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LORD OF MOUNTAINS

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


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Horse Heaven Hills
(Formerly south-central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
November 1st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Mary Vogeler winked at her twin sister as they settled side-by-side into the steep upward slope, a vastness of moon-washed rock and sage and occasional scrub conifer. There was just enough of the light of stars and full moon to make the gesture visible at arm's length, and the way Ritva's answering grin moved her face under the gauze half-mask that covered the front of her hood.

Behind the Ranger scout party the broad slow Columbia was palely luminescent, and deep shadow lay in the gullies that ran south from the hills towards the riverbank. Chill desert air bit as she drew it in slowly through her nose, not as dry as it would be in other seasons and with a little of the creosote scent of sagebrush and the volcanic dirt in which she lay.

And the wool and leather of her clothing and gear, which had the fusty-sweaty-old-socks odor that was unavoidable in the field.

I've been on the move for years now, since the Quest began and a lot of the time before. You know, I would really like to spend a while living in places with baths, and roofs and windows and fresh underwear, and beds with linen sheets and decent kitchens. Where answering a call doesn't mean going behind a bush with some leaves in one hand and a spade in the other and then you itch. Preferably a place where nobody was trying to kill me, too, but that may be asking for a little much. I'm not eighteen any more. I've got a man of my own, it's time to have a home and some kids.

There was time for thought, as long as she didn't lose focus. They weren't going to be moving for a few minutes. You took this sort of thing slow, slow and steady, and you tried to think yourself inconspicuous as well as hiding physically. Both the Havel twins were good at that...

Thêl vell! Since I have to do this, it's good to be on an operation with Sis again, she thought. Though I miss Ingolf something fierce. Granted it's the best use of our skillsets to have him with that regiment of his and me here, but dammit he makes me feel better. The Quest was... well, not easy, all the running and fighting and getting cut up and scared silly and so forth... but at least it was all personal. This war is too big. I feel like one spindle in a Corvallis linen mill.

Since Mary's left eye was missing and covered with a soft black eyepatch, that wink had left her blind for an instant. Before she'd lost the eye to a Cutter High Seeker on the Quest she and Ritva had been so identical that one of their favorite pranks as children had been impersonating each other.

I lost the eye. On the other hand, when we threw for Ingolf a little before that I won and that was a big score. Call us even.

She didn't count the fact that Ritva had saved her life in the fight with the Seeker; they'd been saving each other's lives since their mid-teens, not long after they left Larsdalen and decided to become Rangers rather than Bearkillers.

Because Mom was getting just fucking impossible. I love her and Mike Jr. too, but I'd have ended up hating them both the way she treated him like Dad's reincarnation-in-training. Though it doesn't help that he looks so much like Dad. And he's not High King, Rudi is. Learn to live with it, Mom! The Music-of-Eru Powers chose him! In his cradle, complete with signs, wonders, portents and everything but a certified letter on parchment with a red wax seal! So Mike's not going to be High King, so what? He's going to be Bear Lord of the Outfit, not the third-class cook on a riverboat. If you love Mike that much, you should be glad he's not saddled with the throne; Juniper envies the hell out of you for exactly that reason. Mike many live to see his grandchildren. Poor Rudi, he's not only a fated hero but he has to spend most of his time listening to reports and having meetings since he became High King. It must be Angband on stilts.

She tried to imagine an epic about being High King, rather than becoming High King.

Û! she thought. You'd have to... oh, concentrate on his companions or something. And skip a lot of the meetings and reports.

Waiting stretched. The Dúnedain weren't many, only a troop of thirty and the crews with the boats. There was no doing this by anything but stealth; not by force, and not by the speed that would make them obvious. Wait for the signal, not tense but loose. Tension traveled, it smelled.

A very soft chittering sounded. She rose into a low crouch and moved forward, elf-boots silent even on the rough basalt, keeping the edges of her war-cloak gathered up with a tuck of her fingers on either side. If she tripped over it she'd never hear the last of it from the other Rangers.

Well, never until the enemy killed us, she qualified mentally as she sank down behind another rock.

And then for a long, long time in the Halls of Mandos. Aunt Astrid would... I can't imagine what she'd do if I came early because of a screwup. Tell me how much better they did things in the old days in Eriador, I suppose. She was my liege-lady and kinswoman and a great leader but... a bit obsessive-compulsive sometimes.

It was impossible to think of the Hiril Dúnedain as really, truly dead; she'd been a part of Mary's life since she was born, as her mother's younger sister, and she'd been the re-founder of the Rangers here in the Fifth Age, together with her anamchara Eilir Mackenzie. Their liege-lady since the twins moved to Mithrilwood.

It was especially hard to believe her gone when all you'd heard was the tale of it, and all you'd seen was the urn with the ashes—she'd been mortally wounded in Boise on the clandestine mission that rescued Fred Thurston's mother and sisters and sort of by accident his sister-in-law who'd been desperate to get herself and her son away from Fred's brother Martin, the parricide and tyrant.

The murder and usurpation hadn't bothered Juliet Thurston since it made her a ruler's consort and her son the heir, but the way he'd become enslaved to the Church Universal and Triumphant had. Mary was almost sympathetic; she remembered the High Seeker's eyes, windows into nothing. Waking up with something like that on your pillow...

Almost sympathetic, not really sympathetic. But Aunt Astrid is dead and she died saving that worthless bitch's life. Well, the bitch and her son, who's just a little kid. And Ritva was there... I'm glad one of us was. They'll be someone can tell the story to our children.

Wryly, with a smile that combined sorrow and humor:

Aunt Astrid will be even more powerful as a legend than she was as Lady of the Rangers. And Uncle Alleyne is taking it... well, he's perfectly functional. In wartime, that's all you can really ask. Afterwards he'll have Diorn and Fimalen and Hinluin. Children take you out of yourself.

They completed the next leapfrog maneuver. Everyone's equipment was silenced—no sounds of metal on metal, no creak of leather, no rattle of arrow on arrow in the quivers, swords worn slantwise across the back rather than at the belt, and the dark green and mottled gray of the Ranger garb blended into the late night better than black would have done. The sound of a score of her people settling into their new positions was less than the scuff of a glove on stone.

The cloth mask of the hood left a strip across her eyes bare, with a screen of gauze pinned up for nighttime; she let her eye travel with a slow methodical scan. Watching for movement. Watching for patterns, the outlines that would mean a man hiding, that you didn't need to see as much as sense. Not the narrow focus that excluded everything but a target, instead the wide-open acceptance that took in all your surroundings as a network connected each thing to the next. Yourself a part of it, sensitive to the slightest tug on the web.

Nothing. A desert mouse hopped by, squeaking faintly and making a prodigious sideways leap as it realized a human was six inches away; Mary grinned behind her mask at its expression of bulge-eyed terror. It fled even faster as something half-visible ghosted through the air above, the wilderness going on about its own life heedless of the human-kind. The night was intensely still but the stars were dimming with high thin cloud coming in from the west, the tail end of fall storms hitting the Cascades and spilling into the interior...

She chittered. The faintest of passing shadows as the team behind hers moved forward and upward. Again, and again; not mechanical, but a subtle dance with every slightest fold of the land, each loose rock and clod of earth and miniature gully washed by the recent fall rains, testing each foothold and handhold before committing to it.

The final leapfrog left her, Ritva, and Uncle Alleyne at the head of the sparsely-dotted column that now snaked up from the river to the plateau above. She inclined her head to see faint shadows cast by irregularities in the ground that didn't fit the landscape, then crouched and ran her fingers over the ground to take in details that even an expert couldn't see when it was this dark and in the distorting moonlight.

All shod horses, she battle-signed, when the other two came close enough to see the broad movements. Some of it very fresh. Enemy cavalry sweeping the area, repeatedly, in the last few hours. Lots of enemy cavalry. And all shod... Boise regulars.

They both made gestures that meant: I spotted that too.

They settled in, picking blinds that would work as well in daylight if they had to stay that long and tenting their war-cloaks out around them. She dug a rock out of her position and set it carefully where it wouldn't draw notice; even with a Ranger tunic on—light mesh-mail between two layers of thin soft leather—a pointed stone digging into your belly-button for hours at a time could get old. The lighter beaten dirt of the road to the north of their position glimmered like a silver ribbon through the heath, with nothing else but the rusted, tattered snags of a pre-Change building of sheet metal half-buried in dust and brush beyond it to say this wasn't somewhere east of Rhûn a couple of Ages of the World ago.

Like the Paths of the Dead, she thought with a slight shiver; it was that season. Come on, now, Ranger, control your imagination.

Once they were certain there weren't any enemy observing them there was a brief clipping of vegetation and rubbing of soil to make the cloaks perfect matches for the locality. She stifled a sneeze at the spicy scent of cut sagebrush. Then they took position and waited; Dúnedain got a lot of practice at that, and the Quest had driven it home. Mary sucked on a hard candy to keep her energy level up, worked her muscles against each other on her bones to keep from stiffening in the cold, and at long intervals took tiny sips from a flexible tube that ran to a flat bladder on her back.

Euuuu.

It tasted horrible, flat and rubbery. Also she didn't want to drink too much, because eventually you had to get rid of it. Peeing yourself was an occupational hazard sometimes, you couldn't be fastidious when things were serious, but the smell could give you away to an alert scout close-by.

Speak of Morgoth and He appears, she thought, an hour later.

She controlled her breathing to damp down the spurt of tension. It was still some time to dawn, and dense-dark now that clouds had covered most of the sky. The sound came first, shot hooves thumping dirt; she could feel it through her belly and breasts where they pressed against the soil. From here you could see the dirt road running east and west, and then the dark shapes of riders spread out in a long line, with the odd lantern they were using more to keep alignment than for light.

The cavalry patrol were taking their time and picking their way forward slowly. They were Boise cavalry from their gear, horse-archers with sabers at their belts, but a number of them had light lances as well. They were using them to prod at the odd suspicious spot, little gleams of dull silver in the night.

Too professional for comfort, Mary thought.

With a practiced effort of will she pushed aside the visceral knowledge of how much steel slicing your flesh hurt when it happened. That was just her body's memory reminding her how she'd acquired so many scars at a still-young age. If they got that close, wounds would be the least of her problems. The Dúnedain were superb fighters at their skulk-and-snap style of war, but they didn't have any disguised Maiar with long beards or shining elf-lords with magic swords to even up impossible odds right now.

Though my big brother does have a magic sword, genuine article, so maybe someday... Hmmm. They're combing their line of march over and over and not just going through the motions either. Old General Lawrence Thurston did his job well.

One of the horsemen passed within ten yards of her blind; he must nearly be on top of Uncle Alleyne. He stood in his stirrups to look southward, down the slope towards the Columbia; the river would be a glowing ribbon from here, catching what starlight and moonlight there was. This one was in a centurion's cross-crested helmet rather than cavalry gear, some battalion or brigade commander who wanted to check for himself and not just take a report.

"God-dammit, something doesn't feel right," she heard him say. Then, much more quietly: "God-damn this war."

He shook his head wordlessly and neck-reined his horse aside, then turned and cantered back east with a purposeful air.

Mary let her breath out slowly. Most of the cavalry went on; several platoons' worth stayed and screened the road and the flat land on either side. More time crawled past, and then a different sound came through the earth. A thudding like the world's biggest horse, only each beat was somehow a little blurred. Then she saw glints of light, regularly spaced and moving at about walking pace; someone was using shuttered lanterns as guides. Then starlight glinting on metal to the eastward, and the noise increased, with rhythmic clattering and clunking sounds underneath it and the peculiar rumbling of six-horse teams drawing heavy weights on steel wheels over rutted country roads.

Field artillery and ambulances on the road, she thought. Light baggage wagons too, spare weapons and medical supplies and maybe some packaged field rations. Enough for a day or two.

The vehicles were blurs, but she could pick up the outlines; off to either side the spaced-out lights became men with bull's-eye lanterns, each marking march routes through the empty rolling fields.

Infantry to either side in the open country, marching in battalion columns every hundred yards for as far as I can see. Probably the same thing on that road north of this. Valar and Maiar, but they've got good march discipline, to do this in the dark without everything tying up in a mess!

That was dry textbook stuff; the books that Uncle Alleyne and John Hordle had made part of the Dúnedain curriculum said pushing a big army down a single road or a few roads was like trying to pour the Columbia through a straw. It would take forever and the men at the end would still be breaking camp when the ones at the head got where they were going. The books had a lot of complex rock-paper-scissors stuff about how you couldn't fight while you were in column of march, but if you deployed to fight you couldn't march well...

Theory. Reality was the dull bronze gleam of the eagle standards, and the blackness below that was the heavy silk banners with the Stars and Stripes stirring slightly in the night as the standard-bearers carried them forward, the tanned masks of wolves on their helms and the hides flowing down their backs. It was rank on rank of pila-points moving in unison behind, the heavy javelins swaying over each man's right shoulder to match the big oval shield on the left as their hoop armor clattered and the apron of metal-bound leather thongs that guarded their groins rattled. It was hobnailed boots hitting the dry soil and thin grass of the arid plain like the feet of so many giant centipedes. It was the massed smell of leather and male sweat and oiled metal and dirt ground open to the air, the scent of war drifting through the cold dampness.

Slowly, slowly she raised the night-glass monocular to her eye and details sprang close; the tight intent face of a centurion, the stolid endurance of the rankers pushing through the darkness and a man's head tossing as he tripped a little on some rock or pocket and recovered without even cursing...

Mary felt a furious bubble of anger beneath her breastbone. Lawrence Thurston had created this awesome thing, this mighty instrument of human will and effort and devotion, courage and discipline, for a purpose. It had been a thoroughly demented purpose—the United States had perished in the moment when the wave of Change flickered around the planet and trying to restore it was like trying to make rivers flow backward—but that had been a noble madness. A faithfulness and steely honor that had refused to bend its oath-given word even at the death of a world. She had met the man: she knew.

His traitor son Martin was wasting it, stealing it for mere ambition; or at least he had planned to do that, before he'd fallen into a trap more subtle and more cruel than anything he could have imagined himself. Which meant he'd put it in the service of the enemies not simply of human kind, but of existence itself.

All the while her mind was counting the movement that turned the darkened plain into a rippling carpet, a skill so automatic that it was like the breath in her lungs. The answer it presented made no sense, which was like having your eyes tell you that down was up. Then she counted again, and this time she used the tricks consciously, counting the men in an area, estimating how many multiples...

That's twenty or thirty thousand men. That I can see in this fucking cloudy night. There must be nearly as many again out of sight! Dulu! Help! Manwë, Varda, mother!

The only time she'd seen more human beings in one spot was in Iowa, looking down from the city wall on Des Moines... and Des Moines was a monster, the biggest inhabited city left in all the millions of square miles from Panama to Hudson's Bay. Seeing an army this size made her swallow, even after watching the host of Montival forming up for the past couple of months. War wasn't particularly complex, but it certainly was hard.

The march seemed endless, though she knew from the stars that it lasted hours rather than the days she felt. She spent her time identifying unit banners, so that the High King's staff could fit them into their appreciation of the enemy's TOE. At last it was past them; heading towards the west, towards the heart of Montival, towards the host of the High King, towards...

My handfasted husband, my family, my friends, and everything I hold dear, she thought. The forests where my children not yet born will walk. Well, we knew they were coming. Now we know how many of what, where, and when.

The stars wheeled on through gaps in the clouds. Those closed, and a light rain began to fall, cutting visibility to nearly nothing by the time the infantry had passed and the cavalry followed; trickles of cold wet soaked into the front of her clothes where she lay in the blind, but there didn't seem to be any more patrols. Even this enemy didn't have enough men to put them everywhere they might be useful without dispersing effort fatally; war was a matter of prioritizing and sometimes that rose up and bit you on the ass even if you did everything right.

Another chittering from Alleyne and they rose cautiously, moving together in the drizzle. The war-cloaks had the added merit of being rain-repellant, since the base layer was woven tightly of greased wool. They crouched in a triangle, close enough together that the brims of the hoods met.

"Compare figures," Alleyne said. "Ritva first."

His voice was dry, but not as numb as it had been a while ago. Work helped grief.

"Nelc-a-meneg," she said crisply.

"Thirty thousand, my lord," Mary agreed. "But perhaps as many as forty thousand or more, if the road north of this is being used on the same scale. Catapults in proportion to infantry, according to the Boise scales. That would be the full reserve the US of Boise has in this theatre, though they'd have to strip their lines of communication to do it."

"Good analysis," he said, and wrote quickly on a pad. "They're not trying to hedge their bets, which is precisely the right thing to do from their point of view."

Another figure loomed out of the mist-like rain at his low-voiced call.

"Hírvegil. Relay this. The Folk of the West need this information. Tell Lord Hordle and Lady Eilir that they're to send the first boat on with it. Maximum priority. They're to follow with the second if we don't rejoin within an hour."

He handed over the message. Hírvegil disappeared, quiet as a ghost, and the paper went with him.

Ritva's right about Uncle Alleyne, Mary thought. About what she sensed at Aunt Astrid's funeral pyre.

They were speaking Edhellen, of course, but there had been a subtle shift in the way the Lord of the Rangers used it; not as those raised to it as a cradle-speech did, but also less like a running translation from the English he'd used for his first twenty-odd years. More in the manner of the Histories, or the way his wife had taken the Noble Tongue.

He's going to live her dream for her and do it perfectly. That's his grave-offering.

Uncle Alleyne was very much Sir Nigel Loring's son, so reserved and self-controlled that if you didn't know him well you could think he wasn't a man of strong passions at all. But Mary knew him very well indeed.

The rain built from a drizzle to pouring for a few moments, a hiss that cut hearing in a burr of white noise. The horse was almost on them before they heard it.

"One up," Alleyne said calmly. "Two down and then in."

The two young women took a dozen rapid paces away, fanning out on either side of the approaching rider, and sank down as they gathered in their war-cloaks. It was amazing how much like a rock you could look in the dark. A man on horseback appeared out of the wet blackness, muffled in his own cloak against the rain, and swearing under his breath.

"God-dammit, it just doesn't feel right," she could hear him say, in the peculiar tone you used talking to yourself when you were all alone, and the rather harsh accent of the far interior. "We're missing something and I don't know what."

Not a cavalryman, though he rode with a careless ease peculiar to those raised on horseback; there was a traverse red crest on his helmet, and in his free hand was a swagger-stick, a vinestock about three feet long, gnarled and twisted. A big oval shield was slung over his back, and she could just make out the brass thunderbolts-and-eagle on it.

US of Boise officer, she knew. Maybe the one I saw earlier. Some conscientious type working a hunch. Too bad for him.

Alleyne stood and reached over his shoulder to draw his longsword, the steel a bright streak in the rainy dimness; if someone was going to see you anyway, you controlled how they did it. That way you held their eyes. To an experienced man the way he set himself and held the blade and the way his left hand stripped his round buckler off its clip on his belt would hold the attention. They all marked someone you didn't turn your back on if you wanted to live.

The Boisean flipped the vinestock to his left hand and drew his own short gladius with smooth speed; he didn't shout for help, which meant he really had come alone. Alleyne was probably smiling behind the cloth mask as the Boisean raised his sword for a moment in salute and then prepared to charge. He and his father had both been soldiers before they came to Montival-to-be, but of a particular sort—SAS, it had been called before the Change and still was, over there in the Empire of Greater Britain. So had Sam Aylward been. They'd taught the Clan, and the Rangers still more.

"Take him down," he said in a conversational tone.

Mary and Ritva moved in like the chucks of a drill-bit tightening, Ritva moving a fractional second first to draw the man's eye. The Boisean shouted and cut to his right, leaning over to reach with the short sword.

Mary leapt, her long legs taking her to the horse's side in six bounding strides. Her hands clamped on the man's foot at heel and toe, and she ducked, heaved and twisted with all the strength in her five-foot-nine of lean muscle. Steel split the air a fraction above her head as he cut left and backhand frantically at the last instant; the man was fast. But the point of the sword just tugged at the tip of her hood rather than striking the steel cap beneath.

And the shove shot him out of the saddle and off to the right like something launched from a catapult. The horse started to bolt forward with a whinny of alarm, and Mary dove through the space where it had been. That was just in time to see Ritva landing on the man's back in a cat-jump, something flashing in her hand—a length of linen bandana, doubled and with a gold coin in one end to give it weight. The wet cloth whined through the air as she flicked it forward in the same instant as her feet left the ground.

The man had lost his sword as he fell, possibly deliberately; it was all too easy to come down on the edge when you pitched over like that. The strap holding his shield broke, and it went away end-over-end like a flipped coin. Both his hands flashed up to grab for the bandana as it struck his neck and whipped around snake-swift, the coin slapping into Ritva's gloved right hand and the cloth making a complete overlapping circuit of his throat. He was too late; she already had her wrists crossed and wrenched them apart, driving the fabric into the flesh under his chin with terrible leverage as she grappled him around the waist with her legs.

The twin assaults of the rumal-noose and a hundred and fifty pounds of Dúnadan on his back toppled him forward onto the muddy ground. Half a second later Mary landed on his kicking legs, wrapping her limbs around them and snatching the dagger out of his belt and tossing it aside before he thought to draw it.

"Quiet!" Ritva hissed, in English. "Or else!"

He went limp in acknowledgement of defeat, wheezing in a breath as she slacked off a very little. Mary's fingers did a light flickering search for holdout weapons. If there had been anyone close they could have cast their cloaks over him and done a fair imitation of a lump in the ground within moments. Instead Ritva came up as Alleyne approached, with one leg out and a knee planted between the man's shoulder-blades.

"Hîr?" she said. "Boe?"

That meant Is it necessary, lord? It was probably fortunate that the man they'd defeated didn't understand either that or the unspoken codicil: to kill him?

"It's a girl?" the man under her knee choked out in surprise. "I got dry-gulched by a girl?"

"No, it's a woman Ranger," Ritva snapped in English.

"Two, actually," Mary added.

"So no dhínen! Which means shut up," Ritva finished.

He made a gagging noise as her hands poised for the second twist that would snap the neck. Mary could feel the tension in the man's body through his legs and hips, as he strained up with his neck creaking.

The Hîr Dúnedain swept his hood and face-mask back with the same motion. His handsome face and trimmed blond mustache were blurs in the rainy night.

"Do you yield yourself?" he asked the man softly, going down on one knee as he sheathed his sword without looking back.

"I yield," the man grunted, slapping one palm on the ground in a wrestler's gesture of concession. "Obviously!"

"Let him live," Alleyne said softly, with the very slightest hint of a smile, and in English.

Shifting back to the Noble Tongue: "We'd have to carry the body out anyway. Better not to kill without need and he might be useful one way or another. Make him safe, though."

Ritva nodded, and muttered:

"Oltho vae," to the prisoner, which meant sweet dreams, or close enough.

She let the rumal drop. The man went on his face, choking and gasping for a moment. Before he could recover Ritva had a sealed container opened, and another cloth in her hand; that she clapped across his nose and mouth, holding them firmly and planting her other hand on the back of his head. There was a moment's sweet smell, and she removed it as soon as he went limp. It was rather too easy to overdose someone on chloroform, given that the stuff had to be made out of seaweed by a complex chemical process and that you never really knew for sure how strong any batch was.

No point in sparing someone and then having them die of heart failure, Mary thought, as she helped bind and gag the unfortunate Boisean.

Or extremely lucky Boisean, she thought.

Her snicker and Ritva's came at the same instant, and Mary knew they were sharing a thought:

He's obviously brave and that means he leads from the front. Thousands are going to die before the next sundown, but now he probably won't end up on the receiving end of a lance or an arrow or a roundshot. As oppposed to say, the blameless and far more deserving personal me, who'll have to go through the whole ghastly damned thing from beginning to end doing Rangerishly dangerous damned stuff to live up to our doubly-damned reputations.

That sort of mental communion had been happening between the Havel twins all their lives.

 

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Copyright © 2011-2012 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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