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THE GIVEN SACRIFICE

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


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Castle Todenangst, Crown demesne
Portland Protective Association
Willamette Valley near Newburg
High Kingdom of Montival
(formerly western Oregon)
June 15th, Change Year 26/2024 AD

 

Mom!” the High Queen of Montival said.

Sandra Arminger looked up from where she had been kneeling at her prie-dieu. The padded prayer-stool—rather like a reversed legless chair—stood before a triptych of the Madonna and Child flanked by Saints Edgar and Olaf, the patrons of rulers. The gold leaf of the halos in the icons glowed in the beam of light from an ocular window set high up under the carved plaster of the coffered roof.

She smiled at her daughter, the dark-brown eyes dancing. “Honestly, Matti, you needn’t goggle as if you’d caught me doing something nasty with a pageboy. I was praying.”

Mathilda opened her mouth and closed it as Sandra crossed herself, returned her rosary to the embroidered purse at her belt and stood. That still left her six inches shorter than her daughter’s five-eight, a smoothly pretty and slightly plump woman in her fifties, in a cotte-hardie of dove-gray silk elaborately jaquarded with ribbons and swallows and a white silk wimple bound with silver and opals. A Persian cat yawned and padded out from beneath the prie-dieu, its gaze as blandly self-satisfied as its mistress’.

People who don’t know better underestimate Mother.

Though nowadays you had to go a long way to find someone so utterly uninformed. She’d seen very hard men start to sweat when Sandra Arminger smiled at them in her let’s-share-a-joke way. The joke might be very pointed, or give you indigestion.

Mathilda shook her head. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen her mother pray, of course; it was just the first time she’d seen her doing it strictly in private, where there wasn’t any political benefit to be gained by conventional piety. Previously she’d used this little room off the Regent’s suite for confidential interviews, though it was the sort of place a noblewoman would set up a private shrine. Now besides the prie-dieu and images it had a big carved rood on one wall and a small shelf of devotional books.

“What... were you asking?” she said at last.

“I was praying for your father,” her mother said.

“Oh, good!” Mathilda said with a rush. “I mean, for both of you.”

They looked at each other silently for a moment in the incense-scented gloom. She’d told her mother much of what she’d seen in the...

Visions, Mathilda thought. That’s as close as you can get to a word for things there aren’t words for. What did Father Ignatius say when I made my confession? That some realities make language itself buckle and break when we try to describe them instead of just living them.

... the visions she’d seen at Lost Lake, when she and Rudi had joined their blood on the blade of the Sword of the Lady and thrust it into the living rock of Montival.

Or perhaps where Artos and I did.

Rudi carried the Sword again now, but in another sense it was still there beside the infinitely blue waters with their hands clasped on the hilt... and always had been and always would be. She could still feel a little of the curious linking that had started then, the sensation that the whole of Montival was like her own body. Since then her dreams had been odd; not so much fantastic as... real.

Like vivid memories but of things she had never seen. Perhaps of ragged men stalking deer in a clearing fringed by redwoods, or wild horses running in a desert with dust smoking around their hooves and manes flying, or gulls on a cloudy beach beneath the enormous rusted hulk of a wrecked freighter, or the empty tinkling clatter of glass falling from the leaning tower of a skyscraper as wind-blown rain hooted through the wreck of a dead city...

Either it had faded a little or she’d grown accustomed to it; Rudi thought it was the latter, though he felt it much more as bearer of the Sword.

But for a while at Lost Lake she and he had walked outside the light of common day, their footsteps carrying them on separate paths across all boundaries of space and time. One thing she had seen was her own father, Norman Arminger, in a place where he did penance. And there she had met...

Her eyes went to the supernal peace on the Virgin’s face as she looked down upon the Christ Child.

“She said... She said that because he loved us, he could receive love now,” Mathilda said softly. “And choose to... to make amends. I think that works both ways.”

Her mother sighed. “Here I receive positive proof of an afterlife, and instead of being reassuring it’s frightening.”

“Well, of course,” Mathilda said. “That’s much worse than death. Potentially. Worse than oblivion, I mean. It raises the stakes of everything.”

They looked at each other with perfect mutual bafflement for a moment.

Sandra broke it with a laugh. “You know, darling, I have exactly the opposite problem with this than many people used to have with religion. When I was your age.”

Mathilda raised an eyebrow, and Sandra made a graceful gesture with one small well-manicured hand, tapping her own temple with a finger that just touched the white silk of her wimple.

“Now I know up here that it’s all true. Including the parts that are flat-out mutually contradictory, but leave that aside. Oh, well, a great many very intelligent people always did believe it, and I’m not going to reject the evidence of my own senses.”

She put the hand over her heart. “But the difficult part is making this part of me believe it... integrate it into my world-view, as we’d have said in the old days... My heart rebels against my mind. And here I thought I was a complete rationalist!”

“You are impossible, mother!” Mathilda laughed.

“Not impossible. Improbable, yes. Anyone who’s lived my life and done what I’ve done would have to be highly improbable at the very least, my darling. Now let’s go. It wouldn’t do to keep people waiting, even now that you’re Lady Protector.”

“Particularly now that I’m High Queen too,” Mathilda said, with a slight quirk in her smile. “I always knew that the higher your rank the more firmly you were bound by custom. I hadn’t quite realized...”

“Just how high a High Queen is,” Sandra finished for her. “But there are compensations, dear.”

They walked out through the semi-public part of the Regent’s suite arm-in-arm. Technically Mathilda was Lady Protector now; the peace after the Protector’s War had provided that she’d come of legal age at twenty-six. In practice...

In practice, being High Queen of Montival in the middle of a great big war doesn’t leave me the time to be Lady Protector of the PPA! And being a new mother, which cannot be completely delegated and I won’t anyway... Having Mother handling the administrative routine and a lot of the politics in the north-realm territories not only lets me do other things, it buffers me from Associates who’d presume too much. I don’t want to alienate the Protectorate’s nobility. But I’m High Queen of all Montival, not just the PPA, and I have to be seen to be so people will know I mean it. Ruling is as much about seeming as being. If there’s a difference at all.

So she’d firmly turned down her mother’s pro-forma offer to relinquish the suites that occupied the upper stories of the Silver Tower and shuffle off to some manor. Sandra Arminger had been the Spider of the Silver Tower for far too long. Even her virtues were a political problem; everyone knew how effectively she’d rebuilt the PPA after the shock of Norman Arminger’s death in the Protector’s War and the Jacquerie rebellion and the reforms and purges that followed it. If the Prophet hadn’t come along that might have caused real trouble with fearful neighbors.

Mathilda would have felt uneasy calling these her own chambers anyway, though of course her bedroom had been here before she turned twelve and got her Associate’s dagger and her own household and retinue. Like much of the great fortress-palace they’d been designed by Sandra, or at least she’d directed the terrified architects and interior decorators and artists she and Norman had swept up after their coup.

They were well over a hundred feet high here, and on the side looking out southward over the central keep, so the windows could be large—sets of triple pointed-arch portals at intervals, their upper fifth filled with stained glass and stone tracery in the Protectorate’s version of Venetian Gothic style. The sashes below were thrown open on the fresh early summer afternoon amid a scent of roses and Sambac jasmine from the planters. A torrent of light shimmered on walls and floors of pale stone, on tables of inlaid rare woods and mother-of-pearl, the carved surrounds of arched open doorways or tile above hearths, on spindly chairs and sofas upholstered in cream silk and on tapestries of war and the hunt and high ceremony.

The vivid colors of the hangings and those of the rugs on the floor were a deliberate contrast. Walls and niches held art commissioned new or scavenged from museums and galleries all across the west of the continent. Some were as familiar as her own face; Leighton’s Pavonia for instance, which had been there in the background so constantly she’d assumed for years it was a modern portrait of Delia de Stafford until she embarrassed herself by saying so at a reception here. But there was always something that surprised even her: this time it was a bronze statue of a youth, a slimly perfect athlete standing hipshot and about to crown himself with a wreath of laurel vanished twenty-four hundred years ago.

Classical but not Roman, Mathilda thought. Greek, and of the great years. And undamaged except for the feet. Oh, my...

“That’s new,” she said. “Well, you know what I mean.”

“Not so very,” Sandra said, stopping for a moment and seeming to caress the figure with her eyes. “This one is... probably... by Lysippos, Alexander the Great’s court sculptor. But it was in storage for a long time, since that last expedition I sent to southern California just before the war... my goodness, three years ago now! I’ve had some experts working it over and mounting it on that pedestal. It’s amazingly fragile, for something that’s lasted so very long.”

Mathilda looked at it and sighed, then sighed again rather differently as they walked on. She’d gone through a phase of guilt about her mother’s art-collecting activities when she’d been a teenager and in the first incandescent sureness of her faith. Some of the men in the teams sent to retrieve these treasures had died horribly in the desolate Eater-haunted ruins of the lost cities, in Seattle and Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles and places like San Simeon and the Getty Villa. And the revenues to finance it all came out of the incomes of peasants and craft-folk and traders, eventually.

When you were in a position to spend the fruits of other people’s sweat, not to mention their blood, prudent thrift became a cardinal virtue.

But should we be concerned only with food and shelter and the weapons to protect it? she thought. Mom saved so much that was beautiful. And she made it fashionable for the other nobles and the wealthy guildsmen to do the same thing; and to give patronage to our own makers. That kept knowledge and skills alive through the terrible years when everything might have been lost. How many generations will thank her for both? And if she did it so she could have this... stuff... does that matter? The realm gets it just the same, and all the people in times to come. That’s good lordship too.

Two separate holy men had pointed that out to her; Father Ignatius had used Sandra’s art collecting as an example of how God’s plan turned all things to good in the end. The Rinpoche Tsewang Dorje had phrased it a little differently, but it amounted to the same thing. Though her private confessor at the time had simply and sternly admonished her that her own sins were a heavy enough burden to carry up to Heaven’s gate without adding the spiritual pride of assuming someone else’s.

I’ve never quite understood why my confessors and tutors were all so sincere. Not since I realized... or let myself realize... that Mother wasn’t, that she was playing at it. Which I only really accepted when she stopped playing and started trying it for real. And now I’m High Queen—

She asked the question bluntly, and was a little astonished when her mother wiped at one eye until she caught a glint through the tear that was neither entirely false nor altogether genuine.

Absolutely Mother, in other words.

“My little girl is all grown up, and just as smart as I am!” she said.

Then, in utter seriousness: “Because I wanted you to fit in this world, darling. I can fake it... sometimes for days or weeks at a time, I don’t notice... but then everything, all this—“

She waved a hand.

“—is suddenly like a dream, and I expect to wake up and pop another tape in the VCR.”

Mathilda looked around and shook her head. Todenangst was about the most solidly real place she knew. Her mother went on:

“I survived by playing a game in deadly earnest I’d always liked to pretend to do for fun. I was in the Society but not the type who pulled their persona around them like a security blanket after the Change and never let go. Possibly I could play it so well because something deep down in me never entirely believed it, which meant I could be more objective. But it’s your life and you deserve to live it with a whole heart.”

Mother is troubling, but she’s rarely dull, Mathilda thought. Then with a rush of anguish: Oh, Rudi, I wish I was with you! Not safe here, but there where things are happening!

She couldn’t tell if it was normal worry, or her new sense of being linked to everything, but she could feel peril approaching, and that had to mean Rudi was in danger far from the strong walls that surrounded her.

 

@@@

 

Seven Devils Mountains
(Formerly western Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 15th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.

 

Cole Salander and his captors moved mostly in single file through mountainside meadow and forest, with the dogs weaving back and forth to keep an eye and nose on the surroundings. Occasionally he caught one cocking an eye at him in a considering manner, as if to remind him of something.

After a while Talyn pulled out sticks of jerky from his sporran and handed them around. Cole got one, which surprised him slightly, though Artan and Flan weren’t left out either. It was a not-too-odd variation on the usual fibrous salty not-much, better than nothing, and it made him thirsty.

They’d left him his canteen, and they all stopped to fill up at a spring-fed pool. He noted that they used water purification tablets like his, too; no matter how clear and cold and inviting it looked, any open water could have giardia in it, or for that matter a dead animal under a rock or dollops of dissolved deer-crap. You didn’t drink it untreated unless there was no choice, and the slight chemical tang was the taste of safety. The dogs didn’t drink at all until their master gave them a nod of permission.

The Mackenzie held out his hand before they started out again: “Talyn Strum Mackenzie, of Dun—village, you’d say—Tàirneanach; the totem of my sept is Lynx. And this fair but tight-lipped warrior maid is Caillech Carlson Mackenzie, a neighbor of mine and oath-sister. And a Raven like the Ard Rí himself, as you might be guessing from the paint.”

“Ard Rí?” he said.

“High King,” Alyssa said. “That’s what it means. Artos the First, High King of Montival. AKA Rudi Mackenzie, my cousin, sorta.”

Woah, wait a minute, a cousin, ‘sorta’? What’s that mean?

“And you talk too bloody much, Talyn, the which is beyond question or doubt,” Caillech said, but smiled.

Cole shook the offered hands; to his surprise Alyssa extended hers, too. Then he hesitated. You weren’t supposed to talk... but nobody had asked him any military secrets. Plus there were things he really wanted to know. And after all, they were all Americans. That was the official line too, which enabled him to feel a slight glow of virtue about not keeping his mouth completely shut. Talyn and Caillech might be the children of people who’d gone so batshit insane after the Change that they just barely managed to hang on to the side of the planet with suction cups, but they were also working countryfolk caught up in the gears of war even if they were on the other side. Very much like him.

“I’m Cole Salander—“

What the fuck is the equivalent of what he said?

“—and, uh, I’m from Cottonwood Ranch, about half a day’s walk from a town called Bruneau. Which is a little pimple of a place with thirty, forty people sixty-ish miles south and a bit east of Boise City. My folks run a few cattle and sheep and crop a little bit, they and my brothers... before the war... and sisters and a hand or two.”

They were probably having a hell of a time just getting by, with his elder brothers missing in action and him away in the Army, but he tried not to think about that too much. There wasn’t anything he could do about it, anyway, except try to keep foreign armies away from them.

“You might say the same of us, in reverse,” Talyn said cheerfully. “Adding in a bit of smithing and weaving and the like. Save that her ladyship here is by way of being a princess and above such low and mean pursuits.”

Alyssa snorted. “What he means is that my Dad is Eric Larsson. And we’re Bearkillers, not Associates, Talyn; I’ve done chores all my life and I made the A-list on merit, not birth.”

After a moment Cole missed half a step. Eric Larsson was the military commander of one of the Western outfits in the enemy alliance. They were from the Willamette valley near the Mackenzies and called themselves the Bearkillers. His sister Signe Havel—nee Larsson—was their civilian leader. Though from the briefings, they didn’t make much of a distinction that way, they’d been founded by a former Marine right after the Change. And Eric Larsson was related by blood or marriage to a whole clutch of other V.I.P’s including the enemy’s big bossman, the one calling himself High King Artos these days.

I am a toad, Cole thought mournfully. I am one dead toad. I didn’t just miss handing over an intelligence asset, this is high-up political stuff. I am a dead toad that got run under a road-roller and left in the hot sun. Oh, I am such a dead, flat toad.

“And my mom is Luanne Larsson,” the glider pilot went on gloomily. “Who is going to have an absolute cow when she hears I crashed and got banged up. She didn’t want me to be a pilot.”

“Instead of a lancer so shiny in armor and all?” Talyn asked innocently. “Your mother being Horsemistress of the Bearkillers.”

That got him a scowl from Alyssa and a laugh from Caillech; the Bearkiller woman was obviously much too slight for fighting in plate armor on horseback, though quick and very strong for her size. The briefings said the Bearkiller elite force were most of them cavalry, as good as the knights of the Portland Protective Association and more versatile and better disciplined. They called them the A-List.

“Mom thought I’d be more useful to the war effort helping with the remount program. But I took the Gunpowder Day barrel-riding cup,” Alyssa snapped. “And the mounted archery prize for the under-eighteens, one year. I could have made cavalry scout, easy. I just... like flying.”

Being a shrimp wasn’t a handicap for a glider pilot, of course; the opposite, if anything. Cole was a bit above medium-sized. He’d asked about pilot training himself when he turned eighteen back just before the war started, in the old General’s day, and had been told that the only way to make the weight limit would be to amputate both his legs above the knee. Or his head.

“And if I was stuck-up, would I hang out with lowlifes like you two?” Alyssa said.

“Ah, it’s the bonny long curling golden locks, the lassies can’t resist ‘em,” Talyn said.

He took off his Scots bonnet for a moment to run a hand over his shaven head and waggle the ordinary brown pigtail at the back.

“Beating them off with sticks I am three days in four, a trial and a troublement and a weariness.”

The women looked at each other and mock-kicked in unison towards the bowman’s backside. Cole stepped unobtrusively forward to let Alyssa steady herself against his shoulder. Having an arm in a sling interfered with your balance; he remembered that from his own experience with cracked bones.

“Wait ‘till we get back,” Caillech said. “I’ll punish you good and proper then.”

“Something to look forward to! Or I might be the one making you beg for mercy, eh?”

Caillech laughed and winked. Cole reflected gloomily that all he had to look forward to now was a POW camp. He supposed it was easier to be cheerful when your side was winning. Talyn might be a friendly sort, but he didn’t relax his vigilance one iota; neither did his companion, or their dogs, and Alyssa was keeping an eye peeled too. Cole hadn’t given any parole, so he kept his eyes open without being too conspicuous about it, and—

I am a skilled wilderness scout. It says so right there in my paybook that they took away from me after I fell asleep.

That meant he could expertly evaluate his chances of making a break, and the probability of getting anything but an arrow in the back and/or two sets of really large fangs ripping bleeding chunks out of his ass were somewhere between absolutely nothing and fucking zip right now.

And the fact that I’m feeling a little relieved at that analysis is neither here nor there. Or that I don’t want to be the last man to die in a lost war.

Surrendering on your own was risky—everyone knew that even if both sides were playing by the official rules you were as likely as not to be finished off if you just put up your hands up one-on-one at the point of the spear. When the other guy’s blood was up or he’d just lost a buddy rules were a thin way to avoid becoming another anonymous body.

But Cole had made it past that stage, and the grapevine, as opposed to official propaganda, said the enemy treated POW’s pretty well. Better than his own side did, these days.

He was prepared to risk his life for the mission. But there was a distinct difference between a hero’s honored grave and a hole in the dirt for a damned fool.

Mrs. Salander hadn’t raised any fools.

“Ah... OK if I ask a question?” he said.

The three looked at each other. “Ask away,” Talyn said. “I won’t promise to answer, mind.”

“That lady with the staff... she’s a witch, right?

Unexpectedly they all laughed. “They’re all witches, Cole,” Alyssa said.

“That we are,” Caillech said, striking a mock-spooky pose and making passes through the air for a moment with her free hand. “My other horse is a broomstick!”

He absently noted that Alyssa had used his first name instead of private or soldier or Salander or combinations thereof; evidently shaking hands made it all right. He shook his head.

“You know what I mean. That lady with the braids and the staff did something to me, didn’t she?”

“Meadhbh Beauregard Mackenzie is a priestess of the triple cords and the first degree, right enough,” Talyn said, more solemnly than his usual bantering tone. “But for the most part she’s our healer back in Dun Tàirneanach. That’s her trade.”

“Doctor at home, field medic with the levy,” Alyssa amplified.

“She said she felt the need to come along on this patrol,” Talyn said. “She’s a fiosaiche as well—“

“Seer,” Alyssa said, or translated. “Prophet, sorta. Irritating, all those odd words, aren’t they?”

“Says the sisu lady. And the kettle cried out awa’ with yer grimy arse to the pot,” Talyn said pointedly, then continued: “Meadhbh is a fiosache of note, and it’s bad luck to disregard the feelings that come to such. And she found you, right enough!”

“She didn’t just find me.”

Caillech nodded. “She cast a slumber on you,” she said. “I’ve heard of such things—Lady Juniper, the Mackenzie, the Chief herself herself, did it to a whole warband of your folk two years ago. There was a High Seeker of the CUT with them.”

Cole had heard rumors about that; he’d figured it was a cover-story for a defection. There had been a lot of those, especially recently.

But maybe not...

“But I’ve never seen such with my own eyes,” the Clanswoman said. “It was... just a wee bit alarming.”

“Yah think?” Cole said with feeling.

“And not in the usual run of things at all, at all,” Talyn said.

Caillech nodded again, her face absolutely serious for a moment.

“It would recoil on the doer, so, unless there was a... a provocation of the same sort,” she said. “So that it was in self-defense, you see? Even then it’s not something to be done lightly. When a fiosaiche... a seeress or a priestess... calls upon the Powers then They’re all too likely to answer... but you’re never quite sure how, for They are greater and other than we and Their minds are not as ours. Whether the glass bottle hits the iron cauldron, or the cauldron hits the bottle, it’s often bad news for the bottle. Hence not something to be done lightly.”

“Best not speak too much of it now,” Talyn said warningly, and made a sign in the air.

Yeah. It’s creepy.

The walk took most of the day and by the end of it they were treating him like an old friend—albeit one they were ready to shoot on the instant if he tried to run or make trouble, and one they never let into a position where he might seize a hostage. Which was flattering, if you looked at it right.

The sun was sinking behind the white peaks to the west before the first challenge came from behind a rock. Well-camouflaged sentries passed them through to a camp not far from a mountain lake. The heart of it was a long sloping flower-starred meadow of twenty or thirty acres that dropped off even more steeply southward.

A curved launching ramp of lodgepole trunks had been built down the center of the open space, with a counterweighted catapult system for throwing gliders into the air along it; it was a neat, solid piece of field engineering and differed only in detail from the ones the USAF used. As he watched a lever was tripped, the boxcar full of rocks slid down the short section of wooden rails below the ramp, gears and winches whined, and a glider swooped down and then soared into the air with a throw just short of the speed that would have ripped its wings off. It banked back in, came into the breeze and landed, probably testing the launcher after some repairs.

Alyssa followed the brief flight with her eyes and sighed. “No chance for me to break my neck again for a while,” she muttered.

Four of the slender-winged tadpole shapes of sailplanes were staked out with technicians working around them, and flags and a windsock marked the landing area. He even recognized the type; pre-Change Glaser-Dirk 100’s, one of the Air Force favorites, or modern copies so close to the original that a non-expert like him couldn’t tell the difference. A set of big tents flew a banner that showed a snarling bear’s-head, face-on in black and red and white on a brown background, and they contained a portable forge and workshops with treadle-powered lathes and presses.

The rest of the encampment included a corral for draught animals, mainly big mules, and a thick scattering of bell-tents grouped in threes around a somewhat larger one; the flag there was the moon and antlers of the Mackenzies. A taller pole in the center bore the Crowned Mountain and Sword—what the new “kingdom” of Montival used.

Folk gathered around, about half in pants and the rest in the Clan’s kilt. There must be more than two hundred here all up, but he’d gotten used to crowds since he started his military service. Though so many strange faces still seemed slightly unnatural, to someone who’d grown up on a little family ranch where you could go a month or more at a time without seeing a single outsider and a year without meeting someone from out of the neighborhood.

Alyssa exchanged salutes just like the one he’d learned in school with a hawk-faced woman in her thirties with brown hair in the same shortish bob cut.

He looked around. OK, Bearkiller women in the army wear it that way, like our high-and-tight.

She was dressed in a practical-looking brown uniform that included a basket-hilted single-edged sword. There was a small blue scar like Alyssa’s between her brows and what would have been a Captain’s bars in the US Army on her shoulders.

“Don’t tell me. A write-off, right?” the officer said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Did you see any sign of the enemy before you totaled it?”

“Nothing, ma’am. I didn’t get that far.”

“How did you manage to pile up your ship?”

“I relied on getting lift somewhere it wasn’t and then I was lower than the terrain all around me. Then I was lower than the terrain under me.”

The officer sighed. “If you had a sane approach to risk management you wouldn’t be a pilot, Larsson.”

“No excuses, Captain Sanders. Nothing salvageable in my estimation, the terrain’s not suitable even for mules, you’d have to back-pack the wreck out in pieces. Plus there’s a really big dead bear lying next to it.”

A shrug. “It might be worthwhile going after the instruments, later. You’re a good pilot, Larsson, and they’re harder to produce than gliders. Don’t make a habit of it, but combat-lossing these things occasionally is a cost of doing business. We’ll just show some sisu and suck it up. Written report including map data by 1400 hours tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am. Hakkaa päälle!”

“Hack ‘em down! The arm?”

“Hairline fracture of the ulna, according to the Mackenzie fiosaiche.”

“She’s a qualified field medic,” the officer said—a little reluctantly, Cole thought.

Alyssa nodded. “No need for a plaster cast, just time. I don’t think there was much of a concussion, none of the symptoms, except that I was woozy for a while. No recurrence of headaches, or blurred vision or loss of balance. Didn’t even lose any teeth.”

“Right, have our doc take a look when he’s got time but you’re on restricted duty until the arm heals anyway, four to six weeks if nothing goes wrong. I’ll unload some of my paperwork on you.”

Alyssa gave an almost imperceptible wince, and the officer returned a slightly disquieting grin. “I know, you can interrogate your cutie of a POW here. You are now in charge of that, seconded to Intelligence until you’re fit for unrestricted duty again.”

I’m a cutie? Cole thought, torn between feeling flattered and insulted.

“He’s technically the Mackenzies’ prisoner, ma’am.”

“I doubt they’ll be competing for the privilege of talking to him.”

“That we will not,” Caillech said. “No offense, Cole Salander.”

Alyssa chuckled. “He’s not going to talk much anyway. Not at first, at least.”

“SOP, we have to jump through the hoops.” She looked at Cole. “Interested in switching sides? We’ve got a lot of Boiseans on our side now, and Frederick Thurston leads them, your first ruler’s son.”

Cole shook his head, keeping private doubts off his face. “No, ma’am,” he said. “Captain Wellman’s always been straight with me, and as long as he says it’s the right side I’m on it.”

“Fair enough, private. A man’s obligations are his own to judge. You’re between a rock and a hard place and I don’t envy you that position one little bit. You may change your mind when you’re further back and get a chance to talk to more of your own folk who’ve come to different conclusions. Larsson, ask the usual questions, write ‘em down, and we’ll send the report on with him when we have time and personnel to spare to move him out. Carry on.”

A swatch of Mackenzies had gathered around, along with some of their enormous dogs. Apart from the haircuts and whether or not they’d painted their faces they looked more uniform than he’d expected, given their wild neobarb reputation... but then, according to the briefing they wore the kilt and plaid all the time anyway, so this was probably their ordinary clothes apart from the war-gear. Alter the clothes and such and keep their mouths shut and they’d pass for his neighbors easily. Nearly all of them were Changelings of around his age give or take a few years. There were some adolescents doing chores and standing in back, and a few slightly older ones were officers, most of whom wore a neck-torc of thin twisted gold.

Right, that’s the Mackenzie equivalent of a wedding ring, only they wear it around the neck. And there are so many women! he thought.

Then, after he did a deliberate count: No, not as many as all that. Well under half the total. It just looks like more to my eye, I guess. What the lecture called perception bias. Got to watch that if you want to make an accurate report.

Talyn and his comrade made their report to a big scarred man pushing thirty, with freckles on a ruddy pale face, rust-colored hair in a queue and one of the torcs around his bull neck. After drawing them aside out of earshot for a few sharp questions he gave Cole a long look, then turned to Alyssa.

“Is this one’s word good, lady?”

Alyssa looked at Cole herself. “Is it?” she said.

He scowled and nodded. A man whose word wasn’t good was a toad—no, a worm—and he instinctively resented the question. But to be fair she wasn’t a neighbor who’d grown up knowing him down to the bootlaces in the usual way. Dealing with strangers could be hard, without a known reputation to guide you. Nobody trusted people they didn’t know the way they did kin and the folks from over the next creek.

“I break any promises to you, ma’am?” he said.

“No.” She turned to the Mackenzie. “And our acquaintance was brief, but intense, Bow-captain Luag. I’d say he was honorable but I can’t take oath on it.”

Luag looked to Cole for a long green-eyed moment. “Give us your oath not to fight nor to try escaping while you’re in this war-camp, and we’ll let you walk free, though watched. Deny it, and we must keep you bound save when you’re on the latrine, the which would be uncomfortable and would do your cause no good at all or whatsoever. Suffer uselessly or not, as you please.”

A pause, and he went on flatly: “If you give your word and break it, then we’ll kill you sure. As an offering to Lugh Longspear.”

Cole thought carefully while the Clan warriors leaned on their great bows and watched him, moistening his lips a little as he did. On the one hand, standing orders said if you were captured you had to escape if possible. On the other, the New UCMJ said you had to escape if possible not get yourself killed trying when it wasn’t possible; his chances of that were much better when he was being moved and was far away from an enemy encampment.

OK, giving a general parole is out, but a temporary one... possible.

Especially if he stayed here a couple of days with liberty to walk around he could probably learn something valuable, and he was specifically tasked with getting information about bases like this, so it was aiding his mission to be able to ask questions and watch things. He could try for a break when they moved him—they couldn’t spare much effort to guard one prisoner, and in any army things got looser as you moved away from the sharp end. On the third hand—

“Unless US forces attack this camp,” he said. “If they do, all bets are off.”

There were grins and chuckles at that. Such a lot of merry light-hearted jokester bastards, he thought. Goddamn it. It was probably a lot easier to laugh when you were winning.

The redhead raised an eyebrow. “Or unless the sky fall and crush us, or the sea rise and drown us, or the world end,” he said sardonically.

“And my parole to last three days from sunset today and no more. After that I’m free to escape and to do anything necessary to carrying out my duties. And you’re free to shoot me if I try and if you can.”

A short, crisp but somehow respectful nod. “Good. A man careless of his oath would likely make fewer conditions, so. Swear then, in the sight of whatever Gods you follow and on a fighting-man’s honor.”

“I’m a Methodist, I guess...” He thought for a moment, then raised his right hand and swore so help me God.

Luag listed the specifics carefully, and drew a sign in the air before finishing:

“So witness all the Gods of my people, and the Mother-of-All in Her form as the Threefold Morrigú, who loves a warrior’s faithfulness, and the Lord Her consort as Lugh of the Oaths. You’re free of our camp, but don’t go beyond its bounds—those white wands you see planted about.”

He hadn’t noticed the peeled sticks, but they were obvious once the bowman’s thick finger pointed them out.

Luag went on: “What the Bearkillers do is their affair, but I wouldn’t go among them alone either, if I were you, for all that they’re blood-brothers of ours, so to speak. They’re a suspicious lot about outsiders and quickly fierce with their blades.”

Raising his voice slightly:

“To harm this man is geisa so long as he keeps his oath. Watch him close, but put no slight nor insolence on him while he’s bound helpless by his pledge. Or I will most assuredly kick your arse until your teeth march out of your mouth like little Bearkiller pikemen on parade, and you will be mocked by all and the bards will make a tale of it at the next festival and ill-luck will dog your tracks. This is a war, not a blood-feud. Treat him as you would wish on one of our own if they had the misfortune to fall captive. Understood?”

There was a murmur of assent.

“Then spread the word. About your work the now, Mackenzies.”

“Ah... that’s it?” Cole said.

“Is anything more needful?” Talyn said. “Ah, here’s our tent, the which you are welcome to share. Though we usually sleep under the stars unless it’s raining or much colder than this. Stow your gear.”

He and Caillech spent a few moments removing each other’s war-paint, with a mixture of flax-seed oil and goose grease that smelled of herbs—sage and rosemary, Cole thought—and then soap and water. Most of the Mackenzies just nodded at the prisoner and walked away, going back to working on their gear or shooting at wooden targets and flung disks with truly alarming dexterity or sparring or towards some cooking pits where an agonizingly good smell was drifting with wafts of blueish smoke to remind him that he’d been working hard on light rations. Others simply napped, played flutes or guitars, read or wrote letters, played games with dice or cards, or...

He blinked, and blushed a little. Soldiering tended to erode your sense of privacy, but he was used to it being all guys. His army had stopped recruiting women after the old General died a couple of years ago, and hadn’t had many even then. Cole averted his eyes.

Bearkillers seemed to do things more or less the way he was used to. The Mackenzies...

“They’re sort of informal, aren’t they? But it works for them,” Alyssa said. “God knows why.”

“Hup-one-two, and a lance up the arse to keep your back braced straight,” Caillech said. “The Bearkiller way.”

The two young women stuck out their tongues at each other, and Talyn rolled his eyes.

“I smell that a sounder of wild pig were guided our way by Cernnunos,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Rather than the over-stewed muck of infamous memory we get nine days in ten, when it isn’t jerky and trail-mix and dog-biscuit instead, ochone, the sorrow and black pity of it. Let us prepare for the sacred rite of eating ourselves full and drinking what’s to be had while we have the chance, for it won’t happen often.”

Cole smiled a little. The general awfulness of military food was something everyone seemed to have in common, weird or not.

 

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