Waldo Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon.
March 5th, 2008 AD/Change Year Nine
The Grand Constable of the Portland Protective Association looked back at the tumbled wreckage of the bridge, and coughed slightly at the wafts of bitter smoke from the wagons that had born the framework of his portable castle. The bodies lay about it; he gritted his teeth at the tumbled naked corpses of his men-at-arms. Their commander still looked comically surprised as he sprawled on his side in a pool of congealed blood swarming with flies. The stump of the arrow that had killed him had broken off short when someone pulled the hauberk and gambeson off over his head; that someone now had a fine suit of mail, with only one small hole in it.
Conrad Renfrew repressed an urge to dismount and kick him in the face. It wouldn't do any good; it wasn't as if the idiot was still alive and able to feel it. Besides, right now his boots were full of water from fording the stream. The engineers were getting a temporary wooden bridge ready, but that would take at least eighteen hours, short as they were of grunt labor.
And I'm short a dozen men-at-arms and a knight, he thought sourly. The infantry weren't that much of a much, but losing skilled lancers hurt. Men-at-arms had scarcity value, and knights also had relatives and comrades who mattered at court.
"So I reckoned the only thing I could do was get the word to you," the mercenary said, tugging at his forked beard. "There were a few too many of 'em for my boys to tackle. They didn't lose more 'n four, five all up when they ambushed your folks."
"Course, a lot of them peons got it where the chicken got the axe while they was swarmin' over your boys. We had a ringside seat over there on the other side of the water."
He jerked a thumb at a file of nearly fifty bodies laid out in a row, all of them with the iron collars still on their necks.
"You're not here just to drink and screw the peon girls, Sheriff Bauer," Renfrew rumbled.
He knew his face intimidated most men, which was some compensation for the memory of pain. The fact that they were surrounded by the household knights of the Constable's personal guard shouldn't have hurt either, but Bauer was smiling slightly... or that might just be his own scar, which was as spectacular as any of the Constable's, and stood out more for being alone. Renfrew tapped the serrated steel head of his mace on his stirrup iron with a chink... chink... sound and stared at him; the other's green eyes blinked innocently.
Aloud the Portland commander went on: "Or to sit in the saddle across a chest-deep creek and watch my men getting massacred while you pick lice out of your beards."
Bauer shrugged. "We ain't here to get kilt for no reason, neither. Your men weren't outnumbered much but they managed to lose that fight good and proper, the way them Rangers outsmarted 'em and took 'em by surprise; the only ones got out was the ones we took with us. Then I lost three good men chasin' the Rangers into the woods when they pulled out afterwards. You got too many woods around here for comfort. But that was fair business; like you say, we're here to fight, and I'm a man of my word. We're not here to get our asses kicked certain-sure."
Renfrew shrugged massive shoulders made more so by armor and padding. It was a fair point. The Pendleton area was theoretically under the Association now, but they couldn't afford to lean too hard on the men from there yet. They were volunteers from the winning faction the Protector had backed, and from a mercenary's point of view, Bauer had been making a perfectly valid argument. You couldn't expect hired men to throw themselves away on a forlorn hope just to do the enemy some damage, and you couldn't punish them if you wanted them to stick around. A mercenary leader's men were his capital assets, and if he lost too many of them then he had nothing to sell. This particular band were the Sheriff's friends and kinfolk and neighbors, as well.
In fact, that little pursuit was well-handled. At least thanks to Bauer I've got some idea which way they went, and he did save a dozen crossbowmen.
"OK," he said, turning and looking at the wagons again. "We'll salvage the metal; they can rework it at the foundries up in Oregon City. And get someone to pull those oxen out of the river and hang them up to drain. No sense in letting good meat spoil."
"My boys already got one ready to barbeque," Bauer said. "We can handle the rest iff'n you want us to."
He gave a vague sketchy salute and wandered off. Renfrew looked over at his clerk. "Do up a report and have it ready for dispatch to the Lord Protector inside twenty minutes," he said.
That got the man out of earshot. He was probably reporting to the Church and certainly to the Chancellery as well; it was amazing how a country with less people than a medium-sized city in the old days could develop layers of competing institutions and factions. Then he turned to the young knight beside him who commanded his guards:
"Buzz, get that idiot Melford's body packed up and send it on back to his kin with the usual nonsense about how bravely he died."
"Why not leave it for the buzzards and the coyotes?" Sir Buzz Akers said.
He was one of the Constable's own vassals, whose father had seizin of a manor near the castle at Odell; Renfrew had known the family in the Society before the Change, and arranged to get them the estate when he led the conquest of the Hood Valley for the Association, back in the second Change Year. The father stayed home these days and did his military service as castle garrison commander, since he had a leg that would never work very well again; that happened when they were smoking a lunatic archer in green out of the ruins of Seattle on a salvage mission five years ago. The son was here to learn, as well as serve.
And because my family will need loyal, able vassals if I kick off too early. He hadn't married until after the Change, his Countess was a gentle soul, and his children were all young.
"I won't leave the carrion where it belongs because it would piss off his family," Renfrew said. "Otherwise that's just what I'd do. Who cares if the coyotes choke on it?" He looked up at the sky; three hours to sunset. "That fool didn't scout carefully enough, and it's cost us a day and that fort, God-damn it!"
Akers nodded. "Are we going to bring up more timber?"
"Not in time enough to do much good. Without the steel cladding and braces it's too vulnerable; we'll do what we can with earthworks for now and get fancy later. You take over here, Buzz; I've got to get back and make sure that Piotr doesn't screw things while I'm gone. Though how he could foul up a straight advance to the Santiam with three hundred troops, God only knows."
"Sir Ernaldo's a good man," the knight observed.
"And if Piotr would listen to him, I wouldn't worry so much. I wish he was over fighting the Bearkillers. He hates them but he doesn't underestimate them. I've tried to hammer into his head how dangerous the kilties can be if you let them call the tune for the dance, but it won't sink in. Sometimes—"
He made a gesture with the steel mace to show how he'd like to hammer some sense into the younger nobleman. Akers laughed.
"It's a pity Old Man Stavarov's too important to diss," he said, shaking his head regretfully.
Renfrew nodded. That was one of the drawbacks of the Association's setup. His aide went on: "I think Piotr may underestimate the kilties because they look so fucking weird—all those kilts and plaids and bagpipes, and that dumb face-painting thing they do. And that screwy religion of theirs. All that makes it hard to take them seriously, unless you know what's under the make-believe."
Renfrew started to nod, and then looked around at his host of spearmen and crossbowmen, the armored knights with the plumes fluttering from their helmets and the pennants from their lances, the golden spurs on their heels and the quartered blazons on their shields, the peasant laborers in their tabards by the oxcarts and the monk-doctors seeing to the wounded...
Akers glanced at him oddly as he started to laugh. "What's so funny?" he enquired.
"How old were you at the Change, Buzz?"
"I'd just turned twelve... well, hell, you'd been giving me sword lessons for a year already then, my lord Count. Why do you ask?"
"If you have to ask why it's funny to say the Mackenzies look weird, you're too young to ever understand," the thickset scar-faced man said. Then he looked southward and scowled.
"This whole plan is too fucking complicated," he muttered. "Not enough allowance for screwups and accidents, too many separate things we're trying to do all at once."
"My lord? If you think it's too complicated, why didn't you advise the Lord Protector and the Council of War?"
"Why do you think it isn't even more complicated, Buzz?" Renfrew grunted.
"This ambush couldn't have been anticipated," his aide remarked, obviously trying to be fair.
"Not exactly. Not the details. But Sir Buzz, when you're up against anyone good enough to give you a run for their money, you can be pretty damned sure that they're going to fuck you somehow at some point and the first you'll know about it is when the bunny dies. That's why you build in a margin of error; every added bit of fancy footwork means another opportunity for the other side. We're not fighting some pissant village militia in Lower Butt-Scratch, equipped with baseball bats and kitchen knives tied on broomsticks and old traffic signs for shields. Not this time. I get this feeling I'm trying to juggle too many balls with not enough hands."
"Not to mention the kilties are tricky," Akers said. "Christ, how I wish we'd managed to wipe them out when they were small, back in the first Change year. Now those bastards have plans of their own."
Renfrew forbore to mention that Akers had been a page then, and just getting used to the idea that all this wasn't a tournament or a trip to the Pennsic with his folks, and that he'd never be going on to high school.
Instead he shrugged: "Right. The enemy, that dirty dog, usually does have a plan of his own. That's why we call him the enemy. It's a mistake to think your plan isn't going to trip over their plan."
Such frankness was slightly risky, since it was the Lord Protector's orders they were critiquing, but Sir Buzz and his family were the Count of Odell's own sworn vassals, not the Lord Protector's. The Grand Constable was Arminger's own vassal himself, but Norman needed him nearly as much as vice versa.
And if he wanted to avoid his noblemen saying what they thought sometimes, he should have based this setup on Byzantium or the Chin Legalists, not William the Bastard's Normandy.
He slapped his gauntlets into the palm of his left hand, then began to pull them on. "All right, let's get to work. Keep a sharp eye out and don't let your lancers get in bowshot of any cover without beating it clear first. Those damned Rangers are too tricky for comfort and the kilties aren't much better."
Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon
March 5th 2008 AD/Change Year 9
Epona turned her head and butted Rudi Mackenzie affectionately in the chest. He laughed and shooed a horsefly away from her nostril; it was starting to get warm enough for them. Then he hugged her neck as she tried to nibble at his hair, the warm scent of horse all around him. The long dark stable smelled of horses-in-general, manure-musk, the sweet hay stored above their heads, the dry sneeze-scent of straw and sawdust on the ground, of liniment and leather. Light came through the big double doors down at the other end, or through knotholes that had fallen out of the fir boards, spearing into the dimness in shafts of yellow swimming with dust-motes. Now and then a horse would shift a foot with a soft hollow clop of horn and steel on the dirt floor, or make wet tearing and crunching sounds as it stripped grass-and-clover fodder through the wooden bars of a crib and ate.
We did a lot of shoveling out, Rudi thought virtuously. And we oiled all that tack and pitched the hay down and groomed all the horses that're left. And got all that schoolwork done this morning. I deserve some time for myself. 'sides, Epona'll get antsy if she doesn't get a run. She needs to run.
Besides, it would help him forget that his mother and so many of his friends were away at war.
Mathilda's big black tomcat Saladin looked at him with bored yellow eyes; the feline didn't think it was warm enough on the ground, and was curled up on the withers of the black mare. The two animals had become friends, which was strange, since Epona still wasn't friendly much with anyone but him, and usually responded to small annoying things with an uncomplicated stomp. But then, she and Saladin had come to Dun Juniper about the same time, last Lughnasadh, and they'd both lived in the stables; Saladin ran the gauntlet every evening so he could cadge stuff at dinner and sleep on Mathilda's bed, but the Hall cats were still hissing and spitting and generally making him unwelcome every chance they got.
Mathilda was off in one corner of the loose-box, sitting cross-legged on a bale of hay and watching him currycomb his horse, with a book open on her lap—he could see an archer in a helmet and jack drawing a longbow on the cover. He recognized his own copy of The Free Companions with the Wyeth illustrations, a gift from his great-great uncle to Juniper before he was born, and from her to him; he'd read it with Matti while he was in the tail-end of his convalescence, restless with the orders that kept him quiet and in bed so much.
It was a great story, and the people and everything in it were a lot more understandable than most books from before the Change. Sir Nigel had told him more stories about the people in it, too; he'd had more books by the same writer when he was a kid, a man named Donan Coyle.
Two big shaggy-brown young dogs named Ulf and Fenra were curled up with her, siblings from a litter old Cuchulain had sired with a mastiff bitch three years ago. Ulf had his head on her feet, thumping his tail absently when she patted him now and then, and Fenra was pretending to be asleep, but occasionally sneaking a mock-casual peek at Saladin and heaving a wistful sigh. She was far too respectful of Epona's hooves and probably of the cat's claws to do anything about it, though.
"She needs a run," Rudi said to the air, clearing his throat to add emphasis. "Epona needs a run."
Aoife and Liath were on guard, which for the past half-hour had meant sitting in the next loose-box; they'd been talking softly until a few moments ago. He cleared his throat again and spoke more loudly:
"I said, Epona needs a run! I'm gonna take her out."
A giggle came from the loose-box beyond this one, hidden by the barrier between, planks as tall as a grown man's chest. Then Aoife cleared her throat in turn and said from there, a bit breathless: "Didn't Sally say something about an arithmetic assignment your crop of little goblins had to have ready by Monday?"
"Aoife, I haven't told anyone about that poem you wrote about Liath. And it was really soppy. I bet everyone would laugh and laugh and laugh when they heard you said her eyes were like two pools of—."
"Poem?" Mathilda said, looking up with interest from the book.
He felt a little guilty about blackmailing Aoife—she'd been using scraps of smooth bark for practice and probably hadn't thought anyone would go to the trouble of picking them out of the Hall's kitchen kindling-box. On the other hand, he was a ten-year-old kid... nearly ten... and she was twenty-one, so it was only fair that he was sneaky now and then. Aoife had been so caught up in composing it she barely complained when Uncle Chuck—her father—made her and her friend stay here on guard duty rather than ride with the First Levy.
"Poem?" another voice from the other loose-box said, even more breathless. "You wrote a poem for me?"
"Hey, I'll tell you about it later, all right, honeybunch?" Silence, and then Aoife rose and came around to the door of the stall, brushing straw out of her dark-red hair and off her kilt. "OK, sprout. Just on the meadow, though. It's a couple of hours 'till dinner, anyway."
Epona tossed her head as if she knew what was happening, and tossed it again and stamped a foot eagerly as Rudi and Mathilda started to get the tack ready. The big black mare had the loose-box all to herself, and did even when the stables were full; there were three horses in the next, though. The girl's favorite horse was out with the levy, who had first call, but a good solid cob was available from the remains of the common pool kept for Clan business; it crunched a carrot enthusiastically, and then sighed as the saddle blanket was tossed over its back. They led it ambling over to a mounting block so that they could saddle it.
"Lazy old thing!" Mathilda said, shaking a finger at the bay gelding. "See if I give you any more carrots!"
"Well, how would you feel if someone put an iron bar in your mouth and made you run around carrying them on your back?" Rudi said reasonably.
"But that's a horse's job," Mathilda said. "Look at Epona—she'd put on her own tack if she could."
"That's Epona," Rudi pointed out.
"Yeah," Mathilda agreed. "I think she could talk, if she wanted to."
"She does talk, to me. But for most of them, it's just what they have to do 'cause we tell 'em to," Rudi said. "What they really like is hanging out with their herd, and eating."
He lifted his own saddle—both the children were using a light pad type—off its rest and carried it over to Epona; she stood patiently while he clambered up on a box and laid it carefully on her back over the saddle-blanket. The tall mare seemed to be on the brink of a run even standing still; she was glossy black, her mane combed to a silky fall; she was also sixteen hands, and better than a thousand pounds, for all that she was as agile as the sulky Saladin, now looking down at them resentfully from a cross-timber where he'd jumped when pushed off his equine heating pad. Aoife leaned against a wooden pillar with her arms crossed, chewing on a straw and offering comments as he arranged the straps and buckles.
Epona stood still for it, though, with no more movement than shifting weight from foot to foot, not even swelling her belly out when the girth was buckled on. He didn't use a bit, just a hackamore bridle; Epona needed no compulsion to go the way she should.
Liath appeared a few seconds later, blushing furiously when Rudi made a languishing kissy-face at her behind Aoife's back. The two adults carefully checked the harness on both horses, then nodded before picking out mounts and getting started on their own heavier war-saddles, what the oldsters called a Western type. When the horses were ready they pulled on their own harness; padded jackets with elbow-length mail sleeves and leather-lined mail collars and the brigandines that went over that. The torso-armors had a heavy smooth liquid motion as the warriors swung them on and buckled the straps on their left flanks, making a subdued chinking sound as the small rectangular plates shifted between the inner and outer layers of green-dyed leather.
"Good job, sprout," Aoife said, running her fingers over Epona's harness without quite touching it—the tall warmblood mare still didn't like anyone but Rudi laying a hand on her. "You've got a natural talent for horses. Yours is pretty good too, Matti. You're really picking it up."
"I'm glad I've learned how to do it for myself," Matti said. "Now I'll always know how."
Unexpectedly, shy Liath spoke up with a grin and a joke as she strung her long yew bow: "What don't you have a natural talent for, Rudi?"
"Arithmetic," he said, making his face serious. "I really have to work at that."
The warriors buckled on the broad metal-studded leather belts that held their short-swords and dirks and bucklers, then slung their quivers and longbows over their shoulders; Liath took a battle spear from where she'd leaned it beside the big doors, the edges glinting coldly in the stuffy dimness of the stables.
"Don't forget your plaid, sprout," Aoife said. "And your jacket, Matti. Still pretty brisk out there."
"You're worse than Mom," Rudi said.
"You betcha I am! The Chief lets you get away with anything. Put it on. It's a lot chillier out there."
Rudi rolled his eyes, shrugged, then wrapped and belted the blanket-like tartan garment, pinning it at his shoulder with a brooch of silver-and-niello knotwork; he didn't feel the cold as much as most people, but Aoife was always at him like a mother duck with one duckling. Aoife's foster-mother Judy had always fussed at her children, and she'd picked it up.
I feel sorry for her kids, when she has them, he thought, then shrugged ruefully. She just doesn't want me to catch a chill 'cause she likes me.
Mathilda put on her red woolen jacket and buttoned it; that was a gift from her mother in Portland, and a really nice piece of weaving—Juniper Mackenzie said so, and she was an excellent judge, being the best loomster the Clan had. Then she proudly added a belt with a dirk.
They all led their horses out of the warm dim stables; the dogs followed along with their tongues lolling and tails wagging, glad to be moving too. The way to the gate turned right from there, past the hot clamor of the smith's shop with its open front and bearded mask of Goibniu Lord of Iron done in wrought metal and fixed to the smoke-hood over the forge-hearth, flanked by the Hammer and the great twisted horn that held the Mead of Life. Rudi's feet slowed for a moment. The master-smith was sitting at a bench with drill and punch and file, putting the finishing touches on a helmet shaped from a sheet of steel plate, keeping an eye on his apprentices at the same time. One pumped her turn at the bellows with weary resignation. Another at the square stone hearth took an odd-looking thing like a cross between a spearhead and a spade out of the white-glowing charcoal in his tongs and held it on the anvil as he shaped the crimson metal with his hammer, clang! and a shower of sparks and clang! again and then swiftly clang-clang-clang-clang, muscle moving under the sweat-slick skin of his thick arms, face sharply intent on the task.
Then he plunged it in the quenching bath with a seething bubble and hiss of oily steam, held it up for the master to see and got a nod of approval before he returned to the finicky task of putting in the hinge for one of the helm's cheek-pieces. Another apprentice was doing farrier-work, shoeing a horse—one of the big Suffolks—and looked up from the hoof to wave her hammer, smiling around a mouthful of long horseshoe nails. A wave of heat and the smell of charcoal and scorched hoof and hot iron came out of the smithy, and soap and boiling water and wet cloth from the laundry behind it.
Gotta go, Rudi thought reluctantly, though he wouldn't have minded lingering a bit; smithing fascinated him, and the making of weapons in particular. But someday I'm going to learn that stuff.
He couldn't do it as a living—Mom had other plans, and people would disapprove, and what he really wanted was to be First Armsman of the Clan someday—but there wasn't any reason he couldn't help out the master smith when he was a bit older and big enough to be useful. Everyone said he had clever hands, and he was already good at making little things, harness straps and carvings and pottery.
In the open roadway between the stables and the infirmary the air was sharper, with the cool damp bite of early spring, though the day was fair. Rudi felt his blood flow faster as he took a deep breath, and when the prickle of sweat on his skin went chill he was glad of the plaid.
Aoife still fusses, he grumbled to himself.
Under the usual smells was a spicy-sharp one from a two-wheeled cart near the infirmary doors, drawn by a pair of oxen; Aunt Judy was there, wearing a long stained bib-apron and inspecting bundles of dried herbs and bark, and talking with a man who he recognized as a healer from a dun down on the southern border of the Clan's lands.
"Hi, mom!" Aoife called; the situation was too casual for merry met. "How's it going?"
"Hello, Aoife. Hi to you too, Liath—still keeping bad company, I see," Judy Barstow Mackenzie said. "I'm just checking the willow-bark and tansy Frank brought in. If you two don't have anything to do, we'll be chopping and steeping and distilling, the children could watch..."
Aoife grinned. "I'm a warrior on Clan business, Mom, orders from Dad-the-second-Armsman no less," she said. "Taking the sprouts out for some exercise counts as part of the job, since they can't go alone."
"Clan business," Judy sniffed, and put her hands on her hips. Rudi smiled to see it; Mom used exactly the same gesture. She and Judy had been friends forever. "Meaning you get to laze about snogging with your girlfriend while everyone else works."
It was strange to think of them as young like him and Matti, running around and playing.
"Snogging?" Mathilda said, sotto voce.
"Snogging. Liplocking," Rudi answered with an innocent look, and somewhat louder, watching the tips of Liath's ears turn red—she hadn't taken off her flat bonnet and put the helmet on yet. "Smooching."
Then Aunt Judy grinned; even at Matti. She wasn't what you could call easy with the girl yet, but she was trying.
"I'd like to help you with the herbs again," Matti said. "Could I do that later?"
"Sure," Judy said. "I think you've got a talent for the healing arts. Drop by after dinner, and I'll show you how we make the willowbark extract."
Rudi gave his mother's best friend a big grin. She was trying. She snorted at him, then winked and pushed Epona's head away when the mare came up and nuzzled at the herbs on the cart—or rather began to; that way the horse knew enough not to try a nibble, and she saved her fingers. Then they led their horses out onto the graveled roadway that ran all around the oval interior of Dun Juniper, in front of the log cottages and workshops built up against the inside of the wall, turning right towards the gate and the tall green roof of the Hall. Cold wind ruffled the puddles from yesterday's rain; they were gray with rock-dust from the pavement. They walked through snatches of conversation, the thump of looms and the hammering of a gang doing repairs on one of the heavy ladders that ran up between the cottages to the fighting platform, the tippty-tap-tap ching!-tappy-tap-tap of a typewriter, through gaggles of younger children running and yelling and playing, and faintly the sound of a work-song from a group kneading bread in the Hall kitchens. A sharp scent of fennel and sausage and garlic meant someone was making pizza.
Smells good, Rudi thought, and took a handful of dried plums from his pouch, offering them to the others. Mathilda took one; the two warriors shook their heads.
Early flowers bloomed in the narrow strip of garden that each house had on either side of the path leading up to the doorways, mostly crocus in lavender-blue and gold. Many householders were touching up the paint on the carvings that rioted over the little houses as well, making them bright for Ostara with proud defiance. The northern foe might be at the doorstep, their sons and daughters and brothers out with the First Levy, but he wasn't going to stop anyone from showing their best for the Lord and Lady!
Rudi waved at friends as they went by. You didn't ride inside the walls without good reason, since anything from a chicken to a toddler might dart mindlessly under the hooves, even now with Dun Juniper was a lot less busy than usual; nearly a hundred people had gone with the levy, and there was a subdued waiting feel to the rest, even as they went about the day's work. He could hear a ritual going on in the covenstead, even though it was still only a few hours past noon, and feel the pulse of power in the air as folk called on the Mighty Ones to aid their kin.
"Just going out for some exercise," Aoife called up to the guards on the gate-tower; Uncle Dennis was in charge there today, one of the older folk filling in with so many of the youngest and strongest gone.
"Well, that should be OK," he said, leaning on his great axe. "Be careful, though. We don't have as many scouts out as usual. Don't go past the lookout station."
The tunnel through the gatehouse was dark; that made him blink as they came through into sunlight once more. Dun Juniper faced southward, and lay at the midpoint of a sloping ledge that ran east and west on the mountainside, an island of rolling meadow amid the steep forests; it was half a mile wide here in the middle, and tapered in either direction to make a rough lens shape. The little plateau that held the Dun gave him a view of it, the rolling green and the occasional warm brown of plowed earth, the fences and hedges and the white dots of sheep, the red-coated white-faced cattle, then the tips of the fir-trees downslope, and the hills in the blue distance beyond. You couldn't see the valley below that held Dun Fairfax, or the road leading out westward into the Willamette. North and east peaks floated white and perfect against the dusky blue of the sky; that was full of birds as the spring migration got under way, great white pelicans, ducks, geese, snow swans... and then a burst of panic sent wings in every direction as a bald eagle wheeled above.
The day was mild for March—just warm enough to sweat if you were working yourself hard, just on the cool side of comfortable if you were standing still. The sky was canyons of blue and white as they halted on the small paved square outside the gate, broken fluffy white shapes hanging like cloud castles in the infinite blue over the low green mountains southward. The first camas were out in the meadows, small blue eyes blinking at him from among the fresh green, and the first tiny white blossoms of the hawthorn on the young hedges; the cool sweet scent was in the spring air, along with new grass and the intense fir-sap of the stirring trees in the woods around. Rudi waved back at the gate-guards, and called out another greeting to some clansfolk planting gladiolas and dahlias in the flower-gardens down at the base of the plateau. More were pruning and grafting in the orchards that would soon froth in pink and white billows and turn the air sweet.
They mounted and walked their horses down the slope to the level, then cantered eastward; Epona whickered, and a stallion paced along beside them behind a board fence for a while. Cattle and sheep in the next paddock raised incurious heads for an instant, then went back to cropping at the fresh grass. They drew rein at the eastern head of the benchland meadow, by the pool and waterfall. The graveled, graded dirt road stretched west behind them the full mile of open country; ahead of them it turned sharply right—southward—running down through the woods with the flow of Artemis Creek. That was the main wagon road to Dun Fairfax, turning in a U to head west again on the lower level and out into the Willamette Valley proper.
Liath and Aoife were singing as they rode. He recognized the tune, a hymn to the Goddess in Her aspect as the Lady of the Blossom-time:
"Oh, ladies bring your flowers fair
Fresh as the morning dew—
In virgin white and through the night
I will make sweet love to you.
The petals soon grow soft and fall
Upon which we may rest
With gentle sigh I'll softly lie
My head upon your breast—"
The four of them drew rein where the road entered the streamside trees, then turned to face the sun sinking ahead of them.
"And dreams like many wondrous flowers
Will blossom from our sleep;
With steady arm, from any harm
My lady I will keep!
Through soft spring days
And summer's haze—"
People were working in the gardens to their left, an acre for each household and everyone taking turns on the extra Chief's Fifth, mostly plowing and disking in rotted manure and last year's old mulch and compost and fermented waste from the sewage pits, turning the soil to a smooth even brown surface ready for planting. Others were marking beds with string and stakes, and getting in the first cold-season vegetables: peas, lettuce, chard, onions, and cabbage. Tomorrow was a school-day; he might help with the gardens after class. It was fun, getting your hands into the dirt and making things grow. Up by the waterfall others spread sawdust and wood-chips from the sawmill around the berry-bushes.
But today... Rudi could feel the mare's great muscles quivering between his legs, and she tossed her head, begging for the run. Nobody was ahead of them right now on the long white ribbon of road—
"Go!" he cried, and leaned forward, tightening the grip of his thighs.
The horse exploded into motion beneath him, launching herself forward off her haunches and leaving the mounts of the other three behind as if their hooves had been sunk in concrete. The clansfolk working in the gardens laughed as he went past, Epona's great legs throwing gravel head-high. He laughed himself as his bonnet flew off and his red-gold hair streamed out behind him in the cool spring wind, fluttering like the edge of his plaid. Behind him the song cut off as the others followed.
I don't want to get too far ahead, he thought. This isn't any sort of real work for Epona, either.
He turned left—all he had to do was think about it and shift a little, and Epona swerved and then they were airborne as she cleared the roadside ditch and fence. Rudi shouted in delight, and then the horse touched down and pivoted to the right in the same motion, seeming to land lightly as dandelion fluff but scoring the thick turf and sending a spatter of it flying leftward. Mathilda and the two warriors kept to the road, galloping up on his right as horse and boy thundered across the meadow in a scatter of sheep and took the next hedge in another soaring leap, landing without breaking stride.
Matti grinned at him across the rushing distance, hunched forward on her cob—and that stolid gelding looked as if it was starting to enjoy itself too. They passed the Dun again with faint cheers ringing from the gate-towers. Now the two children had drawn ahead—Epona's sheer speed as she took one hedge after another, and the girl's lighter seat on her gelding leaving Liath and Aoife trailing; the women had their war-gear on too, of course, adding thirty pounds or better to their riding weight. Ulf and Fenra were between the guards and the children, dashing at their best pace and sparing a little breath for a bark now and then. A big lean dog—or a wolf—could keep up with a horse in a short sprint, if not longer.
The meadows narrowed around them as they thundered westward, trees drawing in on either side and the ground getting steeper. They went past the tannery with its smelly vats and the bark-mill where an ox walked in a circle pulling a great toothed wheel that crushed tanbark from hemlocks; soap was made there too, an equally stinky trade. Now Dun Juniper was tiny in the distance, walls bright as the afternoon sun tinted the stucco that coated the walls. Epona cleared a last hedge, but Mathilda's cob was ahead of them—even Epona couldn't travel as fast jumping fences as the other horse could gallop down a nice straight road. The roadway didn't end, not right away; it went on through the forest for a couple of miles to the lookout station at the westernmost tip of this ridge of hill, where it gave a wonderful view over the valley below. That had been just a foot-trail in the old days, but since then it had been widened and leveled to take carts.
"Catch me if you can!" she taunted, and vanished under the trees.
Rudi grinned and followed, ducking his head reflexively as the first of the branches flashed by overhead, even though it was far too high to hit him. There were big Douglas fir on either side, and garry-oak, Silver fir, and hemlocks. They kept the undergrowth down, save for some thickets of berry-bushes, so he could see the hoof-churned surface of the dirt track as it twisted this way and that ahead, and the ruts of the ox-cart that took supplies out to the lookout station. He was gaining on Mathilda; the girl was very nearly as good a rider as he was and a bit lighter, but Epona wasn't just faster, she was more surefooted and confident on the narrow winding path, and he leaned into the turns as effortlessly as the mare made them. The trees flashing by made the speed even more fun than it had been in the open meadow; glimpses through the forest like a world of green-brown pillars with sunlight filtered through the canopy into a soft translucent glow, but touched by beams of fire where there were breaks in the roof of boughs. The air was full of the deep cool scent of fir-sap and moist earth, the first yellow blossoms of Twinberry catching the light and the green tips of the new ferns pushing up through last year's litter. They'd made more than a mile since they entered the woods, and soon they'd come out together on the little clearing there at the end; there they could lead the horses back and forth to cool them, and give them a drink from the spring.
Then something pricked at him. Matti's stopped, he thought, feeling an interior sensation like an ear cocking. Epona's hooves made a muffled drumbeat in the cathedral silence, and the two warriors were coming up fast behind him, but... I can't hear her horse at all.
"Woah," he said, and shifted his weight back in the light saddle. "We don't want to run into her."
Epona slowed as they approached the next twist in the road, but the dogs belted on past, tongues lolling out of their smiling jaws. There was a huge black walnut there, planted by his mother's great-uncle all those years ago and with a spreading crown a hundred feet high, just leafing out now for the new year; it had rolled its nuts downhill through lifetimes, and there was a teardrop of smaller trees and then saplings down the slope. A little shrine to Herne stood near its man-thick trunk.
An explosion of birds went up from the huge hardwood's branches as he turned the corner, and Ulf and Fenra were barking furiously. Then they fell silent—not before he heard one of the dogs give a howling whine of pain, and he heard Mathilda's voice shouting protest.
"Wait—" he began, alarmed now, and tried to halt the horse.
It was too late. Around the tree he had just time enough to see Mathilda sitting her horse, white-faced and shaking with armed strangers in mottled green-brown clothes about her, before the rope snapped up in front of the mare's feet. Even Epona couldn't stop that quickly, but she managed to leap it, with a hopping crow-jump nothing like her usual grace. Rudi lost a stirrup, and then a branch hit him painfully in the chest just as Epona hopped again, half in protest and half to get her feet back under her.
He felt himself toppling, knew he couldn't recover in time, and kicked his other foot out of the stirrups as he came off, tucking himself into a ball as he flew, landing loose and rolling. His plaid came loose as the brooch burst and wrapped itself around his legs, and his bow flipped him onto his face. Something rapped him painfully as he slid to a stop in the wet loose leaves and fir-needles, knocking the wind out of him. He smelled blood as he landed, the thick copper-iron scent of it, heavy and rank like butchering-time when a carcass was hung up to drain into the oatmeal-filled tubs below.
And as he fell, a crossbow bolt whined through the space he'd occupied an instant before, hammering into the hard dense wood of the walnut with a sharp crisp tock! sound.
Just beyond him, behind a bush, Fenra lay dead with a great slash in her neck and the red still ebbing out of it, her lips curled back from her fangs in a last snarl. The shaggy leaf-strewn shape beyond with the stiff plastic flight-feathers of a crossbow bolt showing against its flank must be Ulf. Epona reared and bugled as she stood over him, milling her forefeet in the air like steel war-hammers, her nostrils flaring as she took in the scents of death. And men in camouflage clothing were running towards them. One stopped and bent to span his crossbow so that he could reload; others were raising theirs.
"Epona!" he shouted, trying to make his will into a dart, the way his mother had taught him. "Home, Epona. Home! Go home!"
The horse came down and turned in the same motion, bounding forward with that astonishing jackrabbit leap she had, going from a standstill to a gallop in less time than it took to draw a breath. Four of the men shot at her; three missed, and one bolt scored across her withers just as she turned the corner and vanished back eastward on the road to Dun Juniper. Hands grabbed at his hair. Rudi drew his dirk and slashed back and up. The keen edge hit flesh; he could feel it part under the steel, and a man swore:
"Jesus, the little bastard cut me!"
Christians, Rudi thought, rolling erect and kicking his feet free of his loosened plaid. He felt calm somehow, and everything was very slow, like swimming underwater in the pool by the mill. More closed in on him, grown men, with hoods and masks of the same mottled cloth as their jackets and pants. The others laughed at the man clutching a slashed arm, with blood leaking from between his fingers. Not bandits. From the Protectorate.
"Watch out, the little fuck's quick as a snake!" the wounded man growled; he was thickset and bear-like, with a fringe of reddish hair over hazel eyes.
"Don't you hurt him!" Mathilda screamed, and the woman's voice answered:
"Take him alive if you can."
"Aoife! Liath! Danger!" he shouted—once, and darted a thrust at a slim olive-skinned man advancing with his arms spread wide to grab.
The man-at-arms grunted as the point took him in the belly, but there was mail under the jacket, and the hand that closed on his wrist was quick and troll-strong, twisting the knife out of his grasp. Rudi kicked—neatly, the way he'd been taught—but his toe hit a box protector and produced only a pained grunt, not a scream. Then a hard hand clouted him on the side of the head, and everything went gray and remote as he slid to the ground, not quite unconscious but not connected to the world. A pad of cloth went over his mouth, fastened with a strip of priceless duct tape, and another twist pinned his wrists in front of him.
"Gutsy little prick," someone muttered. Then a woman's voice: "Joris! Enguerrand! Two horses coming!"
Aoife and Liath came around the corner; they'd slowed back a little way as they saw Epona dashing by riderless, but they were galloping now, screaming war-cries. Liath was two horse's lengths ahead, with her battle spear held overarm; she threw it just before three crossbow bolts hit her mount in the chest. The heavy stabbing weapon wasn't designed to be used that way, but the range was short, and it had the momentum of a galloping horse behind it as well as the strength of her arm.
A dark-skinned man jerked his left arm up diagonally across his breast, as if he was used to having a knight's long kite-shaped shield on it. The solid length of ashwood and metal struck him in the chest, the twelve-inch steel head punching in with an ugly dull wet thudding smack sound, through cloth and mail, flesh and bone. He flew back and landed, kicking, blood spraying red from his mouth and nose but already dead. The young woman's horse fell in the next instant, screaming itself. That gave her just time enough to slide her feet out of the stirrups, hitting and rolling in a tumble of spilled arrows; her bowstring parted too as the six-foot yew stave slung diagonally across her back caught violently on a root, a strong unmusical snap. Her horse came down with its neck outstretched, and the greenstick sound of its neck breaking cut the huge scream of bewildered terror off with the abruptness of a knife slicing a taut rope.
Aoife managed to get her horse to jump before it ran into the rope, but the rest of the raiders were too close for her to use her bow, and the animal was crow-hopping in near-panic. She drew her sword instead, her left hand stripping the buckler off the sheath, slugged her mount's head around until it pointed directly at Rudi and the man standing over him, and booted it into motion. The man dodged aside, not quite quickly enough, and drew his own blade; there was a flash and a rasp of steel, and he staggered back with his hands clapped to his face as one of his comrades closed in on the mounted warrior. Liath had shaken off her fall in seconds and was on her feet as well, fighting the other two men left, a skirling crash of steel on steel and desperate gasps of effort as she backed and they tried to get behind her.
"Oh, by the saints!" the woman's voice he'd heard before snapped. "Will you clowns just kill them? Do I have to do everything myself?"
Rudi felt as if his eyes weren't under his control; as if he was watching everything on teevee, like the old stories, small and distant and not quite real. Even his feelings seemed distant. All that was left was facts. The woman who'd spoken stepped into view; she was dressed like the men, with her sword slung across her back, and she held a crossbow—an odd-looking one, like the black skeleton of the weapon he was used to, and with a telescopic sight mounted on it.
She shot once, and Aoife's horse stopped in the middle of a bugling neigh, with the dark fletchings of the crossbow-bolt standing right behind one ear. The Mackenzie warrior managed to kick her feet free and land standing as the horse collapsed like a puppet with cut strings, but the northerner stood unconcerned, turning a crank-handle built into the crossbow and slipping another silvery bolt into it, then aiming with quick grace.
The bolt took Liath squarely in the back, punching through the brigandine and the spine beneath. She collapsed backward beneath the arc of a sword's blade that would have taken off half her face, landing limp and wide-eyed. Blood bubbled out of her mouth when she tried to scream.
"Go watch the pathway," her killer said, and set the crossbow down, drawing her sword instead and a long knife with a basket hilt in her left hand, smiling faintly. "All of you! Shoot anyone who comes down it, but be quiet."
And as she saw Liath fall, Aoife gave a high wailing screech and charged the woman who'd shot her friend. The Protectorate fighter met her with sword held high and knife low, and then they where whirling in a rage of flickering steel, cut and thrust with the lengths of razor-edged metal sparking in the forest gloom as they met and clashed and sparked. Aoife's face was bone-white, her eyes gone dark as the pupils expanded to swallow the iris, and her teeth showed in a rictus-grin of frenzy.
"Morrigù!" she screamed, transported and possessed, face twisted into a Gorgon mask. "Morrigù!"
The Black-Winged One was with her. Aoife wouldn't have been assigned to guard him if she wasn't good, but now sword and buckler moved with a speed and power beyond anything she'd shown before. The woman from the Protectorate gave ground smoothly before the frenzied attack, moving with a fluid dancer's grace that reminded Rudi of something—
Astrid, he realized, his thoughts still muzzy and slow and distant. She moves like Aunt Astrid.
Fine swordswoman that she was, Aoife couldn't have stood for more than a few moments before Astrid Larsson, Hiril Dùnedain. The Crow Goddess gave her strength and speed to drive the stranger back for a dozen paces. Then a root caught at her foot, the winter-softened moss on it coming loose beneath the hobnails, leaving streaks of raw white sapwood amid the black. The stranger struck like sudden summer lightning, as if she'd known and planned for the misstep. The long knife in her left hand blocked Aoife's shortsword and locked at the guard; she ducked her shoulder into a blow with the buckler aimed at shattering her jaw, and stabbed downward neatly with the sharp point of her sword. It sliced into the Clanswoman's inner thigh below the edge of her brigandine, through the wool of the kilt and deep into the flesh. She twisted it, withdrew, and cut backhand with the knife at Aoife's neck in the same motion, scoring her savagely just above the mail collar, below the angle of the jaw.
Aoife staggered forward two more paces and collapsed; the blood flowed with a bright arterial pumping that showed the wounds were mortal.
"Joris, Ivo, get the horses, all of them!" the victor snapped, and men dashed off. "Ruffin, can you ride?"
The man whose arm Rudi had cut looked up, his teeth clenched on a bandage he was tightening around his forearm. The slash had bled spectacularly, but the canvas sleeve of his jacket had taken most of what force Rudi could put into the blow, and the wound wasn't serious. He nodded, making an inarticulate grunt, then managing:
"'s not deep. Just bleeding like a stuck hog."
The woman nodded back, and stepped over to the man whose slashed face bore the mark of Aoife's sword. He was on the ground, one eye sliced open and blood leaking between the palms he had pressed to the side of his face.
"You can't ride, Enguerrand," she said. "Do you want to be left for the kilties, or—" and she showed him the sword.
He started to shake his head, gave an awful bubbling moan, and then tilted his head back and to one side. One hand scrabbled in the dirt, and he brought a clod of dirt to his lips; Rudi recognized the rite, a symbol of his desire to receive communion and his unworthiness to do so.
"God witness it's his wish and none of mine," the woman said formally, looking at her men; there were three left on their feet, two holding leading reins with four horses on each.
"You're free of blood-guilt, Rutherton," the man she'd called Joris said formally; his mask was down and revealed a pointed yellow beard and heavy-lidded blue eyes. "Any one of us would ask the same, or do it if they were commander."
The others nodded. She set the point of the sword behind the crippled man's ear and pushed with a hard lunge of arm and shoulder; the man's body flexed once in a galvanic shudder and went limp. A flap of cheek peeled back when his hand fell away, showing a grin red and white. Then the woman stood and turned and looked at Rudi. Her eyes were gray, pale and cold as glass.
Mathilda was off her horse and in front of Rudi in a single scrambling rush. "No!" she said shrilly, spreading her arms. "You can't hurt him, Tiphaine! We're anamchara! Blood-brothers. I'll have right of vengeance against anyone who hurts him, all my life! I'm gonna be Protector someday and I'll remember!"
Tiphaine Rutherton seemed to sense the men behind her looking at each other in doubt—that was a credible threat, to anyone who knew how stubborn Mathilda could be—and made an exasperated sound between her teeth. Before she could move, Mathilda's knife was out, and she pressed it to her own throat—hard enough that a trickle of red blood started down the white skin as she swallowed convulsively.
"If you hurt him I'll kill myself! I swear it, by God and the Virgin and then you'll have to explain to Mom and Dad and His Holiness how come I'm dead and in Hell for suicide!" Mathilda said with desperate earnestness. "Not just now! If you hurt him later, I'll do it!"
Rutherton stopped as if she'd run into a stone wall; she stared into the girl's eyes for an instant, saw a bright focus of intent.
"Princess, I'm not planning on hurting him," she said gently. "My orders from your mother are to take him alive if possible. But to do that I have to restrain him, because now we have to run for our lives and we can't have him slowing us down. You understand?"
Mathilda swallowed, nodded, and brought the knife down. Tiphaine turned her head:
"Well, what are you all waiting for, the kilties to arrive? Ivo, get the brat over a horse." To Mathilda: "This is just to keep him quiet, Princess. I won't hurt him now; on my honor as a warrior of the Association."
Something stung Rudi in the cheek of one buttock as hands heaved him over a saddle, and lashed him to it with leather thongs. His head felt as if it were spinning down a whirlpool, with the world upside-down. He saw Aoife twitch as she tried to crawl; the blond woman who'd killed her bent for a moment, grabbing her by the collar of her brigandine and dragging her closer to Liath's body. Then everything contracted to a point of light and went out.
Copyright © 2005-2006 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>