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This is the last sample chapter.

 

THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER TEN:

 

“As fire forges steel

So pain brings wisdom forth;

Not lightly won, but with blood

All the god suffers is known

By His chosen ones—“

 

From: The Song of Bear and Raven

Attributed to Fiorbhinn Mackenzie, 1st century CY.

 

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Western Wyoming, Grand Teton Mountains

October 6th, CY 23/2021 AD

 

I bind your eyes, your nose, your ears, brother deer, Ritva Havel thought, turning her will into a dart. By the Hunter and the Huntress, come to meet your fate!

Then she withdrew her mind, becoming one with the musty scent of damp decaying leaves and wet earth and pine-sap from the twigs that studded the loops set on her war-cloak, the feel of water soaking through the knee of her pants from the damp earth where she knelt, with the gray light through the misty rain. The mule deer was a second-year buck, his rack of antlers still a modest affair. He was plump with autumn though, his ruddy-brown coat glossy, working his way down from the heights where the snow-season had already started.

Here it was just cold, the drizzle slanting down through open forest of tall slender lodgepole pine and short squat limbers, knocking more of the faded old-gold foliage of the quaking aspens and narrowleaf cottonwoods to flutter down and make the earth beneath slippery with wet duff. The brush ahead of her and to either side was virbunum, scarlet in this season; the withered red berries were still dense on the spindly stems, and the deer was working its way along the edge of the tongue of woodland, nibbling at the fruit while its tall ears swiveled like a jackrabbit’s and the black-tipped white tail quivered over the snowy patch on its rump. Mountain bluebirds called as they flitted from branch to branch, feeding on the same bounty.

Closer, and she could hear the slight mushy tock as the deer’s hooves cleared the ground. Her own breath scarcely moved the gauze mask, but her stomach abruptly cramped—they’d been hungry, and Rudi needed better food if he was to heal. Fifty yards, forty, thirty... you looked at the spot where you wanted the arrow to go... twenty...

I am the bow and the arrow, the hunter and the prey...

The bow came up as she drew to the ear in a single smooth motion, and the cloak fell away from her arms. A slight creaking came from it as her arms and shoulders and gut levered against the force of the recurve’s stave, stretching the sinew on the back, compressing the laminated horn on the belly and bending the slice of yew between them. The string lifted from the final curve at the tips, the bow bent into a deep C, and the arrow slid back through the cutout in the riser. The deer began its stiff-legged leap even as the string rolled off her fingertips.

Snap. The string lashed the hard leather bracer on her forearm, and there was a quarter-second’s blurring streak through the air. Thunk.

That was the distinctive wet sound of a broadhead striking flesh. The quick-release toggle of the war-cloak snapped under her fist and she cleared the viburnum in a single raking stride, ready to chase or shoot again. Starlings rose in a chittering flock from the trees around her as she moved, hundreds wheeling in perfect unison and coasting downward to new perches. She reached for a new arrow; an injured animal had to be run down and given the mercy stroke or a hunter would lose all luck, and you couldn’t always count on a quick kill. This time the deer took three staggering steps and collapsed, its limbs kicking for a moment; then it stretched out its neck and went limp.

“Good!” Ritva said, wiping off her bow and sliding it into the case against the wet.

She stopped and gathered up her cloak, slid her sword through the buckled frog on her belt and slipped her buckler onto the spring-loaded clip on the sheath. The deer’s eyes were blank by the time she arrived, beaded with drops of the rain that pooled like tears. Her arrow had sunk to the fletching behind the ribs on the left side, angling sharply forward and either striking the heart or severing the big veins next to it as the razor-sharp triangular head punched in. The death had been very quick; a single moment of surprise and pain, and then the dark.

“I’m sorry, brother,” she murmured, glad of that.

She bent and passed a hand over the deer’s eyes, and then her own; touched a finger to the blood and then to her forehead.

“Thank you for your gift of life. Speak well of me to the Guardians. Go now and play beneath the forever trees on the mountainsides of the Undying Land, where no evil comes, until you are reborn.”

To the forest: “Thank you, Hornéd Lord, Master of the Beasts! Bring this my brother’s spirit home to Her who is Mother-of-All. Witness that I take from Your bounty in need, not wantonness, knowing that for me also the Hour of the Hunter shall come, soon or late. Earth must be fed.”

Then she bent and caught the deer above the hocks, heaving backward and pumping her legs to keep it moving, and wheezing a little too; the carcass weighed as much as she did, and she wasn’t a small woman. You needed a tree to gralloch a deer properly. Hanging it up by the hind legs made it drain thoroughly and it also made it easier to gut and quarter.

Also she wanted to get out of the open meadow; they hadn’t seen any sign of pursuit for a while, but these alien mountains weren’t the friendly confines of Mithrilwood, or even the further Cascades, where you could kindle a little fire and eat the liver fresh as was ancient hunter’s right. Spit ran into her mouth at the thought; there was nothing like liver or kidneys right out of the beast, grilled on a hot twig fire with no relish but a little salt.

“If you could get a fire going in this misery,” she muttered to herself.

A trickle of skin-rippling cold rain ran down inside her collar. The rest of her clothes were just damp, but they’d be wet soon if this went on. You got used to that if you spent a lot of time outdoors, but that didn’t make it any fun. And it leached the heat out of your body, which meant you had to eat more.

Then her head came up beneath the shadow of the lodgepole she’d selected, and she frowned as she blew on her fingers to keep them supple; you didn’t want your grip to slip when you were using a skinning knife.

What’s the matter? she thought. Is it the weather?

The low clouds hid the peaks eastward, and even the glacier-polished granite upper slopes of this broad valley. And yes, it smelled like it was going to get a lot colder; maybe snow, maybe heavy snow. They were well above five thousand feet here, and it could be dangerous, even though she wasn’t all that far from camp. But it wasn’t that which made the skin between her shoulderblades itch.

As if absently, she whistled softly as she cut a branch for a spacer, trimmed it to points on both sides, ran those between hock and tendon, tied a rope to it and hoisted it up. There was no reply from Mary...

Uh-oh. Something is wrong!

Her senses flared out, but the rain was stronger now, a white curtain of noise, blurring sight and drowning scent. Four trees big enough to hide a man stood close-by.

It was the smell that warned her, even in the damp; a sudden shift in the wind brought the scent of woodsmoke soaked into fur and leather, and the distinctive taint of wool cloth full of old dried sweat wet again with the rain. She’d just started her whirl and lunge when arms long and cable-strong clamped around her from behind. The man whipped her sideways, and her wrist struck the tree-trunk painfully. The knife skittered off, pinwheeling into the mass of dead leaves and fallen needles.

Ritva hunched her shoulders and threw her weight downwards, but the arms gripped harder and lifted her off the ground—the man was strong as a bear, and tall as one too, and knew what he was doing. A half-dozen thin red braids wound with eagle feathers and bits of turquoise on the ends swirled around her face as they struggled. She whipped her heel backward, and heard a grunt as the boot connected with a knee.

“Keep still, woman!” a voice grunted in her ear, harshly accented and smelling of stale breath and unscrubbed teeth. “I win badges for wrestling!”

Ritva did keep still for an instant—and then whipped her right foot back up over her own shoulder as she felt him adjust his grip. You had to be very limber to do that, but it took him a little by surprise. The toe of the boot didn’t crack into his face; he’d pulled his head aside. But it did graze along his jaw, and that made the arms slacken a bit. Not enough to wrench free; they were so bear-tight she was having trouble breathing, but enough so that she could get her left hand down along her sword-sheath.

No point in trying to draw it, she thought. But...

Her fingers closed on the grip of her buckler. She stripped it out of the clip, swayed her hips to one side, and did her best to smash the hard, hard edge into her unknown assailant’s groin. Again he was too fast, but the edge hit his hipbone instead, and even without much leverage the thump was enough to paralyze him with pain for an instant. In that instant she stamped down on the instep of one foot, and felt something yield. She was wearing laced boots, and he apparently had some sort of soft moccasin on instead.

A grunt of pain and bad breath by her face, and she wrenched herself free. The motion turned into a whirling circle-in-place, but as she turned her hand snapped down on the hilt of her sword and swept it out. The steel swung in a blurring arch of silver in the gray rain as she turned, but the man suddenly wasn’t there; he’d flung himself back and pivoted in the air above the waist-height swing of the longsword, then backflipped again, hands-down and then snapping upright. His tomahawk and long knife flicked into his hands.

Ieston esgerad gweth lín!”, she snarled in baffled fury that tasted like vinegar at the back of her mouth. ”And then I’ll stuff them down your throat!”

Nobody had a right to be that fast, except her and her sister. Well, perhaps Aunt Astrid, and Rudi, and by reputation Grand Constable d’Ath. And nobody whatsoever had any right to be able to sneak up on her that way. Nobody had, not for years.

The man grinned at her and circled; she turned on her heel, keeping the sword and the buckler up. He was tall, as tall as Rudi; lanky rather than leopard-graceful, but the crushing power of those long arms was a dreadful memory. He’d known what he was doing, too; if he hadn’t been trying to subdue rather than kill she’d be dead or crippled or at least unconscious already.

Just a trace of a limp. And he doesn’t look like there’s any armor there, she thought.

He was wearing fringed leggings of mottled buckskin and a long woolen shirt covered in rondels of cloth sewn with images—a bow, a canoe, a horse, more—and a bearskin tunic over that. If he had a backpack or supplies, he’d cached them elsewhere.

“You are not like the women of the Prophet’s men,” he said.

The fighting-axe and bowie made precise, lazy circles to draw her eyes; she kept them on his, instead, and let the focus blur a little so that peripheral vision would be the sharper. The white plumes of their breath puffed out into the chilly falling drizzle, slowing as they controlled the impulse to pant.

“They are sheep,” he went on. “You are a she-wolf, like our Scout women, worthy of badges of merit of your own; I have followed you many days, and seen your skill. I will take you back to the Morrowlander camps northward, and you will bear strong cubs. The Prophet can go find comfort with his wooly ewes.”

Alae, nago nin, hwest yrch!” she said. “Oh, bite me, orc-breath!

She was used to male admiration, but this was ridiculous. To herself she added: He didn’t notice that there were two of us? Where is Mary?

“And—“ the man began.

He attacked as his lips began to move, sweeping the hammer of his tomahawk towards her temple and flipping the bowie into a reverse grip so that the foot-long blade lay along his forearm, ready to block a cut.

Clung-tung!

Steel rang on steel as she swept the buckler around and up to knock the tomahawk aside. The impact nearly tore the little steel shield from her hand, and did send a jag of pain through her wrist and forearm, making her grit her teeth and work the fingers against the wooden grip to get the numbness out. The sheer strength was shocking, but Ritva was used to male warriors who were stronger than she was; men her height often had twenty pounds more muscle on their arms and shoulders. She wasn’t used to fighting men that fast. She had to duck, because the deflection barely sent it over her head.

Ouch! she thought, and lunged, her right foot throwing up a ruck of forest-duff as she extended.

The Scout was used to fighting with men who used shetes, point-heavy slashing blades with the balance thrown well forward of the hilt. He leapt backward and landed with a grimace of surprise. A spreading red spot showed where she’d touched him, on the front of his wool shirt just above the solar plexus. She could see his eyes widen a little as he took in her sword and what it implied, thirty inches of double-edged steel starting at two thumb’s width and tapering to a murderous fang.

The shete hit hard, but once a blow was parried or missed its weight pinned the wielder’s arm for an instant, and there was enough time for an agile man to get inside with shorter weapons. The western longsword in Ritva’s hand moved like light on sparkling water; it could drive at him like a spear, and cut anywhere along either side as quick as the flick of a beetle’s wings.

Now he would fight to kill, for survival’s sake.

Lacho Calad!” she shrieked, and attacked. “Drego morn!

“Akela!” he shouted back, grinning.

Ting! The sword skidded off the blade of the bowie, and she jerked her torso back just enough that the tip of the knife scored the green leather over her mail vest. Tack, and the return cut at the side of his leg was caught by the tough rawhide-bound ashwood shaft of the tomahawk; he tried to twist the sword out of her hand by turning the notched blade of the hand-axe against it. She leapt backward, launching a frantic stop-thrust as her foot came down on a root...

In the end it came down to who slipped first. He skipped aside from a rush as she came in foot and hand behind the point of her sword, and the narrow head of the tomahawk came down on her left shoulder. It didn’t cut through the light mail, or break the bone beneath—not quite. She gave a hiss as cold fire washed through that side of her body and the buckler slipped out of her fingers. Pivot, lunge

Wet leaves skidded out from beneath one of the Scout’s moccasins. He still fell backwards, but the point drove into his shoulder until it scored bone; she could feel the ugly jarring sensation up the blade and through the hilt. The fine steel bent and then came free again as she recovered. He threw the tomahawk, and won a few seconds when the top punched her ribs and she grunted with the impact. Then she lunged again, and the point sank four inches into his thigh.

That was enough. She recovered and retreated, right foot shuffling back to left and left moving back in turn, her mouth open as she brought her breathing back under control. Suddenly she was stiff and her legs wobbled, and she leaned forward a little to take the air in; her sight dimmed for an instant as the diamond clarity of life-or-death passed. Her enemy had a hand clamped to the leg-wound, but blood welled around it, and the shoulder was bleeding too, and that arm was useless for now.

I’m not getting near him, he’s too dangerous, she thought; her own left arm was still weak, and the shoulder was starting to really hurt where the axe had smashed flesh against bone. I’ll wait until he bleeds out some more and weakens, then finish him.

The man saw it in her eyes, and nodded respect. Ritva raised her sword in salute.

“You fought well,” she said, and in English. “Speak no ill of me to the Guardians; I’ll make it quick.”

He grinned, showing his strong yellow teeth; the face beneath the braids was turning a little gray.

“You let me live, I tell you about your sister,” he said. “I give my word—honor of a Scout—I will not fight you or your people again. I go to place deep in woods, heal up.”

Painfully, he brought three fingers to his brow in some sort of ritual gesture. She looked into the pain-glazed eyes and nodded.

“You’re the one who’s been dogging our tracks?” she said.

“You’re good tracker, but I’m better!” he said, proudly boastful even then. “A Scout of thirty badges! I track you for the Prophet’s men, with a priest.”

“A priest?” she said.

“War-priest out of Corwin. High Seeker, they say.” He spat aside. “Warlock, evil. We split up this morning when you two do—capture one, make her talk, he says. We know you all stop, make camp, hunt for food.”

“Are the Cutters behind us?”

“Many days. Lost their horses, had to find more, not too many and not too good, pushed ‘em too hard. Not used to nursing bad horses. We leave sign for them to follow. Go to your sister. Go now.”

Ritva gave one crisp nod, toed the bowie-knife over to where the man lay—he could cut bandages with that, enough to staunch the bleeding so he could get to wherever his gear was stowed—and ran.

 

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Closer, she slowed, ghosting from tree to tree. If Mary was still up the tree watching, she’d...

Then she heard the scream. It came from the right place, and she slowed still further. Her left arm was still weak, too weak to use her bow.

Move swiftly, but don’t dart; it draws the eye.

The rain had tapered off to a falling mist, but that cut visibility, too. A snort from a horse as it caught her familiar scent; their dappled Arabs were tied up to a line strung between two trees, but there was a third there—a strong nondescript brown beast, looking worn-down as if by long hard riding. She ghosted closer...

Mary screamed again; she was up against the hundred-foot pine she’d been using as a blind, and a man in a robe the color of dried blood was holding her by the throat. Holding her off the ground, and squeezing, and her face was a mass of blood. The Dúnedain longsword lay on the ground nearby, and a shete; they were both red, the sticky liquid turning thin and dripping away as rain washed the steel.

Look... at... me,” the man—the priest—in the robe said. “I—see—you.

His other arm ended short of a hand, and it had a rawhide tourniquet bound around it; even then Ritva found a fractional instant to be shocked. An injury like that would leave a man flat on his back with shock for days, at a minimum! And the hand was lying not far off.

“Look... at... me,” he said again. “Tell... me...

The words sounded dark. Not just deep or gravelly; and as if they had more weight than words could bear, as if they were suffused somehow, like a man’s face when he strained at a heavy load, like a weight that dimpled the surface of the world as a heavy footstep would a sheet of taut canvas. Suddenly the cold wet sapped at Ritva’s strength with a feeling of dreary hopelessness. Not just fear, a wrongness that only flight could cure, enough space between her and this thing that she wouldn’t have to think about it any more. She couldn’t walk towards that.

Instead she ran to him. “Try looking at me!” she screamed, gathering her will.

The sword flashed down as he turned and released her sister; he batted at the gray-silver streak with his injured arm, but the blade raked across his chest. The wound wasn’t instantly deadly, but she could see the skin split and blood well out... and then stop.

And he smiled. He smiled at her.

I—see—you,” he said.

Lord of Blades, be with me! she thought desperately; and the fear blew out of her. Maiden of the sword, aid me!

She set both hands on the hilt of her longsword as he came towards her.

He’s like the guy Rudi fought. He doesn’t feel pain, her mind thought dispassionately. Or shock. And so he won’t faint or go wobbly. Maybe he won’t die right away if I stick him through the heart. No point in thrusting. And if he can get that hand on me, I’m dead. Damn slippery wet ground! But he’s got to reach for me first.

He did, moving in a jerky series of motions, as if he were being operated by a puppeteer, and not a very skilled one. But the grab nearly caught her arm; he was fast.

Ritva whirled away, and she cut. The tip of his thumb caught against the point of her sword. The man looked down at it, flexing the rest of the hand, then bringing it to his mouth to bite off the mangled bit and swallow it. When he grinned at her as red ran down his lips, mixing with the rainwater.

Clever,” he said. “You—are—too—clever. All—of—you.

“Thiach uanui a naneth lín le hamma,” she spat, and began a lunge. “You’re ugly and your momma dresses you funny.

It was a feint, and the man betrayed himself with a snatch at her sword-wrist, ignoring the glittering menace of the point. She cut backhanded...

It became like a fight in a nightmare; cut and back, cut and back, against a figure that would not fall, no matter what she did, that stumbled after her even when she landed a drawing slash on the belly. Once three fingers closed on her left wrist, and the shocking strength in them made the bones creak. She leapt up and drove both her feet against the man’s chest and heard bone snap as she tore free and rolled away in three full back-summersaults. He was there, raising a foot to stamp the life out of her; she cut at his leg, kicked again and again to pull herself free.

He tried to crawl after her even then, but the leg was hanging by a thread. His body stiffened, and he made a sudden sound—a croaking scream, and life came back into the flat stare, as if the man had been poured back into himself and was suddenly alone in his skull once more, naked before the pain of what had been done to his body. Then he went limp.

Ritva put the point of her sword into the soil, kneeling and holding onto the quillions, breath whooping in and out as she struggled not to vomit or give way. Her vision narrowed in to a dim tunnel that was muddy-colored at the edges. When she could stand she went to Mary and knelt beside her. Her twin was lying curled around herself, hands across her face, making small sounds through her clenched teeth.

“Let me see it,” Ritva said, pulling at her hands. “Let me see it!”

“I killed him. Then he hit me,” she mumbled, and let her twin pull the hands away.

The face turned up to the rain was her own... or it had been. Now there was a slash running down from just above the nose to the left cheek, and the clear matter of the eye was mixed with the blood.

“I’ll get the kit,” Ritva said, swallowing.

They had some morphine left, though not much. She tried to stand and nearly collapsed herself as she put her weight on her left arm.

The bloodied hands caught at her. “I killed him. Then he hit me.”

 

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A dog barked, a wooorugh of greeting and of alarm at the scents of pain and injury. Ritva forced her eyes open, and saw Garbh dancing before her horse, fur bristling.

“Mother of God, what happened to Mary?” Ingolf’s rough voice asked.

The sound took a minute to penetrate the fog of cold and exhaustion that wrapped Ritva’s mind more thickly than the building snowstorm did the forest around. The Richlander caught at the bridle of her horse; Ritva swayed in the saddle, automatically tightening her grip on her sister who rode before her. The other twin’s face was a mass of bandages—that helped keep her warm, too, along with the cocoon of blankets she’d rigged, and Ritva’s own body-heat, though she was shaking with a chill that seemed to go straight to her gut and spine and into her head.

Their campsite was hidden in a hollow, a set of dome-shaped shelters of tight-woven pine branches; the snow was starting to catch on them, turning them into white curves, and flakes hissed as they were blown sideways under the hood of the same construction that covered their fire. More slanted down out of darkness, like ribbons of white between the tall slim mountain pines. Everyone else came boiling up; some asking questions, Edain grimly silent and moving like a wind-up toy in the old stories. He silently unslung the quartered deer from the led horse and took it over to the hearth and set to his share of the other chores.

Ingolf lifted Mary out of her arms. Odard and Fred and Mathilda caught Ritva as she started to topple, tended to the horses, half-carried her over to the largest shelter and through the low door of blankets and branches. It was warm within—warmer, at least—with rocks heated in the fire and changed as they began to cool. Father Ignatius began to unwrap the bandages around Mary’s head; someone helped Ritva pull off her wet gloves and thrust a mug of hot broth into her hands, and she managed to wrap her fingers around it before it spilled. The liquid almost scorched her mouth, but she could feel every drop of it as it made its way down her gullet and into her nearly empty stomach. She’d eaten the deer’s liver, raw, but nothing else in the...

“How long?” she asked, through chattering teeth.

Another mug of the broth came, and she was suddenly aware of the salty aroma of the boiled-down jerky and minced squirrel. She forced herself to sip, and help as others got her wet clothes off and herself into her sleeping-bag; more of the hot rocks went into that as well, wrapped in her spare clothes. Her mind began to function again as her core temperature rose, enough to be conscious of how weary she was, and even of how the light of the lantern slung from the apex of the shelter jerked and twisted on the anxious faces around her. The pine-scent was overwhelmingly strong, like a cool cloth on a fevered brow.

“You’ve been gone a day past when we expected,” Ingolf said. “What the hell happened?”

She described it in short words, ending with: “They’re not going to follow us any more. But the warlock and the lunatic with the badges left a blazed trail to where Mary and I met them. That’s only twelve, fourteen miles east. How’s Rudi?”

The others remained silent, silent as the blanket-bundled form who lay on his stomach not far away. Father Ignatius said from where he worked:

“He’s no worse... well, perhaps not much worse. The antibiotic cream is containing the infection, but the wound in his back in particular doesn’t want to heal... of course, the conditions haven’t been very good for convalescence.”

His breath sucked in as he undid the last of the bandages. Everyone looked; Frederick Thurston winced and looked away almost immediately, but he was the youngest of them.

“I’ll have to remove the remains of the eye, cleanse and stitch. The wound is already angry... I wouldn’t have expected that, so soon and in cold weather.”

Ritva blinked. “I cleaned it and packed it with the powder!”

Ignatius nodded, hands busy. Mary stirred, and gave a stifled shriek as she came aware again, then subsided into a tense shivering quiet.

“Can you hear me?” the warrior-priest said, as he swabbed her face.

Ingolf was on her other side. The cornflower-blue eye swiveled from the cleric to him, then to the rest of them, and to Ritva, and she sighed. Her hand came up, and the easterner took it.

“I... can hear you. It’s seeing you that’s a problem! How come there’s two of you when I’ve got only one eye left?” Mary said, and barred her teeth in what might have been a smile.

Ignatius nodded sober approval, took the vial of morphine from the kit, frowned a little as he saw the level, and then began filling a hypodermic. Ritva remembered bargaining for the precious painkiller in Bend, with Mary as the other half of her...

“I can’t use too much of this,” he said, as someone came in with a kettle of boiling water and poured it into a shallow basin; the shelter was already set up as a sickroom for Rudi. “I’m afraid there will be some pain.”

“Alae, duh,” Mary said.

Ritva flogged herself into wakefulness while the work went on; her sister’s other hand was in hers, and the bones of Ritva’s creaked under the pressure of her grip. Ingolf sat at the other. When it was over, he helped wipe away the sweat of agony.

“Feels... like nice... stitching,” Mary said, timing the words to her breath to control it. “We never were... good at embroidery.”

“I’ve used some of the numbing oil,” Ignatius said. “You should sleep now, my daughter.”

“Thanks,” she whispered. Then her eyelid fluttered. “Guess... I can live with... one eye.”

“No,” Ritva said. “You’ll have three, sis.”

“Five,” Ingolf said.

He waited until her breathing grew regular, then tucked the hands inside the sleeping bag.

“How soon can she be moved?” he asked the priest.

“Ideally... not for weeks,” Ignatius said, and then shrugged wryly as he tossed the last of the soiled cloths into a bowl. “But moving her will be much less risk than moving Rudi.”

Ingolf’s battered face closed in like a fist. “We have to. Move ‘em both. Twelve miles isn’t enough, even with the storm to cover our tracks.”

Unexpectedly, Frederick spoke: “I’ve seen reports on these mountains. From now on, the storms can come one after another for weeks. We could get stuck here. But there are caves further up this valley. Dad used them for, uh, scouts, back when we were having problems with New Deseret.”

Ingolf nodded. “We need to get further away... a cave would be right. We’ll rig two horse-travois.”

Ritva let her mind drift away. I don’t have anything I have to do right now, she thought. It was enough to make her smile, as the dark flowed up around her like comfort.

 

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Western Wyoming, Grand Teton Mountains

October 15th, CY 23/2021 AD

 

Rudi Mackenzie dreamed.

In the dream he rose from his sickbed, looking down for a moment at the thin, wasted form. Edain watched by his side; now and then he poked at the low fire that burned with a canted wall of piled rocks behind it to absorb and throw back the heat. The others were dim shapes in the depth of the cave; Epona looked up and whickered at him, and Garbh bristled a bit and whined until Edain absently stroked her head.

He turned from them and walked out through the gap in the pine-branches that blocked the entrance, knocking a little snow down on his bonnet. He was whole, and free of pain; looking down he saw that he was dressed in his kilt and jacket and plaid, knee-hose and shoes. His senses were keen but the blizzard outside was only bracing; he could hear the wind whistle in the Ponderosa pines, and feel the sting of driven snow on his face, smell the dry, mealy smell of it as branches tossed in the thick woods above and below.

But I’m not really cold, somehow, he thought, smiling to hear the moan and creak of the wind’s passage.

He walked down the path. An overhung ridge of rock topped with three twisted trees made the trail kink, creating a sheltered nook in the storm. A man stood there, leaning one shoulder against the rock. A brisk fire burned at his feet, throwing smoke up to where the wind caught it above the ridge and tattered it into the blowing whiteness. To one side a tall spear leaned against the cliffside, broader-headed than most horseman’s weapons; he thought there were signs graven in the steel. A horse stood some distance off, unsaddled but with several blankets thrown over it and its head down. It was a big beast, but hard to see; the wolf-like dog that raised its head as he approached seemed massive as well. Saddle and bedroll and gear lay beside the fire, and a pot steamed over it.

The man was tall too, taller than Rudi but lean. As the Mackenzie came closer he saw that the stranger was old; at least, his shoulder-length hair and cropped beard were iron-gray. His dress was that of the eastern plains and mountains, neckerchief and broad-brimmed hat, sheepskin coat and long thick chaps of the same, homespun pants and fleece-lined leather boots, poncho of crudely woven wool longer at the rear than the front. Closer still, and Rudi could see that the lids of his left eye closed on emptiness; the other was the color of mountain glaciers, and as cold.

“You’re welcome to share my fire,” the man said, making a gesture towards the pot.

His voice rolled deep, cutting through the muted wind-howl. Rudi nodded, swallowing a prickling sensation as he bent and poured himself a cup—thus making himself a guest. Not everyone felt that to be as sacred as Mackenzies did, but most folk would think three times before falling on someone they’d invited to share their food. The liquid was chicory—what most in the far interior called coffee—hot and strong and bitter, but this somehow also tasted of honey and flowers and a little of hot tar.

The dog growled at him a little, one great paw across a meaty elk thighbone...

No, Rudi thought suddenly. It’s a wolf, not a dog.

The gray man nudged the beast, ruffling its ears as he bent to pour himself a cup from the battered pot of enameled metal.

“Quiet, greedyguts,” he said. He glanced up; a raven sat on a branch that jutted over the rock, cocking a thoughtful eye at the wolf’s meal, and another sat beside it with head beneath wing. “And you two remember what happened the last time, and think twice.”

Then he leaned back against the rock again, blowing on his chicory and waiting, relaxed as the wolf at his feet.

“I’m called Rudi Mackenzie,” the young clansman said slowly, as he straightened and met the other’s eye; strength flowed into him with the hot drink, easing a weakness he hadn’t sensed until that moment. “But I’m thinking the now that I know your name... lord.”

The older man’s features were jut-boned, bold of chin and nose, scored by age but still strong, as were the long-fingered hands that gripped his own cup.

“Call me Wanderer,” he said. He smiled a little. “And I know your father.”

“Sir Nigel?” Rudi asked.

“Him too. But I was thinking of your blood father. You might say he bought a ticket to the table I set out; him and many of his kin, from out of deep time.”

Rudi finished the cup and set it aside; the last of his discomfort seemed to vanish with it. He raised his head and met the Other’s gaze.

The eye speared him. For a moment he seemed to be looking beyond it, as if the pupil were a window; to a place where everything that was, was smaller than that span across the eye. Then a flash, a searing that was more than light or heat, while being itself flexed and shattered and reformed in a wild tangle of energies; then a wilderness of empty dark where stars lit, like campfires blossoming... and then guttering out as they fled apart, until there was another darkness, one where the stuff of his body itself decayed into nothingness. And in that nothingness, a light that looked at him.

Rudi blinked and swallowed, daunted but not glancing aside. The deep voice went on:

“Shall I show you your fate, boy? Shall I tell you if you die untimely or live long?”

“No, my lord Wanderer,” Rudi said softly. “My mother is a weaver, and I know that every thread has its place and is part of the whole. All men die. None die untimely, and no man may live a day longer than he lives. So if you’ve come to lead me away, I am ready.”

He dared a smile. “Though I’ve heard you send your daughters for that job.”

And there’s a good deal I’d rather do first... he thought.

Suddenly an image came to him, painfully bright; a room with a bed, and Matti’s face exhausted and triumphant as she looked up to him from the red crumpled-looking infant cradled in the crook of her arm, and a shadow of his own exultant joy.

The Wanderer laughed, and though it was a soft chuckle there was an overtone to it like the crackle of lights over the mountains in winter. There was approval there, but by something greater than men or their hopes and sorrows.

“Good! Though you won’t be meeting Göndul, as your father did. You’ve pledged yourself to another, and I’m not inclined to quarrel with Her.”

Rudi’s mouth quirked. “It seems you’ve something else in mind then, my lord the Wanderer,” he said.

The figure nodded. “But unasked, I will tell you this: you won’t die in the straw of sickness, nor of an arrow in the back, even a cursed one. Though you will not live to feel your shoulders bend with age, or see your hair grow gray.”

“How, then?”

“You will die by the blade, sword in hand. The King’s death, the given sacrifice that goes consenting with open eyes, dying that his folk may live.”

“As my father did, whose blood renewed the land. Thank you, then, lord Wanderer. Though I’ve seldom called on You by name.”

The Wanderer flicked away the grounds in his tin cup and tossed it to the damp earth beside the fire. “No?” he said. “But your mother has called on Me, in her grove, when you lay wounded and near to death. And you have as well. Come.”

He put his hand on Rudi’s shoulder. They took three steps to the edge of the trail to look downward, and his poncho flared in the wind, seeming longer now. A dead leaf flickered out of it as it masked Rudi’s face for a moment, and then he sucked in his breath.

I know that path! he thought.

It was nightfall on the roadway that ran westward from the waterfall and mill to the gates of Dun Juniper, where the schoolchildren practiced an hour or two shooting at the mark most evenings. The trees beyond and below were Douglas fir, taller and thicker and closer-set than the pine-forests of the Tetons, each dark-green branch heavy with its load of snow. It was a softer fall than the blizzard about him, of flakes larger and wetter... the snow of a winter in the western foothills of the Cascades, one that would lay a few days at most, not grip the land like cold iron until the end of May.

Close at hand a column of kilted children were walking through the gathering dark, cased bows and capped quivers over their shoulders, with a few adult warriors among them—one had a lamp slung on a spear over her shoulder, a globe of yellow light in the fog-white of the snow.

“That’s Aoife Barstow,” he said slowly. “She and her lover died fighting for me when the Protector’s men came, only a little later... I offer at their graves every year.”

The children started singing. He recognized one clear high ten-year-old’s voice. It was his own.

 

Upon his shoulder, ravens

His face like stone, engraven

Astride an eight-hoofed stygian beast

He gathers the fruit of the gallows trees!

Driving legions to victory

The Bringer of War walks tonight!”

 

“By the name you invoked, by the blood she spilled, by the offering made beneath the tree where she died,” the man said softly. “By these you called, and I answer at the appointed time.”

“She... named others than you, lord Wanderer. As have I, full often.”

Images passed before his eyes; he couldn’t be sure if they were shapes formed in the swirling snow, or his own imaginings, or as real as the blood he could feel beating in his throat... because that too might be illusion. A tall charioteer’s shape edged and crowned with fire, tossing up a spear that was a streak of gold across the sky and kissing it as he rode laughing to battle as to a bridal feast; a woman vast and sooty and bent, wielding a scythe that reaped men; a raven whose wings beat out the life and death of worlds. His hand went to the scar between his brows, where a real raven’s beak had touched him in the sacred wood.

“When I hung nine days from the Tree, I became a god of death,” the one-eyed figure said. “When I grasped the runes of wisdom I learned many names.”

He looked up. One of the great black birds moved in the skeletal branches above them. It cocked its head and gave a harsh cry and launched itself away, gliding down the slope on broad-stretched wings.

“And Raven and I are old friends.”

They turned back to the fire. If this isn’t the final journey, then I must be dreaming, Rudi thought, as they crouched by the red flickering warmth, across from each other, sitting easily on their hams.

The gray-haired man reached into a pocket, brought out tobacco and papers, rolled himself a cigarette single-handed, then lit it with an ember he picked out with a twig. He handed it across the fire; the Mackenzie took it, and inhaled the smoke—he’d done the same before, visiting with the Three Tribes. For a flickering instant as he inhaled the harsh bite across his tongue the shape on the other side of the flames had a prick-eared, long-muzzled face, and two braids of hair beside it beneath the hat.

“Are you truly that One men named the Wanderer?” Rudi asked boldly.

He could feel his fear, but it was slightly distant, like the cold of the wind. And well might a man be afraid, to meet Him on a lonely mountainside. He was a god of death; the lord of poetry and craft who’d given the runes to men and established kingship, but also bringer of the red madness of battle, of everything that lifted human kind beyond themselves. His favorites got victory, but they died young, and often by treachery.

A puff of smoke. “What would your mother say?”

She’d answer a question with a question, some distant part of Rudi thought wryly. And if I complain, say that you can only truly learn the truth you find yourself. Aloud:

“That the forms the God wears... or the Goddess... are many. And that they are true, not mere seemings or masks, but that they’re not... not complete. As are the little gods and the spirits of the land, or the Fathers and Mothers of the animal kind. They speak to us as we need them, if we’ll but listen. For how can a man tell all his mind to a child, or a god to a man?”

The other nodded. The great wolf raised its head and looked at him, then put its massive muzzle on its paws again.

“A wise woman, Lady Juniper, a very wise woman... and not least in knowing that what she knows isn’t everything that is.”

“You’ll be talking to me in riddles and hints, then, I suppose, lord Wanderer?”

The eye pierced him. For a moment he felt transparent as glass, as if he could suddenly see his entire life—not in memory, but though an infinity of Rudis, stretching back like a great serpent to the moment of his birth... and his conception... and before. As if all time and possibility were an eternal Now.

“Look, then,” the Wanderer said. “If you can bear it.”

For a moment the mountains about him stood stark and bare, only here and there a charred root exposed by the gullies cut by long-gone monsoon floods. Heat lay on it like a blanket, through air gray and clear and thick with the tears of boiling oceans. Then it changed and was green once more... but different, somehow; there was a wrongness to the way the trees were placed, a regularity that held patterns as complex as those you saw in a kaleidoscope, layer within layer. A rabbit hopped by...

... and silvery tendrils looped around it, thinner than the finest wire. The beast gave one long squeal and then froze as they plunged beneath its skin. Then it seemed to blur, as if it were dissolving, until nothing was left but a damp patch on the ground. Involuntarily Rudi looked down at his own feet. The Mother’s earth was beneath him, and he expected to feed it with his body and bones someday...

But not like that! he thought.

“Those were evil fates, lord Wanderer,” he said. “And true ones, I’m thinking.”

“Evil for more than men,” came the reply. “Now, tell me, son of the Bear. What would you do with a little child you saw running with a sharp knife?”

Rudi’s mouth quirked. “Take it from her, lord Wanderer. Swat her backside so that she’d remember, if she were too young for words.”

“And a child who took a lighter and burned down your mother’s Hall and all its treasures, so that many were hurt?”

“The same, perhaps with a bit of a harder swat. And call in the heart-healers to find the source of her hurt, and I’d see that she was watched more carefully, and better taught.”

Walker nodded. “You wouldn’t kill her? Even if you thought she might do the same again, and all within would die?”

Rudi made a sign. “Lord and Lady bless, no!” he said in revulsion, and then wondered if he’d spoken too quickly. “What a thought! If it was necessary, we... I... would keep her guarded always.”

“Some men... and some women... would have that thought. Some would act on it, and kill the child.”

The single eye looked out into a world that was once again pines glimpsed through snow.

“And some would have joy in the thought; or inwardly thank the chance that gave them the argument that it was necessary.”

“Lord Wanderer, I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to. Just remember this: the world—” somehow Rudi knew he meant more than merely Earth “—is shaped by mind. And the world in turn shapes the stuff of mind. And now a question for you: what is the symbol of Time itself?”

“An arrow?” Rudi asked.

The tall figure laughed. “A hero’s answer, if I ever heard one! And I’m something of a connoisseur of heroes. That’s natural enough. You’re at the age for it, for war and wild faring. So... watch.”

He turned and took up the great spear, its head graven with the same symbols that glowed on the brooch of his blue-lined gray cloak. Then his arm went back, paused, whipped forward with the unstoppable certainty of a catapult. The spear disappeared into the snow in a blurred streak.

“Was that a straight cast?” Wanderer asked.

“Very straight, lord; and I wouldn’t like to be in its way.”

They paused, in a silence broken only by the whistle of the wind. The single gray eye watched him, a chill amusement in it. Something warned Rudi, perhaps a whistle of cloven air that wasn’t part of the storm’s music; he turned and jumped backward with a yell, nearly stepping on the wolf’s tail. The spear flashed past, smashing a sapling to splinters as it came, and then there was a deep hard smack as the Wanderer caught it. His long arm swayed back with the impact, and then he grounded the weapon and leaned on it, the head glinting above his head as the dark wind blew flecks of ice past into the night.

“That was a straight cast,” Wanderer said. “But the line only seems straight because you can’t see its full course. Draw it long enough and it meets itself, like Jörmungandr.”

“I don’t understand!” Rudi said again, baffled.

“You don’t need to... yet,” the gray one said. “No man can harvest a field ‘till it is ripe, but the seed must be planted. The heroes offer to me for luck and victory. But the Kings... they ask for wisdom, if they have any to begin with.”

“I’d be glad of that,” Rudi said; he felt like arguing, but... that wouldn’t be wise at all.

“Would you? Then know this. Fact becomes history; history becomes legend; legend becomes myth. Myth turns again to the beginning and creates itself. The figure for time isn’t an arrow; that is illusion, just as the straight line is. Time is a serpent.”

Rudi blinked. He noticed the bracelet around one thick wrist, where the coat rode up; it was in the form of a snake, wrought of gold so finely that the scales were a manifold shiver that seemed to spin away in infinite sets.

Wanderer stepped closer. “Your friends are waiting for you, Artos, son of Bear and Raven,” the tall gray-haired figure said. “Go!”

He clapped a hand to Rudi’s back. The touch was white fire, and the Mackenzie stiffened as if existence shattered about him.

 

@@@

 

“I’ve got it!” he heard a voice say.

Gods and holy men, never a straight answer, he thought as he bit back a groan.

The white fire still ran in his veins; it narrowed down to a patch on his lower back, and he could hear the voice again. It was Father Ignatius.

“Holy Mary and every saint and God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be thanked. That was why!”

Shuddering, Rudi felt the sting as something swabbed at the wound, and a hand dropped a pus-stained bandage into a bucket. He could smell the sweetish odor of it, oily and with a hint of something like vinegar. Then real fire bathed it.

“I’m sorry, Rudi, but it’s necessary,” the priest’s voice soothed.

A hand took his; he knew it was Mathilda’s, and tried to remember not to crush her fingers. Then he realized he couldn’t, not even if he tried; her hand was carefully gentle on his. His whole body felt like the limp blood-and-matter soaked rag, hot and weak and stiff at the same time, with localized throbbing aches in his shoulder and back. He could speak, but he simply did not wish it. Even lifting his eyelids was too much effort.

“There was a fragment of the arrowhead still in the wound,” Ignatius said as he worked. “But this time the probe found it as I was debriding the dead tissue. Praise to the Lord in His infinite mercy! And Praise Him that Rudi was delirious through it. It’s far too close to the Great Sciatic.”

“Will he heal now?” Mathilda said anxiously.

“That is with God. But there’s a better chance.”

Another voice: Odard’s. “He needs proper food and warmth and a real bed,” the baron said. “So does Mary. My lady, let me take a little food and try and find a settlement. Ingolf, you said—“

“—that they’re not all Cutters in this part of the country, south of Yellowstone, yes,” the big easterner said. “But the operative word is not all. And my information’s a year out of date—a year ago, Deseret was holding out, too.”

“I’m willing to chance it,” Odard said.

“Are you willing to not talk, if they do take you?” Ingolf said.

“I... think so,” Odard said.

“Thank you, my old friend,” Mathilda said softly.

Then a complex whistle came from outside; Ignatius’ hands finished fastening the band across Rudi’s back, and he heard the soft wheep of a sword leaving a scabbard, and the little rustle of an arrow twitched out of a quiver.

Gîl síla erin lû e-govaded vín!” Ritva’s voice, and then in English: “I’ve found friends!”

Then in a strong ranch-country twang: “Gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā, y’all!

 

@@@

 

 

 

“We’ve got to move you, Chief,” Edain Aylward Mackenzie said gently.

The blue-green eyes opened, more like jewels than ever in the shockingly wasted face, and Rudi smiled at him.

“Good... glad to be... going somewhere,” he said.

Edain swallowed. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Means I’m not dead yet!” Rudi said.

He looks different, Edain thought. Better. But still sort of... like glass.

“Glad to have you back with us, Chief,” he said.

The strangers had a stretcher with long poles on the cave floor now, next to the injured man; it could be rigged as a horse litter, and it was padded with sheepskins. Together they eased him onto it; the thin face convulsed a little as they set him down.

“Sorry, Chief!” Edain said.

“Glad... to have you... there, boyo,” Rudi said.

“I don’t know why,” he said suddenly, as if a boil had burst inside him. “I got you wounded! And—“

Rudi opened his eyes again; he looked tired, but more there. “Bullshit,” he said crisply.

“What?” Edain rocked backward, as if slapped on the cheek.

“You were going to say you couldn’t save Rebecca. But you did save her, in the fight with the Rovers, remember?”

Edain shook his head. “And killed her later!”

“So you couldn’t save her always. You’re not going to live forever, boyo. You’ve saved my life more than once—but I’m not going to live forever either! Someday I’ll die whatever you do, or I do. It’s not just going on that makes life. That’s fear talking; or the fear of losing someone. I’ve... wrestled Thanatos knee-to-knee, this last while, and I know. It’s when you beat fear every day, that’s when you’re immortal. And I want you with me.”

He reached out and caught Edain’s wrist. “You’re my friend... you’re my comrade of the sword and my brother. My brother doesn’t run out on me!”

Edain gulped, and took a deep breath. “Right, Chief. It’s just...”

“Grief’s hard.”

“That it is.” He straightened his shoulders. “So’s the work halfway through harvest, but that never stopped me.”

 

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