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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

“High was the Mackenzie hearth

Dun Juniper, Gods-favored hall

And goodly its treasures

Song and feast, harp and verse

Rang often there and well

But far and wild were the wanderings

That Artos must endure

Hard-handed hero, well-companioned—“

 

From: The Song of Bear and Raven

Attributed to Fiorbhinn Mackenzie, 1st century CY.

 

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Snake River plain, Boise/New Deseret border

July 21st, CY23/2021 AD

 

“We’d be a lot further east if we’d gone the southern route,” Edain Aylward Mackenzie grumbled quietly. “If we’re going to this Nantucket place for the Sword, I’d prefer we just go.”

The first three fingers of his right hand moved lightly on the waxed linen string of his yew longbow as he knelt behind the boulder of coarse dark-gray volcanic rock, and he spoke without turning his eyes. A bodkin-pointed shaft was ready on the rest that cut through the riser-grip, and the stocky thick-armed body was ready to bend and loose the weapon with a snapping flick.

“Yes, but then Martin Thurston would have gotten away with it, sure,” Rudi Mackenzie pointed out reasonably, scanning the ground ahead with his binoculars. “And we’d be leaving an ally of the Prophet here on our way home, and next to our own borders.”

The long flatlands to the south were dark as the sun sank westward. Until a few days ago the area had been the borderlands between the United States—the United States of Boise, to everyone except its inhabitants—and New Deseret. Now it was probably the borderland between the US of Boise and the Church Universal and Triumphant, and its Prophet.

“You mean he hasn’t gotten away with it, then, Chief?” Edain enquired sourly. “And we aren’t doing just that?”

Ah, and it’s a rare comfort you are, my friend, Rudi thought.

Not just the rock-steady readiness; the bantering grumble kept a distance between his mind and the fact that three of their friends were in the hands of an enemy who were no more likely to show mercy than they were to drift upward and migrate south like hummingbirds.

“Ah, well, and they do need fighting, to be sure.” Edain’s lips tightened. “I saw what they did to those refugees. They’ll have to account to the Guardians about that... and I’m not sorry to send more of them through the Western Gate to do it.”

“It was probably fated that we get mixed up with this,” Rudi said. “The Powers didn’t have a nice straightforward trip east for us in their minds, so.”

“And they have our friends,” Edain said.

Well, Rudi thought. Odard’s a friend... more or less. Ingolf’s a comrade, and Matti is... well, I’m not sure, except that I care for her as much as for anyone living who’s not my mother. It’s not just that we’re anamchara, either.

He and she had sworn the oath of soul-bonding when they were ten, during the War of the Eye... he smiled a little at the memory of their seriousness, and their determination not to let their friendship be broken by the quarrels of their elders. Not that being young made the ritual any less binding...

And all of us on this trip are young, he thought, not for the first time. Changelings, or nearly so. For good or ill, the world is passing into our hands.

The two young Mackenzies fell silent, waiting patiently behind their low ridge of sage-grown rock. Rudi raised his head slightly and looked again through the roots of the bush ahead of him—always much safer than looking over it. At this angle there was no risk of a flash from the lenses of his field-glasses.

He’d tied back his red-gold hair and wrapped a dark bandana about it, and dabbed his face with dust and soot; his gray-green eyes shone the brighter in the dusk. A few hours of sleep snatched during the sunlight hours had repaired most of the damage of days of fighting and hard riding; he’d recovered with the resilience of youth. He’d turned twenty-two just this last Yule, in fact; a broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, long-limbed man two inches over six feet, and even stronger than he looked.

No works of human kind showed, besides the fireless war-camp of the Prophet’s men two miles away. This stretch of the Snake River plain had depended on power-driven pumps before the Change. People had fled or died when the machines failed, and the fields had gone back to sagebrush with thicker lines of scrub and the bleached skeletons of dead trees to mark the sites of homesteads. A few crumbled snags of wall still showed and the rusted, canted remains of a great circular pivot-irrigation machine, but like most of his generation Rudi usually ignored the ruins of the pre-Change world so thoroughly that he didn’t really see them, unless there was some immediate practical reason to give them thought.

The air smelled dry, of dust and sage, and hot even though the temperature was falling as quickly as the sun. The first few stars glimmered through the purple eastward. Rudi pulled a Mackenzie-style traveler’s cake out of his sporran, broke it in half and handed the other part to Edain; they both munched stolidly, though the pressed mass of rolled oats and honey and nuts and bits of dried fruit tasted of nothing but a vague sweetness now. They might need the energy soon. Edain threw some of his to the big shaggy half-mastiff bitch that lay near him; Garbh’s jaws clamped down on it with a wet clomp sound, followed by smacking and slurping as she struggled to get at bits that stuck to her great yellow fangs.

Then they waited through to full dark, now and then tensing muscle against muscle to keep themselves supple without the need to get up and stretch; both young men had learned the trick of it and much else from Edain’s father... and Aylward the Archer had been First Armsman of Clan Mackenzie for nearly two decades, and a sergeant in the Special Air Service Regiment before the Change.

There was a three-quarter moon, and the stars were very bright in the clear dry air. An owl hooted, and a jackrabbit scuttered through the ground-cover. Garbh raised her barrel-shaped head from her paws, black nose wrinkling at something she sensed but couldn’t place. The same something brought Rudi’s head up, and he put his hand on the wire-and-leather wound grip of his longsword. Edain began to draw his bow, his grey eyes darting about for a target.

“We’re coming in,” someone said quietly out in the dimness; a woman’s voice.

Rudi relaxed, and let the sword slide back the finger-span he’d drawn, with a slight snick of metal on metal as the guard kissed the scabbard-mouth.

“The farmer’s child breathes so loud we could have shot him in the dark,” she went on, still speaking softly but not whispering—whispers carried.

Edain bristled: “Child yourselves,” he muttered. “You’re Changelings too, and not much older than I am!”

He was nineteen and he was a farmer, but also an experienced hunter of deer and elk, boar and cougar, of tigers and sometimes of men, and he’d carried away the Silver Arrow at the Lughnasadh games twice; once he’d been younger than any champion had before. His father had taught the whole Clan the art of the bow.

“You two might as well have been playing the bagpipes,” another soprano added.

At least they’re speaking English instead of Elvish, Rudi thought with resignation. When they insist on Sindarin... there’s no better language for being insufferable in, and the Lord and Lady know Mary and Ritva are experts at insufferability anyway.

The twins came in, shaggy in their war-cloaks of mottled dark-green canvas covered in loops stuck with bits of grass and sagebrush. Rudi had to admit they were invisible until they wanted to be seen. He was a very good scout himself; the twins were very very good, able to crawl to within touching distance of alert, war-wise men. If they had time enough, and sometimes it could take days.

They were also identicals, tall young women lithe as cats, their yellow hair caught up in tight fighting braids under knitted caps of dark-gray wool. The faces below the hoods of the war-cloaks were oval and high-cheeked and their slightly tilted eyes cornflower blue, capable of a most convincing imitation of guileless innocence.

In truth his half-sisters reminded him of cats in more ways than one, including an occasional disconcerting capacity for cool wickedness. They’d also, in his opinion, spent far too much time in Aunt Astrid’s little kingdom in the woods, listening to her bards recite from those books she insisted on calling the histories, and talking in a language invented by a long-dead Englishman. Not that they weren’t great stories, but the way the Dúnedain carried on, you’d think they were as true as Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Everyone worked their way backward until they were well below the crest of the low ridge, and then Ritva went down on one knee and smoothed a patch of dirt. There was enough starlight and moonlight to make out the diagram she drew.

“Their horses are rested now; there’s good water there, if you don’t mind hauling it up on a long rope, probably four or five saddle lariats linked together. It looks like they’re going to have a quick cold dinner, give the horses the last of their feed pellets and then ride east in the darkness, to get past the Boise pickets.”

Rudi nodded. The Church Universal and Triumphant had pushed an army into the territory claimed by the United States—the one headquartered at Boise—and gotten beaten rather comprehensively. But President-General Thurston had been killed in the fight—by his own eldest son Martin, who’d been conspiring with the CUT. He hadn’t liked his father’s plan to finally call elections, and to keep his own children from running for the office. Now he was lord of Boise... and Rudi and his friends were the only ones who knew the real story.

And in the meantime, we have a problem that isn’t politics, Rudi thought. Namely, how to get Ingolf and Matti and Odard free.

Or it wasn’t entirely politics. If you had the right—or wrong—parents, the way he and Matti had, everything you did was politics. And whoever did it, fighting was always about politics, whether it was this or an Assembly of the Clan shouting and waving their arms or two rams butting heads in a meadow; he’d grown up the Chief’s son and absorbed that through his pores.

“Sentries?” he asked.

“Mounted,” Mary said.

And I know it’s you, Mary, he thought; they did that verbal back-and-forth thing to confuse people, but he could tell their voices apart. And your faces. Well, usually.

“So much for a bit of quiet Sentry Removal as a solution to that little problem we’re havin’,” Edain added. “Getting our friends out, that is.”

The twins nodded soberly, not rising to the slight edge in his voice; it was too obviously true. A mounted man wasn’t as good a sentry as someone on foot and hiding—much harder to miss and easier to avoid. Unfortunately they were also a lot harder to take out so quietly that nobody noticed. Killing a man silently was hard enough; doing the same to an animal as big and well-constructed as a horse was much more so. Doing both together...

When problems that involved fighting came up, the Rangers were extremely good at sneaky, underhanded, elegant solutions. Astrid—the Hiril Dúnedain, the Lady of the Rangers—considered straight-ahead bashing crude. Sentry Removal was one of the Dúnedain specialties. Sometimes elegance bought you no lard to fry your spuds, though.

“Where, what pattern, and how many all up?” he said briskly.

“They’ve got pairs riding in a figure-eight pattern; eight on the move at any one time. There’s thirty more of them altogether, with that party that came in this afternoon, the ones who had Mathilda and Odard and his man Alex.”

“About half of them are wounded,” Ritva said, taking up the tale; then she grimaced slightly. “And we’re not counting the six who were too badly wounded to ride fast or fight.”

“Their officers killed them?” Rudi asked. The Cutters certainly seem ruthless enough for that.

“No, they killed the badly injured horses. The men killed themselves,” Mary said flatly. “No argument about it, either. They were singing until the knives went in. Something about bright lifestreams.

“And sure, Ingolf said that the Sword of the Prophet were... serious men,” Rudi said. “Everything I’ve seen bears it out. And our folk?”

“Mathilda and Odard here,” Ritva said, tapping her finger at the sand-map. “They’re lightly bound, wrist and ankle, except when they let them up to go to the slit trench. Doesn’t look like they’re hurt at all, beyond some bruises; they haven’t even taken their hauberks off. Odard’s man Alex isn’t confined at all. But Ingolf...” She hesitated.

“Bad?” Rudi asked, frowning.

He’d grown to like the big easterner; he’d been a good comrade on the trail, a notable fighting-man even by Rudi’s exacting standards, and with a breadth of experience in many lands that the Mackenzie secretly envied. Also he’d been a captive of the Church Universal and Triumphant before, and escaped.

“They’ve got him in a tight triple yoke, and chains on his ankles.”

Rudi hissed slightly. A triple yoke was a beam of wood with steel circles set in it for neck and wrists; they could be arranged so that it needed continuous effort to keep the collar from choking you and were never able to take a full breath. Pendleton slavers and other people of low morals and no scruples used them to break the spirit of captives. They were excruciatingly uncomfortable to start with, quickly grew into outright agony, and they made it impossible to really sleep, while the victim could still walk... if you beat them with a whip. Still, Ingolf was a strong man in heart and body both, and he’d been in it for less than two full days. Their plan required all the captives to be fully mobile if it was going to work.

“Chief?” Edain said.

Rudi looked over at the younger man. Edain went on:

“I can see why this Prophet scabhtéara made war on Boise and Deseret. I can see why he conspired with Martin Thurston. What I can’t see is why he’s so very sodding eager to catch us—“ by which they both knew he meant Rudi “—that he’s willing to endanger all his plots and plans hereabouts to do it.”

“He knows,” Rudi said.

As he spoke he lifted the scabbard of his sword out of the sling at his belt and ran it through a set of loops on the quiver at his back, so that the long hilt ran up behind his right ear. That made drawing it just a hair more awkward, but it cut down on the chance of a betraying rattle; their plan also depended on going undetected as long as possible.

“He knows what?” Edain said, puzzlement plain on his square young face even in the dimness.

He’s a smart one, Rudi thought.

They put on their helmets; before Rudi did he pulled on his coif, a tight hood and collar of mail on padded leather. Most Mackenzies didn’t bother with one, thinking their brigandines of little steel plates riveted together between layers of leather or canvas were enough. But while Rudi was an excellent archer, the sword was his favored weapon, and that meant coming within hand-stroke distance.

But he’s very... practical. Gets it from his father.

“Knows what Ingolf found on Nantucket,” Rudi said when they’d settled their gear, glancing eastward towards the Prophet and his armies. “And he knows what I am, and why I’m traveling there; knows it better than I do. And he’ll do anything to stop me.”

“How does he know all that?” one of the twins said.

“Because something... Someone... walks with him,” Rudi said softly, as he picked up his strung bow. “I’ve seen it before, once at least, though not as strongly. Or possibly that Being wears him like a glove. And that One is no friend to us, or to any of human kind.”

 

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The four of them went the last thousand yards on their bellies, their bows resting across the crooks of their elbows as they crawled through the dry bunchgrass. Whoever commanded the Cutters had been wise not to start a fire—besides attracting attention, it would have killed the night vision of anyone who looked at it, and the temptation was irresistible to most people. Rudi could feel the hoofbeats of the guards approaching through the ground; he drew a deep breath, wordlessly invoked the Crow Goddess and Lugh, and rose smoothly to his feet.

Though it was dark and the kilt and plaid were fairly good camouflage, as was the dark green of their brigantines and helms, the sentries would spot them soon. And therefore...

And I don’t particularly like killing men, even bad ones. But it’s... necessary, sometimes, he thought, and let the thought flow away with his next breath.

“You take the one with the bow,” he said softly to Edain.

The man was fifty yards away, riding with a shaft on the string and his reins knotted on the cantle of his saddle, controlling the beast effortlessly with thighs and balance. His head came up before Edain started to move, prompted by some warning sign, but the Mackenzie arrow was on its way before the Prophet’s man could begin to bend the short thick recurve. The snap of the string on Edain’s bracer came a tiny instant before the tooth-grating crunch of the bodkin as it smashed its way into the man’s adam’s-apple and out through his neckbone.

That was showing off; they were the two best archers of their generation in Clan Mackenzie, and Edain was a bit touchy about it. Rudi’s own shaft went through the second man’s chest, the safer center of mass, even at the price of the harder, louder crack as it punched into the lacquered-leather armor.

The Cutter went over the cantle of his saddle with lance and shield flying to either side. The horses reared and neighed at the scent of blood, and there were shouts from the dark camp of the Prophet’s men. The twins broke to either side as hooves thundered in the dark, vanishing into a swifter version of their behind-the-lines crawl.

Good, Rudi thought, lips skinning back from his teeth, as the enemy approached with a twinkle of starlight on edged metal and a thunder of hooves he could feel through the soles of his boots. Didn’t occur to them to come on foot.

War out here in the dry rangelands was mostly a quicksilver mounted snap-and-run, a wolfpack business. Western Oregon’s country of forest and farm-field had developed different ways after the Change. The Cutters were about to learn why Mackenzie longbows were the terror of every battlefield that saw them.

But there’s only two of us, remember, Rudi thought. What I wouldn’t give for a hundred, and a bow-captain shouting to let the gray geese fly!

He pulled the hundred-and-fifteen pound draw past the angle of his jaw Clan-fashion, and loosed at the dim shape that was a rider brandishing a shete, aiming as much by instinct as by eye. The arrow vanished in the darkness with a whirrt sound and a flicker of gray vanes as the bow surged against his left hand. The right hand snapped back over his shoulder to the quiver, twitched out another shaft, put it to the string and drew with a smooth twist that was as much gut and torso as arms against the pressure of the yew stave, nock-draw-loose, as fast as a man counting aloud one-two-three. Beside him Edain did the same.

The Cutters recoiled for a moment, shouting in confusion amidst the screams of wounded men and horses. Then their officer’s voice overrode it; he was too far away to see and shoot, but Rudi and Edain both shifted aim to chance a dropping shaft at the sound. They were rewarded with a yelping curse, but the voice went on rallying his men, shouting that there couldn’t be many of whoever it was and damning them for cowards. They weren’t cowards, just jumpy and confused for an instant; they were veteran fighting-men, and were more than enough of them to overrun the two Mackenzies with numbers.

If the other part of the plan didn’t work, he was going to die in the next five minutes; it would either work very well, or not at all. If it failed he couldn’t even run away, not on foot.

He loosed at a flicker of movement; if the blade was there then the man had to be here.

Not that he intended to run, anyway.

 

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Knight-Brother Ignatius of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict said his rosary as he waited, patient beneath the weight of his long mail hauberk and visored sallet helm, coif and vambraces and greaves and steel-backed gloves. His tall destrier snorted quietly and tossed its head with a muted clatter of peytral and chamfron and crinet, scenting the Cutters’ mounts in the darkness ahead, but too well-trained to bugle a challenge.

“So, so, Godfrey,” the priest soothed it, thumping the leather palm of his gauntlet down on the big gelding’s metal-covered neck. “Soon, soon, boy.”

Frederick Thurston sat his own mount beside the warrior-cleric; a dozen Boise cavalry formed a blunt wedge on either side of them, light horse in short mail shirts, armed with saber and bow and small round shields. They’d remained loyal to the young man, believing his version of their ruler’s death rather than his elder brother’s. And because the travelers from the west had saved his life in that massacre, the younger son was willing to risk all for them.

Impulsive. Still, he is only eighteen, Father Ignatius thought, from the lofty height of his mid-twenties; but he had been trained to self-command in a hard school.

Yet he is one who seeks the good, I think. In somebody who may have the ruling of men and lands, that is a pearl beyond price. Wisdom can be learned—able men are common, but good ones are far rarer.

“Very soon now, my son,” he said quietly.

Frederick’s nod was half-seen in the night. Starlight glittered on honed metal as the Boiseans drew their curved swords. They left their bows cased in the boiled-leather scabbards at their knees; shooting in a night-time melee was an invitation to friendly fire casualties. Ignatius pulled on the strap that slung his long kite-shaped shield over his back, shifting it around until he could run his arm through the loops, and then took the long ash lance in his right hand. A long deep breath, and one last prayer. It was too dark to make out the black cross and raven on its sheet-metal cover, but he knew they were there, and what those symbols stood for.

Suddenly they could all hear horses neighing in fear, and a sudden brabble of shouting from the camp three long bowshots ahead of them, and then a scream of human pain. And the war-cry of the Church Universal and Triumphant: “Cut! Cut! Cut!

Ignatius filled his chest and shouted: “Jesu-Maria!” from the bottom of his lungs

He swung the lancepoint forward as he did, bracing his feet in the long stirrups. The curved top of the shield came up under his eyes, the blunt point at the other end reaching down to his foot in the stirrup. The light eastern quarterhorses on either side picked up speed faster than his charger, and they were carrying a lot less weight anyway. But the destrier was seventeen hands tall, and a great deal of that was leg; it caught up quickly and then gained a little with each stride. Riding at this speed over unknown ground in the dark was asking for your horse to break a leg and roll over you when it fell...

But I’m riding towards men who want to kill me anyway, he thought. The Lord God has a sense of humor, eh?

The Boiseans were shouting USA! USA! as they rode. Figures loomed up out of the night, on foot and horseback, scattering or turning to fight, and the sabers slashed. The long point of the knight’s lance took a mounted man in the belly; Ignatius could feel the double crunch-crunch up the ashwood as it speared through the front and back plates of the Cutter’s armor.

Impact slammed him back against the high cantle of his war-saddle. Black under starlight, blood shot out of the Cutter’s mouth in a spray that wet the cleric’s shield and face. The lance broke across in a hard crack; he clubbed the stub of the shaft on a footman’s head and then let it drop, sweeping out his cross-hilted sword.

Jesu-Maria!” he yelled again. Then: “A rescue! A rescue!”

 

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Mathilda Arminger could see the cutter leader—not the officer in charge of the fighting men, but the one-eyed man named Kuttner—start erect and put a hand on the hilt of his shete. She tensed silently; the troopers hadn’t been gratuitously cruel, but they hit the captives if they tried to speak. Beside her Odard turned his head, blinking his eyes... or at least the one that wasn’t swollen nearly shut. He’d kept trying to talk longer than she had. Her rage had been a slow-burning fire; now it swelled up, and hunger and thirst and aches dropped away, and even the maddening consciousness of her own filthy itchiness. She was suddenly very glad the enemy hadn’t bothered to take her armor, instead of being driven nearly mad by the heat and constriction.

That’s arrows! she thought exultantly as she hear the distinctive whssst sound. Then: Careful. It might be rovers or deserters or bandits.

The Cutters knew her hostage value. Ordinary desert scum wouldn’t.

Kuttner’s mouth was open to shout when the noise came out of the west; horses in shocked fear, and then men.

“See to it!” he snapped.

The Cutter officer was already moving, whistling sharply for his horse. The superbly trained animal trotted over to its master; he grabbed the horn of the saddle and swung up with a skipping vault as it went by, his feet finding the stirrups. A part of her grudgingly admired the horsemanship; the man’s leather-and-mail armor was lighter than a western knight’s panoply, but it was still a formidable display.

Kuttner stayed on his feet, the heavy slightly-curved sword that easterners called a shete—derived from the tool, but lengthened in blade and hilt—in his hand. His one blue eye probed the darkness. From it came the officer’s bark:

“There can’t be more than five or six of them! Ai!” That was pain, and the voice was tight when it went on: “Get them, you gutless sons of apostate whores! No, don’t bother shooting, you idiot—you can’t see them! Blades out, swing wide to either side and charge!

Kuttner’s head whipped to the east; there was sound from that direction too, the rumble of hooves building to a gallop, and then a mingled crash and clatter of weapons and a cry of Jesu-Maria! And USA! And then, even better: “A rescue! A rescue!”

“Kill the prisoners!” the Cutter leader barked, and ran towards the sound.

Mathilda felt ice crawl up her spine and pool like water in her gut. She’d been lying with her legs curled up; now she lashed out with both her feet. They were bound at the ankle, but she had her boots on. They just barely touched the overlapping plates of leather armor that covered the guard’s legs like chaps. He hissed in anger and drew his shete, raising it for a chop. Beside him his comrade did likewise.

That was a mistake. Odard had managed to writhe around and get his feet beneath him. The young baron of Gervais bounced forward like a jack-in-the-box, his mailed shoulder hitting the second man in the side like a football tackle and sending him lurching into the first. That delayed them an instant as they staggered and found their footing again, but they both turned to chop at the young nobleman as he sprawled before them with an involuntary grunt of pain as he crashed to the ground.

That was a mistake, too. A patch of the night seemed to rise behind them, and something flashed through the starlight—a black hardwood dowel, linked to the one in Ritva Havel’s right hand by a short length of chain. It whipped around one Cutter’s neck with blurring speed; the free handle slapped into her other palm, and she wrenched her crossed wrists apart with explosive force.

The Cutter spasmed as the huge leverage crushed his larynx and snapped his spine like a pecan in a pair of nutcrackers. The shete that flew out of his hand struck Mathilda in the stomach, edge-on, hard enough to hurt even through the titanium mail of her hauberk and the padded gambeson beneath. She grabbed it with both bound hands and cut the rawhide thongs around her boots with one quick upward jerk; it was good steel, and knife-sharp. Then she jammed the flat of the blade between her knees and slipped her wrists over to saw at those bonds.

All that took seconds. That was time enough for the other guard to cut backhanded at Ritva. The broad point of the shete slashed sagebrush from her war-cloak, but she was throwing herself backward in a full summersault as the blow spent itself on air, hitting the toggle of the cloak and drawing her slender longsword as she did.

Lacho Calad! Drego Morn!

The Dúnedain war-cry split the night: Flame light! Flee night! But half a dozen Cutters were closing in, on horse and on foot.

Mathilda paused just long enough to slash through Odard’s bonds; he was wheezing from the awkward impact of his fall, but doggedly trying to get back on his feet. Then she picked up one of the Cutter shields and stepped to put herself back-to-back with Ritva.

Haro, Portland!” she shouted. “Holy Mary for Portland!

And Mary help me, I’m as stiff as an arthritic old lady! she thought desperately.

She raised the clumsy, point-shete and tried to ignore the pins-and-needles in her arms; this one was far too heavy for her wrists, anyway. It wobbled a little despite her best effort, and she whipped it through a figure-eight to loosen her cramped arm and shoulder.

“Mary’s over trying to save Ingolf’s fool neck,” Ritva said, and laughed.

 

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Morrigú!” Rudi shouted, and thrust his bow thorough the carrying loops on the bandolier that held his quiver. “At them, Mackenzies!”

All two of us, he thought. Three if you count the dog!

He swept out his longsword in the same motion and snatched the buckler clipped to his scabbard with his left hand, making a fist on the grip inside the hollow of the little soup-plate sized steel shield.

“I’ve got your back, Chief!” Edain called, and followed as he ran forward, Garbh at his heels growling like millstones.

The Cutters were all looking back over their shoulders at the sound of a second attack from who-knew-where when Rudi ran out of the night, and he thought they were probably wondering whether to shit or go blind. The crucial thing was not to let them get their balance back and their wits about them...

Then he was in among them, and time slowed. Vision flashed and blurred, expanding and shrinking at the same time—threats, blades and bows, and targets, joints and faces, everything else not really seen at all. It was the gift of the Crow Goddess, only to be called upon in extremity.

A jarring thump as he dodged in under a lance-point and cut into the inside of a man’s elbow, where the gap was between the mail on his upper arm and the leather vambrace on his forearm. The man rode on, shrieking and looking in disbelief at the spouting stump where his arm had been.

Rudi whirled away with dark drops spinning from the edge, and chopped into the hock of a horse. It screamed stunning-loud, rearing and pitching over backwards and bringing another down with it. A clothyard shaft went whirrt over his head and into a mounted archer’s chest and the shaft he had meant for Rudi disappeared into the night. Another’s arrow went wide as Garbh locked her fangs in the horse’s nose and sent it into a rearing, bucking frenzy.

Two men coming at him on foot. A thrusting lunge as he ran, and his point went under the brim of a helmet and crunched through the thin bone at the bridge of a nose and crack into a brainpan. His buckler stopped a full-armed cut, the force of it jarring the little shield back until the edge of the shete just touched his shoulder; then the Cutter was staggering off-balance and the boss punched back into his jaw, and bone crumbling under it like candy-cane in a careless grip...

 

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“Ingolf! Move, man, move!”

Father Ignatius abandoned the sword jammed tight in bone and spurred his horse forward, jerking his war-hammer free where it hung by its thong at his saddlebow. Godfrey’s armored shoulder struck the Cutter who’d been about to chop down the dazed-looking man manacled to the yoke, but even in the dimness Ingolf’s battered face looked blank and his eyes were haunted pits. The destrier reared and crow-hopped on its hind legs as the cleric slugged it to a desperate halt and wheeled it around.

Then in the midst of the melee the warrior priest’s eyes went wide. Mary Havel was fighting sword-and-shield against a short one-eyed man Ignatius recognized from descriptions, but that wasn’t what made him stare.

“Lord of Hosts!” he blurted.

Rudi Mackenzie was coming through the thick of the Cutter press, killing at every second step, eyes showing white all around pupils grown huge, teeth barred in an ululating banshee wail loud even in the clamor of battle. A swordsman staggered back and fell, his pelvis shattered by a kick. Another reeled away with half his face sheared off, hands scrabbling at the impossible wound. An enemy rider struck downward with the horrified desperation of a man finding a scorpion on his chest. Sparks flew in a blue-and-red shower where the Mackenzie’s buckler knocked the shete away, and a thrust to the man’s armpit sank six inches deep in a snap like a frog’s tongue after a dragonfly. That turned into a backhand cut...

Even given surprise and shock the Cutters were tough fighters; he’d seen that in the battle with the Boise army two days ago, and they’d rallied swiftly tonight. Now they began to give way, a first few blundering away in panic, or lashing their horses heedless into the night, others trying to break contact so that they could flee without taking a blade in the back.

Ignatius knew why, and his mind stuttered. A man could strike swiftly, or precisely, or very hard; a little more of one meant a little less of the others, and you had to do the best you could of all three at once. The Mackenzie was moving like moonlight on a waterfall despite all the handicaps of darkness and unknown ground, each blow laid like a surgeon’s, each landing with the lashing force that clove mail-links and lacquered bullhide... and then topped a man’s head like a boiled egg. He’d seen Rudi fight before, and been impressed, but that had only been a skirmish. Nothing like...

Like a sighted man among the blind, Ignatius thought numbly. Like some pagan God of war.

Then the fight was over, the survivors of the Cutter force throwing down their weapons and exploding outward in screeching panic. All but one; the one-eyed man landed a cut on the side of Mary Havel’s helmet. A sharp bonk sound rang, and the woman buckled at the knees. The victor raised his shete to kill.

Cranng!

The shete blow skidded off Rudi’s longsword. Strong and skilled, Kuttner cut backhanded at the bigger man’s neck. The blow stopped halfway, and the longsword was through Kuttner’s body just below the breastbone, two feet of blood-slick steel glistening out his back.

And he smiled, with blood running black between his teeth. And he dropped his weapon and shield and reached out with both hands; they fastened on Rudi’s neck and pulled his own body forward along the yard of swordblade until the cross-guard thumped against his ribs.

I—see—you,” he rasped.

The voice had nothing to do with the bits of lung he spat out through a laughing mouth. It ground out the words like a mill that minced human bone, and it was gleeful.

Raven—Son—of—Bear. I—see—you.”

Rudi lunged backward, releasing the hilt of his sword, striking upward with hands bunched between Kuttner’s arms in a move skilled and quick and hugely strong. He might as well have struck a statue cast in bronze, and for a moment he froze in goggling surprise as a move he knew had to work failed totally. The blood-covered teeth grinned closer and closer, ready to gnaw off his face as the dead man giggled, and he began to scrabble desperately at the unhuman grip.

Behind Kuttner, Ingolf Vogeler moved at last, with the clumsy intensity of an exhausted ox. Staggering, his eyes showing nothing but blind determination and an even deeper hate, he drove the end of the heavy ashwood yoke across his shoulders into the back of Kuttner’s head.

Thunk.

Bone crunched, and the walking corpse froze for an instant, but its grip did not loosen. Rudi hammered at wrists and elbows, struck a desperate upward blow with the heel of his hand at the angle of the other man’s jaw. Kuttner’s head jerked to the side, then turned back at an angle, dangling loose but still grinning. The quick savage strength of Rudi’s movements turned slow, a feeble scrabbling as his face turned purple, visible even in the darkness.

But Mary Havel was already coiling up off the ground, her sword held in the two-handed grip and one foot locked around the Cutter’s ankle for leverage. The sharp blade landed behind the man’s knee, and cut all the way through to the kneecap. He buckled sideways and fell like a tree, taking Rudi with him.

And his hands still squeezed. Ignatius half-fell out of the saddle, running forward to smash at the obscene shape; so did three or four others, and someone thumped him in the ribs with a blade that would have killed if he hadn’t been in armor. He ignored it. They all flailed at the dead man until the body was cut and battered into a bloody mass of meat and bone and organs, but even then the hands kept their grip on Rudi’s throat until the tendons were slit and the bones they anchored on splintered.

A panting silence fell amid the latrine-salt-and-copper odors of violent death, with the sound of someone vomiting in the background and a few cries as the Boise cavalry made sure of the enemy wounded. Ignatius looked around, and saw Edain and Mathilda Arminger kneeling on either side of Rudi’s limp form. The woman tore off his padded mail coif and pressed on either side of his larynx with the palms of her hands.

“It’s not crushed!” she cried, a little shrill with relief.

The Mackenzie coughed, and his eyelids fluttered open. Then he coughed again, deep and racking. Edain offered him a canteen; Ignatius didn’t have time to intervene before Rudi sucked at the water, coughed and snorted it out his nose, spat aside and drank more. The cleric released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

Awareness returned to Rudi’s blue-green eyes. “We’d best be going,” he said hoarsely. “It’s not a spot that seems pleasant to linger in, so.”

 

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Rudi and his companions made camp ten miles southward, in a place where two brick walls of a farmhouse burnt out a generation ago still made a corner. That let them have a small sheltered fire that couldn’t be seen at a distance; they’d sleep during the day and continue by night. They’d managed to get a fair amount of their gear out of Boise, if not the big Conestoga wagon they’d been carrying it all in. Ignatius tended a pot of stew, salt pork with dried vegetables and beans; the dark close-coupled priest was the best camp cook they had. Horses whickered in the darkness from the picket-line, and their smell added to the strong scents of sage and sweat and oil and metal and burning greasewood.

Rudi finished grinding a nick out of the edge of his sword, ran a swatch of oily sheepskin over the blade, sheathed it and laid the scabbard aside wrapped in the broad belt that also held his dirk. His stomach twisted in hunger at the savory smell from the cookfire, but he winced a little as he accepted a bowl and some biscuits and took his first sip.

The swelling bruises on his throat made swallowing painful; they made breathing a matter of care, though thank Her of the Healing Hand that they hadn’t had to insert a tube or anything of that sort. He ate cautiously, a little at a time. That was one of a symphony of pains and aches, from minor cuts to bone-bruises. At that, he’d been lucky and gods-favored. The memory of those troll-strong dead hands on his throat still made an unpleasant sensation crawl over his scrotum and up his belly. It had been seconds away from being too late. If he hadn’t decided to put on the coif before the fight...

Remembering Someone looking through Kuttner’s eyes into his was worse yet.

“My throat’s raw,” he said, and hid a slight shudder. He turned to Odard instead of dwelling on the eerie otherness of what had happened:

“I didn’t see your man, Alex,” he croaked.

I can talk. As long as I’m careful.

The young baron’s eyes usually held a cool reserve. There was no mistaking what was in them now.

And if Alex could see them, he’d not stop running until he hit salt water, and then only so he could swim, Rudi thought.

“I didn’t either, and that’s why he’s not dead,” Odard said grimly. “And if I had him back in the castle at Gervais... I do believe I’d have him flogged to death. Usually having the High Justice is a bit of a bore, but there are times when it can be very satisfying.”

Mathilda had mopped her emptied bowl with a piece of the bannock and was lying with her head on a saddle, apparently reveling in having her war-harness off for the first time in three days. She was the same age as Rudi, but right now you could see how the strong bones of her face would look when she aged, and locks of her reddish-brown hair clung to her forehead.

Rudi suppressed an impulse to smooth them back, then decided not to bother and did it. She smiled at him; it died away as she spoke:

“He laid Odard out with a crossbow-butt and held me at the point of the bolt while he surrendered us to the Cutters.”

Rudi shaped a silent whistle. “That is a surprise. I’d have said he was a brave man—and loyal to the House of Liu, too.”

Odard’s hand closed reflexively on the hilt of the sword across his lap; he was a little less than a year younger than Rudi, and several inches shorter, with a handsome high-cheeked, snub-nosed face, raven-black hair and slanted blue eyes the brighter for the natural olive-umber hue of his skin. His voice recovered a little of his usual ironic detachment as he went on:

“He is. Loyal, that is. Unfortunately he’s loyal to my mother... the Dowager Baroness. And she’s been in contact with the Church Universal and Triumphant. Apparently she told him... passwords, codes... to use with them if he thought he had to.”

He looked away slowly. “I told her to stop it. I thought she’d listened. Apparently she didn’t, even though I’m of age and Baron now. I’m going to have a little talk with her when we get back.”

My mother is going to have a little talk with her,” Mathilda said. “Sovereigns before vassals, Odard.”

The young nobleman looked alarmed; however furious he was with her, Lady Mary Liu was his mother. She’d conspired with foreigners against the Crown Princess—her man had pointed a crossbow at the Crown Princess—and they both knew that meant arraignment for high treason against the Throne.

“That... is for you and the Lady Regent to decide, your Highness,” he said. “I... I really can’t say anything in her defense, only plead for mercy.”

Rudi was angry enough himself, but he winced a little inwardly at the thought too. Not that Sandra Arminger, Regent of the Portland Protective Association, took any particular pleasure in inflicting pain and death. She just used it as a tool, which was considerably worse, if you were on the receiving end. Policy kept going when a sadist’s pleasure in cruelty might be glutted and stop.

Then her daughter frowned. “Well... the way it was, they had us cornered. We would all have died, probably, if we’d fought. Alex might just have been trying to save your life. And they didn’t, well, do anything to us except tie us up.”

Odard shrugged expressively. “I’ll still have him flogged to death if I can.”

Rudi ate a biscuit to hide a slight grimace of distaste. Odard Liu wasn’t the complete bastard that his father had been. Edward Liu had been—

—what was the pre-Change word?

What lot of Norman Arminger’s original supporters had been; they’d had a term for it in the old world, not bandit or outlaw as people would say these days, but—

Ah, sure, and that’s it. Then said ‘gangster’ back then. Or ‘gangbanger’.

Odard’s mother had been from a Society household—a lot of people who’d been in the Society for Creative Anachronism had ended up as leaders in various places, Arminger himself among them, though only the most ruthless had been able to stomach Matti’s father. For that matter, the PPA as a whole wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been in Norman Arminger’s day, before Rudi’s blood-father killed him and died himself in a spectacular duel between their armies at the end of the War of the Eye.

‘Better’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’, though, Rudi thought. Then he said: “It’s a little early to be planning revenge, so. Unless the man presents himself within arm’s reach of you. We’ve more important concerns.”

Mathilda sat up and focused her hazel eyes; there was puzzlement in them now, as well as relief and affection.

“Yes, we do! What in the name of all the saints happened back there, Rudi? You were weird enough—“

“The Morrigú was with me,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’d have been dead about... seven times, else.”

Matti nodded. “But what about Kuttner? He wasn’t just... just berserk, the way you got. That was... what was that?”

“I’m not altogether sure,” Rudi said, his voice still hoarse.

He touched the bruises on his throat with gingerly caution, the mark of fingers that had squeezed through mail and padded stiffened leather and neck muscles as strong as braided rawhide.

“But I think,” he went on thoughtfully, “I truly think that I was near as no matter throttled to death by a man already dead himself three times over. Both parts of which sentence are a bogglement and enough to make a man run into the trees screaming for his mother, so.”

He grinned at his own joke, you had to show willing and that went twice over when you were in charge, but...

It would be funny, if only it were funny, he thought. Sad it is that I’m a little old to have mother kiss my hurts better. Though in this case, it’s as a High Priestess and a spellweaver I’d be asking it of her! And even so...

Juniper Mackenzie could do many remarkable things. Raising dead men wasn’t among them, any more than she could change lead into gold or fly by wishing it or throw lightning-bolts from her fingertips. Verbal ones, yes, but not the literal split-the-tree type.

Ignatius looked up from his task. “That was a case of demonic possession, I think,” he said calmly, and handed out more filled bowls. “I’ve never seen anything like it myself, but the old accounts from long before the Change describe very similar things.”

Rudi nodded. Allowing for the different words Christians used to describe it, he thought the soldier-monk was right.

“The Powers are many, and not all are friendly to human kind,” he said, and rubbed his throat again. “As I can now painfully testify!”

Ingolf Vogeler looked up from where he sat, a blanket around his shoulders.

“I... I thought Kuttner was just an asshole with an eye for other people’s boodlebags,” he said, in his Wisconsin rasp. “When I thought he was working for the Bossman of Iowa, when Vogeler’s Villains went east on that salvage mission from Des Moines. Then when he turned out to be a spy and a traitor working for the Prophet and killed my people and dragged me off to Corwin, I thought he was your common-or-garden variety evil shit. And yah, there was a lot of mystical crap in Corwin, but I cut that eye out of Kuttner’s head when I escaped and I thought that proved it was all just a show for the yokels.”

Rudi spoke as gently as his abused larynx allowed: “After what you saw on Nantucket—the Sword—and the message you got there, I’d have been less dismissive of mystical crap, myself, Ingolf.”

The easterner shivered. “Yah, tell me. I was wrong. When the Cutters had me cornered, Kuttner just... he said a word and made a sign with his hand, and I couldn’t move. That’s how they took me alive. I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but what he said... it was like some sort of spell.”

Rudi leaned over, gripping the other man by one thick-muscled shoulder and pouring strength through the contact. He could see the Midwesterner was bothered by the very word, although that was strange. Or maybe not; he wasn’t a witch, after all, and Rudi was, even if he was no great spellcaster or loremaster like his mother. He’d seen before that those not of the Old Religion could be spooked by the commonest things, sometimes.

How to hearten him? Well, the truth never hurt:

“Ingolf, my friend, you did move, despite the spell. You smashed in the back of his head with that yoke; and I’d be dead now, if you hadn’t. At a guess, he laid an evil geasa on you before you escaped him last year. There are ways of doing that, for good as well as ill, and planting them deep in a man’s mind with a word of power to call them out. And working harm that way leaves a man open to... other things; the Threefold Rule, you know.”

Ingolf crooked a smile. “Yah, he got back worse than he gave me, didn’t he?”

He was cored out as a cook does a pepper for stuffing, Rudi thought, and swallowed painfully.

“The command laid on you could be post-hypnotic suggestion,” Ignatius said, with a scholar’s precision; the Shield of St. Benedict were a learned Order as well as a militant one. “Not necessarily magic.”

Rudi grinned at him, and quoted a saying of Juniper Mackenzie: “It doesn’t stop being magic because you can explain it, Father.”

Ingolf’s haunted dark-blue eyes met his, and the easterner touched his mouth and winced a bit before he spoke.

“You stuck a yard of sword through his brisket, and he didn’t stop. Then I crushed in the back of his head, and he still didn’t stop. Cry-yiy, that sounds an awful lot like magic to me.”

“And I cut his leg mostly off,” Mary Havel said. “That didn’t stop him, either. It did make me feel better about his clouting me on the head with a sword earlier, though.”

“It didn’t stop him, but it did make him fall over,” Ritva pointed out cheerfully. “Which helped everyone else cut him up and smash him and things. Carthmag, sis.”

Which meant useful deed in Elvish. Neither of the twins seemed much put out; at least, they didn’t show much of the dread that several of the others did. But then, they were witches, and Initiates; two-thirds of the Dúnedain Rangers were, after all. Even if they did call on the Lord and Lady as Manwë and Varda, which he considered an affectation, rather than using more conventional names like Lugh and Brigid.

Everyone fell silent for a moment, turning in to their own thoughts. Mary and Ritva each hugged her knees and rested her chin on them, which emphasized their mirror-image likeness. It brought out their resemblance to Rudi, too—the high cheekbones and slightly tilted almond-shaped eyes they all showed were probably from that shared blood. Mike Havel had been one-quarter Anishinabe Indian, the rest mostly Finn with a dash of Norse, all strains common in the Upper Peninsula mining country of Michigan he’d come from, long before the Change—fifty-odd years ago, now.

Their mother Signe probably contributed the wheat-colored hair and their eyes, which were just the shade of a morning sky; the Bear Lord had been flying her and her parents and brother and younger sister Astrid over the Idaho mountains not all that far from here when the machines died, and had got them down alive. And brought them to the Willamette country, and from that much had flowed... not least a fleeting encounter on a scouting mission that had produced one Rudi Mackenzie!

I wonder what flying like that was like? Rudi thought wistfully. He’d been up in balloons, and flown gliders and hang-gliders a few times, and that was better than anything but sex. But to be able to fly where you wanted for as long as you wanted, as fast as a bird...

Frederick Thurston spoke. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.

He was the youngest there, a year younger than Edain, still a little gangly with the last fast growth of adolescence, though at six feet he’d probably gotten all his height. His face was the color of a well-baked loaf, and his hair a short-cut black cap of tight curls; General-President Thurston had been of that breed miscalled black before the Change.

“Sure, and that’s often advisable,” Rudi said. “And we’ve all cause to be grateful for the direction of your thoughts, so.”

“I... I don’t think I should try to fight my... fight Martin. Not right now.”

His full-lipped mouth twisted as he spoke his elder brother’s name. Rudi nodded in sympathy. Hard, hard to be betrayed by close kin, and see your own father killed by your brother’s hand.

The commander of the little Boise cavalry detachment looked at him in alarm; Rosita Gonzalez was a dark wiry woman in her early thirties, with a sergeant’s chevrons riveted to the short sleeve of her mail-shirt.

“Sir, we can’t let him get away with it! He killed the President.

Frederick nodded. “No, sergeant, we can’t let him get away with it... and bear in mind that the President was my father. Though he’d want us to think of the country first.” Grimly: “Though in this case, the personal and the political go together. He has to die.”

And your late President was the man you resembled, as you said that, Rudi thought. Suddenly you didn’t look young or uncertain at all. Which is interesting in itself, eh?

The younger of the Thurston men—they had two sisters, both still girls—went on:

“But from what we’ve heard, he has gotten away with it for now. The vice-president and half the top command died at the Battle of Wendel.”

“What a coincidence. Convenient for the bastard.”

The usurper’s brother winced; it was plain he’d loved his elder sibling.

And love doesn’t die as clean as a heart-shot deer, Rudi thought.

He’d liked Martin Thurston himself, on short acquaintance and before his treachery was revealed.

A dying love kicks and thrashes, and then the carcass of it festers and it can poison the waters of your soul as surely as a dead goat in a well. Fred here is still trying to draw what he saw down into his gut and believe it.

But he went on doggedly: “And the others, the brigade commanders and regional governors... they’ll be his men soon enough. He’s even got a fairly good excuse for restoring the State of Emergency powers, with a war on, and canceling the elections Dad... the President... was going to call. This wasn’t something he... did on the spur of the moment. It’s long-planned. If I tried to come out in the open now, not only would there be civil war, but I’d lose. And that would be the end of any hope of putting things right.”

Gonzalez looked at him. “What do you want to do, then, sir?” she said carefully. “Since defeat is not an option.”

“Give him enough rope to hang himself. Look... this isn’t just about us, about Boise. This Prophet son-of-a-bitch... it’s more than a warlord with a big appetite, those are a dime a dozen. I believe what Rudi says, now, and I believe Ingolf about what he saw out east on Nantucket. I want you and the others to spread the truth. Cautiously! When the time’s right, I’ll be back to do my part. By then, things will be ready. I’m willing to fight Martin, it’s worth it, but not without a chance of beating him.”

“Yes, sir,” she said respectfully. “If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a very... adult way to look at it.”

“I know when my birthday is, sergeant,” he said.

Her dark hard face turned to Rudi. “And you’ll have this Sword you say is waiting for you on Nantucket?” she said skeptically.

“If I live, Rosita,” the Mackenzie said gently. “Nothing’s sure... except that there’s no hope or luck to be found turning away from a task the Powers have laid on you.”

“Frankly, I never really believed Ingolf here,” she went on. “No offense! I know you believe it, Ingolf, but... well, a lot of stories come from the outlands. Creepy places with enchanted swords and extinct animals...”

“There’s a passenger pigeon at Dun Juniper,” Rudi said quietly. “Most of us here have seen it. That came from Nantucket.”

“And the Prophet believes the story,” Ingolf said. “He put Kuttner in when the Bossman hired me to go east, and Kuttner was his main secret agent in the household of Iowa’s Bossman. And when I escaped from Corwin, he risked pissing off everyone on the west coast by sending his Cutters after me. They near as damn-all did kill me; if Rudi and his friends hadn’t been there that night...”

Rudi touched one hand to the livid bruises that Kuttner’s dead hands had left on his throat, through the mail collar and padding.

“You were there,” he said. “You saw this.”

Gonzalez swallowed and looked away. “Yeah... Yeah, I was.” She shuddered. “Hell, I saw a dead man keep fighting until we cut him to pieces. Christ. So maybe a magic sword isn’t so loopy after all.”

Ingolf nodded; he seemed to have cast off most of his chill, but he held out his big battered hands to the coals of the fire.

“It’s there,” he said flatly. “I saw a hell of a lot of things on Nantucket, and some of them may have been me going bugfuck, but the sword is there. And the Voice, the voice that told me to go find the son of the Bear Who Ruled and tell him about it.”

Astonishingly, he grinned a little. “Didn’t know what to expect... but you’re not as furry as I thought you might be, Rudi.”

The Mackenzie laughed at that, then stopped himself: it hurt too much.

“What’ll you do, then, Fred?” he asked the general’s son. “Take to the mountains? Go west? My mother would welcome you and give you sanctuary at Dun Juniper. You might find a few Mackenzie bowmen who’d come back with you in a while as well, to be sure.”

“And the Lady Regent would make you welcome, in Portland,” Mathilda said. Her spine straightened. “And she’d give you gold, and knights and men-at-arms to follow you. My House owes you a blood-debt now, a debt of honor.”

“Or you could go to Lord Alleyne and Lady Astrid in Mithrilwood,” the twins said—their voices were so close together that they had an eerie overlaid quality.

Ritva went on alone: “Aunt Astrid would love it. An evil usurper to put down and an exiled prince to help! It’s just the sort of thing Rangers are supposed to do.”

Stanon,” Mary said, nodding: absolutely, in Sindarin.

“I’ll come with you, if you’ll have me,” Frederick said quietly, looking at Rudi. “I’ve got a feeling that... it’s real important you get where you’re going.”

He smiled, and his face looked young again, despite sweat-streaked dust and new lines worn by care and grief. “And back! Don’t forget that!”

“Sir!” the cavalry sergeant said. Then: “Well, I suppose it’ll be interesting...”

Frederick Thurston shook his head, just once. “No, sergeant. You and the troops will stay here. You’ll report to your units as if you’d gotten separated at Wendell and you’ll keep your heads low until you know you’re safe.”

He held up a hand at her protest. “And you’ll spread the truth... carefully. When I get back, I want things to be ready. Major Hanks will be in charge of setting up a... network, I think you’d call it. I doubt Martin, the new regime, will pay any attention to an engineering officer.”

Gonzalez’ mouth quirked a little. “He’ll probably mothball that pedal-powered blimp Major Hanks loves, sir. And that’ll make him even angrier than he is right now!”

Rudi thought quickly, and then held out his hand; Frederick’s grip was hard and strong. He shook hands all around; it had the air of a solemn rite, somehow.

“Welcome to the quest,” Rudi said. “I’ll be glad of your help and company, Fred.”

“And we’re back up to nine,” Ritva said; she and her sister nodded, solemn as owls. “It’s canonical.”

They both looked innocent when Mathilda glared at them, and one of them tipped Rudi a wink. He laughed himself, and rose to help Ignatius smother the fire.

“Your sisters may be wiser than they think,” the priest said quietly as they worked. He went on at Rudi’s raised eyebrow:

“I have been thinking of what this quest means,” he said, with the scholarly precision he used for serious matters. “Have you noticed that you seem to be... collecting people? Of a particular type?”

Rudi chuckled. “Sure, and I so seem to have an attraction for disinherited princes,” he said.

“That is because you are a hero, I think.”

Rudi frowned at him. “Well, thank you—“

The priest shook his head. “No, I’m using the word in a... technical sense. I suspect, my son, that you are a hero in the sense that Sigurd or Beowulf or Roland was. Heroes accrete heroes around them; heroes, and great evils. I thought that was true only in ancient story, but apparently the archetype holds true in our lives as well.”

“Ah,” Rudi said softly. Was that a goose that just walked across my grave?

“Well, for my sake, I hope you’re wrong, Father,” he said. “I love the old stories, but sure and I’d rather listen to them than live them out.”

“I too. Human beings live by their legends; but if what I suspect is true, then we are living in one.” A wry smile. “But even Our Lord was refused when he asked that the cup pass from him.”

“Something my mother said once... that my birth-father had walked into a myth without knowing it. I hadn’t expected the same to happen to me.” He shivered slightly. “Does it make it better or worse that I know?”

“Perhaps we should have expected it,” Ignatius said soberly. “We children of the Change. It took the technology of our parents from us—but that is not all. Other things are... moving into the vacated spaces. It is as if time were moving backward in some fundamental way.”

“Back to the time of legends,” Rudi said.

“Into the time of myths,” Ignatius agreed.

“I wonder what will happen if we go too far back?” Rudi said.

Ignatius looked up at the stars. “We find God. Or God finds us.”

 

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It took Rudi minutes to cast off the mood the priest’s words had laid on him.

But it’s only so long a man can ponder on the deep things, he thought. Whatever shapes the Gods have in mind for him to wear, he’s also just a man.

“Walk with me, Matti,” he said. “Or rather, hobble by my side.”

They walked out a little into the dark. He started to put his arm around her shoulders, and winced at the sharp stab of pain, then completed the motion.

“Sore?” she said sympathetically.

“From my face to my toes; and likely to be more so tomorrow.”

Mathilda nodded. “I’m feeling like my own grandmother. You fought more but I spent twenty hours tied up in a hauberk.”

Rudi nodded. “I almost wish I had a real wound to distract me, so. But glad I am to have you back in good company, Matti, my anamchara; while you were gone I came to a better understanding of the great whacking hole your absence would leave in the scheme of things.”

She looked up at him and smiled, but...

“Something troubling you?”

“It’s not fair,” she laughed.

“What?”

“You’re perceptive too. Male obliviousness is supposed to be a woman’s last defense.”

“Ah, well, I have three sisters and a mother,” he pointed out. “And Dad... Sir Nigel... only came along when I was ten. Gave me an insight, so it did.”

Her face turned serious. “You know, when we were cornered by the Cutters, we thought we were going to die.”

“By the Trickster, so did I when they cornered me! All ready to meet my late blood-father, so I was. And was rescued not by my own efforts but by a god from the machine... or at least, a machine sent by the gods.”

She frowned and nodded. “Well, as they were closing in on us... just before Odard’s man Alex laid him out with the crossbow-butt... he said he loved me.”

“Ah,” Rudi said, suddenly alert. “And what did you make of that?”

Mathilda made as if to punch him in the chest, then reconsidered; it would be more painful than a playful gesture should.

“None of that question-to-a-question Socratic thing! It’s irritating enough when Juniper or Father Ignatius does it! And you’re no holy man.”

“Well, if you’re asking me if he’s sincere... I’d have said that Odard was the great love of Odard Liu’s life. But he’s a man with a great sense of style, too...”

“Meow!” she said. “And declaring his love as a dying act would be stylish?”

Rudi smiled and shrugged.

“It couldn’t have been just for advantage,” Mathilda said slowly. “We were dead, Rudi. And that hit on the head was the real thing; he’s still hurting from it. And when you rescued us... he threw himself under a sword to save me.”

“And not even his worst enemy—the which I am not; I like him—would deny that he’s a very brave man.”

She glanced at him from the corners of her eyes; he could tell she thought he was being a good deal too fair. “Aren’t you the least bit jealous? Just a teeny bit?”

“Sure, and I didn’t mean to be insulting!”

“You are! Jealous, that is.”

Steadily, Rudi went on: “I would be a bit jealous at the least, were I afraid you’d decided you were the love of Odard’s life.”

“But I’m not of yours,” she said quietly. “Am I, Rudi?”

He turned and put a finger under her chin and kissed her. It was gentle—with his face in its present state it couldn’t be otherwise—but warm. Not the first time they’d kissed, but...

“Woof!” she said, a long moment later.

“Woof indeed,” he said, clearing his throat to get the huskiness out of it. Then:

“Matti, I can’t fall in love with you, or you with me. We’ve known each other too long! But the love’s there, never doubt it.”

“I won’t be any man’s lover, except my husband’s,” she said defiantly. “Not even yours, Rudi.”

He nodded—she was as constant in her faith as he was in his, and hers put some very odd demands on her.

The problem being that it doesn’t mean she dislikes my flirting with her. It just means she’s guaranteed to keep saying no. Which may be fine for her, but would leave me walking in a most odd and mirth-provoking way, after a while. I do love her but I’m not a Christian.

“And were I your handfasted man, there would be no other for me,” he said soberly. “But...”

She shook her head and sighed. “But right now, we’re going to be running and hiding and fighting, not courting.”

And when we get back, there will be matters of State, and of our gods, he thought.

Tears pooled in her eyes; the starlight sparkled in them, and it occurred to him that a man could drown himself there and account it a pleasant passing. He brushed them aside with his thumb.

“Shhhh, don’t be sad, anamchara. We’re alive, and together, and while those are true we won’t be lonely,” he said. Then, with a sly edge in his voice: “Frustrated, perhaps...”

This time she did poke a finger into his ribs, and laughed, which he’d wanted. He yelped and they walked back towards the dying embers, a puddle of glowing red in the vast darkness about.

“Time to get some sleep, then,” he said, and nodded to the twins; they ghosted off to take first watch.

“I’m... going to do some letters,” Mathilda said. “You brought my writing-kit. Maybe Sergeant Gonzalez can deliver them for us, sometime.”

“Now that’s a good idea,” Rudi said. “But I’ll do mine in the morning. We’ve a very long way to go...”

And further still to our homecoming, he thought with a stab of longing. And peace and rest.

 

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