Woburn Abbey/Aspley Wood/Rasta Bob's Farm
August 12th, 2006 AD/Change Year Eight
I've been here before, John Hordle suddenly realized, his thumb moving over the leather that covered the grip of his bow.
The moon was up, and it glittered on the ruffled surface of the water to his left, where swans and ducks slept or swam lazily. But there was still little light under the three tall yews and the big oak; the night around him was still save for night-birds, the whoo-whit of tawny owls and the screech of the barn type. Seven armed men lay grimly silent behind brush and waist-high grass, watching the great country-house a quarter-mile to the northeast. Candles and lantern-lights flickered and blinked out behind the windows as the servants and garrison sought their beds. The pale limestone of it still glowed in the light of moon and stars.
When was that? Before the Change, of course, but when? In summer, I think.
Woburn Abbey was old; it began as a great Cistercian monastery, in the year when the first Plantagenet was crowned King of England. Henry VIII hung the last abbot from an oak tree on the monastery grounds when he broke with Rome and declared himself head of the Church, and granted the estate to a favorite of his named John Russell. The fortunes of the Russell family waxed and waned with those of the English aristocracy and England herself. In the palmy years of the eighteenth century the fifth Duke rebuilt the country house in Palladian magnificence and surrounded it with a pleasance, deer park and gardens covering five square miles, very convenient with London only thirty miles to the south. In 1953 the eleventh Duke had opened it to the paying public, complete with golf course, pub, guided tours and antique shop—and avoided the forced sales which so many of his peers suffered after the Second World War.
Came on a day-trip, I did, drove up the M1. After I enlisted, but before I did the SAS selection... August of 1996; ten years ago to the month. Me first leave... who was the girl? Blond all over, she was, I remember that for certain. And she giggled.
In England the Change had struck in the early hours of the morning on March 18th, 1998: the owner's family and Woburn's staff had only begun to realize what the failure of electricity and motors and explosives meant when the first spray of refugees from Milton Keynes and Luton arrived in the area two days later. The last Duke's heir set up emergency quarters in the buildings and in tents in the great park, doing his best to organize supplies and sanitation. That ended when the last of the deer were eaten or escaped; by then most of the animals in the attached Safari Park had been released, before the keepers realized that even lion and timber wolves, tiger and rhino were edible when the other choice was death.
Shortly thereafter the hordes fleeing north from London met those from the Midland cities moving south, and the great dying was well underway. A cannibal gang from the south side of Milton Keynes used the buildings as a headquarters for a time, roasting the meat of their catches in the fireplaces over blazes fed by the Regency furniture, rutting in the beds where Victoria and Albert had slept, and sitting beneath the Canolettos and Rembrandts to crack thighbones for the marrow with Venetian-glass paperweights. They turned on each other when prey grew scarce, and the last died of typhus on Christmas Day of 1998, shivering and comatose and alone.
Mary Sowley, that was her name. Bugger me blind if it wasn't ten years ago to the day. We drove through the Safari Park and looked at the bloody lions and didn't that get her motor going... She married that commuter in Essex, the one with fuzzy dice hanging from his rear-view mirror. God alone knows where the poor bitch left her bones. Hope it was quick.
Bicycle-born scouts from the Isle of Wight scoured Bedfordshire in the spring of 1999; the smaller island off the south coast of the greater had kept two hundred thousand alive in the wreckage of a world, but resettling the British mainland was urgent. Their main concern was to see where a useful crop of volunteer wheat could be reaped from fields unharvested the previous year and find the tools to do it, but on instructions from new-crowned King Charles III they made a stop at Woburn and a cursory attempt to board up windows and close doors as well, to protect the pictures and porcelain within. By the summer of the Change Year Eight the estate was on the northeastern-most fringe of the recolonized zone, a royal garrison post in the Commandery of Whipsnade.
There's some who'd say it's stupid to think about girls just before the hitting starts. Sam Aylward had, for example; but then Samkin was the sort who polished bullet casings in his spare time to cut down on the chance of a jam. I wonder where old Sam ended up? He was abroad somewhere on the day of the Change.
It had been warm, that August day in 1996. A decade later, and even past midnight John Hordle was sweating beneath his chain-mail shirt and underpadding. Insects buzzed and burrowed and bit amid the mysterious rustles and clicks of any forest at night—though these days that could include the movements of large carnivores with intent to harm.
Men are more dangerous, he thought whimsically. They'll go for your throat when they aren't hungry.
He could smell the intense yeasty smell of the dirt scuffed up beneath him as he crawled into position, where grass and thistles stood tall. Training could let you move soundlessly, it didn't make you any lighter, and John Hordle had reached six inches over six feet when he turned twenty in the year of the Change. He'd never been fat, but the only time he'd been under two hundred and fifty pounds was that winter and spring, when the rations on the Isle of Wight had gotten just short of starvation amid hard labor and wet chill.
A soundless alert went among the men of his squad as boots tramped through the night, tense expectancy as a pair of sentries made their rounds between the raiding party and its target, tramping along the low ridge between the water and the house.
Vicious Sids, he thought, motionless but acutely conscious of the speeding of the blood beating in his ears. Or Varangians, as Sir Nigel prefers. More dignified, I suppose.
The armor of the big men who paced by was enameled a dull matt green; they wore steel breast and back-plates, mail sleeves and leggings, rounded sallet helmets with flares to protect the neck. That color didn't reflect much, but moonlight still glinted on steel—the honed edges of broad axe-blades. Those were long-hafted weapons meant to be swung two-handed, the trademark of their unit.
"Hun er sviska!" one said, murmuring and shaping the air with his free hand. Which meant: What a stunner!, roughly.
Special Icelandic Detachment right enough, Hordle thought.
He'd picked up a little of the language, mostly in bed and from girls, since the islander refugee-immigrants poured in during the second and third Change Years.
Same as King Charles, when he threw over Camilla and took up with Hallgerda. Mind, I don't blame him. Those legs!
The other guard chuckled and nodded: "Hun heldur áfram og áfram." That translated as: She goes on and on!
His left hand closed slowly on the grip of his longbow; there was an arrow on the string and four more were laid out in front of him, points and fletchings blackened with soot. One of the Sids flipped his axe down from his shoulder and began a casual practice routine with it, spinning it in his hands and switching from right hand leading to left on the fly—far from easy, and risky with an unshielded edge. It made an unpleasant fweeept sound as it cut the air in blurring arcs and circles.
Go on, Njal, Hordle thought, willing them to notice nothing. Back to your nice cosy room and take a nap...
The Woburn Abbey garrison was a thirty-man platoon of the SID, First Heavy Infantry Battalion, according to report. King Charles didn't want Regulars guarding a prisoner who'd been as popular with the troops as Sir Nigel Loring. That was why they'd moved him here, as well, rather than keeping the baronet in house arrest on his own Commandery of Tilford Manor in Hampshire; too many of the folk there had been men of his own, or refugees he'd seen through the dying time on the Isle of Wight and led to settle their new lands. But Bedfordshire had only been colonized the last four years, and that lightly; most of the dwellers were relocates from the Scottish islands and from Iceland and the Faeroes. They'd spent years working for others before they could accumulate tools and seed and stock to set up on their own, and they'd come this far north because the good land further south was already claimed. And they were still much more likely to be unquestioning in their support of the Royalist government than the native English.
Gratitude's a wonderful thing, Hordle thought sourly, as his chest moved in a slow regular rhythm and his eyes flicked back and forth in a face darkened with burnt cork. Too bad Charlie didn't stay grateful to Sir Nigel for getting him out of Sandringham and down to Wight.
He'd been with the SAS detachment Nigel Lording took to rescue the heir to the Crown from the Norfolk estate, a week after the Change; the Household Cavalry had taken the Queen out of London directly, in full Tin Bellies fig and using their sabers more than once on the mobs. Perhaps if she'd lived Charles wouldn't have gotten so strange...
Or if any of the politicians had made it; the last messenger out of London had said Blair was on his way, but he'd never arrived...
If ifs and buts were candied nuts, everyone would have lived through the Change, he thought.
A clank sounded from behind him. Ice rippled trough the sweat on his skin; the sound had been faint, very faint, but it was worse than a snapped twig—nothing else on earth sounded quite like metal on metal. The two Sids stopped.
"Who goes there?" one of them called, his English accented but fluent. He reached for the horn slung at his belt. "Show yourself! This is a prohibited zone!"
"Oh, you conscientious keen-eared shiite," Hordle sighed.
He drew the hundred-and-fifty pound longbow's string to the ear with a slight grunt of effort as he rose to one knee; the Sid he aimed for had just enough time to put his lips to the horn's mouthpiece before the arrow slashed through the intervening twenty feet. A sharp metallic tunk! sounded as the punch-shaped arrowhead struck the center of the guardsman's breastplate and sank nearly to the feathers, with the head and a red-dripping foot of shaft sticking out of his back.
The horn gave a strangled blat that sprayed a mist of blood into the air, looking black in the moonlight, turning his yellow beard dark. He toppled backward with a clank. Two more bows snapped in the same instant; a shaft went wide, but the other slammed into the second Icelander's nose. It had been shot from a kneeling position too, uphill, and it angled upward through his brain and cracked out the rear of his skull, knocking the helmet off spinning. The body shook in a moment's spastic reflex on the ground, rattling and rustling the armor as boot-heels drummed on the turf.
Hordle was on his feet and moving before the helmet came to rest on the sheep-cropped grass. He ran crouching into the open, grabbed both bodies by their throats, and dragged two men and their gear back to the shelter of the brush at a quick wary walk. There was blood on his left hand as he dropped them and sank down again beside his bow; he washed palm and fingers clean with water from his canteen, and reached under the hem of his mail shirt to wipe it off on the gambeson. It wouldn't do to have his hands sticky or slippery.
They waited silently, watching and listening; no sound of alarm came from the great Palladian manor ahead, a glimmer of pale limestone in the moonlit night. He nodded as Alleyne Loring came up beside him, going down on one knee. The young officer was twenty-eight, Hordle's age almost to a day; the Pied Merlin that Hordle's father ran was less than half a mile from Tilford Manor, and they'd grown up as neighbors and playmates before the Change and served together since.
Alleyne wore an officer's harness, armored in plate cap-à-pie, from steel shoes to bevoir and visored sallet; he slid the visor up along the curved surface of the helm as he used his binoculars to scan the overgrown parkland between them and the entrance. It had been scattered trees and deer-grazed grassland before the Change, but even after the Abbey was reoccupied there had been no labor to spare for ornamental work—the garrison here lived from its own fields and herds, with a little help from nearby farmers. There hadn't been enough stock to keep the vegetation down either, until the last year or two. Bushes gleamed with beads of dew, and the grass was better than waist-high in places.
"Right," the younger Loring said softly. "That gives us fifteen minutes until they notice. Go!"
He drew the long double-edged sword at his waist and led the way at a run; he moved with practiced agility in the sixty pounds of alloy-steel protection, plus an extra sword and heater-type shield slung over his back. The six archers who followed were more lightly armored; open-faced helms, chain-mail tunics, sword and buckler. Hordle kept an arrow on the string and grinned in a rictus of tension; they'd be visible now from the upper stories of the building, to anyone unblinded by artificial light who knew what to look for.
"Who dares, wins," he muttered to himself. "Or gets royally banged about if things go south."
Nigel Loring woke in darkness. He lay for a moment letting his eyes adjust, ears straining for the sound he'd heard. Had it been his imagination? A fragment of a dream, a dream of combat before the Change or after it? God knew his life had provided plenty of material for nightmares, starting with Oman back in the 70's.
No. That was something. Perhaps an animal in the grounds, or a guard stumbling in the darkness, but something. Something real.
Maude Loring stirred beside him in the big four-poster bed. "What is it, dear?" she asked.
"Shhh," he said, straining to hear again.
Nothing, but there was a tension in the air. He put out a hand in the darkness and touched her shoulder. Then he swung his feet to the floor and padded over to the window. They were in the Covent Garden suite—bedroom, dressing-room and bathroom, the latter restored to limited functioning. The same engineers who'd set up the wind-pump system to give the house running water had put a grid of steel bars over the window, mortising the ends into the stone. That was a rather soft local limestone; Sir Nigel had determined in the first days of his captivity here that he could get the frame out, with a few hours unobserved work and some tools. He'd filched a knife and could have improvised a chisel from it, but the guards were quite alert—two below the window all night, and a pair at the doors, all stolid types who pretended they couldn't speak English or follow his halting Icelandic.
The bars were thick and close-placed, allowing a hand to go through but not an elbow, but they didn't totally destroy the view, and the windows themselves were half-open on this warm summer's night. His eyes weren't of the best—he'd needed corrective contacts since an RPG drove grit into them in a wadi in Dhofar—but seeing was as much a matter of knowing how to pay attention as sheer input. He looked down the long stretch of grassland across the park to the westward, and saw moonlight glinting on the Basin Pond and the dark bulk of the Abbot Oak—where Abbot Hobbes had been hung in 1538. His hands tightened on the steel as he saw movement south of there, dark figures flitting towards the building. Not the roving patrol the Varangians kept up here, either. There were far too many of them; he estimated at least four or possibly half a dozen, but they moved so quickly and skillfully it was hard to be certain.
"Maude," he said softly. Her white face was framed in dark hair as he turned, sitting up and alert. "Something's happening. We'd best take precautions."
She nodded briskly, swung out of bed and began to dress. They had had twenty-two years together before the Change and eight since, and neither needed many words to know the other's mind. He quickly slipped into his colonel's undress uniform; that was the post-Change version, designed to be worn under armor or as fatigues, tough and practical and with grommets of chain mail under the armpits, to cover the weak spots in a suit of plate. This set was clean, but there were stains from blood and sweat and the rust that wore off even the best-kept armor. His wife looked a question at him as he felt behind the frame of an 18th-century painting of a London scene and took out the dinner knife. He'd palmed it when the Varangians arrested them at table with the King at Highgrove and brought them here. It had been filed down to a point and given a respectable edge over the last two weeks, and she'd carefully braided and tied unraveled fabric from the bottom of an Oriental rug onto the grip so that it wouldn't slip in his hand.
He slipped the blade up the right sleeve of his jacket. She dressed then herself, in riding breeches and tweed jacket; they were allowed exercise, though always separately and under heavy guard. King Charles had made their confinement comfortable enough, probably the result of guilt and reluctance. Queen Hallgerda hadn't managed to talk him into throwing the pair into a dungeon, or sending them to the headsman's axe, not quite yet.
But she will do it, given enough time to convince him it's for the good of the realm. Damn the woman!
"What do you suppose is happening?" she said calmly.
"Not quite sure, old girl, but I think it's a rescue attempt," he said, his voice equally serene.
Although I feel more nervous than I have in thirty years, he thought. It's a trifle different when the wife's along too.
"I don't suppose..." Maude said.
Sir Nigel shook his head. "If His Majesty was going to give us the chop for asking about Parliament and elections and lifting the Emergency Powers Act once too often, the Varangians would handle it without needing to sneak about through the shrubbery. Light the candle, please. If it's friends come to call, we should make sure they know we're in. Then give me a spot of help with the furniture."
She nodded calmly; he felt a stab of pride as she picked up a lighter and flicked it alive, then went around the room touching the flame to candle-wicks and the rapeseed-oil lanterns, as calmly as if they were back home at Tilford. Mellow golden light filled the room, touching the Chinoserie of the wallpaper, the pictures and mirrors in their ornate frames, the pale plaster scrollwork medallions on the ceiling. It was a melancholy sight, in its way; the detritus of a thrice-lost world, the elegant symmetries of the Age of Reason filtered through the Age of Steam and his own twentieth century. The current situation was more suited to an older, darker period—the Wars of the Roses, perhaps, or even the stony roads of Merlin's time.
A few seconds sufficed to force a mixture of wood-splinters and candle-wax into the keyhole; then he shoved wedges made from shims worked out of the interiors of tables and settees under the doors. Together they dragged a massive desk over and tipped it up against the frame, lodging the edge against the pediment above and bracing smaller items in the remaining space. It had all been planned in advance, of course, against the chance they would need it.
"That should hold them for a little while," he said, as a shout from the other side asked what they were doing.
Maude nodded; she was a strong-featured woman of fifty, two years younger than he, and three inches taller than his own five-foot-five. It went unspoken between them that the Varangian commander almost certainly had orders to see that they didn't survive any rescue attempt.
"If you could detach this table-leg for me, darling?" she asked politely.
He nodded, braced a foot against the frame and wrenched the mahogany loose, working it back and forth so that the pegs wouldn't squeal when they broke. Sir Nigel was a small man, but nobody who'd seen him exert himself thought he was weak. Maude smiled and hefted the curved hardwood.
"Makes me nostalgic, rather." At his glance and raised eyebrow: "About the size and weight of the hockey stick I used back at Cheltenham as a girl."
She took a good grip on it and waited; Sir Nigel took the opportunity to use the splendid bathroom one last time. He'd rather have had his armor with him, but unlike a suit of plate the cloth uniform did have a button-up fly and a functioning loo wasn't all that common these days. He might as well have one last chance at decent English plumbing.
As he returned a horn sounded, dunting and snarling in the night—not the brass instrument the Regular forces used, but the ox-horn trumpet the Special Icelandic Detachment affected. The clash of steel sounded, rapidly coming closer, and men's voices shouting—and then a few screaming in pain.
Nigel Loring smiled slightly. "And they wouldn't tell us where Alleyne was," he said dryly, feeling another glow of pride; for his son, this time.
"I rather think we know, now," she said.
"Right on schedule," Alleyne Loring said. "Good old Major Buttesthorn."
They approached the great Georgian country house from the west; the long stretch of grass was being used to graze the garrison's horses and working oxen since the Basin Pond provided a natural watering-point, and large dark shapes shied and moved aside as they trotted forward. A sudden clash of steel sounded faintly from over Woburn Abbey's high roof, and then the snarl of a signal horn. Hordle grinned more widely. The Sids' families were quartered in one of the two big outbuildings behibvfnd the main house, the South Court, and the cover there was much better for a clandestine approach. The diversionary attack was going in right as planned—with maximum noise and plenty of fire-arrows. That ought to keep the day-watch at home; with luck, some of the ones on night duty would hurry back.
But not all of them... and if the rescue party wanted Sir Nigel and Lady Maude out alive, they had to move quickly. For that matter, the garrison commander would probably send a detachment out here as soon as he collected his wits. Hit them fast when they weren't looking, and put the boot in hard while they were still wondering about the first time...
"That's the window," Alleyne said, pointing.
"Just like the drawings, sir," Hordle said.
The Abbey was built like a giant uneven H with the short arms and the Corinthian façade in the middle of the connecting arm facing west, and the longer east-facing ones enclosing a court open in that direction. The rooms faced west, the candlelit window was sixty feet up and a hundred distant from where the storming-party halted.
He took a blunt-headed arrow from his quiver; it had a small slip of paper fastened to it with a bit of elastic. Then he drew carefully, well under full extension, and shot. The arrow hissed away, and an instant later he was rewarded with a tinkle of breaking glass.
The arrow smashed the windowpane and flicked across the room to dent the plaster. Nigel Loring winced slightly at how narrowly it had missed a painting by Nebot; his wife was already unfastening the message.
"Stand clear and pick up the string from the next," she said. "But dear, we can't climb down even if they do have a rope attached. The bars..."
The first shot hit the bars and bounced back. The second landed in the room trailing a thin cord, and Maude Loring began to haul it in hand-over-hand, a pile of it growing at her feet.
"Sir Nigel!" a voice called from the hall outside their suite. "Please to open the door, immediately!"
He didn't bother to reply. Seconds later the first axe hit the outside door of their suite.
"Keep going!" he barked to his wife, and went to stand beside the doorway.
Through the piled furniture he could see the panels begin to splinter; a two-handed war axe made short work of anything not built to military specifications. The dry splintery scent of old wood filled the air, and the glug-glug-glug sound of Icelandic, in this case panting curses between grunts of effort. He flipped the knife down into his hand and into a thumb-on-pommel grip, good for a short-range stab, then risked a glance over his shoulder.
The heavy rope had come up at the end of Maude's cord—two of them, in fact, both woven-wire cable. One was the top of a Jacob's ladder, and she was a little red-faced with effort before she clipped that to the bar nearest the left side of the window. The other had a ring-clip swagged onto the end. She fastened it to the center bar, made sure that the thin cord that prevented it from falling back was still tied to a chair, and stepped back.
"Encourage them to hurry, my dear," he called, and turned back to his own task—making sure the Varangians didn't break through too soon.
"You chaps! Do hurry—we're in a spot of bother here!"
He heard her voice crying out into the darkness, and then the first axehead came all the way through the panels of the door. It withdrew, and took a yard-wide chunk of the battered wood with it. A gauntleted hand groped through to feel for the knob and lock. Sir Nigel had anticipated that, and left a pathway; he slid forward and stabbed backhanded, his arm moving with the flicking precision of a praying mantis. Stainless steel stabbed through buff leather and flesh and bone, and he barely managed to withdraw it in time as the guardsman wrenched his arm back with a scream.
One, he thought. Out of this fight, if not crippled.
There were no great army of men here, less than thirty; the entire Special Icelandic Detachment numbered only three hundred, and it was a quarter of the ration strength of the British army as of Change Year Eight—and the troops all spent the majority of their time laboring on public works or doing police duties or working to feed themselves. More wasn't necessary, when the whole of mainland Britain held only six hundred thousand dwellers.
Immigrants included, he thought, poised, as the axes thundered again. Well, they're just doing their duty as they see it.
"Right," John Hordle said. "Let's clear the way!"
They tallied on to the main cable, Hordle and Alleyne at the front—the younger Loring was only six feet and built like a leopard rather than a tiger, but strong as whipcord with it.
"Remember, stop pulling the moment it comes free!" Alleyne said sharply. "If we pull the precursor cord lose, we'll have to run another up."
Hordle took a deep breath and called:
Seven strong men surged backward against the cable with hissing grunts of effort, driving against their heels as if this were a tug-of-war game at a village fair. Steel squealed against rock; he could feel the bar bending as the cable went rigid, and then there was a sudden release of tension as it broke free. They all threw themselves forward at once, and Hordle blew out his cheeks in a gasp of relief as he saw Maude Loring's hand come through the remaining bars, hauling up the cable and setting it on the next of the steel cylinders. The first fell, bent into a shallow U, clattering and clanging as it dropped on the pavement below the window.
This one came more easily; they knew the strain needed, and knew they could deliver it. A man could get through already; one more and it would be easy. Lady Maude looked over her shoulder as she refastened the loop.
Then she called, urgently: "They're in the room!"
"I'm coming, Mother!" Alleyne shouted, dashing for the ladder.
"Christ!" Hordle shouted; they'd need another bar out before he could get through, for certain! And the Lorings couldn't climb out, either, not with Sids in the same room. They had to get some blades in there, to throw the Sids back on their heels and give the Lorings time to break contact. So...
"Heave, you bastards!"
Maude shouted out the window: "They're in the room!" and snatched up her table-leg.
Some corner of Nigel Loring's mind wished desperately for a sword. Three Varangians were crowded into the entrance, hampering each other... but not enough that a man with a converted table-knife had much of a chance against three armored killers. Two of them set their shoulders against the desk and the other furniture that blocked their way and started rocking it back by sheer brute strength; the third punched the top of his axe at Loring's face like a pool-cue, an effective stroke when you didn't have room for a chop—five pounds of steel would crush your facial-bones in with unpleasant finality. The Varangian expected Sir Nigel to leap back; they knew he was agile enough. That would give the axe-man space to push his way into the drawing-room, drive Nigel into a corner and demolish him.
Instead he jerked his head just enough aside to let the pell of the axe go by; blood started from his cheek as the grazing steel kissed him, a burning coldness. Then he slid forward again with that dancer's grace, his left hand gripping the axe and pulling it to one side, the knife in his other whipping across in a backhand slash at the other man's eyes. The guardsman bellowed in alarm and snatched his head aside in turn, saving his eyes at the price of taking a nasty cut that opened his face to the bone along one cheek, and relaxing his hold on the axe as he did.
Sir Nigel's hand clamped down on it at once and pulled sharply; he stabbed backhand with the knife once more, and the axe came free as his opponent twisted once more to avoid the point. It hit the shoulder-joint of the back-and-breast and snapped with a musical tunnnggg sound; then the Varangian did something sensible—smashed one gauntleted fist at Nigel's face, and used the other to draw the short sword hung at his waist.
Two sensible things, actually, Sir Nigel thought, skipping backward away from the gutting stroke of an upward stab.
The mass of furniture overturned with a roar, scattering itself over the room in a bouncing, crackling tide. The two Varangians who'd pushed the barricade out of the way stumbled forward, puffing and off-balance for an instant. Nigel saw that, but there was nothing he could do about it—and his own panting reminded him forcefully that he was fifty-two this coming September. In superb condition for a man his age, but still a good three decades older than his immediate opponent, and air burned like thin fire in his lungs. He could smell the acrid odor of his own sweat as it ran down his cheeks and shone through the thinning gray-blond hair on his scalp.
The Varangian was also enraged by the slash that had nearly taken his eyes. It streamed blood into his red beard across a face contorted in fury; he stood eight inches taller than the Englishman, and seemed to have arms longer than an ape's as they wove with sword and dagger advanced. Sir Nigel hefted the axe; it was heavier and longer than he liked in a weapon but he gripped it expertly with his left hand at the outer end of the helve and his right, feet spread and at right angles—which might have been a mistake. The guardsman's blue eyes went a little wider as he recognized hold and stance, and he made no move to attack. He didn't have to. In a few seconds his comrades would be on Loring, and it would end in a flurry of axe-strokes impossible to counter.
"St. George for England!" Loring shouted, and attacked.
His first move was a feint, a lizard-quick punch with the head of the axe. That brought the Varangian blades up to block. Stepping in, he delivered the real blow—an overhead loop that turned into a cut at the neck, hands sliding together down to the end of the haft. The other man began a sidestep and block to deflect it, but at that instant Maude Loring's chair-leg cracked into his elbow. The chain-mail there probably saved the bone from breaking, but the two-handed blow on the sacral nerve still made his had fly open by reflex, and the dagger in it went flying. His wild stab with the shortsword left him open, and the axe in Sir Nigel's hands fell on his shoulder with a sound like a blacksmith's hammer.
The Varangian toppled backward with a sound that was half curse and half scream of shock and pain; the broad curved cutting edge of the axe had gone through the metal of his breastplate, just deeply enough to sever his collarbone. Torn steel gripped the blade tightly enough to pull Nigel forward; he released the haft of the axe perforce. Movement from the corner of his eye, to the right—
A figure in dark-green armor squeezed through the window. It was a complete suit of plate, officer's or lancer's gear... and there was the face so much like his below the raised visor. Alleyne Loring was grinning as he reached over his shoulder to flip a longsword through the air, then dropped a shield to the ground and skidded it over with a push of one foot.
Sir Nigel raised his hand as the weapon spun towards him; the leather-wrapped hilt smacked into it with a comforting solidity, and he had a yard of double-edged, cut-and-thrust blade in his fist. It was his own, intimately familiar from eight years of practice and battle. He snatched up the heater-shaped shield as well; it had the five Loring roses on its face, and a diagonally-set loop and grip on the rear. You slid your left arm in from the lower left, took the bar at the upper right corner tightly, brought the fist that made up under your chin just so... He had it up under his eyes and the sword poised while the two hale Varangians hesitated. Another figure climbed and wiggled through the window, cursing the tightness—a man huge and familiar, grinning as well as he took his archer's buckler in his left hand and drew the great hand-and-a-half sword slung by his side with the other.
Little John Hordle, Nigel thought, grinning back. Well, the card's full and the dance may begin in earnest!
More Varangians crowded through the shattered door, axes and the spike-blade-hook menace of a guisarme on its six-foot shaft. There was a movement of silence as the three Englishmen stared at their foes, silence save for the moaning of the wounded man crawling out the door among his comrade's feet, and then it began. An axe swung at him; he stepped into the stroke, sloping his shield to glance the battering impact away at an angle, stabbing around it at a face...
Steel rang on metal, thudded against wood; breath sounded harsh as men stamped and shoved and thrust through the great candlelit drawing room. Over it a roar of battle-cries:
"Konung Karl! Konung Karl!"
"A Loring! A Loring!"
"St. George for England!
"Éttu skít Engelendingur!"
Hordle's wild-bull bellow as his heavy sword cracked into the shaft of an axe and through it and into a face: "Die, you sodding Sid bastard!"
Then the guisarme hooked over the edge of his shield, hauling him forward and off-balance, leaving him open to the wielder's partner. The Varangian poised his axe to kill, but an arrow went by, close enough to brush the fletching against Sir Nigel's neck. It buried itself in the Varangian's face, slanting past his nose and coming out the angle of his jaw, breaking most of the teeth on that side of his face in the process. Nigel killed the man behind the guisarme by reflex, a swift twisting thrust to the neck, then turned his head to see a someone kneeling in the window with his bow in his hands. He recognized the narrow dark face; Mick Badding, from his old SAS company.
"Get out! The horses are here and the Sids are coming round!" the man shouted.
Seconds later the last two Varangians were out of the room, dragging a third between them by the arms. They'd left two dead behind them, and chances were they'd be back soon enough. Or they'd simply hold the corridor and then come around to cut off the rescue party outside the window.
"Time to depart indeed," Sir Nigel said. "Maude, if you'll go first—"
He looked around, then made a small choked sound. The sword fell from his hand, clattering on the floor. Maude Loring was lying there herself, clutching at her side. Nigel and Alleyne went to their knees on either side of her, looking incredulously at the wound in her side. From the broad slit that her fingers tried to hold closed, the point of the shortsword had gone in under her floating rib. From the amount of blood that flowed through those fingers and spread a stain on the carpet, skill or chance had wrenched the knife-edged weapon around in the wound, cutting into her kidney or several of the great veins
Father and son shared a single appalled look. Both knew from experience precisely what that particular injury meant: death, not long delayed. A pre-Change trauma unit might have been able to keep her alive, if she were in it now. All the surgeons in the Changed world couldn't save her, with a miracle thrown in.
"Maude..." he croaked, unbelieving.
Her face had been clenched against the scream that would distract him from the life-and-death focus of combat. Now it relaxed, and the hand against her side did too; he clamped the wound with his own, but the blood-tide was ebbing even as he did. Her eyes moved from his face to Alleyne's; she tried to say something, then shuddered and went still.
Time ceased to move. Words went by, without meaning until a voice shouted in his ear:
"Sir! Colonel, there's no time. We have to move now."
That seemed to start his mind working again, after a fashion. Men have died to free you. Your son's here—Maude's son. You have to move now. He reached out and shook the younger man across from him, shook him by the side of his helmet until the armor rattled on him.
"Alleyne!" he snapped. "Pull yourself together, man!"
His son obeyed with an effort that made him shudder, but his eyes slid down towards Maude's harsh features again, relaxed and somehow younger.
"Put her here," Sir Nigel said gently.
That was a couch; the body had the boneless flaccidity of the newly dead. Nigel closed her eyes and held them for a second, then stood and scrubbed his left hand across his face, forcing a deep breath into his lungs. Hordle and Badding were throwing the wrecked furniture into the doorway again; then the big NCO smashed a lamp on it. Flame splashed up from it as the glass oil-reservoir shattered. It roared higher as several others joined it.
"Sir," Badding said. "Out."
"Sir, don't play silly buggers with us now. Your lady's dead and beyond help. You're what we came here for!"
The dark-bearded pug features were twisted with concern; and Badding, he remembered, had a wife and three children and a farm near Tilford, and a young sister he'd brought through the Change. He nodded, picked up the shield and sword, went to the window and swung himself out.
The impulse simply to let fall was strong. Instead he made himself put hands and feet to the ladder. Too many were depending on him.
"I am so sorry, Nigel," Major Buttesthorn said. "So very sorry."
"Fortunes of war, Oliver," Sir Nigel said, in a voice that forbade condolences, even from an old friend.
They were stopped in a deep hollow in the Aspley Woods; northwest of Woburn Manor, surrounded by feral rhododendron and waist-high bracken. Those hills were densely forested with oak and beech and ash, ancients two centuries old and towering a hundred above them in a canopy that allowed only a rare glimpse of starlight above, the moon having set. The small, almost flameless fire was enough to make tea, or rather the herbal substitute that went by that name these days. He could smell the slightly acrid scent of it over the scent of damp leaf-mould as he checked automatically for red-ant nests before sitting.
One of the soldiers thrust a thick mug into his hands; he sipped automatically at the hot brew, heavy with beet-sugar to hide the taste. In the distance a wolf howled over the nighted hills—some distant part of his mind told him it was one of the packs descended from the escapees released by the keepers of Woburn Safari Park and Whipsnade, the country extension of London Zoo near here. The rest of him felt at one with the cold lonely sobbing that echoed through the night, fierce and solitary.
Get a grip, Nigel, he scolded himself. And wolves are very social.
"And thank you, Oliver," he said aloud. Raising his voice slightly: "Thank you all. I know you've taken a very great risk."
There was a murmur, but not much talk; they were too close to possible pursuit, even if their back-scouting had shown the remaining Varangians preoccupied with putting out fires and sending off messengers rather than actively following the raiding-party. And beyond that, traditional English reserve seemed to be making a comeback in the Changed world, something he rather approved of, along with a good many other things. Everyone crouched and reached for weapons when a rustling went through the woods, like heavy careless feet in the dried leaves, then relaxed when John Hordle chuckled:
"Badger," he said. "Does sound like a man bludging about, eh?"
Buttesthorn sat near Nigel. "Do you want us to take care of the Varangians who're left?" he said, his voice soft and careful, as if the other man were fragile or explosive or both. "We'll be going back that way... might actually be safer with no witnesses, don't you know..."
Nigel shook his head. His son was standing guard out in the darkness; out where there was nobody to see his face. Nigel envied him. It was as if his mind were a compass needle; every few seconds it seemed to slip out of his grasp and turn back towards the sentence Maude is dead. Each impact hit him with the same force.
"No," Nigel said, surprised at the calmness of his own voice. "It's no use, Oliver. In a fight like that, you strike out at anyone who's going for you. The man probably didn't even know who he was stabbing, just that someone had hit him on the elbow and he was about to be struck with a very large axe. This isn't about personal vengeance. And you wouldn't have the advantage of surprise, anyway. Say what you will of them, the Varangians are stout fighters and in a stand-up battle there aren't enough with you to overrun them."
Oliver Buttesthorn bowed his head. Loring went on: "Besides, you're going to be needed here, Oliver. I can't stay, not unless I'm prepared to start a civil war. Which I am not, and besides, we would lose."
"It may come to that," the other officer said.
"And it may not. And in a few years, if it does come to that, perhaps you won't lose. But I would, if I tried it now. You can't harvest a field before it's ripe."
His smile was slight and painful as he sat with his back against a fallen log, but Buttesthorn's brows went up. The other man was about Loring's age and only a few inches taller; he would have been fat save for the ruthless standards of their regiment before the Change and hard living and harder travel and fighting afterwards. Instead he was built like a balding, red-faced fireplug.
"Just thinking," Loring said, "that it's a great pity Charles has become so... eccentric."
One of the enlisted men in the background muttered something: it sounded like gone bloody barking mad, you mean? It helped a little, to keep his mind on impersonal things.
"He was splendid, those first few years; well, he did know all that organic farming bit, which was frightfully useful. The Emergency Powers decrees were essential, at first. And then the other things... I was quite enthused when he abolished that metric nonsense and brought back the old weights and measures."
"And pounds, shillings and pence! If only it had stopped there," Buttesthorn said. "I blame Queen Hallgerda for encouraging him."
Loring shrugged. "That's how she and her relatives have elbowed themselves into power," he said. "By backing up his, ah, whims. And one can see why they were resentful; far too many people expected all the Icelanders to stay farmhands forever, just because they arrived hungry and destitute. Still, her faction's alienating more and more people of all backgrounds. The King may be... strange, but his sons are both very likely young men."
"Unless Hallgerda Long-Legs has them done away with in favor of her own brood," Oliver said grimly. "His Majesty may be mad, but by God it's certain he's not impotent or infertile. Three already!"
"Well, old chap, that's why you need to keep a careful eye out and make preparations," Nigel Loring said, finishing the so-called tea. "And keep up the pressure finally to call a real Parliament. Now you must get going, old friend, and so must I."
"That's the farm, sir," John Hordle said not long after dawn.
A chorus of pink... pink... pink... came from blackbirds their passage had disturbed; the twittering of robins and the long liquid trilling of song thrushes wove through it. With some part of himself that wasn't numb, Nigel Loring reminded himself that he should listen carefully; he'd left England many times before, but this was likely to be the last parting. Riding east from Aspley Woods, down the escarpment and then back northwestward across sandy heath with the cool smell of dew-wet heather crushed beneath a horse's hooves... there wouldn't be much more of that, if they made good their escape.
He nodded and halted his horse with an imperceptible shift of balance and the slightest touch on the reins; that wasn't an easy trick to learn, in the heavy war saddle and a full suit of plate. Compared to the way he'd learned to ride—in the slight English saddle, and then foxhunting—it had felt like being strapped into an upright coffin. But he'd picked up the knack rather thoroughly.
Even an old dog can learn the odd new trick, he thought, shading his eyes with his hand and peering northeastward against the dawn—the visored sallet-helm was slung to his saddlebow.
The farmer had probably taken up the land here because there was a tax-and-rent reduction for those willing to be first in such places, isolated and dangerous, and the ten-foot-high fence of angle-iron and barbed wire that surrounded the houses was supporting evidence. This was the very northernmost edge of cultivation; in fact, there wasn't another active farm for half a mile, and the old A5130 had been hacked back into barely-passable state to reach the narrow lane that led to the homestead. North of here the road was simply a linear mound of thornbush twenty feet high.
The largest building in the little cluster of habitation was a long low-slung whitewashed cottage, with a thatched roof and small square-paned windows; several centuries old from the look of it and the size of the oaks and beeches in the garden—which included a lawn ornament in the shape of a four-foot black rooster half-hidden in tall shaggy grass. Four other cottages stood nearby in a rough row along an old laneway, ranging from a tiny half-timbered affair to a modern two-story probably built in the 1960's; they'd all been reroofed with thatch, probably because if you grew long-stem wheat it was easier to use the straw than find fresh slate or tile. Besides which, it was officially encouraged.
Early as it was, the farm's folk seemed hard at work. He uncased his binoculars and looked; smoke rose in slow drifting columns from the tall brick chimneys that pierced the roofs, and he saw a woman in overalls and Wellingtons leading a horse towards a cluster of barns and a pond a hundred yards south. The space around the barns held a comfortable litter of tools—a two-furrow riding plow, a set of disk-harrows and a tipping hay-rake. Two more women hoed in an acre-sized stretch of vegetable garden, and an indeterminate teenager walking back towards the farmstead from the barns had a yoke over the shoulders and buckets of milk on either end. A brown-skinned girl-child of eight or so in a shapeless wool frock fed chickens that clustered and gobbled about her feet with grain held in her apron. Another who might have been her sister save that she was pink and blond guarded a clutch of toddlers with the aid of a nondescript collie—everyone was breeding enthusiastically these days, but from the numbers there must be at least three married couples here. The smell was of turned earth wet with the morning, smoke and manure and baking bread.
He could hear the rising-falling moan of a wool-spinning wheel from the small cottage, joined by the rhythmic thump... thump... of a loom. A post-Change metal wind-pump whirled merrily to fill a tank set in an earthen mound. Forty or fifty acres of cultivation surrounded the steading, in fields edged by hedges new or newly trimmed back; sheep and cattle grazed on pastures whose origin as a golf course was barely visible. Stooked sheaves of wheat and barley stood in neat tripods and children with slings sent a flock of thieving black rooks up from them; other fields held harvested flax in windrows, potatoes, turnips, beets, and a young orchard that was just coming into bearing, with apples glowing red among the leaves.
The cleared land was an island, though. Beyond it was wilderness. The hedge around the field further north where the men labored at clearance was typical; it had sprouted twenty feet high or better, a wall of hawthorn and bramble; the hawthorn had spread further horizontally both ways, covering the old farm lane and sloping out into the field from all four sides as well. The faster-growing bramble intertwined with it and went on ahead, reaching out nearly to the center of the field, each cane starting a new plant where it dipped and touched the ground; it hadn't reached the center of what had been an open space yet—that was merely chest-high with dock and nettle. Most of the land was a tangle taller than a man, with bramble canes ranging from pencil-thick to thumb-thick coiling between each other in a mass of thorns and tough wood and dense green leaves hiding it all. It was thick with birds as well, their voices louder than he'd ever heard on an August day before the change, and with insects and small game. Rabbits burst out and fled in hysterical bounds as the dense scrub was chopped down.
His skin itched just looking at it; bramble thorns broke off beneath your skin, and often the result was infection and septicemia. Most of lowland Britain was like this now, big patches even in the south and a continuous mass of it from the frontier of settlement here to East Lothian in Scotland, save for pre-Change forest and moor. Plenty of saplings were already sprouting through the ground cover, oak and beech, ash and alder, but it would be generations before the king trees grew tall enough to close the canopy and shade out the scrub.
"You're certain of them?" Nigel asked, tilting his head towards the men in the field.
Both Hordle and his son nodded.
"Hordle introduced us," Alleyne said. "Brief acquaintance, but I agree with him. That means taking the farmer's men on his word, but they haven't turned us in yet, eh? And he did give us some very useful pointers on Newport Pagnell. He's hunted that far north a few times."
The archer continued: "You didn't have much to do with Bob, sir; he mustered out to take up the farm about the time we got back from that mission in France, four years ago. But I've known him a good long while now, since before the Change. I, mmm, warned him to volunteer for escort duty back when we took the Queen out of London, and recommended him, like. Warned him to get the missus and his boy in the convoy, as well. He vouches for his folk; one of them's an Icelander, but he's got no use for the Queen's party. And we need fresh horses and supplies."
Nigel nodded agreement. He and Alleyne couldn't ride their war mounts in full harness for long—that wore the beasts out, and they might need trained reflexes and best speed before they reached the coast. The same held for his son, and Hordle's weight was a trial for anything he rode in any event. Eight years wasn't long to breed up a horse-herd, and they were still scarce despite imports from friendly Ulster.
He took a firmer grip on his lance, his hand on the shaft and the butt resting in the ring welded to his right stirrup. The shield slung over his back clattered as he rode along the cleared lane until the farmhouse was hidden from view, then down towards the men working in the field ahead.
A broad strip had already been chopped free of brush near the dirt roadway, and the gate had been hacked out of a mountain of vegetation covering it. The cleared land looked as if giant moles had been at work, holes pocking the deep-brown boulder-clay soil where the roots of the bramble-bushes and blackthorns had been ripped out. Every so often in the cleared space there was a great heap of brushwood twice man-height, and a few smoking circles of ash showed what would be done once the cuttings had dried enough to burn. A little further out the farmer and two helpers were chopping at the heavy tangle with billhook and axe and machete, piling it in mounds, then tearing out root and arm-thick stump with a wheeled machine whose steel tines were pulled by four oxen.
Hard work, that, Loring thought. More difficult every year.
The three men turned at the sound of hooves, quickly snatching up weapons—two longbows, which the law now said every adult had to keep and practice with, and a billhook that would slash through men as easily as tough thornwood. The area to the north of here wasn't quite clear of human life; a few thousand feral outlaws still haunted it, even after plague-spots like Milton Keynes were burned out. The Brushwood Men probably weren't technically cannibals these days, but they weren't really human any more, either, and it would be little consolation to their victims that the raid was for food-stores and tools rather than long pig.
The men at work relaxed when they saw the horses and harness, and further when they were close enough to see faces. All three wore tough cord trousers, boots... and knee-length linen smocks, the classic smock-frock of the English rustic. The last men to wear them as daily routine outside plays and pageants had been dying of old age about the time Nigel Loring's great-grandfather used his head to stop a 7mm bullet from a Boer Mauser at Spion Kop. Two years ago an order had gone out from Highgrove to 'encourage' the making and wearing of the archaic garments in every Commandery.
The King had thought it would introduce an element of tradition and continuity into the countryside. Nigel didn't think the effect in front of him was quite what Charles had had in mind...
"'Ullo, Bob," Hordle called, as they rode into speaking distance. "Told you I'd be dropping by with some friends."
"Hey, mon, I see yuh," the farmer replied. "Little John an' he friends always welcome at Jamaica Farm. I don' forget who get we out of London."
He was black, not exactly a startling sight even these days, but rare—there hadn't been all that much of a New Commonwealth immigrant presence on the Isle of Wight, nor on Man and Anglesey and Arran and Orkney. The yawny-drawly Carribean accent was strong in his deep bass voice, turning it soft and pleasant. Standing side-by-side his head would have been a few inches below Hordle's, which made him merely tall instead of towering, and he was strongly built, corded muscle moving under the sweat-slick ebony skin on his forearms.
The dreadlocks do rather clash with the smock-frock, Nigel thought fleetingly. So does that gold hoop earring.
An equally big blue-eyed man leaned on a long-hafted billhook. He—Nigel blinked—had a leather Rugby goalie's helmet on is head, set with a pair of bull-horns above his ears and tufts of his white-blond hair sticking through the straps. Beside him a lean redhead set his bow down and looked dourly at the three riders; he wore a Scots bonnet and by his weathered face was nearer forty than thirty, the oldest of the three by most of a decade.
"Nice pinnie you've got on there, Bob," Hordle said, grinning and nodding at the smock-frocks. "Fetching, it is. Though maybe it'd look a bit daintier with some flowers embroidered about the edge? And a lace collar?"
"This dress de national dress," Bob replied. "King Charlie, he say it get we in touch with our English roots. Mon, English roots be strong!"
He pointed to where his machete rested, amid a tangle of arching brambles taller than a mounted man's head. "Dese, they got canes grow t'ree inches a day, and grow new roots where da hell they touching; you leave one bit of root, they grow up again. And we out of weedkiller—use de last from Wyevale Garden Center, two, t'ree year ago. Feeling de English roots more and more on Jam-aiiica Farm."
"Oach, aye, indeed," the redhead said; his voice had a soft West Highland lilt, almost Irish save for the rolled r's. "And it is often on Skye I felt the hankering for just such a smock-frock as this, so English I was. Archie MacDonald, at ye're sairvice, sair."
"Jà," Gunnar Halldorsson put in, naming himself as well. "Me too. Studying marine engineering in Reykjavik, sometimes I felt naked without a smock." His thick-fingered hand tented the coarse linen away from his body. "In memory of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother carried off by Vikings in the year 900, ha? So, the hat, too."
He flicked thumb and forefinger against one of the bull-horns. Bob fished in his pockets and came out with a cigarette made from a twist of paper, lighting with a flick of his thumb.
"The smocks, I don' make no trouble, I say, fine. Easy to make and clean. The thatch on every roof order, it don' bother me—thatch on me Jamaica Farm to start wit' anyway. But when decree straight from Highgrove say we have to learn de Morris dancing..." He took a long drag on the short, fat smoke. "Then I say to de King, Charlie, mon, you kiss my fine royal Rasta ass!"
"And when my land is cleared, you can kiss mine," the Icelander said, grinning. "Remember, we start on it this year."
"And on mine," the Scot reminded him. "In the meantime, t'waur better we get these gentlemen under cover. The old south barn, until sunset; that'll rest the horses, the which will do them hairm."
The barn had been one of the outbuildings of Wavendon Manor; the rather undistinguished manor house itself had burned not long after the Change. The floor below was loose-box stabling, now holding their mounts, and an open space where lay a horse-powered threshing machine new-made since the Change to ancient patterns, disassembled for maintenance before it went to work on the recently completed harvest. Chickens and turkeys wandered in to peck at odd grains on the floor; families of swallows flitted through the openings under the eaves, to and from their mud-built nests.
The second floor held mountains of loose hay over rafters and an open slatwork of boards, and the fugitives had bedded down in the middle of it, invisible unless someone climbed up the ladder and poked around with considerable determination. The hay made a deep soft bed, sweet-smelling with clover, well-cured and hardly prickly at all; the loft was dark and warm, with slits of hot light moving through the gloom. From where he'd set his horse-blanket he could see out between the boards towards the farmyard, and with only a little movement over the edge of the hay down into the ground floor.
He'd long ago acquired the soldier's ability to sleep whenever he had the opportunity, in circumstances far less comfortable than this, and you didn't think about things when you were asleep, which was a mercy. When he awoke it was an hour past noon, and his hand was already on the wire-and-leather wrapped hilt of his sword as he sat up. The bright metal came free of the sheath with a hiss of steel on wood and leather greased with graphite and neat's-foot oil. Alleyne was already awake and armed. The bleak lines newly graven in his face made his father wince slightly; losing your mother was hard enough in the natural run of things...
Then the younger Loring shook his head slightly and nodded towards the ladder. Hordle woke on his own a moment later, his soft rasping snore cutting off instantly as he reached for the great hand-and-a-half blade that lay beside him.
Nigel looked through the fringe of hay. A girl was climbing the ladder with a large basket over one arm; she was the one he'd seen feeding the poultry and rather obviously the farmer's daughter, with skin the color of milky tea and dark hair that tumbled in loose curls beneath a kerchief. The eight-year old's head came over the edge of the piled hay as she climbed the ladder and stepped off onto the lath flooring of the loft. The solemn eyes went a little wider as she saw the three long swords in the hands of the men who crouched there, and she gave a little eek!
Then she smiled in delight as they slid the blades back into the sheaths, obviously entranced with the Secret Importance of it all.
"Hello, sir," she said to Nigel, holding out the basket and dipping her head to the others. "I've brought you summat for dinner. Me mum said I should stay and bring back the basket when you're finished." A pause: "It's like Flora MacDonald and the Young Pretender!"
Well, Archie MacDonald's been talking, Nigel thought, smiling. I hope she doesn't expect me to wear a dress as a disguise
"Thank you very much, my dear," he said. "What's your name?"
Her accent was a curious mix of Caribbean and broad Yorkshire; at a guess her mother had been born in Leeds or Bradford, from generations of factory workers. And there was something else there as well, a sing-song lilt Nigel had noticed among many of the youngest post-Change generation, doubtless the product of the mixing-pot southern England had become. He rose and then went down on one knee to take the wicker basket with its checked cloth cover.
"Di," she whispered, looking down shyly. "Diana Bramble, Sir Nigel."
Probably named after Saint Diana, Nigel thought, amused; the King's first wife had grown still more popular in retrospect. Of course, compared to Camilla, and still more to Queen Hallgerda...
The girl's wondering eyes went from his lined and weathered face to Alleyne's blond, fine-featured handsomeness to Hordle's great red ham of a countenance. "And you're Little John and Alleyne, aren't you?"
"Err..." The man may be trustworthy, but he hasn't much sense of security. Still, I suppose it's impossible to keep secrets in a place like this—trying would simply make everyone curious. "Err... yes, Miss Bramble, we are."
"Do you know the King, sir?" she asked suddenly.
Nigel's eyebrows went up. "I do, young mistress," he said. "We've worked together since the Change."
"Is't he really a bad man? I mean... he's tha King."
Hordle snorted, and whispered sotto voce. "No, he's the soul of Christian charity, and we're running away from him because we're a right wicked bunch of frighteners."
Nigel frowned at him and spoke gravely: "No, but he's... ah... been under a great deal of strain, and I'm afraid it's made him... strange."
"You mean 'e's gone raving bonkers, like Archie's Uncle Willie?" she said enquiringly, then went on: "Uncle Willie talks to people who aren't there, and cries a lot."
Hordle gave a shout of laughter, strangled off into a snort, and Alleyne chuckled despite himself.
"His Majesty's a bit strange, this last little while," Nigel told the girl. "And he's made some bad decisions because there are people around him who tell him what he wants to hear, instead of what's true."
She nodded. "Bad people like that there wicked Queen," she said.
Nigel forbore comment; as far as he'd been able to tell Queen Hallgerda was wicked, if being ruthlessly ambitious and power-hungry counted, and unlike some he didn't think her—admittedly rather stunning—looks and undoubted charm made up for it. Doubtless if she'd stayed a junior clerical employee at a fish-processing plant on Heimaey off Iceland's west coast it wouldn't have mattered much. With a kingdom to play for, it became a matter of life and death.
Maude's death, he thought grimly, and then schooled his features before the child was frightened. Dealing with our dear Queen is the only thing that might tempt me to stay... no, not worth more destruction.
Di sighed. "I'd like to see the court, and Winchester. It moost be bee-yootifull."
Her eyes were wide at the thought of the metropolis. Nigel smiled; Winchester was the capital these days, and had all of ten thousand people year-round, the largest city in the British Isles after Cork. That was just enough to keep the 18th-century core of the cathedral town from falling completely to ruin. To this child and her generation, whose horizons were bound by the farm and the enclosing wilderness and the little hamlet of Wavendon to the west where she went to church on Sundays and school in the winter months, Winchester was what London had been to him. Only far more distant and unobtainable, a trip there a wistful daydream rather than an hour or two on a train or in a car.
"Perhaps you will take a trip there, one day," Nigel said.
Another solemn nod; then she looked at him more closely, and at Alleyne. "Dad says you're a hero, for standing up to the King," she said, and he blushed. Then she frowned. "But you don't look like a hero. You're too old, and you're going bald. You look like a daddy. He—" she pointed at the younger Loring. "He looks like a real hero. Right dreamy, he is. Laak t' old pictures."
Nigel laughed outright at that, and Hordle turned redder than ever as he suppressed a bellow of mirth. The younger Loring brushed hay from his tousled yellow hair and smoothed his mustache in furtive embarrassment.
"Thank you," he said. "But he is my daddy, and he's far more of a hero than I. Let's have our dinner, shall we?"
The basket contained a pair of farm-style loaves, stone-ground wholemeal baked that morning and still a little warm, butter out of the churn, two roast chickens, their skins golden-brown and crisp, potatoes done in their skins, and a salad of fresh greens and tomatoes, a seasonal delicacy nowadays. Diana Bramble said a brief grace; John Hordle converted his reach for a leg into a vague gesture and clasped his hands as she spoke, then compensated by spinning lurid tales of Alleyne Loring's heroism—mostly true, if highly colored—until Diana gazed at the young man with a worshipfulness which doubtless made him hideously self-conscious. They finished with cheese-and-apple-tarts and clotted cream; then the girl packed the plates and cutlery back in the basket with care and went to the ladder.
"'bye, Little John!" she said. "I've got to go and do my jobs now. Carding and spinning." She made a face, and then a little curtsey. "Boring! 'bye, sirs."
"What a charming young miss," Nigel said. We always wished we'd had a daughter as well, he thought, and sighed slightly.
"Reminds me of my sister's kids," Hordle agreed, yawning.
"I'll take first watch, then," Nigel said, and grinned at his son. "You've made a conquest, it seems. Dreamy, indeed!"
Alleyne snorted and they settled down again, but it was he who first lifted his head a few minutes later. "Hooves," he said.
Young ears, his father thought, and said aloud: "How many?"
"Half a dozen, at a guess, one more or less. Hordle?"
"Horses it is, sir. Not likely to be the neighbors dropping in for a cuppa, either, is it?"
Tension crackled through the loft. They looked at each other and began preparing with silent speed, the two Lorings helping each other into their complex harness as Hordle pulled on his padded tunic and the chain shirt over it. The great muscles in his arms coiled and bunched as he strung his longbow, and then he slipped the leather-and-steel guards on his forearms and counted the arrows in his quiver. They left the helmets for last; it would only take a few seconds, and they needed every fraction of sight and hearing to avoid having to use the gear at all.
"Thirty-nine," the bowman said quietly, his sausage-thick fingers deft on the feathered shafts.
"I don't want any of Bramble's people hurt," Nigel said in the same tone, but with a snap of command in it. "For any reason whatsoever. That's clear?"
The other men both nodded. By then the hooves were clear to the older man as well, a dull hollow clopping on the dirt and broken pavement of the A5130. Alleyne wormed through the hay to put his eye to a knothole, moving cautiously to spare the laths under them—there were sixty pounds of steel on him now, in addition to his own whipcord hundred and seventy-five.
"Half a dozen and a packhorse," he whispered. "Just turning onto the lane to the farm. They're hobelars"
That meant mounted infantry archers, like the bulk of the Regular Army, equipped as Hordle was. Six made a section, the smallest unit; adding two mounted men-at-arms made it a lance. Nigel caught sight of them an instant later, jogging their mounts up the laneway, turning east at the dogleg that led past the pond and barns. A woman was there, the farmer's wife, a solid figure with a long rake in her hands and her brown hair done up in a bun under a wide-brimmed straw hat—literal wheat straw, with a frayed edge. She turned for an instant and shouted in purest West Riding, confirming Nigel's guess:
"Di! Roon and fetch yer Dad!"
Then she went on to the soldiers: "Don't water yer 'orses there, lads. There's flax in t'pond, we just put it in ter ret and it's reet mucky, ba 'eck. Cum on oop t't'ouse and use trough in t'yard instead, t'gate's open. There's soom apple-tarts left over from dinner, if ye'd laak, and a jug of cold cider too, 'appen."
That brought delighted smiles to the fresh-faced young men; one thing that hadn't Changed was that Army field rations were fit to gag a stoat. Nigel Loring realized with a start that only the section leader had been old enough to shave when the Change came—in fact, it looked as if most of them hadn't had their voices break by that day eight and a half years ago. They seemed younger than their years to him as well, despite the weatherbeaten skins of outdoorsmen.
"It's a kindly thought, Mrs. Bramble," the section leader said. "'tis a hard late camp we'll hae tha night."
His patrol were all dust-caked, with sweat-runnels through the brown dirt on their faces, and their horses looked worn as well; the mounts wore leather barding on their chests and leather socks strapped to their fetlocks, but they'd still suffered the odd scratch.
Nigel was close enough to hear him well; the accent was Scots, but not the gentle lilt of a Highlander; he'd pronounced the—ght in 'thought' with an almost guttural sound, not a simple hard 't', and 'night' as ni'cht. An Orkneyman, at a guess, and from somewhere remote like Westray at that, with bright blue eyes and a close-cropped black beard that had the white line of a scar through it. There was a corporal's chevron riveted to the sleeve of his mail shirt. The men took off their helmets at his waving gesture and swung down, leading the beasts over to the metal trough, joking with three girls only a bit younger than themselves who came out of the farmhouse kitchen bearing the promised food and drink. One Junoesque blond had a tray of mugs and a stoppered jug, and two freckled redheads carried heaped plates of tarts.
Gunnar's sister and Archie's daughters, I'd say, Nigel thought.
"Drink water first, y' daft boogers," the section leader snapped; the men obeyed, most dumping a helmetfull over their heads as well. "And one mug each, nae more. We've work tae do and it's eight hours before sunset." He held up a gauntleted fist. "Any man drunk on duty weil ansur tae my little friend here."
Then to the girls in a quite different tone, reaching for the pastries: "Thank you, young misses. Ah'll cheust tak a nave-fil."
Nigel found himself nodding in approval as the patrol watered their horses and applied salve to their hides; the men hadn't even had to be told to see to their mounts before themselves, and their equipment was as neat as you could expect when working this overgrown country—the green-enameled metal of the mailshirts gleamed with a thin film of oil, and the fletchings on the arrows that jutted over each man's right shoulder were tight and even. There was a charge he recognized on the bucklers slung from their belts, too; the Royal arms quartered with a chevron argent, three roses gules.
Tony Knolles' men, Nigel Loring thought. The family was distantly related to his. Oh, bugger, as Hordle would put it.
He'd worked with Knolles before the Change, mostly counter-terrorist work in south Ulster in the 1980's, and since the Change as well; the last he'd heard of him was that he commanded a company of the Guard working out of the forward base at Stowe. If he'd heard news of the escape he would have moved quickly and decisively. Efficiently to boot.
He's entirely too competent. So is this corporal, on a smaller scale. And Knolles isn't nearly so disenchanted with the King as I, either.
The rest of the farm's folk came up as the soldiers rested and ate and sipped appreciatively at their cider. That was natural enough as well, a visit being a change in the routine, but it put his teeth on edge—the more who spoke, the more chance of someone letting an unguarded word slip.
"Good day to you, Artie, mon," Bob said when he emerged from the long cottage, wiping a napkin across his mouth, evidently just finishing dinner. He slapped the corporal on the shoulder. "Tanks again for de harvest work."
The corporal shrugged. "We're under orders tae he'lp whaur we can, Bob," he said.
"Yuh still pick me Jamaica Farm to help. Gudrun!" he called, and the blond young woman looked up from chatting with one of the hobelars. "Ninyam an' bockle for dese good men, good and plenty."
"Yuh here lookin' for Brushwood Men?" the farmer went on as she hurried away to pack food and drink. "Or de dam' leopard? Duppy ting take me sheep, mon."
"Nae." The corporal's mouth shut like a steel trap. "Fugitives, under warrant o' proscription frae the Crown. Two—Sair Nigel Loring, and his son, Alleyne. There's serious charges, ye ken, agin them and any who harbor 'em."
He went on to give a description. Bob Bramble mimed surprise; it would have been excessive in someone less given to the flamboyant.
"Me hear bout him prisoned at Woburn," Bramble said, rubbing at his chin and letting the Creole accent grow stronger. "No hear bout him es-caaap-ing. Bad business. Me noh quite undastan. Sir Nigel, he good mon, I always hear."
The corporal's face was expressionless, perhaps a little too stiff... but Nigel thought he caught uneasy looks on some of the archers behind him, and outright scowls from the farm-folk. Then his heart skipped a beat as little Diana Bramble stamped out to confront the section-leader.
"Sir Nigel is a good man!" she said shrilly, shaking a finger up at the Orkneyman's face, ignoring his bulk and armor. "You've got no bloody business going around hunting heroes like they was foxes! I wish Sir Nigel and Alleyne were here so they could take their swords and cut you up! You... you loathly bugger!"
"Diana!" her mother said, reprovingly. "Watch your tongue, my girl!"
The noncom snorted and scowled, turning away and making a brushing gesture with one hand, as at an annoying fly. Diana's diatribe escalated into a wordless howl and she kicked the soldier—neatly, in the sensitive part of the shin just above his riding boot. She was wearing heavy brogue-style shoes, and there was real conviction behind the hack she gave him.
"So there!" she shouted, then turned and ran.
"Ye cheeky peedie whalp!" the noncom shouted, and nearly fell over as he made a grab for her.
The Orkney accent was suddenly thicker than oatmeal as he hopped in the dust and horse-apples of the farmyard, holding his knee. Then he controlled his temper with a visible effort, and stamped the boot down again at the sound of a subdued snicker from behind him. When he whirled to look at his men they braced to attention, motionless except for one still chewing on an apple tart.
"Are you a cow, then, that ye're chewing a cud, Jones, you daft taffie!" he snapped. "Search the farm! High and low! We've orders," he went on half-apologetically, turning back to Bramble. "We'll just tak a keek aboot—"
One of the farm-folk was an older man, the oldest Nigel had seen on Bob's holding; lean, gray and messy-untidy in a way the others weren't despite plain clothes and hard outdoor work. Now he ambled forward and grabbed the corporal by the shoulders.
"You're sairching?" he said. "For Doris? Have you seen Doris, then? Have you word of her? Have you?"
The corporal bit back something pungent, and didn't quite stiff-arm the older man away; far too many folk who'd lived through the terrible years were a bit wandered in their wits, and it was convention to treat them gently. The graybeard still burst into tears as he staggered back, and Archie MacDonald jumped forward to lead him away, calling more and more loudly for Doris, whoever she was. People milled about talking and gesturing, and the corporal of the detachment looked for a moment as if he'd like to cry himself.
"Get searchin', I said!" he half-screamed, and stamped away towards the house. "They twa're armed and dangerous, remember! Stay in touch and sing out if you see them."
One of his men stayed to hold the horses. The others split up hurriedly, clapping their helmets on, drawing their swords and taking their bucklers in their left hands. Nigel moved back from the wall with slow, gentle care and caught the eyes of the others, looking over towards the ladder. He and Alleyne moved towards it, their shields ready on their left arms. Hordle came behind them, an arrow on his string, waiting on one knee with his torso bent, ready to rise and shoot; his face had the hard blankness of an oak board. The big man's friendly smile could make you forget what he was like in action...
There's no problem unless someone comes up here, Nigel thought. If they do...
Hordle would take out the one who discovered them, then jump down and put a shaft through the corporal, and get the horses running. He and Alleyne would have to hunt down the rest... though a longbow would penetrate even good plate if it hit precisely right, chances were they could overwhelm the patrol if needs must. And they must not let any escape to carry word...
The thought of cutting down honest English soldiers made his stomach twist, but bringing him in now would give Queen Hallgerda's party at court too much extra leverage. Losing him for good would cost that crew dearly in prestige... and make people less afraid, which they couldn't afford, not being much loved even by their own people.
The silence stretched as a soldier came walked in through the big double doors. The dimness within was near darkness to eyes fresh from open sunlight, and he tripped and cursed and staggered as he ran into the disassembled threshing machine, windmilling his sword out—you could give yourself a nasty cut if you fell with one in your hand.
"Sod me if I like this above 'alf," he muttered as he recovered his balance. "If Nigel Loring's a traitor, I'm fucking Queen Hallgerda." He stabbed the sword into a small pile of burlap sacks, then flicked open a big plywood bin of raw wool still in the fleece. "Not in there, are you then? Christ, what an effing waste of time!"
He looked around, blinking, then went over to the loose-box. Nigel made a conscious effort to control his breathing, ready to step into the open space, hang by his hands and drop the remaining distance to the dirt floor. He'd drop the sword first, and it would be waiting point-down and hilt-up in the dirt...
"You're a big fellow, aren't you?" the soldier said to Pommers, taking something out of the small canvas haversack on his belt. "Here, 'ave a taste. Better you than that brass-arsed Jock."
That was probably a carrot, or perhaps an apple; the big gelding crunched enthusiastically, and then whuffled around the soldier in the hopes of something more. Alleyne's black was less friendly, turning from the other end of the box to cock a suspicious eye at the stranger.
"You're both big fellows, eh?" the man said thoughtfully.
He started to look up to the hayloft, then cleared his throat and hitched his belt. "Nobody here, corporal!" he said cheerfully as he walked out. Then he did look up, and slowly and deliberately winked. "Except enough gear to break your neck if you're not right careful."
John Hordle eased off on the draw of his great yellow bow. His hazel eyes were coldly intent as they followed the man out into the bright sunlight. So were Nigel's as the patrol reassembled. Gudrun came out with two burlap sacks that bulged promisingly; even more promisingly, one clinked like a stoneware jug tapping against something, and the soldier who strapped it over the pack-saddle of the baggage-beast smacked his lips. The patrol mounted again and put their mounts up to a canter as they left.
"Well, did me hear anyone say, stop workin'?" Bob said, when they'd passed out of sight bound south.
The little crowd began to disperse. The master of the farm grabbed one ten-year-old by the arm—his son, from the looks.
"Anasi, you run quick-quick, climb de big oak. Back when dey out of yuh sight. Gudrun, a load fo de guests. Archie—"
"Think we should move the schedule up, sir?" Hordle said, as the talk drew away from their hiding-place.
Alleyne looked at his father. Nigel nodded. "Definitely. I don't think that man will talk—but I know Tony Knolles will smell a rat. He's the one whose team finally tracked down Sean Donnelly."
Alleyne's eyebrows went up. "He was in charge of that personally?"
"Very personally," Nigel said grimly. "Donnelly walked into what he thought was a safe house in Dundalk, just over the Irish border. And there Tony Knolles was waiting, with a sharpened spade—quieter than a gun, you see, didn't want the Garda forced to take notice. Buried young Sean and two of his cell in the garden that night and flitted off, nobody the wiser."
Hordle snorted. "Good for the shrubbery—probably the first time the Provo bastards were any use. But I see what you mean, sir. We'd best scarper."
"We had to be careful how much we cleared," Hordle said. "All we had time for, sir, and we couldn't be conspicuous about it either."
"You only had a week to prepare," Nigel Loring said, leading the horse out of the narrow laneway.
It had been a country road for a thousand years before the Change, the Lower End Road from Wavendon to Salford. Nature had reclaimed it since, ripping up the two lanes of tarmac with sprouting seedlings, convulvulus vines with their pink-throated white flowers, and the inevitable bramble; the hawthorn from the roadside hedges had nearly met in the middle, turning the road into a stretch of brush forty feet across and twenty high.
The old SAS men and their helpers had cleared just enough to let horses pass in single file, down the center where the vegetation was weakest. Sir Nigel had trouble with the twelve-foot length of his lance, holding it horizontally by the balance more often than not. The burden wore at his arm; it was hot in the green gloom, and above it was another bright warm day. It was a relief to finally break through as they came into open country where a little wind could leak through the joints in his armor; the field ahead had enough sheer size to keep bramble-vines from overrunning everything. They dismounted to hack an overgrown gate free. Nigel paused, panting, as they finally cut the last of the vine and shrub-cane free of the wood and hauled it open. He and Alleyne had done most of the work; a suit of plate did have the advantage of making you more or less immune to thorns.
"MacDonald, you take the spare mounts on to the fox covert there," Nigel said, pointing across the tall grass and weeds.
"M1's just down the cutting after, sair," the Scot agreed. "I'll be checking the way's clear, then."
John Hordle looked southwest, frowning; he popped a blackberry into his mouth with purple-stained fingers, dumped the rest out of his helmet and clapped it on.
"Thought I heard something, sir, and now I'm sure," he said, as he strung his bow with a twist and wrench. "Don't think the Sids could have caught us. Didn't look as if they were going to make any pursuit at all. Those hobelars who searched the farm?"
"There's three lances of the Guard based out of Stowe, regulars," Alleyne said. "If Knolles has them all out searching like those, he'll be riding back and forth between the parties. You think he'd smell a rat, father?"
"Without a doubt," Nigel said. "But this isn't the only path he'd have to secure. It could be a diversion—and Tony would think of that. He has a tricky mind, and he likes to make very sure of all the possibilities."
"Then they'll split up for sure, sir," Hordle said. "If they really want to catch us, they'll split six ways and cover every track we could take."
"Captain Knolles will press the search hard, whatever his men think," Nigel said.
He looked right, into the field that rose slowly to the roadway cutting and a plantation of beech trees three hundred yards ahead.
"I'm afraid Major Buttesthorn and his men spent a lot of effort making their way clear for them," he said.
"What shall we do, sir?" Hordle asked.
"That rather depends on how many of them there are," Nigel said crisply.
Pity it takes a fight to bring me out of my funk, he thought. But that's how God made me.
"Let's go... but not too quickly. The M1's just over that rise, and if they get on our trail there, it's a straight race. We cannot afford that. Better to meet them here."
They pressed on through the gate, leading their mounts. Nigel was glad MacDonald had gone on ahead; no doubt the Scot was a brave man, but he preferred to depend on those whose qualities he knew thoroughly. They could hear the sound of hooves now, coming through the narrow way hacked behind them, shod hooves pounding on the broken pavement of the road. The three of them rode up the long gentle slope ahead; it hadn't been overgrown with bramble or blackthorn, but the grass was up to the horse's bellies, starred with a few of the season's last blood-red poppies and with nettle fortunately past the stinging stage. They rode slowly, birds and small game darting out of the grass before their horses' hooves—rabbits, a lithe foot-long stoat dragging a dead rabbit of its own, a pair of little Muntjac deer that ran into the beechwood ahead and then barked frantically.
"There they come!" Hordle called.
"Halt," Nigel said crisply. "We want them to come on."
He shaded his eyes with his hand and peered. "Ah, a demi-lance. They did split up to follow the possible trails—the other two are probably hacking their way through the bramble thickets even as we speak. And yes, it's Knolles himself."
A lance was the term for two armored horsemen and six hobelars; a demi-lance was half that. He saw them file through the ruined field-gate, and reached down to his saddlebow for his binoculars. Knolles face was unmistakable, harsh with its great hook nose crossed by a scar, and his red shield with its silver chevron and the roses on it. And he was looking back through his own field-glasses, visor up.
Nigel returned the glasses to their leather-lined steel case, set his sallet helmet on his head and fastened it, brought his own shield across from his back and dipped his lance to the distant figure; beside him Alleyne did the same. Knolles nodded, then waved his longbowmen on; the odds were four to three, but three of his had missile weapons. Nigel could hear the men's voices crying out, faint and shrill as the archers below dismounted and spread out in front of their commander, trotting forward through the waist-high grass with arrows on their strings. Hordle dismounted likewise, a savage grin on his face as he bent to tear off a clump of grass and then tossed it up to test the breeze.
"It's uphill just a bit, and the wind's in their faces," he said. "The bloody fools've forgotten I can overshoot them by fifty yards."
"Do your best, sergeant," Nigel said.
The first of the Guard archers stopped and bent his bow. The snap of the bowstring was faint at this distance; that would be a long shot under any circumstances. The arrow twinkled as it spun uphill, and then they could hear the faint hissing of its passage just before it thumped into the earth and disappeared in the long grass ten feet from Hordle.
"That's Jack Graham," he said absently. "Good man to have a beer and a bit of a yarn with. Arms like a gorilla, he has, for all he's under six feet—good shot, Jack, and it's the last you'll make until next spring."
He drew the great yellow bow and shot. "Over!" he swore.
Downrange the stocky broad-shouldered man in his green-enameled chainmail shirt and green uniform threw himself down with a yell as the long shaft hissed malignantly over his head. He shot back, two shafts in quick succession; the last one nearly reached Hordle's feet.
"All rightie then, I gave you an extra two," Hordle muttered, and shot again.
This time the arrow went home, through the other man's right shoulder. He fell, then sprang up, dancing with rage and shaking his left fist before crumpling again; the curses came faint and far against the wind.
"Well, that's what you get for bloody shooting at me!" Hordle shouted, laughing, and reached for another shaft. The remaining pair of archers would be in range in a moment... and the odds were now even.
"Wait," Nigel Loring said. Hordle looked over his shoulder. "Put your handkerchief on this."
He sloped his lance, dropping the long diamond-shaped head by the tall archer's shoulder, and held it there while he stuck the scrap of off-white linen on the sharp point. Then he raised it again and waved it back and forth to catch the other officer's eye; he could hear Knolles' voice call the archers back immediately, and the Guard commander trotted forward to meet him as he sent his horse out into the middle of the field. They halted at lance-length apart, their visors raised; the wind murmured through the long grass and the woods behind, the thick brush ahead to the west. The war-horses mouthed their bits, tossed heads, stamped forefeet in challenge as they sensed their riders' tension and throttled anger. Nobody could hear what they said through that susurrus of white noise.
"You're under arrest, Colonel Loring," Anthony Knolles said. "And you've added firing on the forces of the Crown to the tally of charges!"
Nigel felt himself smile; it was even genuine, which hadn't happened often since his wife died. He'd always liked Knolles, who was an entirely honest man... and who had a mind as savagely straightforward as an axe-blade. Nothing could turn from his duty but death, and even then you would be well-advised to cut his head off to make sure, but he didn't handle conflicting duties well.
"Not under arrest quite yet, Tony," he said. "And you haven't lost any men yet, either—good men the country needs. I've a proposition for you, old boy."
"You'll return with me, and name your accomplices," Knolles said. "Besides those two, that is."
"I'm most assuredly not going to give you any names," Nigel said serenely. "Here's what I will do. We'll run a course here and now. You beat me, and I'll surrender myself; you let my companions go, they're planning on leaving the country in any event. If I beat you, you let us all go and I promise on my word as an officer and a gentleman—and a Loring—that I'll leave England as, well... abjure the realm, to use the terminology His Majesty prefers. We won't go to Ulster or the mainland colonies or Gibraltar either, of course—nowhere in Europe, in fact. The King will have heard the last of the Lorings."
His face went tight. "Except for Maude, of course. His Varangians have ensured that she stays."
Knolles blinked at the savagery of Loring's momentary expression and winced slighty. "How on earth are you going to leave Europe?" he asked. "Where else is there to go? Norland—"
"Is part of Europe. Come now, Tony. You didn't think I was going up the M1 just to join the Brushwood Men, did you? And of course I can't tell you the details or destination, because you'd have to report it and the King might try to stop me."
"I have definitive orders," Knolles said.
Nigel smiled. "You had very emphatic orders from the politicians not to cross the border that time in South Armagh, Tony," he said. "'85, wasn't it? We didn't pay much attention then, either of us."
A smile struggled to break through the other man's craggy features for a moment, then he shook his head.
"You always were stubborn... I have to bring you back, Nigel. You know that." He sighed. "You should have accepted the governorship of Gibraltar when they offered it you last spring. You'd have got a gong with it, too."
"Which would have put me conveniently out of the way until I retired," he said dryly.
"I cannot simply let you go!"
"No. You can try to personally capture me, Tony. As I said, if you win, you return with your mission accomplished. If not... well, you can honestly say you did your best and took losses in the trying."
"You're better at this King Arthur business than I, Nigel, and you know it," Knolles said. "I still feel like an actor waving this stick about, sometimes. Don't you?"
"Not recently. More sporting than guns, what? And you have knocked me off my horse in practice bouts, you know."
"Not as often as the reverse," Knolles grunted sourly.
"You could bring me back," Nigel pointed out. "And without endangering any of your men. It was pure luck that shaft didn't go through your archer's throat. There aren't so many Englishmen left we can afford to waste them... or their sons and daughters yet unborn."
Knolles looked over his shoulder; his men were grouped around their wounded comrade.
And you know they're not enthusiastic about this, Loring thought. They're good soldiers, they'll do as they're told, but you can't make them like it.
"Very well, Sir Nigel," Knolles said formally. "There aren't many men whose bare word I'd take, but you're one."
"Thank you, Tony," Loring said. "And Tony? Whatever happens, look after the princes."
Knolles face changed slightly; backing the King didn't mean he liked the new Queen any too well.
"Here? Or up on the M1?" he said. "No rabbit-burrows there."
"We can check before we run the course. The footing's better for the horses on grass than on tarmac and I'd prefer to come off on dirt, if I'm going to come off at all."
Knolles nodded assent and turned his horse. Sir Nigel did the same, riding two hundred yards along the side of the low slope at a slow walk, checking the ground for rabbit burrows and fox-holes beneath the yard-high growth of grass and thistles. At the end of it the horse turned in its own length at the pressure of his thighs, superbly trained and willing. He felt a pang of absurd loss; not only was he going to have to part with it soon, but it would be spending the rest of its life pulling plows and harrows on Rasta Bob's farm. Doubtless well-treated, but... he ran a gauntleted palm down the smooth hard curve of the yellow gelding's neck.
Four hundred yards away Anthony Knolles was a tiny figure of steel and menace on his big black warmblood. Nigel barred his teeth; now he could stop being responsible and rational, and hit someone. He'd been wanting to do that very badly for a day and a half now.
With identical gestures they reached up to snap their visors shut; the world darkened, sight limited to the long narrow slit ahead. He squeezed his thighs, and Pommers broke into a walk, a trot, a canter... and then a hard hand-gallop. Nigel braced his feet in the long stirrups, brought the shield around under his eyes, the lance down—held loosely at this stage. Hooves thundered, throwing divoits of turf and brown earth high under the uncaring brown arch of the sky. The world shrank down to two bright lanceheads and a shield marked with a silver wedge.
Two and a half tons of horseflesh, human bone and muscle and steel armor hurtled at each other. He slanted the lance across Pommer's neck, clenching his legs against the horse, locking himself into the high-cantled saddle.
And I don't much care whether I live or die, he knew. Alleyne and Hordle escape in either event. If Maude's waiting for me... and if there's nothing beyond...then sleep.
Suddenly the other armored lancer was close. Loring clenched his legs, leaned forward, the lance tight under his arm, the point unwavering. At the very last instant his knees pressed, and the yellow horse swerved slightly, leaning away. Loring's lancehead stayed glued to its target, the narrow spot where the bevoir laced to the breastplate...
Crannng! Then crack! like a miniature roll of thunder as the tough ashwood of a lance-shaft broke.
Nigel Loring swayed drunkenly in the saddle at the massive impact hammering on his shield and smashing his hips backward against the cantle; the curved sheet-metal shed most of it, cunningly held to glance the point, but it was enough to tear him half out of the saddle and lose one stirrup; the warhorse itself staggered and nearly fell. The taste of iron and copper filled his mouth as his head snapped violently forward and back, rattling his brain in the skull and cutting his lips against his own teeth. He threw aside the broken stub of the lance before he realized what had happened to his opponent.
Knolles' black horse galloped on. Loring sprang down from the saddle, fell flat on his face, levered himself erect and staggered over to the spot where the other man lay fallen. For a moment he thought he was dead—gone gray-pale, with blood flowing from nose and mouth and one ear. The helmet was gone completely, the laces burst by the terrible leverage when Loring's lancehead caught it under the bevoir. One of the captain's archers dashed up and fell on his knees on Knolles' other side, dabbing at his face with a square of linen soaked from a canteen.
"Oh, hell, Oh, bloody hell, sir, you shouldn't have done it—"
Knolles eyes fluttered open; they were green, and wandered vaguely for a moment. Then he turned his head to spit blood and what was probably a bit of tooth, and the archer gently raised his head to let him drink from the canteen. He spat the first of that out, tinged pink, then drank thirstily and moved feet and hands and fingers to check that they still functioned.
"Glad you're all right, old chap," Loring said; the relief was genuine, a warm surge that melted some sliver of the glacier within.
"All right? You nearly tore my ruddy head off, Nigel!" Knolles said, then winced at the pain of his own voice. "I think you've broken my collarbone, too, dammit. This isn't nearly as much fun as doing it with blunted practice lances, is it?"
Nigel put a hand gently on the battered armor of the other's shoulder. "The harness will hold it until you get to a doctor," he said. "And we're even for Armagh, eh, what?"
"I have to explain this to His Majesty," Knolles grumbled.
"Your collarbone will argue for you," Loring said. "And Tony... I meant it about looking out for the princes."
He rose, feeling a stab in his back and a ringing in his ears. I really am getting a little old for this, he thought. It was hard enough to learn a whole new way of war in my forties.
The pain seemed to make him feel better, somehow. Alleyne came up, leading Pommers by the reins. "Do you need a hand mounting, Father?" he said, as Knolles' men carried him away.
"You insolent pup... of course I do, boy!"
Hordle came up and made a stirrup of his hands, lifting with gently irresistible strength as Nigel swung into the saddle again with a grunt.
"That was a joy to be'old, sir," he said. "Fe, fi, fo, fum, bang in the oc-u-lari-um!"
Nigel snorted. "We're not out of England yet," he said. "It's a long wet way to the Wash, and longer still to... wherever we're going."
Alleyne looked around. "I know we have to do it," he said. "Still, leaving England forever..."
"Better than looking over our shoulders at Osborne House," Nigel said stoutly. "And there's nothing more English than leaving England and finding land elsewhere."
Copyright © 2004-2005 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>