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
The last series of windows came down to the floor, opening out in French doors. Beyond was a fan-shaped open platform the size of a largish room, held by curved girders of cast aluminum whose ends reared up into stylized eagle’s heads all around its rim. Between them along the edge was a border of waist-high marble sheets carved into fretwork. Not at all coincidentally, they were exactly the right height to lean on comfortably for a rather short someone named Sandra Arminger.
Most of the balcony was covered by an arched pergola of thin wrought bronze rods thickly grown with vines, the last of the late-blooming violet-blue Shiro Noda wisteria hanging in foot-long clusters interwoven with golden Rêve d'Or roses. The heady Noisette perfume of the roses mingled with the fainter, more delicate scent of the Japanese wisteria. Hummingbirds flitted among the blossoms like living jewels of ruby and malachite, and the eyes of several of Sandra’s Persians tracked them with bright wistful interest.
And a low feline chittering of teeth accompanied by a murmur of ah ahnt ahnt ahnt which meant something like: Chew toy! Chew toy!
“I wonder, was that excessive?” Sandra murmured, looking up. “Roses and wisteria? Did I do it just because suddenly I could? I’m afraid that happened a fair bit back then. It was as if we were both a little drunk with possibilities, your father and I. From impecunious academics to gaming with kingdoms.”
Laughter came from the space beyond the doors, and then the bright tinkle of a metal-strung cittern, and a woman’s voice raised in song:
“I waited for a sunny day to launch my grand design.
The clouds would loom—
The wind would turn—
It happened every time!
Until at last it struck me:
I should just let it all unfold
The sun is shining somewhere...
And fortune loves the bold!”
Mathilda smiled at the sound of Lady Delia de Stafford’s clear alto voice; she supposed she didn’t approve of Delia, but she certainly liked her and always had. She turned the smile into one of greeting and nodded to the squire who stood beside the entrance with a white rod of office in his hand. He’d been chatting with Lady Jehane Jones de Molalla, her mother’s amanuensis—confidential secretary—a sleek young woman in a rose-and-gold cotte-hardie and a gold wimple, which set off her chocolate skin.
“Lady Jehane,” she said, smiling and extending her hand for the kiss of homage. “God give you good day, Huon,” she went on to the squire.
“And God and the Virgin be with you, Your Majesty,” Huon Liu de Gervais said, bowing gravely a flourish of the baton in his right hand and the left on the hilt of his sword.
He was in court dress; Ray-bans, tight hose, ankle-shoes with upturned toes tipped with little golden bells, loose shirt of soft linen, doeskin jerkin and a houppelande coat with long dagged sleeves. And a roll-edged chaperon hat with a broad liripipe tail hanging to one shoulder; that was a mark of near-adult status as opposed to the brimless flowerpot style all pages and most squires wore. At sixteen he was young for it, but he had charged with her menie at the Horse Heaven Hills when the chivalry of the Association broke the Prophet’s elite guard.
If he’d been a little older she’d have knighted him on the field, and not because his elder brother Odard had been one of the companions of the Quest and died for her on the far cold shores of the Atlantic.
Well, not only because of that. Plus his sister Yseult is getting to be really useful in the Household. No flies on that girl at all, as Mother would say, and she’s been invaluable with Fred’s sisters. And I like them both.
The colors were the black-lined-scarlet of House Arminger, which suited Huon’s dark tilt-eyed good looks. She hadn’t had time to put the Household into the High Kingdom’s forest green and silver yet...
And I’ll still be an Arminger, anyway. That doesn’t change.
“Have you and Lioncel had any time for hawking, Huon?” she said.
Delia’s eldest son and Huon had become fast friends during last year’s campaign; she knew it roweled him to be here behind the lines while his comrade was mostly off as the Grand Constable’s squire in the east.
“Yes, my lady,” he said eagerly, looking less solemn—and he was allowed to entitle her so in an informal setting, since he was her personal liegeman. “We’re going to have some time to fly tiercels along the river tomorrow, we think. Diomede can come along—“
Who was Delia’s younger son, a page in the household of Countess Anne of Tillamook, and just a little too junior to take the field as yet at all. And green with envy, though too good-natured to be a real pest about it.
“Lioncel and the Grand Constable and my lord Rigobert his father have been winning great honor!”
“So have you, Huon Liu de Gervais,” Mathilda said gently. “For I trust you with my life, and more, my daughter, the heir of the Kingdom.”
He flushed a little and bowed again as she and Sandra swept past. Her mother was fighting to keep the smile off her face as she concluded a low-voiced exchange with Jehane that had the young woman packing up her lap-desk and gliding off on some errand.
“He’ll remember that,” Sandra said approvingly, and sotto voce.
“It’s true,” Mathilda replied, very slightly indignant.
Even though there’s no actual danger here—stone smooth as polished glass above and below us, and miles of guards between here and the gates. It’s one of the few places we can really relax.
“Truth? All the better!” her mother said happily.
She’d practiced good lordship by sheer political calculation all her life.
And if she weren’t my mother, her approval would make me doubt myself, sometimes! But a ruler must be a good politician too; it’s a duty. So many lives and livelihoods depend on it! It’s when politics fail that the swords come out and homes burn.
The others were sitting around the tables as the dappled shade played across the pale cream and blue Redondo tiles in patterns that shifted with the breeze. They rose as Huon announced her, calling out The High Queen! and The Queen Mother! briskly but without the annoying bellow heralds used sometimes.
The Associate ladies sank in deep curtsies, the skirts of their cotte-hardies spreading in a display of colors brighter than the flowers overhead and the long sleeves touching the tile. The combination of their own high rank and the relaxed social setting meant they didn’t have to kneel. That sort of thing was one reason why sometimes more could be done during a tea-party than at an official council-meeting.
Though this is rather formal dress for a tea party... I know, I’ll get Delia to start drawing up a manual of court etiquette and costume for the High Kingdom. Something more relaxed than Association protocol. We can call it a political compromise to make the non-Associates feel more at home.
“Lady Delia, Lady Ermentrude, Lady Anne,” she said—deliberately informal modes, as she extended her hand again. “Lady Signe.”
Signe Havel gave her a stiff salute with a little frost in it.
No hand-kissing there! Mathilda thought, as she returned it with a Protectorate-style gesture, right fist to chest—which looked a little odd when you were wearing a cotte-hardie since it was usually accompanied by a clash of armored gauntlet on breastplate, but she couldn’t think of anything more appropriate.
Signe wasn’t an Associate, of course. The Lady of the Bearkillers was a handsome blond woman in her forties, in the plain practical brown uniform her folk wore in the field and with a basket-hilted backsword leaning against the arm of her chair. She’d never really forgiven any member of House Arminger for the spectacular and mutually fatal public duel between Norman Arminger and Mike Havel that had ended the Protector’s War.
“And Virginia! You’re glowing... and looking uncomfortable. Believe me, I sympathize.”
Virginia Thurston was in a housedress, of very expensive printed cotton but cut simply, what a well-to-do woman in Boise would wear though she’d never yet seen the city. It was a maternity style, though, and she looked every day of her seventh month.
“I feel like I’ve swallowed a pumpkin,” she grumbled; her face was still narrow, framed by her yellow-brown hair. “And my ankles hurt and I have to pee all the time. Least I ain’t... I’m not puking so much.”
“Don’t worry. It gets better,” Mathilda said.
Delia chuckled. “But not before the birth. And that’s anything but comfortable, let me tell you. The pumpkin has to come out.”
All the mothers present laughed, which meant everyone except Countess Anne, who winced slightly in sympathy. Juniper Mackenzie was still grinning as she came forward and hugged Mathilda. Countess Ermentrude blinked slightly, showing that she knew more of the theory than the practice of Court etiquette. Everyone made allowances for Mackenzie irreverence, and Juniper was a sovereign herself as Chief of the Clan, albeit one in vassalage to the High Kingdom now. Plus after the Protector’s War Mathilda had spent months every year in Dun Juniper with her and her family, just as Rudi had come north. That made Juniper her second mother as well as mother-in-law.
“My darlin’ foster-girl!” she said, and Mathilda squeezed her back through the fine soft wool of her arsaid.
“Your unrecognizably fat foster girl!” she murmured into the older woman’s ear.
“Nonsense. Just a few healthy curves; the Maiden becomes Mother.”
Mathilda hugged her again, and felt that little familiar shock that she was so much taller than the Mackenzie.
She and Mother are about the same height. One of the few things they have in common, besides their wits. And that you forget it because they both feel bigger in your mind.
Signe’s face turned a little chillier. She’d also never completely forgiven Juniper Mackenzie for meeting Mike Havel and bearing his son, who was now Mathilda’s husband and High King. Not just for the usual reasons a woman would, even though that had been a single night and before Signe had married him, but because Rudi was High King, instead of one of her children.
The wet-nurse—she was an Associate herself, a younger collateral of the great Jones family, who’d lost her own child not long after birth—brought Órlaith to Mathilda. Objectively Mathilda’s daughter looked like any three-month-old...
But by the holy Mother of God, she’s beautiful! Mathilda thought.
For a moment the feeling clenched her eyes shut like physical pain. When she opened them again her daughter was baring her gums in a broad smile and kicking within the linen smock, reaching for her.
“Órlaith,” she said as she picked the solid little weight up. “My golden princess!”
“My granddaughter,” Sandra said.
“And mine,” Juniper Mackenzie said.
“But my only granddaughter, so far. Your fourth.”
“Give me time, Mom!” Mathilda said.
She was that post-Change rarity, an only child. Juniper had what she thought of as a more typical middle-of-the-road total of four.
Mathilda kissed her daughter on the forehead and handed her over to Sandra, who gave a short odd laugh as she took her competently in the crook of an arm. Juniper looked a question.
“I was just thinking,” Sandra said, “of how often I’ve wondered what the world will be like when the last of us oldsters have shuffled off to our—literal, as it turns out—rewards and the Changelings like Mathilda are left to run things without us.”
“And I’ve had the same thought, many a time,” Juniper said. “But?”
“Just now,” Sandra said, tickling the tip of the baby’s nose with one finger as she smiled and kicked, “it struck me that I should wonder what the world will be like when Órlaith’s generation is in charge... people who never knew the people who knew the world before the Change. When she’s my age it will be... Good Lord, it’ll be Change Year 84! Nearly a century! Will they really believe anything about our world by then, except as myths? And of course her children...”
Juniper’s face froze for a moment, though the Changelings showed polite incomprehension. Then she said, slowly: “It never fails; in a conversation with you, something truly disquieting will be said. Now I’ll be having that thought every time I look at a baby, instead of just enjoying the little ones. Thank you, Sandra.”
“You’re welcome, dear Juniper.”
Mathilda sat with a slight snort; talking to Mother did keep you on your mental toes, the way sparring with Rudi sharpened your reflexes with the sword. She arranged the skirts of her cotte-hardie and nodded to the others as a maidservant offered a tray.
Everyone occupied themselves pouring tea and passing plates of tiny sandwiches and pastries—potted shrimp and cucumber and deviled chicken and little glazed things with raspberries and cream. The tea was the real luxury, even more expensive than coffee. Local equivalents were still experimental, and this was the genuine article, imported by a profoundly unreliable chain of middlemen through desolate pirate-haunted seas from the few revived plantations in Asia to Maui in the Kingdom of Hawaii and then to Astoria. The world was a very large place, these days. Even larger than it had been in the Jane Austen novels that were so popular among the female nobility, and which probably helped keep the beverage so prestigious.
“Please, no formality, Mesdames,” Mathilda said, and picked a pastry off the chased silver, making herself nibble graciously rather than bolting it. “Speak freely, and don’t worry about precedence.”
I’m hungry. Getting back into shape is brutal but I don’t dare go anywhere near a battlefield until I do. Even commanders end up fighting with their own hands at least occasionally, God knows I have often enough, and if you get tired first you die. I want to help Rudi the way I did on the Quest, not burden him.
She’d managed to hack out a two-hour session every morning from her impossible schedule, and sparring in plate armor with a fifteen-pound shield on one arm and an oaken drill-sword in the other hand was about the best overall exercise there was. The changes in her body during pregnancy had been...
Interesting, she thought. And certainly worthwhile. Though the mood swings... poor Rudi! He was probably glad to get back to the field.
Her lips thinned a little as a muscle-memory of her sword-edge hammering into bone ran through her fingers and up into her gut. That was the sort of thing you remembered in the middle of the night sometimes; that and the faces.
She worked her right hand, the way you did to get the kinks out after a fight. Unexpectedly, she found herself crossing eyes with Signe Havel, who nodded very slightly with a small wry smile. They’d never be friends, but for that instant across the gulfs of family and rivalry they shared something—something incommunicable to anyone who hadn’t been in the place they’d both visited and from which you never entirely returned.
The hardest part now was that unlike a lot of warriors she had never really enjoyed the utterly essential life-preserving process of keeping in tiptop shape. She enjoyed the results, the feeling of strength and capacity, she was a pretty good natural athlete and sparring was fun in limited doses, but it wasn’t the passion for her it was with say Rudi. Or for that matter Tiphaine d’Ath, whose idea of rest was flipping through a back issue of Tactical Crossbows between bouts in the salle d’armes. And if she was better than average with a sword, it was because she’d pushed it doggedly all her life with the finest tutors.
Not least of that had been Rudi. Just trying to keep up with him made you do things you hadn’t imagined were possible.
God, I miss him, seeing him smile and touching him and even the way his hair smells. Oh, well, at least my sword-calluses are recovering so my hands don’t hurt as much. For once I’m not sorry to be in a cotte-hardie, I still feel shapeless without lacing.
Delia de Stafford exchanged a glance with Sandra; she was in her thirties and smoothly beautiful, with raven-black ringlets hanging artlessly from under an open lace wimple topped by an embroidered cap. Baroness Forest Grove by marriage to Baron Rigobert and Châtelaine of Ath because of a rather less... orthodox... arrangement with the Grand Constable, as the two sets of ceremonial keys at her belt indicated. Sandra had always been her patron—she had an Associate’s dagger because of the then Lady Regent’s favor, as well as the Grand Constable’s—and the whole rather complex quasi-family were pillars of the throne.
“It’s wonderful that the news from the east is so good,” Delia said. “Not only more victories, but so far bloodless ones. Well, mostly bloodless. As far as our blood goes.”
“Thanks to Fred! Ah, General Thurston,” Virginia Thurston—nee Kane—said. “President Thurston, soon.”
“He’s certainly done a wonderful job,” Mathilda said.
And truthfully again! she thought, and went on:
“We both saw what he could do on the Quest.”
Though we also saw him grow up a lot getting there and back again. Or at least I did. You never saw him in his father’s shadow.
Delia’s eight-month old daughter Yolande was with her, and a very active toddler named Heuradys in a lace-fringed shift and mob cap controlling unruly mahogany hair, both playing quietly to one side under the direction of a nanny. Though Heuradys had apparently learned the word no and liked using it with lordly insouciance. Mathilda chuckled at the sight, not least because of the names.
Yolande and Heuradys, Lioncel and Diomede... all of Delia’s children were named from a set of books her mother had always liked, set in a skewed version of France seven hundred years ago. Mathilda liked them too; they were far more realistic than most pre-Change fiction, even Austen or Mallory. They fitted in perfectly with the archaic-French naming pattern the PPA nobility mostly favored anyway; Spanish was the second choice. The Grand Constable, Tiphaine d’Ath, had taken her Associate name from them too, long before, when Sandra had taken her under her wing and recognized her... unique... talents.
The Countess Anne of Tillamook looked at the children wistfully. She was in her twenties and handsomely strong-faced, a pale blond with sea-green eyes; and she ruled that coastal holding by her own hereditary right as her father’s heir, as yet without a consort. She was more or less betrothed to Ogier, the youngest son of Count Renfrew of Odell. Young Sir Ogier was with the host, of course; another thing to resent about the war was the way it delayed things you were looking forward to.
The other noblewoman was Countess Ermentrude of Walla-Walla, a slim dark-haired willowy woman in her mid-twenties, still looking a little uncertain in this company but hiding it well. By birth she was from County Dawson on the Association’s far northern border, and her husband’s holding—the County Palatine of the Eastermark, centered on the great fortress-city of Walla Walla—was on the PPA’s far frontier eastward, what had been the border march with Boise before the war. Neither she nor the young Count Palatine, Felipe de Aguirre-Smith, had been much at court, beyond the essentials.
She was making a strong effort to be gracious to Delia, too; the last year had given her and her spouse good personal as well as military reasons to be grateful to Tiphaine d’Ath and Rigobert. And Ermentrude herself had won considerable troubadour-spread fame by commanding the defense of the city of Walla Walla during its siege by the enemy, while the Count led his vassals in the field with the High King. She’d commanded the all-important political side at least, which included keeping the city’s guilds and her lord’s war-captains in order, and that despite being heavily pregnant at the time.
It’s breaking out all over, Mathilda thought whimsically. Well, replenish the Earth and all that. At least this miserable war is cementing a lot of new relationships between the noble houses who support the Crown. Delia and Anne and Ermentrude between them have connections all over the Association, and their opinions really matter on the manor-house grapevine telegraph. If they’re all pulling in the same direction, it’ll make things lot easier.
Signe looked down at the heir to the crown of Montival and chuckled as she tickled her, a little unexpectedly... but she was a mother as well as a political leader, of course.
“They’re so cute at that age,” she said. “They have to be, or we’d strangle them. After two sets of twins and a singleton I should know.” She looked around. “Aren’t the Thurston kids here at Todenangst? Fred’s sisters?”
“Shawonda and Jaine? They’re at their lessons with my lady-in-waiting, Yseult Liu,” Mathilda said.
“Studying falconry, was what I heard,” Juniper said. “Diomede is giving them a tour of the mews.”
Delia smiled fondly at the mention of her younger son. “Diomede is just getting to the age when showing off to girls is something a boy likes,” she observed.
Mathilda nodded. “I’m keeping them close for security reasons, but this is going to be a bit boring for teenagers, they’re good friends of Yseult, and...”
“You don’t want them too closely identified with Court,” Signe said; she was a politician too, after all. A wolfish grin. “Especially with Associate court stuff.”
Sandra nodded coolly and sipped at her tea; partly in recognition, partly an unspoken tsk, tsk. She would never have said that aloud at a public gathering, even a small one like this. Not that she’d give Signe any notice of it, either.
Mathilda could read her thought: those with wit enough will realize, and why point out to the gullible and dim what they can’t see for themselves? Part of being clever is not needing to prove it all the time.
Juniper snorted and rolled her eyes.
“They’re nice kids,” Virginia said. “And their Mom is one smart lady.”
Everyone nodded and took a sip of their tea. Anne of Tillamook had been visibly waiting to speak, but she deferred gracefully to Ermentrude. The flat, slightly drawn-out vowels of the Peace River country were still audible in her voice as she spoke slowly:
“Thank you for inviting me, Your Majesty. I’ve written, but it’s always better to speak face-to-face if you can. And Felipe... well, he’s very busy with leading the County’s contingent in the field, of course. The thing is...”
She took a deep breath. “I’ve been touring all the areas of the County Palatine the enemy overran, helping with the reconstruction. It’ll be years... we lost so much livestock and equipment. Though we’re not actually facing famine thanks to what you’ve shipped in. And the damage to the manor-houses and villages was very bad... the castles held, almost all of them, but...
Her calm broke a little. “A generation of work wrecked in a year!”
“I said after the Horse Heaven Hills that the Association looks after its own,” Mathilda said. “We’ve already sent a good deal.”
Everyone nodded. About a quarter of the Protectorate’s manors had been damaged in the war, ranging from cattle raid level to burned to the ground. Castles were nearly invulnerable if well-provisioned and strongly held—that was the whole point—but villages and manor houses were easy meat to an enemy who held the open country. The untouched ones further west had agreed to doubled mesne tithes and even better had mostly actually paid them, with no more than a token amount of grumbling. That was over and above the lawful reliefs they owed in war anyway and the lost labor when the full levy was called out, and it was going to hurt. That response had made her proud to be an Associate and an Arminger.
“We’re grateful. But?” Ermentrude said. “Your Majesty, I can hear the but in your voice. My father always said that but is the killer.”
Mathilda sighed. “Have you seen the reports from south of the Columbia? The CORA territories?”
She pronounced the acronym in the usual way, as if it were a woman’s name. Technically it stood for the Central Oregon Ranchers’ Association, the ad-hoc group that had gotten the area west of the Cascades through the first years of the Change down there.
Ermentrude winced a little. “Yes. There’s... really not much left, is there? We were hurt, they were wrecked.”
Juniper sighed, suddenly looking older. “The people got out two years ago, the most of them, and some of their stock, and what they could carry with them on pack-horses moving fast through the Cascades to the Willamette. Nothing else.”
The Mackenzie chieftain nodded to Signe. “You Bearkillers helped cover the retreat well, after the lost battle at Pendleton.”
Signe shrugged. “From what Eric tells me it’s a total mess there.”
Her brother Eric Larsson had led the Montivallan forces following the retreating enemy south of the Columbia; he was a hard man, but there had been an undertone of horror in his reports.
“Pure meanness,” Virginia Thurston said with deep sincerity. “Christ... or the Aesir... but the CUT needs to be burned off the face of the Earth.”
She obviously sympathized with the ranchers; she was fierce, but not vicious. And the CORA were very much like her own folk, though perhaps a little less...
Rustic, Mathilda thought charitably. The Powder River country is very... rustic. Or within wiping distance of the arse-end of nowhere, as Edain put it.
“Most of the CORA fighting-men are with the host,” the High Queen said aloud. “And the King will need them badly in the east, they’re fine light cavalry. But they’re also proud folk, the Ranchers and their cowboys both. They’ve fought well, and their guerillas did good service tying down enemy troops south of the river. They don’t like being refugees living on the charity of others.
They want to go home, and make a start on rebuilding, even while their warriors are away.”
Looked at coldly, it would make more sense to resettle the folk elsewhere. Morality and practical politics both made that out of the question, of course. Her own consciousness of the land—all the land of Montival—made that part of it feel like a raw bruise.
Some of the conversation that followed was by prearrangement. The Mackenzies had always had close links with the CORA, and she suspected it hadn’t been too hard for Juniper to get the Clan’s Óenach Mór, the Great Assembly, to agree to more help; Father Ignatius had assured her that Mt. Angel would do the same. Signe offered to join the effort, and hinted that she’d get Corvallis to cough up too. They all promised longer-term aid to the County Palatine as well.
“Lady Ermentrude?” Mathilda said, when they’d gone around the subject long enough.
“I... yes, we’ll accept that some of the aid from the western and northern parts of the Association goes to the CORA rather than immediately to the County Palatine. Felipe will agree, after he shouts and kicks the walls a little.” More firmly. “Yes. Ruling means setting priorities and you can never satisfy everyone.”
Juniper handed the little princess to Sandra; Mathilda smiled to herself at her mother’s well-concealed eagerness.
The Mackenzie went on: “I’d suggest that we find some excuse to take folk... including some of yours, Lady Ermentrude... on a wee bit of a tour of the CORA lands, to see for themselves what’s been done there. Forbye that will show them the extent of the damage and that they weren’t the only ones to suffer. And remind them why we’re fighting, to be sure, to be sure.”
Sandra nodded. “Excellent idea, my dear Juniper. Now, about the details—“
Halfway through the discussion Mathilda found herself standing at the edge of the balcony, making a tactful withdrawal of her High Queenly presence and sipping her fourth cup of tea and nibbling a scone rich with hazelnuts. She smiled a little as she looked out over the great castle. The Association’s barons affected a plate-armored machismo; the unkind said they tended to be solid iron from ear to ear whether their helmets were on or not. But it occurred to her, not for the first time, that this group here was making a lot of the real decisions among themselves... and every single one of them was female.
From here you could see most of Todenangst, the south side at least. The great circuit of the outer bailey, a tall granite-faced wall studded with machiolated towers bearing tall witch-hat roofs of green copper, lined on the inner surface by a linear town of tiled homes and workshops, barracks and stables and armories and inns and churches. A ring-road and terraced gardens marked the bailey’s boundary; the gates there were tunnels into the hillside that bore the inner keep, and could be blocked by portcullis-like slabs of steel falling at the push of a lever. Inside access was via spiral roadways that were deathtraps to an invader in themselves.
Then the keep itself, itself far larger than most castles, a hill topped with wall and tower, courtyard and cathedral and endless little nooks and surprises, all the way down to the dungeons below and the secret passages that laced the whole. Above them all the Silver Tower and the Onyx, rearing sheer hundreds of feet into the air and flaunting their banners beneath the blue cloud-speckled sky. It had been so all her life that she could remember—the main structure had been completed by ten thousand men working in round-the-clock shifts and finishing when she was about five, though furnishing and fitting was still going in some parts, and probably always would be.
Mother kept that copy of Gormenghast close at hand when she was designing the place. Though it’s much prettier than Steerpike’s stamping grounds. Gormenghastian but not Gormen-ghastly. And say what you like about father, he had a will like forged steel, and he dreamed grandly.
Perhaps it was what Juniper and Sandra had said earlier, but it struck her now that virtually everything in the landscape she could see save the bones of the earth—things like the tiny perfect white cone of Mount Hood off to the west, the lower blue line of the Coast Range westwards—was not much older than she. Todenangst looked as if it had reared here for centuries amid its surrounding of river and woodland, manors and the multihued green of field and vineyard, woodlot and orchard, the spires of churches, railroads thronged with horse-drawn trains, dusty white roads thick with ox-carts and peasants on foot, monks and men-at-arms, merchants and bicyclists or tinerant caravans.
In fact the lower bulk of the castle was steel cargo-containers from trains, and from barges and freighters stranded in the Columbia by the Change, filled with crushed automobiles and rubble and cement and all locked together and set in cast mass-concrete. The heights were girders and lead-coated rebar and more concrete; the very stone sheathing it had been stripped from skyscrapers in Portland and Vancouver and Seattle. Only the roofing-tile and some of the woodwork and textiles had been made for it. Parts of the enormous complex were still faintly warm with the heat of curing cement.
I don’t think this way very often, Mathilda reflected, sipping at the delicate acridity of the tea.
She’d received a good Classical education, including elements of the pre-Change sciences. Some of them were still useful, but it had all never seen really real to her until she’d been whirled through the depths of time at Lost Lake. Still...
Will any of this ever occur to Órlaith at all? she thought.
Something hit the bronze bars of the trellis with an enormous whung sound. Mathilda whirled around in a flurry of skirts and dagged sleeves. A man had flung himself out of a window sixty feet above the balcony, spread-eagled to distribute the impact. It should still have broken half his bones, but his face was as empty of expression as an insect’s as he rolled off the metal and onto the tile of the floor. He wore a servant’s tabard and livery, but a curved knife glittered in his hand, with the rayed sun of the Church Universal and Triumphant etched into the steel.
The mark of the CUT’s assassin-priest-mages.
Two more figures were hurtling downward even as he shambled erect, lurching away from her towards the tables with one leg turned at an impossible angle.
Now she could feel them. As an emptiness, a lack of presence, a hole in her link with the land.
“Órlaith!” she shouted.
Mathilda snatched up the silver tea-tray, the pot and cups flying over the edge of the balcony unheeded. She gripped it by the edge, twisting and flinging it with a snap that sent the disk skimming through the air. It struck the assassin in the back of the neck with a heavy chunk that would have been instantly fatal to any normal man. The cultist staggered, fell... then twitched and began to rise again.
A fourth figure fell, and a fifth. Her heart froze, though these were in armor. One was just dead; the other managed to draw his sword and push it towards her before his head fell slack.
“Guard Órlaith!” she called, snatching up the heavy blade as she ran, taking it in the two-handed grip.
Copyright © 2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>