Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, England
August 13th, 2006 AD/Change Year Eight
The M1 motorway that ran north from London was still passable beyond of the edge of cultivation in the Commandery of Whipsnade, in the sense that you didn't need to hack your way along it with a machete or axe; the six lanes and thick deep foundation under the pavement were putting up more resistance to the encroaching armies of revengeful Nature than most of man's works.
Nigel Loring still found it eerie to ride down it with walls of vegetation taller than the tip of his lance on either side, the more so as evening fell and his borrowed remount's hooves dragged beneath him. The sun was a red ball on the horizon, filtered through canes and branches. Runners and growth from the median strip and the verges were most of the way across the pavement; many of the autos and trucks were mere mounds of foliage. A fox sat on the roof of a pantechnicon and watched him until he was close enough to see the sun gilding its rufous fur and its tongue lolling through its sharp white teeth, then dropped to the ground and disappeared into the tangle of tree and shrub and bramble west of the roadway. There was a brief whiff of the dog-fox's musky scent as they passed, rankly feral beneath the warm green sweetness.
"Four men riding by and it's scarcely bothered," Alleyne Loring said. "You can tell there's not many riding to hounds in this county just of late. I hope those anti-fox-hunting fanatics were pleased, in the short interval before their hideous deaths."
The joke was sour, but Nigel Loring smiled; his son had been brooding alarmingly, and most of the remaining youth had left his handsome features, though he was still two years short of thirty.
"Watch out, Reynard," John Hordle called after the departing animal, as they rode under two overpasses. "You'll get scragged for sure if you 'ead that way—it's Milton sodding Keynes."
Nigel Loring chuckled. Odd. I'd have thought his cheerfulness would be irritating, under the circumstances, but it isn't. Maude always liked him, of course. She'd have given one of those gurgling laughs of hers if she were here now. I remember that was the first thing I noticed at that do of the vicar's, she was talking to him across the garden and I heard her laugh, she was wearing one of those absurd floppy hats, it was '73... enough!
"I think we cleaned it out fairly thoroughly, back in CY 3," he said. "There weren't many of the poor devils left by then, anyway."
"It's like cockroaches," Archie MacDonald said. "Ye'll no get the last of 'em, not with a whole kettle a' boiling water to the floorboards."
The farmworker was sweating a little, and he kept his bow across the saddle despite its awkward length for a mounted man. He started when three red deer rose up from the shade of an Aston Martin that must have cost three hundred thousand pounds once; the big russet animals poised for a moment, then turned and trotted swiftly away with their muzzles up and their horns laid on their backs, bounding over a three-car pileup of wrecks and running northward until they vanished from sight. Hordle looked at them and thoughtfully twanged the string of his bow.
"Not worth the trouble," Sir Nigel said. "We've got enough food to reach the Wash."
"Wasn't thinking of that, sir—though that yearling hind looked fair tasty. I was thinking they looked like they'd been hunted before. You do much deer-hunting around here, Jock?"
MacDonald squinted after the vanished animals. "We've no seen any, near the farm—not Bob's, nor the ones Gunnar and I have filed for, we've done a bit of work on both, keeping the access roads clear and the buildings tight, ye ken. Hunting around here's mostly birds, rabbits, wild pig, fallow deer, and those little Muntjacs, the ones that bark like dogs, they do love a bramble thicket. And you see some gey strange beasties from the safari park—there's rhino about yet—but no the red deer."
"The nearest herds of red deer were far north," Alleyne said thoughtfully. "Fairly remote areas, mostly. The Lake District."
"Aye, an' Scotland, the Highlands. And they'll no ha' gotten a lift south on the Cutty Sark, the way we crofters did from Skye."
"I would expect them to spread south, though." Alleyne said. "Or it could be red deer from the Woburn herd, if any made it through. They'd be likely to move north for the grazing, and to get away from the settlers, this last little while."
He rubbed his chin, fingers rustling on soft blond stubble; there hadn't been much time for shaving. Like his father he was riding one of the farmer's horses, an undistinguished cob of about fourteen hands, and like the elder Loring he'd removed all his armor save for breast-and-back plates and the helmet dangling at his saddlebow. Their own mounts followed behind, carrying the gear in sacks slung over the war-saddles.
"But if they haven't spread to the edge of the farming country, why should they be wary of men?" he went on. "That bally fox wasn't. Ergo, they have been hunted."
Hordle and Nigel exchanged glances. That was a good point...
"We should be getting near the turn," Nigel said aloud, consulting the map in his head.
It was disconcertingly easy to lose your sense of place and distance, when the landscape looked so different from the way memory painted it. He'd driven through here countless times—
"Isn't there a Welcome Break sign about here? Has a flying goose or something of that sort painted on it."
"Nae, ye've gone too far if ye see that," Archie said. "It's three miles north o' here. Junction Fourteen—yes, that's it."
He pointed to a sign that rose thirty feet in the air with the upper part of its rusted, pitted surface above the vegetation; it was blue with a white band ending in a pointed tip at the top, and another line pointing leftwards. A mile went by, steady riding at a fast walk—the stalled vehicles made it difficult to go faster. They were on the right side of the motorway, the southbound lane before the Change; Junction Fourteen was on their own right, curving up from the main thoroughfare. Another sign loomed.
"Milton Keynes, Newport Pagnell, A509," Hordle read. "And The North, at the top—that's original, innit? Specific, too. Better be careful, sir," he went on, as they turned their horses up the eastward-leading access road. "This is the slip road for oncoming traffic. We'll cop a ticket if we're seen going down it the wrong way."
"You are incorrigible, sergeant," Nigel snorted.
There was no need for him to ask why he got so much encouragement; and they were careful as they passed a blue-and-white sign with an arrow directing drivers to the M1 for Luton, London and points south. The lesser road that lead to the town itself was far more densely overgrown save for the narrow path Buttesthorn's men had hacked, and a good deal of it had been ripped at by heavy floods, starting with the wet spring in the year of the Change. There were sections where only a scalloped edge of pavement remained above overgrown mud, and they must dismount and lead the horses. Nobody was maintaining levees any more; even in late summer he could see patches of reed and livid-green marsh grass to his left as they rode. The arched 1920's roof of the Aston-Martin plant had slid quietly into the silt...
The graceful arch of Tickford Bridge was still clear of vegetation, save for vines crawling along the railings and up the cast-iron lamp-posts; the bridge itself was iron, built in 1810 when that was still a novelty. The tiny Lovat ran below, thick with reed and sedge, flanked by tall willows and oaks that had spread upslope in both directions in waves of saplings. Over their tops ahead and to the right he could just see a slip of the tower that crowned St. Peter and St. Paul church, looming above Newport Pagnell town as it had since the Wars of the Roses. But when he looked directly ahead, up St. John Street...
"Not much left," he said.
Fire had passed through the little market town, fire and flood. The buildings to his left were nothing but mounds under second growth; the forest was reclaiming them faster than it was the open fields, and tall saplings reared among the rampant bramble and thorn. To the right, on the higher triangle of ground between the meeting-point of the rivers where the original settlement had stood, occastional snags of wall, or even roofs, stood out—though many of the newer frame buildings had simply been ripped apart by Russian vine pressing on their joists. Under the scent of vegetable decay and silt was a fainter one of wet ash and crumbling, moldy brick... and the taint of corruption was probably his imagination.
Insects and rats had picked the bones clean long ago.
"Major Buttesthorn's men said it was clear to that pub where they hid the canoes, sir," Hordle rumbled. "But tricky in the dark."
It was eight thirty, and the long twilight of an English August was drawing to a close; Nigel felt the drain of exhaustion, sand in his eyes and the feel of it in his joints.
John Hordle gave a low whistle as they walked their mounts forward, cautious on the bad footing. "This is a good place to hide something, and no mistake. It looks like it's been abandoned for a hundred years, not less than ten."
"Why's it called a port?" MacDonald said suddenly. "Odd name for a town sae far inland. Na'er seen it before, mind you."
"It wasn't named a port, originally," Nigel said. "It was porta, that's Latin for a trading post. This was the border with the Danes, in those days."
"Danes?" the Scot said, turning in the saddle to look at him.
Nigel smiled and inclined his head towards his son; perhaps a friendly voice would keep the farmworker steady. The younger Loring said:
"Founded in 917, before Edmund Ironside completed the reconquest of the Danelaw. Then given to Sir Fulk de Paganell by William the Conqueror for services rendered at Hastings in 1066."
MacDonald grunted. "Ah. Like this Commandery business of the King's."
He spat aside to show what he thought of that. Sir Nigel winced a bit behind his impassive face; the bones of the idea had been his as much as the monarch's, a quick and simple way of organizing and defending the resettlement of the mainland, with the existing Guards and SAS units as a framework. He hadn't meant to take it quite so far, of course...
Alleyne smiled. "The labor levies, you mean?"
"Aye, that in particular," MacDonald said. "It's a nuisance that drives you fair mad, when there's so much wants doing to haime."
The younger Loring pointed over his shoulder at the path Buttesthorn's men had hacked through the vegetation on Tickford Street. "Of course, without the levy, all the roads south of here would look like that."
"Weeeel..." MacDonald said reluctantly. "Perhaps ye've a point."
They rode up the curving High Street; many of the two-story Georgian storefronts had collapsed into the streets, from fire and subsidence and sheer decay, but there was enough brick and pavement to keep the trees and brush from growing too thick yet, though saplings and shoots showed where its infinite vegetable patience was at work. The horses snorted and rolled their eyes as their hooves clattered and crunched through the uneven footing; there were scuttlings and scurryings through the piles of rubble and wreck, behind the blind windows like sockets in skulls where a piece of wall survived.
"Where'll we put the horses?" Archie Macdonald said. "This is no' good for their hooves."
Sir Nigel nodded; the three beasts they'd borrowed to supplement their own were a substantial share of Jamaica Farm's capital assets, and the man was entitled to be worried. In fact, he felt a sudden liking for the wiry redhead. Archie MacDonald had no particular reason to feel any loyalty to the Lorings. He could simply have gone to his local Commandery and turned them in, and gotten a good farm ready-stocked out of it, rather than breaking his back for years to earn one. Instead he was risking his life in this tangled, sodden wilderness to help a man he'd never met before, for his friends and because he thought it was right. And if he seemed a bit nervous, well, he wasn't a professional soldier as were the Lorings and Hordle.
"The churchyard," Nigel said. "If the fencing's still intact—it should be, it was iron palings. Hmmm.... One watch here with the horses, the other up the street with the canoes. We'll want to get an early start."
Despite his exhaustion, he would have preferred to start now, if the sky weren't already turning purple-blue in the east, and the first stars appearing. They'd be following the river, north and then eastward to the Wash and King's Lynn where the ship was supposed to meet them. But...
God knows I've done water work before, and mostly at night. Not to mention Borneo and Belize. But the Ouse will be difficult. Full of obstacles and winding about, breaking its banks and retaking the old flood plain, and it's a long journey. I wouldn't care to try it in the dark, not when losing a canoe would be a disaster. We can afford the time: the King won't send pursuit overland. It's too late to do any good, and he'd have to arrest Knolles, and he certainly can't afford that, politically, it would touch off revolt for certain if he turned on one of his most loyal officers. A night's delay will give him more time to set something up at sea, but that's less of a risk than blundering about exhausted in the dark.
They turned in past the great silvery-gray bulk of the church; the moon was up now, and it seemed to make the ancient limestone glow. Hordle lit a lantern from their baggage, adjusting the wick and then lifting it on the tip of his bowstave as the two Lorings pushed the tall doors open. Inside the hundred-foot length of the nave things were less orderly than the nearly untouched exterior suggested. The pointed arches and pillars along each side still stood, but in spots the white plaster had been discoloured by smoke, probably from the missing pews. There were ashes and fragments of bone near the altar, where the rood-screen had been, and blasphemous, incoherent graffiti scrawled over the walls. Hordle reached up to hook the wire loop of the lantern over one of the dead electric candles around a pillar, then knelt, taking a pinch of the ash between thumb and forefinger and bringing it to his nose.
"This isn't eight years old, sir," he said. "Nor one neither, I'd say. Early this spring?"
The two Lorings joined him. Alleyne leaned over the discolored stone where the fire had been, his blue eyes bright with a hunter's keenness. "You're right, Hordle. Hmmm. That knucklebone there, it's pig. And these... that's a red deer's leg-bone, by God. Someone's been using this place since the Change, not very recently, but several times at long intervals."
His father wrinkled his nose slightly. "Someone with a very elementary sense of hygiene," he added. The smell wasn't all that obtrusive after months, but it was still detectable in this damp climate.
Archie MacDonald called from the entrance: "What's there?"
"Someone's been using this as a campsite," Nigel said. "Brushwood Men," he went on. "But not just lately, I'd say."
That was the standard euphemism for those who'd made it through the Change on the mainland, usually by devouring the less successful; the handful who'd merely hid in remote places and been very, very lucky had come in and joined the resettlement in Change Year Two. There weren't very many of the Brushwood Men, but they lingered in the unsettled zones—and even a few in the vast tumbled half-flooded ruin of London, by rumor, surviving now on rats and rabbits and what they could scavenge from park and riverbank.
"Filthy buggers," MacDonald said, with a shiver.
"Right," Alleyne Loring said, returning from a brief tour outside. "The fencing around the churchyard's intact, and there's plenty of grass down towards the river. We'll hobble the horses, and you can start back with them tomorrow morning, MacDonald. A little luck, and nobody will be any the wiser."
The two warhorses were Irish Hunters, seventeen hands and towards the heavier end of that mixed breed; they'd do well enough as draught animals, especially on an isolated frontier holding. Hordle's cob was an unremarkable beast and would fit in with Jamaica Farm's trio very nicely. Three good horses were as many as most farms could afford; six would enable to them to get a good deal more done, with less human exhaustion.
"What about the harness, sir?" Hordle asked.
Nigel nodded at the heavy war saddles, specialist gear of no use to anyone who didn't intend to ride to war armored cap-à-pie and carrying a lance.
"We'll take those along to a deep place in the river and sink them. No sense in dragging a hundred pounds of tack around the world. Your saddle's standard issue, Hordle, so your farmer friend can have it with the horses." He looked at MacDonald. "Which watch do you want to take, and where?"
They were standing near the church doors; the Scot looked up the ruined length of Newport Pagnell's High Street. The slumped front of the Cannon pub were only fifty yards east; the canoes and traveling gear were hidden in the function room at the back. From there it was easy carrying distance down to the stone bridge over the Great Ouse.
"If it's all the same, I'll take first watch here," he said, looking at the stout stones of the church. "Forbye, could I keep the lantern?" The three ex-SAS men looked at him blankly.
"Whatever for?" Nigel asked, curiously.
Hordle snorted. "It might not do any harm 'ere. But Jock... if there was anyone lurking about... well, you might as well hang up a sign, SNEAK UP AND KILL ME, mate. All a light does at night is blind you and mark you out." More kindly: "I'll be back to relieve you in three hours, and we'll save you dinner."
Nigel reached for a canvas dufflebag; it held the rest of his armor. But Hordle was before him.
"I'll take that, sir," the giant said, and took them both, besides the war-saddles, hefting the two-hundred-pound total without visible effort, despite his own gear.
Nigel and Alleyne followed, eyes wary in the dark and hands on their sword-hilts. The front of the Cannon had collapsed into the street; they had to climb a long sloping surface of rubble before wiggling through between a section of half-collapsed ceiling and the top of the mound into the function room.
The door to that had survived; Buttesthorn and his men had been hard at work there, as they saw when they let the section of blackout curtain fall to hide their entrance and turned up the lantern. The rubble had been pushed back from a section of stone-flagged floor, and any cracks in the mostly-intact rear and side walls had been roughly patched with mud and planks, from the inside. Three aluminum canoes waited, with bundles of gear neatly packed and trussed beside them. Trail-food, extra arrows, two more longbows—Nigel and his son were both excellent shots, but neither could bend Hordle's monster stave—sleeping bags, clothing, fishhooks, lines...
There was also a little spirit-stove. Hordle grunted appreciation and lit it as he rummaged through the sack of supplies they'd brought from Jamaica Farm.
"Right, I knew that Gudrun was a kind-'earted girl. Pity we couldn't stay a little longer, but needs must. Sausages... bacon... bread... butter... onions... tomatoes... spuds... mushrooms, even! We can do a proper fry-up. Fair scrammed, I am. It'll be salt horse and Old Weevil's wedding-cake on the Pride of St. Helens, I'll wager. Ah! She put in four bottles of Scarecrow Best Bitter, all the way from Arreton; it must be love. Bob'll be livid."
"I'll take first watch outside, then," Alleyne said. "Give me a shout when it's ready, Hordle."
Sir Nigel sat, unlacing the bag with the rest of his suit, going over the pieces—pauldron and vambrace, spaulder and sabaton and greave—checking for nicks in the enamel, flexing the leather backing and straps and buckles. The armor didn't need nearly as much maintenance as the medieval originals. They'd used some of those in the first year or two, taken from museums and country-houses; after that the armorers had rigged water-powered hydraulic presses to stamp copies out of sheet metal salvaged from warehouses and factories. The Loring's suits were of the best, and the nickel-chrome-vanadium alloy was much, much stronger than the rather soft medieval steel; besides that it didn't corrode easily if at all. Still, it was best to take no chances, and it was as important as ever to keep the leather supple.
And the homely, familiar task let his mind wander while he kept it on impersonal things.
He looked around the ruined pub; how long would it be until this was a town again? At least it would happen; there had been times in the first Change Year when he feared it would all collapse, that England would be totally wrecked as most of Europe and the Middle East had been, beyond hope of recovery. There was an England again, however tiny and impoverished; and at least he could comfort himself that he'd played some part in building it. Perhaps in laying the foundations of a new age of greatness. The Irish might have had the starring role this time if they hadn't indulged their taste for bashing in each other's heads so whole-heartedly, but as things were old England had the field to herself...
And how will they think of these years, in that age to come?
When this was a pub again, or housed a weaver or a merchant or a blacksmith, how would the chronicles fit this age into the long, long vista of the island story? Beside the Black Death, he supposed, or the Viking invasions; a great catastrophe, long ago, which ushered in a new age. But there would be none of his blood in it, for the first time in many centuries. There had been Lorings at Tilford before the first stones of Woburn Abbey were laid, although for a time the land had passed through a female line before the name returned through marriage to a distant cousin.
Lorings had carried their blazon of five roses to Crecy and Agincourt; one had gone ashore at Cadiz in the first Elizabeth's time, beating a drum in the surf as his men put King Philip's Armada stores to the torch—and drank up an amazing cargo of sherry found on the beach. A scion of the house had died under Rupert's banner at Marston Moor, and the mother of his infant son had stood siege as commander at Tilford against Cromwell's Ironsides—Charles the Second had made the Lorings baronets shortly after the Restoration, as a cash-free way of paying off the debt. Others of his ancestors had left their bones from Delhi's gates to the Crimea. Nigel's own father met his end leading a jungle patrol in Malaysia against communist guerillas in the 1950's, and his mother of a fall while pursuing Charlie James Fox over a hedge not long after. Nigel himself been raised mainly by his grandmother, whose young husband Lieutenant Eustace Loring had vanished under a storm of German artillery in the retreat from Mons in 1914. She'd lived long enough to see him married...
The wound was still raw, but it didn't scrape at his whole mind quite as much, now. The first pain had subsided just enough to let him feel lesser hurts.
The fact of the matter is that we were very happy, these last few years, politics aside—if Alleyne had settled down and produced some grandchildren, it would have been perfect.
He wouldn't have chosen the Change—no sane man would—but...
To be completely honest, I'm more at home in an England of farmers and squires and parsons than one of cities and motorways and the Internet, he acknowledged ruefully. If it weren't for the... eccentricities... of the King... a dozen hitch of Shires couldn't have dragged me out of the country again.
Maybe I should have taken the offer of Gibraltar, he thought, accepting a plate from Hordle with a word of thanks, and beginning to stoke himself methodically.
Gibraltar wasn't quite an island, but the only connection to the mainland was a narrow peninsula. The town and garrison there had managed to barricade themselves against the hordes and live off the huge stores cached in the tunnels of the Rock, plus a providential bulk carrier full of Argentine wheat which drifted by just close enough. Expansion into the empty spaces of southern Spain and northern Morocco had required help from the mother country, though, men and tools and leadership. An intriguing challenge, a job worth doing.
I might have accepted if I were a bit younger; and then I wouldn't have been involved in politics here and Maude would be alive. There was a hint of a title, too... I'd have retired quietly in another decade—and all that was Queen Hallgerda being cunning.
Alleyne returned from his watch at Hordle's soft-voiced imitation of a barn owl. The archer loaded another plate with eggs, sausage, fried potatoes and buttered bread.
"I'll take this over to Jock and send him back when he's finished," he said.
Alleyne smiled; it was a charming expression, one that reminded Nigel forcefully of his mother for a moment. "Excellent fry-up, sergeant."
"I take a good bit of feeding, sir," Hordle said. "So it pays to do it right. Maybe a bite to eat will cheer up that mournful Jock git. I think the ruins put him off, like."
"You were always the best field-cook I knew. Something Sam Aylward didn't teach us, eh?"
"Christ, no, sir. Samkin could burn water. I swear a can of bully-beef tasted worse if he opened it."
"I'll relieve you in four hours, then."
The two Lorings settled down in comforting silence for a moment as Nigel prepared to take his own turn; the younger man had a thick hardcover book out. It was his copy of the Fellowship of the Ring, of course, a signed edition salvaged from Oxford in CY 2. He'd brought along all three volumes.
Nigel was reaching for his sword-belt when they heard Hordle's owl-hoot, repeated twice.
"When I saw the fire, I thought the Jock had done it," Hordle said grimly. "He was nervous of the dark here—with reason, as it turns out."
The Lorings helped each other into their war-harness as they listened to the report and watched the archer draw in the thin film of dirt that overlay the flagstones with one long thick finger. It only took five minutes to don the plate that way; the redesign had been thoroughly ergonomic, not something that the original medieval smiths had emphasized.
"So I came up quiet-like, to show him why it's a bad idea to light a fire in hostile country," he said. "Which was fortunate, or I'd have run right on to their sentry—as it was, I smelled him first. He was hiding a treat, he was, though, and probably he could smell the soap on me if I got too close. Once I'd located him I went around the rectory side of the church and scouted that way. Six women, five kids and eight or nine grown men. The men all have bows of a sort and good long knives, and there's a fair number of spears and such, couple of axes, woodchoppers. Two sentries out—here and here. The rest all in the nave of the church. They must make a regular circuit of it with this as a stop, and we got unlucky on the timing."
"You're sure MacDonald is alive?" Nigel said.
"Had him tied to a pillar, sir. Stripped for his clothes and banged about, but not hurt bad yet. They had a couple of deer hanging up, probably the ones we saw earlier today. I don't think they'll eat him if they kill him... but they want him to talk, and from what I overheard, they're thinking of keeping him to show them how to look after the horses. Those've got them excited, but they're dead nervous too. And I think they came up from the river, sir."
"Hmmmm." Sir Nigel thought, then shook his head regretfully. "We don't have time to do this with any subtlety," he said. "We'll just have to go in and win, and hope we can get MacDonald alive out the other end of it."
Hordle had been right; you could smell the Brushwood Men's sentry a dozen paces away, if you were downwind of him; a heavy sour metallic-fecal scent that an unwashed body and unchanged clothes got in a wet climate. Otherwise there wasn't much to quarrel with in his choice of a sentry-box, squatting inside a windowledge which a sign proclaimed had once been Odell's Bistro; that was on the south side of High Street, just beside the bend that held the Church. It gave him a clear view both ways along the street, and kept his eyes away from the firelight that flickered red and sullen through the windows of the church. His ragged clothing broke up his outline, save for an occasional gleam of eyeballs or teeth, and he was admirably motionless.
Well, the clumsy ones got eaten long before this, Nigel thought, as he counted his heartbeats. Four hundred forty four... five... now!
He stirred in his hiding-place, deliberately letting his armor clank against a loose brick. Moonlight shone on eyes again as the sentry's head twisted—no showy leaping up, just the minimum movement of head and vision, and another as his bow came to the ready. He scanned the street; then his eyes went wider still, and he began to turn as he realized someone was creeping up behind him.
Nigel winced very slightly as two great hands came out of the darkness and clamped on either side of the man's head, gripping the matted hair and beard and then twisting sharply. The sound was like a green stick breaking; the body gave a single twitch and went limp. More smells added themselves to the unlovely aroma. Closer, and he saw that the ragged appearance was partly deliberate; swatches of cloth had been sewn to the dead man's trousers and the jacket he wore over bare skin, breaking up his outline and making better-than passable camouflage. The bow slid down and Nigel picked it up for an instant to examine; it was was yew from some churchyard, crudely made but serviceable, and cut by someone who knew enough to use the sapwood for the back and heartwood for the belly.
They're learning, he thought with a slight chill. Well, of course. Process of elimination, what?
Nigel and Alleyne moved forward cautiously; it was possible to move silently in plate armor, if the interior surfaces and edges of the plates had linings of soft thin leather glued on, and you had the knack. Light flickered through the stained glass of the church; they came in low, and he knelt and raised his visor to peer through a gap in the stained glass into the nave of the church. The savages had built a fire on the same spot near where the rood screen had once been; smoke drifted high under the hammer-beam roof, and flickering ruddy light cast shadows in the great rectangular space of the nave. A deer hung gutted and headless from a rope around one pillar; another was being butchered by two tangle-haired women, knives flashing not unskillfully... and that made you think how they'd probably learned their way around a carcass, which was unpleasant. An aluminum cauldron bubbled over the fire; as the women cut gobbets free they tossed them into the boiling water. Another stirred it, and added handfuls of chopped wild greens and feral vegetables. For a moment that surprised him, but they'd all have died of scurvy if they hadn't learned that much.
Archie MacDonald was trussed up to one of the pillars, much like the deer; he was naked save for a set of bruises already turning purple, and one eye was swollen nearly shut. One of his captors had appropriated his plain homespun jacket and trousers, his shoes, his bow—far better than theirs—and his belt and sword, which was the only long blade in the group. The clothes were far too big for the man, who was short and had a ratlike face thrust forward from slightly stooped shoulders and three rings that looked like wedding-bands through the septum of his nose. He was also a bit older than the rest; unkempt hair and rotten teeth and scabby skin made it difficult to tell, but the leader looked to be about thirty-five and the rest of the men mostly a decade or so younger; they'd have been in their mid-teens when the Change came. The women were about the same, or a little less; the six children who lay on heaped blankets in the corner ranged from toddlers to six or so; two of the women were visibly pregnant.
The men were crouched around the fire, roasting bits of organ-meat from the deer on sticks as appetizers, the firelight winking on crude tattoos and gold rings and plugs in body-piercings. One got up and walked over to the prisoner, juice running down his chin from the kidney he'd been eating. The smell of them all in the nave and their leavings mingled with the odor of roasting and boiling meat in a particularly nauseating mixture.
"He looks plump," the man said, showing snags of tooth when he grinned. "In the old days, he'd have been right tasty! If you want him to talk, Viggers, why don't we 'ave one of his legs off? He don't need them. We could offer him some, done just pink in the center."
The rat-faced leader moved with astonishing speed; there was a meaty thump as his shoe slammed into the other man's crotch.
"Shut up!" he screamed. "We don't talk about that! Ever! We did what we 'ad to do but we don't talk about it! Ever! The Netherfield Avengers are real men who look out for their own, not fuckin' animals like them Brummie cunts!"
He punctuated the words with a few more hearty kicks. The man threw up helplessly, then crawled away, leaving a smear of half-digested venison behind him. Some of the others dropped their eyes when the little man glared around; others laughed when he unbuttoned and pissed on the writhing form.
"We've got them horses," the leader said, hands fumbling with the unfamiliar fastenings. "We can do a lot with horses! When the others come in we'll be able to carry all we'll need, and then we'll go far north, take some land—"
Nigel drew back and nodded at the others. A few signs conveyed meaning silently: Hordle, you keep MacDonald safe. Alleyne, with me.
Then he gently lowered his visor; when it clicked home it covered his face to the lower lip, overlapping the bevoir to make a ridged mask of steel with only the long eyeslit to break it. The bad part about a close helm was that it restricted your vision, particularly around the edges. The good part about full plate was that you were near-as-no-matter invulnerable to ordinary cutting weapons and very, very hard to stab. And that you didn't need to worry about glass...
He took four steps back and then sprang forward, curling his limbs together in mid-air, with one arm around his knees and the other holding the shield over his face. Impact with the stained-glass window was peculiar, half crisp pops and crunching, half the soft heavy resistance of the thin lead strips between the glass panels. Nigel landed and rolled, coming up on one knee with the shield under his eyes and the sword flicking out into his hand.
Reality broke into fragments, images glimpsed through the visor-slit as he turned, moving like a living statue of green steel. A woman scuttled towards MacDonald, raising a knife in a hand where fragments of deer-flesh clung. Hordle's bowstring slapped against a bracer, and an arrow went through her swollen belly without slowing in a double flash of red; she went down shrieking endlessly and clutching at herself. A savage drew his own bow, aiming at Hordle in the window; Nigel's backhand slash caught him behind the knee and he went over on his back, thrashing like a beetle. The shaft went wickering up into the arched darkness of the nave to slap into plaster.
"King's men!" one of the savages screamed. Nigel had rarely heard such raw hate. "Kill 'em. Kill! Kill!"
"A Loring!" Alleyne's voice rang out, given a peculiar muffled quality by the close helm.
"A Loring!" Nigel replied, shouting from the bottom of his lungs. "A Loring! St. George for England!"
Hordle leapt into the room, out of the vulnerable spot framed by the window. His bastard sword was in his hands now, held in the double-handed grip as he moved across the floor towards MacDonald in a pounding rush, astonishingly fast and light on his feet for a man his size. A savage started a thrust at him with a spear, then turned the movement into a frantic attempt at a block. The great blade came looping up, then down through the tough wood with a sharp crack, through the man's right arm above the elbow, and then the tip went through three-quarters of his neck. The corpse spun away as the sword swept through the rest of its arc. Hordle danced in a circle of his own with the follow-through, turning it into a thrust that went through a belly...
The leader of the savages—or Netherfield Avengers, if there was a difference—leapt around behind his people, urging them forward. They didn't need much encouragement. A few seconds and they boiled towards the two Lorings in a wave of screeches and stinks. Alleyne and he stood shoulder to shoulder, then back to back. He punched his shield into a face and felt bone crumble and break, then laid open a neck with a short overarm cut. Blood sprayed through his visor, blinding him for an instant; a body landed on him, sending him staggering sideways. An arm closed around his neck, legs around his middle, and a knife sawed and stabbed around his throat, probing for a gap between bevoir and sallet-helm. And there were gaps, if you had long enough to look—
He reversed the blade and stabbed backward blindly. There was a screech and puff of rotten breath next to his ear, but the knife continued to probe; something cold and hard ticked at the leather collar beneath the steel.
Nothing for it, went through his mind.
Nigel kicked out—with both legs, throwing himself backward; the weight on him helped him fall in a controlled topple. The savage on his back screeched again as they came down on the stone floor, with the baronet on top—and though he wasn't a large man, the sixty pounds of armor brought his total to a little over two hundred. Something cracked beneath him, and the scream turned into a gurgling wail. Another savage loomed over him, swinging up a weapon—a sledgehammer, and that could kill him in his harness. It was too late to try and rise or roll aside; instead he kicked out with one spurred foot, felt the blunt metal point catch in flesh, and ripped it down. He was three-quarters back to his feet when another savage came at him, swinging an axe. It struck into the middle of his breastplate with a loud unmusical bonnngk of metal on metal, with a tooth-grating harmonic beneath it as the curved plate shed the blow—and the impetus helped him make the last few inches onto his feet. Nigel slid forward, using his shield to bind the man's arms against his own body, stabbed downward deep into a thigh and twisted the point—
And the room was plunged into near-darkness, as someone upset the stewpot onto the fire with a long shhhhsssss! of steam.
Nigel snapped his visor up. Some scattered coals still glowed redly, enough to show him shadowy figures clawing at each other in the doorway, and others diving through the broken window. Hordle roared and flung his sword with a sweeping two-handed motion like a hammer-toss; it turned in the air and drove point-forward into the back of the last savage, sending him forward on his face with the blade and hilt sticking up like the mast of a ship.
"After them!" Nigel wheezed, suddenly aware of how his breastplate seemed to squeeze at his chest as he heaved for air. "Get them running fast—"
Allleyne went by him, blade raised high, shouting something that sounded like wait for me, Grishnįkh.
Hordle followed, snatching his long sword free as he passed the man it had killed; more shrieks and screams sounded outside. Nigel leaned against a pillar with his sword-hand, then let his shield fall free with a clatter and raised his canteen to his lips, swilling a mouthful and spitting it out to clear his mouth of gummy saliva, then drinking. Light flared up again; Archie MacDonald had collected some of the coals and dropped them in the piled brushwood the savages had collected.
Then he limped over to Sir Nigel, peering anxiously with the one eye not swollen shut. "Are y'injured, sair?" he said.
"Not—" Nigel coughed, took a deep breath and held out his canteen. "Not as much as you, my friend. Just rattled about a bit inside my shell. I'm getting a little long in the tooth for this sort of thing, I fear."
MacDonald took the canvas-covered metal in a hand that suddenly started shaking. "I've no bones broken," he said, steadying it with both hands and putting it cautiously to his mouth, where the lips had been bruised and torn against his own teeth. "And I'm better than I was before I heard ye're voice, sair."
The crackling light threw their shadows high on the walls. MacDonald huddled closer to the fire, seeking the warmth his naked skin and the fringes of shock needed. Nigel went around the bodies lying about, counting and making sure that the dead savages were undoubtedly and permanently so with quick merciful sword-stabs; distasteful work, but necessary—he'd be responsible if they crawled off and recovered enough to be dangerous again. By the time he was finished his son and the archer were back.
"Got another one, but they scattered fast in the dark," Alleyne said. "Most of them ran for the riverbank. I think they had boats there, from the marks in the mud."
"We got about half of them, or a little better," Hordle said. "But—"
A whimper interrupted him. The children of the Netherfield Avengers were huddled together in their filthy nest of tattered blankets. Nigel looked at them and sighed.
"This is going to be complicated," he said. And then to the children: "Don't worry, little ones, we're not going to hurt you."
Alleyne snorted: "They're not going to believe that, father, any more than a fox cub would."
MacDonald muttered something under his breath, on the order of Nits breed lice.
Nigel gave him a quelling glance, but the man was right in the literal sense; the youngsters would be lousy. At least they were young enough to forget the horrors of their upbringing in a couple of years. The new England needed all the hands and backs it could get.
Hordle grunted as he cleaned his sword on a rag, then rubbed it down with a swatch of raw wool. "This is like the one about the fox, the cabbage and the sheep," he said.
Nigel yawned convulsively, politely covering his mouth—although that was a bit risky, considering what clotted his gauntlets. "I think the best thing would be to put them on the horses and get them back to Jamaica Farm tonight," he said. "Then of course we'll have to come back here ourselves... and someone will have to come with us to take the horses back... the gear here will have to be guarded too... I'll give Mr. Bramble some names of people around Tilford who'll take them in."
"No rest for the wicked," Hordle said. "There goes a night's sleep. Of course, it's just a merry cruise down the Ouse afterwards. With one big bastard of a problem."
"Yes?" Nigel said. There seemed to be sand in the cogs of his brain.
"The kiddies dads' have boats too."
Copyright © 2004-2005 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>