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THE GIVEN SACRIFICE

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Seven Devils Mountains
(Formerly western Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
Jun 12th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.

 

Cole Salander was under a fallen tree, sweating and baring his teeth in an unconscious rictus of tension. The first warning had been a covey of blue-gray upland quail taking off, and then a Cooper’s hawk perched in an aspen had turned its mad red eyes upslope and discovered business elsewhere without trying for one of its natural prey. And then something that could have been a dog giving tongue... that was when he’d gone to ground in a hurry.

Cole glowered at the POW lying to his left out of the corners of his eyes. Alyssa was the reason he couldn’t just try to outrun the pursuit. The enemy glider pilot smiled at him—with poisonous not-real-sweetness—and lay quietly with her splinted arm cradled against her chest. A distant sound...

Yup. A hound belling. Shit.

Somewhere the damned dog bayed again, and closer, the sound echoing against rock, startling the woods into silence. All that could mean only one thing here in the Seven Devils Mountains of western Idaho. Nobody had lived here even before the Change, and few had even passed through since the machines stopped. It had to be soldiers in this time of war. More than one or two, and he didn’t think they were soldiers of the US Army. Normally that wouldn’t be an insoluble problem; he could cover forty miles a day or better if he really pushed it, even in mountain country like this, and the same terrain made a cavalry pursuit impossible. There might be individuals in the bunch combing the area who could equal his best pace, but no unit of any size could.

I should have just bugged out when I found where the glider crashed but no, I had to be a hotshot.

Soldier and captive were both well-hidden, in a hollow covered by a hundred-foot lodgepole pine that had fallen across the mountainside sometime in the winter just over, surrounded by a thick scrum of blue lupine taking advantage of the light let in by the gap in the canopy. The root-ball wasn’t totally broken off, and the needles had mostly stayed on the branches as the wounded tree struggled for life. He could smell his own sour sweat under the sweet pine and flower scents, and hers—though he had to admit she was a lot less rank even now. You had to be borderline insane to be a military glider pilot and the last chaotic tumbling smashing crushing moments of your short terrifying life were likely to suck bigtime, but until then you lived better than a foot soldier, with cooked food and hot water available every night.

The soil in the declivity was shaded and damp, and the wet had soaked through the mottled green-brown-gray linsey-woolsey of his battle smock and pants, chilly and uncomfortable. Summer came late and reluctantly to these heights. The forest was open here, big old-growth conifers widely spaced, with thickets and aspens around the occasional clearing where fire or geology had kept the climax vegetation at bay. Fortunately the wind that bore the sound of the dogs wouldn’t be carrying their scent back to the animals.

Trouble is, good hunting hounds can follow a ground trail regardless of the breeze, once they’ve cut across it.

And while he was confident he could outrun men, even without an injured prisoner he couldn’t outpace dogs; over short to medium distances four legs just plain beat two. But there was a mountain stream running strong and cold with melted snow downslope. If he could just get there and use it to break trail...

But I’m tasked with getting Ms. ‘That’s Pilot Officer Bitch to You, Soldier’ back to our lines. And I’m doing it alone because we’re losing the war and everybody’s trying to do three men’s work so I can’t fight even if it’s a small patrol. The enemy don’t have to send their men out alone.

She won’t run away or shout, she gave her parole and I think she’ll keep it, but I can’t make her move... not all-out, and anything else would be a waste of time if there’s a pursuit. To be fair, that arm has to hurt if she moves fast.

He still felt like he’d fought a grizzly himself.

Mainly because I did.

It wouldn’t stop him from moving fast or fighting hard, he hadn’t actually cracked bones or torn ligaments, but it would make it a lot more painful. He wasn’t at quite ten tenths of capacity.

And if I just cut her loose, then her parole is over and she can shout her lungs out with a clear conscience and then I am so fucked. Unless I just kill her, which isn’t going to happen. Shit. Maybe trying to get her back to base wasn’t such a good idea even if she’d be a valuable intel source.

He had a good view through a little gap in the branches of the open forest across the broad slope. He brought his crossbow to his shoulder and peered through the telescopic sight, careful to move slowly and keep the lens well back; he might be just out of the accelerated SF training course, but he had done well in it, and he’d been a hunter since he was old enough to take a slingshot out after rabbits to help fill the family stewpot and guard the truck garden. The downside of a scope was that it narrowed the field of view but that was alright if you kept switching back between the scope and naked eyeball.

Two shaggy gray-brown dogs bounded into sight, big ones—as big as he’d ever seen, and looking to have mastiff and Great Dane and deerhound and a bit of timber wolf in their ancestry. Or possibly a donkey in the woodpile, if you concentrated on the size alone. They wore leather collars with steel studs, and they quartered the ground in an efficient-looking pattern. Fortunately there weren’t any tracks for them to find right there; he’d come in from the north, trying to loop around the latest known enemy activity... which was now evidently much closer than anyone had thought.

Alyssa Larsson had just smiled every time he asked her where the base was. Now he knew why: he’d been headed straight towards it all by himself.

I was giving her an armed escort home!

One of the dogs bayed again, a deep-chested sound. That was a signal, it wasn’t just making noise because it liked to hear the sound of its own voice. Four minutes later a human figure came loping through the woods. Doll-tiny at this distance, around three hundred yards, but the scope brought him close enough to see the knee-length kilt and the long yellow yew bow in the left hand with an arrow held on the string.

Shit. Clan warrior.

They weren’t exactly the enemy’s equivalent of the Special Forces. Those were the Dúnedain Rangers who were supposed to be even weirder. But the Clan Mackenzie were rumored to be neobarb headhunters and they were most definitely and by hard objective evidence very bad news. He’d talked to men who’d made it back from the battle at the Horse Heaven Hills. Sometimes in conversations that carefully excluded officers. They’d all featured profanely emphatic warnings about the reach and punch of those arrows and the uncanny rate of fire.

They’re sneaky, too, had been common.

Closer, and he—

No. It’s a she. Christ, aren’t there any normal women out west, looking after babies and working in the fields and fighting off bandits while the men are away at war?

—leapt easily onto a jut of rock that stood out from the slope and stood with arrow half-drawn. That was close enough that her face filled the scope. A young woman, early twenties like Cole.

It took him a moment to see the details, because the face was painted. Not makeup, real lines of black and white like a mask of dark wings starting on the forehead and sweeping over eyes and cheeks and then curving in along the jaw to the chin. It gave the countenance an eerie alien aspect, like something you saw in a dream.

OK, the briefing said Mackenzies wear warpaint. Nice to know we get information right sometimes.

She wasn’t wearing a helmet, which was good practice doing a scout in the woods; the protection wasn’t worth the way it restricted your hearing and peripheral vision. Instead she had on a sort of beret-like thing, with a clasp that held a spray of raven feathers standing up above her left eye. Brown hair hung in plaits at the front down either side of her face, and then the scalp was shaven above the ears to leave a braided roach falling down her back with a length of cord wrapped around it.

He shifted the scope slightly. Pleated kilt and plaid over the shoulder in a green and brown tartan with slivers of dull orange, a broad leather belt, buckled ankle boots and knee-hose. A short sword a lot like the one he carried except that it was on the left hip and not the right Roman-style, with a green-painted steel buckler the size and shape of a soup-plate clipped to the scabbard; a long dirk; a smaller knife tucked into her hose; and a green brigandine over her torso. On it in dark outline was a crescent moon cradled between antlers, and a big war-quiver stuffed with gray-fletched arrows jutted up over her right shoulder.

Eyes scanned back and forth, patiently, not hurrying or narrowing in on any one spot yet, instead sinking into the landscape and looking for the break in the pattern. He recognized the technique, and was thankful he’d taken the time to break up the outline of his crossbow with scrim and little bits of vegetation. Straight lines and too-regular curves drew the gaze in the wilderness.

OK, that’s extreme range, but I’m a really good shot and there’s not much wind, so I could almost certainly put one through the center of mass... of course, there’s the armor, those brigandines are nearly as good as a solid breastplate... and the dogs would go for me... nah, better be cautious, this is an intelligence mission not a hot op; I’m trying to get away, not fight.

His training had emphasized focusing on the mission. And that aggression was a means, not an end. Discipline like that was the difference between an army and a mob.

At last she made a short chittering noise that would have passed as forest background if he hadn’t been watching her, and a man in the same gear appeared. Cole blinked; he hadn’t seen the second Mackenzie at all, and it made him very glad he hadn’t chanced a long-range shot at the first one while someone unseen was covering her. The man was slender and of medium height, looking wiry-strong, with a brown mustache and short chin-beard. The rest of his head was apparently shaven, except for a lock at the back that spilled down in a braid. His face was painted as well, though more lightly, and somehow looked astonishingly like a cat’s, and there was a tuft of gray-brown fur in the clasp of his cowflop-like hat.

These people are seriously strange. Those knights and castles and things they’ve got out west are bad enough, but this?

There was nothing eccentric about the way he quartered the ground, though, with the dogs trotting at his heel and his gaze scanning the pine-duff and old aspen-leaves ahead of him. Occasionally he would go to a knee and peer more closely. Cole recognized that too—an experienced tracker looking for sign. He lay and sweated and thought he heard an almost entirely inaudible snigger from his prisoner.

I don’t suppose it matters what they do with the head after they kill me... I should be able to take out whoever stumbles across me first, but that’s one bolt and I can’t reload as fast as an archer can shoot... they’re too far apart to shoot one and rush the other with my sword before they get me and there are the dogs but maybe if I’m really fast and even more lucky... and if this time there’s nobody in reserve I can’t see yet...

They could just be not finding him; he was good at concealment. Or it could be a trap. At last the newcomer turned to the woman on the rock and shook his head. They gestured at each other—military sign language, he thought—and then she nodded. Cole forced himself not to blow out his breath in relief as she took an ox-horn slung at her waist and put the silver-mounted mouthpiece to her lips.

Huuuuu-huuuuu-huuurrrrr!

The sound was surprisingly deep, and it seemed to resonate in his chest for a moment, but it meant they thought nobody was around. It brought a dozen more kilted archers loping through the woods. He lost sight of some as they continued on past the coffin-tight hiding place and the rest shook out into a skirmish line. If they didn’t walk right into him and they assumed this area was clear afterwards, he had a good chance of staying hidden until they all went on about their business. And after they’d checked the area once they probably wouldn’t be back. There was a lot of forested mountain around here.

Go away, he thought, clenching his stomach-muscles in an involuntary attempt to project the thought that was half a formless prayer. Nothing interesting here, you gave it a once-over, much more important stuff elsewhere, move along now...

One halted, a dark-skinned woman with her hair in a multitude of tight braids tipped with little silver balls.

That’s not a bow she’s carrying, he realized as she came closer. That’s a staff.

A six-foot length of carved wood with the distinctive streaked reddish look of oiled rowan, topped by a circle flanked by two silver crescents.

What the hell is she doing? That’s not a weapon. Focus, Cole, focus, you’re missing something.

He narrowed his attention. Through the sight he could see the dark woman blink and frown, looking like someone trying to remember or catch a nagging thought at the edge of perception. She halted and drew a circle in the forest floor with the butt of the staff and inscribed lines within the figure in some complex pattern of angles and curves. Then she began to spin the staff, first over her head, then touching the end down with what looked like careful precision on the figures she’d drawn. The circle on its end was a disk of silver-rimmed crystal, and it caught the morning sun in a flickering glitter as she whirled the wood at arm’s length again. After a moment she began to walk outward in a spiral, still turning the staff wrist-over-wrist like a quarterstaff.

What the hell...

It all made no sense that he could see, but there was something fascinating about the movement of the staff. The way it cast sun-blinks, the rhythmic intensity of it, the swooping grace, the humming song that went within. Moments later he realized she actually was singing. A wandering tune, hauntingly strange, yet somehow reminding him of how his mother sang while she was working the churn or getting the harvest supper ready...

 

“Sleep of the Earth of the land of Faerie
Deep is the lore of
cnoc na sidhe;

Hail be to they of the Forest Gentry
Pale dark spirits help us see!”

 

So soothing, not scary at all. She took something from a pouch at her belt and held up her bunched fingers, blowing across them sharply like someone getting rid of flour or cat-hair. He sighed and let his head drift downward, onto the deep pine-duff, cool and damp and friendly, comfortable as his own bed in the attic up under the roof on the farm as the song went on...

 

“White is the dust of the state of dreaming
Light is the mixture to make one still
Dark is the powder of Death’s redeeming;
Mark that but one pinch can kill—”

 

Something hard rapped him on the forehead, just under the hood of his battle-smock. He started awake with a strangled yell and an icy thrust of fear as the butt of the staff withdrew, reflex sending his hands snatching up his crossbow...

... and then freezing at the glitter on the honed edges of arrowheads pointing at him. Six arrows, drawn past the jaw, ready to nail him to the ground.

It had to be his imagination that he heard the thick yew staves of the longbows creaking, but the barred-fang growl of the dogs was like millstones turning as they crouched and stared at his throat with fixed intent. The dark woman was leaning on her staff and panting a little as if with hard effort. She blew out a breath and grinned down at him, her full lips curving away from white teeth.

“Who’s the naughty laddie, then?” she said, in an accent that held a strong pleasant burbling lilt. “So, would you be puttin’ your hands on your head the now, or would you rather be pierced, perforated and sent off to the Summerlands for a wee bit of a rest before you try life again?”

Shit, he thought. So much for my glorious military career and a general’s stars by forty. Shit twice and on toast.

“Your choice,” one of the archers added helpfully.

“I surrender,” he said, laying down the crossbow, coming up onto both knees and clasping his hands across the top of his head.

“Now that’s a sensible lad,” she said cheerfully, extending her hand so Alyssa could stand and move out of the line of fire. “Better not to kill without strong need, for aren’t we all alike children of the Mother? Merry meet, lady Alyssa; who would this likely youngster you’re traveling with be?”

“I’m Cole Salander, Private First Class, United States Army, serial number A3F77032,” he said sourly, staring ahead.

“Toss the sword-belt, number-on-a-list-man,” one of the archers said. “Undo it with your left hand, mind, and keep the other on your head.”

He unbuckled it and did, which put his sword, bowie, utility knife and hatchet out of reach; he supposed it was a complement of sorts that they were being cautious about getting close to him while he was armed. Another Mackenzie extended the horn-sheathed tip of his yew stave and snagged the sling of his crossbow, dragging it cautiously away before firing the bolt into the ground with a whap and examining the weapon with professional curiosity.

“And is there any more cutlery, ironmongery or things of a sharp and pointy or otherwise harmful nature?” the first bowman said. “Produce, man, and no monkeyshines.”

He was a little older than the others, with a cropped blond beard and only a few touches of war-paint and no weird haircut except for it being a lot longer than was common for men in Idaho, his thick yellow braid tied into a clubbed bunch at the back of his head. A piece of wolf-tail dangled along with it. A thin collar of twisted gold lay around his neck, the ends fashioned into the heads of wolves meeting muzzle-to-muzzle.

“Steady now, boyo, and don’t try to befool us,” he said, his voice hard. “That would not put us in a better mood. You get a whap alongside the head for every one we find when we search.”

Cole had two holdout knives, one in his boot and a little one sewn into the jacket behind his neck. He tossed the blades and his sentry-removal wire garrote and blackjack after the crossbow, removing them from their hiding places with two fingers and great caution but no undue waste of time. He didn’t know how long they could hold the draw on those heavy bows and didn’t want to find out if it meant fingers slipping off the string and a thirty-six inch arrow heading his way at several hundred feet per second.

What the fuck happened? he thought, dazed and unresisting amid the painted faces grim or grinning. How the hell did I go to sleep with an enemy patrol all around me? Please tell me I’m not that much of a noob screwup, God. Or... did she do something to me?

That was almost as scary as the arrowheads, more so if you thought about it for a minute. Pilot Officer Alyssa Larsson was snickering now. The Clan warriors took the tension off their bows, though several kept their arrows on the string until he’d been quickly and expertly searched. There were a few happy chortles and whoops as they found and appropriated the more handy items in his light field pack as well as his stash of silver coins.

Yeah, OK, you’re happy, he thought with resigned irritation.

That was one of the perks of capturing someone; everyone knew the (unofficial) rules. They left him his sleeping bag and some of the really essential gear, and conscientiously returned the personal letters and family pictures after a glance to make sure what they were, which meant they were playing by the rules. His paybook, map and the other official documents went into a sack. Alyssa took back the map, papers, knife and compass he’d appropriated from her.

The wad of green paper money they tossed back with a jocular suggestion that when it ran out he could just use leaves and grass like anybody else. They had a point, with the way prices had gone haywire since the President bought it at the Horse Heaven Hills. His last letter from home had cautiously mentioned that people were swapping a lot again, which said volumes in a way the censor couldn’t object to.

“Merry meet,” Alyssa said to the Mackenzies.

The senior archer looked at her, the splinted arm and the spectacular and now colorful bruises on her face, then back at Cole. His eyes narrowed.

“Merry meet, and merry part again, Lady Alyssa,” he said. “Now, would you want the whole corp of this one to come back with you still walking upon the ridge of the earth, or just the ugly head of him in a bag, to be pickled in cedar-oil and nailed above your door?”

Alyssa chuckled. Cole didn’t think the suggestion was funny at all, and decided he disliked her sense of humor. Despite her lack of accent she seemed to know a fair bit about Mackenzies.

“No, he’s been a perfect gentleman, Sèitheach,” she said. “Strictly according to the laws of honorable war.”

He nodded and took the hand off his swordhilt and looked grimly at Cole, who was trying hard to hide his relief.

“Well, and doesn’t that demonstrate the Law of Threefold Return, boyo?” he said. To Alyssa: “Where’s your machine?”

“Twenty-odd miles that way, most of it up and down, as of two days ago,” she said, pointing northeastward. “What’s left of it, which isn’t much. Thought I could catch an updraft but hit still air instead and I used a couple of trees and a boulder as a landing strip. He came along while I was still dizzy. I’d have been in a really bad way otherwise. I was upside down and couldn’t get at the belts because of the arm and there was a grizzly sniffing around and I don’t think it was on my side. I’m a Bearkiller, after all!”

“What happened to the bear?”

“We ate some of it.”

She cocked an eye at Cole. “He put two bolts into it and then took off like a squirrel. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man run up a rock face so fast. Then he shot it dead while it was trying to climb up and get him.”

“More of them?” the blond archer said.

He ignored chuckles from his followers. Several of them nodded respectfully at Cole, and a few even murmured something like bravely done, but the Boisean’s snap judgment was that their commander was a notable hardcase.

“He didn’t say, but from the way he acted no, not within a couple of days travel minimum. Be careful with him. He knows his way around the woods and he’s quick. No fool, either.”

The dark woman with the staff used it to swat the bowman in charge on the backside before she added sharply:

“And taking heads is forbidden. That’s geisa for all the Clan as you know perfectly well, Sèitheach Johnston Mackenzie. It’s even geisa for McClintocks, the which is saying a great deal!”

“Well, I was just jokin’, so I was,” the man replied a little sheepishly.

“No you weren’t, Sèitheach-me-lad. Not about taking the head, at least, if not the pickling and nailing.”

Gurk! Cole thought, restraining an impulse to take one of his hands down and rub the back of his neck with it. OK, she’s a witch.

There were rumors about that, too. He hadn’t believed them until now. Of course, there were also rumors about the Cutters, the Church Universal and Triumphant, and what their High Seekers could do. Officially they were supposed to be friends and allies who just absolutely loved the reconstituted United States centered in Boise and wanted to bring their stamping-ground out in Montana back under the Constitution. Cole most certainly didn’t believe that. He’d met a couple, and the only way they loved anyone else was the way Cole loved a ham sandwich with mustard and a pickle. Witness the way their cavalry bugged out at the Horse Heaven Hills when everything went to shit, and left the infantry-heavy US forces in a world of hurt. Two of his brothers hadn’t come back from that fight, and nobody knew what had happened to them.

So OK, the westerners really do have witches. But it sounds like she’s a good witch. Anyone who’s against chopping off my head is pretty damned good as far as I’m concerned. Christ, this all just gets better and better, doesn’t it? ‘Sorry, sir, they took me prisoner ‘cause a witch cast a spell on me, which is why I went to sleep, really it is, honest.’ That’s sure going to go over well, assuming I ever get to report in. Sergeant Halford will ask me if their dogs ate my homework, too.

“And don’t jest on things the Goddess-on-Earth made geis!” the woman continued. “We may be Gaels, but this isn’t Erin in the ancient times and you’re not the Hound of Ulster nor yet one of the Red Branch.”

“Yes, fiosaiche,” the man named Sèitheach muttered.

She frowned. “I... there’s something strange about this one. That’s why he caught at me like a wrong note in a song. I’d not have found him otherwise, not if this were just a matter of human-kind. Yet I can’t say precisely what. It’s not that he’s a banewreaker himself, I do not think.”

“What should we be doing with him, then?”

“Why, I’m but a fiosaiche,” she said blandly, stepping back. “You being the bow-captain here, it’s your decision, not a matter of brehon law. War’s for a warrior, not a priestess or a foreseer.”

A couple of the archers grinned and Alyssa snickered. Then the fiosaiche started looking at her arm, probing gently along the splint. She hissed slightly and her eyes went blank at the pain.

The witch-woman nodded. “Thin break, right enough. It should heal well, and that’s a good a job of splinting. Provided you get some rest and don’t put any strain on it!”

When the bow-captain—

Whatever the hell that is. Some sort of rank, probably. I think this guy’s a platoon sergeant or something like that.

—snapped orders the Clan archers went on grinning, but they obeyed promptly too and without argument. Presumably a fiosaiche was something like a chaplain or a political officer or both. Though she looked a lot nicer than any of the zampolits—what were officially called morale officers—he’d ever met.

“We’ll sweep along the river until dark and lie out tonight, forbye there may be some of this one’s friends about,” the bow-captain said. “Remember how well he was hidden. The next one may be more twitchy with his trigger, so keep an eye out for sign unless you want a bolt in the back. Caillech—“

That was the girl with the wings painted on her face.

“—you and Talyn—“

The guy who’d been covering her and bossing the dogs.

“—take the lady and the prisoner back to camp. You’re up to the walk, lady? It’s a fair bit of a way and nothing but deer-tracks, and those of an exceeding steepness.”

“That’s Pilot Officer, bow-captain; I’m no lady among Mackenzies. And it’s walk or crawl, isn’t it? War isn’t a hunting trip. I broke my arm, not a leg.”

The man named Talyn nodded to Cole as he took his hands down and got to his feet. It felt strange not to have a sword at his waist or a crossbow in his arms, like being naked in public. The Mackenzie’s voice was not unkindly as he pointed southwest with his longbow.

“That way, Cole Salander of Boise. If the lady needs assistance, give it, and do it well. Oh, and just so we understand each other about any thoughts of skipping off into the woods with rude unseemly haste like a Jack in the Green—urghabháil dó!”

The two great dogs had been at his feet, heads on paws. They sprang in a blur of speed, and Cole froze again as the gruesome jaws closed on his wrists; they were tall enough at the shoulder that they didn’t have to bend their heads upward to do it. They didn’t clamp down, which he suspected would have cut right through bone and sinew with a single bite, but they weren’t letting him move either. Those growls like millstones grinding came from each deep chest again, and their eyes cocked up at him in warning. Or possibly hopeful anticipation. The feel of the fangs was like the teeth of a waiting saw, and between them they weighed as much as he and half over again.

Alyssa was grinning at him. Which was understandable; turnabout was fair play, and being a helpless prisoner was no fun.

“Urghabháil dó! means ‘grab him’, pretty much, soldier,” she said. “You don’t really have to worry until he says mharú air! Which means ‘kill’. Though he’d most likely just shoot you instead.”

“Loose him, Artan, Flan!” the Mackenzie said to the dogs, and they obeyed, backing away but looking at Cole with suspicion anyway. “Now, off we go!”

“You guys are weird,” Cole said resignedly.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Alyssa said cheerfully. “What you’ve seen so far is nothing. Try Dun Juniper sometime. Or even better, Castle Todenangst, I’ve visited there a couple of times with Mom and Dad. That place is weird.”

 

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