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LORD OF MOUNTAINS

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


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

County of Aurea
(Formerly central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
October 30th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

The High Queen of Montival bent over a map table with the Grand Constable d'Ath and a clutch of lords and officers this morning. Huon Liu could see them, though it wasn't polite to stare. Even if you were heir to a wealthy barony like Gervais, which he was, a squire was a very lowly form of military life. Though you didn't realize it when you were looking at it from the worm's-eye-view of a page, which he'd been until a couple of months ago.

Even a Royal squire was out in the cold—literally, since he was about twelve feet from the edge of the pavilion tent's door, along with a gaggle of other squires, and couriers and their horses. He could see the heads and hands moving, but nothing of the map. There were a pair of spearmen from the Protector's Guard in black-enameled three-quarter armor standing by the entrance as well, their faces invisible behind the vision-slits of their visors, the butts of their glaives braced against their right boots and their four-foot kite-shaped shields blazoned with the crimson and gold Lidless Eye at the parade position. He didn't envy them, though the guige strap over the shoulder took some of the weight, but they were as motionless as statues.

Huon had been excited to finally make the step from page, and hence child, to squire, which made you a youth if not a man yet. At over fifteen he was past due for it; though he lacked an inch or so of what would probably be a medium final height. He was already broad-shouldered and lithe and active. His high-cheeked face, stubborn lack of beard and slightly tilted dark eyes—legacy of his father's father—made him look a little younger than he was, and he was well-versed in all the weapons he had the size and strength of arm to use.

But there was nearly as much standing and waiting involved in squiring it as in page work, even if you didn't serve at table as much.

At least it's a warm sort of cold to be out in.

Dawn had been frosty, but now it was a fine day for the end of October, bright sunlight with a few white clouds, and warm enough that his light outfit of brigantine and mail sleeves was making Huon sweat a bit as he stood at parade rest by his horse's head. Carrying messages was the likeliest duty. The rolling plain around them had mostly emptied of troops now, but there were still a few encamped on the stubblefields; the man-stink of the great temporary city was gone, leaving only the smell of horses and dung, dust and woodsmoke and hay and greenery, the scents that were the common background of life. A group of varlets with a wagon were waiting to take down and pack the pavilion, feeding the mules from nosebags and currycombing them. There was a troop of the Protector's Guard not far off too, men-at-arms in full armor and mounted crossbowmen, mostly standing by their horses; you didn't burden them when it wasn't essential.

Dust smoked from the fields where the fall plowing was underway, teams of oxen or mules or big platter-hoofed horses pulling double-furrow riding plows and disk-harrows and seed-drills through stubble or clover-ley. It had rained hard yesterday, but there wasn't the constant grey drizzle he was used to in the Black Months of his home in the northern Willamette, west of the Cascades on the wet side of the mountains. The clumps of elm and oak and beech around the villages and manors were streaks of brighter yellow against the dun-gold and brown and faded green, with only their size to show that the landscape was not much older than he. The straight lines of candle-shaped Lombardy poplars that outlined the great common fields with their villagers' strips were bright as well. Vineyards scattered here and there had just finished yielding their last grapes to the harvesters, and the leaves drew notes of scarlet and orange.

Huon gave a quiet chuckle as he glanced at the plow-teams. Next year...

"What's funny?" the squire next to him said quietly, as the horses stamped along the picket-line behind them.

"Just thinking that the crops ought to be good around here next year, with all the crap the army left getting plowed in. You can follow the path of glory by the trail of shit it leaves."

The other boy chuckled. He was younger than Huon, about fourteen, but already slightly taller and with big hands and feet that promised six feet or better eventually; a little gangly, and you could tell that his white-blond hair had just recently been sheared from the pageboy's bob to a squire's bowl-cut. The surcoat over his light mail shirt had the arms of Barony Ath, a delta Or over a V argent, quartered with a blazon: Gules a domed Tower Argent surmounted by a Pennon Or in base a Lion passant guardant of the last. The arms of Forest Grove, the barony just north of Ath.

"You're one of the Grand Constable's household?" Huon said, a polite statement of the obvious as a way to start.

"I'm Lioncel de Stafford, heir to Forest Grove. Squire to the Grand Constable, Baroness d'Ath."

"Huon Liu, heir of Gervais," Huon said quietly, blinking a little against the morning sun. "Squire to Her Majesty."

They fell silent again; it wouldn't do to chatter too openly while they waited for orders. The Queen and the Grand Constable were consulting with men who commanded units assigned to protect the lines of communications, since the eastern enemy had lots of light cavalry for raiding around the flanks. It was essential work, but Huon didn't envy them one bit. The great battle was coming, and they would be missing it.

I'm going to be right in the middle of it. Right behind the High Queen, he thought, with a mixture of excitement and longing and a trace of fear. We'll be moving up tomorrow morning. A day or two, no more, and then the biggest battle since the Change!

A squire cantered up, one of the Grand Constable's. He dismounted, threw the reins to a groom, and nodded to the two boys since they were formally more or less equals, though the squire in question was at least eighteen and in half-armor like the commanders. Then he passed the sentries with a clank of salutes, bent the knee to Mathilda and handed a dispatch to Tiphaine d'Ath.

That gave them a little cover, and they exchanged a bow. Huon looked warily at the other boy, and got the same in reply.

They knew of each other, roughly, though with the way his own life had been disturbed the last couple of years with House Liu's political troubles he wasn't sure if they'd ever actually met beyond seeing each other about their duties. But there just weren't all that many heirs to baronies south of the Columbia. Lioncel was the eldest son of Rigobert de Stafford, Baron Forest Grove, the Marchwarden of the South, and his wife Lady Delia. His mother was Châtelaine of Barony Ath for the Grand Constable, too.

According to almost-certainly-true rumor Lady Delia was also Tiphaine d'Ath's girlfriend and had been for fifteen years, which the Baron of Forest Grove didn't mind at all since he liked men himself. The three of them seemed to be the best of friends, too, insofar as the Grand Constable had any friends... Lady Delia's modest tally of three children (with one on the way) all looked respectably like her husband or her own dark comeliness. Mother and children mostly lived in Barony Ath when the family wasn't at court in Castle Todenangst or Portland, but visited Forest Grove frequently.

They... all three of them... must have serious pull to keep the clergy from getting on their case, Huon thought.

He supposed he disapproved himself, though it was really between them and God and none of his business; he hoped he was a good son of Holy Mother Church, but didn't pretend to overmuch sanctity and he'd never seriously entertained the thought of a vocation.

And judge not, lest ye be judged is really sort of scary when you think about it. I'm not that brave, or maybe not that self-confident.

Lady Delia was beautiful in a lushly feminine way, and much admired as a leader of fashion; Huon had seen her a few times at Court or social events, and felt the same awed goggle-eyed lust as any boy his age. Baron de Stafford was ruggedly handsome, a noted champion in the lists, victor in two duels, and a respected leader in the field. Lady d'Ath was known as Lady Death; she'd been the Regent's hatchetwoman for years before she became a commander, and she was victor in more than a dozen duels, about which rumor told equally credible and really, truly hideous details. Not many people liked her and a fair number hated her bitterly, but he'd never heard an Associate nobleman refer to her with anything but wary respect shading into outright fear.

She certainly scares me, he thought. Of course, if things had gone a little differently, the Regent might have sent her to kill the rest of House Liu; I'm pretty sure she was the one who... executed... Mom.

He grimaced slightly at the thought. His mother hadn't really been herself that last year or two before things fell apart; it had been like living with a stranger who just looked like the mother he remembered. A dangerous and utterly unpredictable stranger. According to rumor, again, she'd been possessed, a thing of evil. He could believe it, though he very much didn't want to, and a lot of his nightly prayers were for her soul. He couldn't even really resent the way the Regent had dealt with her.

On second thoughts, with the Spider of the Silver Tower behind them, it's no wonder nobody makes trouble for d'Ath and de Stafford, even if they're not scared of ending up in a dueling circle. Which I would be. But the Regent's mind scares me even more than Lady Death's sword, now that I've seen Lady Regent Sandra Arminger in action at close range.

"Were you with the Grand Constable at Walla Walla?" Huon asked Lioncel, a little enviously.

d'Ath had commanded the Montivallan vanguard there, the army screening the gathering of the High King's host and turning to snap and slash at the eastern invaders as they advanced. The war-camp was full of the news of their deeds, and the way the High King had led a charge to rescue them when they were surrounded by the Prophet's cavalry just before they reached safety a few days ago. Huon had been part of that, but you didn't see much even if you were involved; it was all a whirling confusion, not the neat lines and duel-like blow-by-blow encounters the troubadours sang.

"Yes," Lioncel said; his face was sober as he replied, as if he was suddenly looking somewhere quite different. "My lord my father was too. It was... there were so many of them, the enemy, even when they spit up to try and trap us. If we'd made one big mistake, none of us would have gotten away. It was... like dancing backwards while someone really big tried to hit you with a warhammer, but my lady d'Ath never let them get a grip on us. And we hurt them, hurt them badly."

Then he smiled. "At first the regiments from the Yakima League didn't like serving under the Grand Constable."

"I suppose the Free Cities remember the old wars," Huon said. "My father fought there, when we took the Tri-Cities; I'm too young to remember it."

"Mine too. And do they ever remember the old wars! Not the way we Associates do, either. But by the end, they were cheering her whenever she rode by. And the enemy got a lot more cautious, even with their numbers. I grew up with her, but that was the first time I knew, really knew, why so many people are so frightened of her."

Huon nodded respectfully; they both served warriors of note and of famous deeds, even if they were women.

And running the Grand Constable's messages or carrying her spare lances must have been pretty dangerous too. He's younger than me, but he's already well-blooded.

He glanced through the door of the tent; Lady d'Ath was speaking, referring to a notebook in her left hand and tracing something on the map. Just to add to the puzzle, she looked a lot like Lioncel, enough to have actually been his mother herself; blond and regular-featured and tall. Not ladylike or feminine, but not really mannish, either—very female and very, very dangerous, like a she-tiger.

"You're Baron Odard's younger brother, aren't you?" Lioncel asked. "The late baron, of course. We've all heard about his deeds and how well he died."

Huon nodded. Lioncel was looking at him a little oddly, too, because the Barony of Gervais wasn't exactly normal either. House Liu had produced his elder brother Odard, who had been one of the Companions of the Quest with the High King and Queen, all the way east to Nantucket. He hadn't come back.

So far, so good, he thought. I miss Odard. He was a good guy and a good brother when he remembered me at all, but a knight has to expect to die by the sword—and he died like a hero from a chanson. He brought honor to our House and he saved Yseult and me. Without him, when Mother was arrested for treason...

The problem was that their mother hadn't just been arrested and executed for treason, she had been guilty as the proverbial Dragon of Sin itself, in league with the Church Universal and Triumphant, and so had his uncle Sir Guelf been. They'd both died for it, and nearly taken House Liu down with them; he and his sister had spent a lot of time under arrest and parole, not to mention constant suspicion. It hadn't been any fun at all.

That's over by now, thank God and His Mother, but I'm still feeling... prickly... over it.

The High King and the Queen had been generous to a fault since they got back from the Quest. He was a Royal squire now, a post a lot of young noblemen would kill for, and Yseult was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen; she'd been promised a dowry of manors from the Crown demesne, and it had been made known the High King and Queen would stand godparents to any children either had, a priceless cadeau. All that made them a lot less of a pair of lepers socially. It still hadn't stopped suspicious glances out of the corners of eyes.

He wondered if anything would, except the passage of more time than he liked to think about.

"Huon!"

The High Queen's voice snapped him out of the reverie. He left his tethered horse and strode briskly into the tent, sweeping off his brimless squire's flowerpot hat and bowing before standing to attention.

"Your Majesty," he said.

Mathilda Arminger had been a kindly mistress to him in the month of his service, but she was all business in the field. Which was just what you wanted, of course. Nobody who'd met her was going to tease him about being a woman's squire.

"You're going here," she said, tucking a lock of her dark-brown hair back into place with one finger then tracing a path on the map.

He watched closely as she tapped four points in the high country north of the town and Crown castle of Goldendale.

"There are posts here... here... here and here."

He memorized the locations; map-reading and knowing terrain were skills a nobleman had to master. She handed him four envelopes with the Crown seal.

"You're to take these messages to the commanders at each, they're just signal and scout detachments. Take any reply written or verbal, they won't be urgent or they would have used their heliographs."

"Your Majesty?"

That was Tiphaine d'Ath, in her cool inflectionless voice. "Sending him alone is almost completely safe. Remember what we have Ogier nosing around up that way for."

The High Queen smiled, her strong, slightly irregular face lighting for a second. She was in her mid-twenties, a decade and a half younger than d'Ath, but tired enough by the labors of the last few days that you could see what she'd look like in middle-age when the freshness of youth was gone. Indomitable, like weathered rock.

"Good point, my lady Grand Constable," she said with a nod. "Which is not the same as absolutely completely safe."

D'Ath raised her voice in turn: "Lioncel!"

The blond youngster seemed to appear magically. "My lady?"

"Her Majesty's squire is carrying dispatches to the posts north of the city. Accompany him, under his orders. Both of you keep a sharp lookout. If you see any sign of enemy activity, get out immediately and report it to Castle Goldendale. It's not likely but the unlikely happens sometimes."

"Yes, my lady!"

Huon inclined his head. "When and where shall we rejoin, Your Majesty?"

Mathilda looked at her watch.

"Nine fifteen. We're moving out to Castle Maryhill down on the Columbia in a couple of hours, once we get this cleared up. Rejoin there by no later than sundown, we'll be moving east at dawn."

"And you have a new sister," d'Ath said to Lioncel, handing over a parcel and a sealed note on lavender-colored paper. "Her name is Yolande. Your lady mother sent this for you with the courier."

"Thank you, my lady! That's wonderful news!"

Huon suppressed a pang of envy; his mother probably wouldn't have sent the parcel. Even before she turned strange. Certainly not just before or after an accouchement.

So much for unnatural mothers, he thought a little sourly, seeing Lioncel's unaffected delight.

Both the squires bent the knee as they bowed and turned about smartly. Both were smiling as they left; a day spent dashing about was a lot more exciting than standing and watching the grass grow. And they had all day to do it in, plenty of time. He suspected it was partly a test of his land-navigation skills, too; he hadn't been given a map.

"Congratulations," Huon said. "Sisters can be fun; Yseult and I get along really well."

"Thanks, but she's older than you, isn't she?"

"Two years," Huon said. "It was Odard, then Yseult, then me. Then my father was killed in the Protector's War, so I was the last, that's why it's such a small family."

"You're the youngest, but I'm the oldest in ours. Little Heuradys is still toddling and drooling, and when they're babies they're about as interesting as a lump of dough and not nearly as cute as puppies. Plus a puppy doesn't take years to housebreak, as Lady d'Ath says. I'm happy for my lady my mother, though; she always wanted two sons and two daughters. A matched set, she called it."

"Don't worry, they'll both be old enough for you to be worrying about their suitors in no time!"

They unhitched their fast coursers from the picket line, vaulted into the saddle and cantered off northward, turning west along a rutted lane bordered with London plane trees to avoid the city wall, riding off onto the verge now and then to dodge the odd cart or wagon and once sweeping off their hats and bowing in the saddle as a lady went by on her palfrey, with maids and guards in attendance. She nodded back at them and smiled regally, teeth white against her brown face.

Lioncel had stuffed the package in a saddlebag after sniffing hopefully at it.

"My lady my mother is always sending me stuff," he said. "Little things, but it's usually stuff I really need as well as being cool."

He slit the note open with his dagger, a thin-bladed misericord, and read it. Huon caught a slight waft of scent, some cool floral fragrance, maybe verbena.

"Oh, good, thanks be to the Virgin. The accouchement went easily—like a watermelon seed, she says, and they're both doing well. Lady Valentine Renfrew was there at Montinore with her—the Countess of Odell—they're old friends. And the Renfrew daughters were there, all three, they're nice girls, it must have been a lot of comfort to Mom. And them. It's hard on women, waiting, when there's war."

"Bearing children is like battle," Huon said, which was a cliché but had the advantage of being true. "You're lucky to have three brothers and sisters."

The smile ended as Lioncel read the end of the note, and Huon could see a flush spread up to the other boy's ears, along with an audible grinding of teeth.

"Oh, sweet Saints, Dolores sends her regards!" he muttered angrily under his breath, and started to crumple the letter before he smoothed it out and tucked it into a pocket in his trews.

"Ah... who's Dolores?" Huon asked.

They were thoroughly alone. The only sounds were the creak of saddle leather, the dull hollow clop of hooves on dirt, and the wind in the trees. Yellow-brown leaves fell around them, and a flight of starlings went by. Through town would be the most direct route, but impossibly crowded and slow. The witches-hat tops of the town's towers and the taller ones of the castle on its northern fringe edged by, with the green slopes of the low mountains behind. You could see the peaks of Adams and Ranier from here, and sometimes the cone of Mt. Hood southward and west.

Lioncel's face had relaxed a little. "A girl," he said ruefully. "A really pretty girl. Friendly, too."

Well, at least it is a girl, Huon thought. "Your leman?" he said.

Lioncel was distinctly young to have a recognized lady-love and he wasn't wearing a favor-ribbon on his arm, either, just a plain mail shirt and surcoat.

"Ah... no," he replied, and his mouth quirked, apparently halfway between humor and embarrassment. "She's a servant girl at Montinore manor-house. Part-time, boon-work, you know. Her father's a blacksmith, and her mother's a midwife."

Huon nodded; he did. All peasant families on a manor owed labor-service as part of the rent for their holdings. Usually the skilled upper house-servants were full-time retainers who moved with the nobles they served from manor to castle to court, but the routine scrubbing, potato-peeling and fetch-and-carry was done by young women from the nearest estate village, fulfilling part of their kin's obligations. It wasn't as hard as working in the demesne fields and there were other advantages.

But Lioncel was rather too young to have an acknowledged mistress, either. Even if his parents were very indulgent.

"And... well, Mom... my lady mother... caught us in a linen closet," Lioncel went on doggedly.

"Ouch," Huon said sympathetically, trying to imagine his mother's reaction... even when she'd been herself. "Trouble?"

"Well, no. I mean, Dolores was nice about it, she didn't try to pretend I'd made her do it which could have gotten me into trouble and her out of it, my lady my mother and Baroness d'Ath are both really strict about good lordship. Mom laughed at first, but... then she teased me about it. She's still at it, and that was months and months ago."

"Oh, ouch, ouch," Huon said sympathetically. "Totally ouch."

And I mean it. It would be bad enough having a brother tease you about something like that. Having your mother do it... you'd want to turn into a vole and crawl into a tunnel and never come out.

"And then Lady d'Ath just looked at me and said that if Dolores'd gotten pregnant, the compensation money would have come out my allowance for the next three million years. And then I had to confess it to Father Lailard and got this unbelievable penance. And I didn't even get that far! I just had my hand under her outer tunic! And Dad... my lord my father... he killed himself laughing."

Huon laughed himself, but slapped the younger squire on the shoulder to show it wasn't unkindly meant.

"They probably think embarrassing you is the best way to keep you on the straight and narrow," he said.

Lioncel laughed too after a moment. They fell silent as they turned off the rural lane and through a gap in the row of trees onto a trail that meandered through rocky grassland northward. The mountains were much closer now, and they were leaving the settled zone where people were omnipresent. Which meant...

"Time to arm up," Huon said.

They both stuffed their hats in the saddlebags and put on their helmets, coalscuttle sallets with flared neck-guards, but the lighter open-face type without visors. The felt and leather pads closed around his head. He'd adjusted them carefully but you still got a headache if you wore it all day; though that was better than getting your brains spattered by a mace. The chin-cup and straps had to be just right too, so he swiveled and tossed his head to make sure everything was firm without being too tight. They half-drew their swords and daggers and re-seated them with a slight hiss of steel on wood and leather greased with neatsfoot oil. Lioncel slipped the crossbow off his back, worked the lever set in the forestock to cock it and clipped a quarrel in the firing groove. Huon preferred a saddle-bow, and he pulled the horn-and-sinew recurve out of the boiled-leather scabbard at his knee and set an arrow on the string.

They were coming up through meadows to the Little Klickitat River and a thick scattering of trees along it, big cottonwoods and willows, pale-barked white alder, the odd elm or beech someone had planted since the Change and a thick understory of bush and saplings. Their trail lead down to the water and up the other side, and from the tracks was made mostly by cattle and sheep. The water was shallow, gravel and riffles showing as often as pools, but the rainy season had started in the Simcoes to the north and it was rising from its summer lows.

"You first," Huon said; it was his mission, so he was in charge. "Cover! Move!"

Lioncel crossed as Huon brought up his bow and covered him, eyes flickering along the edge of the riverside woods for any telltale sign of movement. There wasn't any, save for a badger trundling off with a ground squirrel in its jaws, and the usual birds including a bald eagle perching on a lightning-killed pine and ignoring them. Once he was across the blond boy turned his horse right and dropped the reins on the mount's neck. The well-trained animal stood stock-still, not even bending its head to crop at the green grass that grew in clumps by the river's side.

"Cover!" Lioncel called, bringing the crossbow up to his shoulder. "Move!"

It was a heavy weapon for someone the young squire's age, but he kept it steady. Huon let his weight shift forward slightly, and Dancer walked into the water, placing his feet carefully and raising his knees high. He wasn't using a knight's saddle, which cut you off from contact with the horse for the sake of locking you into a standing position. This was a light pad type, and of course he'd trained in all the equestrian arts under experts since he was old enough to walk.

The water was still low; at the deepest spot it came up to the bottom of his stirrups, and he could feel cool wet on his woolen trews where splashed drops hit. He smiled as the horse muscled its way up the slope on the other side. This was a lot more fun than waiting around the tent.

Beyond was a savannah with scattered lodgepole pine and rather shrubby Garry oaks, probably stinted communal common-pasture for whatever manor held this area. Then they were into the hills with the pines thick around them, steep trails—steep enough to make them dismount and lead the horses at times—and jays scolding, squirrels running up the tall trunks in gray chattering streaks, bright sunlight spearing down. The air smelled a bit damper here, and full of the sweet scent of the wood. Once Dancer shied a little; a tree nearby bore long parallel gouges and there was scat on the ground by it.

"Cougar," Huon said, pointing at the gray hairs caught in the bark, and Lioncel nodded.

"Not nearly big enough for tiger and that's the wrong color," he said.

"Lots of deer sign too, and elk, I think."

"And sage hen and grouse. There'd be good hawking here, and some most excellent hunting. But no boar," Lioncel added.

"We get lots of boar near Gervais," Huon said animatedly. "In the marsh along the river, mostly. I'm looking forward to that when I'm older!"

"Me too. Ours are in the Coast Range forests, except that my lady d'Ath says they spend every night in our vineyards and gardens, eating."

They shared a nod at that. Swine were smart; their wild cousins were wickedly intelligent, making nothing of fences in their raids on crops, and they hated men. Hunting them was part of a lord's obligation to protect his lands and dependents, as well as fine risky sport and a useful source of meat and hides. Lioncel went on enthusiastically:

"My lord my father took one that weighed five hundred pounds last year! Lady d'Ath got one nearly as big that afternoon too, I was her spear-bearer. Dad let me have a tusk."

He rummaged in his belt pouch and proudly brought out nearly six inches of polished ivory threat, like a curved dagger. Huon whistled appreciatively and handled it for a moment.

"I'm going to have it worked into a hilt for a hunting knife when I get the time," Lioncel added.

"That will be cool."

Neither of them had the years or heft for hunting boar yet; you took the beasts by getting in their way when they charged and letting them spit themselves on a broad-bladed spear. One with a crossguard forged into the base of the socket, so the prey couldn't run up the shaft and rip you open with their tusks. Usually the nobles waited while dogs and beaters flushed them out of thickets, though some preferred a lone stalk. The boars came out on their own fairly frequently too, like huge black projectiles shot from a catapult and armored in bone and gristle. Some thought them nearly as dangerous game as tiger or bear, and every year a few reckless or unlucky men or ones stupid enough to go hunting drunk were killed.

That's how a troubadour gets rid of an inconvenient character if it isn't time for a battle or duel, Huon thought. 'Ripped up by the boar'.

They swapped hunting stories for a while, and discussed horses and hawks and hounds. Hoof-beats carried further than quiet voices, so it didn't make them any more conspicuous. Then they fell silent as Huon held up a hand, looking around; he could feel eyes on them. It was a relief when two crossbowmen stepped out from behind trees and demanded the password; he'd begun to think he must have missed the trail. The grim graying man-at-arms in command of the outpost took the sealed envelope with a salute and grunted:

"My thanks, young sir."

Meaning, get lost, kid, Huon thought, returning the gesture and nodding gravely in reply.

He didn't mind, since he was fully aware of how young he must look to the scarred veteran. Being a squire was supposed to teach noblemen humility, among other things.

"No return message," the man added.

The next two were the same. The last had something different; only one soldier on guard, to start with. When they pushed their horses through a screen of brush into a sloping meadow of ten or fifteen acres Huon's eyebrows went up as he saw why. His bow did for a second too; there were about twenty men there in the gear that Boise's light cavalry wore. Just leather breeches and mail shirts, but unmistakable in detail, along with their helmets—sort of an understated sallet they called a Fritz, which together with the stars-and-stripes flag emblem were their inheritance from the ancient world.

But they were disarmed and dismounted, under the guard of the outpost's complement and a couple of conroi of men-at-arms led by a knight Huon recognized. None of the enemy were wounded, so they hadn't been captured in the course of ordinary fighting. That probably meant they'd come over of their own wills. Being a Royal Squire meant you heard things; among others, that a lot of people in the United States of Boise weren't happy with their General-President Martin Thurston, especially now that the story of how he'd murdered his own father to take over the position had gotten around.

Especially now that his own wife and own mother and own sisters escaped with the aid of the Dúnedain and are telling the truth to everyone. Not to mention his brother Frederick is the High King's friend and one of the Companions of the Quest, so there's someone for soldiers to go over to. Boise will be part of the High Kingdom too, and under the High King's peace!

"Sir Ogier!" Huon said, dismounting and saluting; high politics weren't his affair yet, but that didn't stop him thinking.

The young knight looked up; he'd been a Royal squire too until the High Queen gave him the accolade on the field of honor not long ago, and was still a fairly junior household commander of the High Queen's menie. He was a little over two years older than Huon and around six feet, probably his full height though he was still lanky with late adolescence; his hair was a very dark brown-yellow, like barley, and there was a spray of acne across his cheeks and nose—something Huon had been spared so far. His smile was genuine and warm beneath the raised visor; they'd served together, after all. And though Ogier of House Renfrew was a son of the Count of Odell, one of the great Peers of the Association, he was the youngest son, with two elder brothers, not to mention three sisters who'd be needing dowries.

"Good to see you again, Huon," he said, taking the dispatch, looking at the address and handing it over to the signal detachment commander. "And you too, Lioncel."

"I noticed you'd been sent on a mission, Sir Ogier," Huon said.

The knight nodded. "I was out meeting these fellows, they slipped a message across the lines that they wanted to switch sides, and Her Majesty thought a man of rank should meet them, being tactful and so forth."

A snort. "And thirty lancers with me, to make sure they were honest about it."

He turned his head to Lioncel: "Any news from your brother?"

"Not lately, Sir Ogier," the blond youth said. Then he grinned: "But my lady my mother is delivered of a daughter, who'll be christened Yolande. Your lady mother the Countess and the ladies your sisters were there at Montinore manor for the accouchement."

"Excellent!" Ogier said; he seemed to be happy with the world today. To Huon: "Lioncel's little brother Diomede is paging it with Countess Anne in Tillamook off on the Pacific shore."

"Don't let him hear you say little brother, Sir Ogier," Lioncel said, grinning.

It was all part of the network of fosterage and service that tied the great houses together. There had also been persistent talk of a marriage between the Countess-regnant of Tillamook, or the County on the Edge of the World, as it was also known, and Count Conrad Renfrew's youngest son. Marriage was another part of the network.

He went on to Huon: "I just got this from Her Grace."

He tapped a knot of ribbons in Tillamook's colors on his shoulder, gray and green and silver around an embroidered rose. Wearing a lady's favor wasn't precisely a pledge of marriage, that depended on circumstances. But it did entitle you to fight for her name and fame, and it was a serious matter, where the honor of each depended on the other.

"I sent a letter by heliograph after the Battle of the Vanguard, telling my lady Anne how I'd been knighted by the High Queen on the field of honor and begging leave to send her my first spurs and dedicate the deeds to her glory. This came in this morning with the couriers, and this."

He pulled out a locket strung on a silver chain, shaped from an oval of walrus-ivory as long as a man's thumb and half as wide, carved in delicate filigree and clasped with granulated gold. When he clicked it open there was a portrait of a striking fair-haired young woman, with his own on the other side.

"It's beautiful, Sir Ogier," Huon said. "She is, I mean, your lady the Countess; most fair and gracious, fitting for a Peer of the Association. She gave my sister Yseult shelter when it was, ah, awkward. We'll always remember that with gratitude."

He spoke quite sincerely; that too was a bond. The locket was fine work, and Anne of Tillamook was lovely... though also several years older than the young knight. And Ogier had been a good companion to work with, not stuck-up or birth-proud at all.

So I wish him all good fortune in his marriage, and her too, when and if. His son will be a Count, after all.

Huon stepped back so that Lioncel could take a look as Ogier beamed at the picture. That let him pivot at the first shout of alarm, and his bow was still in his hand with a nocked arrow resting in the cut-out. One of the not-quite-prisoners had ducked under a guard's horse, slashing the girths as he went, and he was throwing himself headlong at Sir Ogier with a long glitter of steel in his hand, dodging the rider's draw-and-cut as the man toppled onto his own sword with a yell.

"Look out!" Huon called crisply, into the chaos of rearing horses and men shouting, drawing and loosing as he'd been taught.

He hadn't had time to aim except by raw instinct, or to worry about missing and hitting someone else. The string struck his forearm, hard enough to feel through the stiff leather of his arm-guard. The arrow hit, low and at an angle; he could hear the wet smacking impact. There was a screech, and the body of the attacker struck him and he went over backward with a painful thump, too quickly for his training in how to fall to do more than help a little. It gave him a good viewpoint to see the assassin who'd been masquerading as a deserter run into Lioncel. He was a grown man though wiry and slender as most light cavalry were, a third again as heavy as the young squire. But he stopped rather than overruning him. The curved dagger in his hand slit the surcoat on Lioncel's shoulder and grated off his mail, then fell to the ground point-first and stood quivering.

The man slumped downward, leaking blood from nose and mouth. When he hit Huon could see the silver wire around the hilt of Lioncel's misericorde dancing in the center of his chest. The narrow blade of the weapon had slipped easily between the links of the mail shirt, which was what it was designed for. And equally easily between two ribs and into the big blood vessels over the heart, driven by the man's own weight and momentum. Behind Lioncel, Ogier Renfrew extended a steadying armored arm against the squire's back as he staggered.

When the knight spoke an instant later it was to his men, though, in a sharp carrying voice:

"Put up your weapons! I'm all right, by the grace of God and St. Dismas! No killing! Remember the High King's order!"

The crossbowmen and men-at-arms raised their weapons, or lowered the points of their swords. The prisoners were in a tight clump, hands raised or on their heads, mostly blank-faced but slightly crouched; they'd thought themselves about to be massacred... which might have happened, if Ogier hadn't spoken swiftly.

OK, make a note of that, squire, Huon thought, struggling to draw a breath and then get back to his feet. Focus on the immediate need. Prioritize!

"Not one of us!" one of the Boise men called. "Bastard wasn't in our platoon! Just turned up and said he was switching sides too, on his own."

Ogier stepped forward, and indicated the curved dagger with the toe of his steel sabaton. It was fine work, with a rippling watermarked pattern wrought into to the blade, and the pommel was a ball engraved with the shape of a rayed sun.

"Hand of the Prophet," he said. "Kill-dagger. Those sons of whores operate in threes."

The prisoner who'd spoken before did again: "He was alone. We haven't seen any others."

"Then they may turn up. Or you could be lying." He shook his head and went on to the deserters: "I'm afraid we are going to have to tie you, and search you.

In a harder voice, directed at his own followers, who were shuffling their feet:

"Search you again, only thoroughly this time." Then he went on to the prisoners:

"This is a temporary measure, until we get you to Goldendale and sort out who's who. That's how the enemy operate, trying to destroy honest men's trust in each other."

One of his own men-at-arms bent to retrieve the assassin's knife.

"I wouldn't use my bare flesh on that, if I were you, Teófilo," Ogier said dryly. "It was consecrated to the service of Hell and the death-demons in Corwin, probably by the Prophet's own hand."

"ĄDios mío!" the man blurted. "Thank you, my lord!"

He used a stick to push the knife onto a cloth, stuffed the bundle into a leather sack, and put that on a pack-mule. His comrades attended to binding the prisoners, and the knight turned to the squires.

"Good work, very good work," he said. "Her Majesty will hear of it, and the Grand Constable, too, of course."

"Lioncel did the work... killed him," Huon said, suddenly feeling a little weak as he looked down at the dead Cutter, wrinkling his nose at the coppery metallic stink of blood. There was a lot of it in a man. "All I did was shoot him in one butt-cheek."

Ogier laughed, and Lioncel gave a startled chortle. "I... just drew and stabbed," he said, his voice wobbling a little.

"And jumped in front of me towards the danger, like Huon," Ogier noted. "It's when he's surprised that a man shows his real instincts, or his training, or both. My lord my father told me that once and I've never forgotten it."

Huon looked down at the dead assassin; the arrow had gone in over the hip-bone, and then down through one buttock. The red point stood out just where it joined the upper thigh. He didn't pull a very heavy bow, but flesh was so...

Tender, Huon thought uneasily.

"And you can truly say that this is now a thoroughly half-assed assassin," Lioncel said.

Something unknotted in Huon's gut as he joined in the laughter.

 

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