ran through the granite; for the negotiations had been finished, and the King’s powers drawn, and he had dared the night-long vigil atop his father’s howe.

Then Bjarni strode down the slope of dead winter-grass, with the bloody hide of the horse he’d sacrificed at sundown wrapped around him like a cloak and its face-mask above his own head. Beneath he was naked save for a loin-cloth, but he didn’t seem mortally chilled. Heidhveig paced beside him, her long staff thumping the turf. When he came to the level ground Artos could see his eyes. Normally they were shrewd and forthright, the gaze of a strong-willed man who was a good friend and a dangerous foe. Now they were...

“Something else,” he whispered, inclining his head in acknowledgment and awe and a little...

Fear, he thought. Fear of what I see in my own future. For though I’m called High King now, the thing itself can only be done in my own land. And there too it will be a first time, and we must feel our way towards the rightness of it. I’m glad to have witnessed this, though it’s only a hint of how Montival must be courted.

His hand gripped tighter on the Sword.

“This is a true King-making,” he said. “The land has welcomed him as the Lady does the young God at Beltane.”

Matti and Ignatius crossed themselves. Mary and Ritva laid right hand to heart and bowed; after a moment Ingolf followed suit. A low murmur ran through the rest of his band, and through the great watching crowd; then silence so complete that the sough of wind through the ash-grove was the loudest sound.

Syfrid was spokesman for the godhar of the tribes—each of them was also a man who made sacrifice, of course, though there was probably a little irony in their choice of him. He was a bold man too, but he moistened his lips and looked a little aside from that blue stare before he spoke:

“What have you seen, Bjarni Eriksson?” he asked. “What word do you bring to us from the world beyond Midgard?”

“I spoke with my father,” Bjarni said, his voice calm and distant as if he still dreamed, but carrying easily across the assembly. It grew stronger:

“And with the Norrheimer folk who have shed their blood on this soil that fed them, and the old Americans who tilled these fields and so made them their home-land, and with the ancient tribes, the First People who came here when the Ice withdrew and worshipped the Gods who were before the Gods. Theirs is the land’s unrest and its deepest peace... Many and strange were the things told me, many and strange were the sights shown me.”

Heidhveig spoke, firmly but weary; the ordeal had worn harder on her:

“The dead have accepted the King’s oaths, and the land acknowledges him.”

A mass intake of breath, and a sigh.

“What is your oath to us and Norrheim, Bjarni King?” Syfrid asked formally.

“To be father to the land, and the folk; to rule honorably the living, respecting olden law and right, and to give their rightful due to the ancestors, the wights and the High Gods in the name of all our people. To die into the land at last, and watch over it with my might and my main as my father does.”

As he spoke the humanness came back into his gaze bit by bit. There was a brief crashing cheer, and then he stepped forward. The chiefs joined him, and they walked forward together under an arch of rowan and ash-withies, covered with sod cut from the earth around the mound. When they had all bowed beneath it he hung the horse-hide on it as well.

Heidhveig raised her staff and called: “The earth of Norrheim is your mother! From this day, you and your tribes and your kindred are reborn as brothers, and the common blood of Norrheim runs in your veins!”

Another cheer, and Harberga came forward with a thick cloak. Now Bjarni shivered a little, and clutched it around his shoulders, taking the horn of hot mead she handed him. She chanted as he raised it to the four corners of the world and flicked a drop aside for Earth:

 

“Mead I bring thee, thou oak-of-battle,

with strength i-blent and brightest honor;

'tis mixed with magic`and mighty songs,

with goodly spells, wish-speeding runes.”

 

“I thank you, Harberga, my wife who is now Queen in Norrheim and Lady of this land,” he said hoarsely, before draining it in one long draught.

“Now,” he said, his eyes meeting Artos’. “Now I want a steam-bath, and some clothes, and food... and then, my new brothers, and you my tall blood-brother, we have work to do!”

 

@@@

 

Mathilda groaned a little and stretched. Working with her hands was something she was fairly used to; her months every year with the Clan Mackenzie had meant living as the clansfolk did, and even the Chief of the Clan and Name did a lot of her own chores and helped with the harvest.

But I don’t get the same sort of enjoyment out of it some do, she thought, watching Father Ignatius.

He was wiping thick black grease off his hands as he bent over the plans tacked to a board easel, careful not to smudge them. The barn was close and damp, with cold drafts through gaps in the boards alternating with blasts of heat from a pair of improvised charcoal hearths. At least the rain was no longer beating down on the strakes of the roof; the interior was littered with parts and machinery and work-benches, amid a clanging and grinding of metal on metal, a rasp of saws and files and drills on wood as smiths and carpenters labored. The acrid sulfurous smell of hot metal mixed with sawdust and glue, and feet scuffed on the planks of the floor.

Near a hearth of salvaged brick a squat muscular man was working something on an anvil, a tinka-tinka-clang! and showers of sparks on his leather apron and everything else around him, with a boy waiting with a bucket of water in case they caught. Ignatius looked that way, nodded approval, and went on to his audience, comprised of Fred Thurston, Ingolf and the twins:

“—the two rolls at right-angles can groove and shape the strip at the same time, if we feed it in at red heat,” the warrior-monk said. “Then we can hammer-forge each wheel, heat-shrink it on and hand-file to fit, tedious but possible with the gauges to measure—“

Mt. Angel trained its members in many skills; their missions took them to strange places, and they had to teach and practice the trades of living as well as preach the Church’s message and fight evildoers.

On the one hand, he’s my confessor and very good one who’s helped my soul and understands me, and he’s a very holy man and a good friend and I love him like an elder brother as well as a man of God, Mathilda thought. On the other hand, sometimes when he finds a new toy, he’s like a little boy with a wind-up horsie on the First Day of Christmas. There was that balloon thing in Boise...

She slipped outside, past a bevy of Norrheimers carrying in bundles of ashwood poles; the tough springy wood was honey-pale, well-seasoned and probably originally meant for spearshafts, or pruning-hooks or ladders or sleigh-frames or something of that order. Outside it was raw, but she had a good wool jacket with fleece lining. Behind the barn was an open fenced field with a roofed open-sided shed along one side; from the straw, it was usually used to hold steers for fattening. The mud-and-manure surface wasn’t too bad, but she wouldn’t have chosen the footing for anything difficult. The smell was familiar to anyone who’d spent their life around livestock, hardly noticeable except in concentrated doses.

Rudi was there, next to a row of oak posts seven feet tall and as thick as her thigh, hammered solidly into the earth.

Pells, she thought.

The things you endlessly whacked at when you practiced with the sword, until your shoulder ached and your tight-wrapped wrist shot stripes of pain up your forearm and your hand felt like a wagon had run over it. They were battered and surrounded by chips hammered off them by dulled practice weapons; Bjarni had been using this ground to test the picked men flocking in to make up his war-band. Artos stood before one of them with the Sword at his right side, held horizontally with that hand on the sheath and the left resting lightly on the hilt, fingers and palm just touching it. He took a deep breath...

And drew. There was a shock, a faint glitter of light that really wasn’t there, a feeling as if her currently rather grimy skin had been soaked in a sauna and scrubbed with soap made with meadowsweet and the sensation had gone inward to her bones and her very self. It wasn’t as strong as it had been when the blade was drawn on a battlefield, and it didn’t have the same fierce clean anger she’d felt then. This was cooler, more subtle, just as disturbing.

He gripped the long hilt with both hands, the right towards the crystal pommel and the other just below the guard. The blade rose until the point was at throat-height; then he spun it and thrust backward without turning, up again and a slice and a slice, his feet moving as if on the sanded planks of a sale d’armes. Dancing with the blade in the two-handed nihon style, the most graceful of the sword-arts, if not the most practical in a world of strong shields and steel armor. The moves were fast, but so smoothly coordinated with the motion of his whole long body that there was no sense of hurry. Simply a flowing, flickering grace that held a smashing power as well.

It’s different, she thought. He was always like some pagan God of war when he used the blade... but he’s... calmer, somehow? Cooler. Look at his face, the only reason his lips are open is to breathe. It’s like a statue. Where are you, Rudi? Where’s the boy I knew, the man I love?

Then he turned and cut again, his whole body and the momentum of his motion behind the blow. A lifetime of her own training rose in an instant’s instinctive protest—a battle sword was a precision instrument delicate as a scalpel. You didn’t cut at baulks of oak as if it were an ax. A blunted practice weapon was good enough for smacking into a pell, this was almost cruelty—

Thack.

The Sword struck, the follow-through perfect as Rudi’s hips twisted, left hand leading on the hilt to press and right pulling it through the cut, knee bending and other leg outstretched. The top three feet of the post’s seasoned hardwood toppled away, the slanting surface that remained as smooth as if burnished and waxed. Cut like the rolled reed mats used as ordinary targets to test a blade. Now there was a slight huff of breath, and he pivoted and thrust in the same two-handed style, one hand guiding and the other with heel to pommel ramming the longsword’s blade forward with all his strength. The point glittered through the wood, then the post’s upper half fell away as he withdrew and swept the successor-cut in a horizontal slash, turned and struck and struck and struck—

“Rudi!” she said sharply.

He turned to her, and his green-blue eyes were... not empty, but full of something. Something great. Not evil, instead her soul recognized it as as terrifyingly good, but a goodness beyond men’s hopes and fears. Beyond comprehension, save as her mother’s cats understood Sandra Arminger’s love.

“It doesn’t chip, the edge doesn’t turn or blunt, it doesn’t break,” he said, eerie calm. “I don’t think I could break it.”

Rudi!” she said again, her voice rising a little.

“Watch,” Artos said.

He pulled a long red-gold hair from his head and tossed it into the air. It fell slowly, curling and drifting, bright in the gray gloaming; his wrist presented the Sword so that the edge intercepted it square-on. Despite her concern, she blinked as the hair struck and fell into two pieces that floated apart.

“Like a razor, like light, but nothing dulls it.”

“Rudi, come back.”

He blinked, and a little of himself did come back into his gaze.

“It’s so easy,” he said, his voice calm but no longer empty. “It’s as if I can see what I’m doing from outside myself, and all I have to do is tell my body to do it and step aside.”

He looked down the row of hacked, cloven posts and blinked. “And it will do things as a sword no sword can do... but that is... a flattery, an indulgence, I think. So that I can bear it at my side and say to myself, I carry the Sword forged in the Otherworld, and the bewilderment and glory of it is as a tale told to a child to reassure him—“

“Rudi, wake up!

He shook his head, the coppery-gold of his hair an explosion of color against the dun browns and grays and off-whites of the early-spring landscape behind him.

“I... I...”

Then he smiled. “Matti!”

She hurdled the fence, the splintery pine of the upper rail gritting beneath her palm, and ran to hug him. He sheathed the weapon before she could, and caught her up. His arms were living steel around her, his body warm and living and him again, and he breathed into the hollow of her neck and shoulder.

“Matti, I keep seeing things.”

“All those things that might be?”

“And... and as if I’m seeing beneath that, too. To the essence of the world, all the worlds, and it’s... it’s like numbers somehow, mathematics, and I feel, not know but sense, that if only I could make sense of the numbers I would be like a God making and shaping worlds by wishing it so, but the thoughts go by in my mind like great creatures rushing through the night and myself beneath their notice...”

He shuddered against her, the grip growing almost painful. Then he pushed back a little, looking down into her face, and it struck her that he was a man in his prime now. There was only a shadow left of the boy who’d started out from home, the one with a sparkle in him like a lad going to steal apples from a grumpy neighbor’s orchard.

“Oh, Matti, acushla, it is so good to have you here. I could not bear it else,” he whispered into her ear.

“I am here, Rudi. I always will be.”

They stood together for a long moment, and then he straightened and looked at the mutilated posts and a boy gaping open-mouthed as he stood with the basket of potatoes he'd been fetching forgotten.

“Well, I could always find work as a woodcutter, I suppose, if this High King job doesn't work out well.”

Mathilda snorted laughter. “Let’s see what’s for dinner. It’s growing dark and getting cold.”

“Let me guess,” he said. “Roast pork. Blood sausage. And red cabbage and potatoes, and rye-and-barley bread and butter. The savor and the delight of it! To tell you the truth, I'm getting a little tired of that menu.”

She looked at him and made her eyes go wide, putting on the Norrheimer accent that swallowed ‘r’ and elongated the ‘a’.

“Ti-aahed of food?”

 

@@@

 

 

Ten days later Artos stood in a muddy field and spoke his farewells.

Not least to you, my lady, he thought as he bowed his head to Norrheimer seeress.

“A very wise man told me, Lady Heidhveig, that if I sought to do the will of the Gods and help men upward through the cycles—by which I think he meant what your folk would call achieving the strength that lay within them—it would arouse a legion of enemies against me. But that I would also find friends and wisdom in unexpected places,” Artos said.

Heidhveig smiled. “You are not the first wanderer to find it so.”

He laid his hand upon the Sword. “This and much else you helped me to, Lady. My thanks, and the thanks of my House and blood for as long as either shall endure.”

“My child, you have returned the blessing,” the wisewoman replied. “Your deeds here are part of our saga now; our people won a great victory through your warning and your help. And now there is a true King in Norrheim.”

Her eyes went blank for an instant with an inwardness he recognized.

The Sight, he thought. Mother has that look sometimes. When she spoke there was a distant note to her voice for a moment.

“And that has laid a fate in the Well of Wyrd that will govern the story of the true folk for many lives of men, and in lands that now seem very distant. Yes, one that will touch the very Gods... and I think that a certain One had his hand in that. I will pray to my God to keep an Eye on you, though He scarcely needs encouragement from me!”

Her lips quirked in a rueful grin. “And give my greetings to your mother—from one survivor to another—when you reach home at last.”

“That I will!” he said, smiling in turn, thinking of how her eyes would light. “Forebye the thought of her happiness when she hears that you still live, and of what you've built here, is another reason to hurry home.”

He bowed his head as she reached up to him, and twitched as he felt runes being drawn on his brow.

Raidho...and Elhaz...to ward your journeying. Sowilo, that you may follow the sun-road to victory... Ansuz for Odin's blessing, and at the end of it, Wunjo for joy....”

The syllables vibrated through him, expanding in layers of meaning as they were amplified by the Sword. Then her dry lips brushed his forehead in the kiss he had been half-expecting, and the power she had invoked settled into a hum of protection.

She stepped away, and he saw on her furrowed cheeks the shine of tears.

“Farewell. We shall not meet again in this life.”

Well, and weren't his own eyes smarting too? Then he heard Edain calling him. He turned, and when he looked back, Heidhveig had gone.

Spring had arrived in the way it apparently always did here—grudgingly, with little of the lush sweet sense of dreamy unfolding he’d grown up with. The temperature was above freezing while the sun was up; there had been rain only a little mixed with sleet several times. Ahead of them the fields stretched in a mottled pattern of old off-white snow and emerging brown mud showing the fall plowing’s clods, a chill silty smell giving notice that Ostara was past and Beltane was only a month or so away. Most of the Norrheimers here were the band accompanying their King; they’d made their goodbyes earlier. Harberga had done so with a smiling calm, the farewell-horn of mead she handed her man steady, but her eyes had been red. A few were here now for a last word, including a girl with hero-worship in her doe-like eyes who gave Ulfhild a rather clumsily knitted sweater, to the latter’s visible embarrassment.

“Enough waiting, the which I hate,” he grumbled. “I've a war to fight and a throne to win. Let's go.”

“We’re not really waiting. We’re getting ready to move fast,” Ingolf pointed out. “We’ll save the time ten times over.”

“I know that,” Artos said. “I said I hated it, not that I wouldn’t do it, sure.”

“The cherries will be blossoming at home,” Mathida said wistfully. “And the apricots, and then the apples. Buds breaking in the vineyards, meadowsweet in the pastures...”

That they will, Artos thought. And the grass bright tender green by now, and the spring lambs butting at the udder, and folk making ready the Beltane bonfires. Ostara the promise, Beltane the fulfillment, the Black Months well past and life running strong like sap in flowers. A time for weddings and beginnings and begettings.

Grimly: And the time of war. Another two months, and the Cascade passes will be open enough for armies.

I’m sorry to miss the rest of the sugaring time,” Bjarni said. “It’s the best part of the mud season.”

Artos nodded, and belched slightly. Breakfast had been endless stacks of pancakes made from buckwheat flour, studded with dried blueberries and slathered with the maple syrup, besides bacon and fried potatoes. Forest loomed in the middle distance, and he could see sledges moving amid the maples. The work of the land didn’t wait, and it was doubly urgent here in a land where the world lay so long locked in the Holly King’s grip before He yielded to the Oak Lord.

“We couldn’t have done the job any faster anyway,” Fred said. “They’ve got good woodworkers here and some fine smiths, but it was complicated and there’s very little in the way of machine tools.”

Ignatius looked up from checking a frame. “All that we needed were a few rollers to groove wheel attachments.”

Fred nodded: “I’m a bit surprised there were even enough stored bicycles, I thought that would be the bottleneck.”

Ingolf sucked at a skinned knuckle and grinned. “It was fun to do some hands-on work with machinery again.”

“My father and his chiefs salvaged a lot of the cycles,” Bjarni said. “They’re handy enough in summertime, and the parts can be made into a dozen sorts of useful machine for winnowing and grinding and pumping and chopping.”

Artos slapped his hands on the shoulders of Fred and Ingolf where they stood beside him. It was an accomplishment, and it was also always a pleasure to see those who really knew what they were doing at a task.

“Good work!” he said. “Very good work, my friends!”

“We had plenty of good help,” Fred said. “We couldn’t really have done it without Father Ignatius, either.”

The cleric made a final check of wheel bearing-boxes, waved, and went back to his infinitely patient examination and re-examination.

“He’s a real engineer,” Fred said.

“You had the concept, my son,” he said without looking up. “And a good deal of the details. After that, it was merely a matter of execution. And I have worked on railroad equipment occasionally since I was a novice. Only permanent types, granted, but this is a logical extrapolation.”

The first cart lifted easily in the hands of those who’d pedal it. Four bicycles were at the front, locked into a frame of seasoned springy ashwood held together by bolts; a V of saw-blade was held out on two arms in front, to cut light growth. A like set of bicycles made up the rear, divided from the first by the flat load-bearing section. The flanged wheels on the cycles went onto the rusted steel of the rails with a hard clunk sound. Then they loaded it; the bed between was a mat of strong resilient wickerwork, and on it they lashed the small tent the men would share, food enough for two weeks, and their camp gear, spare weapons and the rest of their needs. It was far more than they could have carried on their backs, or on a bicycle even on smooth well-tended highways.

The which are rare in this part of the world. The Norrheimers are too few, too scattered and each little garth of them too self-sufficient to spend much time keeping roads repaired; it would be too much labor for too little return.

Fred went forward, and took out his stopwatch. Mary Vogeler bent one ironic eye on his seriousness, but she and her sister responded with disciplined speed when he barked:

“Team One!” he called. “Remember to keep your interval... ready... go... now.”

“There’s a work-party at the first break south of here,” he called proudly over his shoulder as they pushed the car to trotting speed and leapt into the saddle, wiping his hands on a cloth. “They’ll walk back. After that it’s up to us.”

Virginia winced. “Going to be lots of breaks,” she said.

The thought of being held to a single line of rail didn’t appeal to her. Fred gave her a pawky look; probably also because she had a true range-country down-the-nose attitude towards work that couldn’t be done on horseback, or at least didn’t concern livestock or their products. In the Powder River country where her family’s ranch had sprawled over scores of thousands of acres that sort of labor had been done by Change-driven refugees from the towns and their descendants, the people on the bottom of a social order ruled from the saddle.

“Team Two!” he called. “Remember to keep your interval... ready... go... now.

Then he nodded. “Yeah, honey, there will. From what the documents Bjarni got us say, this line was about to be abandoned just before the Change anyway! I’ve been down it and we’ll have brush that’ll have to be cleared, washouts, blocked culverts... bridges down will be the worst. The thing is that the people in front can go ahead fast and start working on them, thirty miles an hour or better. Either to repair it—it’s all right to take up rail behind us, after all—or to build a portage track around it, or at worst backtrack a ways and find an alternate route. Then by the time the horse-drawn sections have come up—“

He nodded towards the rail-wagons they’d made, each drawn by three horses hitched in line ahead. Those carried the heavy loads, food and cracked oats and barley for fodder and tools, tons of it. Some of them could be rigged to carry wounded or sick men; several were set up as rolling kitchens. On steel rails a horse could pull fifteen tons or better, far more than it could manage even with a sleigh on river-ice.

“—everything will be ready... Team Three!” he called, in a louder voice. “Remember to keep your interval... ready... go... now.

Then conversationally: “It’ll be slow getting around the gaps, but there’s a lot more intact rail than gaps; say a hundred to one, from what that preliminary survey indicates. Our average speed will be about what we could make on good roads with no breaks and supplies available en route. Call it twenty miles a day, day in and day out. Not too hard on the horses, either, since we’ll have good high-energy feed for them, and a portable forge and all. We should hit the Mississippi in say a month, if, ah, Wyrd will have it so.”

I trust Fred’s judgment, and Ingolf’s and Ignatius’ even more, Artos thought. But if they’re wrong, we’re all likely to starve to death somewhere between here and Lake Michigan. Or be so long on the road that the war is over and done with before we reach Iowa. There’s a lot more to this Kinging it than swinging your own sword, or even the Sword, and I’ve seen that a good deal of it involves depending on others.

“Why didn’t we think of it?” Bjarni Eriksson said; he sounded a little disgusted with himself.

“Sure, and that’s obvious: you didn’t have any need for it,” Artos pointed out. “Norrheim’s not so large, and you had no neighbors on land to trade with—trade anything but blows and knocks, so to say. What outland trade you have goes by sea or river.”

Bjarni nodded. “Still, now that I’ve seen it, I can see uses for it. Do you use the old rails so often in Montival?”

“Well... yes and no. We’ve kept up long sections of them, and joined more together after the War of the Eye; you can go from south of Ashland to the Okanagan in the north, or from Astoria on the Pacific to Spokane; where freight can’t go by water, it uses rail when it can, and pedal-cars are far and away the fastest way to move people or light goods. But we generally switch to foot or bicycle or hoof or wagon-wheel when we’re in the lands where they haven’t been kept up. It takes a good deal of work to maintain railroads, so, but far less than making those cuttings and tunnels and the like.”

“This is a military application, really,” Fred said, a little shyly; it was getting easier to forget how young he was, but every now and then you could still tell. “Dad thought it would give us surprise, if we had an offensive campaign... you know, for reunification. We’d be able to move strike forces really fast.”

Artos gave him a considering look. “I’m thinking, Fred, that it’s odd your father didn’t do more of that. Offensive campaigns, that is. He was strong for reuniting all the old America, and he was an able man and a forceful one, and he certainly put enough effort into preparing for such. That army he built is a wonder and no mistake.”

“Team Four!” Fred called. “Remember to keep your interval... ready... go... now.”

Then he looked down at the greasy rag in his hands. “I... don’t know. I think... I think the reason was that he didn’t want to fight other Americans. Not really, not all-out. Yeah, bandits, Rovers, scum like that, sure. But not whole... whole countries like your people, or New Deseret, or, ummm...”

He stopped and looked at Mathilda for an instant before glancing away.

“The PPA.”

Now, he was going to say even the PPA, sure and he was, Artos thought, nodding helpfully. Matti’s wincing a bit. For the Association was everyone’s boogeyman, until we had Corwin and the CUT to concern us. And at that, the Association today is not what it was in Norman’s time.

“I think he really expected to have the others join in freely as soon as he got Idaho really organized. But that took so long, and by then... well, by then things had sort of set in other places, like concrete going hard. It ate at him, I know, and really disappointed him. And—“ he stumbled and went on “—I think that’s one reason why so many younger officers were ready to back my broth... to back Martin. They’d spent all their lives training for Reunification, and then it looked as if it wasn’t going to happen.”

Grimly: “Martin doesn’t mind fighting anyone. Everyone knew that, too.”

Artos nodded sympathetically. Though it wasn’t just that Martin Thurston was coldly ambitious, and ruthless in a way that made him equal even of Mathilda’s father. To a man like the elder Thurston it still was America. To those born after the Change, or too young to remember much of the old world, it was natural to think of those over the next river or mountain range as strangers, the more so if they followed different Gods or customs. And the Gods knew enough strange little enclaves and cults and tribelets had spawned in the last generation, crystallizing around someone with a strong will or vision... or just luck, or all three.

Like my own mother, to be sure. Or my blood father. Or Matti’s parents.

The young man drew a deep breath. “Well, we’re ready for you, sir... Your Majesty. Your Majesties, I should say.”

Artos looked over his shoulder. Epona was hitched behind one of the horse-drawn wagons on a leading rein, and not looking happy about it, but it would be work enough for the destriers to keep up with nothing on their backs. He strode forward and grabbed the lifting handle on the front right side of the next pedal-cart. Mathilda took the front left; that had the added advantage that each of them had the shield-arm facing out. Edain was behind him, and Asgerd beside the bowman. Ignatius, and three of the Southsiders—Tuk and Samul and Rattlebones—were on the rear pair of cycles.

The assemblage thumped down on the rails; the deep rust of a generation already showed a glinting strip where it had been worn away to show the untouched metal. Left to itself a few more generations and this would just be a long mound with a ruddy streak in the soil; already it was far too weak to have borne the huge engines and loads of the ancient world. But it would serve this time, it would serve...

Their gear was prepacked, and it was the work of a moment to lash it down. Garbh leapt up and curled to rest on Edain’s sleeping-bag. The huge half-mastiff was a little plumper; even a dog could be a hero of the Battle of the Six Hills, and trade on it for many a rib or titbit.

“I swear that beast looks smug,” Mathilda said, smiling. “She’s going to ride at her leisure, most of the way!”

“Team Four!” Fred called. “Remember to keep your interval... ready... go... now.”

Artos swung into the saddle of the bicycle. “Hup!” he called, letting his left foot bear his weight down on the pedal. Everyone else in the team did likewise. “Hup! Hup!”

Steel grated on steel; one wheel skidded amid Southsider curses not intelligible to anyone who hadn’t grown up with their little tribe in the Wild Lands of Illinois. Then the weight of the cart moved forward, slowly at first and then faster and faster. His long legs pushed at the soft steady resisting force. He’d pedaled carts before back home, but this wasn’t quite like the streamlined aluminum pods used in most of Montival for fast transport. The wind in his face was colder with the speed of their passage, but not too uncomfortable for any of them, accustomed as they were to hard labor of one type or another outdoors in all weathers.

Behind Mathilda, Asgerd blurted in a tone halfway between shock and exhilaration:

“This is as fast as skiing downhill! Faster than a galloping horse!”

“Not quite,” Edain grinned. “Still, it’s better than walking, eh? And no more effort.”

Better if you’re in a hurry, Artos thought. And to be sure, better than mud!

There was plenty of that to either side as they covered the stretch of open fields southward; doubtless in a month or so they’d be planted to grain or buckwheat or potatoes or timothy and clover, but right now they looked the sort of glutinous quasi-bog that would suck the boots right off your feet or break a horse’s heart. Then they flashed into the woods, with dapples of shade running across their faces and blinking brightness in the intervals; it was colder where there was shade, and most of the ground was still snow-covered. Occasionally the framework would shake and sway as they hit a patch where some gravel had washed out below the ties or rails had bent a little in a storm, but mostly their passage was smooth.

The sugaring-party they’d seen looked up from emptying buckets of wood or old-time galvanized metal into the tank on a sled, moving their spears or bows to stay in arm’s reach as they went from tree to sled and back. A black-and-white dog with them dashed in a circle and barked at Gharb, who turned her head away in ladylike indifference, and a boy or girl of around seven called from the box of the sled, waving with the hand that didn’t hold the reins.

Artos waved back, and Asgerd called a greeting lost in the speed of their passage.

“My family has a fine stretch of sugar-woods,” she said. “They’re a little east and north of here. Nearer to New Sweden. It’s a good farm, my mother’s family held it before the land-taking. Good woods for timber and firewood and sugar, good pasture, good land for grain and spuds and flax, and fishing-rights on a lake.”

“Your mother’s?” Edain asked.

“All her kin were killed by outlaw reavers before Erik the Strong came in the first Change Year. My father Karl was one of his followers... joined him after the Change but far south of here, in a place called New Hampshire where he was a warrior who kept the peace... a policeman, that was the word... and he helped rescue her. There are six of us children—my brothers, Grettir, he’s twenty-four summers and just wed, Hauk and Erik, and me and then Brynhildr, she’s fifteen, and little Tóra’s ten. Tóra loves sugaring time. When we make candy by dropping the hot syrup from the boiler in the snow.”

The words were plain enough, but there was an undertone of longing. Glancing over his shoulder Artos saw her head turned as well, with wisps of honey-colored hair escaping from her knit cap. Doubtless she was thinking that she might well never see it again, or the land where she’d been raised and had thought to live all her life and her children after her.

“Why didn’t you stay?” Edain asked; a little blunter than Artos would have phrased it.

“My oath,” she said flatly. “You were there when I swore it at the sumbel, master-bowman.”

Artos faced forward again; Mathilda glanced at him and winked.

Edain shook his head. “You swore to kill ten of the enemy to pay for your man,” he said. “Ten followers of the red-robes.”

Asgerd Karlsdottir’s intended husband had been killed by the Bekwa before the open war started, while he was on a trip to find salvage goods in the dead cities to the northwest; what her people called going in Viking.

“And I think you’ve killed the half-score you promised your God,” Edain went on; Asgerd had the three interlinked upright triangles that were Odin’s mark on a pendant around her neck. “Met it or bettered it at the Six Hill fight.”

“That’s not certain,” she said bleakly.

It wasn’t absolutely certain. Often in a pitched battle there was no way of knowing if your blow went home, the more so with arrows; everything was a whirling shifting chaos. But he’d be surprised if it wasn’t a moral certainty, given the way the pursuit and merciless slaughter had gone after the Bekwa broke.

“And...”

She was silent for a long moment; when she spoke again it was hard to hear beneath the creak and rattle and hum of the pedal-cart. Then softly:

“That’s near where Sigurd and I were to make our homestead. I don’t care to live where we spent so much time planning our life together.”

Louder: “Besides, I made oath to Artos Mikesson too. He’s my lord until he releases me, and he hasn’t.”

“That I have not,” Artos said, hiding kindliness under the stern tone.

The rails stretched on ahead, rising and falling, winding through rolling hills and patches of forest that gradually grew larger; now along a small river still mostly frozen, then by a lake with black water showing between chunks of rotting ice. On a straight stretch he could see two teams before them toiling away in front, and a quick look over his shoulder showed five more behind. The woods grew thicker still, until they were traveling through a tunnel, green with pine and spruce or showing the writhing bare branches of hardwoods whose buds were putting out their first faint swelling. The air had an intense cleanliness that you only got at some distance from men’s dwellings, no dung or woodsmoke.

“Your folk don’t use this part of the country much?” he said.

“No, lord,” Asgerd answered. “The farmland’s better north and eastward, that’s the heart of Norrheim. All the folk in these parts who didn’t die in the Change Year moved up to join us. Ayuh, where there were enough people to help defend each other and do the work. And over there—“ she pointed westward “—is land that was dedicated to the forest wights by a godhi of the old Maine-folk whose blood I share. He was a chieftain hight Baxter. There, nobody lived even before the Change. But the hunting’s very good, deer and boar and bear and moose. Wolf and catamount for their skins, and tiger too, but they’ve only become common these last few years.”

“Isn’t it a little far to pack out meat?” Edain asked with interest. “Or do you stop to smoke and salt it?”

“We wait for the frost so it’ll keep,” Asgerd said. “Or even later until first snowfall, when the beasts are still fat but we can sled it back home. Don’t you Mackenzies?”

The master-bowman shook his head. “Not near where we live. You can’t count on it staying cold there—chilly and wet, to be sure, but not freezing-cold; it’ll keep the flesh from spoiling a while, maybe, but not long. Up in the mountains, yes, but it’s too dangerous to go there much into snow-season; you can get buried fifteen or twenty feet deep in a few hours with no more warning than the first flakes.”

He grinned. “The Chief and I and Ingolf the Far-Traveler did get buried just like that, two years ago less about a fortnight, when we crossed the High Cascades going east.”

The smile faded a little. “Just away from home we were, and spring blooming hard around Dun Fairfax down in the valley.”

“How did you survive?” she asked.

“Built a quick hut of saplings and pine-boughs against an overhang in the cliff-face and waited out the storm, telling tales and sleeping,” Edain said. “’twasn’t even very cold, once the snow-blanket piled up, and we had plenty of food and firewood. And Garbh was warm!”

The dog lifted her broad head at the sound of her name, then laid it back on her paws.

“We had a chimney of bark to keep the air fresh, pushed up through to the surface, d’you see.”

She nodded; snow made good insulation, if you had something to keep it away from your skin, and plenty to eat to stoke the inner furnaces. But it could still be deadly in a dozen ways if it trapped you far from home or help.

“And how did you get out afterwards?”

“Tunneled out, then walked over the pass on snowshoes we’d made while we waited. The snow wasn’t near as deep once we were over the crestline, the peaks block the wet winds from the sea however much She blows. Not a comfortable pair of days, but no great danger.”

His tone was offhand, which was the most effective type of boasting.

“Well... I’m glad to see that your rich warm land hasn’t made your folk soft,” Asgerd said.

Artos grinned to himself. Every word of what Edain had said was the truth. What his fellow-clansman hadn’t mentioned was that it was Ingolf Vogeler who’d shown them what to do when the storm struck, with a trick from his Wisconsin home; they’d probably have died without him. The Kickapoo country around Readstown in the Free Republic of Richland was nearly as bleak in winter as Norrheim.

The Clan Mackenzie’s territories were not, not down in the valleys where their farms and duns lay and where they spent the Black Months in rain and fog with only occasional brief snow cover. You could pasture stock outside right through most winters, with only about thirty hard night frosts in all. His people dealt with the huge mountain snowfalls of the High Cascade range by simply not going there from Samhain to Beltane, for the most part. His own experience of mountain snows had been limited to downhill skiing at Timberline Lodge, a possession of Mathilda’s family on Mount Hood, with great hearths and well-stocked pantries for stormy days.

I somehow doubt the kilt would have caught on in Norrheim the way it did among us, regardless of fashion!

Despite the mid-forties chill they were all sweating a little after an hour or two. Water-bottles made the rounds occasionally, and cold pancakes rolled around jam fillings.

“This is a rest,” Artos murmured to Mathilda as Edain and the Norrheimer girl chatted behind him.

“Rest?” she said, wiping a dab of blueberry jam off her chin with her thumb and licking it. “Well, it’s not as hard as pushing sleds through snowdrifts on the shores of Superior and wondering if we'd have to eat the horses.”

“Rest it is, like a downy bed.”

And you beside me in it, he didn’t add aloud.

That would have been a natural joke among Mackenzies, but not among Associates in mixed company. Instead he went on:

“All we have to do is pedal. The future runs ahead on rails, and I don’t have to decide a single bit of it! The knottiest problem we’re to be confronted with the now is whether to heave a log off the track bodily or cut it up first.”

She laughed a little, but nodded. “And we’re headed home,” she said with longing.

He nodded. “And... the Sword seems quieter. It’s whispering to me, rather than talking with an annoying insistence in a language I can’t really understand.”

Mathilda reached over and touched his shoulder. “Perhaps it does what’s, um, necessary. And not more. And it will leave you alone when, when all this is over.”

“It’s hope you give me, Matti,” Artos said. Then he smiled. “But you always did.”

 

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