City of Boise
(formerly southern Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 25th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.
The streets of Boise were dark. Cole Salander was used to that where he grew up—night simply was dark, unless there was a full moon—but normally the capital of the United States had gaslights along the main avenues, burning the byproduct of the sewage plant. The incandescent mantles had seemed almost painfully bright to Cole the last time he’d been here, about a year ago. Now they were closed down, the iron posts just another hazard along the streets. Here and there a glimmer of lamp or candle-light showed, usually from behind shutters. The air was still and smelled of the smoke confined by the walls, and somehow of fear. In the distance, off to the east, a flare of light showed as a ball of napalm came over the wall, and there was a faint clanging as the fire-wagons headed towards the spot.
“I am completely insane,” Cole Salander said, sotto voce, striking along briskly with his right hand on the hilt of his shortsword. “I volunteered for this. I rest my case.”
“Absolutely no dispute,” Alyssa answered in the same low tone, walking with a suitable humility, the (jiggered, non-locking) handcuffs on her wrists. “And I’m twice as absolutely insane as you are.”
He could sympathize. He certainly wouldn’t want to be a prisoner, particularly a woman, in this Cutter-controlled city. How thoroughly controlled had come as a bit of a shock to him—and, he thought to Captain Wellman. Theoretically the Captain had come in to report to a general who was part of the Emergency Steering Committee about a possible intelligence asset; developing those was one of the things the Special Forces were for, after all. In point of fact there had been a red-robed High Seeker standing in the same room, arms crossed across his chest and shaven head gleaming. The general had slid his eyes in the man’s direction every few seconds, and there had been sweat on his forehead even though the building was cool. And a rayed sun pendant on the breast of his uniform.
Wellman had been silent for a long time when they came out of that; not that you expected an officer to be chatty with the enlisted men, but the Special Forces were a lot less stiff than the Regulars. He hadn’t doubted Cole’s cover story of prolonged flight and hiding; why should he? It was exactly what could have happened if they hadn’t run into that Mackenzie patrol, and he’d gotten a commendation and field-promotion to corporal out of it. Alyssa, complete with an excellent set of false papers prepared by her own side, had been his ticket into Boise; their story was that she’d talk to him and nobody else—it had produced a lot of embarrassing kidding. But the thought of how many things could have gone wrong along the way made him sweat even now.
Especially now. So close to pulling it off...
A hard multiple clatter of hooves made them halt. They didn’t run—that would be ruin—but simply stood back against the grill of a shuttered store that sold Planters, Reapers and Spreaders, made to order according to its sign. Cole stood at parade rest, with his right hand on the hilt of the shortsword sheathed high on that hip. You couldn’t go far wrong by falling back on the drillbook.
About a hundred cavalry went by, heading eastward at a walk, and not in the neat ranks that even Boise’s ranch-country reserve mounted troops used—more of a shapeless clot, kept off the sidewalks only by an instinct to avoid the unfamiliar loom of buildings. A hundred horsemen took up a lot of space even in strict column of fours, and these loomed like an endless horde in the dark. One had a lantern on a pole, from the light containing a tallow dip or two that cast a flickering yellow glow on the hard scarred faces and shaggy plainsman’s horses.
Cutters. Ah, crap.
The light cavalry wore coarse linsey-woolsey homespun and the gear that he’d seen before on the rancher levies of the CUT. Mostly steerhide breastplates and arm-guards studded with nail-heads or eked out with strips of salvaged metal or wire—the far interior was poorer in metal than areas closer to the coasts, and more people had survived to use it up. They had steel helmets, though, slung at their saddlebows and leaving bare heads bristle-cropped or shaven or shaven save for a scalp-lock, beards shaggy-wild or braided or trimmed to a tuft on the chin.
Uh-oh, Cole thought. Crap. Goat crap.
That style of haircut was a sign that these men came from areas that had been under the Church Universal and Triumphant’s control for a long time; the Prophet’s elite guardsmen out of Corwin shaved their heads, and they’d imitated it if not the regulars’ discipline. So was the way some of them had the rayed sun that was the CUT’s symbol tattooed on their foreheads. That meant they’d be harder-assed.
All of them had shetes at their belts or slung over their backs or strapped to the saddle—a heavy, slightly curved slashing-sword derived from the old agricultural tool, and common everywhere east of the Rockies. One of Cole’s older unarmed combat instructors had said they looked more like a liuyedao, whatever the hell that was with its pants on. They had recurve horn-and-sinew bows in scabbards at their knees and quivers and round leather shields as well, and there were a few rawhide buckets of short javelins or light lances.
Some of them had strings of scalps dangling from their saddles, too. That and the way they smelled—rather rank even for troops who’d been in the field for a while—made him think they came from the Hi-Line, the high bleak plains of central Montana near the Lakota territories. He’d heard that there was nothing to burn on those dry treeless expanses but dried cowflops, and that between fuel shortages and scarce water and long brutal winters folk had mostly gotten out of the habit of washing regularly there.
He blew out a breath of relief when they passed with just some hard looks, and the glow of the lantern disappeared around an intersection.
“Those stinkers were too close for—“ he began.
Hooves clattered again; just two of the horseman this time, one carrying a newly kindled torch that dripped sparks and shed a flickering globe of red light. They reined in, and the one who wasn’t carrying the torch turned his mount left-side-on to the two on foot. He had his bow in his hand with an arrow on the string and his drawing hand ready, though he carried the weapon point-down.
The archer was one of the shaven-headed ones, and wore a light mail shirt over broad bowman’s shoulders. Mail represented wealth out on the high plains, like the silver studs in his saddle; he looked about thirty, though heavily weathered, with a face marked by dusty white healed cuts on the forehead and cheeks and jaw, narrow blue eyes and a yellow tuft of billy-goat-style beard on his chin bound with leather thongs. The chest of his armor had a symbol picked out in in brass rivets, like a number 8 lying on its side, which was probably the brand of his ranch—roughly equivalent to the coat of arms of an Associate, which group Cole still privately thought of as those neobarb castle freaks despite the recent change in his political allegiance.
They smelled better, though.
“You,” the man said in the hard flat eastern accent. “Who are you, who’s the abomination bitch, and where are y-two going?”
“Sir,” Cole said—which was stretching a point; the man wasn’t in his chain of command in any way, shape or form. “I’m escorting this prisoner to the Special Forces battalion HQ for questioning.”
Actually my orders are to convey her to Boise garrison HQ at Fort Boise over on the east side, and we aren’t near either which will look suspicious if this goat-raper knows the town at all. We are pretty close to this place that Fred Thurston heard about from his dad, and which nobody else alive probably knows... I really hate having my life depend on probably like that...
It was hard to see the rider’s expression in the dimness of the flickering pine-knot torch, but Cole thought he could see the eyes widen.
“All enemy prisoners are to be turned over to the Church Universal and Triumphant—the blessings of the Ascended Masters be upon Its Prophet and the Seekers,” the plainsman said. “I’ll take this one now.”
Alyssa tensed. Cole saluted. “As you say, sir.”
He reached for Alyssa’s handcuffs as she backed away. “On three,” he said very softly.
He grabbed the chain and heaved, links biting into his palm; she pulled backward and kicked him realistically in the shins—which hurt.
“Oww goddamn two—“
He released the chain, staggering backward himself as if her tug and kick had shocked his grip free. Alyssa dropped flat and rolled under the torch-bearer’s horse.
“Catch her, sir!” Cole shouted.
As he’d hoped, the bowman in the mail shirt took his eyes off Cole. What wasn’t in the half-formed plan was that the other man dropped his torch and swept out his shete, the broad-tipped blade glinting along its honed edge as he leaned far over with a born rider’s casual skill and prepared to swipe at the slight figure on the pavement. Those things could leave a drawing cut a yard long and inches deep on an unarmored body.
“Shit!” Cole cursed.
He’d been unlimbering his crossbow since the instant the horse-archer turned his attention to Alyssa, and contrary to regs he’d been carrying it cocked and with a bolt in the groove in town. Instead of shooting the man in the mail shirt, he whipped it up to aim at the swordsman.
“Shit!” he said again, a strangled scream this time.
Alyssa had rolled out the other side of the horse, and as she bounced back to her feet her hand went to her collar and then whipped down the horse’s haunch. The animal gave an equine shriek of indignant hurt and went into a bucking, leaping twist; the punch dagger was razor-sharp, and had parted the beast’s hide in a slash that was shallow but twenty inches long.
There was no time to readjust. The crossbow went tung-snap in the darkened street, and the bolt tore through the steerhide armor over the man’s shoulder and gouged a groove through his deltoid. That was actually very good shooting even at pointblank, in the dark and at a twisting, jerking target. Unfortunately it was the left shoulder, and the man got his horse back under control almost immediately. He also didn’t seem to be the sort of guy whose concentration could be broken by a little pain.
The first one was already turning his attention back to Cole, standing in the stirrups and drawing the arrow back against the resistance of the thick composite bow. That was exactly the right decision tactically, since Cole was obviously the real threat. It would have been much nicer if the man had been stupid.
Cole dropped the crossbow—which was a hell of a way to treat a fine weapon, but needs must—and flicked out his gladius. He bounded forward in the same movement, jumping side-to-side as he advanced, to get to close quarters and crowd the horseman too closely to let him shoot.
Or shout for his buddies, for Christ’s sake, he thought desperately. If I can land a cut on that horse—
Unfortunately the man in the mail shirt was an even more superb horseman than his follower, and his horse was just as well trained; the pair operated like parts of the same organism. It skittered right back crabwise to a shift in the rider’s balance, backing up about as fast as Cole was advancing, and the man drew his bow to the ear. The pile-shaped point caught a last flicker of red light from the torch guttering out on the patched asphalt.
The other one had his horse in hand too, though its ears were back and its eyes rolling in a bite-and-stomp fit of temper, and he was boring in on the dodging form of Alyssa with a yard of edged metal in his hand, as opposed to her three inches of hold-out knife. Unfortunately he wasn’t stupid enough to get in the archer’s line of fire despite the way she immediately tried to draw him into it.
Shit, isn’t this where I came in? Cole thought desperately as the horse-archer prepared to skewer his brisket. Only I’d rather have Old Ep, there was only one of him and the big hairy fucker couldn’t shoot me!
I’m officially colonel of the First Readstown Volunteer Cavalry, and here I am sneaking around in the dark again, Ingolf Vogeler thought.
He’d always thought of himself as primarily a horse-soldier, which was how he’d spent the first four years after leaving Readstown at the age of nineteen. He’d joined the volunteers heading northwest from the Free Republic of Richland—what had once been southwestern Wisconsin—to Marshal and Fargo for the Sioux War because he’d quarreled with his elder brother and it was an honorable way to run away from home. He’d stuck all through the miseries of the Red River campaign, and then ridden with Icepick Olson’s band into the outright epic horrors of the Badlands Raid, mostly because he was too stubborn, or looking back on it too pig-ignorant, to quit. The learning curve had been steep, if you survived.
After the war petered out in mutual exhaustion he’d led what was left of the cavalry company he’d ended up commanding into salvage work, eventually into the high-return and insanely risky long-range branch, all the way to the dead cities of the Atlantic coast where the cannibal bands were only the worst danger.
But Icepick had been a scout-and-slash specialist, anyone doing that against the Lakota had to be good at it, and salvage work deep into the death zones didn’t involve many boot-to-boot charges or even the formal minuet of a horse-archery duel. Hence he’d often ended up in this sort of situation, paddling across a river with slow strokes and a crawling awareness that someone might be about to hit him with anything from a handy rock in their hand to a twenty-four pound glass globe shot from a catapult, full of napalm and wrapped in burning cord. Luckily it wasn’t a very wide river, less than a quarter bowshot, about the size of the Kickapoo on whose banks he’d played as a boy.
It sure doesn’t get any more fun, though, he thought mordantly.
Those long rustling barefoot summer evenings by the water seemed a very long time ago, listening to the bullfrogs and watching the first stars come out.
Christ, the things I do!
The rubber raft bumped softly into the mud of the eastern bank and stopped as they all pushed their paddles down into the muck for a moment; the city wall of Boise was about one bowshot away, a looming black presence against the bright stars. The man at the tip of the blunt wedge of the bows went overside with hardly a splash or sound of boots in wet soil, which was very respectable considering that John Hordle was a three-hundred-pound slab of Anglo-Saxon beef halfway between six and seven feet tall, none of it fat despite a legendary consumption of food and beer.
Not slowing down any that I’ve noticed, either, Ingolf though. Despite the way that red mop’s got some grey in it.
The older man heaved the inflatable boat and its dozen occupants forward and held it steady with the casual grip of one great red-furred paw until he was certain they hadn’t run into a welcoming committee. Which was all comforting to Ingolf, who was thirtysomething and beginning to feel that while he could still do nearly everything he’d been able to do ten years ago, it took longer and cost more and sometimes he just plain didn’t want to anymore. Hordle had to be around fifty; he’d been a young soldier over in England at the time of the Change, in something called the SAS, arriving in Montival-to-be years later by a series of wild accidents.
Though I wouldn’t be one to talk about wild accidents, Ingolf thought.
He reached over his shoulder to make sure the thong holding his shete in its sheath down his back was still in place and that his arrows weren’t going to rattle in their padded quiver. His strung recurve was thrust through a set of carrying loops on the outside of the quiver, a Mackenzie trick the Dúnedain had modified for their shorter, handier weapons. It was very useful after a little practice, letting you switch weapons quickly without dropping your bow. Checking stuff was so automatic he could do it with about a tenth of his attention and it was obscurely soothing somehow, like stroking a rabbit’s foot.
He and the Lorings came across the ocean, but I started out in Wisconsin and ended up here after crossing the entire continent nearly four God-damned times, no less—Iowa to Nantucket, Nantucket to the Pacific, all the way to Nantucket again and back. With time out to be a prisoner in Corwin, most of which I still don’t remember and the rest I wish I didn’t. Christ, the things I do...
After an instant the one-time Englishman made a small clicking sound with his tongue, lost in the usual humming and buzz of summer woodland—the strip along the river had been a park before the Change, and largely left alone since. The crew went up past Hordle in a smooth silent stream, spreading out just inland of the water. Ingolf and four others gripped the rope loops along the side and helped haul the boat out of the water and carry it into the shelter of a willow tree’s drooping branches. That would keep the too-regular shape invisible from the wall towers. There were observation balloons up in a circle around Boise, but the enemy didn’t have any flying after a couple of hair-raising episodes early in the siege. Montivallan gliders had dragged barbed forks of burning tow into their gasbags at the end of long ropes, and a couple of the aircraft had even survived it.
I’m not surprised that Alyssa Larsson volunteered to go in there. She’s a glider pilot, being crazy is a job qualification.
The Rangers were all nearly invisible in the moonlit dark, everything dull-toned and non-reflective, their faces covered by the hoods of the war-cloaks, which included masks with a slit for the eyes. Ingolf was relying on his helmet-cover and the brown beard which made his face less likely to glimmer in the dark. The brown acid-treated steel of his mail shirt was good enough camouflage too.
I haven’t had time to get full Dúnedain kit... or maybe I’m afraid of feeling silly, and the First Readstown is here and I do lead them now and then, and they certainly think it’s silly looking, except for the ones like my nephew Mark who think it’s unspeakably cool. Granted it all works well, but...
Hordle clicked again, and they all ghosted up the slope and into the brush and woods, fanning out in a semicircle around the place they’d landed. The big man came past all of them, checking. Ingolf nodded with sober respect as he eeled past, and caught a glimmer of a grin in return. Hordle’s personal weapon was over his back too—what they called a greatsword around here, with a massive forty-inch blade broad as a palm and a hilt as long as a man’s forearm. He’d have thought it too heavy to use effectively even two-handed, if he hadn’t seen the Dúnedain leader walk down a row of oak pells, leaving a row of stumps behind him.
The big man was married to Eilir Mackenzie, Rudi’s elder half-sister and co-founder of the Dúnedain; Ingolf suspected that he and his compatriot Alleyne Loring were responsible for a fair part of the Rangers’ military side. Not that they hadn’t had able pupils, and by all accounts the recently deceased Astrid Larsson-Loring had been a natural anyway. Ingolf had seldom met troops better at noise discipline on a night movement, even his own Vogeler’s Villains in the old days. After a moment the only solid proof he had that he wasn’t alone in the woods feeling the damp gradually soak up through the padding under his mail shirt was the unmistakable mixed military odors; oiled metal gone a bit rancid and amalgamated human and horse sweat and woodsmoke soaked into wool and leather. Even those were faint.
The undergrowth wasn’t too thick; obviously the riverbanks were used as turn-out pasture in peacetime. A city needed a lot of working stock, horses and mules and oxen to do everything from pulling streetcars to rich men’s carriages to hauling fodder in and manure out. According to the intel reports the enemy had cancelled night patrols here because they’d been losing too many deserters and needed their loyal troops to watch the others. It didn’t really matter to them if the Montivallans landed men here, since they could be annihilated at dawn once the artillery on the walls could see their targets.
Or so they think.
The reports seemed to be accurate; at least they didn’t run into anyone as they pushed out to establish a perimeter. It was dense-dark, and he moved slowly, feeling his way with hands and the toes of his boots. The rest of the squad was an occasional rustle, not even a broken twig marking their passage.
Ingolf went down on his belly again not far from where Mary probably was—she was extremely good at being inconspicuous—and waited. Three more rafts grounded behind them, and more of the Rangers filtered through the brush. Alleyne Loring came up beside Hordle, and they conversed for an instant in Sign, holding their hands close to each other’s faces in the darkness. Alleyne was about Ingolf’s height, though slimmer; next to Hordle he looked like a teenager.
Of course, being with the Dúnedain means you have to learn two goddamned new languages, one with your fingers.
Sign was useful, he had to admit—though they’d made it compulsory originally because Eilir Mackenzie had been deaf from birth and just wanted it that way, and Astrid loved secret-rules-and-passwords stuff. The Rangers were core-practical enough now despite the elaborate stylishness, but he suspected that back in the very beginning there had been a substantial element of teenaged let’s-pretend-in-our-treehouse to it all. A lot of them actually did live in treehouses, though the Ranger term was flet.
After that they all settled down and waited. Ingolf chewed on a couple of slices of dried apple to keep his blood sugar up, and did silent exercises to keep himself supple, setting muscle against muscle without moving. The inevitable bugs of summer woods near a river he just ignored; that went with the job, and he’d been doing it since he was seven and his father first took him out after deer.
An hour later he began to worry.
He could just see the North Star and the Dipper from here, between the leaves of two cottonwoods, and he lined them up and did the trick. Draw a line through from the North Star to the two top stars of the Dipper, treat that as the hand of a clock, add an hour for every thirty days after March 7, double the figure and subtract it from twenty-four. That have you the time, and he made it 03:00 hours give or take. Which was much later than the signal was supposed to come.
Something had gone wrong.
He was worried, but not very surprised. This was a big complex plan, and in his experience those never went off perfectly. You were ahead if they worked at all. The only reassuring thing about it was that if nothing happened, they could just go back the way they came and let the regular infantry and the engineers and artillerists get on with the siege while they drank a toast to the memories of Cole Salander and Alyssa Larsson.
As long as we get back before dawn, unless we want a catapult bolt up the ass on the way out. And dawn comes early this time of year.
Copyright © 2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>