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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

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


CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Mithrilwood, Willamette Valley, Oregon

December 17th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9

 

Perfect, Eilir Mackenzie said in Sign.

There were a dozen others here in the woods with Juniper Mackenzie's daughter; her anamchara—soul-sister—Astrid Larsson, and half a score of their Dùnedain Rangers. Those were youngsters who'd joined them in what was first more than half play, a chance to ramble and hunt, and then turned serious over the years. She and Astrid were the eldest of those at twenty-three; the youngest here was sixteen-year-old Crystal, a refugee from the Protectorate. They'd saved her and her family from a baron's hunters and hounds this last spring, just as their original oath demanded, the one they'd sworn back at the beginning, to protect the helpless and succor the weak. It had seemed like a great idea when they were fourteen; since then it had turned out to be a lot of work, though satisfying.

The other two with them were Alleyne Loring and Little John Hordle, both a few years older than the Dùnedain leaders, but still young men.

This will make a perfect Yule Log, Eilir went on. If we can get it through the door.

The log had been bigleaf maple, growing on the side of the canyon; it had fallen whole as it came down, pulled out of the rocky soil by its own weight and falling across a basalt boulder a few feet above the root-ball. Bigleaf maple was like stone itself, useful for furniture or tool-handles or fancy carving and yielding a pleasant sweet sap in spring. This one had fallen about a year ago, to judge by the state of the wood; it was grown with moss and shelf-like fungi and the bark had peeled away, but the feel was still solid when she stamped her boot on it. That meant it would be hard to kindle but would burn long and slow, unlike the fierce swift heat of Douglas fir or hemlock or the spark-spitting enthusiasm of Ponderosa pine.

Astrid nodded solemnly, setting her long white-blond braids bobbing in the shadowed gloom, the overcast winter sky shedding only a silvery-gray shadowed light through the branches and needles above them. Then she looked up at Eilir, a twinkle in her strange silver-shot eyes; not many could have seen it there, but they'd been inseparable since they'd met in the fall of the first Change Year, when the Bearkillers came west over the High Cascades. Eilir's hair was raven-black and her eyes green, nose shorter and mouth fuller, cheekbones not so chiseled; apart from that they were similar in looks as well, both tall at five-eight or so, moving with whipcord grace.

"It'd be hard work cutting this to a useful length," Lord Bear's sister-in-law said casually, as if addressing the air. "We need about, oh, ten feet." The thick bottom section of the trunk was fifty feet long before it frayed out into a tangle of crown, lying half-on the old State Park trail and half off it. "We'll have to break out a whipsaw... too tough for axe-work."

"Hordle and I can handle it," Alleyne said. "Shouldn't take long if we spell each other."

Eilir cocked one leaf-colored eye at Hordle, whose great ham-like countenance assumed a woebegone grimace; that turned into a grin at her as she giggled silently.

I'm glad Astrid finally found a fellah, she thought, and pushed down wistful thoughts about Alleyne's handsome countenance. Though it must be sort of frustrating for the poor guy, stuck on first base while he's courting a skittish virgin. I'm pretty sure she still is, too, from the signs. I love you dearly, anamchara, but that's sort of slow off the mark and he won't wait forever! Get your legs locked around him before he escapes!

The two men stripped to the waist; it was cold, just around freezing with the ground a mixture of melting snow and mud, but working hard in jacket and shirt just got you sweaty and then chilled. They were down at the bottom of a cleft in the basalt rock, anyway, and well out of the wind; you could see the banded layers in the steep slope to the north, and the creek ran behind them with clumps of ice around the rocks in it. Streamside and slope and the rolling hills higher up were densely grown with big trees; fir and hemlock on the upland, maple and cottonwood and alder lower, yew and chinquapin, with the blackened stems of ferns sticking up out of the leaf-litter and duff. The smell of decaying leaves and needles was pungent as boots disturbed it, suddenly intensely aromatic as someone crushed the branch of an incense-cedar sapling.

Eilir smiled at her friend as they moved the two-horse team they'd brought along and wrapped a chain around the thicker base of the tree.

Got Alleyne to show off, hey? she Signed.

You betcha, Astrid replied, with a smile of smug satisfaction. He's a wonderful guy, but he's still a guy, you know? Which means he's sort of stupid at times. Besides, he looks good with his shirt off.

Little John's smarter, Eilir signed. He saw through it .

He is not! Astrid's hands moved emphatically. Alleyne just has too noble a nature to suspect anyone!

Yeah, blond, beautiful and dumb, like someone else I could name but won't like for example you, Eilir taunted. Astrid stuck her tongue out in reply.

The friends finished their task, jumped free, checked that nobody else was in the way, and waved to Crystal, who stood at the horses' heads. The girl urged them forward, and the beasts leaned into their harness. The big log swiveled across rocks, then came down onto the bike path with a thud that echoed up through the soles of her feet. It was far too heavy for the team to drag back while it remained whole, even though they had a two-wheeled lift to put under the forward end to ease the work. There was a good ton of weight involved.

We'll save the upper part, there's some useful wood there, Eilir signed.

The tree being dead already, they didn't have to do more than sketch a sign over it; you had to apologize and explain the need when you cut living wood, the way you did when you killed a beast. They were all children of the Mother and part of Lord Cernunnos' domain, after all.

The men got busy, standing on either side of the log and chopping, while a few of the Dùnedain trimmed the branches further up with hatchets and saws. Eilir cradled her longbow in her arms and watched appreciatively. Alleyne was a bit over six feet, and built like an Apollo in one of Mom's books, broad-shouldered and narrow in the waist, long in the arms and legs; the muscle moved like living metal under his winter-pale skin as he swung the felling axe and chips of the rock-hard maple flew, startling yellow-white against the dark ground. Beside him Hordle looked like a related but distinct species, arms like the tree-trunk itself, and a thick pelt of dark-auburn hair running down his chest onto a belly corded like ship's cable; the log shook under the impact of the heavy double-bitted axe he used.

It was still seasoned hardwood, and the work went slowly. Eilir grinned.

Ah, hard honest work, she signed. It does me good just to watch it.

Alleyne's ears burned a little redder. The wood yielded, but slowly; it took only a little more to finish trimming the branches and roll the upper section of the trunk off the path for later attention.

Eilir had been deaf from birth; before it, in fact, when a teenaged Juniper Mackenzie contracted German measles in the fourth month of her pregnancy. That didn't make her other senses more acute, the way many believed; what it did do was encourage her to use and pay attention to them. She'd also spent much of her life in the countryside and amongst its wildlife, around Dun Juniper when it was just her and her mother before the Change; and in mountains and woods, hills and fields all over western Oregon in the years since, hunting, Rangering, or wandering and observing for their own sake. And she had been trained by experts, Sam Aylward not least.

All that told her that something was not quite right...

Mithrilwood had been a State park before the Change, and since then the area all about it had been mostly unpeopled, young forests and abandoned fields growing lush fodder for beast and bird. It normally swarmed with life, even in winter when many of the birds went south; upland game migrated down here from the High Cascades in this season, and everything from beaver and rabbits to deer, elk, coyote, wild boar, bear, cougar and feral tiger were common. The bigger animals would avoid the noise and clatter of humans, though not as widely as they did before the Change. The smaller would be cautious, but...

She turned and clicked her tongue at Astrid. The other woman was already frowning.

 

@@@

 

"Hsssst!" Astrid Larsson said as she turned, to attract everyone's eyes, and moved her hands in Sign as well: Someone's near. Watching. Don't let them know they've been seen, but be ready.

Nobody froze; the dozen Dùnedain continued to muscle the big log towards the waiting horses and the two-wheeled drag that would support its forward end. The forest floor was mostly clear of undergrowth, and the trees had closed their canopy long ago.

Then they casually reached for their bows; you had to know Sign as well as Sindarin to be a Ranger. Astrid's silver-veined eyes flicked about. They were in a canyon, one of the many that laced the old State park. Rock stretched up on either hand, layers of basalt cut through by millennia of rushing water. Much of that was frozen this day, on the stone and on the moss-grown limbs of the great trees. In the middle distance a waterfall toned, out of sight around the dogleg to the west, but rumbling through the cold wet air. That white noise covered conversation, and many of the ordinary sounds of movement.

"Who?" Alleyne Loring said quietly, as he donned his mail shirt and buttoned the jacket over it again.

Six heads were close together as they bent to lift the end of the long timber into the clamp and fasten the chain across it. Astrid spoke smiling, as if chatting casually among friends out to find a Yule log.

"Yrch," she said; to the Dùnedain that meant enemies. "Could be bandits, could be servants of the Lidless Eye. I saw only two that I'm sure of, so they've got some woodcraft."

Eilir Mackenzie nodded and casually stretched with her arms above her head, which gave her an excuse to look about.

I spotted him—the fir over from the boulder with the point, snow knocked off the branch, she Signed. The other's behind the boulder?

Astrid nodded as she mentally tallied their strength here. Herself and Eilir, her anamchara. Alleyne Loring and John Hordle; first-class warriors, though not exactly Dùnedain themselves, not quite. Young Crystal, but she didn't really count for a fight. Only sixteen, and not fully trained; brave, but the weak link, the more so as she was slight-built. Another ten Dùnedain, in their late teens or early twenties, six of them Mackenzies and the other four Bearkillers. Everyone had bow and quiver, sword and knife and targe or buckler; you didn't go outdoors without, any more than you'd walk out naked. The two Englishmen had light mail shirts under their jackets; under her own she wore a black leather tunic lined with mesh-mail and nylon; Eilir had on a Clan-style brigandine, a double-ply canvas affair with small metal plates riveted between the layers. Most of the others had something similar, but none was wearing a helmet.

"We don't know how many or why," Astrid said. "So we'll all just walk around the corner of the trail up ahead, and then wait for them—double linear ambush upslope. That way we can shoot without hitting each other. They won't follow close."

Send Crystal on to the Lodge with the horses from there? Eilir signed.

Crystal's face was a little pale, but she glared at Eilir; besides being offended at the implication that she couldn't hold her own with the rest; she also had a furious crush on Astrid at the moment... which was so embarrassing. Though she was beginning to show signs of transferring it to Alleyne, which would be infuriating.

Astrid signed back: No. Too risky—they might have an ambush along the trail already. We'll go around the corner, drop the log, and... wait a minute!

The word drop triggered something in her mind. "Here's what we'll do," she began. "Remember that trick we practiced? Like the old story about how the little furry Halfling men fought the wicked Emperor's troopers?"

Eilir's eyes went from the log to the coils of rope draped around it. Her smile grew, and the faces of her companions went from grave to grinning. They were all young.

We'll have to hurry, she signed.

 

@@@

 

Twenty minutes later Astrid waited behind a tree, wishing for a war-cloak, what Sam Aylward called a ghillie suit, of camouflage cloth sewn all over with loops for twigs and leaves. The wool of her jacket would do, it was woven from natural beige fiber; she breathed shallowly and slowly, lest the puff of vapor give her away, and ignored the drip of melting snow from the branches of the big hemlock. She couldn't see any of her Dùnedain, though, except for Alleyne, and that was from the rear where he crouched behind a big basalt rock.

If I can't see them, when I know where they are, the yrch certainly won't. Raven, totem of my sept, watch over us! Queen of Battles, Lady of the Crows, be with us now! To you, Dread Lord, we dedicate the harvest of this field!

The canyon widened out a little here, the slopes not quite so steep until they ran into cliff-faces north and south. The old park trail was down fifteen yards below her hiding-place, visible between the wide-spaced trunks of the great trees in a twisting line of trodden mud; the horses waited patiently a hundred yards further east, nearer the waterfall—you could see the mist lifting above the icy curve of it from here. The noise would be good cover...

There was an arrow on the shelf of her bow, cord to the knock, the whole held in her left hand, and forty-four more in her quiver. Her sword was leaned up against the deep-fissured trunk, a single-edged weapon with a basket hilt of brass and a yard-long blade, and her two-foot circular shield was slung over her back on its carrying-strap. Everything ready...

A flight of birds rose from the eastward, spooked by movement: the yellow underside showed clearly as they flitted overhead in long swooping curves, and the buff-brown-black markings as they sped away. Meadowlarks, she thought; they were just getting to be common again. Which was why—

The distinctive fluting trill of the birds sounded from above her, close enough to the genuine article to fool most.

"— which is why we picked that call for signaling," she murmured to herself.

It was modulated, though, with stuttering intervals that the living bird wouldn't have used. They spoke to her: they're coming, and thirty of them.

"Thirty. Ouch. Still, nothing for it."

The first came into view, close enough for her to see the snarl of tension on his thin face. He was dressed in rags and patches, but he carried a good crossbow, and there was a sword worn slantwise across his back with the hilt jutting above his left shoulder, a heavy single-edged chopping blade. The lone figure stood tense, looking about, then turned and beckoned the unseen band behind him.

Astrid's throat grew tight. She forced a deep breath down into her diaphragm, then let it out, with the tension following it, repeating until her body felt loose and ready. She hated bandits with a passion, even more than she loathed the Protector's men; outlaws had killed her mother, right after the Change, and she'd had to watch. The memory was like meat gone off on a hot summer's day.

Soon now. Don't be too eager. Love not the arrow for its swiftness, or the sword for its bright blade, but the things that these guard.

More men followed, until a dozen stood behind the scout, adding their eyes to his. They weren't in any hurry; they must mean to follow the Dùnedain back to the Lodge and ring it in, probably for an attack under cover of darkness. More and more, until there were over a score of ragged-gaudy figures. She waited until one looked in precisely the right direction, and until the puzzled cock of his head showed that he'd seen something unnatural.

"Now!" she shouted, snatching up her sword in her right hand.

In the same instant she cut upward, where the stay-rope was secured around the stub of a thick branch. The keen steel went through the hemp and into the treetrunk with a solid thunk; she left the blade embedded in the living wood as she stepped around the trunk for a clear shot. The long arrow came back as she flung the strength of arms and shoulders and gut and hips against the tension of yew and horn and sinew. The double curve of the saddle-bow turned into a pure C as the kiss-ring clamped on the string touched the corner of her mouth.

Eye on the target, not the arrow. There!

Even in the diamond focus of concentration, she saw the mouths below gaping as the log swung down towards them, tumbling free of the loops halfway through its trajectory. The five-hundred-pound baulk of maple did a slow spin around its own center before it struck. In a piece of cosmic injustice an end came down right on top of one of the few who'd had the presence of mind to drop to the earth, like a maul in the hands of an angry god or a hammer on a soft-boiled egg. Then the log bounced up and bowled over several more. She could hear the crackle of bone beneath the screams and the heavy thick boonnnnk-bonk-bonk as the log hammered itself to a stop on the rocky ground.

Pick a target, track along until an uninjured man stood gaping with his spear wavering in his hand...

Snap.

The string of her recurved bow slapped against the bracer on her left wrist. The arrow flashed out in a smooth shallow curve, the razor edges of the broadhead twirling as the fletching spun the shaft. It struck with a wet smacking sound audible even fifty yards away; the man goggled at the feathers that bloomed against his breastbone and collapsed, kicking and coughing out blood and probably pieces of lung. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Alleyne stand and draw his longbow to the ear, sighting as calmly as if his was a day's practice at the butts; he was a swordsman rather than an archer by avocation, but he was still a better-than-average shot. On both slopes the Dùnedain were up, and a shower of long cedarwood arrows rained down on the advance-party of the enemy force, hissing as they flew, and another flight, and another.

Not all struck. The strangers looked like bandits, and they reacted with the feral swiftness needed to survive in that profession. All but the dead or wounded dove for cover, and a flurry of crossbow-bolts and arrows came back at the ambushers; one bolt went by overhead with an unpleasant vvvvwhhppt sound of cloven air and hammered into a chinquapin to stand buzzing like an angry wasp. Astrid ignored it and shot again, again, then dropped her bow and reached up for the next rope as the remainder of the gang ran shouting around the curve and into sight. It wound tight around her left forearm, and a quick snatch and wrench of her right hand put the cord-wound hilt of her long sword in her grip.

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel!" she shouted, from the bottom of her lungs.

She took three steps forward and launched herself into the air. The weight wrenched at her left arm, and she felt the strong pull of the rope and the springy branch it was lashed to bending beneath her solid hundred-and-sixty pounds of body and gear. Momentum swept her forward with blurring speed, higher above the surface as she fell towards the trail, skimming in a great arch that left her barreling down the trail towards the enemy at head-height.

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel!" she shouted again, a great high soaring silver trumpet-call as she flew.

"Fuck me!" a snaggle-toothed man screamed, as much in astonishment as fear, just before her boot-heels struck him in the face.

Crack.

The bandit was flung half a dozen feet backward at the collision, his face a red pulp of flesh and bone fragments. Something heavy and strong seemed to flow up from her feet through her body, cracking it like a whip and snapping her teeth together with a painful click, but she dropped to the ground and let the rope fall away, twitching her shoulder to slide the shield around to where she could run her forearms through the loop. Eilir dropped beside her, jackknifing in the air, her sword and buckler flicking into her hands even as she landed. A spearman gaped at her, then thrust overarm. Eilir ducked under it in a smooth continuation of her fall, whirling as she crouched to snap her shortsword at the back of his knee in a hocking stroke. There was a grisly popping sound like a taut cable parting and he went over backward, screaming and clutching at the injury as if he could squeeze the hamstring back to wholeness.

Astrid brought targe and blade up as another bandit ran at her anamchara, stepped forward with a raking stride of her long legs. Her backsword came up and around and down with a looping cut as her right foot squelched into the mud, flashing down in a blurring arc with the weight and the flexing snap of her whole body behind it.

Crack! as the edge cut, and a billman was left staring at the ashwood stub of his weapon's haft as the business end pinwheeled away; she recovered and killed him with a snapping lunge to the neck, fast as a frog's tongue. He dropped with blood spraying from his severed carotids, the red unearthly bright against the dun colors of winter. The enemy were trying to rally, but their heads whipped about as Dùnedain ran down the hills to either side, looking to be twice their actual numbers as they leapt and shouted, their blades out and bright. The outlaw gang froze for crucial seconds as the Dùnedain war-cray rang out from a dozen throats:

"Lacho calad! Drego morn!"

Then the rest were beside the two leaders, Alleyne to her left with his heater-shaped shield blazoned with five roses up and his blade ready.

"St. George for England! A Loring! A Loring!" he called, handsome face set and grim.

Little John Hordle came thundering up beyond Eilir with his great sword gripped in the two-handed style.

"Sod this for a game of soldiers!" he shouted.

The great blade spun in a horizontal circle. It sliced through a wooden shield and gouged bone-deep into the arm beneath, and took off half the man's face on the upstroke, like a knife topping a boiled egg. A spray of droplets hung in the air for an instant, a red curve splaying out like a ripple in a pond.

"You bints are fucking mad!" he went on in a roar like a foghorn in a fit, as he kicked a spearman in the stomach and crushed his skull with the ball pommel of his heavy blade. "Who do you think you are, Errol sodding Flynn?"

The enemy wavered, then as one man turned and ran. A dozen paces were enough to put them around the bend in the trail, and the ground to its left was near-vertical cliff. Astrid swung sword and shield up.

"Hold!" she shouted. "Rally, Dùnedain! No pursuit, it could be a trick. Miniel, get back up the tree and tell me what's happening! Everyone else, get your bows and recover arrows."

Her head twisted back and forth, skimming, and she was suddenly conscious of the sweat running down her flanks. One of her own was down, a black-braided girl named Sadb, clutching at a crossbow bolt in her thigh and struggling not to scream; a boy knelt and vomited, a pressure-cut on his scalp showing where he'd been clouted with something hard; a few others had hurts that ranged from slight to one that would need a few stitches. There were none of the sucking chest-wounds or gut-stabs or pulped bones or depressed-fracture blows to the skull that meant a good chance of death.

About what you'd expect from a good ambush, she thought with relief. Always a lot cheaper than a stand-up fight, and we caught them flat-footed. Not bad for something improvised on the spot!

Eilir jerked her head, and red-headed Kevin sheathed his blade and ran to Sadb; he was their best medico. Astrid pulled a horn from a sling at her waist. It was ivory, cream-colored with age—originally part of a tusk at Larsdalen, brought back from a safari her great-grandfather had made with Teddy Roosevelt—and set with silver bands at the mouthpiece. She set it to her lips and blew, a long huuuuuu, then three shorter blasts. That would let the rest of the Dùnedain force at the Lodge know what was going on; it meant enemy and come quickly; an answering call came echoing down the canyon-walls almost immediately. That would give them enough blades to run the bandit gang to earth and wipe them out.

The rest of her band went about the after-battle chores, retrieving arrows and giving the enemy wounded the mercy-stroke. Whimpers and screams died away to silence.

"Astrid!" a voice called. "Astrid!"

That was Crystal, back with the horses. She had her bow in her hand, though it shook like an aspen-leaf.

"I... I... he came at me and then turned back, and I..."

A bandit was on the trackway not far in front of her, trying to pull himself off it with his hands; an arrow stood jerking in his spine, and his legs were limp.

"Well done, Crystal!" Astrid called, pleased. A memory of some satisfaction teased at her for a moment. "That's good work for your first fight! Algareb cù! Now finish him."

The girl stared at her, eyes wide, her mouth opening and closing.

"Don't let him suffer, Crystal," she said impatiently; the bandit collapsed and lay motionless save for the heaving of his chest, eyes blank as his fingers scrabbled feebly in the mud. "Everyone's busy. Put your dirk in under the breastbone and push up and a little to the left, that will do it clean."

"Sloppy-looking lot," Alleyne went on thoughtfully as she turned back.

Astrid nodded agreement. The dead men were mostly skinny, scarred, hairy, and had stunk badly even before edged metal ripped into body cavities; lips drawn back in the death-grimace showed teeth as much yellow or brown as white, though none were older than herself and some as young as Crystal. They'd probably grown up half-feral in communities barely surviving without the tools or skills or stock to make a success of farming, or in bands that had been preying on passers-by and neighbors since the dying times just after the Change, or some might be runaway peons from the Protectorate by origin. Lice danced in one sparse beard that jutted skyward from a body arched back in a semi-circle; that made her itch by reflex, and make sure nobody was standing too long near a body while they yanked out arrows. Lice carried typhus; they'd have to leave the bodies a full ten days, or burn them, and scrub everyone and do a clothes-wash.

The bandits were clad in a patchwork of pre-Change scraps, badly tanned leather, or the crudest and cheapest sort of modern homespun. One or two wore better clothes, though they were just as filthy and on their way to being ragged, doubtless taken from the body of some victim.

Banditry wasn't a very well-paying profession for most practitioners, particularly in winter.

"Well-armed, though," she said thoughtfully.

They crossbows were good, smoothly finished with rifle-style wood stocks and leaf-spring steel bows, and spanning cranks at their belts; the others had competently shaped yew bows; all of them had some sort of sword, most often the heavy machete-like choppers known as falchions... or as machetes, outside the Valley. Several had boiled-leather jerkins strapped with pieces of sheet metal, and a couple had bowl or kettle helmets.

"Yes, suspiciously well-armed," Alleyne agreed. "And the weapons are far too uniform."

"Now that you mention it—" Astrid began, and then whirled at a sound of distress.

Crystal was kneeling beside the dead bandit, being noisily sick into a growing pool of blood. Eilir made a tsk sound with her lips.

Sometimes, soul-sister, you are sort of insensitive, she signed, and went over to put an arm around the girl's shoulders and urge her away from the body.

Astrid blinked. Well, I said she'd done well, she thought, then dismissed it.

The horses were restive, tossing their heads; then they pricked their ears and snorted. More hooves pounded on the trail, and then another dozen mounted Dùnedain came up, as many again running on foot beside them gripping the stirrup-leathers for support, all well-spattered with muck and woods-duff thrown up by busy hooves. Astrid waved them forward, and turned back to Alleyne.

"—now that you mention it, yes, they are well-armed," she said. "Normally bandits just have odds and ends, no two alike. The ones we ran out of the lodge here a couple of years back, they were using it for a base, they were certainly like that... and these all have shoes, see? Fairly new shoes, too."

The robbers' footwear was modern, tanned leather uppers with laces, and either hobnail-studded alder-wood or pieces of rubber tire for soles. Not expensive, village cobblers and workshops in a dozen towns from the Protectorate to Corvallis turned out the like. A Mackenzie crofter might have worn them, or a Bearkiller tenant-farmer. But oddly uniform, again; not identical, nothing was these days when hand-made was the rule, but as if they'd all come from the same place. She frowned, absently taking her bow as someone handed it to her, and a handful of arrows with bloody points and shafts. Her hands moved automatically, wiping blood off the steel, checking the fletching and slipping them back into her quiver.

"Now, if I was trying to make a gang of bandits more effective, what would I give them?" she mused aloud.

Eilir was back. She and John Hordle began to speak simultaneously, in sign and aloud, then looked at each other and grinned. Alleyne answered instead.

"Weapons, and in this season, shoes. A man with chilblains can't fight very well."

The lookout she'd posted called down from his perch high in a Douglas fir. "They're coming back! More of them!" Then, after an instant. "I think someone's after them. They look like they're running! Running hard!"

"Positions!" Astrid said. "Kevin, you stay with Sadb."

She joined Alleyne behind his boulder this time; there weren't as many good positions, with their numbers more than doubled. He was chuckling as she settled in. At her arched brow, he leaned his head towards the trail.

"Eilir is reusing the rope," he said. "I like that girl's spirit, damn me if I don't."

Astrid chuckled herself as she saw the trip-rope deployed; covered in mud, it would be nearly invisible while lying slack. There wasn't time for anything fancy, just a knot around one tree and a half-hitch around another.

"Eilir's láwar," she agreed happily.

The first of the bandits came around the bend again, running hard. The rope snapped up, and three went down like puppets with their strings cut. A clash of metal and war-cries sounded from behind them; somebody was chasing them. And then she noticed another figure with the outlaws; this one had a white-and-brown camouflage surcoat over his mail hauberk; both were knee-length. Similar cloth masked his kite-shaped shield, and a conical nose-guarded helmet; his blade was a double-edged longsword.

The rest of the Dùnedain stood as she did, and the outlaws screamed in despair at the sight of better than thirty bows drawn to the ear. A few tried to run on; the Dùnedain bows snapped, and nearly every one of the slashing volley struck.

"Surrender!" Astrid called carefully not adding any promise of quarter. "Throw down and kneel!"

The survivors threw down their weapons and knelt in the mud, hands clasped on top of their heads, silent amid the moans and screams of the wounded.

The man in the knight's hauberk didn't; he just shouted wordlessly and charged, blade up and shield covering his body from knees to nose. Hordle's bow snapped; the bodkin point slammed into the shield and the shaft punched through the metal and wood, stripping its feathers to flutter to the ground as it did. The man pivoted as if he'd been hit in the shoulder with a sledgehammer, and it must have felt much like that. At close range, a heavy bow could smash a bodkin-point right through even the best armor. This went through shield and arm and hauberk, snapping the links of the riveted mail like cloth, then through the shoulder-bone and out the other side of the hauberk as well. He pitched over backwards, and the rest wavered, then threw down their weapons and knelt in the mud with their hands raised or clasped on their heads.

The pursuers behind them came into view, and stumbled to a halt at the sight. There were two dozen of them, armed with broad-bladed spears and crossbows or pre-Change compound hunting bows, shortswords and daggers and bucklers. All were clad with rough practicality for a foray in the winter woods, but the leader drew her eye. He was a stocky man in a black robe over mail-and-lamellar armor, with a pole-axe in his hands and a heavy broadsword belted at his waist. He wore a helmet with a neck-flare and an eyeslit visor, now pushed up; on the brow of it was a black cross in a white disk, and the face below it was covered in a close-cropped brown beard. When he handed the long-hafted axe-spear-warhammer to a follower and pulled off the helm, it showed bowl-cut hair and a tonsure in the center of it, the artificial bald-spot gleaming with sweat. He passed a gauntleted hand over it.

"Bind them," he snapped to his followers, and then waved at the Dùnedain as the arrows were returned to their quivers.

"Hello, Lady Astrid," he went on genially, climbing towards her, puffing like someone who'd come hard and fast for miles with fifty pounds of steel strapped to his body.

The men behind him worked in pairs, one holding a spearpoint to a bandit's neck, the other pulling cords from his belt to bind the robbers' arms behind them, tight-cinched at elbow and wrist. Those badly wounded were given the mercy-stroke. There was no point in letting them suffer until their inevitable execution.

"Mae govannen, Brother...?" Astrid said.

"Fr. Andrew," the man said, smiling broadly; he was about her own age. "Ordained priest, and also a humble brother monk of the Benedictine order. I don't think you noticed me, my child, but you were with Lord Bear when he visited the Abbey two years ago, for the treaty talks."

That meant he was one of Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski's men, from Mt. Angel. The abbey had organized survival around the town and governed its own small state there now; it was a thumb thrust into the Protectorate. There was absolutely no love lost between Dmwoski and the Protector, either, or between the Abbot and what he called the blasphemous Antipope Leo, the prelate Arminger sponsored in Portland. Anathemas as well as arrows had flown over that border.

"I'm with the border guards," he went on. "We had a report of livestock missing from a farmer with an outlying steading, and tracked them well past our usual patrol range. We spotted these scum crossing the creek south of Scott's Mills."

Astrid's brows went up. That was about twenty miles north; deserted country, which made boundaries a bit theoretical.

"We thought they might be trying to slip down over the Santiam and into the Mackenzie country," the soldier-monk said. "So I called out some militia and gave chase. We lost their tracks for a day. But when we found them again, they came straight south and into your territory. I hope you don't mind our pursuing onto your land, but it seemed a shame to give up. Particularly when they hadn't spotted us."

"Thank you very much, Father Andrew," she said. "We appreciate the help. They'd have scattered if you weren't behind to corral them. Chasing them down might have cost us lives—probably would have. An ambush is one thing, but a running fight is something else again."

He shrugged robed and armored shoulders. "Just doing our job, my daughter, looking after the flock. And there were a few too many for us to tackle comfortably ourselves. It's a comfort to have you Dùnedain taking up residence in this stretch of forest. They're too cursed convenient for woods-running swine like these otherwise."

Alleyne called to her. "This one's no bandit," he said, as he stripped off a man's sword-belt and tossed it aside.

It was the man Hordle had shot. Blood welled out around the broken arrowshaft, but he clutched it and glared hatred at her. Another young face, a little younger than her own, but neatly shaved; when Alleyne pulled off the coif—a mail-covered, tight-fitting leather hood—his light-brown hair was moderately long in front, cropped like a crew-cut behind the ears. A blunt face with an old scar on one cheek, and gray-blue eyes. Beneath the armor he was broad-shouldered and thick-armed, not skinny-scrawny like most of the outlaw gang. It was the body of a man who ate well but worked sweating-hard with sword and shield and lance while wearing full armor.

"False priest and devil-worshipping whore," he rasped, and tried to spit at her. "Kill me now!"

The sword that lay a little distance away was a broad double-edged slashing type, though with a respectable point, the classic Norman sword that most of the Portland Protective Association's men used. She looked down at his feet. Good boots, but no golden spurs. Still...

"Protectorate knight," she said. "A man-at-arms wouldn't be so bold."

She looked up at the priest. "Shall we dispose of them, or do you claim the privilege, Father Andrew? You saw them first, after all, and on Abbey soil."

He shrugged. "The Abbot and Lord Bear and the Lady Juniper all agreed this forest of Mithrilwood was Dùnedain land, and that you have the right to dispense justice here, my lady. High, middle and low."

"Only as custodian for the Dùnedain Rangers," she corrected, not wanting to claim more than her due.

Another shrug. John Hordle had been talking in Sign with Eilir. He nodded and went over to the fallen knight; a muffled scream broke past clenched teeth as Hordle gripped the stub of the arrow between thumb and forefinger and casually drew it out, then stripped off the mail hauberk. That was normally a complex business, but the big man handled the other as if he had been a doll, despite respectable height and solid weight. When the armor had been tossed aside he ripped open the man's gambeson and shirt over the uninjured right shoulder.

"Ahh," Astrid said.

There was a symbol tattooed there, a circle with a Chinese ideograph in it. She'd learned that Eddie Liu had adopted that as his blazon in mockery; it was the glyph for Poland, which was where his maternal ancestors had come from. Liu was very dead, Eilir had killed him last summer, but...

"You're a liege-man of his," she said grimly.

The captive spat at her again, making a worse job of it; his mouth must be dry with pain and shock. "I'm brother to Lady Mary, the dowager Baroness Gervais. My name is Sir Jason Mortimer of Loiston manor," he said. "Baron Gervais was my liege lord and my kin by marriage. His handfast men will never rest until we've avenged him!"

Eilir made a clicking sound with her tongue, and Astrid looked over at her. He probably hired the bandits, she signed. What's the old phrase, plausible deniability? As if on cue, one of the bound men spoke:

"You motherfucker!" he swore at the knight. "You said there'd be food and women and a place of our own for the winter!"

"We'll keep you for ransom, then, Sir Jason," Astrid said; nobody paid any attention to the outlaw's outburst. "And it'll be a heavy one." She grinned. "You can explain back home how a pair of girls captured you. The same ones who killed your liege-lord, by the way."

She turned to the priest and away from the knight's incoherent curses. "Why don't you and your patrol stay with us tonight at Mithrilwood Lodge, Father Andrew? It's no trouble, we've plenty of space, and it'll spare you a winter bivouac." At his slight hesitation and frown: "And not all of us are of the Old Religion. I'm sure there are some who'd be grateful to make confession, if you wished, and receive communion if you've the Bread and Wine with you."

That seemed to tip the balance. "Most generous of you, my child."

"We've some of Brannigan's Special Ale, too," Astrid said impishly, and just a bit louder. "We traded venison and boar for it, but that's not all gone either. Roast yearling boar tonight, and scalloped potatoes, and cauliflower with cheese, and dried-blueberry tarts with whipped cream to follow."

The warrior-monk's company of militiamen suppressed a cheer, and let grins run free. Mt. Angel had a winery of note and fine maltsters, but Brannigan's brew was famous all over the Valley. Juniper Mackenzie had made a song about it years ago, and it was sung in taverns from Ashland to Boise. Hot food and dry beds were a great deal more attractive than damp sleeping bags and trail-rations, as well.

"Let's finish up here, then," Astrid said.

The monk addressed the half-dozen other captives who waited on their knees. "Do any of you wish to confess your sins and save your miserable sin-stained souls from Hell? No?"

Astrid's face was calmly lovely as she looked at the row of men, kneeling in the mud with elbows and wrists lashed behind them. A few wept or babbled; most were silent and shocked, a few bleeding from wounds.

"Does anyone think there's any doubt these are outlaws, bandits and wolf-heads, the enemies general of human kind?" she said formally, looking from face to face of the Dùnedain, and then to Alleyne and Little John Hordle.

"That's buggering obvious, if you ask me," Hordle said.

Nobody else bothered to do more than nod assent. Hordle hefted the long heavy sword he carried, checking for nicks, and Father Andrew took back his poleax, running an experienced thumb down the edge. Two of his men unlimbered their axes. Eilir nodded herself, and then sighed in silent regret; Astrid smiled at her.

You always were tender-hearted, soul-sister, she signed. Do you want to ask mercy for any of them?

No, I'm afraid not. Though they might have been decent enough men, with different luck, Eilir replied.

"But they are as they are," Astrid said. Then she raised her voice slightly, in a tone of calm command: "Behead them every one, and that instantly."

 

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