Siege lines before Boise
(formerly southern Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 25th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.
“Hello, love,” Rudi Mackenzie said. “I’m back from the fields, ready to sit by the hearth and talk over the day’s doings while you stir the stewpot.”
Mathilda laughed and waved without taking her eye from the focusing piece of a telescope whose tripod stood on the rosewood of the room’s main table. One wall of the tent had been rolled up, which gave her a view as far as the City of Boise itself.
The great striped canvas pavilion had started out life as one of Sandra Arminger’s, of the type she used for tours and presiding at the tournaments that were such an important part of Association life.
And for intimidating the bedamned out of fractious noblemen, Rudi Mackenzie thought, handing his shield to Mathilda’s squire Huon Liu de Gervais with a smile and a nod.
Huon was still moving carefully, but fit enough for light work, and had insisted on coming with the High Queen with an exquisitely deferential stubbornness. It was hard to say no to a lad who’d thrown himself without hesitation between a walking dead man with a cursed knife and your daughter... and who was visibly determined to do the same again should the need arise.
Mathilda had taken Huon and his sister Yseult under wardship and into the Royal Household for their brother Odard’s sake, and despite their mother’s proved treason. That had turned out to be a very good idea.
I never entirely trusted Odard, for all that we’d fought and hunted and sung songs and drunk wine together for years, Rudi thought. He was one of those men whose inwardness is always a secret, full of unexpected things like a forest at night. Until at the last... now, did I do him an injustice earlier, or did he grow on the Quest into the man he was when he died? For that man I miss, and badly.
The Baron of Gervais had gone with them not quite all the way to Nantucket, and fell on the shores of the Atlantic like a knight from an old song, with a broken sword in his hand, a circle of dead foeman around him and a jest on his bloodied lips. Mathilda had promised the dying man that she’d look after his family, but his younger siblings had since more than justified the grace of her favor by their own deeds.
And Matti has squires old enough to fight as men-at-arms; it’s not as if the boy will be overburdened.
The raised tent wall let in light—though the setting sun was behind them—and mildly warm air, along with some dust and the usual livery-stable-outhouse-and-sweat smells of an army camp, heavily seasoned with cookfire. They’d stripped out most of the comforts from the big tent to cut the weight for the transport train’s sake, but the sheer space was useful since the High Kingdom’s government had to be dragged around with it, as well as Montival’s military headquarters.
That meant a lot of meetings and a fair number of clerks, cartographers, typewriters, adding machines, reference books and knock-down filing cabinets. And a lot of the original folding furniture was perfectly practical, light and strong and compact even if given to parquetry and mother-of-pearl inlay. The chair he chose did nothing more than creak a little at his armored weight; he was spending most of his days in harness, to help keep fit and to set a good example. Fortunately it wasn’t really hot yet; if you had to fight, this sort of seventy-degree weather was the best for it. The main drawback of a suit of plate wasn’t the weight, it was heat exhaustion.
Huon helpfully fished another crock of mild cider out of a bucket and placed it not far from Rudi’s hand after he poured him a glass. The High King didn’t have any squires himself, as yet. He’d been knighted by Association ritual before the Quest, but that had taken him away soon after and since his return he’d been too busy. And he had spent enough time in the Protectorate in his youth to take the obligations involved seriously; he wouldn’t take a squire’s oath if he didn’t have time to fulfill them. The king hung the Sword over the back of his chair himself; he didn’t like anyone else to touch it anyway except Mathilda... and generally speaking others liked touching it even less themselves.
“I know Órlaith will be safer with mother at Dun Juniper than anywhere else on the green breast of Earth,” Rudi said to his queen.
He was continuing a conversation they’d been having for some time. Even he could hear that there was a little fretfulness in his tone, not to mention downright fear. Edain’s dog Garbh stopped her vigorous scratching and nibbling at recalcitrant parts of her shaggy fur to come over and put her gruesome head in his lap by way of comfort, rolling her eyes up at him and looking as meltingly sympathetic as a hundred and forty pounds of scarred gray-muzzled man-killing wolf-mastiff mixture could.
High Kings shouldn’t be fretful, he told himself, ruffling the great beast’s ears; the dog had walked all the way to Nantucket and back with them, and knew him well. On the other hand, I’m a father too—and someone just tried to kill my child. I can’t even declare war on those responsible, because I’m already fighting them. But possibly I can bash someone tonight with my own hands, the which will be an immense comfort.
“She’d be just as safe at Mt. Angel,” Mathilda said, sighing and sitting back from the telescope.
That had been her first choice, and it was indeed a mighty fortress in more senses of the word than one. They both knew she referred to the safety gained from what might be called sanctity more than physical protection; the threat to their daughter wasn’t from armies, or even ordinary knife-men. He met her eyes for a moment and she shrugged ruefully.
“Agreed. But... well, I would say my mother is better at looking after children,” he said. “Didn’t she raise both of us?”
“That’s a point. No insult to the good monks of your order, Father Ignatius,” Mathilda went on hastily.
The warrior-monk, and now Chancellor of the High Kingdom, looked up from his folding desk in one corner of the chamber for an instant and nodded, solemn but with a twinkle in his slanted dark eyes. He was a man of middle height, slim but broad-shouldered and with a swordsman’s wrists, who looked graceful even sitting on a camp stool and dressed in the rather voluminous black-and-white Benedictine habit.
“None taken, my daughter,” he said, carefully signing a document and blotting the ink before peeling the paper off one of a little stack of wax disks, applying it to the paper and stamping it with his seal. “The Shield of St. Benedict is not primarily a nursery order. When the Crown Princess is a little older, my brotherhood will be delighted to assist with her education at our university. I hope to delay my senile decline until then.”
They all chuckled. Ignatius was a few years older than them, though a Changeling for all practical purposes, and he had a natural dignity that wasn’t all incompatible with his dryly ironic sense of humor. Beneath her amusement Rudi could feel the underlying anguish in Mathilda at deciding to leave their daughter in the care of others. Even an other as beloved and competent as Juniper Mackenzie. It was the spiritual equivalent of a constant low-level toothache, stoically endured.
There were times when the Sword was a burden; sometimes even the link to each other and the land that had come with the Kingmaking was. He didn’t know how much of that went with being a ruler in other times and places, but it was most assuredly true if you were High King of Montival—or High Queen. For that matter, he could sense a muted hint of Ignatius’ longing to be back at the hilltop monastery of Mt. Angel, to lose himself in the ancient round of prayer and toil and meditation. He hadn’t become a cleric to seek secular power.
The monk’s sense of duty was like a blade of forged steel, though; he didn’t have to give speeches to be an inspiration. Rudi sighed.
Time to be Artos, he thought, as he drew up his chair. Or as the good Father would say, take up your cross.
“Here, look at this,” Mathilda said, pushing over the telescope. “We both need distracting. Come get a good military reason to be depressed.”
He did, turning the focusing knob. Rudi had first seen Boise’s fortifications a few years ago, on the Quest to Nantucket, and more recently from the observation balloons that now ringed it. Like many, the modern city had contracted to its original core, which here meant a rectangular block to the east on the far side of the river and a little back from it. Three bridges crossed the water, heavily fortified at both ends, virtual castles on the western shore surrounded by clear land worked as vegetable plots and running into massive complexes of towers on the wall.
Unlike most still-inhabited cities the sprawl of buildings around Boise’s edges had been thoroughly torn down in old General Thurston’s day. Many places left their suburbs to the attentions of time, vegetation, scavengers and fire, but around Boise even the foundation pads had mostly been broken up for reuse in the fortifications and cellars filled in for truck gardens—Lawrence Thurston been a man with a very strong sense of order, among other things.
The walls he’d built reflected the other, bleakly pragmatic part of his nature. They were mass concrete reinforced with girder but they included some of the pre-Change highrise buildings, themselves in-filled with cemented rubble, and it gave the fortification an odd mottled, angular look. They weren’t as elegantly historic as Todenangst or the walls of Portland, or as brilliantly sited as Mt. Angel, and they didn’t have the snarling cyclopean menace of Larsdalen’s Bear Gate, but...
“We’re not going to batter those down, or storm them,” he said.
There was a click from the sentries as he spoke, the High King’s Archers touching their bowstaves to the brow of their helmets in salute, and Frederick Thurston came in. He was in the hoop-armor of a Boise regular, with a red-white-and-blue crest running fanwise from ear to the ear of his helm. It gave his tall form an extra element of menace—which was one point of the gear, of course. He took it off and laid it down on the table, throwing his metal-backed gloves beside it and unbuckling his cavalry saber.
“Thor’s mighty goats, no,” Fred said, answering Rudi’s last comment. “Can you imagine trying to land on that nice inviting strip of land between the east bank of the river and the walls, for example?”
Rudi could; he winced at the thought of the sudden rain of bolts and roundshot and balls of flaming napalm among troops crowded into the narrow band—it was a death-trap masquerading as an opportunity, even more than the moat-encircled remainder of the ramparts. It said something of Fred’s father as a soldier that he’d done that, and not put the wall at the water’s edge.
“No, you’d have to try it from the other side,” he said. “Which we won’t, but it’s essential they think we’ll try.”
Fred nodded, family pride in his face for a moment. “That’s why Dad put the wall as far back as West River Street.”
Rudi turned the instrument from the city to his own siege lines, a ragged but substantial line of trenches and earthworks, some of them smoking faintly where stick-flame had landed. It was amazing how much dirt you could move in a week with fifty thousand sets of reasonably willing hands, spades, wheelbarrows, Fresno scrapers, horses, mules, oxen and some well-trained field engineers. A crew in a pit a little behind the front were sweating at a trebuchet, grunting as they levered a four-hundred-pound block of stone into the throwing cup; the boulder had been shot at them by a similar machine on the walls and landed in the soft earth of the berm protecting them and was about to be sent home post-paid.
An officer barked a command, they all stood back, and the lanyard was pulled. A trebuchet was the simplest of siege engines in principle, if the strongest, just a great lever pivoting on an elevated axle about a fifth of the way from one end. You put weight—tons of weights—on the short end and a metal-mesh and cable sling arrangement on the long one, and you were in business apart from a few incidentals like the supporting frame to hold the axle high in the air and the winches to haul the long arm down and the general massiveness needed to withstand the stress. This one was about the height of a three-story house, the product of a foundry and machine-shop in Corvallis, and in knocked-down form it took twelve eight-horse wagons to transport it.
The triangular block of weights in a steel frame box on the upper, shorter end of the arm began to fall as the catch released the restraints. The long throwing-arm between the two giant steel upright A-frames started to move, slowly for the first few instants then more quickly as it whipped up, dragging the sling along the alignment trough on the ground.
The loop of the sling swung skyward above the giant beam and lifted free in a blur of speed; the free end came loose from the carefully shaped hook at the top of the arc, and the machine lofted the boulder at the city with the casual ease of a boy shying an apple-core at a crow in the fields at sowing-time. It rocked back and forth with the cup and sling dangled down as the crew hooted and jeered at the defenders—probably variations on eat this!—and a few ran up to the top of the berm before turning to bend over and rhythmically slap their arses in derision.
Corvallans tended to be vain of their city-state’s scientific accomplishments and manufacturing prowess; the university there ran the place, more or less, and had since the Change. Its far-travelling merchants and skilled artisans and ingenious factory-owners were numerous, energetic and shrewd too, shrewd enough to use that accumulated knowledge well. A third of his artillerists and half his engineers were Corvallans. Their bankers were equally famous but far less liked, though Rudi had reluctantly found them as indispensible as the troops.
The roughly shaped boulder tumbled away into the distance, turning to a dot. Then there was a puff of dust from the great ramparts above the blank steel surface of a gate, and the hard tock sound of impact echoed back. At this distance imagination had to fill in the way the wall would shake underfoot, and the deadly whine of fragments of shattered rock and concrete like flying gutting-knives. A rock that size packed a lot of energy into its travelling mass, and when you stopped it all at once...
Almost at once another sound came from the wall, a metallic chorus of catapult springs that had started their lives in the suspensions of heavy trucks releasing and sending paired levers slamming into their stops. Little threadlike blurs went streaking towards the trebuchet. The crew interrupted their celebrations to throw themselves flat as the four-foot darts from the springalds and scorpions came in; one struck the frame of the stone-thrower with a long tannnnnggg and flipped upward in pieces.
Nobody seemed to be hurt this time, but the artillery duel was producing a steady trickle of casualties... presumably inside the walls too. He was only slightly less unhappy about that. He wanted those men on his side, or at least going back to their farms and workshops and helping to repair the damage. Every one killed or crippled on either side was a loss to Montival as well as to themselves and their kin.
“Hurrah!” Rudi said sourly. “We could do that for fifty years and not knock down those walls. Not to mention I’m bombarding one of my own bloody cities, technically speaking so-to-speak.”
“You could think of it as a rebellious city,” Mathilda said helpfully.
“No, for then I’d have to wonder what I’d done to make folk supposedly my subjects willing to fight me,” he said wryly. “Artos the First I may be—the Powers insist, it seems—but Artos the Tyrant I will not.”
“Pass the cider, Tyrant,” Fred said with a crooked grin; evidently he’d been watching the bombardment too. He went on:
“Both the pontoon bridges are finished, and we’ve got the east bank thoroughly invested. And the siege towers are coming along, for all the good it’ll do us. We could lose twenty thousand men trying to storm the walls... and I’m not sure it would even work, at that. The Cutters have things sewn up tight in there, particularly the gates. What’s left of the US Army troops aren’t very enthusiastic, but...”
Rudi grunted thoughtfully and nodded; the but was that in an all-out assault the defenders were almost certainly going to die if the attackers succeeded in taking the wall, pushed off the inner edge if nothing else. Which was a powerful motivator for well-trained troops who knew the way things worked.
“Surrender at the last moment is always... problematic,” Rudi agreed.
Problematic, he thought, was a tactful way to put it. When warriors’ blood is up and they’re primed to kill, they tend to keep on doing it while anything alive is left before them. Turning your back is suicide, and those who’ve seen the elephant know it. So it’s kill or be killed.
They had excellent general intelligence about the state of things in the city. There was a trickle of deserters, men who let themselves down on ropes in the night, or just shed their armor and jumped into the river and swam for it. He’d interrogated some of them himself... and caught one or two with the CUT’s taint on them. Forewarned, it was easy enough to spot.
“Then we’ll have to chance the scheme we came up with,” Rudi said. “We have the asset... and the asset is people, who I’d rather not sacrifice unless I must. But without me... and the Sword... it will not work.”
Everyone looked unhappy at that; he was unhappy, though it made no difference. Mathilda looked positively mutinous. He raised his hands.
“No, my love and my Queen. There’s nobody I’d rather have by my side for a venture like this... but it is a risk, and it would be a hard day for Órlaith if the dice came up snake-eyes for both of us. Nor can we risk a long regency with her so young; and the kingdom so young itself. Though Father Ignatius would do a fine job as Regent, to be sure.”
“I would rather juggle rabid skunks,” the cleric said dryly, reaching for the next in the stack of State papers. “With respect. Your Majesty.”
“That’s one reason you would do it well, my friend, but I hope to spare you the nipping and the stench. So we’ll go with Fred’s plan.”
“Hey, don’t pin it on me! I just told you about the... secret.”
Rudi nodded. “It needs the Sword, and only I can wield it.”
Ignatius said nothing more; he’d argued against Rudi’s scheme, then taken the High King’s decision as final and switched stride without stumbling to bend all his efforts to make it work. Fred Thurston grinned, and poured himself a glass from the jug of cider that hung in a rope sling, sweating through the coarse pottery—it was fermented just enough to make it safe to drink without boiling or chlorine.
“It’s almost worth missing the birth to have Virginia safe away from this and not able to argue with me,” he said. “This way I get to go along without sweating blood every minute.”
“Todenangst wasn’t all that safe,” Mathilda said soberly, then laid a hand on his arm when he winced. “Sorry, Fred. I know it must have been hard, hearing that Virginia was there and in danger, her and the baby, after you thought she was so well-guarded.”
He snorted. “Rudi and I had a cussing contest. He only won because the Sword lets him speak more languages. I learned how to say motherfucking son of a BITCH in eight or nine. It sounds really odd in Elvish.” Then he looked towards the city. “I hope to hell this comes off for a whole raft of reasons.”
“This Cole Salander is a good man, and has his wits about him,” Rudi observed. “And a most powerful degree of motivation.”
“Yeah, I thought so too. I’m going to bump him up a few grades. Provided we all live through this. And your cousin Alyssa is even sharper, I’d say. Between them they may be able to pull it off.”
Rudi raised his glass; the cider cut the dust very satisfactorily, just sweetly acrid enough.
“I’ll drink to that,” he said. Then, overriding someone’s throat-clearing: “And yes, there’s enough for more. That’s what you were about to say, wasn’t it?”
Mathilda jerked in startlement; Ignatius kept writing, and Fred’s head whipped around. Rudi’s hand had already been going to the pitcher.
“No fair,” two soprano voices said in a disturbing almost-chorus. “You’ve got the Sword.”
The etiquette of the High Kingdom was quite flexible in the field; Rudi and Mathilda had made sure of that, having spent enough time in the Protectorate in their youth to see how you could get sewn up in ritual like a cross between plate armor and a cotte-hardie. Certain people had access without prior notice or challenge from the guards, first and foremost his companions on the Quest.
Some of those people could move very quietly, and liked to show off about it even now.
His half-sisters Mary and Ritva were among both categories. Signe Havel’s daughters weren’t Bearkillers except by birth; in their teens they’d decided to live with their Aunt Astrid and uncle-by-marriage Alleyne Loring in Mithrilwood, what had once been Silver Falls State Park. That...
Eccentric lady, Rudi thought charitably as he waved them to the table.
...eccentric lady Astrid and Rudi’s elder half-sister Eilir Mackenzie had founded the Dúnedain Rangers a few years after the Change, inspired by a series of books that Astrid had insisted on calling The Histories and which she’d been obsessed with even before the Change. She was dead now, in the spectacularly successful rescue of Fred’s mother and sisters and sister-in-law from Boise last year. The folk she’d founded were even more devoted to her martyred memory than they’d been to her charismatic person.
The Dúnedain specialized in what the ancient world had called special operations, well-taught by experts in the early years. In peacetime they hunted bandits and mankilling beasts and escorted caravans and led expeditions to the dead cities. In time of war they were even more valuable, the more so as the High Kingdom fitted so neatly into their founding myths.
“Mae govannen, maethyr” he said: Well-met, warriors.
“Mae govannen, Aran Raud, i ‘wanur vîn,” they replied, putting their right palms on their hearts and bowing before they sat: Well-met, High King, our kinsman.
Among the Dúnedain eccentricities was using a language from the books...
Pardon me, from The Histories, he thought.
... though that had its practical benefits since very few outside that fellowship could understand it. One of the many minor disturbing things about carrying the Sword was that it had made him fluent in that tongue as well... including immense amounts of grammar and vocabulary which the long-dead Englishman hadn’t invented but which fitted perfectly with the rest and included all the elements you’d expect in a living speech. In fact, he spoke two varieties of it, one of which felt more formal than the other; Ranger scribes had been pestering him for details ever since he got home.
Mary had been identical to her twin Ritva until she lost an eye and acquired an eyepatch during the Quest. The two tall fair young women still looked very much alike in their mottled sage-green-brown Dúnedain field gear, with three blue eyes between them and the white Tree, seven stars and crown on the breasts of jerkins that had light mesh-mail riveted between two layers of soft leather.
“Help yourselves,” Rudi said. Raising his voice slightly. “And you two come in as well, so that I may punish you suitably for allowing these depraved Rangers to attempt a practical joke on the ineffable majesty of Artos the First, the shame and sorrow of it.”
The two women were accompanied by their husbands—though Ritva and Ian Kovalevsky hadn’t yet found time to formalize their obvious bond. Ingolf Vogeler was a big battered brown-haired and vastly experienced man in his thirties, originally from a remote part of the Midwest. Ian was younger, slighter, fair-haired, and hailed from the Peace River country of northern Drumheller, which he’d left to become a member of a red-coated band of mounted warriors who kept peace in the Dominions. That had put him in Ritva’s way as they all returned to Montival, and they’d hit it off. Or Ritva had decided she wanted him, which would amount to much the same thing.
The poor lad hadn’t a chance once Ritva set her sights on him; though to be sure he’s able and clever as well as comely, the which does not surprise me, she has high standards.
She’d told him once that she and Mary had thrown dice to see who got Ingolf, who Rudi considered one of the better all-round warriors he’d met and a good friend to boot. As well as the man who’d ridden into Sutterdown four very eventful years ago to tell Rudi that the Sword of the Lady awaited him in Nantucket... and had done so with the Prophet’s killers on his trail.
I’m rich in real comrades, something a King can’t count on, from all I’ve heard and read. Which reminds me...
“Ignatius, do you have that letter from Drumheller that came in with the morning courier?”
The cleric silently produced it. Ian’s ears had pricked up hopefully, and Rudi went on, sliding it over to him:
“Not from your family, Ian, but of interest still.”
He handed it to the younger man. The northerner’s pale brows went up. “Well, well! Indefinite detached duty as liason, straight from the Deputy Commissioner Western District! That sort of... regularizes things.”
From his looks, he’d been guilty about it too; they were a painfully law-abiding lot where he came from. Ian went on:
“I’d been worried about that. How did you manage it, Your Majesty? I wouldn’t have thought the Force, ah...”
“Cared much what Artos the First desired? Yes, but they do care what the leaders of the Dominions want, and Drumheller may not wish to be part of the High Kingdom, but they do want good relations and they are our allies against the CUT. I merely wrote to Premier Mah politely asking a favor of her.”
“Thanks!” he and Ritva said simultaneously.
“You’re welcome. Just invite me to the handfasting. No need to inflict Rudi or Artos on any of the children. Now to business.”
He unfolded the map, and they went over it as dinner arrived. Since the army was now stationary, and newly-come in a rich irrigated countryside that trusted the Montivallan forces to pay for what they ate, the food was better than usual; skewers of peppered grilled beef and onions, steamed cauliflower, fresh risen wheat bread, butter and the luxury of a green salad. After a while in the field you lusted after greenstuff the way a drunkard did for whiskey, not to mention needing the fiber to keep your guts in order.
“Mmmm,” Mary said, forking a piece of tomato. “Good thing we’ve been winning the battles—they didn’t have time to strip the countryside before we besieged the city, and we’re getting what the townees usually eat. I get so sick of trail-mix and dog-biscuit.”
Rudi’s fist slammed down on the table, making the plates jump. Everyone looked at him in surprise; he wasn’t much given to displays of temper.
“I’m tired of winning battles!” he said, controlling the flush of anger. “I’m tired of killing brave men whose only fault was to be born in the wrong place and to get levied from the plow! I want to win this bloody war, and get back to my proper work and my family and let everyone else do the same!”
He cleared his throat, feeling their eyes on him and feeling a bit self-conscious too.
Ingolf chuckled and spoke, a little unexpectedly—he was normally a little taciturn.
“No problem, Rudi. You’re too goddamned self-controlled for your own good, sometimes. Anyway I agree.”
Just then a snatch of marching song came through the open flap, in time to the tramp of boots:
“Dry your eyes—it's no cause to weep
The weather is fine and the road isn't steep
The world is still round, my compass is true
Each step is a step back to you
Each step is a step back to you.”
“And so do the troops,” he said.
Mary grinned and cocked her one eye at him with good-natured skepticism. “And what will you do, lover, when the reign of peace arrives?”
He shrugged. “Sleep a couple of years, and then try not to see anything more exciting than a field full of sheep eating grass and crapping where they please, ever again. You youngsters—“
“Hey, you’re only eight years older than I am!”
“Nine, but it feels longer. You youngsters don’t... look, guys, you take the dipper to the bucket long enough, the bucket’s going to run dry. And you only get one bucketful per life. I’ve drunk a lot of dippers on a lot of hot days.”
Most of the people around the table looked blank; Rudi suddenly realized he was the third-oldest there, which was a bit of a shock. He was used to thinking of himself when the word ‘youngster’ was thrown about.
I’m still a young man, he thought. But I’m not a heedless overgrown boy leaping into the blue any more, that’s true. Ingolf is sounding less and less cynical and more and more wise when he says something like that.
He’d had warnings from the Powers, direct and blunt, that he wouldn’t make old bones, too. Every year spent warmaking was a waste he couldn’t afford.
I’ve been that boy, but now I’m a husband and a father... and a King, to be sure.
Ignatius nodded slightly over his spare dinner of salad and bread, catching his monarch’s eyes and inclining his head towards Ingolf in silent agreement.
Rudi made a gesture of acknowledgment. “With luck, this will speed things up considerably. Now, here’s how we’re going to handle the timing. First the Rangers will—“
Copyright © 2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>