The High King's Host
Horse Heaven Hills
(Formerly south-central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
October 31st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
The High King of Montival drew rein, turning off the road past the time-wrecked and rust-gnawed length of an irrigation machine of the ancient world, all wheels and pipe at the foot of a low rough rise.
"Sooo, sooo, Dando," he said, stroking a gloved hand down the beast's neck; it was lively with good oats and alfalfa, mouthing the bit and stepping high and showing every sign of wanting to run. "Easy does it, lad. We've a long day before us, and more work tomorrow and the day after that."
The courser turned its head nervously at a harsh whicker from the remount herd following as the headquarters crew badgered them past and took the opportunity to let them roll and graze. Rudi's charger Epona was there, and she was never altogether easy seeing him riding another horse. Even her own get, much less some anonymous gelding she barely acknowledged as one of the horse-tribe at all. Moving this many strange horses together was always tricky, though at least few disputed Epona's claim to be lead mare of any group she was in... and she didn't tolerate sass from stallions, either.
One shied a little from her rolled eye and cocked hoof-ready hip even as he watched, probably wisely. He could see Edain Aylward grinning at the pale anxiety on the faces of the horse-handlers as he deployed a platoon of the High King's Archers off their bicycles and into a loose screening formation about Rudi; they all had high-geared mountain bike models, and could keep up with horse-soldiers easily on this sort of terrain. Epona would tolerate the master-bowman... mostly... because he'd been Rudi's friend from earliest boyhood; and because he knew better than to take liberties. Strange grooms were fair game, and she had never liked the human-kind in general much.
A platoon of Bearkiller mounted crossbowmen were sharing the guard duty today, grimly silent and businesslike as they cantered about to check folds in the land for a couple of hundred yards in every direction. Catapults and aircraft aside, that was as far as bodyguards need worry.
"Epona's getting even more testy in her middle-age," Rudi said.
The jest hid real concern. She'd been all the way to the east coast with him, and he'd been worried for her the way she'd lost condition then; Epona had amazing endurance for a seventeen-hand warmblood, which was what her looks said of her breeding, but even so she wasn't an Arab, or a cow-pony used to living on grass and hard work. Coming back had been easier—big chunks of it through the Dominions where they'd been able to haul her on a horse-car on the rails—but the fact remained that she was nearing the end of her working life.
He remembered the look that had passed between them, all those years ago at Sutterdown Horse Fair; the boy he'd been, and the young mare who'd come to hate the human-kind while she was still a filly. A secret knowledge, a complicity between just the two of them...
And she'd never forgive me if I left her behind, he thought, casting a look at the sleek black figure that paced along with arched neck and flying mane. She's not a horse you can turn out to pasture and bring an apple now and then. There have been times I doubted where she was not Epona Herself. It wasn't an accident I named her for the Lady of the Horses.
"I suspect we all will become less tolerant in our age," Father Ignatius, Knight-Brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict said. "If the Lord blesses us with years, which is by no means certain. And being Lord Chancellor of an inchoate kingdom still in the womb..."
"Will age you before your time, eh, Father?"
Ignatius chuckled; apparently being away from the offices and documents suited him, and he bore the weight of his armor with casual unconcern.
"Not as much as being your chief of staff in an army also inchoate will age me, your Majesty," he said dryly. "Bureaucratic tangles are easier to resolve when there isn't a battle going on at the same time, my son."
They both shared a chuckle at that, even more dry. Rudi cast his eyes sideways at the gaggle of staff officers, commanders from seven different realms of the High Kingdom and the allied but separate Dominion of Drumheller, messengers and clerks and map-drawers and everything else down to the people a half-mile back driving the wagons with the tents and supplies for the command party.
It does them good to see the high command cheerful, and no need whatsoever to tell them it's mostly gallows humor. I wish Mathilda were here, he thought. She will be, come the fight. Tomorrow probably, or the day after possibly, depending on how eager the enemy are to strike. But the reserve is mostly Protectorate troops, and those Yakima regiments d'Ath had with her retreating from the Tri-Cities. She'll get them going better than anyone else I could appoint.
"Tired of improvising, your Majesty?" Ignatius asked.
The warrior-monk was a few years older than Rudi; a borderline Changeling, born before the Change but not old enough to really remember the ancient world. His knight's armor didn't disguise his slim build, and he was of only medium height—standing flat-footed his eyes were level with the High King's nose, and the tonsure that exposed the scalp in the middle of his bowl-cut black hair made him look older than his years. An expert would notice other things, though. Starting with the thickness of his wrists, and the ring of swordsman's callus all around the thumb and forefinger and web of his right hand.
Rudi had seen him fight often enough, on the Quest. More often than not against much bigger men, and the only time he'd seen the Shield-Brother pushed to his limits at anything like even odds was when they'd both taken on a High Seeker of the Church Universal and Triumphant in Des Moines, one of the magus-warriors the Prophet had set on their track. His mind was even more formidable. The slanted dark eyes were calm as he watched the army of the High Kingdom of Montival pouring past them up the road, the calm of a man who'd done every single thing he could and who was leaving the rest to his God.
"Tired of improvising? Tired of life, you mean?" Rudi replied after a long moment, and this time they did laugh, unforced merriment. "Not yet."
The roadway up from the Columbia was not much to start with and hadn't been repaired since the Change, not until he threw five thousand men and a group of Corvallan engineers at it a few days ago. It would hold while the portion of the host's men and supplies that had barged and sailed up the river or used the waterside rail line climbed up to the plateau. He'd picked it for the relatively low grades and for being as far east as he felt comfortable with given what he knew of where the enemy was. Hopefully the warning wasn't enough for them to react in time and catch his forces before they massed and deployed.
A glance upward showed the morning sun glinting off the wings and canopies of gliders, dozens of them turning in the thermals and updrafts along the river like a swarm of eagles as they kept guard. There wasn't much a glider could do to another of its kind; opening the canopy and firing a crossbow at a moving target was usually dangerous only to passers-by below. But they could harass each other enough to make reconnaissance difficult, if the pilots had enough nerve to risk one near-collision after another, and his did.
Most of them were wild girls, each picked from dozens of volunteers for nerve and for being lightweight bundles of strong sinew and cat-quick reflex; a lot of them came from Associate families, demoiselles who weren't content to roll bandages or tally hard-tack, or from Mackenzies without the heft for the longbow and their like elsewhere. You didn't need as much weight of bone and muscle to fly a wind-riding machine as you did to carry a twelve-foot lance on a barded destrier in plate armor, or pull the string of an eighty-pound yew stave past the ear over and over. Lightness was a positive advantage in a soaring sailplane, where every ounce might make the difference between safely home and crash-landed behind enemy lines.
A glance back southward showed little white curls on the blue mile-broad surface of the Columbia, and a mass of barges and oared tugs around the landing points. Further out war-galleys with their masts down and lashed for action waited, most at anchor like sleeping river-pike. A dozen kept station, bows pointed into the current as the great varnished lengths of their sweeps flashed, rowing a scaloccio with six men to an oar. Water curled around them, a slow multiple synchronized splash... splash... splash... of foam on either side to complement the wave that curled forever around the dull enameled steel of their rams, beneath the brightly painted and carved figureheads. They were beating just fast enough to keep position against the current of the massive river, slowed as it was by the ancient dams that still made it as much a series of lakes as anything.
It all made him a little nostalgic for the campfires of the Quest, when it was simply him and nine friends against a hostile world.
"A pity we could not pick a place for battle where our river flank rested on a castle," Ignatius said a little wistfully. "They have more cavalry, but that would keep our right flank safe at least."
Rudi snorted. "Ah, that would be the comfort and consolation of the world, it would indeed. If only the enemy were such utter and complete fools as to fight at a place so certain to give us the victory."
"A point, you Majesty. Still, the number of castles on the Columbia limits them in the ground that isn't so covered, to our great advantage. If they will fight at all, and not wait and try to force us to come to them."
"They must fight," Rudi said, grimly satisfied for a moment; he'd worked hard to put them on the horns of that dilemma. "It's too late in the year for them to do anything but accept battle or withdraw until spring... and half their forces come from deep in the Rockies or further yet, past passes the snow has closed already, or will within days."
He closed his eyes and laid his hand on the pommel of the Sword of the Lady. Energies swelled and swept across the surface of the world; the Sun kissed Earth, and moisture rose from the Mother Ocean, sweeping in curling patterns that crashed against mountains in a slow violence that would grind stone to meal over aeons as more welled up from the world's warm beating heart...
"Yes, the snow will be deep this year. Far to the east, far into the Bitterroots, and blizzards on the High Line as well. Which means..."
It was a little like the sensation you had playing a five-pound trout on a light line. Months of time and many lives had gone into the intricate balance. He blinked, for a moment lost in calculations of time and force and space, like a game of chess but one where all the pieces had minds and wills of their own, and more than half were hidden. He went on:
"I think they'll accept battle a little east of here."
"With the lower Yakima to their backs? And the water rising with autumn?"
"Ah, but they don't expect to lose, you see, and it's not so very close to their backs, though close enough if things go as I hope... No castle, to be sure, but the bank of the Columbia there's much steeper; that will have to be advantage enough. So long as we don't dally and let them get around our left before we're deployed, of course. I need to know where the bulk of their horse-archers went, and soon. Too mobile by half, they are, and with plenty of room to work. I fear the commanders on the other side have heard of Manzikert as well as I."
A rumbling went through the ground. He looked up. Batteries of field-pieces were going past up the slope, twelve-pounders pulled by six big horses each, the crews walking beside and ready to jump in to pull brake levers.
The machines themselves were stubby things on a pair of spoked five-foot steel wheels, a ton-weight each and the heaviest weapons commonly taken along with a marching army. The metal frames showed the ranked coil springs within, taken from the suspensions of heavy trucks and ready to resist when the curved throwing arms were racked back against them. The troughs for the roundshot that were their most common load jutted forward through the angled steel shields that protected the crews in battle; behind them the trails were clamped together, resting on the wheeled limbers that carried the ready ammunition and the pumps and armored cable for the hydraulic bottle-jacks.
Most of this set had the Lidless Eye on the shields, sometimes freshly joined by the Crowned Mountain and Sword of Montival, and the crews tramping along were in half-armor with glaives over their shoulders. They were part of the standing army of the Protectorate, but mostly men from cities and towns rather than the rural manors and fiefs that supplied men-at-arms and infantry to the PPA forces. The officer at the head in three-quarter armor rode competently enough, but not like a knight, and he didn't have the golden spurs on his heels either. Instead a banner beside him hanging from a staff showed a blue-mantled woman crowned with stars, a babe cradled in her arms.
The Virgin Mary, Rudi thought. The Crown City of Portland's patron. Not a Goddess, no, perish the thought! She's just what you'd expect to see with Jehovah of the Thunders...
The amusement died as he glanced aside at Ignatius; for just an instant the cleric's usual shrewd, reserved gaze was unguarded, and filled with an utter love.
Rudi smiled and thumped his armored shoulder. Christians could be annoying at times, and Ignatius was swordblade-certain in his faith, but it was a large part of what made him a blessing as a comrade in arms, and an unshakeable pillar of a new and still unsteady throne. This was a man you could trust to do any task with all his very considerable talents, and who you could trust at your back without a second's doubt.
As he will be for my children after me, he thought. Absolutely honest men who are also capable are not so common. Not teasing him is an exceeding small price to pay.
"To battle then, Knight of the Immaculata," he said gently. "Miles of Christ."
He looked northward. A form was swelling there, another glider, slender wings flexing as it stooped towards the road and the command party. Two of the flock circling the landing-place on the river peeled off to examine it, then wagged their wings to show it had passed their scrutiny.
Edain's head was already pointing in that direction; he raised binoculars, then barked an order and the High King's Archers took stance reading to shoot, just in case, and despite the sigil of Benny the Beaver that marked the aircraft as one in the city-state of Corvallis' armed forces. Edain reached over his shoulder for an arrow, then drew his great yew longbow and shot nearly directly upward. It was a warning shot, with two bright red ribbons tied behind the arrowhead to say sheer off. Even so it soared a hundred yards into the air before it turned and plummeted back, striking a rock and snapping.
"Sure, and it's a waste of a perfectly good arrow," Rudi could hear his follower grumble.
He didn't turn, though, and another shaft was resting through the cutout of the bow long before the first came down; this one a plain businesslike bodkin. A glider was seldom a threat to a single man on the ground; it wasn't as if the fabled explosives of the ancient world were available, after all, and if you were free to run you could generally dodge a single canister of the napalm that was the most deadly alternative natural law allowed in the Changed World. But Edain Aylward Mackenzie was not one to take a chance with his charge when he didn't have to.
The glider waggled its wings in acknowledgment, banked, stooped again. This time it was a hundred yards away when it pulled up. Something shot downward, trailing ribbons of its own, thin ones in a rainbow of colors meant to make the passage through the air obvious and the tube easy to find on the ground. A finned metal dart the length of a small man's forearm went chunk into the rocky volcanic soil. The glider dove downslope and started to rise in a widening gyre, building altitude for the return to its launching point further north.
An archer pulled the message-cylinder free and examined it as Rudi and Ignatius dismounted; only when Edain had checked it over himself and opened it briefly did he reseal it hand it on to the Lord Chancellor.
The monk's strong hands unscrewed the aluminum tube. He unrolled the paper within.
"Dúnedain Code A7-b," he said. "Do you need a decryption, your Majesty?"
That was a formality, to the bearer of the Sword of the Lady. Rudi took the thick paper and spread it out.
"That's where most of their horse are, at least," he said with satisfaction as he read the report collated from dozens of scouts. "Good work! To the northeast of Prosser, or what's left of it, they burned the town last year."
"How many?" Ignatius said.
Numbers were the bread and butter of war at the command level. Or at least the hard-tack and beans and jerky.
"Hmmm. Twenty-five thousand at least, plus the remount herd—I wish them joy of feeding that many horses in country this dry and at the tail-end of the year, even if they're cow-ponies for the most part. All light cavalry, though, no sign of the Sword of the Prophet that they could see."
"They're using the rancher levies to cloak the point of the spear," Ignatius nodded. "The part of the Sword they brought west is ten thousand men... less a few thousand, probably, given their losses in this campaign to date and other needs. Add in twenty-five to thirty thousand light horse and that's the bulk of the CUT's forces in this theatre."
"Plus their foot, another ten thousand or so that they haven't left for sieges or line-of-communications work. Spearmen, but fairly good ones. Now, that leaves the question of where Boise's main thrust will be, their heavy infantry. Logically south, to form the hinge on which the CUT's army pivots fast... but I can't just assume it..."
Decision firmed. "Couriers and encryption team!" he said, raising his voice a little.
A trio dashed over from the headquarters group, Portlanders in half-armor. Sandra had always loved codes and worked hard on her messenger service, and the Protectorate's espionage and counter-espionage were second to none.
"To: Her Majesty; enclosed is Dúnedain scout report north flank our position. I expect to engage the enemy main force in Prosser area within forty-eight hours maximum probably sooner. Move general reserve forward under Grand Constable follow yourself when deployed as per previous."
He barred his teeth for an instant. That committed him... but leaving your reserve too far back was as much a mistake as throwing it into the fray at the beginning.
The cryptographer's fingers danced, and the paper was finished, copied and sealed. The message itself was a solid mass of letters and numbers; decoding it by sheer brute-force mathematics wasn't impossible... but you needed big calculating machines, and even so it would take time, by which time it would be stale news.
For that matter, the Church Universal and Triumphant hated such machinery with a bitter passion; their official theology called the Change the judgment of the Ascended Masters on humankind for using too much of it. Boise had been more liberal in the old General's day, but his son was the Prophet's puppet now. Or the puppet of the force that controlled them both...
"Surface courier to the High Queen's field HQ at Goldendale via Maryhill," Rudi said.
No need to risk the heliograph net or a glider that might not make it that far.
"And another: Dúnedain code. To: Lord Alleyne, hîr Dúnedain. I direct high-priority reconnaissance for—"
This went a little more slowly; the message was not only to be encoded, but in Sindarin to begin with which meant he had to spell it rather than speaking. The enemy probably had at least a few who could puzzle the language out with a set of the 'Histories' to hand, but equally probably didn't have anyone who could really speak it, particularly the way the tongue had developed among the Rangers over the past generation. Combining that difficulty with the randomizing code ought to make it unbreakable in any time that mattered.
"Or perhaps Sethaz or his High Seekers could read it," Ignatius murmured, as the team cleared and packed their equipment.
Rudi nodded; if you'd spent two years of travel and battle and sickness and wounds and the death of friends and final triumph with a man, and him keen-witted, it was no great surprise when he followed your thought. The enemy was strong, strong, and they both knew it.
"Or perhaps not," he said. "The raw power is there, yes, but—" he touched the hilt of the Sword "—not the... the affinity, would you say? The Powers behind the CUT hate the very touch of us, including the ones they use and possess, because they hate the universe of matter itself. Contact with us is like wading in a sewer to them, or cramming yourself into the mind and body of a maggot. You've seen how their touch destroys. Those Ones who gave me the Sword tried very hard indeed not to tear asunder the fabric of things by doing so; my fabric in particular, for which I'm grateful. The others don't have that, mmmm, subtlety of touch."
Ignatius nodded. "A point indeed. Diabolism is its own infinite punishment."
The leather-clad couriers on their fast light horses took the messages and sprang into motion. They galloped along the edge of the now crowded road. A battalion from the confederation called Degania Dalet was coming up it now, ranked pikes alternating with recurve bows, singing something in a guttural minor key to flutes and some stringed instrument.
And before the Sword came to me, I'd have just said it had a fine stormy roll for a marching song to make the miles go by, he thought. Now...
... as drops of blood in our veins
Flow with heart's beat
Upon the graves of our fathers
Dewdrops still fall...
He could not only understand the words; he could feel the ache of millennial sadness in them, and the fierce determination beneath. He bowed his head a little with fist to chest in salute as the blue-and-white banner in the lead dipped to him, and called:
"Am Yisrael Hai!"
They broke off to give a baying cheer of Artos! Artos! to the counterpart of the ram's-horn shofars in reply, then took up the song again as they passed; that league of villages was tightly organized for war and peace both, but not a large nation, even by today's standards. Then came more supply wagons, big Conestoga-style vehicles loaded with tinned meat and dried beans and hard-tack, and then...
"And I recognize that, sure and I do," he said, grinning.
The droning squeal of bagpipes came first, and then the rattling boom of Lambeg drums. Then a chorus of voices, thousands strong, a deep rhythmic male chorus with women's higher notes weaving a descant through it. The complex measure was carried effortlessly, the mark of a people for whom music was part of who they were and every gathering a choir:
As the sun bleeds through the murk
'Tis the last day we shall work
For the Veil is thin and the spirit wild
And the Crone is carrying Harvest's child!
"Your compatriots, your Majesty," Ignatius said, smiling. "And a song of the season."
He'd spent a good deal of time in the Clan's territories before the Quest, and made friends there despite his faith. And despite not being of the Old Religion...
Despite being cowan, as most of us would say, Rudi thought.
...Ignatius didn't find their ways alarming. Rudi had rarely met a cowan who didn't find that this particular tune made them uneasy, but the monk was was apparently one of them.
Run ye back to the light of day
Hope and pray
All ye meet are the gentle fae.
The bagpipers marched with the drones of the instruments bristling over their shoulders. The archers behind were all pushing their bicycles up the slope—modern models, with solid tires of salvaged rubber. Their bows and quivers and knocked-down swine feathers showed over their backs, fastened to the rings and loops in the green leather surface of the brigantine jacks; most had their bonnets on and the helmets hung from their sword-belts as well, and a swinging rattle went by beneath the music. More gear was slung around the cycles, which was part of the reason for using them, that and the fact that you could cover about four times as much ground per day as on foot and keep it up longer than a horse could.
The slope was easy enough to let the Clan's warriors sing, a tune with a haunting dying fall in it:
Burn the fields and dry the corn
Feel the breath of winter born
Stow the grain 'gainst season's flood
Spill the last of the livestock's blood
Run ye back to the light of day
Hope and pray
All ye meet are the gentle fae.
Riding at the front of the Mackenzie host was its First Armsman, Oak Barstow Mackenzie, a big man in his thirties with his yellow hair in a queue down his back, wrapped in an old bowstring in the Clan fashion. He raised a hand in salute, touching the tuft of wolf-fur in the clasp of his bonnet. Spears jutted up from here and there in the ranks, bearing the sigils of Duns and the outlines of the sept totems—wolf and bear, raven and elk, dragon and fox and more.
Let the feasting now begin
Careful who you welcome in!
The table's set with a stranger's place
Don't stare openly at his face—
Run ye back to the light of day
Hope and pray
All ye meet are the gentle fae.
The Mackenzies didn't stop to cheer, though many flourished their weapons. The Clan wasn't much for military formality beyond what was necessary to the task; Bearkiller snap and polish had always struck them as mildly ridiculous, and the ostentatious chivalric pageant of the Association was something they usually mocked. But too many of them knew him personally, at least a man or woman from each Dun, and all of them had too much pride to break stride before the High King who was the son of their Chief.
And Samhain was close; the feast for the dead and the ancestors, when their spirits and the beings of the Otherworld both walked, and were invited in for good or ill:
Stranger do you have a name?
Tell us all from whence you came!
You seem more like God than man—
Has curse or blessing come to this Clan?
"They wait for you to lead them to battle, your Majesty," Ignatius said. "It's a heavy burden."
"There go my people," Rudi said, quoting a favorite saying of his mother's. "I must hurry to get ahead of them, for I am their leader."
They mounted their horses, waiting for a break in the road traffic.
"Yet leadership has something else to it," Ignatius said. "To be a true King is to be touched by something beyond the human. By the finger of God, as David was when he danced before the Tabernacle of the Lord."
"Beyond, beneath, and yet always kin to it," Rudi said softly. "For the lord and the land and the folk are one. I may lead them to battle, and the chroniclers may record this or that stroke as mine... yet how much of that is illusion? Such a mighty thing, a battle like this; so many tens of thousands, such courage and fear, rage and desperate cunning, the wills of so many—each of them with a world within their skull, just as I do. It's not my story any more than it is theirs."
Run ye back to the light of day
Hope and pray
All ye meet are the gentle fae.
"Where?" he murmured to himself. "I must know where."
Copyright © 2011-2012 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>