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
Mathilda ran. Vision came in jerky flickers, fast and at the same time unbearably slow. Sandra scooped her granddaughter up and rolled into the swept outdoor hearth, curling her body around the infant’s, and the wet-nurse stood in front of them with a poker in her hands like a baseball bat. Signe spun out of her chair, the Bearkiller backsword snapping into her hand, a bright glint of steel in the flickering green gloom. The two Countesses swept up the skirts of their cotte-hardies in their left hands and each drew the dagger that marked them as Associates with their right; the weapons were ceremonial, but quite functional as well.
Delia de Stafford and Virginia Thurston started throwing things; teapots, for starters. One smashed right into the face of the Cutter assassin, boiling-hot water flying with shards of Sevres porcelain that had come down two centuries to meet its end here. The de Stafford nanny took Heuradys in one arm and Yolande in the other, retreating behind her mistress.
Buy time, Mathilda knew. The guards will be here in seconds.
Then a clash of steel came from the inner rooms as she raised her sword. One of the magus-assassins turned to meet her.
Lioncel struggled to keep his breathing even; it wasn’t the effort of the brief run, but the tension, and that ratcheted upward when they came out into the central space of the Queen Mother’s level. There was a dead man lying on the stairs that led up to the Guard barracks, blood leaking out of his armor, and the clash of steel on steel and the dull beat of blades on shields from further up. Two dozen men-at-arms in the black harness of the Protector’s Guard waited in the great groin-vaulted chamber that lay outside the Queen Mother’s private rooms, their visors down except for the man in front. The leader of the living was a young knight.
Lioncel recognized him, but vaguely, Sir Evroyn-something, from somewhere north of the Columbia, one of the valleys on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. His face was white and sweating—though to be fair, if Lioncel’s liege was standing in front of him looking like that Lioncel would have sweated too. Some of the men-at-arms behind him were stirring slightly, not much, but not the statue-still immobility you expected from the Protector’s Guard. Not all of them were in on this; the rest must have been fed some story.
“There’s a conspiracy against the Crown. Stand aside,” she said, not halting her forward stride and pitching her voice to carry to all the guardsmen.
And a conspiracy against my mother and sisters! Lioncel thought.
“My lady, I have orders that absolutely nobody should pass—“ the knight began, clearing his throat.
“I am Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath, and I am Grand Constable of the Association,” Lady Death said. “By my office I have right of immediate access to Her Majesty. Get out of my way. Last warning.”
It was also the first, but this was Lady Death speaking. Not for the first time, he knew a deep comfort in the fact that Delia de Forrest was also Tiphaine d’Ath’s Châtelaine. Then his ears twitched. Was that a scream from within? His mouth went dry.
“I have orders—“ the knight began again.
Lioncel had been around his liege all his life, and seen her in battle. He had never seen her move so quickly; one instant she was walking, then next extended in a perfect long-lunge with the flat of her blade horizontal to the ground, right foot forward and arm and sword extending the line, shield reserved and tucked against her torso for balance.
Sir Evroyn reeled backward, and she recovered with the smooth precision of water running downhill, like an exercise in the salle rather than the desperate scramble that real fighting usually was. Red blossomed where his right eye had been, and on the last few inches of her longsword. He fell with a clatter of armor as if all the strings that held his body together had been severed at once... which was more or less what happened. The point had punched through the thin layer of bone at the back of the eye-socket and into his brain, just far enough and no more lest the steel be trapped by the edges cutting into his skull.
What part of last warning didn’t he understand? Lioncel thought, a little dazed. Did he think Tiphaine d’Ath was just bluffing?
“Throw down!” she barked, as the menie of Ath locked shields behind her and knocked down their visors. “Now!”
A few did, dropping their swords with a clatter and dropping to their knees with their hands on their heads. The rest started to close ranks, their big kite-shaped shields coming up to make a wall, but the kneeling men hindered the precision of the movement.
“Shoot!” the Grand Constable snapped.
Six crossbows fired, a dull multiple tung of vibrating steel and cord and right on top of it the hard ringing tank sound of the pile-shaped heads hitting steel, like a ripple of blows from a hydraulic punch in a mill. At point-blank range even the best armor didn’t always stop a bolt from a military crossbow. Lioncel felt as if something in front of him was pulling his hands up, snuggling the butt into his shoulder, squeezing the trigger—
A man stumbled backward with the bolt sunk deep in his bevoir, the jointed piece that shielded throat and chin. Blood leaked around the short thick arrow, and sprayed from under the visor and even through the vision-slit. Steel gauntlets scrabbled at it for an instant and then the armored figure fell and lay twitching and gurgling. Tiphaine d’Ath went through the gap like a falcon stooping, with Rodard and his brother Armand behind to either side. A man in the black harness of the Guard tried to overrun the Grand Constable—tucking his shield into his left shoulder and charging, to ram her off her feet by sheer weight and impetus. The shields banged together with a lightning crack, but she was already pivoting as if they were dancing a volta. She ignored him as he staggered where she’d put him, into the stroke of Sir Armand’s serrated mace. It smashed his visor with a sound like a bootheel stamping on a metal cup.
The sword flicked out again, its narrow point punching through the mail grommet covering an armpit and the edges breaking the links...
Using the sword against opponents in armor requires absolute precision because of the limited number of targets. The armpit is a weak spot. Don’t throw your arm back so it’s exposed.
The voice in his mind was Tiphaine’s in some salle d’armes sometime in his life. Running like an inhumanly detached commentary as he watched incarnate death.
I will now demonstrate why...
A miniscule sway, and a sword went past her. She reversed her own and thrust backward into the spot behind another man’s knee without looking behind her, blocking a thrust with her shield while she did, moving with the leisurely certainty of someone who had all the time in the world to line things up...
The knee is another vulnerable area, but rarely easy to reach...
He’d been reloading the crossbow as he followed, dodging through the shouting clanging mass of armored forms, with the two household knights to either side. The initial lines of combatants had broken up into knots of steel-clad forms who shoved and hit and shouted and screamed. And increasingly threw themselves flat and called for quarter.
“Follow me who can!” his liege called, in a voice like a contralto war-trumpet.
Four of the Guard men-at-arms who weren’t giving up retreated through the door into the the Queen Mother’s chambers, a boom and clatter and crash of metal utterly incongruous in the pale splendors. For a moment they stood in the door, and then one of the Ath spearmen—he was actually carrying a glaive—thrust his polearm past the edge of a shield and used the hook just below the blade to drag the shield forward with a double-handed heave. The man attached to the shield by the arm he had through its loop staggered, then screamed as the war-hammer came down on his shoulder, denting the metal in and breaking the collarbone beneath. The Grand Constable and her two knights burst through into the great chamber, and there was a blurring flurry of motion and the surviving man in black armor was running away...
... not running away. That’s out towards the balcony. He’s running toward Mom and the girls and Her Majesty.
His liege and Rodard and Armand were after the man, but he dodged behind an old tattered-looking statue on a plinth. Lioncel brought the crossbow up with a steady concentration, as if he were watching someone else aim—someone perfectly calm, as if this were a shooting range.
The bolt punched through the ancient bronze without slowing and hammered into the man’s shoulder, twisting him around. Tiphaine d’Ath passed him with a sway of her torso, running with the liquid fluency of a leopard and ignoring the scrap-metal succession of blows from mace and war-hammer that rang out behind as Armand and Rodard followed and finished the man in passing. Lioncel fumbled at the cocking lever of his crossbow as he dashed behind her; there was something dreamlike about it, his frantic speed not keeping up with her strides.
The dappled light of the balcony flashed into his vision like a tableau. A figure with a face dripping blood and boiling water and broken bones jutting through a servant’s livery stood before the hearth, leaning forward as if straining at an invisible barrier with a curved knife in his hand. Juniper Mackenzie and his own mother were between the man and the Queen Mother and the child, their hands upraised in an odd hieratic gesture; they and their opponent were in total silence, utter immobility, but he could feel immense forces straining against each other, as if the air between them rippled somehow without anything really visible at all.
The Grand Constable threw her shield aside and took the sword in the two-handed grip and spun like a wheel, the blade a silver blur. There was a heavy chunk-crack sound, and the assassin’s head leapt free. Juniper and his mother staggered and collapsed together clutching at each other, as if they had been pushing on a door that suddenly opened. The headless man fell... which was a relief, because some corner of Lioncel’s mind hadn’t been sure he would.
Signe Havel was fighting another broken man, one who slapped the strokes of her backsword aside with the flats of his hands. She screamed—as much frustration in the sound as rage—and lunged.
And the blade went through the man’s ribs and grated home in bone, a killing stroke in any sane fight. He lunged for her, grinning, his left hand reaching for her neck even as he laughed and coughed out bits of lung. She dove backward in a tuck-and-roll, just barely avoiding the slash of the curved knife in his right by sensibly not wasting time trying to pull the sword free. Huon Liu darted in, his own blade in the two-hand grip and flashing down.
“Huon!” Lioncel shouted at his friend.
The older boy’s face was set. His light sword thudded down at the junction of neck and shoulder; then he spun away, clutching at his stomach with an oooff as the dead man’s knife cut. Light mesh-mail showed through the rent cloth of his jacket, and then blood welled over his hands. Lioncel breathed out and forced calm on himself, and fired. The bolt transfixed the assassin at the pelvis, and he could hear the point crunch into bone, but the man—if he was one—just pivoted for a moment under the horse-kick impact, then lurched forward again.
The moment was enough. Tiphaine and Rodard and Armand were all on him at once, and blood spattered into the air behind a wall of armored shoulders and weapons rising and falling and harsh meaty sounds.
Lioncel shuddered, as if he’d been dropped into cold water when he was fevered. Or had suddenly woken from a very bad dream. A glance showed him his mother and sisters were all right, though Heuradys was frozen in shock and Yolande was sobbing; Lady Juniper had to help Delia de Stafford up before she clutched them to her. The Queen Mother was emerging from the hearth with her granddaughter, who was waving pink fists and making a wuh-wuh-wuh sound, less frightened than offended at not being in the center of the universe, which was where babies thought they belonged.
Sandra Arminger looked... alarmingly determined.
The High Queen was kneeling beside Huon, laying aside a longsword that looked a bit big for her, after a similar quick check. The blade and her right arm and side were heavily spattered.
“Where did you get that?” Tiphaine d’Ath said, as she knelt on the boy’s other side, ripping the clothing aside. Then: “Rodard, Armand, get this cluster... fracas... under control. See that the staircase up is secured. And we need a medic.”
“Two of the Guard knights leapt after the assassins,” Mathilda said. “Neither of them survived, much less arrived in shape to fight, but one of them lived long enough to give me this. A good thing, because there were three of the assassins. I got one, but...”
“They operate in threes, yes.” She looked up. “Brave of him.”
Lioncel did too, and shuddered; the men had deserved that accolade, even from so exacting a source. He wasn’t particularly afraid of heights, but the thought of deliberately hurling yourself off that drop, in armor, on the off-chance you’d survive long enough to be useful...
He approached Huon himself. The Grand Constable gave him a slight approving nod, and he found that flushed a lot of the shakiness out of him; she held out her sword, and he started to clean it and check the edge for nicks. The High Queen was tending to the wound in his comrade’s stomach, a long shallow slash from around the left hipbone slanting up to the navel, ignoring the blood with the matter-of-fact competence of long experience. One of the songs the troubadours had made about the Quest was how the nine companions had dressed each other’s wounds in the wilderness. Then she frowned.
“Wait a minute, this wound isn’t deep enough to... he’s in shock!”
He was; his pale-olive skin was grey, and the pupils in his eyes had shrunk to pinpricks. The breath rattled in his throat.
The medics Tiphaine had called for arrived; they didn’t have far to come, since there were several clinics in the Silver Tower. One went to where Signe Havel lay clutching at her ribs and wheezing amid two countesses wielding smelling-salts and flasks of brandy, and the other to Huon. She was in the habit of the Sisters of Mercy, with a gold cross on the black leather of her doctor’s satchel.
“He’s dying,” she said flatly after a moment’s skilled examination. “He shouldn’t be, it’s a superficial cut, but he is.”
No, Lioncel thought helplessly, inconsequentially, his hands freezing in the middle of their familiar task. Huon can’t die... we were supposed to go hawking this afternoon...
“No!” Mathilda Arminger said; but there was no helplessness in her voice.
Then, very softly, with her eyes shut and her hands on the injured squire:
“Mary pierced with sorrows, Queen of Angels, you said that I should be as a mother to this land. This boy is flesh of its flesh and bone of its bone, wounded because he put his body between a child and evil. I ask... whatever grace is given me, let it pass to him.”
Nothing dramatic happened, except that a pink flush returned to Huon’s face; he sighed, began breathing more easily, and seemed to slide into a deep sleep. The Sister gave the High Queen a single sharp glance, and then began to swab and sew at what was now a perfectly ordinary mildly-serious injury. Lioncel fought down a gasp.
Mathilda’s eyes opened. “No need to make much of this,” she said quietly, looking deliberately at the three of them in turn. “As the good Sister said, it’s not a life-threatening wound.”
Not now, Lioncel thought, and fought an impulse to fall to his knees in awe, or at least to cross himself.
He wasn’t entirely surprised; he’d seen the Sword of the Lady, after all... and there was something beyond the human in an anointed monarch, everyone knew that from the stories.
In theory. It’s a lot more alarming in practice. But I know keep your mouth shut about this from someone of high rank when I hear it, even if it’s... tactfully put.
He and his liege stood, bowed deeply to Mathilda, and backed away. Lioncel met the Grand Constable’s unreadable grey gaze and nodded very slightly: I understand. She almost-smiled in approval before she turned away. He was almost shaking with relief himself, now that there was time to appreciate just how bad the situation had been, but that helped to steady him.
Signe Havel was swearing mildly as the other medic—a layman—probed at her ribs and pronounced that several were probably cracked, but only slightly.
“I could have told you that without your sticking fingers into it,” she snarled. “Do you think it’s the first time I’ve had a sprung rib?”
He heard Virginia Thurston speaking in a similar tone to someone else, her Powder River accent much thicker than usual: “I’m pregnant, not sick, y’ durned fool, and I didn’t get hit. Leave me be and tend to them as needs it!”
Things were getting set to order; more of the d’Ath menie had shown up, and some of the Lord Chancellor’s men, and attendants of the Countesses, who were giving crisp quiet directions of their own.
“Scrub down the blood from the assassins and then burn the rags and the instruments,” Tiphaine d’Ath said. “Then wash yourselves and burn your clothes. Burn Her Majesty’s dress once she’s out of it. No, don’t touch those knives with your bare hands, you idiot! Take them to Lord Chancellor Father Ignatius, in a box, he knows how to deal with them. The assassin’s bodies will have to be burned. Prepare a pyre outside the castle walls... a big one. With no people downwind.”
The servants gulped and paled and set to following her instructions with exaggerated care, and she went on to her household knights:
“Armand, get this troop of armored... people... out of the Queen Mother’s chambers, get up there with enough men and see to disarming the Guard detachment. Obviously most of them weren’t in on this but some of the ones who were may still be alive. Rodard, immediate message to Sir Tancred via the heliograph net and courier that he’s to have the High King comb the ranks of the Guard in the field.”
“Separate cells, preliminary interrogation, kid gloves, my lady?” Armand asked, clarifying.
“Right. Get going. Rodard, once that dispatch is off, go brief Conrad, he’ll be having kittens. The last thing we need is him wheeling his chair through this mess waving his cane and roaring.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She made a small exhaling sound as the knights departed briskly, glanced around to see if there was something else time-critical that needed doing immediately, and decided there wasn’t. The Queen Mother gave her an inclination of the head and mouthed: well-done, which straightened Lioncel’s spine even further.
I was right, my liege is a strong right arm of the Crown! he thought proudly. And so will I be, one day!
He remembered to sling his crossbow, and tossed the cleaning-cloth and the glove he’d been wearing onto a growing pile of to-be-burned with gingerly care before he followed her and slid her sword efficiently back into the scabbard. She’d headed straight for his mother, who was holding Heuradys and Yolande and sitting on a bench. When she saw Tiphaine d’Ath approaching and Lioncel obviously unharmed beside her something seemed to go out of her, a stiff tension in her very bones.
“Good job, sweetie,” Tiphaine said quietly.
“You too, darling,” Delia said, then shuddered. “May I have hysterics now?”
“You earned them.”
His mother handed the infants to the nanny, hugged Lioncel hard enough to wind him through the mail shirt, then threw herself into the Grand Constable’s arms, sobbing.
Copyright © 2013 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>