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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Castle Todenangst, Crown Demesne
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly northern Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
September 15th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

The audience chamber gave out onto a D-shaped antechamber occupying part of the north side of this level of the tower, lit by pointed-arch windows through the thickness of the outer tower wall. This high up they could be large, and there was none of the funeral gloom you usually associated with castles. Crossbowmen raised their weapons to the present as Órlaith came through and a stream of Delegates came out behind her. The mild humid warmth of a Willamette summer came in through the open panes, carrying scents of woodsmoke and greenery and flowers, to mingle with the stone and beeswax scents of the building. The silver-gray tile of the wall was divided by thin upright panels of stylized ceramic vines and flowers and birds in blue and crimson and green; niches held the fruits of her maternal grandmother’s expeditions and patronage—here a celadon vase made in old China, there a blue-robed, gold-crowned modern Madonna with a soft secret smile as she gazed down at the Child in her arms.

“Phew,” Órlaith murmured as they turned left and walked briskly towards the elevators and her waiting followers. “That was bad, Herry. Not as bad as I feared, worse than I hoped.”

“Sort of like life that way,” Heuradys said dryly. “But look at it like this, my heroic but fretful liege; Reiko got her sword, she’s getting the alliance she needs and which in the long run we need, John’s alive, and in a bit less than five years you’re going to be High Queen.”

“I’ll be a High Queen with a reputation for reckless indiscipline,” she said gloomily.

“No, that would have been if we’d screwed up. Right now you’re a Crown Princess with a reputation for being smart and daring enough to bring off impossible stuff. Sort of like your dad! Or your mother, before she got all stodgy.”

“No, she was always a stickler for rules and procedures, from what I hear. She just loved Da so much she took off after him anyway.”

“Ah, I hadn’t thought of it that way! Still, while it’s not a perfect result, I’d give it a nice solid as-good-as-can-be-reasonably-expected.”

Órlaith stopped for a moment and lowered her voice still more. “Remember the beach in Topanga? For John... death isn’t the worst thing that can happen.”

Heuradys winced slightly. Reiko had met her brother there, a brother long-lost and thought to be dead for more than half a decade... and he’d been a tortured slave of the sorcerer-lords of the enemy who’d broken his soul in captivity. She’d tricked him into taking the Grass-Cutting Sword in his hands and drawing it, and in a single instant it had quite literally burned him to a thin drift of ash before she seized it back and used it to call upon her Ancestress and crush the Korean ships.

That was... alarming. It gives me an idea of how it must be for others around the Sword of the Lady.

“There’s absolutely nothing we can do about that right now, Orrey. Except win this war we’re starting.”

“They started it,” Órlaith said and made a vexed sound. She shook her head. “It’s odd how you can love someone and they you, and the two of you still just can’t get along sometimes.”

Heuradys mimed clapping for an instant. “My little baby liege is growing up!”

“Says the Wise Crone of twenty-three!” Órlaith replied.

Then she caught the look in Heuradys eye and knew she was being a little annoying on purpose to jar her liege out of her gloom. It was good to have friends to do things like that for you.

“And she could have done a lot worse,” her knight said more seriously. “She let those men-at-arms from the Protector’s Guard Sir Aleaume brought with us go back to their posts, for example.”

Órlaith nodded. “Mother can be harsh but she isn’t vicious,” she said. “The problem is she thinks she’s going to teach me patience; in fact I’m just going to be wasting time twiddling my thumbs and grinding my teeth when there’s work to be done.”

“Thumb-twiddling and tooth-grinding is what’s supposed to teach you the patience, if meditation in Moon School didn’t.”

“I could never meditate worth a dog’s breakfast, you may notice my totem is a bird and a very active one. And if we’d been patient we’d still be doing a diplomatic fencing game with Reiko and the enemy might have gotten the Grass-Cutter. Or used Reiko’s brother to divide Nihon beyond repair.”

“Alternatively we could all have gotten killed. You roll the iron dice.”

Her remaining folk were over by the fretted bronzework elevator doors—one of three functioning elevators in all Montival, to her knowledge, and the only one built since the Change. She nodded to them and put on a mostly-genuine smile.

Her greathound Macmaccon was the only one wholly reassured, and came over panting happily with his nails clicking on the marble. He thrust his barrel-shaped shaggy head under one hand while he leant against her, with his tongue lolling over very impressive fangs in a grin of joy. In peacetime Mackenzies used greathounds for guarding herds and homes, and hunting things like boar and tiger.

In war they hunted men.

“Sit, Macmac. At heel!” To the others’ anxious expressions: “Not as bad as it might have been. I’m to go contemplate my sins for a bit, some place with few people and many sheep. Finding a magic sword and adding two realms to the High Kingdom seems to count for a wee bit of a something, as opposed to leaving on a Quest without telling her first.”

Though misplacing my brother and a ship-full of others... ah, that’s a different matter. I can’t even blame her for blaming me. It’s not exactly fair—none of us knew what Kusanagi would do, not even Reiko—but I was in command. It’s even a relief to have mother blame me. It distracts me from blaming me, you might say.

Everyone looked relieved, though; she could have been confined to a fortress somewhere.

“Diarmuid,” she went on.

Diarmuid Tennart McClintock nodded, his dark hair curling around his shoulders and brushing the thin wrought-gold neck torc that marked a married man in the Old Faith. He was slim but broad-shouldered and of middling height, which made him an inch shorter than her, and blue curling tattoos on face and arms echoed the sinuous pattern of the jeweled disk that pinned the plaid of his Great Kilt at the shoulder.

“Aye, lass?” he said in the growling accent of the hills and mountains and high valleys beyond the Willamette’s southern boundary where his family were tacksmen, sub-chiefs. “Herself herself is nae in the mood for the loppin’ off o’ heids?”

It was perfectly respectful, by Clan McClintock standards.

“Oh, she’s in the mood, sure and she is, but she won’t be after the doing of it this day, you see,” she said, letting her own Mackenzie lilt grow stronger.

They were comrades now, and still warm friends and had been lovers once; he’d been her first man, at a Beltane festival the year she turned sixteen, when he’d been a Fire Squire and she one of the May Queen’s Maidens.

“Diarmuid, you followed when I called,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder; the muscle under her fingers was pleasantly like hard living rubber. “And you a newly-handfasted man and Caitlin with a babe on the way. I count that true friendship and worthy of a brave man’s honor; the Morrigú witness, and Lug of the Oaths who loves a warrior’s faithfulness.”

She pitched it just a little louder so the double-handful of his clansfolk at his back could hear it clearly. They bristled with pride; honor done their leader was done to them also and their kindreds and home-ranges and Clan.

“And folk of yours fell on our faring. Praise they shall have so their names live; and their families their honor-price. Gold and gear cannot give them back to their kin, but what gold and gear can do will be done, so.”

“Aye, well, they fell bravely in a guid cause, no’ just a scuffle over the reiving of cows or some drunken boast at a feast, and they can say it to the Guardians of the Western Gate,” Diarmuid said, though there was sadness in his midnight-blue eyes.

Dryly: “And you’ll not see McClintock crofters turning down gold and gear, either.”

His followers chuckled; they were a stark people.

“What next, then?” he asked.

“Next you go home,” she said, and held up a hand at his protest. “Not for long! I took you from Caitlin at a bad time, for needs must when Anwyn’s hounds are at your heels. Go home and see the babe born, which you can do if you hurry; harvest your own fields and hunt your own hills, play with the little one and make some memories to warm your hands at later. There’s a fight coming, like none our lifetimes have seen.”

“Aye, something tae that,” he said. “We missed the grain, but I’ll be back in time for the last hay and the grapes and fruit, and for the fall salmon run and the fat elk comin’ down from the mountain meadows.”

She leaned closer, smiling and whispered in his ear: “And tell Caitlin my reply to her private message, which is this: I am after sending you back alive, and I did keep my princessly hands off.”

“Aye, I’ll say that—it may shorten the time I spend sleeping in the hayloft and suppin’ on a dish o’ want. Soraidh leibh, then, and merry part!”

Slan leat: and merry meet again,” she replied.

The McClintocks all bowed and trotted off in a flurry of kilts, heading for the stairs they trusted more than the dangerous northern elevator contraption with its moving room, which they thought against nature.

She put her hands on her hips and looked at the rest of them. There were ten Mackenzies led by the Aylward brothers Karl and Mathun; one had died on the journey, and one had gone off with John.

Or more precisely, Ruan went off with Deor because his lover died and they found each other. Joy and luck to them both, and guard my brother!

The Dúnedain Rangers Faramir and Morfind, who were the son and daughter of her father’s younger twin half-sisters; and Susan Mika—Clever Raccoon—a small wiry young woman in fringed leathers with a pair of eagle feathers tucked into her raven-hued braids. She was Lakota, more or less an exile and a member of the Crown Courier Corps, or had been up until she volunteered for Órlaith’s little conspiracy and used her job as a cover for the messages they needed to keep private.

“So, would any of you be off the now? I’ll not grudge it, for it’s grand companions you’ve all been, and this is the end of the venture you joined me for.”

Some bothered to say no; the rest just snorted or rolled their eyes. Sir Droyn Jones de Molalla threw back his handsome head and laughed outright, teeth white against his light brown skin and tossing black curls; he was three inches taller than she and his wine-red houppelande and tight blue hose showed his tiger build to admiration.

“My liege, I don’t think my lord my father is any more pleased with me than Her Majesty is with you!” he said, with a sweeping bow. “Since I’m your vassal-at-arms—” he made a slighter bow to Heuradys, acknowledging her senior status in that category “—I claim aid and maintenance and the protection of your arm! I can hope that as a belted knight of twenty I’m too distinguished and too old to be belted by my lord my father and then sent to my room without supper, but it’s a faint hope.”

Count Chaka Jones de Molalla was inclined to be a bit choleric, though to be sure she’d never yet met a Count who liked being defied. And under the jest were serious matters of honor. Droyn had sworn to her personally, and she’d knighted him with the Sword after the battle on the Bay.

The other three present had come north with them after Topanga, but they weren’t exactly her followers, though in a sense she was acting as their patron; Meshek ben-Raanan and his large, hairy, silent brother Dov, and their sister Shulamith bar-Raanan. All three were the children of the Shofet—Judge and ruler—of the bnei Yaakov, and it showed in a family likeness of wavy black hair, black eyes and long rather boney proud-nosed, full-lipped faces as well as their camel-hair robes and billowy pantaloons tucked into soft goatskin boots. Meshek and his brother were here to investigate the wide and dangerous world of which his desert-dwelling nomad folk knew much less than they now realized was wise or even safe after their long post-Change isolation. Shulamith was seventeen, and she was here because she’d threatened to stow away or walk if they didn’t take her. They’d believed it, since she’d absconded from their father’s tents without permission in the first place and joined the party heading for Topanga when they were too far along to send her back into the desert alone.

Usually she was a chatterbox; all through Astoria and the trip up the Columbia she’d been a mass of observations and questions—all intelligent ones, if endless. Todenangst had her quiet and wide-eyed, though.

Meshek made that graceful gesture his people used, bowing and at the same time touching the fingers of the right hand to brow, lips and heart and then sweeping it down. The wide sleeve of his robe nearly touched the floor.

Nisicah,” he said, which was a title that translated as woman of high rank in Ivrit, and was what he’d first called her outside the burning wreck of the cursed castle in the Valley of Death. “My brother will depart now with our first report for our father, if it pleases you. I and Shulamith—”

He tugged at his full, curly black beard; it was a gesture he used when annoyed, which was frequently where his younger sister was concerned.

“—will remain here for a time. To observe, perhaps to negotiate.”

Órlaith nodded and reached into her sporran for an order pad and wrote, then tore it off and handed it to him:

“This is a quick letter of introduction to Rosh Eyal “—

“Head Eyal?” Dov asked, which was what the word meant in his language.

“Chief, elected leader, of the Confederated Kibbutzim of Degania Dalet, has been for a while, and his grandfather... well, he’ll tell you. He’s here with some of his people for the Congress of Realms, and I think he’ll be very helpful in getting Dov home. And helpful in general, Seren Meshek. I know him slightly personally and more by reputation and my parents’ opinions; he’s a shrewd and capable man, and a man of honor.”

“Many thanks, Nisicah,” Meshek said.

Órlaith smiled. “You got us out of the Mohave alive in high summer, and quickly.”

“But he made you ride Ben Zona, Princess,” Shualmith said, evidently recovering from her attack of awe.

Her brothers glared at her, and Órlaith suppressed a smile; it was rarely wise to intrude in a family quarrel, and the bnei Yaakov were clannish to a fault. Ben Zona—the name meant ‘Son of a Whore’—hadn’t been all that bad. For a camel. Instead she continued to Meshek:

“And without your bola... and Shulamit’s sling... things might have gone otherwise on that beach in Topanga. I owe you and your family a debt, son of the Shofet. So does the Heika. House Artos doesn’t forget an enemy or a friend; neither does the Yamato Dynasty. We’ll meet again; until then peace and the blessings of your Lord be upon you, and upon your people and their children, tents and flocks.”

“And upon you and yours, woman of valor,” Meshek said. “I think my father made the right decision... but then, he usually does.”

The bnei Yaakov might be desert-dwelling herdsmen, but they weren’t in the least intimidated by the elevator; Órlaith had been very impressed by the ingenious gadgets and methods they used to squeeze a decent living out of their savagely arid homeland. Shulamith spun the wheel that flicked up an indicator inside it and rang a bell in the treadmill room far below. As the cage sank out of sight she was craning her neck to try and watch the cable connection through the openwork of the ceiling and pointing out details of the mechanism that rang the chimes to her brothers’ lively interest.

“Now,” Órlaith said, “if we’re to get ourselves out of sight like a smacked puppy hiding in a woodshed—

The rest gave a chorus of realistic whimpers; Macmac put his ears down and glanced around, and Órlaith shook a finger at them before going on:

“—where should we be going? My mother didn’t say.”

“Which I think is a test too,” Heuradys said soberly.

Karl Aylward Mackenzie shrugged as he stood leaning easily on his cased longbow.

“Dun Juniper, surely!” he said, grinning.

Sky-blue eyes and sun-faded flaxen brows stood out the more against skin given a deep ruddy tan by the fierce southern sun. Behind him Gwri Beauregard McKenzie shook her head hard enough to rattle the sapphire beads she’d put on the ends of the many thin braids in which she wore her tight-curled black hair. Then she carefully pulled his queue aside by the end of the old bowstring that bound it and slapped him hard on the back of his head.

“Sure, and for a good bow-captain you’re a dolt betimes, Karl-me-lad,” the young seeress said. “Politics! Think how Herself streaking for the dúthchas after a quarrel with her mother would look when the clack got about!”

Órlaith nodded as Karl retrieved his bonnet and rubbed his head and his brother Mathun—who looked enough like him to be a twin, though he was nineteen to Karl’s twenty—snickered. Gwri was extremely right.

“True enough,” Órlaith said. “We can’t make this a matter of Clan and Association! That blood-feud needs to lie still in its grave.”

The two Dúnedain nodded and sighed regretfully. “The same applies to going to Mithrilwood, I suppose,” Faramir said thoughtfully, a trace of a soft musical accent in his English.

He had delicate, snub-nosed features and very slightly tilted eyes; it had made him look a bit naïve and childlike when they’d started out. He had a good point, too. Mithrilwood—once Silver Falls State Park—had been the first of the Dúnedain staths. Going there would be just another way to revive the memories of the wars against the Association.

Susan Mika smiled a bit wryly. “I’d invite you all to the makol, that’s far enough away we didn’t lift hair on either side in those old fights, we were too busy with the Square Staters, but I’m not exactly popular at home myself.”

With a grin she reached up and tugged at her taller companions’ locks in a rough caress: Faramir’s were pale gold and loosely curled, his cousin Malfind’s straight and as black as her own.

“Though with pretty scalps like this, it woulda been tempting if we’d known you guys existed then!”

“Right you are, cousin,” Órlaith said to the Rangers. “In fact, since all the delegates are heading to Dún na Síochána where they’ll live in tents or be hot-bunking while they debate at length, somewhere outside the Willamette would be best.”

The Citadel of Peace—that was what Dún na Síochána meant—was the new capital of the High Kingdom, under off-and-on construction for some years on the old site of Salem, the pre-Change capital of ancient Oregon, picked because it was long-deserted and on neutral ground.

“Probably best we stay in the Protectorate, at that,” Órlaith said thoughtfully. “So as not to look as if we’re trying to get out from under Mother’s hand, or that we’re rejecting the north-realm. But the Association rules a whacking great load of land.”

“Not in the Willamette? That rules my mothers’ place at Montinore Manor on Barony Ath. Besides that being where we, ah, left from.”

“Ran away from?” Susan Mika filled in helpfully. “Skipped away at night from? What’s that word...”

“Absconded?” Morfind Vogeler said.

Órlaith gave her a quelling glance. Heuradys went on:

“Which would be tactless right now.”

“Right; it would be too much like putting a thumb in Mother’s eye because I was in a snit. To be sure, I am in a snit, but I don’t have to act that way,” Órlaith said, blinking up at the carved plaster arches of the ceiling.

“A Crown demesne estate would put any castellan I descended on in a difficult position. Not to mention they’d be sending regular reports here.”

Heuradys nodded. “How about Barony Harfang out east? Diomede—”

She had two elder brothers; Lioncel de Stafford, and Diomede d’Ath.

“—is over at Castle Campscapell visiting my lord Dad and Lioncel. And he takes his garrison there to get ready for the autumn war-games after the harvest, so there’s room and supplies. Far enough away to be properly submissive-and-repentant-looking but not too hard to get back from in a hurry since there’s a rail link. And if anyone asks, I could say I’m visiting my own manors there.”

“Right you are, Herry. Any objections? We’ll do that, then.”

She wrote again on the order pad, then beckoned over one of the castle servants dressed in tabard and brimless flowerpot hat who’d been standing motionless waiting for someone to call, looking rather like an old playing card.

“Goodman—” the name flowed up, probably a fruit of the Sword at her side, and got her an instant of smile in the man’s trained gravity “—Faron. Please take this to the Movements division of the Logistics and Transport offices and have them lay on a six-steed hippomotive train and two passenger cars, nothing fancy. From here to Athana Manor on Barony Harfang, and clear it over the heliograph as a second-priority routing, charged to the Household account.”

“And have Dame Emilota put up a trunk suitable for a stay in the country; tell her...

She thought quickly; Dame Emilota had doted on her for years, but the lady-in-waiting of the Crown Princess’ household here would fill seven trunks with festival finery if Órlaith let her, and insist on bringing herself and a couple of tiring-maids as well. She felt a small guilty stab of pleasure that for once she’d be able to deal with her at second-hand. Emilota had all the loyalty in the world and was good at her job, but she was an excruciatingly skilled bore and never shut up.

“... tell her it would anger my mother with me further if it was anything but the basics, and likewise no entourage. Provisions for sixteen from the Household kitchens for the journey.”

Which meant a lunch, a dinner and a breakfast. A hippomotive could average about twenty miles an hour, so they should cover it in about twenty hours, arriving tomorrow afternoon if they left...

“Have it ready for departure in two hours.”

Heuradys had been writing herself. “Heliograph this to House Steward Paien at Athana... St. Athana Manor, Goodman. Be a shame to drop in unannounced with sixteen, just when he’s getting the domestic staff back from the fields.”

The serving-man repeated the instructions, took the discreet tip Heuradys could give where Órlaith couldn’t, bowed, and left at a trot. Just then the faint sound of the carillon atop the elevator drifted up the shaft, icy-cool with something like glassy bells. And someone was singing under it, wordlessly but matching the quick trills without effort or strain. Órlaith grinned, and so did some of the Mackenzies. That would be Aunt Fiorbhinn. And if she was here...

When the door slid open she spread her arms and cried: “Céad míle fáilte, a Máthair Chriona! A hundred thousand welcomes, grandmother!”

Juniper Mackenzie grinned back, her wrinkled face old and young at the same time, and her leaf-green eyes crackling.

“And a hundred thousand more, child! Merry meet!” she said, and they embraced.

The older woman felt bird-fragile in her arms; the founder of the Clan Mackenzie had always been small and slight, and she was in her mid-seventies now, elderly as the modern world reckoned such things though spry and not stooped; her braided hair had only a few threads of faded fox-red among the silver. She was wearing an arsaid in the Clan’s tartan, over a long bag-sleeved linen léine died saffron with embroidery of jet and black silk at the hems and neck. The staff in her hand was topped by a final in form of the Triple Moon, waxing and full and waning.

The Clansfolk present all bowed deeply, with the back of their right hands to their foreheads; Faramir and Morfind did the same with palm to heart; Susan made a gesture with extended arm.

And Droyn is just being polite and probably murmuring prayers in Latin as he bows, poor soul, Órlaith thought, as Juniper raised the staff.

Juniper Mackenzie was a major reason the Old Faith was strong in the High Kingdom, even if she was given to shouting in moments of exasperation: I am not the Wiccan pope-ess!

“Blessed be, children,” she said, raising the staff.

Then softly to Órlaith: “How you favor your father, my golden girl.”

Fingers gnarled by work and age touched her braids. “And his father, save for the hair; a lovely man, he was, in body and in soul, even though I met him in a time as hard and bitter as rue.”

Then briskly: “So, Matti has been having a bit of a hissy, then? She always did take herself a trifle too seriously, that girl. I remember her pouting and glaring at me when we first brought her to Dun Juniper. Though since we abducted her on a raid, perhaps that was natural enough.”

“She’s not over-pleased with me the now, no,” Órlaith said dryly; it was always a bit disconcerting to see her mother through another’s eyes as a stubborn, willful ten-year-old, back during the old wars of her grandparents’ day. “You know what happened? I’d be surprised if you didn’t, of course.”

“Aye. And I’ll be interested to meet your friend Reiko.”

Behind her Maude Mackenzie cleared her throat. The current Chief of the Clan and Name sighed and spoke:

“And yes, mother, I take things too seriously too. But I have you to tell me when I’m doing it, sure and I do.”

Aunt Maude had an oval face framed in long loose brown hair; she was in her mid-thirties, and looked older in a sternly handsome way; she was a worrier, and had always been grave—her Sept totem was Badger. She and Talyn Strum Mackenzie of Dun Tàirneanach were in formal Montrose jackets and small-kilts and pinned plaids like Órlaith; Talyn was currently the First Armsman of the Mackenzies, a scar-faced man of middle height in a hard middle age, one who’d fought in the Prophet’s war and still wore the shaven head with a long lock at the rear that had been popular with young Clansmen then, as well as a graying mouse-colored mustache. He stepped over to Karl and shook his hand Mackenzie-fashion, gripping on the wrist.

“That’s for a job well done, lad,” he said. Then he gave him a cuff across the ear.

“What was that after being for?”

“For being an insubordinate little shiite, so. Your Da said to pass it on.”

Then he reached out and tweaked his son Tair’s nose. “And that’s from your mother for running off without telling her.”

Tair clapped his hand to the offended member. “What, no clout, Da?” he managed to say as his eyes watered.

The First Armsman grinned. “No, for I’ve told your brother Cionaodh to keep back somethin’ fair nasty in the way of mucking out for your triumphant return to the home-place.”

“By way of a present, so?” Tair said.

“Aye, for shouldn’t a returning hero have one? That drainage ditch that never seems to keep clear, maybe? Then you can stagger in around dinner for a week or so, covered in high-smelling mud from hair to toe and see how the girls all want to get under your kilt when you tell them of your adventures. You remember it, the twisty one that always turns up rocks?”

Órlaith could tell Tair did unfondly remember that bit of the Strum family croft by the way his face fell.

“The narrow twisty one where you can’t get a good swing with a mattock for the hawthorn hedge that leans over it?” the young man said hollowly.

“Just that one! Ah, and Lug Longspear witness it’s a wonderful thing how a lad can know his father’s mind!”

She could also tell that Aunt Fiorbhinn was taking it all in and storing up bits for a song—John had the same habit, only he was more obvious and obnoxious about it. Fiorbhinn was Juniper’s last child, two years after Maude in years but looking six or seven younger, perhaps because she was absolutely not a worrier. Fiorbhinn’s chin was more pointed and her eyes were bigger than Órlaith’s, and they always seemed to have a secret smile in them.

She was in a long white robe belted with silver plaques and a necklace of golden spiral triskelions, and staff of her own topped by the same symbol. That was the dress and marks of a master-fili, a bard, among Mackenzies; Órlaith knew that for a fact, since it was Fiorbhinn who’d decided they were, and proclaimed that this was the ancient custom of the Gael. And who was to say she was wrong, since her fame and her music traveled far beyond the dùthchas? Although she’d gotten the details of dress from a pre-Change book, an illustrated one that seemed to be a guide to a game centered on pretending to be a gang of bandits who wandered about plundering people and looting tombs.

Juniper looked over at Morfind and Faramir. “My granddaughter will be taking all you lot off somewhere else,” she said. “I’d be after hoping you realize Mithrilwood is right out of it? Considering how your parents down in Stath Ingolf talked one Edain Aylward Mackenzie out of dragging our golden Princess here back by the ear, as Matti had sent him to do?”

Faramir actually blushed. Morfind gave Juniper a bold stare, unconsciously touching the scar that trailed down across one cheek. An Eater chief’s ax had struck there in a skirmish with a hidden band of the foe, one lurking after the little battle that killed the High King. Her brother had died then. Faramir’s scars from that fight didn’t show, not on the outside at least.

“We’d thought of that, Lady Juniper,” he said.

Heuradys stepped in. “We’re going to Barony Harfang,” she said tactfully.

“Ah, the Palouse,” Juniper said, and her eyes went distant for an instant. “Pretty country, bare but pretty, those hills like the swells of the sea gone solid. I remember driving through there one spring, to perform at the Spokane RenFaire.”

Órlaith blinked; she meant driving a car, the horseless carriages of the old time. It was a bit of a shock to realize that the living, breathing person in front of you had been an adult when the ancient world fell, when Nature itself changed its contours. There weren’t very many left. Fewer still of the giants, the founders and leaders.

Juniper seemed to know the thought, which didn’t surprise her granddaughter.

“Back when I was a bard myself, though I didn’t go about in a white bedsheet bedecked with tin.”

Fiorbhinn rolled her eyes. “This is my fili’s robe, Mother,” she said, obviously long-suffering.

“As I said, girl.”

“And I know you used to wear an arsaid when you performed, the which nobody else between here and Erin did back then!”

“’twas more of a pleated tartan skirt, really.”

Then they grinned at each other. Juniper went on seriously, to Heuradys d’Ath:

“You look after my son’s child. You hear, my lady knight?”

“Always, Lady Juniper,” she said with casual sincerity and a bow. “With all that I have of wit and will and skill from my patron Athana, and my life’s blood if I must.”

The others murmured assent.

“And now we’d better go in to be there when Herself comes out, for Matti is stubborn as the White-Horned Bull when she’s got a notion, always was.”

The Mackenzie party formed up for their entrance to the throne room. Juniper paused and put her hand on Órlaith’s forearm for an instant, her grip bony and strong.

“You cannot fight grief with a sword, my darling one, not even with that sword,” she said softly. “Even the Powers themselves cannot. He was your father, but my son, my sun-bright beautiful boy running with the wind in his hair. Take time to weep, where you’re going.”

Then she stood on tiptoe to kiss her on the cheek, and walked on with the silver frow on the end of her staff tapping on the floor.

 

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There wasn’t much of a send-off, just a squad of glaivesmen under a squire seeing them out the main gate, bringing their polearms down with a metallic crack on the granite blocks of the big train station’s platform. Órlaith returned the salute and stepped into the carriage; there was a shout from the front, a hollow thudding of hooves on the endless belts, a rumbling whine of gearing, and all the people who’d been kneeling got up and waved instead. She waved back out the window, since it wasn’t their fault things were wretched right now. The long peace had seen many stretches of rail line repaired; by now you they stretched very far indeed; in theory and in good weather you could reach the Mississippi. Which was tempting!

Lady bless you mother, for that you walk in Her power as all mothers do, but I miss Johnny too! I did not loose him of my own will!

The others settled in—not without some squabbling among the youngsters—and Macmaccon jumped up into the seat beside her and sprawled. He laid his enormous head in her lap with an even louder sigh than hers, albeit his was of pure contentment, and went to sleep, for once not drooling or twitching in his slumbers. The train’s two carriages moved north and west away from Todenangst’s soaring multicolored bulk and out into the green fields and woodlots and hills and towards the tiny perfect cone of Mt. Hood on the far horizon. Her thoughts seemed to be running on rails too as she absently stroked the dog’s ears, and on a circular track; that loop was going to end up with her thinking about her father’s death again if she didn’t watch it.

One reason I’m obsessing about John’s fate is that I know he isn’t dead. If Mother didn’t know he wasn’t she wouldn’t just be angry, she’d...

She literally shivered at the thought, and stroked the dog’s ears as a countercharm. After a few minutes Heuradys nudged Macmaccon’s head off her lap. He woke, sat, turned and stuck his head out the window into the swift wind of their passage with an expression of idiot slit-eyed bliss and his lips flapping back from his fangs. Then her knight nudged her.

“Here,” she said, offering a flask. “Mom One got a cask of this from the Dowager Duchess on her last birthday. Don’t bother with savoring the piquant bouquet, though, Orrey. You need the effect.”

Órlaith took the advice, a brief sniff and then and a healthy slug. It was Poire Guilliame a le Duc, a pear brandy from the Hood River orchards of the Duchy of Odell, and in this case private stock laid down by the current Duke’s father and aged ten years in the barrel. That scar-faced old rogue had known his liquors; cool white fire ran down her throat, followed by an intense pear flavor and scent that flowed up into her sinuses. You couldn’t drown anger or grief or even impatience, but you could anesthetize them for a bit, like a surgeon’s ether cone.

“Thanks, Herry,” she said, feeling the muscles in her neck relax a little as she handed it back. “That bumped me out of my groove and sure, it wasn’t a good one to be in.”

The others were untying the ribbons of the wicker hampers the kitchens had sent along, the ones labeled Crn. Prns & pty 1st d. luncheon, 16, and rummaging inside. Happy Mackenzie whoops were accounted for when someone handed her one of the sandwiches made from a crusty split baguette, which was stuffed with thinly sliced Westfälischer Schinken; a darkly pungent strong-tasting ham from half-wild swine fed on acorns, dry-cured with sea-salt, brown sugar, allspice, and pepper and then cold-smoked over beechwood and juniper chips for several weeks before being hung in a cellar for two years. It was one of the exports of the Queen of Angels Commonwealth, ruled by the warrior monks of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict; her father had liked it too. In this case it was combined with bread not long out of the oven, fresh yellow summer butter from Chehalis, aioli mayonnaise, capers, Walla Walla onions and slivers of a sharp Tillamook cheese.

The screeches of the young clansfolk turned to warbles of joy when several tightly-stoppered stoneware jugs in an insulated container of ice turned out to bear the capering goggle-eyed Mad March Hare mark of Brannigan’s Special, a well-known strong ale from Sutterdown in their own dúthchas. Those were soon passed from hand to hand, amid a bellowed version of a song Grandmother Juniper had made in its praise long ago:

 

Start seein' things real funny,
And given half a chance—
Hic!
Go swirling around and then tumble down
And the mice on your head will all dance!”

 

She hadn’t thought she was hungry, despite having been too nervous for breakfast; the scent and a bite showed her otherwise, and the impromptu feast made her feel better and less jumpy, along with the bright bitter floral hops and dark malt of the Special. It was vanity to think there was a difference between mind and body. She was on a journey...

What was that saying Da was fond of, the one he heard at Chenrezi Monestary, on the Quest long ago? Yes... three set forth seeking fortune. And one found gold; another came on good land, and tilled it. But the third saw sunlight making jewels of the dew. All three went by the same road. Each thought themself the richer.

Heuradys laughed as they unfolded the waxed paper wrapping the dessert that followed, buttery blueberry tarts whose deep amethyst centers were ringed with flaky pastry covered in gold-hued shaved and toasted nuts. Órlaith raised a brow.

“They reminded me of what Mom One said about that low-cut cotte-hardie Countess Stavarov de Chelais wore to the Midsummer masque,” Heuradys said in answer to the unspoken question.

Órlaith tried not to show it in public, but she’d never liked House Stavarov. Officially the Stavarovs had headed a freelance troop of men-at-arms before the Change, when her mother’s father had recruited them into the nascent Association. Unofficial sources said mafiya. Either term meant gang of bandits, basically. House Stavarov had taken longer to outgrow the legacy than most.

“Showing off her family’s great tracts of land?” Órlaith said a little snidely.

Countess Stavarov had hair of a deep fawn shade, large melting dark eyes with very long lashes, and she was very busty.

“Showing off her assets and those new Tanzanite jewels Count Piotr’s salvagers dug out of Seattle. Tanzanite centers two inches across and gold fretwork and diamonds and tourmalines in the surrounds.”

“Delia said something cutting, no doubt,” Órlaith said.

Heuradys’ birth mother Countess Delia de Stafford had been a leader of fashion in the Association lands for more than a generation. She also had no time at all for women who were—or far, far worse—pretended to be witless. Which fitted the densely thick Ziaida Dimitrievna Stavarova perfectly since she played kittenish-coquettish as well. By all accounts it had been tiresome when she was a teenager, and now grated horribly even on her toadies and sycophants; Órlaith didn’t think she had any actual friends.

Heuradys paused, grinning wider: “Mom One said the look was like a Jersey milker prancing around with a string of blueberry tarts glued to its udder, and Mom Two had just taken a sip of brandy and snarfed it out her nose.”

Órlaith choked slightly on her own mouthful of Brannigan’s Special, then swallowed and coughed and whooped.

Heuradys waited considerately until she’d recovered before she continued:

“I hear that when someone repeated it to Ziaida she snapped her fan in half and threw it into the punchbowl and slapped a page and she hasn’t worn the necklace since.”

Órlaith found herself laughing until she hiccupped.

Heuradys licked her fingers and went on: “By Hestia of the Hearth, these are good tarts—split another one? They packed too many for us anyway, this basket’s full of them and they won’t keep.”

“Not with Karl and Mathun eating they didn’t pack too many, so let’s grab two.”

“Right, they’re bottomless pits. And little Suzie’s capacity is amazing, I don’t know where she puts it all.”

The Latoka girl overheard the remark, popped her head up over the back of her seat and called:

“Hey, it’s usually guys who say that!” to a roar of laughter. “Ones with delusions of grandeur!”

They passed the dramatic cliffs and woods and waterfalls and vast views of the Columbia Gorge before dinner, leaving them partly in shadow and partly painted crimson by the setting sun, to the ooohs and ahhhs of those who hadn’t been this way before. Traffic was heavy on the road that ran beside the railway, and trains of sailing barges and small ships and once a patrol galley centipede-walking upstream thronged the river in the afternoon light. A heliograph signal snapped from the highest tower of a castle on a promontory, actinic-white as the sun faded.

The long twilight was past and the late summer night fell deep by the time passed Hood River, the river-port for the Duchy of Odell. After that the habitations of human kind were a thin scatter of yellow lights, passing in the distance amidst leagues of emptiness beneath a dense frosting of stars. Cards came out when the lamps were lit, or portable fidchell sets. And everyone played or sang in the improvised cèilidh that happened wherever Mackenzies had nothing else to do, to which Heuradys’ lute and the Dúnedain flutes were a welcome addition, and Droyn had a wonderful baritone that made the windows rattle to his version of Across the Broad Columbia. They started with some old favorites:

 

“I danced at a Beltane with the pole standing tall,
And the ribbons flowing round the dancers all.
I danced in the sunlight at the Midsummer Feast
As the day dawned pink with the Sun Lord’s heat!
Dance, dance, wherever you may be—

 

Susan had a lot of Lakota tunes and brought out a few they hadn’t heard before, including some Órlaith hadn’t been exposed to on her visits to the far eastern marches of the kingdom, doubtless because the grave elders of the tunwan didn’t think them suitable for a young visiting princess.

Particularly the one about the adventures of the buffalo heifer!

Órlaith managed to doze for most of the night. As the light returned they drank cold herb tea, ate hard-boiled eggs and fruit and bread and looked out with interest at the varied lands as they passed and chatted about the details and the crops. They were all countryfolk in one way or another.

“Now, riddle me this,” Karl said after a while. “Is it more boring to do this trip afoot, or like this?”

“You’ve more time for it afoot,” Mathun said. “And sure, the country passes more slowly.”

“Aye,” Boudicca Lopez Mackenzie said from the rear of the car where she was drawing her bow and relaxing it over and over. “But sitting on your arse you notice it more!”

The argument grew lively, and was done entirely for its own sake. Órlaith leaned back and pulled her bonnet over her eyes.

Johnnie, I wish I was with you!

 

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