County of Aurea
(Formerly central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
October 30th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
"Was that your first?" Huon asked, an hour later; he thought the younger boy wanted to talk.
Lioncel shook his head. "No... they, assassins like that, tried to kill my lady the Grand Constable in Walla Walla, a few months ago, the very same day I'd been made squire. And the Count, and my lord my father, all on the same night."
He stiffened with unconscious pride: "But my lady was ready for them! We were waiting!"
Maybe because she used to be an assassin herself, Huon thought; he wasn't sorry that she had been ready, though. That would have been a disaster for our cause, to lose the commanders in the County Palatine just as the invaders came west.
Lioncel went on: "I shot one of them with my crossbow then, in the apartments my lady was using, and I had to give him the mercy-stroke. And... I think since, during the fighting, but I'm not sure. But that's not... so close, mostly. You shoot, or someone comes out of the dust, and you hit or dodge and you don't see him again. Mostly I'm behind my lady d'Ath, of course, and the senior squires, well behind."
They were out of the mountains again, well into the settled lands around Goldendale. Huon took off his helmet, relishing the breeze through his sweat-damp hair, a feeling of lightness and release. A swale at the base of a low rise had been closed off by earth banks, and a spring kept it filled with water that lay mirror-still, reflecting the blue sky and puffy white clouds above. Willows surrounded it, and reeds grew in the edges; to the east was a long narrow strip of apple orchard along the irrigation furrow that kept it alive, with some of the fruit still glowing red among the faded green of the leaves.
Apart from that the land around the pool was a long sloping hayfield, the alfalfa recently cut and packed in big round mows all centered around a column made from the trunk of a tall lodgepole pine. Each haystack had a thatched roof on top of its circular height, and they looked as if they were huts taken in two giant hands and stretched like taffy. The smell was as sweet as candy, and it drifted over him like a benison, a reminder of a world where feeding your cattle and horses and sheep through the winter was about the most important thing there was.
Oh, devils and damnation, I'm not cut out to be a cleric!
"Let's stop here for lunch," Huon said. "We've got plenty of time. And nobody can say we haven't been doing a day's work today, man's work!"
"Yeah," Lioncel said, and smiled.
After all, we're noblemen of the Portland Protective Association, Huon thought. War is our work. We're the guardians of the land.
Sir Ogier had thoughtfully given each of them a remount from among the captured horses, they both still rode light in the saddle, and switching off mounts every couple of miles they could cover the distance down to the river in a few hours without overstraining the horses. Neither of them considered that sort of ride anything of a hardship.
"It's a nice spot," the heir of Forest Grove said.
Huon forced down a slightly queasy recollection of the sound when the arrow struck. The one he'd shot had been a bad man, not just an enemy; an assassin, an agent of the CUT who'd sold his soul to demons. On the other hand, you couldn't help thinking how it must feel. Or that once the bad man had been a perfectly ordinary little kid. He hadn't thought of that before.
You take the good with the bad. I don't think I'm ever going to like killing men or hurting them, fighting's exciting but I don't like that part. I can do it when it's necessary, I guess.
They watered the horses, rubbed them down and poured small mounds of cracked barley for them to lip up off the turf before they hobbled them and left them to graze beneath the willows. He enjoyed the homey, familiar task, the earthy, grassy smell of the horses and the way Dancer turned his neck and lipped at his rider's hair.
The hobbles weren't really necessary with their own mounts, he'd bought Dancer from a first-rate training farm when he was taken into the Royal household and worked him since then, and Lioncel's Hardhoof was just as good. The remounts were eastern and of quarterhorse blood, and most of all they didn't know them and their horses didn't know them. It was better to have them all hobbled while they sorted out who was boss-horse and got used to each other.
Then they opened their bags and sat under a willow to eat, leaning against their saddles and putting one of the small bucklers they wore on their sword-scabbards down to serve as a plate. Huon had managed to pick up a three-pound ration loaf of maslin bread, a mixture of whole-meal barley and wheat flour that was dense and coarse but fresh that morning, and a length of strong-tasting salty dried pork sausage full of garlic and sage. Lioncel contributed a block of cheese wrapped in dock leaves tied with twisted straw, some honey from the package his mother had sent, and a canteen of watered wine.
Huon sawed and slapped together a set of massive sandwiches, while Lioncel struggled with the top of the honey jar. Then they signed themselves, said grace and tore into the food with the thoughtless voracity of hard-working teenagers who'd gone six hours since the morning's porridge and raisins.
"This is good cheese!" Huon said after a moment.
Most of the cheese you got with the army was just... cheese, issued in big blocks to groups. Even in the Royal household, when they were in the field themselves; Mathilda was a stickler for not dragging too much in the way of personal comforts in the baggage train, and the Grand Constable was notorious for seeing that nobody exceeded what was allowed in the Table of Ranks. Huon didn't mind; enduring hardship was a knightly duty, the cheese was usually not too moldy, and it made dry bread or the rocklike double-baked hardtack the troops called dog biscuit go down a lot better, especially if you could toast it over a campfire.
This was quite different, firm but not hard or rubbery either, with a rich lingering taste that was just a little sour-sharp, and bits of hot pepper had been worked into the curd and cured with it. He hadn't had better, even as the last course at a banquet.
"My brother Diomede sent it up from Tillamook, even though he's absolutely green that I'm here and he's stuck there," Lioncel said. "He's not a bad kid, and Anne's a good mistress to serve."
Huon nodded; Tillamook cheese was famous, and had been even before the Change. Nowadays it was traded all over the Association territories and even beyond.
"The wine's from Montinore," Lioncel went on. "Our home manor near Castle Ath."
It was good too, though the water didn't help, but he already knew better than to drink it straight with work to do and half a day ahead of him. The honey was really good; mostly clover but with fruit flavors, he thought.
"We live... lived in Castle Gervais full time," Huon said; the castle and lands were under a Crown-appointed seneschal right now, while he was underage. "My mother liked it that way."
Better not to think about that, he added to himself, and went on:
"I'm going to build a manor house south of town when I'm Baron. It's a pain keeping the Castle Gervais quarters warm in winter, the wet moat means the concrete weeps during the Black Months, the amount of wood we go through is unbelievable. Why live like you're under siege until you're really under siege?"
Lioncel nodded. "My lady mother says she had to pretty well drag Baroness d'Ath out of the castle to the Montinore manor house after I was born... it was built a long time before the Change, it's really cool, and it didn't have to be worked over much, it was in the Crown demesne before we were... that is, before Lady d'Ath... was given the land in fief."
"It's weird, the way they forgot how to build something you could live in just before the Change," Huon agreed. "A lot of them don't even have fireplaces. Creepy! No wonder God sent a judgment on them! Gervais town doesn't have much from before the Change. It all burned down, the new town's modern, half-timbered stuff mostly, my parents oversaw that after the castle was built. Yseult can remember some of that, but I can't."
"You're lucky to have it all modern. Refitting is a pain, my lady my mother talks about how much it costs. We're only now getting all the villages up to scratch. Well, we would be except for the war delaying things."
"Hand me some of that honey, will you?" Huon said, then poured it on a heel of the maslin. "Thanks."
"I'm glad you had the bread," Lioncel said, with his own mouth full. "Mom has these special hives in the gardens at the manor, or near the turn-out pasture or the demesne orchards, and it feels sort of funny to put it on dog biscuit. Though it makes it taste a lot better. The dog biscuit, not the honey."
"Boiled turnip without salt would make dog biscuit taste better," Huon said, and they both chuckled. Then: "Let's take a swim. My hands and face are sticky and we're going to be awfully busy the next couple of days, I doubt there'll be baths."
"Have we got time?"
"If we don't take too long," Huon said, with a glance at the sun and a mental estimate of the distance to Castle Maryhill. "It's only twelve miles, maybe fourteen. Steep, but steep downhill and the road's good."
They stripped and ran splashing into the edge of the pond, then struck out; it was big enough to swim comfortably, though only the center was more than waist-deep. There were fish in the water, some sort of small catfish, and after a while they started trying to catch them with their hands, whooping and splashing and falling.
Wait a minute, Huon thought. That's someone else laughing.
He stood up dripping, appalled at his own carelessness. Lioncel was an instant behind him. He could lunge for their weapons—
Girls! he thought.
For a moment he simply thought that. Then he realized that the water right here was only up to his thighs and squatted abruptly; Lioncel did too. The girls laughed again, not giggling but outright laughing. They stood side-by-side next to the saddles, but they didn't seem to have touched anything. Huon blinked and started seeing details; one of them was about his own age, he thought, and the other a year or two older. The younger one was taller and buxom and the hair that flowed out from under her kerchief was the color of dark honey with brighter sun-streaks. The older was more slender and dark-haired like him.
They were both brown as berries with the summer sun, dressed in the short-and-long tunic combination of countrywomen, with coarse burlap aprons belted on and their under-tunics drawn up a bit for ease of movement, which exposed their calves and bare feet. Both of them had baskets woven of osier-withies full of apples, which explained what they were doing here, picking the last fruit to come ripe in the orchard.
Peasants, of course, he thought, and tried to put authority into his voice.
"What do you two think you're doing?"
It was hard to project authority when you were squatting on your hams in slightly muddy water and were buck-naked except for your crucifix on its chain. He felt the blush running up his face.
At least it doesn't show as much with me as it does with Lioncel, he thought.
The other boy was very pale except for his face and forearms. Then Huon rated himself for cowardice; he was the elder, he should be dealing with this.
The older girl answered through her laughter: "We're watching the pretty little page-boys at play!"
"We're not pages!" Lioncel burst out indignantly; it didn't help that his voice broke in a squeak in mid-protest. "And you girls ought to be ashamed of yourselves! We're squires, fighting-men!"
Huon pushed himself back, bobbing in the water until he could stand up, dripping, with the level about at his belly-button. Lioncel followed, crossing his arms across his chest and throwing his damp hair out of his eyes.
"Oooh, Oriabelle, they're fighting men," the dark girl said. "I'm so scared."
"Let's bombard them, Ava! With trebuchets!"
The honey-haired girl named Oriabelle picked an apple out of her basket and took a bite out of it, then threw it at him—fairly hard, and it would have spatted on his forehead if he hadn't caught it. The other girl threw at Lioncel, who was distracted, and it did hit him; the peasant girls seemed to think that was extremely funny.
"We ought to be ashamed of ourselves?" Oriabelle said. "Ava and I are working. You're going around naked as frogs! We ought to run off with your clothes, and leave you to ride home that way!"
Dark Ava giggled this time, and did a wicked imitation of a man riding naked, clutching himself and wincing as he came into contact with the saddle.
Huon thought for an instant, took a bite out of the crisp sweetness of the apple himself, then spoke with a lofty air:
"You girls should be more respectful, and kinder to strangers as the Lord commands. We might come out of the water and chase you!"
Ava threw another apple; Lioncel managed to catch it this time.
"Chase us?" she said. "You couldn't chase us. You have nothing to wear, you're as naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden!"
Huon pointed at the reeds. "We could grab some of those. Then we'd be clothed like Adam after the Fall."
"You couldn't catch us," Oriabelle said. "Not through the hay-stubble. You have soft, white, tender feet. Gentleman's feet, not like this."
She put her hands on her hips and turned, standing on one foot and waggling the sole of the other at him as she looked over her shoulder. It had the calluses you'd expect on someone who didn't wear shoes for the warmer eight months of the year. The movement also drew her tunics rather tight, and he found himself swallowing with difficulty and glad the water was cold.
"You wouldn't dare to chase us," Ava said, standing hipshot.
Her eyes were on Lioncel and her teeth white against her tan as she taunted:
"Why, I bet the young, cute blond one with the sweet blue eyes couldn't chase us even as far as... oh, that haystack there."
She pointed at the nearest one, about a hundred yards away. Huon tossed his apple aside and looked at Lioncel. The other squire met his gaze and nodded slightly.
"A nobleman is supposed to show resource and initiative," Lioncel whispered. "Lady d'Ath told me so herself."
They dashed for the bank in a shower of droplets, pausing for a few seconds to rip up reeds in their left hands, holding them strategically as they bounded up the bank. The girls snatched up their baskets and retreated across the hayfield. The hay-stubble was painful on soles accustomed to socks and boots, and Huon was conscious of the way he was prancing and lifting his feet; fruit bounced off his chest and shoulders as the girls made a stand near the haystack.
"No catapult can stop a knight's charge!" Huon roared.
Ava dashed off around the corner of the stack, holding the skirts of her tunic up with both hands and giving little mock-screams, with Lioncel in close pursuit. Huon caught Oriabelle around the waist and they collapsed into the prickly-sweet embrace of the hay.
Huon sat bolt-upright some time later, as he heard Lioncel's voice shout:
"Oh, sweet Jesu, look at the sun! The Grand Constable will roast us!"
He looked at the shadows and moaned himself; Her Majesty wasn't as much of a dragon as Lady Death, but you didn't want to slack off around her either. He darted upright and helped Oriabelle as well. They walked hand-in-hand back to the poolside willows, with Ava and Lioncel following; Huon was aware that he was smiling rather foolishly, but he hoped it wasn't as simpleminded-looking as the younger squire's expression.
And we're both walking tiptoe, he thought.
"Poor feet!" Oriabelle said. "Poor gentleman's feet!"
"We're late," Lioncel said tightly, as the two squires rode the last downhill mile to Maryhill.
The last hot sliver of the sun was just sliding under the horizon westward, silhouetting the mountain peaks, and the sky was purpling above where it wasn't clouds tinged crimson and yellow and cream-white. Huon crossed himself as they passed Stonehenge, and brought out his crucifix to kiss. The circle of standing blocks stood on a bench with a breathtaking view across the gorge and the river. This was supposed to be a duplicate of the first one in far-off fabled Britain, ancestral land of Arthur and so many of the ancient tales, where the King-Emperor of Greater Britain reigned from Winchester these days.
It had been built long ago, more than a lifetime before the Change. There were rumors of unhallowed pagan rites there; such things did happen, especially among peasants and Tinerants.
Maybe Oriabelle and Ava are witches! he thought with a pleasant shiver. Hmmm. For that matter, the High King is a pagan. Of course he's not an Associate, he's a Mackenzie, and they're all witches.
Lioncel crossed himself absently as he saw the other squire's gesture and the way he was looking. There was a rumor that Lady Delia was a witch on top of her other irregularities, but Huon didn't know whether that was true; she was pious enough in public. He didn't think Lioncel was one, though. He was probably just worried about the reaming they'd get if they were past the time they'd been given.
Rightly worried, Huon thought, drew a deep breath and went on as they rode cautiously onto the steep section of the downward slope:
"I'll accept full responsibility for delaying us," he said. Then, with a grin: "Do you regret it?"
"Ummm... no," Lioncel said frankly. "Not now I've found out what all the fuss was about!"
Huon grinned wider and nodded, as if from a vast well of amorous experience.
Absolutely no way am I going to admit I was a virgin too, pretty much. Nearly. I mean, technically you're supposed to be until you're married and my confessor is going to give me a penance that will keep me on my knees a while. But that's really more important for girls, gentlewomen at least.
Lioncel frowned: "But look, Huon, it was my idea as much as yours. I can't let them drop an anvil on you."
Huon shrugged. "Hey, actually it was the girls' idea, pretty much. But we can't say that, I mean, sorry, a couple of peasant girls dragged us into a haymow and there was nothing we could do but oblige?"
"No," Lioncel acknowledged ruefully. "It wouldn't be chivalrous to do that, anyway. Plus nobody would believe us. And it would be even worse if they did."
"And you're the one who noticed it was past time."
"Oh, I had to. It was a lot of fun, but by then I'd started thinking Ava was going to eat me alive!"
They both chuckled. Huon went on doggedly:
"I was in charge. I'm not looking forward to telling Her Majesty, damned right... we shouldn't lie, but maybe we can just sort of... fudge it? They'll be busy and it doesn't matter why we were late."
Lioncel winced. "Telling my lady the Grand Constable... You're right. No details. Though if either of them asks—Look, let's get it over with."
Maryhill was a little strip of irrigated gardens and orchards along the Columbia, lost in the immensity of tawny bluffs on either side that were falling into darkness with the onrushing night. A bridge of the ancient world spanned the width of the great river here, and from the very beginning PPA policy had been to secure those. A small but strong castle reared on a terrace just beyond the northern abutment, the banners flying from the peaks of its towers black against the sky-glow eastward. The air was very cool now, and the night would be chilly; it was coming up on All Hallow's Eve, after all, warmth increasingly a fleeting thing of sunny afternoons. The interior was hotter in the summer than the gentle lands west of the Cascades, but it was colder in winter too.
The curving line of the railway followed the river eastward; as they cantered down the steep road they could see the rear lantern of a train disappearing as its team of big mules hauled it west towards the High King's host. There were stone and concrete docks along the river, and more temporary wooden ones with a few sailing barges and two small fast galleys of unfamiliar style still tied up, with the black-and-silver flag of the Rangers flying from their masts, seven stars around a tree and a crow on top. A few days ago the whole area had been swarming with men and horses and piles of supplies. Now it was preparing to return to is usual somnolent existence, or something approaching it.
They turned onto the new-made road that led to the castle gate, the hooves of the four horses crunching on the pounded crushed rock that made up its surface. It was well-engineered, but not as smooth as the ancient world's asphalt; the only way to get that for a new road was to pry it up from an old one and re-melt it. Lantern-light came on in the slit windows of the round towers as they watched. The gates were still open, the drawbridge down and the portcullis up, but a squad of Protector's Guard footmen crossed spears before them as they reined in beneath the deep shadow of the wall.
"Who goes there?" the noncom in charge said, using the top edge of his shield to knock up his visor with a clack of metal on metal. "Advance and be recognized!"
"Esquires Huon Liu de Gervais, of the High Queen's household, and Lioncel de Stafford of Forest Grove, of the Grand Constable's menie," Huon said, obediently moving Dancer forward at a slow pace so that the lights would fall on his face. "Returning from a mission."
The man-at-arms in charge knew him; Huon blinked as the man raised a bull's-eye lantern and shone it on his face for a moment. You didn't take chances when you were at war with an enemy who liked assassinating leaders. Particularly with the CUT, who'd been known to do things to the minds of men.
"Pass, young masters," he said. "Your lieges arrived an hour ago; I expect they'll be in the Great Hall by now."
Huon and Lioncel looked at each other; it wasn't quite as bad as they'd expected, no dashing in after the tables had been removed and everyone glaring at them. They rode through into the courtyard of the outer bailey in an iron clatter of horseshoes on stone paving-blocks, handed their horses over to the grooms—not without a qualm on Huon's part, since he preferred to see to his mounts himself in a strange place—and then did a hasty wash in a watering trough and helped each other out of their armor. Nobody would expect them to look court-sleek, but Lioncel borrowed his comb.
"I gave mine to Ava for a keepsake," he said, a little shyly.
"Chivalrous," Huon said approvingly. "Really marvelous girls, even if they were lowborn."
Then he laughed. When Lioncel looked a question at him, he went on:
"Back before lunch, I remember thinking how I wasn't the type to enter the Church. Now I'm sure I don't have a vocation!"
"Clerics sin too, they're human."
"Yes, but they're supposed to feel worse about it when they do!"
They dashed in to the inner keep; all the castles they'd grown up with were basically similar, since nearly all were built to a set of standard designs, slightly modified to fit the site. Only a few of the greater ones had been worth more trouble, in the terrible years. The Great Hall here, where the garrison and staff and their families would eat most days, was built along one side of the court across from the chapel and castellan's quarters. Lamplight shone through the high pointed windows, but without the halo of moths that would have been present a few months ago. They slowed down to a quick walk, left hands on the hilts of their swords, trying to look briskly casual and not at all tardy.
"You're lucky we were delayed," Sir Rodard said.
He was a young knight of the Grand Constable's menie, standing by the doors in breastplate and tassets and fauds, half-armor. The squad of crossbowmen behind him were calmly alert, not expecting trouble but very ready for it.
"And that we got that message from Ogier. Good work, by the way. Come on in, make your devoir and get something to eat."
They nodded to the brown-haired knight and ducked into the hall. It was fairly well lit by high-placed gaslights, a barnlike structure of plain plastered concrete floored in basalt blocks, and full of the smells of the evening's inevitable stew and not-particularly-well-washed soldiers of the two households and the Protector's Guard. Nothing fancy at all; this was a Crown castle, designed simply for a garrison at a strategic spot rather than a resident lord or as a possible headquarters for the high command like Castle Goldendale. It didn't have any of the plundered artwork the Lady Regent's salvagers and their imitators had used to furnish the greater keeps, or the modern equivalents she'd sponsored. Logs crackled in a big, shallow hearth backed with slanted iron plates that threw the heat out into the room.
The two squires went and made their bows before the Grand Constable and the High Queen at the upper table on the dais, sweeping off their hats and bending a knee. The two leaders were deep in conversation with a cluster of scouts and officers as they ate, folded maps and documents amid the platters and bread-baskets and one propped up against a hunk of cheese with a knife in it.
Mathilda looked up, extending her hand for the kiss of homage.
"That was good work, Huon," she said, smiling. "And you too, Lioncel. Especially for junior squires. A knightly deed. I'd have hated for Ogier to die in a scuffle like that."
Lioncel flushed. "Sir Ogier would probably have handled it himself, Your Majesty," he said. "We just... reacted."
"It was the right reaction, both of you. That did you credit, and any honorable accomplishment of yours rebounds to the honor of your lieges."
Tiphaine d'Ath nodded. "Though from the time stamp on the heliograph message, you took your own sweet rambling way getting back. What were you two up to all afternoon?"
Lioncel froze, wide-eyed, and made a choking sound. Huon coughed and managed to say:
"Ah... this and that, my lady. The High Queen did say sunset, my lady, so we didn't push the horses."
d'Ath made a slight throat-clearing sound, looked at him for an instant with an unreadable expression, and then went back to the report and sketch-map which had claimed the High Queen's attention. Lioncel mimed wiping his brow as they went over to the trestles where dinner was being handed out, barracks-style. They took big chipped plastic bowls from a stack; the cook ladled them full of the stew that steamed in a cauldron, and her helper stuck a spoon in each and stacked thick slices of bread and butter on top. They took their meal to the juniors' benches, signed themselves, murmured Grace and ate in contemplative silence for a while.
I've got a lot to think about.
The stew was better than usual this evening, with plenty of onion and garlic, dried tomatoes and chunks of potato as well as the inevitable beans and salt meat.
Or maybe it's just relief, Huon thought as he spooned it down. What a day!
They went back for seconds, and Huon had another mug of the raw red wine. As they turned in the empty bowls, he paused to extend a hand.
"You're all right, de Stafford," he said seriously. "I'm glad to have you at my back anytime."
The blond youngster flushed as they shook, meeting his eyes with a look as firm as the grip of his hand.
"You too, de Gervais. We're comrades now, brothers-in-arms who've stood side by side in battle!"
Rodard looked up as they passed on their way out, tired as the day caught up with them and eager for their bedrolls.
"Yes, Sir Rodard?"
The young man grinned, with a slight hint of a wink. "You're quick-witted, Gervais. But while you were doing 'this and that', Mistress This and That bit you on the neck."
Lioncel choked again, and Huon clapped his hand to the sore spot behind his right ear.
"Boys will be men, it seems. There are worse ways to spend what may be the second-to-last day of your life. Go get some sleep. The High King's ordered the general reserve to close up behind the main force. The enemy are coming. It ends now."
Copyright © 2011-2012 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>