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LORD OF MOUNTAINS

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


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

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

 

Half a dozen more Rangers were there around Mary and Ritva and the Lord of the Dúnedain by now, kneeling silently in a half-circle about them with arrows on the string, bows hidden by their cloaks to keep the rain off the sensitive recurves until the instant they had to draw. Wax and varnish did a good deal, but it wasn't wise to count on them.

Another had caught the Boisean's horse, gentling it and offering it an apple while two more quickly went through the saddlebags and the bedroll strapped behind the saddle for anything that might be documents or maps. It shifted and laid back its ears, backing its stern in a half-circle, then consented to take the fruit, though its eyes still rolled nervously. Horses were conservatives who thought a strangeness probably meant something wanted to eat them.

"Rochiril, novaer," the Ranger crooned softly, stroking the mare's nose. "Be good, horse-lady."

"Imlos," Alleyne said to him. "Mount. Ride east, abandon the horse where you can make your way to the riverside about ten miles east of here without leaving a trail. Take his sword, shield and helmet and drop them somewhere along the way where there are plenty of tracks. You know the Ranger shelter."

"I know it, lord," the young man said; it hadn't been a question. "I helped build it."

Well, alae, duh, Mary thought. Why do you think he picked you?

They'd all memorized the hideouts and blinds the Dúnedain had established along the river, before and during the war; most were merely small camouflaged dugouts with supplies... often including an inflatable boat. Still, there was knowing and knowing.

"Rejoin when you can, Imlos, but don't take unnecessary chances," Alleyne said. "Go!"

The man nodded, bowed slightly with right hand to heart, and vaulted into the saddle amid murmurs of galu—good luck—from the rest. Even as the hoofbeats died away in the hiss of rain the others were examining the surroundings, blurring footprints with careful speed. One flipped the Boisean's broad-bladed dagger to Mary, and she tucked it into her boot-top. The captured officer was stripped of his sword-belt, tied into his cloak and slung between two. One of them flashed Ritva a thumbs-up sign as he helped carry the prisoner downslope.

That was not a Ranger gesture, but Ian Kovalevsky was from the Dominion of Drumheller. Originally the slim fair young man had been a liaison between the Questers as they passed through on the last stage of their journey back to Montival and the Force, a red-coated equivalent of the Rangers which helped keep the peace in the Dominions. He'd ended up as Ritva's new boyfriend, and might well drift into the Rangers as well—it wouldn't be the first time something like that had happened when an outsider fell for a member, and Mary thought Ritva was serious about him. He'd been along on the rescue mission in Boise, too, for which Mary rather envied him.

Though getting snatched off a roof in the middle of a hostile city by an airship that almost missed, with the usurper's troops closing in all around in a shower of crossbow bolts, then getting tossed hundreds of miles in a thunderstorm with lightning crackling around the highly-inflammable gasbag... that sort of thing was a lot more fun in retrospect. On a cold winter afternoon in Stardell Hall back at Mithrilwood, say, lying back in one of the big leather chairs in front of the fireplace and roasting chestnuts, with the carved timber of the walls all dim up by the banner-hung rafters, a mug of mulled cider in your hand, a cat in your lap and a bunch of kids and noobs gathered around sitting on the floor and listening with that is just so cool expressions on their faces.

The went down the slope faster than they'd climbed it, doing their best to leave minimal tracks; as they cleared each party of two or three the little groups would cover trail as they fell back. Two light galleys were still waiting in the little cove, but they'd been pushed back into the water and the camouflage netting removed, their oars waiting ready in the locks like the legs of a water-spider. Both were fragile-looking things like racing shells, with aluminum masts folded down and stored in the well between the oar-benches.

John Hordle and his wife Eilir Mackenzie were there; this was a very important mission, enough that all three of the remaining founder-leaders of the Rangers were on it. Uncle John was six-foot-six and broad enough to seem squat, built like a hobbit crossed with a troll, with a face like a good-natured ham. He leaned on the hilt of his sheathed greatsword and chewed a grass stem with his graying russet-brown hair gleaming with raindrops as the rest came up, his shrewd little russet eyes missing nothing. After a few mugs of shandy at festivals and feasts one of his party tricks was to bend horseshoes straight and then toss them to the unsuspecting, who then howled and danced after they'd gripped the torsion-heated metal.

Aunt Eilir was Juniper Mackenzie's eldest child, black-haired, pale-eyed and slender-strong and just short of forty. She had the clipboard and was checking people off as they arrived, soundlessly... which was appropriate, given that she'd been deaf from birth and was one of the reasons Rangers used Sign so much. No matter how well-trained and experienced troops were, it was always shockingly easy to lose someone in the dark if you weren't very careful. Eilir and Astrid had refounded the Rangers a few years after the Change, and a few before John and Alleyne and Sir Nigel had arrived from Greater Britain fleeing Mad King Charles.

Mary had always thought it was all madly romantic, especially the part where the two young comrades had courted and won the amamchara-sworn Ladies of the Dúnedain. Though she knew Uncle John had always quietly considered Aunt Astrid barking mad and wouldn't have had her on a bet. And she suspected that Uncle Alleyne had thought she was crazy too, but just didn't care, the way Uncle John didn't care that Eilir was deaf. Both of which facts were romantic too, when you thought about it, in a more grown-up way.

Imlos? Eilir Signed.

"Sent on with the horse," Alleyne replied. "Going to ground in one of our underground shelters and rejoining later."

"'opefully," John Hordle said, in his inimitable burring Hampshire-yokel version of Sindarin. "Good practice sending 'im, though, Oi think."

Alleyne nodded. "Hopefully they'll find the horse far away and won't have any idea where their man was lost. They've been having a serious desertion problem, we know that. Some coming over, some just going home."

Some of the younger Rangers thought Alleyne's more plummy Winchester-and-Sandhurst tones were a Quenya high-elven accent, and had imitated it. Aunt Astrid had frowned on that and Uncle John had encouraged the rumor to drive her distracted...

Mary sighed a little at the memory as the Boisean was slung onto the second galley. Aunt Astrid would have loved this op like a bowl of blueberries and whipped cream. With toasted walnuts sprinkled on top.

Everyone clambered aboard with swift care; the narrow hulls rocked anyway.

"Let's get him out of the way," Mary said.

She was smiling at the same time; they were going home. Going home to a giant murdering battle, granted, but the principle was the same. Being isolated among the enemy just felt worse than openly confronting them, whatever the odds might be. If a hundred thousand men were going to try and kill her, at least she'd be among Montivallans when they did.

"Raich, he's heavy!" Ritva said, as she took him by the loop of rope tied under his arms. "For a sort of cutely slim guy."

"Or his armor is," Mary said, as they navigated the narrow path between the rowing benches.

Mary and Ritva sank into position on either side of the prisoner in the bows. Two of the oarsmen used their shafts to push off, and then both of the boats turned their sharp prows westward. A soft chant of:

"Leidho... bado..." started as the oars swayed backward and forward.

Water hissed by outside the thin metal sheath of the hull. The prisoner's armor was shoulder-protection and a back-and-breast of hoops and bands of plate, fastened with catches at the left shoulder and under the left arm. Ritva pushed him on his side and Mary worked the catches to release the forty pounds of steel. It went overboard with a plop as they reached deeper water; the little ship-by-courtesy was crowded enough that the room and weight-loss were welcome, even if it felt a bit wasteful.

The sky was clearing after the rain-shower; she could see more stars now, and the eastern horizon was slowly turning from dark-blue through green to a baleful and somehow ill-omened pink, though she usually liked the pre-dawn hush. The broad expanse of the Columbia revealed itself, with wisps of fog glimmering and vanishing, and the great steep brown bluffs on either bank, with black streaks where the basalt showed through. The air was chilly, on the edge of frost. Her damp clothes warmed only reluctantly, tempting her to take a spell rowing. After a few minutes the rhythmic stroke of the oars and the grunting huff of breath settled into a background music. Water purled away from the sharp bows in an endless chuckle.

Someone opened a basket and started handing out cakes made of pressed cracked and toasted grain, honey and nuts and bits of dried fruit, and cram sandwiches—flat leathery tortillas wrapped around ham and cheese. The Boisean at her feet was stirring and kicking, so they turned him upright, propped him half-sitting against the inside curve of the bow and bent to look him in the face with theirs side-by-side and filling his field of view.

"You promise to be sensible?" Ritva asked. "No tussling on the boat?"

"So we don't have to stab you or hack off your head," Mary added.

"Or cut your throat or drown you," Ritva finished cheerfully.

"Which would be sort of silly after all the trouble we took to get you here alive," Mary pointed out. "Which we really didn't have to do."

"It was just our inherent Folk-of-the-West niceness."

"So give us your parole until we reach our dock."

"It isn't far," Ritva clarified.

The prisoner's eyes flicked from one of them to the other, as blue as their own; his brown hair was short on the top and tight at the sides. They'd shed their war-cloaks and steel caps, and the identical blond fighting-braids lay on their shoulders as they beamed at him. Ian leaned around Ritva to add with a slightly alarming smile:

"And they really mean it, you know."

The prisoner nodded, and the twins reached to untie his hands and remove the gag.

"Let's hear your parole," Mary said.

"I won't try to escape or attack you until I'm taken off this boat," the man said, his voice rough from the near-throttling. "Or it sinks. On my honor as an officer."

"That'll do," Mary said. "But we'll get really cranky if you don't keep it."

"Even a bit mean and bitchy," Ritva said, pointing a warning finger at his face.

"And they really mean that," Ian said. "Have a sandwich."

Mary grinned to herself as he glanced from one to the other, startled by the unison of their movements. It had been even more effective in the old days.

Uh-oh, she thought when he frowned in thought. He's recognizing us.

The problem with heroic deeds like the Sword Quest that brought undying fame was that it made you...

Sort of famous. Which can be awkward when people just recognize you out of the blue. Sometimes they think they know you just because they've heard the stories, too.

His face changed: "Christ. You're Ritva and Mary Havel, aren't you? The woo—" he visibly reconsidered something that was probably on the order of woot-woot. "The Dunydain? That King Artos guy's sisters?

"Yup. Though that's Mary Vogeler now that I'm married and respectable. Sort of."

"And we're the High King's half-sisters; same father, different mothers," Ritva said.

"Very different," Mary clarified.

The Boisean was a young man but older than they were, with a lean weathered face. Ian's hand snaked in with a canteen, and as he drank cautiously—chloroform didn't make you feel all that good when it wore off, and being throttled didn't either—the shape of his cheekbones tugged at Mary's memory...

"You wouldn't be named Woburn, would you?" she said. "Of the Camas Prairie Woburns? Head of the family is a Rancher and Sheriff there, a big landholder near Grangeville?"

The man nodded. "That would be my father. I'm Centurion Dave Woburn."

She shot a covert glance at her sister; it wouldn't do for her to mention the visit Ritva and the Rangers had paid to Sheriff Woburn's ranch on their way to the rescue mission in Boise. The elder Woburn was willing to give actual help to Martin Thurston's opponents; as far as they knew his oldest son was just dissatisfied. Ritva gave her an annoyed do-you-think-I'm-stupid glare in return.

"I met your brother!" Mary said instead to the prisoner.

That had been far east of here, in Barony Tucannon, in one of the opening skirmishes of the campaign. The enemy alliance of Boise and the CUT occupied that area now... except for the walled cities and castles, which they didn't have the time or resources to take, and the guerillas who were making their life less than joyful every hour of the night and most of the days. She'd heard someone describe it as the flies conquering the flypaper.

"My brother Jack?" the man said, suddenly eager. "But he was taken prisoner—"

"A couple of months ago. My husband and I were in that fight," she said happily. "We had lunch with your brother afterwards at the Baron of Tucannon's manor house at Grimmond-on-the-Wold. Lovely place, I hope you guys didn't burn it. He's OK, and the left arm healed well, I heard. In fact, he's working for Fred now. You know, Frederick Thurston. The one of your ruler's sons who didn't kill his father."

Dave Woburn gave an alarmed glance to either side by pure involuntary reflex, which said something about the United States of Boise under Martin Thurston. Mary raised a brow as he became conscious of what he'd done, and his jaw tightened as he saw it and took the implication.

"Fred's also the one who didn't sell his soul to demons," Ritva added helpfully. "Well, pretty much demons. We've met them, too and it's close enough."

"Fred's actually sort of a nice guy," Mary put in. "He was on the Quest with us and we got to know him."

"Pretty cute, too," Ritva said. "This lovely cinnamon skin and a nice tight butt... Hey, Ian, I'm just recognizing it in a sort of abstract way! I'm at least serially monogamous. Plus Virginia would kill me."

"Literally," Mary said judiciously.

She liked Fred's wife Virginia, nee Kane, who was a Rancher's daughter from the Powder River country in what had been Wyoming.

She'd joined the Quest as a refugee from the CUT's seizure of her family's ranch as they passed through to the Seven Council Fires territory, and she and Fred had fallen for each other. She was smart and loyal and brave, a superb horsewoman and a pretty good fighter if not up to Ranger standards, and even well-educated for someone from the back of beyond; she'd read the Histories, though just as stories. You could forgive her habit of scalping people who really pissed her off as a local foible; after all, there were people who were all censorious and judgmental about Dúnedain customs too. And she always killed them before she scalped them, which showed a certain basic moral goodness. But...

"Virginia is sort of possessive about Fred," she concluded. "And anything connected with Fred. And anything she thinks Fred should have."

Like being General-President of Boise, she added mentally; that was another thing that would be tactless to say right now.

"She's sort of... carnivorous," Ritva said. "But in a good way."

Dave Woburn shook his head as if trying to clear it and get his thoughts back on track, then winced.

"You want some willow-bark?" Mary said sympathetically. "I've been choked unconscious before... have you? No? It gives you a terrible headache every time, just really ugly. And a rumal totally puts your neck out of alignment."

Even when it doesn't kill you, she added to herself; it would be tactless to say that aloud, too. And even when you have to kill someone, it doesn't cost anything to be polite.

"Ah... yes. Thanks. But did you have to drug me too?"

"The chloroform was safer than thumping your head—"

Knocking someone out meant a concussion, which was not like going to sleep, whatever some people thought or some stories said. She'd been knocked out more than once herself, and once the headaches had lasted for weeks. You could just suddenly die from it, too, or end up a drooling idiot. If it happened too often you did end up as a drooling idiot.

"—and we couldn't risk you yelling at the wrong moment if we ran into your friends."

She passed him a paper twist of the powdered extract from her field-kit pouch. He threw the bitter stuff into his mouth, washed it down with a grimace and a drink of water, then doggedly started in on his honey-and-nut cake and sandwich. He probably wasn't feeling very hungry, but she approved. If you weren't actually nauseous, it was better to eat something after an experience like the one he'd gone through. The body burned up its reserves when it sensed approaching death and got ready to fight or run, and if you didn't eat you risked a sort of shivering feeling and lethargy and weakness.

"So Jack went over to the enemy?" the Boisean said quietly.

He probably believed them; there wasn't much point in a lie that he'd be able to check on so soon.

"Depends on who you think of as the enemy," Ian put in. "I'm from the Dominion of Drumheller myself."

The man nodded warily. "The Canuks, right. I'd heard you'd gotten into the war."

"My parents were Canadians. There's really no Canada now, any more than there is a United States. That's why they chose the new names. Our Premier... Premier Mah... said it was because, mmmm, nostalgia isn't a politically productive emotion."

"That's... debatable."

"But either way I don't have a dog in this fight, except that we're at war with the CUT. And hell, I'm from the Peace River part of Drumheller, north of that it's trees and Indians all the way to the tundra and then it's Eskimo and polar bears all the way to the Beaufort Sea. The only people my district have really fought since the Change are the PPA, when they took over the old British Columbia part of the district and split it up into fiefs and built castles on it. Would have taken the rest too, if we hadn't punched them out of the idea."

"Why are you here, then?"

"They're part of Montival now, and we believe the new management when they say they don't have big eyes. We've got no problem with Rudi... with High King Artos... as a neighbor."

"You're a monarchy too," Woburn said a bit sourly.

"Theoretically. Very theoretically. We have contact with Greater Britain maybe once every three or four years. Thing is, we didn't have any problem with you people in Boise as a neighbor, when Fred's father was running things; he left us alone and we returned the favor. But we sure as shit have a problem with the Church Universal and Triumphant as a neighbor. Or anyone who carries water for them."

"We don't want a King," the prisoner said tightly.

"You'd rather have a Prophet?" Ian said dryly. "A deranged one with EVIL INCARNATE tattooed on his forehead? Hey, mister, I was in Boise when we took your guy Martin's wife out, and she said Martin is the Prophet's puppet and that he killed his dad. In fact, when she started shouting that, he tried to kill her—personally shot a crossbow at her while she was holding his son in her arms."

"That's true?" Woburn whispered, with the gut-punched look of a man who'd been trying to avoid believing something he knew was so.

"Damn right it's true; I was there; I saw it."

"The... government release... said she'd been kidnapped."

"She was begging us to get her out. And I was with her all the way back west and she said—"

Mary touched her sister on the shoulder dropped back into Sindarin:

"I think we should leave him and Ian to talk, Sis. You were there too but I think he'll listen more to your fellah. Seeing as we're Rudi's sisters and all and might be biased."

"Only my identical could be right as often as you are," Ritva grumbled; neither of them were naturally the keep-quiet-and-wait types.

Woburn gave them a glance.

"Iston peded i phith i aníron, a nin ú-cheniathog," Ritva said sweetly.

I can say what I want, and you can't understand me, Mary thought/translated, and hid her grin again.

Damn, it's good to be back with Sis for a while, she thought happily. When she settles down and the war's over, we'll really have to set up somewhere close to each other. We can babysit each other's kids and swap cookies and stuff. Maybe we could found a new Ranger station somewhere... somewhere warm. Somewhere warm with good vineyards.

That half-giggle turned to a shout of alarm as she turned. Something was diving out of the sun that had just cleared the horizon, silent and very swift.

"Yrch!" someone shouted. "Enemy!"

"Errrk!" Mary called; or it might have been Ritva talking, she couldn't tell. "No shit!"

The glider was like a flying tadpole with long slender wings, a sleek melted-looking metal shape out of the pre-Change world, gleaming polished metal beneath the plastic bubble of the pilot's canopy. A red-and-white shark's mouth was painted below the nose, and USAF and a star on the wings. Something tumbled down from it...

Uncle Alleyne was looking over his shoulder while he stood at the tiller, feet braced apart on the tiny plank of decking beneath him.

"Flank speed!" he shouted.

The rowers moved up to sprint pace, throwing themselves forward and back with gasping effort. The cylinder came closer and closer, something like a big elongated pill, tumbling around its axis and trailing a very faint line of smoke.

Uh-oh, Mary thought. Napalm.

She'd had it shot at her from catapults and seen it pumped from flamethrowers, and it was very nasty indeed. Never dropped on her head from the air before, though...

"Now!" Alleyne snarled, and swung the tiller far over.

The slender form of the little galley heeled. Mary's eyes went wide as a thin sheet of water began to curl over the side. There was a shout as everyone threw themselves the other way, herself included, leaning overboard as far as she could with her boots braced and hands locked on the bulwark and the frame that supported one of the oars and the cold water of the Columbia running just under her straining back. The galley fell back rocking onto an even keel and she slid forward amid a clatter of gear and thud of people hitting people and things and a clanking rattle as the sweeps tangled like a heap of jackstraws.

"Row! Row!" Alleyne barked.

His handsome aquiline face looked wholly alive for the first time since he'd come back from the mission to Boise. Not good, but alive.

A gout of flame rose far too close on the starboard, as the napalm spread itself over the still surface of the river. The oarsmen flung themselves back into their seats and got going; the glider went by overhead—her mind automatically estimated that it was at least twice long bowshot up and moving faster than a galloping horse—and skimmed over towards the bank of the river. Her head swiveled to follow it, hoping desperately that it would drop into the water like a landing goose or crumple in the steep rock that rose from it.

Instead it seemed to strike something invisible in the air, turning and banking and rising upward as if thrust by a hand. It must be updrafts along the cliffs; she'd flown gliders herself, but only a few times for sport in a double-seat model, off a cliff and then gently down. The pilot attacking them must be an artist at reading the invisible currents of the air.

"Well, shit," she said, spitting out blood from where her teeth had cut the inside of her mouth.

For emphasis, she repeated it in English, with embellishments:

"Well, shit on toast!"

"Double damn!" Ritva agreed.

"Bother!" Mary finished.

"Where the Utumno are our gliders?" someone shouted.

"Shut up and row, you son-of-a-she-warg!" the man behind him snarled.

The oars were moving in unison again. The other galley was a hundred yards ahead of them, rippling through the water like a centipede. The glider rose until the low sun in the east sparkled on its canopy, breaking out of the relative gloom of the river and its girdling cliffs, then turned like a stooping hawk.

"It will be coming in lower this time," Alleyne said, his voice crisp and steady.

To aim better, Mary thought. And it was far too close the last time. That one would have landed right on us if Alleyne hadn't turned us out of it.

Alleyne went on in the same businesslike tone: "And he's coming head-on. Get ready to shoot, it's a no-deflection aiming point. Oarsmen, listen for the word of command."

There were twenty at the oars, and six who weren't, not counting Uncle Alleyne with his hands full of tiller or the prisoner. Mary reached over her shoulder, and pulled the recurve out from the harp-shaped scabbard that rode between her back and the quiver, then flipped out a bodkin-pointed arrow and set it through the cutout in the curly-maple riser and on the string.

Dave Woburn slumped down a little more into the curve of the bow, giving them a clear shot. Which was strictly in accord with his parole, of course. He'd agreed not to hinder them. Plus if they burned, so did he. Black smoke was still rising from the patch where the first canister had struck.

"Never did like those Air Force pukes," he said, and unexpectedly smiled at her. "Even when they weren't trying to kill me. Friendly fire isn't."

Mary chuckled. Ritva did too, and then said:

"Ian, you get between us and a little forward, you've got a heavier draw."

She looked over her shoulder; the Rangers who had their hands free were putting arrows to their strings as well.

"Just as heavy as yours, Hírvegil, and he's just as good a shot too, so don't crowd him."

"Ego, mibo orch," he muttered; he'd been very standoffish with Ian.

Which was rude, as was go kiss an orc, but then he had had a crush on Ritva even before the Quest. Or Mary. Or both. But he settled back a little into the crowded forepeak of the galley.

The Rangers can be awfully like any other village, sometimes, she thought, making herself calm. There was the target and there was the bow and nothing else mattered. Nowhere to get away. I got used to moving on while we were on the Quest.

She'd talked to people in big cities with tens of thousands of people, and many of them thought life in places like a Dun of the Clan or a Ranger steading or a Bearkiller strategic hamlet or a Portlander manor was like one big, close happy family.

Family, yes, she thought. Close, yes. Happy, sometimes, but not necessarily. And if you get to quarreling with someone, you are so stuck with them anyway. Until I saw cities I never realized you could live any other way.

The glider had finished its banking turn, graceful and silent and frightening. Now it turned into a dot in the middle of a thread as it came at them nose-on, much clearer this time as it dove out of the fading purple of the western sky instead of the dawn. Aiming the bow was like breathing, since she'd been doing it nearly as long as she'd been walking; all she had to do was decide to do it.

But correct for the speed, she reminded herself. It's getting faster and faster as it gets closer and closer and it's already faster than anything you've ever shot at.

She took a long breath and let it out, then pulled in another. The string lifted off the ends of the staves as the recurve bent; the double-curve shape let her bend it into a deep C, the secret of drawing a long arrow from a bow only four feet long. The kiss-ring on the string touched the corner of her lip as the muscles in arms and shoulders and belly levered against the springy power of the laminated stave.

Ritva was calling the shot; she was a little better at estimating distances, now that they had three eyes between them.

"Wait... wait... now!"

Mary's fingers rolled off the string. Whstp, and the surge of recoil that was always a surprise when you were doing it right. A little cloud of arrows lifted from the galley; the other one was too far ahead. The glider didn't swerve, though Mary thought some of the arrows at least punched into the thin metal of its hull. The pilot was boring in regardless, determined to plant his last napalm canister where it would do the most harm.

Then a shout from the rear:

"Back oars!"

The prow surged down and then up in a burst of spray as every one of the rowers stood and dug in their oars. The galley's speed dropped as if a kraken had caught the keel in its tentacles and yanked hard. The archers dropped as the sudden halt yanked their footing out from beneath them. Two people landed on top of Mary, and the horn nock on the end of a bowstave poked painfully into the sensitive flesh behind her left ear, breaking the skin.

Flame roared at her. She shouted in involuntary alarm as it broke around the bows of the galley, heat that made her face crinkle and a choking chemical stink not like anything else she'd ever smelled. Then someone not far away started screaming, and she smelled something quite different. Cloth burning, and hair.

One of the people who'd landed on her was Ritva. They were used to that—they'd been sparing partners since they were little girls pulling each other's hair over who got the last scoop of blueberries and cream—and they'd developed a routine for it. This time it involved heaving Ian backward off their backs with a united buck and twist, but that was all right too. The prisoner, Dave Woburn, had blood running down one side of his head where he'd bashed it against a thwart.

His arm was also on fire where a stray gobbet of clinging liquid flame had come over the gunwale. They reacted with smooth precision; Ritva grabbed the man by the front of his tunic and jerked him up so the limb thrashed free, and Mary pulled it against her and wrapped herself around it, careful to keep her hands and any bare part of her body away from it. You couldn't put napalm out by splashing water on it, you had to smother it completely. The flames died down, enough that she could grab the cloth above it with her left hand and slash at the seam with the dagger she flipped into her right. Linen thread parted, and she pulled the thick linsey-woolsey cloth of the sleeve free and tossed it into the river. An instant later they had the man maneuvered over the bulwark too, and plunged the limb into the cold Columbia. There hadn't been an obvious burn, but the skin looked a little red.

That gave her a good view as the glider banked. It can't have more fire-bombs, can it? she thought. Gliders can't lift much weight!

Whether it did or not, this time it didn't catch an updraft on the edge of the river. Instead it headed straight in towards the bluffs, then slowly heeled to one side. More and more, until the wingtip touched the surface, and then there was a sudden whirling, splashing chaos. When it ended the glider was broken and resting on the rocky shore. She felt a moment's pang; it had been so graceful, and so old and alien.

After an instant the canopy opened. A man emerged, dolly-tiny with distance, slithered out and stood propped against the side of the broken craft, slipped down prone, laboriously stood again and shook a fist at them.

Mary laughed as they manhandled Woburn back into the bow and the oars took up their rhythm; Ian assisted, since it was surprisingly difficult to move a man with his feet bound.

"I'm glad he lived," she said, offering him more of the willow-bark powder. "Hope he keeps on doing it, too."

"Why?" the prisoner asked bluntly, taking it and applying some of the burn ointment Ritva handed him to the red patch on his arm. "Thank you, by the way."

"You're welcome," she replied. "Why? He's a brave man doing what he sees as his duty."

"We'd kill him if we had to, but why shouldn't I be glad we didn't? Have to kill him, that is."

"And he's out of this fight," Ritva put in, handing Mary back her bow.

"Which applies to you too," Mary said.

"You're... strange," Woburn said.

Ian grinned at him. "Tell me. But wait until you meet their big brother. The one with the magic sword."

Woburn snorted. "Oh, a real magic sword? You expect me to believe that?"

"No, we expect you to see it in about forty-five minutes," Mary said.

All three of them looked at him and smiled.

"You're not... kidding, are you?" Woburn said, his eyes going a little wider. "You really believe that."

"Oh, you have no idea," Ian said helpfully.

 

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