The High King's Host
Horse Heaven Hills
(Formerly south-central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
November 1st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
An arrow went by overhead with a slight whppt sound, arching down at a high angle. It stood quivering in short brown-blond grass still coated with hoarfrost, until steel-shod hooves trampled it a second later. The sound of hundreds of horses moving fast filled the air around them, the heavy hollow thuds merging into a continuous stuttering rumble. The dust-plume they kicked up from the fine soil followed close behind, their speed a little greater than the wind that carried it in their wake.
"Uff da!" Mark Vogeler swore as he ducked.
The shaft hadn't been very far from his ear on its way down. One of the many unpleasant things about arrows was that if they were fired on a high arching shot, even at maximum range they hit going about three-quarters as fast as they'd been when they left the string.
"When do I start getting used to that, Unc' Ingolf?" he called plaintively over the noise. "Uh, Unc' Ingolf sir?"
Ingolf Vogeler grinned at the teenaged nephew riding at his left stirrup. The young man was tall and gangly and with bits of straw-colored hair leaking out from beneath his helmet and near-invisible fuzz on his cheeks. At just short of eighteen he'd nearly reached Ingolf's six-two height, strong and fit for his age though still lacking the full thick-armed bear strength of his kinsman. He wasn't unblooded any more, but he also lacked the experience that decades of hard living and harder fighting had brought his father's younger brother; the slight crook to Ingolf's nose and the scars that left white lines through his short brown beard and on his hands were simply the most obvious traces. The dark-blue eyes told more, if you knew what to look for, and the way he held himself and moved.
"That's Colonel Ingolf Sir to you, kid," he said; time and travel had worn some of the slightly guttural sing-song accent of the Kickapoo Valley out of his voice, but enough remained to be another mark of kinship. "And you don't get used to getting shot at. Not really. It just gets less surprising. And everyone ducks."
Which is true. And it's even worse once you've been hit a couple of times. The damned things hurt, and if you end up with a field surgeon who's already used all his morphine grubbing around with an arrow-spoon to get it out you scream so they can hear you in the next county. Mind you, you don't see the ones that hit you, usually. And never the one that kills you, the saying goes... though how would you check that? Ask dead men? I've seen a lot of them, and they never said a word.
The First Richland Volunteer Cavalry were moving westward at a hand gallop in double line, the three-hundred strong formation writhing like a ripple in a river as it moved over the rolling surface of the Horse Heaven Hills. It was a relief to have the morning sun at their backs as they moved back towards the main force; trying to shoot with it leaving glare-spots in your eyes was a pain.
Like most of his countrymen Ingolf wore what was called a kettle-hat helmet, mostly because it looked a lot like a kettle, with a central peaked dome and a wide flat brim. It had the added advantage on a bright day like this it gave your eyes some shade. He looked over his shoulder and the circle of the round shield slung over his back, squinting; the sun was only a handspan over the horizon. The pursuit was gaining, and there were a thousand men or better in the...
Clump. Gaggle. Whatever.
... that pursued them.
OK, this is going to be tricky.
It always was, with horse-soldiers were moving at speed. At a gallop you could cover a couple of hundred yards awfully fast. As usual, timing was the margin between success and...
...and, 'oh shit we are so fucked'. Well, I trust the Mackenzies to do what they say they'll do... or really, I trust Rudi's judgment of what they can do and he trusts them to do what they say they can do. Getting into position this fast is awfully quick work for infantry, and not full-time soldiers at that. And doing it without being obvious. These levies we're fighting may not be much at field drill but there's nothing wrong with their fieldcraft. Especially in open grassland.
He'd been a paid soldier kicking around the Midwestern realms for years himself before he went into the closely related salvage trade, and he'd seen that like anything else you got better at it the more you practiced.
Though sometimes even that doesn't work, he thought, studying the pursuit.
The nearest of them were a hair under three hundred yards back, just close enough to tempt them to shoot when you added in the wind at their backs but far enough that you'd have to be dead lucky to hit a herd of buffalo, much less a man. Flags flying from the shafts of spears beat the wind among them, spiky brand-symbols of the Ranchers who led their cowboy-retainers to war, the golden rayed sun on crimson of the CUT. Another arrow arched out, falling ten yards short this time.
Only an exceptionally strong saddle-bow combined with great skill and more than a bit of luck could hope to send an arrow this far; actually hitting anything would be sheer dumb luck. In an outfit with more fire discipline some noncom would be roasting the enthusiast's ass about now, for wasting an arrow he might need desperately soon. The enemy cavalry were superb riders and very good archers, herdsmen from the mountains and valleys and high bleak plains of what had been Montana and northern Wyoming. They were raised in the saddle and lived by the bow, but he'd seen more organization in brothel-and-bar brawls than in most of the CUT's rancher levies. The Sword of the Prophet wasn't here right now, thank God... or Manwë and Varda. No regular troops of any sort from the CUT-Boise alliance, not yet.
Down into another swale, a spurt of soil and gravel flicking forward under the hooves, the horse and the rider as one. He looked left and right; the landscape here was deceptive, closing in and opening out suddenly into huge vistas that seemed to go on forever. Rudi... the High King... had picked this battlefield and spent months patiently drawing the enemy onto it for the possibilities, which was a sign of cool nerves and confidence. If you could surprise the enemy they could return the favor, and war was a matter of split-second chances. He'd have been a lot more uneasy personally if he hadn't spent a lot of his youth fighting on the Great Plains west of the Red River, especially the Dakota badlands. That was tricky country too.
And running a fight is like playing four games of chess at once, only you can't see half the pieces. Crap. I used to think this was exciting. Of course, I was young and stupid then, a hard-on with legs.
The air was still cool to chilly, and fresh with recent rain; about ideal for fighting, if you had to do it. It kept the dust-pillars of units moving to engage separate too, so far, rather than merging into a single choking pall. He scanned them and judged that nobody travelling with a lot of friends was likely to come uninvited to the dance in the next twenty minutes, so he could carry on with his original plan. Balances of time and distance and numbers moved in his head beneath the surface of conscious thought.
"Signal at speed," he snapped.
Mark raised the trumpet to his lips, filled his lungs and blew. Most of the horses were already reacting by the time their riders shifted in the saddle; the First Richland had come a long way since it was a collection of quarrelsome blue-bloods from the Farmer and Sheriff families of the Kickapoo valley back in the Free Republic. They'd known what to do even then, but now they just did it. Beneath him Boy rocked up to his best speed, nostrils flaring as his head pumped. Ingolf moved easily with the long swooping rhythm of the big bay gelding's gallop, a lifetime skill.
Up the other side of the swale, and the enemy saw that their prey were escaping. Raw whoops rose, a kiy-yi-yipping sound, and then the harsh eerie Cut! Cut! Cut! war-chant of the Church Universal and Triumphant. He looked over his shoulder and judged distances; they were getting a burst of speed out of their horses, but it would leave them winded soon. And they didn't have their remount strings right with them. Trade-offs, everything was trade-offs...
Now just watch the stakes, he tried to project at his men mentally.
There were a set of four peeled withes stuck in the low rise ahead, spaced about a hundred yards apart. Totally inconsequential unless you were looking for them.
Come on, you cheeseheads, you were briefed.
"Signal columns of platoons," he barked.
The trumpet sounded again, brassy and harsh. The long formation stuttered and changed, as if the sound were playing directly on the nervous systems of men and horses; it turned from a long double line into four columns each three men across and twenty deep. They did it without even a moment's check to their speed, like a square-dance on horseback, and Ingolf felt an instant's flickering glow of pride under his focus.
Over the low swelling crest, each column trampling a stake as it went. The Cutters were after them fast now, ready to plaster them with arrows and then close in with the shete, the eastern cutting-sword. Being outnumbered was a recipe for a massacre in a swarming melee fight like that, where drill and discipline counted for much less. Down into the shallow draw, up the other side and—
The trumpet sounded. Ingolf peeled out of the formation as each snake of horsemen turned in its own length, the whole becoming a thicker column again. Mark was beside him. The others thundered by, and he waved sharply to Major Jaeger as he passed. The second-in-command had been promoted this summer, after his predecessor had stopped an arrow in a skirmish far east of here, but he was shaping nicely.
Then he turned in the saddle to look back where they'd come. The ground itself just on this side of the crest writhed and shook, or so it seemed. That was a thousand Mackenzie archers shedding their war-cloaks, the shaggy surfaces studded with loops holding bits of bunchgrass. They could be hard to spot if you were walking within ten feet of them, much less riding a galloping horse a hundred yards away.
Even Mary, with proper Dúnedain Ranger loftiness, admitted that they did it fairly well, usually.
"Get 'em, kilties!" Mark shouted enthusiastically, as the savage wail of bagpipes playing the Ravens Pibroch echoed, and beneath the hoarse drone sounded the thudding, booming, rattling hammer of the Lambeg drums.
Ingolf nodded grimly himself. They'd stood with arrows on the strings of their longbows, the great yellow staves of mountain yew coming up as they walked a half-dozen steps to top the crest in their three-deep harrow formation. Nobody was going to miss them now; the morning light on the arrowheads was like sun sparkling on mica in rocks, and their faces were painted for war in a riot of black and scarlet and blue and green.
By then the Cutters had realized what was happening. Some of them shot a patter of arrows, some drew their shetes to try and charge home with cold steel, and more turned to run; none of their choices did much good, except to tie the not-really-formation into an immovable mass of cursing men and rearing, neighing horses for half a hideous minute.
"Let the grey geese fly!" he heard the Mackenzie bow-captains shout. "Wholly together—loose!"
The Clan's warriors pulled the arrows back with that peculiar-looking half-squatting, half-leaning motion and the right hand ending back behind the angle of the jaw, as if they were standing between two trees and trying to push them down—what they called shooting inside the bow. Then a long snapping crackle with a whistling tone beneath it as they shot. The enemy horse were fifty yards from the bow-line, no more, about half trying to wheel and run and the other half still pushing forward. Coming to a dead stop on a single galloping horse was hard enough, doing it en masse without warning was a nightmare of bone-breaking collisions waiting to happen unless you'd practiced it over and over.
The heavy clothyard shafts sleeted out, a thousand together and then two hundred a second, moving in long shallow arcs that were a blurring flicker of deadly speed through the air, tipped with narrow punch-headed bodkin points and twirling as the curved vanes of the flight-feathers spun them. Two hundred feet a second. Half a second to the target.
None of the enemy horsemen wore more than a light mail shirt, and those were usually made of old fence wire with the rings just butted together rather than riveted. Most were in boiled leather vests with a few pieces of metal added, their shields were light round hide circles on bentwood frames, and some didn't even have helmets. That sort of gear was about as effective as a wet wool shirt against what was going to hit them.
The sound as the bodkins struck was halfway between hail on a shake roof and hammers hitting meat in a slaughterhouse. The enemy seemed to stutter in mid-stride, and then their mass burst like a glass jar under a boot. Horses screamed, louder and more piteous than the cries of men; he could see them rearing, bucking at the intolerable pain of steel and cedarwood gouging into their bodies, going over and then more horses hitting them and tripping, bumped into each other's paths by companions on either side, or trying to leap the sudden impassable obstacle thrashing in front of them. Men would be crushed under ton-weights of panicked writhing horseflesh, and when horses fell over at speed they broke.
More flights of arrows lashed down into the tangle, and more, and more. Probably half the riders had been hit in the first thirty seconds, over a hundred killed, many more wounded, and more of their mounts. A spray of the lucky or slow or timid exploded from the back of the enemy group, spurring frantically westward and not even bothering to turn and shoot over their horse's rumps.
Ingolf winced slightly. He'd had enough experience of the Cutters, as a prisoner of theirs for starters, that he didn't pity them even slightly. But war was always hard on the horses, who had no choice in the matter.
Some of the running men were on foot, and others were pulled behind up by comrades; once they were out of range, many of the survivors slowed enough to grab the reins of horses running loose. Here and there a banner went up again, and cowhorn trumpets blatted to rally them.
Ingolf turned Boy's head and shifted in the saddle to send him into motion. The reins were knotted together and looped around the horn of his saddle; you were useless as a mounted archer if you couldn't guide your horse by balance and leg-signals alone, just as your horse was useless unless it could read those signals. He reached over his shoulder for an arrow. The Richlanders swung wide around the southern, rightward flank of the Mackenzie archers, shaking out into a double rank line again as they did.
The clansmen stopped shooting well before they'd emptied their quivers. The stood for a moment shaking their bows in the air, and yelling a chant like one great voice:
We are the point—
We are the edge—
We are the wolves that Hecate fed!
We are the bow—
We are the shaft—
We are the darts that Hecate cast!
Ingolf shook his head and shivered slightly. He liked Mackenzies, the little he'd seen of them apart from Rudi and Edain. They were friendly to strangers—that had saved his life when he first arrived in Sutterdown with the Prophet's assassins on his heels. And fine musicians and craftsmen and farmers and some of the best cooks he'd come across in all his travels, and they partied with childlike enthusiasm. But sometimes they could give you the heebies. It had been about this time of year when he'd gotten to Sutterdown; Samhain Eve, in the Clan's calendar.
He could remember that, too, the eerie music and the dancers whirling through the darkened streets masked as Raven and Bear, Wolf and Elk, and the feeling of another world pressing on a veil stretched tissue-thin. Even Nantucket hadn't been all that much weirder.
Mark was looking over his shoulder. "The Mackenzies are pulling out!" he said.
"Yeah," Ingolf nodded.
One reason he had Mark as his signaler was so he could learn command first-hand, even young as he was. Back... not his home, not anymore, but Mark's home, the beloved place they'd both been born and among people he still loved too... Mark was in line to be Sheriff someday. The way things had worked out in most of the Midwest, it was the Sheriff who called out and led the Farmers and their Refugees when a district had to fight. It was a good idea for the Sheriff to have a real grasp of how to handle men in a fight. You hoped for peace, but in the world as it was after the Change you couldn't depend on it. He wanted Readstown to keep doing as well as it had under his father and then his elder brother.
"You notice how the Cutters put their dicks on the chopping block when they ran into our Mackenzie friends?"
Mark nodded, and Ingolf went on: "But that arrowstorm thing they do works best when someone's willing to charge into the teeth of it with their fangs out and hair on fire. It's hard for infantry to attack horsemen who refuse to engage. This particular trick wouldn't have worked against really disciplined opposition, either, or not as well. Right, there's the signal."
They were well out east in front of the ridge the Mackenzies had held; the archers were simply trotting to the rear at a wolf-lope that covered ground surprisingly fast, some of them carrying wounded slung between them sitting on a bowstave, a few others carrying bodies. Northward a fierce blink of light showed, a hand-held mirror catching the sunlight.
"Now this is going to get complicated," he muttered to himself. Louder: "Sound: Advance to contact with fire and movement!"
The First Richland was in line east-west now, facing north towards the shattered, retreating Cutters, who still outnumbered them. They moved up to a canter, and then back to a controlled hand-gallop. He angled in towards the main guidion of the regiment, a flag of dark brown with a bright orange wedge. He went past grim-held faces under the kettle helms; they were young, but by now they all realized down in the gut you could get killed just as dead in a victorious battle as a lost one and leave your bones a very long way from home. The confused boil ahead was sorting itself out.
Yeah, the Cutters're fighting-men, and experienced, he thought. They're not drilled troops but they're survivor types. They took a hard punch in the face but they're getting over it.
Whoever the leaders there were, they'd gotten all the men who could ride onto horses that could run and they were pulling out fast. Arrows began to whine towards the Richlanders, fired over the rump in the way that made chasing about as dangerous as being chased in this style of fighting. They'd be planning on running north until they'd broken contact and then angling east back towards their main body. He brought his own bow up.
"Sound shoot!" he shouted.
To himself: Let's keep their attention well and truly on us.
With a grunt of effort he pulled his shaft to the ear, thick biceps swelling as he brought his bow up to a forty-five degree angle and drew against the resistance of horn and wood and sinew and bent the stave into a deep curve. The string rolled off his gloved fingers and recoil slammed him back in the saddle.
His voice wouldn't carry far in the rush of wind and the drumming thunder of hooves. The action did; the trumpet would, and the way the squad and platoon leaders followed suit even better. Three-hundred-odd arrows whipped up in a high arch, twinkled as they turned and plunged downward, then a steady stream as men shot and shot and shot. Not as many shafts were coming back but they were just as dangerous; here and there one banged off armor or went home in meat. Men or horses dropped out or fell, and the line rippled as the others opened out and then closed up.
Ingolf ducked his head from sheer instinct, letting the brim of his kettle helm shield his face before he was consciously aware of a threat. In the same instant something hit, hard. His head jerked around, but the broken arrow flicked away before he saw it; there would be an ache in his neck muscles tomorrow and a bright scar across the browned steel of the helmet, but it beat dying. He'd tried the Associate-style knight's sallet with a visor, and it made him feel like his head had been riveted into a bucket.
And head-to-toe plate's just not right for a horse-archer's battle, he thought, as something banged off his chest as well, making him grunt in reflex. But this breastplate has a mail shirt beat all to hell, even good riveted mail from Richland, I've got to admit.
It was made of overlapping ripple-edged steel plates in the fashion western knights favored, cunningly curved and fitted and riveted, so that it covered your torso without confining it. Just about as flexible as mail, no heavier, and much stronger—which meant it was a damned sight better at stopping sharp pointy things, particularly arrows and crossbow-bolts. With that and short mail sleeves he felt properly equipped.
Up out of the ground to the north came another clot of several hundred horsemen who'd been lying beside their prone horses, springing into the saddle even as the mounts surged to their feet, and at a gallop almost at once. They weren't in neat lines either, but there was a terrifying wolfish vigor in their attack as the feather headdresses or buffalo-hair crests they wore streamed in the wind. Their shrill screams split the air, and they crashed into the Cutters in a shooting, slashing melee.
"Hokahe, Lakota! Le anpetu kin mat'e kin waste ktelo!" Go for it, Lakota! It's a good day to die! he translated the scream mentally.
He could speak the language of the lords of the high plains, or at least get along in it. As well as a lot of people who belonged to the Seven Council Fires did, at least; most of them spoke English as often or more so. He snapped the bow back into the saddle scabbard at his knee, slid the shield off his back and onto his left arm, and swept out his shete. Shield up under the eyes, sword up and angled back...
"Sound Charge! And Blades!"
The jaws of the trap swung closed; not many of the Cutters escaped, as the greater wear on their horses told. One turned and drove at him with a spear poised. Ingolf judged the distances and angled his round shield. The point hit it hard enough to jar his arm and shoulder, but slid over the sheet steel facing. Before the man could recover the Richlander's shete lashed down, splitting mail links and driving into the meat and bone of his arm.
Ingolf wrenched the heavy curved shete free, using the momentum of his horse as they sped by each other to drag against the clutch of riven bone and muscle, looking around for another foeman. None were visible, unless you counted the ones who'd gotten a good head start eastward. The Richlanders rode right through what was left of the Cutters, leaving a trail of empty saddles behind them—striking in a mass doubled or tripled the impact.
By then... A galloping figure pulled up next to him.
"More coming up from the east, sir," a man from the flanking platoon said. "De were close on dis bunch's ass."
Developing our position, he thought. Somebody over there is feeding in troops to make sure where we are and what terrain we'll fight for.
The flanker was panting, and blood cut through the dust on his face along with the sweat, from a slash that reached from his right ear nearly to his pale-blue eye through stubble so fair it was nearly invisible. He had his shete out, there was red clotting on it, and his round shield had score-marks where blows had split the thin metal facing over the bullhide and plywood. Two black-fletched arrows stood in it as well, and he absently broke them off with the blade of his shete as he spoke.
"Can't be sure, sir, dey had more than us out screening, but plenty, you betcha. Yah hey, two, t'ree thousand, maybe more, from the dust. N'less dey're dragging brush."
"Good. Dismissed, and get a bandage on that cut."
"Uff da, I am cut!" the man said, touching his face in mild surprise before he saluted and rode off.
Rick Three Bears cantered up. "We've...
"Got trouble coming, yah," Ingolf said to the Sioux incantan, war-chief.
Rick grinned, which with the war-paint of black and white on his proud-nosed face and the buffalo-hair and horns on his steel cap gave him a faintly alarming look. There were eagle feathers woven into the not-quite-black braids that fell past his shoulders, and a look of ironic good cheer in his dark hazel eyes; he was a tallish rangy ropy-muscled man, but not quite as thick through the shoulders as Ingolf. There was a ceremonial vest of white bone tubes over his perfectly functional shirt of riveted Iowa-made mail, too, and scalp hair sewn into the outside seam of his leather britches.
"More trouble than this," Rick clarified. "But then again, we won't have to deal with it ourselves. There's something to be said for this white-eyes army shit. Nice to have friends when you already have a lot of enemies."
Behind him his men were finishing the last of the Cutters; there were about as many of them as the Richlanders, a token of the Lakota nation's allegiance to the new kingdom while most of their men fought out east. There was an occasional scream and the guttural shout of Hoon! Hoon! as they worked with spear and shete and long knife.
Hoon! was what a Sioux said when he stabbed you to death, sort of a more elegant tribal equivalent of Die, you cocksucking sonofabitch, die! They weren't stopping to take scalps. Not very often, at least.
Ingolf had spent the first few years of his adult life fighting the Sioux, or what a nineteen-year-old taking an excuse to go running away from home had thought was adult life and looking back from this middle thirties he considered a period when he'd been a large, very dangerous child blundering and hacking his way through obstacles and people. He'd been part of a Richlander volunteer force helping the Bossmen of Fargo and Marshall fighting to keep the Red River Valley and vicinity. Nominally in command of a company of enthusiasts just as pig-ignorant as he was, but mostly not as lucky. It had been a bloody draw, more or less; at least the border had stayed just where it started out, a little more than halfway across what had been North and South Dakota before the Change. With the main difference being a lot of fresh graves and burned-out farms and lost crops and slaughtered livestock.
Those years had been an education in many senses of the word. Nobody who'd ridden with Icepick Olson and come back alive from the freezing red ruin of the Badlands Raid was ever going to be completely relaxed when someone screamed Hoon! close by.
It produced an almost irresistible impulse to shout Guard your hair, boys! and dive for cover, shield up and shete ready.
Even if you've been adopted by the Oglalla and called Iron Bear, he thought. And Christ... by the Valar, I mean... that was pretty damned scary too.
Rick held up two fingers split in a V and then pulled them back towards himself with his palm parallel to the ground. "Still want to pull 'em after us that way?"
"Yeah, it's working so far and it's what we said we'd do," he said. "Let's go. It isn't really a very good day to die."
"Who said anything about us dying, cousin? Better to give than to receive."
The dead and seriously wounded had gone back, mostly over captured horses with a few of the walking-wounded leading them; walking wounded meant men who could move but not fight. Nobody thought of minor cuts like the slash on the scout's face as real wounds. Everyone else had dismounted, and all the smarter ones had poured their canteens into a helmet and held them for the horses to take a drink. Sergeants encouraged the others to do that too, often with a cuff across the back of the head.
A thirsty man could keep going on willpower much longer than a horse; horses just lay down and gave up when they got sufficiently miserable. Willpower didn't mean squat if a slow horse got you an arrow through the gizzard, though.
"Boots and saddles!" Ingolf said, and Mark raised his trumpet.
Copyright © 2011-2012 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>