Cover Map P 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

The Prophet’s council was made that day

When he called to him warrior and sage

‘The Lady’s Sword travels to the East

The Sword itself to take in hand;

Against that blade we cannot stand

And on his path he saves the weak

Who we would break.’

Counsel they took, evil in shadow

Against the hero, the Witch-Queen’s son—“

 

From: The Song of Bear And Raven

Attributed to Fiorbhinn Mackenzie, 1st century CY.

 

@@@

 

Twin Falls, Occupied New Deseret

Snake River Plain, Idaho

August 20th, CY22/2021 AD

 

“No, we should not kill them all, General Walker,” Sethaz said, without looking away from the window.

Twin Falls had been the northern anchor of New Deseret, a rich city with many fine craftsmen, thrifty merchants, and surrounded by irrigated fields the Saints tilled with skill and ceaseless labor. Now... from four stories up, he could still smell the cold ash and the bodies trapped under the rubble, or hanging from crosses outside the ruined walls. Survivors were rebuilding the fortifications.

Much had been lost in the sack. That had been regrettable but necessary; both as an example, and for the sake of the troops, who’d had a long frustrating campaign until then and needed to...

What did they say in the old days? Sethaz thought. Then: Ah, yes, ‘blow off steam’.

He had no mental picture to go with the proverb. Supposedly certain types of low-pressure steam engine still functioned after the Change—the large, heavy ones they’d called ‘atmospheric engines’—but such were banned in the Church Universal and Triumphant’s territories. He could feel a certain cold something moving at the back of his mind, a lowering rage at the very thought. With practiced ease, he forbade his mind to imagine the forbidden thing.

Odd, he thought. I don’t remember what I did in the sack, either. Just... flashes and glimpses. Nobody else will talk about it unless I command them. That was right after the old Prophet died.

Something had happened to him then. He didn’t like to think about that, either. Instead he looked at his triumphant soldiers in the avenue below. A caravan of loot was shaping up; the soldiers guarding it were a mixed lot, range-country levies equipped in everything from standard CUT lacquered-leather armor to mail shirts to vests of boiled cowhide to simple sheepskin jackets sewn with a few washers. They were all well mounted and armed, though, and they seemed cheerful.

Cheerful enough to sing from the Dictations as they mounted up and got things going with a crackle of whips and waving lariats:

 

Keepers of the Flame!

Sons of Dominion are we!

From before the crux of Time—

 

“The men are in good spirits,” he said calmly.

General Walker ducked his head; Sethaz could see the motion faintly reflected in the glass.

“My lord Prophet, that battalion’s from Havre District—“

“The Runamuck, Rippling Waters and Sweetgrass levies? Rancher Smith commanding?”

“Yes, my lord Prophet,” Walker said, blinking a little at the younger man’s grasp of detail. He went on:

“And they’re being released from active duty. Of course they’re cheerful; they’re going back to their home ranges and their herds, with a couple of girl-slaves each to screw and do the camp chores, and as much booty as their pack-horses can carry. It’s the ones who’re stuck here I worry about.”

The Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant was a man of medium height, sharp-featured, with a swordsman’s wrists and a bowman’s broad shoulders, his cropped hair and chin-beard brown and his eyes an unremarkable greenish hazel... until you looked deeply into them. He turned from the window and looked at him across the antique plainness of the room, which could have been pre-Change, down to the broadloom carpet and Home Depot office furniture.

The alien surroundings made Sethaz inclined to snap; he restrained himself with a practiced effort of will, pushing away the image of the soldier hanging by his ankles over a slow hot fire.

Walker was a little independent-minded... but then, with slow communications, you didn’t want a general who referred all his decisions to headquarters, either. His family had been among the first in the Bitterroot country to accept the Dictations, and they had prospered mightily.

And since the...

Since the old Prophet died, Sethaz thought, his mind shying away from the memory of that day. Since my stepfather’s lifestream rejoined the Ascended Hierarchy.

... since then he’d been more than properly respectful. There was even a little fear in the bony face with its close-cropped head and tuft of chin-beard, worn in imitation of Sethaz’ own. And a film of sweat on his forehead, but it was summer and the man wore armor and padding.

“Oh Heir of Sanat Kumara—“

The Prophet made an impatient gesture. Walker shrugged and went on more naturally:

“The damned Mormons just aren’t giving up, lord Prophet. We’ve beaten their field armies and formally speaking we occupy everything north of Salt Lake City, but we’re getting constant harassment from guerillas and the remnants of their armies lurking in the mountains and deserts. We don’t dare split our troops up into small enough parcels to plant a garrison in every hamlet, we’d get eaten alive in little pieces if we did. But their civilians are the guerillas’ source of food, shelter and information. Our lines of communication are longer than I like, too.”

“Granted,” Sethaz said. “But the population here are a potentially valuable resource, far too valuable to kill off for the sake of mere convenience. As it is the Church’s dominions include too much unpeopled wilderness, without creating more here. The so-called Saints add another million to our population, which about doubles it, and more than that to our cropland and weapons production. With them, we can really get the breeding program going too, the more so as they kept such careful records. Much easier to identify sub-average mentalities, the mark of the Nephilim’s soulless minions, and set them aside to re-concentrate the strain in service to True Men.”

“But I’m losing troops to pinpricks every day!” Walker cried. “And lord Prophet, we can’t keep our men away from their homes and ranches forever. We can’t keep the Sword of the Prophet concentrated here forever either, they’re our full-time cadre and best striking force. We must—“

He halted, flushing in alarm, and carefully keeping his hand from going to the hilt of his shete in a reflex born of sudden fear. Sethaz smiled inwardly, keeping his face grave.

Must is not a word used to the Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant,” he said softly. “I am the viceroy of the Ascended Masters and the Secret Hierarchy.”

The general started to drop to his knees, then froze at the Prophet’s gesture.

“You’re an intelligent man, brother Walker,” Sethaz said, almost genially. “You know the standard tactics for counterinsurgency work. And we do have a lot more cavalry than they do; it’s why we beat them, after all. Take hostages. For that matter, the ones we’ve shipped east as slaves can double as hostages; make plain that their safety depends on the obedience of their relatives. Patrol vigorously, use your scouts, use our spies and collaborators and informers, chase every group of bandit rabble into the ground; and by all means, crucify any village that can be shown to be supporting the enemy. Except for the children. In those cases, we’ll transfer them east to be raised in the Church. Many of our best and fiercest come from the Houses of Refuge.”

“I thought... lord Prophet, we could sequester all the food supplies, and the seed corn, and dole them out in strictly rationed allotments. That would help with our own logistics, too. Administratively complex, but worth it, if you’ll authorize me.”

Sethaz stepped forward and slapped the older man on one armored shoulder.

“See? The Ascended Ones will speak truth to your soul, if only you open yourself to the Dictations! We have the mobility and striking power—use it, and the last of the bandit gangs will be dead, or gelded and working in the salvage teams by this time next year.”

“I’ll begin at once, my lord. Although altogether too many of them are escaping over the border with Boise, as well. Could we induce the new ruler there to seal the frontier?”

“Not yet. That is a delicate situation, one which needs careful nurturing. We cannot afford to fight Boise seriously. Yet.”

“I doubt he is loyal to the Dictations. Even if he claims he must be discreet at first.”

“He isn’t. He seeks to use us, as we will use him. And when his enemies are crushed, with our men in the forefront of the battle to suffer the most losses, he thinks he will deal with us in turn.” Sethaz smiled. “In fact, of course, I will deal with him, by the power of the Ancient of Days.”

“About the third battalion of the Sword you have on the, ah, special task, my lord. They’re sorely missed in the pacification program. If I could have them back, or at least part of them—“

No,” Sethaz said flatly.

Walker shivered. So did the Prophet, in some inner core of his being. The word sounded odd, somehow hot and dark at once, as if it had been carved out of burning ash, like a glow of deepest black. Sethaz had not spoken so before his stepfather died. He pushed inwardly, something possible only if he was doing as... instructed. It was a little like arguing, but without words, and without any possibility of deception.

“They must be found,” he said, in his own voice. “Found and destroyed if they cannot be taken captive. This has absolute priority. They must not reach the east.”

He shivered again. The shining future of the Dictations stretched ahead of him, a world at peace and united on Corwin, obedient to the Ascending Hierarchy. But a shadow fell across it.

The shadow of a Bear; the beating of a Raven’s wings.

“Send in the others,” he said, in words that were dismissal.

Peter Graber stood respectfully aside and saluted as General Walker left the room, then marched in and went to one knee, the upright scabbard of his shete held in his left hand and his head bowed. His right fist thumped against his armor.

“Hail to the Prophet! Hail to the Youth of Sixteen Summers!”

The younger ones do it naturally, Sethaz thought. For their elders, there will always be an awkwardness.

Graber had an excellent record, stretching back to his childhood in the House. His appearance pleased Sethaz as well; he was a man of medium height, wiry save for the broad shoulders of a bowman, a little bandylegged as you’d expect from one who’d spent much of his life on horseback, dark-gray eyes steady. A healing scar marked his nose.

Beside him Seeker Twain prostrated himself in his dull-red robe; there was a different etiquette for the Church’s spiritual hierarchy. Neither man looked at the other, though they were strangers and had been summoned to the Prophet’s presence together. Instead they waited with disciplined silence while the head of the Church Universal and Triumphant paced like one of the leopards that had drifted up to contest the mountain forests with the native cougars.

“Captain Graber, what is the status of the Third Battalion of the Sword of the Prophet?”

“My lord Prophet, we are short two hundred effectives, leaving only two hundred and thirty-two men fit for duty. Another forty-eight are expected to recover sufficiently to return to front-line service in the next few months. Major Andrews lost his right hand and will be on light duties for some time. I am the senior officer at present.”

“You suffered heavily at Wendell,” the Prophet acknowledged. “But you fulfilled your orders, both your battalion and yourself... Major Graber.”

Graber blinked, but his face might have been chiseled from birchwood as he ducked his head in acknowledgment of the promotion.

“Is the Third fit for duty?”

“To the death, my lord Prophet,” he said promptly. “We are rested and have fresh horses; the weapons are clean and the men are ready to fight. However, we are at barely half-strength.”

“Sufficient for the purpose.” He turned to the desk and handed over a folder. “After Wendell, certain prisoners and bandits escaped and are at large behind our lines. They are believed to be headed east—“

He finished the briefing. “Familiarize yourself with these files. Your command will leave tomorrow morning. The file contains your written orders and a first-priority authorization to commandeer supplies and assistance as needed.”

This time the pupils of Graber’s eyes flared involuntarily in surprise. Sethaz nodded somberly.

“Yes, this is no ordinary band of fugitives. May the Unseen Hierarchy be with you, Major. You will be accompanied by High Seeker Twain; wait for him without.”

“Hail Maitreya!”

He raised his hand in benediction as the soldier rose and left, then signaled the priest-scholar to his feet. The man stood with his arms crossed and eyes bent down, that his superior might study his face without being appraised in return.

“I am not worthy of this honor,” he said neutrally.

Sethaz smiled. “No, you are not,” he said. “Not yet. It is our duty to clear our lifestreams by constantly increasing our understanding of the Ascended Masters and Their plans for our world... and the most holy secrets of Their natures.”

The other man nodded cautiously; Sethaz was repeating platitudes... and was also notoriously intolerant of sycophants.

“They brought the Change to humble man’s sinful pride, and destroy the wicked arts that would otherwise have destroyed us,” Sethaz went on. “But by that Change they have... opened certain possibilities which were... dormant before it. The light of the Seven Rays now shines more clearly.”

The priest’s eyebrows went up. That last was not public doctrine.

“And the Nephilim and their soulless servants also have... increased possibilities open to them; but the Masters are vigilant for us. I will now demonstrate Their gifts, which long study and discipline have fitted you to bear. Meet my eyes.”

Twain did.

“Is your will your own?”

“I have slain my will. The Ascended Masters play upon my lifestream as a man’s hands play upon the strings of a harp.”

“Are you prepared to hear the voice of the One Initiator?”

“I am.”

I—see—you.”

Twain blinked, startled. Sethaz’ powerful swordsman’s hands flashed up to clamp his head on either side; the Prophet felt the action, but somehow as if he were observing it rather than willing his limbs to move. Their gazes locked, and there was a movement, a feeling as if the Prophet’s skull were hollow, and something nested there... and now uncoiled to strike.

Twain gave a muffled, choking sound. His hands scrabbled at Sethaz’ wrists, more and more frantically, and his feet drummed on the carpet like a man hoisted aloft by a noose around his neck. The movements gradually ceased, until the only motion the priest made was his breath... and then his chest rose and fell in rhythm with Sethaz. Soon their pulses thundered in unison as well. Two small trickles of blood started from the corners of his eyes, and another two from his nostrils; by the time they ran to his lips, he was grinning.

“Oh, now I understand!” he said thickly, licking the blood with relish. “Hail to the Regent Lord of This World!”

Sethaz nodded, stepping back. “Go, and serve the Masters,” he said. “The Solar Logos go with you.”

The High Seeker’s grin was... disquieting somehow. Sethaz turned and looked out the window again, wondering why. The reflection prompted him.

It is because I’ve seen it before. In my mirror.

Then he shook his head; that made no sense, and there was much to do. He sat at his desk and took out the letter from Boise’s new ruler, reading carefully once more. It was a tissue of lies, of course...

But from the lies a man tells, you can read the truth of his soul, he thought. His eyes went to a map, then glazed over as if he was listening to a voice only he could hear. Yes, there’s something in what he says. Pendleton does offer us an opportunity. But not quite what he thinks.

 

@@@

 

Lava beds

North-eastern Idaho

September 1st, CY 23/2021 AD

 

From the hag and the hungry goblin

That into rags would rend ye

All the sprites that stand by the Hornéd Man

In the Book of Moons defend ye—“

 

The tune had a steady thumping beat; Mackenzies used it as a marching song, though Rudi’s mother had come up with the words long ago, when she was a bard before the Change. Rudi and Edain sang it—but not too loudly. A human voice wouldn’t carry far in country like this, but there wasn’t any point in taking unnecessary risks.

They were riding up a long open valley with a soil of something black, a coarse ashy stuff that crunched beneath the horse’s hooves and raised a little dust with a strange taste, more bitter than the normal Snake River alkali. Small mountains or big hills showed here and there about them, looking as if they’d been built out of cinders—which they were. Sparse straw-colored needle-grass was scattered across the flats, and some of the hills had thick sagebrush, or even quaking aspen on the northern slopes, and some yellow-flowered rabbitbush swayed a little in the hot wind. Nothing else moved, except a violet-green thrush that snatched a beetle stirred up by his horse’s hooves; native animals hereabouts had the good sense to stay inside in the daytime, in summer.

“Ah, that was a bit of home,” Edain said when they’d finished the song, and Rudi nodded. “I’ll take a look at the pack-train.”

His half-mastiff bitch Garbh jumped down from where she’d been sitting behind him and trotted along at his stirrup as he rode back down the line, whistling.

Edain could sing passably, which was a great deal more than his father could—Sam Aylward was longer on volume than anything else. Mackenzies generally could sing well, since it was an important part of their lives and they practiced hard, if not quite so hard as they did with the bow. Rudi had inherited a male version of his mother’s talent, and she was first-rate; he sang very well indeed, and enjoyed it.

He smiled wryly. Rumor in the Clan said that the fae had clustered around his cradle to give him all the good gifts of the Lord and Lady. There was something to it, he supposed. He hadn’t had trouble with his wisdom teeth and he’d gotten over his few zits quickly, too.

And all that makes my life so simple and satisfying, he thought sardonically. Which is why dead men try to squeeze my throat shut. Yes, it’s just one long Beltane feast followed by a roll in the clover, if you’re beloved of the Powers. They give... or sometimes, They just delay the stiff payment They ask.

“Interesting song,” Frederick Thurston said, pushing his horse up beside Rudi.

“Heathen nonsense,” Mathilda said, half-joking, from his other side.

She uncorked her canvas water-bag and handed it over. Rudi drank deeply and passed it on—the water was tepid and a bit brackish, but you had to take as much as you could in desert country. His step-father Sir Nigel and honorary uncle Sam Aylward had taught him that. The sun was bright and hot today, though the air was thankfully dry. Sweat was running down his flanks under his brigandine; they were all still wearing light harness, torso-protection, just in case, and it was as well to keep yourself used to the weight and discomfort. Even Father Ignatius had put off most of his panoply, though, for his horse’s sake if not his own.

He’s a hardy man, Rudi thought. Though I’ll never understand why Christians think it pleases their God to be uncomfortable when it isn’t necessary.

“Time!” Odard called.

He had a working wind-up watch, an heirloom. Everyone dismounted, unsaddled, let their mount roll, and began to put the tack on a remount.

Epona came over and pushed at him; she’d never liked to see him riding another horse. The big black mare nudged again as he transferred his saddle and blanket to Macha Mongruad.

“You’re middle-aged!” Rudi said to Epona, touching a finger to her velvety nose. “You need the rest. And she’s your own daughter!”

He swore and lunged for Macha’s bridle when her dam mooched off... then turned and nipped the younger mare on the haunch. A few seconds of work prevented an equine catfight, and they began leading their horses; Epona trotted off with her tail high, and her ears making a horse’s equivalent of a smug smirk.

“That’s a fine horse,” Fred said, as they started walking.

They had a long way to go and even rotating the mounts and walking half the time as well it was going to wear the horses down.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen better movement,” Fred went on, looking admiringly where Epona seemed to float along, hooves barely touching down. “But isn’t she around ten, or even twelve?”

“Fifteen or sixteen,” Rudi replied.

A well-treated horse with a good deal of Arab in her breeding could be worked until she was past twenty, but it was true that if he could he’d rather have left her back in the home-pasture, bullying the rest of the Dun Juniper horse-herd. Warmbloods tended to break down more easily, too.

“Why did you bring her on a trip like this?”

“She’d start killing people if I left her behind that long,” Rudi said.

Frederick laughed, then stopped when he saw nobody else was.

“She’s vicious?” he said incredulously. “But I saw you riding her without a bit! Bareback!”

“Not vicious exactly; she just dislikes the most of human kind, the more so if I’m away for long. Which given the way she was treated as a filly isn’t surprising. We’ve been together a long time, since I was about ten, and she still won’t let anyone else ride her.”

Mathilda rolled her eyes again. “Rudi rode her when nobody else at the Sutterdown Horse Fair could,” she said. “It’s part of the Wondrous Legend of Rudi Mackenzie, back home.” A sigh. “It’s true, too. I was there. You wouldn’t have any doubt she could be vicious if you’d seen her then.”

“Sure, and it’s no miracle or magic, just that we’re old souls to each other,” Rudi said. At Frederick’s look: “Knew each other in our past lives, so.”

“You, ah—“

“Witches.”

“Witches believe we’re reborn?”

“Everything is,” Rudi said. “How not?” He waved a hand around them. “And doesn’t everything die and return; the grass, the trees, the fields? Why not us?”

Mathilda sighed again. “These are people who apologize when they cut down a tree in case it’s their long-lost Great-Aunt Gertrude they’re planning on repairing the barn with,” she said.

“Well, now, no; it’s just polite to be grateful,” Rudi drawled, mock-aggrieved. “To the tree, for starters. And the fae don’t like it if you’re rude.”

“Well,” one of the twins said, “Elves go wait in the Halls of Mandos, generally speaking. But that’s not really relevant since there aren’t any here in Middle Earth any more.”

“And since the Straight Path is closed,” the other went on. “Nowadays if you sail west, you just eventually hit yourself in the butt, coming from the east.”

“I’ve never been very religious,” Fred mused. “My family aren’t, you know... well, we’re Methodists, sort of. I never really thought it was very important. I know that’s sort of old-fashioned, but Mom and Dad are... Dad was...”

He rubbed a hand across his face, smearing sweat and dust on his chocolate-colored skin.

“But I think I’m going to have to change my mind, with all the stuff that’s happened lately.” A weary grin: “Though which type of religion should I start taking seriously?”

“There are many paths and if you walk them rightly, they all go to the same place,” Rudi said.

Then he grinned himself: “To be sure, the sensible people go by the Old Religion’s road. We have the best festivals, for starters! And the best music, though I grant—“ he nodded to Ignatius “—that the Gregorian chant is fine stuff, but ours is merrier. And unlike Catholics we don’t have to waste our time on guilt.”

Ignatius simply gave an ironic lift of the eyebrows; he wasn’t the sort of man to rise to a bait like that. Mathilda glanced sidelong at Rudi and smiled.

“Did he mention the way his mother magically struck a Methodist pastor dead once?”

Well, your mother has struck a fair number of people dead, but by more conventional means, Rudi thought—it was hot and he itched in places he couldn’t scratch because they were covered by two layers of leather with steel plates riveted between, and it was a bit of an effort to stay cheerful. Including your father’s pet Pope, I suspect. Not that he didn’t deserve it, the creature...

Aloud he went on: “She didn’t. The Reverend Dixon just had a heart attack at a... a crucial moment, or so Aunt Judy tells me.”

As an aside he said to Frederick: “Aunt Judy’s our chief healer, a friend of my mother’s from when they were girls.”

Then he returned to the subject: “Matti, people do die now and then without someone killing them. Besides, it was before either of us were born. And he was a Baptist, not a Methodist. Or was it a Presbyterian? I’ve never really understood all the differences.”

Some sort of heretic,” Mathilda said.

“Sure, you’re bein’ a bit narrow-minded there.”

“Just orthodox,” she said with a sniff.

“And isn’t orthodoxy just one’s own doxy, and heterodoxy another’s doxy?”

Father Ignatius walked on two paces, then choked with laughter and had to be thumped on the back, tried to be stern, and laughed again. Other people joined in at intervals as the ghastliness of the Latinate pun sank in, ending with Edain and Frederick and Ingolf, who had to have it explained since their schooling hadn’t included the classics.

Rudi considered making a more elaborate one about the Grand Constable Tiphaine being a very non-hetero-doxy, but decided not to—Ignatius was a bit of a damp blanket where bawdy was concerned. So was Matti, come to that, especially in a cleric’s company.

His mother had made a joke once about Tiphaine having an I won’t tell, and I’ll kill you if you ask policy. Older people seemed to find that funny, for some reason.

“Ummm—“ Frederick said.

He’s feeling a little like the new wolf in the pack, being a stranger and all, with us knowing each other most of our lives, Rudi thought. Or at least for a year, with Ingolf. He’s lonely, too. I would be, in his place!

The younger Thurston went on: “You know, Dad thought you guys, the Mackenzies, were, well, weird.”

“We’re witches. We are weird,” Rudi said. “Or so my mother always says. Meself, I think everyone else is weird, but then I wasn’t raised all my younger years among cowans as she was, the sorrow and the pity of it.”

“What are cowans?”

Mathilda chuckled, a gurgling sound like her mother’s laugh, but warmer somehow; it lit up her tired, dusty face like a light from within.

“Unbelievers,” she said. “People with a distorted view of things. Dull, commonplace people with no magic in them who can’t hear the music of the world. Us, in other words, as far as the witches are concerned.”

Frederick gave her a glance and seemed to flush, then gathered himself.

“Ah... dad always said you guys in Portland were even weirder, but you and Odard seem pretty... well, normal to me.”

“You haven’t seen the court in Castle Todenangst,” Rudi said. “The annual High Tournament, say. It’s an improvement on a battle only because the food’s better and there are regular rest breaks. That’s their idea of fun.”

“It’s training,” Mathilda said a little defensively. “We use blunt swords and barriers and rebated lances. There’s hardly ever more than one or two people killed. And I hadn’t noticed you refusing to break a lance or two, Rudi.”

“I have to take them down a bit, for their own good,” Rudi said. “Knocking them off their horses corrects their humors, me being a mere pagan clansman and all who empties his own slop bucket. Most of the time your noble Associate can’t swat a mosquito without getting a troubadour to list its noble lineage and compose an epic on the desperate battle it gave him.”

And young Fred’s a bit smitten with Mathilda, Rudi thought tolerantly. Which is natural enough. She’s a comely lass, my anamchara is, and I’ve always thought so, and you could warm your hands at her spirit on a cold night. Not to mention other parts, if that were her inclination, which alas it is not.

It might cause problems, but he didn’t think so; the young man seemed a sensible sort. And Mathilda had her faith’s conviction of the importance of virginity right down in her bones.

A convinced virgin-until-marriage and my two half-sisters, Rudi thought. It’s a merry time I’m going to have on this trip! Think about anything but sex, Rudi... think of ice and vinegar.

He did, out of curiosity: an image slid spontaneously into his mind—one of a girl he knew named Niamh, naked, blond, lying on a bed and smiling as she raised a glass of iced vinegar and slowly licked the rim...

Oh, by Priapus Himself, I’m twenty-two, how am I to think of anything else? Rudi thought, tugging at the bottom edge of his arming doublet.

Then the image flashed back; this time it was Matti. That was even more disturbing. She wasn’t conventionally beautiful, her face more strong-boned and handsome, but he could imagine how those brown eyes would light, and her breath catch as he kissed the hollow at the base of her throat and...

She was laughing at his joke, her head thrown back, that laugh with a gurgling chuckle in it. He gritted his teeth. It looked like he’d have to learn to mortify the flesh, Christian or no.

“Now, if you want weird, try the Dúnedain,” he said teasingly. “Living in trees and talking that fancy language—“

“I heard that!” Mary—or Ritva—called from a few yards back. “You’re just jealous ‘cause our traditions are really old! And only some of us live in trees.”

“You do,” Rudi pointed out.

“It’s a flet. And very comfortable in all weathers, and private. And bearproof.”

“You want to hear something really weird?” Frederick said, and waved a hand around: “This place used to be what they called a national monument. Dad was always going on about how we had to preserve them for the future.”

Afraid he’ll offend if he joins in the chaffing, Rudi thought; you had to be really familiar with people to share the game of playful insults. But yes, he’s lonely, I’d judge. And of course he’s parted from all his family, his mother and his sisters.

Rudi looked around at the arid desolation; the only reason they’d come this way was to throw off possible pursuit, and because they might as well use up fodder too bulky to carry far now that they’d abandoned the wagon.

“Well, there’s something to be said for every part of Their world,” he said.

The thought of harvest in the fields of home pierced his breast, and the reapers dancing in the Queen Sheaf to the squeal of pipes and rattle of bohdráns, whirling with corn poppies woven in their hair...

“And the forest is sacred to the Horned Lord, of course, and very comely. But this is the sort of place only the Mother could love, I’d say.”

Rudi was a little relieved when Ingolf spoke; the big man had been nearly silent for too long now:

“Yah, I noticed that sort of thing back home—and all the way east and west, from one side of the continent to the other. You’d see these National Monument signs, and it’s never anything that could have been good fields, or orchards or anything. Mind you, the woods can be real pretty—the maples turn colors back in Richland that I’d ride a day to see—and sometimes it’s something really impressive, like this mountain carved into faces in the Sioux country, but most of these National Monuments, it’s just damn ugly wilderness, rocks and stuff.”

“I think they valued wilderness more, then, because there was so little of it and so much settled land,” Ignatius said thoughtfully. “Strange...”

“We can all agree on one thing,” Mathilda said decisively. “People who grew up before the Change are... weird!”

Everyone laughed agreement; Rudi nodded himself. Even his mother was strange that way sometimes, and you’d run into it like a brick wall you couldn’t see.

Mary or Ritva came trotting back from a forward scout. Ritva, he decided as she reined in.

“Water a couple of miles northwest,” she said. Her face was grim. “But there’s complications.”

 

@@@

 

There were about two dozen of the Mormons at the desolate little spring, refugees twice over, the first time from the Prophet’s invasion of New Deseret and now from the United States of Boise. They’d picked their spot well, a declivity at the base of a tall north-facing cliff with a bit of an overhang, and with good water bubbling in a crack in the rock. It ran downhill before vanishing into the coarse black volcanic sand, and that produced a bit of greenery, which their horses needed and were busy stripping. Rudi gave the people a quick appraising glance.

They had tinder stacked and a couple of big camp-kettles next to it, but no fire going. About eight were women; nobody was under eighteen or older than early middle age. They all seemed to have at least one horse, but the mounts looked hard-done-by, and some of the people were wounded. And they all had a sword and bow or crossbow and a shield, marked with Deseret’s golden bee on a blue background. A few had mail shirts, or armor of sheet-steel plates hammered to fit and riveted onto leather jacks, both painted a greenish-gray sage color.

And the place doesn’t stink, Rudi thought; there was only a slight natural smell of horses, leather, and sweat and smoke soaked into woolen clothing. Which with twenty-odd people is a good sign. They’re taking care of things, tired as they are.

Edain waved as he recognized a girl named Rebecca Nystrup—her father had bought Rancher Brown’s horses for Deseret’s army, back...

Well, well. That was in May, and doesn’t it seem the longest time?

Edain had been quite taken with her, for which Rudi didn’t blame him, the girl being well beyond comely and near his age. He’d have been tempted in that direction himself, under other circumstances. And she’d been friendly to Edain, in a very proper way. The young Mackenzie’s smile died as he took in the grimness of the little party. Rudi nodded politely to the girl but spent his attention on the rest of her land-folk.

“Colonel Donald Nystrup, 2nd Cavalry, Army of the Republic of New Deseret,” their apparent leader said, a man in his thirties with light streaks in his brown beard and utter weariness in his blue eyes.

“Rudi Mackenzie,” the clansman replied, swinging down from his saddle and shaking hands. “You’re kin to Bishop Nystrup, I’d be saying from the looks of you? Not his son?”

“Bishop Nystrup was my uncle, and Rebecca’s my cousin,” he said. “But close enough.”

Rudi sighed mentally as he looked at the fugitives and noted the ‘was’. Bishop Nystrup had been a conscientious man who did his very best for his people, in the brief time Rudi had known him. The sigh also had a little regret that the refugees were going to consume most of the food that he’d expected to feed his party through the next couple of weeks.

Threefold return, remember, he thought. If we have to pull our belts tighter for a few days, it won’t kill us.

“It’s coming on for sundown,” he said. “Shall we make camp together, and perhaps make some stone soup?”

Nystrup looked puzzled for a moment—evidently the story wasn’t as common among his people as it was with Mackenzies—and then his shoulders slumped very slightly as he recognized the invitation to share supplies.

“That would be a Chris, ah, kindly deed,” he said. “We took what we could, but it wasn’t all that much, and we lost the rest of our food in a skirmish two days ago.”

Ingolf came up. “You took horses and weapons,” he said, giving the group the same once-over Rudi had. “That’s the essentials, you betcha. You can get food if you have to, with a bow or a shete in your hand.”

Nystrup glanced at him. “I’m a soldier, but I’m not inclined to play bandit,” he said, bristling a little.

Ingolf shrugged; the two men were of an age, in their late twenties, but the easterner looked older just then.

“I was a soldier in a lot of places, straight-leg,” he said; for a moment his dark-blue eyes seemed lost in memory. “And I can tell you that sometimes the difference is sort of abstract. If you’re planning on keeping fighting the Prophet—“

“False prophet!” Rebecca said defiantly behind her cousin, and ignored his frown.

“Yah, I’ve got no problem with that false part,” he said, touching his bruised face.

“You were wounded fighting the CUT?” she asked with quick sympathy.

Ingolf laughed, and she flinched a little. “You might say so. A spy from Corwin named Kuttner wormed his way into Vogeler’s Villains—my outfit—got my friends all killed back east, captured me, dragged me off to Corwin, tortured me, screwed with my head, and when I escaped they chased me to Oregon, then they killed the lady I was with and damned near killed me, and just now they captured me and tortured me and screwed with my head again. You might say I’ve been fighting them. Not very effectively, but yes, I’ve got reason to do it with feeling.”

He turned his head away and swallowed. Rudi winced slightly; he’d been feeling hard-done-by because he’d been dragged away from home by all this. The easterner had lost the only home or real kin he had.

Ingolf faced Nystrup and touched his own face again; the swelling had gone down, but there was a spectacular range of colors under the dust and beard. When he spoke again his voice was altogether flat:

“Fighting the false Prophet, especially if you’re not doing it in a regular army, then you’re going to have to get flexible. It’s a rough game, and on both sides. You can’t let people decide to just sit things out and see who wins. Better not to try at all if you’re not willing to see it through to the end.”

Rudi nodded soberly. Ingolf wasn’t only a sworn enemy of the CUT; he’d been a wandering fighter for hire for years out east, in the fabled—and fabulously wealthy and populous—realms of the Mississippi valley, Iowa and Nebraska and Kansas. And after that he’d been boss of a salvage outfit which went deep into the old death-zones, to the dead cities of the Atlantic coast, which was just as dangerous and involved a lot of the same skills.

“Hey, ndan bell, indo hûn!” Mary called. Which meant strong back, simple mind, roughly. “Give us a hand! Not you, Rudi. The other strong back and simple mind. Ingolf.”

“What about me?” Odard said. “I’m always ready to help a beautiful damsel or two in distress.”

“If you have to ask, Odard, you’ll never understand.”

The young baron raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and went with Mathilda to help hobble their horses and the four mules who’d drawn the Conestoga before they dumped it. They both knew horses well, of course; Protectorate nobles might have grooms, but they learned their way around stables from infancy. Ingolf started unloading sacks of dried beans and jerky and barley from the pack-saddles at the twin’s direction. As a boil-up it wouldn’t be very appetizing, but it would keep you going.

Then Ignatius got out the medicine chest, with Rudi assisting. Someone who knew what they were doing had done the bandaging—unsurprisingly, that turned out to be Rebecca—but the antiseptic ointments made from aloes and molds were useful. He’d never taken formal training beyond the first aid all Mackenzies learned in school, but Judy Barstow was both the Clan’s chief healer and his mother’s oldest friend and he’d been around Aunt Judy all his life. Ignatius was better than that, virtually a doctor; the Order wanted its knight-brothers to be able to turn their hands to just about anything, since they spent a lot time on their own in places hostile, remote, or both.

“There is nobody here who won’t recover, given food and rest,” the priest said to the Deseret colonel when he’d finished.

“That... may be a problem,” Nystrup said. Then he smiled: “I’d read about guerilla warfare in OCS—Officer Candidate School—and they went on about how valuable a sanctuary is to an insurgency, but it was all sort of theoretical. I’m just getting used to how much I relied on having someone to take the wounded off my hands. And yes, food’s a problem too. I don’t have a commissariat any more, or local Stake storehouses.”

We’d have more if we’d kept the wagon,” Ritva grumbled, as she measured ingredients into the cauldron.

We kept the essentials, Rudi thought. The weapons, the medicine chest, and the cash. But no need to go into detail; best not put temptation in our Mormon friends’ way.

“If we’d kept the wagon, we’d be thirty or forty miles that way—“ Rudi pointed back towards the site of the rescue “—and someone would have caught us by now.”

“Yes, but it’s the principle of the thing,” his half-sister said, getting out their salt-and-seasoning box. “All that lovely shopping we did in Bend, wasted. C’mon, Ingolf, let’s give these people some help.”

The Mormon women made bannock out of some of the flour, and minced a couple of desert hares as their contribution to the stone soup; the rabbits would be lean, without the fat that kept you going, but every little bit helped. Things settled down when the chores were done, and everyone sat around gnawing on hard-tack while the stew seethed, chatting easily—except for Ignatius, who kept a calm, cheerful silence, and Ingolf, who brooded despite the twins’ attempts to draw him out.

Rudi took another deep drink of the water; it was very clear, with a mineral under-tang, and cold, which felt glorious. He’d taken the chance to strip and scrub down before the heat of the day left completely; this area was higher than it looked, and a clear night would be chilly even in August. Putting his sticky clothes back on had been a bit of a trial; he was a fastidious man, when circumstances allowed, if not quite as picky as, say, Odard.

“I’m thinking then that you aren’t altogether happy in Boise territory,” Rudi said to Nystrup.

“No,” Nystrup said shortly, looking down at the sword he was honing.

Then, thawing: “I could tell right away that the new President, Martin Thurston, wasn’t going to keep his father’s... he was talking about splitting up the refugees, settling them a few each in Boise towns and villages, or enlisting our troops in his army—and as individuals, not in units. That meant he wasn’t planning on helping us get our homes back. And he said he wouldn’t allow any ‘raiding’ over the border from the refugee camps. Said it might endanger the ‘peace process’.

Rudi nodded, pursed his lips thoughtfully, and called: “Fred! The good colonel needs to talk to you. Colonel Nystrup, Captain Frederick Thurston. Yes, of the Thurstons.”

“Damnation!” the Deseret officer blurted, when the tale of Martin Thurston’s treachery had been told, amid a babble of questions from his followers.

That cut off sharply when Nystrup made a gesture. Rudi’s brows rose; that bespoke real discipline and this collection of odds-and-sods wasn’t a regular military unit. From what he’d heard the Saints were an orderly folk, but it still said something about Nystrup as a man.

“But didn’t the CUT try to assassinate him along with his father and younger... and you, Mr. Thurston?” the colonel said.

“Everyone thought so at the time,” Rudi said. “I’d say the now that only the ones aimed at General Thurston were really trying to kill.”

“And the one behind me,” Frederick said.

“Perhaps,” Rudi said gently. “He didn’t have any real need to kill you then—you’d never have suspected. But perhaps.”

And perhaps you need to think as badly of him as you can, for your own sake. I’ll not hinder it.

“You think Martin Thurston’s going over to the false Prophet?” Nystrup said sharply. “Has already, secretly?”

“Now there I’m less certain,” Rudi said judiciously.

Odard Liu cut in; he’d been doing his share of the chores, and without any of the reluctance that Rudi half-expected. Alex had done much of his master’s work before the man revealed his true colors. Now the baron wiped his hands and spoke:

“I’d say it’s an alliance of mutual convenience, not an affair of the heart. Ah, some people in the Protectorate—“

Including your darling mother, Rudi thought. Who has all the faults of Sandra Arminger and none of her redeeming qualities, sure. And who Sandra will now undoubtedly kill.

“—have been, ummm, negotiating with the CUT too. They evidently don’t demand you convert in order to intrigue with them about politics.”

“Not at first,” Ingolf said grimly from by the fire. “I was prisoner in Corwin last summer. They really believe that horse-shit, or at least most of them do. And they send out their missionaries everywhere they can reach.”

“Does anyone in Boise know about their President and what he’s doing?” Nystrup asked eagerly.

“That they do, naming no names,” Rudi said.

“It’d probably be a real threat to health to draw Martin Thurston’s attention by talking up a version of the events that isn’t his,” Odard said judiciously.

Frederick nodded. “But they’ll be spreading the story, quietly. Everyone knew Martin was... ambitious. Just not how ambitious.”

“That changes things,” Nystrup said; a little of the lost look faded from his eyes. “We and Boise never got along well, but everyone hates the CUT. If we can get people in Boise territory to help us... hide us, give us shelter in between raids on the CUT garrisons and supply lines, give us food and horses...”

“And everyone loved my father,” Frederick said. “Well, nearly everyone. Nearly everyone in the United States.” With bitterness. “Dad didn’t want to be a king! With him it was everything for the country, nothing for himself.”

Emperor is more what Martin has in mind, probably,” Odard said, tuning the lute which someone had brought along from the Conestoga. “I got those vibrations off him—“ he plucked the strings “—and we talked a few times. He was extremely interested in the balance of power out west, in the realms of the Meeting at Corvallis. I don’t think he’s going to settle down to quietly rule what he has now.”

“He couldn’t,” Frederick said. “Too risky.”

They all looked at him. “Dad... OK, Dad ruled with a hard hand, and it was an awfully long time before he decided to hold national elections. But he didn’t want to be king; he really wanted to restore the United States. That’s one reason he waited—electing a government from just part of one State would be like an admission of failure. It really ate at him, he thought everyone would rally ‘round once he got going and it didn’t happen. A lot of our people wanted, want, to put the country back together too. Especially the army officers. If my... if Martin is going to hold on to the Presidency, make it into something like being a king, or an emperor—“

He nodded to Odard.

“—then he has to make some progress on reunification.”

“Conquering other realms,” Mathilda said—but musingly rather than a sharp-toned correction, simply translating the young man’s words into the terms the others would think in. “An Emperor is a king of kings, after all. If he conquers widely, it’ll made his claim to the throne solid.”

“Ok, if you want to call it that,” Frederick said. “That’s more or less what I meant. Nothing succeeds like success.”

Mary and Ritva came back to sit on their haunches with their arms wrapped around their knees.

“Like Saruman and Sauron in the Histories,” one of them said thoughtfully. “Both want to conquer and rule. Our side can probably use that.”

“Our side?” Frederick said; not bitterly this time, but with a genuine humor in the curve of his full mouth. “All nine of us?” He glanced at the Mormon leader. “Well, with all due respect, all thirty of us?”

“You’re after forgetting,” Rudi said gently. “We here are not just travelers from over the mountains. What we know, we can send to our homelands—and there, our parents are people of importance, with the power to bind and loose.”

“And I’m not just in charge of twenty-one fugitives,” Nystrup said. “There are other Deseret units still in the field.”

Kindled, he looked at Rudi. “With you to help us—“

“In passing only,” Rudi said, his voice still gentle, but with an implacable determination behind it. “This isn’t an affair of greedy warlords only. Those are like bindweed or couchgrass; it’s the work of the season to uproot them. There’s more to it. The Powers are at work here, and we the song they sing.”

“Soup’s on!” Rebecca said.

Nystrup seemed to be glad of the interruption. He stood and faced his people, folding his arms across his chest and bowing his head with closed eyes:

“Heavenly Father, we are grateful for this food which Thou knowest we needed badly, and for the generosity of Rudi and his friends. We ask Thee to bless them and watch over them as they journey east, that they may always find sustenance provided for them, as they have so generously given to us, and we ask that Brother Rudi complete his quest safely. We also ask Thee to bless this food that it may nourish and strengthen us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

The nine comrades had remained respectfully silent during the Mormon ceremony; now they took their bowls, said their own forms of grace and fell to with the healthy voracity of hard-worked youth. The stew was thick and filling, fuel more than food, the sort of thing you ate without noticing the ingredients. The refugee-guerillas devoured theirs with careful speed; one or two gobbled, but the rest swallowed every spoonful as if it were a sacrament. Rudi hadn’t met many Latter-Day Saints before, apart from the ones who bought Rancher Brown’s horses—Mormons were thin on the ground in the Willamette country—but they seemed to be a mannerly folk; and these ones were very hungry.

Rudi took his bowl and a bannock and sat beside Frederick, who was prodding at his food with a spoon and looking out over the dusk-darkened plain to the north and the distant purple line of the mountains.

“All a bit of a burden, isn’t it?” he said kindly.

Tell me!” Frederic replied. Then, lowering his voice: “You know, I wonder if I should be the one to fight Martin, eventually.”

“Why?” Rudi asked, surprised. There was no luck in turning aside from a fate the Powers had laid on you.

“Well... the whole reason he quarreled with Dad—turned traitor, eventually—was that he thought being Dad’s son gave him some sort of special right. He wanted to be a king. I don’t.”

Rudi nodded. “Well, you’ve a point there. But think on this; if not you, who? Isn’t it better you than him? And it isn’t you who’d pay the price of a noble renunciation; it would be your people, who need someone they know to lead them.”

“Urrr.”

“And also, what Martin wants is to be a tyrant, someone who takes power by lies and force and rules for himself alone, or his own kin alone.”

Although... he looked at Matti. That’s a precise description of your father, and you will rule well. Many a kingdom starts with a pirate, or a lucky soldier. Of course, he didn’t have the raising of you all to himself, Matti. Nor did Sandra. My own mother’s fine hand is in the making, there, too.

He went on: “A tyrant’s not the same thing as a king, sure and it isn’t. A good king... a good king is father to the land. What his people are together, their living past and the line of their blood for ages yet to come, their land that they’ve fought and died for and the sweat they’ve shed on it every day, and the way their songs and stories and being are woven into it, all that.. he stands for it in the living flesh. And he leads them not just in war and law-making, but in the rites that give meaning to life, that make them a people. My folk hailed me as my mother’s tanist of their own will; who am I to tell them no? Perhaps yours will hail you. Perhaps not. But if they do, isn’t it your duty to answer their call and serve their need?”

“Yeah, I can see what... I’ll have to think about that.” A grin. “And since I’m going east with you guys, I have a long time to think about it.”

Rudi chuckled. “And you’re not the only one who’ll be thinking. From the old stories, a vanished prince who’s fated to return and make things right again may be more powerful than one who’s there in the flesh. My mother always said that it’s by the thoughts and dreams within their heads that men are governed, as much as by laws or even swords from without.”

“Dad said something like that too. The moral is to the physical as three is to one.

Rudi nodded. “Also she says that no man can harvest a field before it’s ripe.”

“I’d like to meet your mother. She sounds like a cool lady,” Frederick said shyly.

“She is that, and a great lady for all that she hasn’t so many airs as some, and fun too.”

Mathilda came to sit by Rudi when Nystrup drew the younger Thurston aside; she had a small bunch of yellow wildflowers tucked over her right ear.

“Giving him a pep-talk?” she said dryly, not whispering but leaving her voice soft; the tune Odard was playing helped cover it.

Rudi nodded; they were both the children of rulers, and knew the demands of the trade.

“It’s a little worried he is, over whether it’s good for him to contest with his brother for power. As his father didn’t want the succession settled by blood-right, you see.”

Matti leaned against his shoulder. “Well, at least he gets a choice! I’m stuck with it. I get to be Protector... and then wonder when Count Stavarov is going to launch a coup and stick a knife in my back, or the House of Jones is going to flounce off in a snit and haul up the drawbridges on their castles. Or whether the Stavarovs are going to launch a coup and—“ she shuddered theatrically “—make me marry Piotr. You wouldn’t think that even Alexi Stavarov could have produced a son who’s more of a pig than he was, but—“

They both chuckled. “If you can call what he’s got a real choice, and not just wittering,” Rudi went on. “After all, Matti, you have a choice too. You could run off and be a sailor in Newport, or a nun in Mt. Angel. Or to the Mackenzie lands and take up a croft!” he added slyly.

She thumped his shoulder. “I can just see myself putting out milk for the house-hob... and leaping naked over a bonfire on Beltane!”

“There are Christians in the Clan,” he said righteously. And that latter is a rather attractive image, sure.

“Yeah, both of them,” Mathilda said in a pawky tone. “But anyway, that’s not a real choice. Portland’s my home, I can’t run out on it... things would go to hell... and what sort of an example would it be, shirking my duties? God called me to a task when He made me heir to the Protectorate.”

“That’s what I said to young Fred, more or less. Struck him with the force of a sledgehammer, so it did.”

“I’m worried enough about coming on this trip. And there’s a lot better reason for doing it than just because I don’t want to sit around in a cotte-hardi listening to petitions and arguments over who gets seizin of what or whose vassal stole whose sheep.”

She put an arm around his waist and leaned her face against his upper arm. Rudi looked down and batted his eyes.

“And here I was thinking it was the sweet charm of me and my beautiful eyelashes that brought you on the journey... yeak! Those bruises still hurt!”

It was getting a bit chilly; he unpinned his plaid and stretched it over their shoulders, blanket-style, and they sat in companionable silence. They’d been doing that since they were little kids... although the weight and warmth and fragrance of her made him a little conscious that they weren’t children any more.

Admittedly a bit of a gamy fragrance, but we have been on the road for weeks, and it’s exceedingly female.

Odard had launched into another song; Mary and Ritva sang it, in two-part harmony:

 

I hear the horse-hoof thunder in the valley below;

I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon—

 

He looked up at Rudi and Mathilda as he finished, then aside to the twins with a charming smile:

“And I’d like to thank whichever of you beautiful ladies was considerate enough to bring along my lute. Perhaps it’s not quite so essential as the dried beans, but I’m fond of it.”

“It was her idea,” Mary and Ritva said in perfect unison, each pointing at the other.

Odard’s smile grew a little strained. “All right; thank you to whichever evil, teasing bitch preserved my lute. I’m fond of it.”

“She’s evil teasing bitch Number One,” one of them said, pointing to the other. “And I’m evil teasing bitch Number Two.”

“You are not! I’m evil teasing bitch Number Two!”

Ingolf laughed, which did Rudi’s heart good to see. The big easterner extended a hand.

“That’s a pretty instrument,” he said. “Could I see it for a moment?”

“It’s not a guitar,” Odard said in warning as he handed it over.

The man from Wisconsin touched his strong battered fingers to the strings with a tender delicacy.

“I know. My mother’s sister was a luthier. Aunt Alice loved the old-timey music. She was a bit touched after the Change—she was in Racine on the day of it, showed up nearly dead at our door in Readstown six months later, never talked about how she came through—but she could make ones almost as fine as this, and play them too. Taught quite a few people.”

Odard’s instrument had a spruce sounding board with a carving of vines over the sound-hole, and touches of mother-of-pearl and rosewood along the edges of the swelling body. It was actually his second-best lute, of course; you didn’t take the finest on a trip like this. Ingolf began strumming.

“You don’t have fireflies out here, do you?” he asked. “Not that I’ve seen, anyway.”

“No,” one of the twins said. “We’ve heard of them... bugs that glow?”

“Glowing bugs? Like the stars are little lights in the sky,” he said, and his fingers began coaxing out a tune from the six-course instrument, plaintive and sad. “It’s a pity you’ve never seen ‘em. There’s nothing prettier than fireflies on the edge of a field in a summertime night, with that sweet smell off the corn, and a little mist coming up from the river. Like stars come to earth, winking at you...

 

Like the lights I shall never see again

The fireflies come and sing to me

Of trains and towns and friends long gone—

 

He had a deep voice, a little hoarse but true; the twins began to sing along after a while, and then some of the Mormons joined in. Most people were happy to learn a new tune, since it was about the only way to increase your stock of music.

“Alice made that one; she surely did love the fireflies, and it was a pleasure to hear her singing while she watched them from the verandah. We kids caught some in a jar once and gave them to her, but she cried until we let them go. She was a bit touched, like I said, but good-hearted.”

He passed the lute back to Odard, who gave him a considering look and played another tune. Rudi rested his chin on Mathilda’s head while they listened. Yawns signaled the end of the impromptu sing-along.

“Did you bother to take a bath?” he said teasingly, sniffing loudly.

“And on that note!” she replied, and headed off for her bedroll.

Rudi yawned himself and stretched, looking up. The stars grew as his fire-dazzled sight adjusted, even more thickly frosted across the sky than they would be at home; the air of this high desert was thin and dry, and the Belt of the Goddess was shone in red and yellow and azure-blue. A little away from the fire Ingolf sat looking at the embers, rubbing his hands across his face occasionally. The relaxed pleasure that had shown while he sang was gone.

There’s a man who’s afraid to sleep, Rudi thought with concern. And he isn’t a man to be governed by his fears, usually. I wish I were better at mind-healing, or that mother or Aunt Judy were here!

Father Ignatius came back from an inconspicuous tour around the outer perimeter of the camp, left hand on the hilt of his sword and the right telling his beads. He bent to speak softly to the man; Ingolf shook his head with a moment’s crooked smile, and the priest went to his own sleeping-place. A little way from that, something flashed in the dying light of the fire. Rudi turned his head and saw Mary snatch a gold coin out of the air; Ritva looked a little put-out, and watched carefully as her twin slapped the little ten-dollar piece on the back of her left hand and uncovered it.

Rudi wouldn’t have been entirely satisfied with letting that stand. Both the sisters were cat-quick, and they practiced sleight-of-hand for amusement and use as well, and while both were honorable neither had much in the way of scruples—you had to know them well to know how they saw the difference. Evidently Ritva felt the same way. The two young women spoke a moment more, then faced off and did scissors-paper-rock instead. Ritva lost two out of three, shrugged and rolled herself in her blankets.

I wonder what that was about? Rudi thought. He looked up; they’d take the third watch together, when that star was there. So they couldn’t be settling that.

His own would start in three quarters of an hour, which was not enough time to be worth sleeping. Instead he pinned his plaid, picked up his sword and walked a little out of camp, then climbed the rock under which they’d camped. The steep crumbling surface required careful attention in starlight, particularly as he went quietly, but in a few minutes he was atop it, six or seven hundred feet above the rolling plain.

It stretched on every side, dark beneath the stars, pale where the green of sage or the bleached straw of the summer-dried grass caught a little light, the shapes of the conical hills curiously regular, and there a glitter on a stretch of obsidian. He controlled his breathing, deep and steady, and opened himself to the land, to the smell of dust and rock and the coolness of night.

“Well, perhaps they were wiser than I thought, the old Americans, to make this a monument,” he murmured.

No light showed in the circuit of the horizon, and he could see for many miles from here. A few minutes, and an owl went by beneath the steep northern edge of the rock, a silent hunter’s rush through the night that ignored him as if he was part of the landscape. Far and far a lobo howled, a sobbing sound deeper and more mournful than a song-dog. Its pack echoed the call, and Rudi nodded; he’d amused himself by counterfeiting that sound many a night when he was out in the woods and wilds, hunting or traveling, and having the fur-brothers answer him as if he was one of theirs.

What are our wars and our kingdoms to them? It makes you realize our littleness, and how everything has its own concerns, he thought. But the Lord and Lady have given us power to mar or mend the world beyond what the four-foot brethren have. So it’s for the world and all Their children that the Powers are concerned with human kind’s doings, as well as for our own sake.

He knelt and drew his sword, laying it on the sheath and sitting back on his heels, with his hands on his thighs and his vision centered on it. The forge-marks in the damascened steel were like ripples in watered silk, dim and sinuous in the starlight; Mathilda had given this blade to him for his birthday when he turned eighteen and had his full height, though it had been a touch heavy for him then. The blade proper was just long enough to reach his hipbone with the point on the ground, tapering gradually from three fingers width to a long point, and the cross-guard had been forged of a piece with it, something that took a master-smith. The hilt was long enough for both single- and double-handed grips, wrapped with breyed leather cord and brass wire, and it had a plain fishtail pommel; you had to look closely to see the Triple Moon inlaid there, rose gold in silver.

Rudi Mackenzie had grasped the Sword of Art in his infant fingers, when Juniper had held him over the altar in the nemed at his Wiccaning. Something, Someone had spoken through her then, and she’d made prophesy. He’d been but a babe, of course, but he’d heard the words often enough since. Now he spoke them softly to himself:

 

“Sad Winter’s child, in this leafless shaw—

Yet be Son, and Lover, and Hornéd Lord!

Guardian of My sacred Wood, and Law—

His people’s strength—and the Lady’s sword!”

 

A sword isn’t like a spear or an axe or a knife. It’s the tool that human kind make only for the slaying of our own breed, Rudi thought. So You have chosen me for the warrior’s path. And as husband to the land, father to the folk, I must walk in the guise of the God, the strong One who wards Your people. But You know my mind. I don’t fear death; when it’s my time to walk with You, dread Lord, and know rest and rebirth, I am ready. I don’t fear battle, though I do not delight in it. It’s... that others depend on me and look to me that harrows my heart; my friends, my kin, those I love, those whose need I must serve. I fear to fail them.

He’d made the usual evening devotion, but a sudden sharp need seized him; he wasn’t one to be always bothering the Powers, like an importunate child tugging at his mother’s kilt and whining for attention, but...

Rudi raised his hands above his head, palm pressed to palm:

“Bless me with your love, Lord and Lady, for I am Your child.”

The hands moved to his forehead, thumbs on the center where the Third Eye rested:

“Bless my vision with the light of wisdom.”

To the throat, and:

“Bless my voice, that it may speak truth.”

To the heart:

“Bless my heart with perfect love, even for my foes, for each is also Your child.”

To the spot below the breastbone:

“Bless my will with strength of purpose, that I may not falter on the red field of war.”

To the loins:

“Bless my passions with balance, making even hate serve love.”

To the root chakra, at the base of the spine:

“Bless my silent self with clarity, that I may shun error.”

To the soles of the feet:

“Bless all my journey in this world, that my path be the path of honor, until my accounting to the Guardians.”

Then he held his hands up, palms before his face:

“Bless my hands, that they may do Your work on this Your earth.”

Finally pressed together above his head once more:

“Bless me and receive my love, Lord and Lady, for You are mine as I am Yours; you powerful God, you Goddess gentle and strong, hear your child.”

Smiling to himself he took up the sword and sheathed it, a quick flick and a hiss of steel on wood and leather greased with neatsfoot oil, and the ting as the guard met mount at the mouth of the scabbard. Suddenly a shooting star streaked across the dome of heaven, and he chuckled.

“Well, I can’t say You don’t have a sense of timing!”

Edain was waiting for him at the base of the rock. Garbh sat at his heel and grinned with the tongue-lolling happiness of a dog about to take a country walk with two of her people-pack amid thousands of interesting new scents.

“Did you see the falling star?” the younger Mackenize said.

They headed off to the northwest, which would be their watch-station.

“I did that,” Rudi said, grinning in the dark. “I did that.”

 

@@@

 

“Huh?” Ingolf Vogeler said, startled out of an evil dream.

Someone was close, very close. He pretended to drop back into sleep but his hand crept to the staghorn hilt of his bowie, beneath the folded blanket he was using as a cover for his saddle-bag pillow. The rough horn slipped into his palm, and he prepared to coil up off the ground...

“Well, I’m not here to have a knife-fight!” someone whispered.

“Oh,” he said; it was a woman’s voice.

The face of one of the twins was close to him as she knelt, smiling. “Though I could probably have killed you if I wanted to.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, true enough. Ah, Ritva—“

“Mary,” she said. “But I sort of like you, actually, Ingolf.” A smile. “That was really pretty music.”

The smile was expectant; that gradually turned to a slight frown as he shoved the bowie back into its scabbard and sat up, scrubbing at his face. That was a mistake, since the bruises were still fresh enough to make him wince. His wits returned, enough to realize that she was carrying her bedding and dressed only in her shirt... though she had her scabbarded sword in one hand with the belt wound around it, like a sensible person in the circumstances.

It was late; his eyes flicked automatically to the stars, and read them as past midnight. Nobody would be up now, except the lookouts.

“Uh...” he flogged himself to full awareness, as she sat beside him and put an arm around his waist. “Umm, I sort of like you too, Mary.”

I must be older than I thought, ran through his mind. Or more depressed. A beautiful half-naked blond is propositioning me, and I’m not actually leaping at the chance. Well, part of me is, but the rest isn’t.

Her smile returned and got broader—the part that was leaping was sort of obvious through the blanket. He was suddenly aware of the sunny smell of her hair, still slightly damp from bathing in the spring-water, and the way her breast brushed against his arm where she leaned against him.

“If you want me to get specific,” she murmured into his ear, “you’re brave and smart and you’ve got a good sense of humor when you’re not depressed and you’ve got a really cute butt. And I’ve known you for months now, so that’s not a snap judgment.”

“Well, I was real sick for the first couple of months.” Then he realized why he was oddly reluctant, enough that his mind was overriding the hammering of his pulse.

Saba. We’d only just met that night I rode into Sutterdown, and that was the last time I was with a woman.

The curved Cutter knife had been rising above him as he woke beside her. He swallowed as he remembered the way she’d shrieked as the Cutter’s knife went in, and the way it had looked and smelled. Far too much like sound and smell when the hog-butcher putting his spiked pincers on the beast’s nose in the fall... and that lay over the memory of what had gone before.

“Look,” he said slowly. “I... last time...”

“Ah,” she said sadly, and put a hand on his arm and squeezed the thick bicep. “Saba. I’m sorry to bring it back to mind, but she’d smile at us from the Summerlands, really.”

“I don’t seem to be good luck for women,” he said. “Not since, well, not since Corwin. My luck generally speaking sucks since then. I—“ he swallowed. “I don’t want to risk anyone else. I like you, Mary. I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“That’s all right,” she said sunnily. “My luck’s good enough for two. And I’m a Ranger ohtar, a warrior by trade. Got to take my chances.”

“Ummm “ Christ, but I seem to be saying that a lot. “Look, Mary... we’re friends, right? So can I ask you honestly... you’re not doing this because you’re sorry for me, are you?”

“No, of course not!” she said. Then: “Well, not mostly. Being sad makes you more sexy; women think that way, you know.”

“You do?”

“Usually. You know, the brooding thing, and it’ll be a big charge to make you happy again. If you’re interesting to start with.” The grin grew broader. “And happiness is on the program.”

She moved suddenly, straddling his lap. His arms went around her involuntarily, and suddenly he could hear her heart pounding as hard as his. The problem with that was that it brought back the memory of the last time really strongly. Mary gave a slight yelp as his hands closed on her, and then she looked down in puzzlement.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Things were fine, and then... look I did take a bath...”

“Ummm, I’m real flattered.” He was; it wasn’t often you got an outright offer like this. Of course, both times it had been witches. “As long as you really want...”

“Sure! I won the toss, didn’t I?”

“Toss?” he said, jarring to a halt.

“Well, Ritva and I are identical twins. We usually want the same thing. So we tossed for you. Well, then we did paper-scissors-stone. She cheats.”

Ingolf felt his jaw drop slightly. Girls back home weren’t necessarily shy, or coy about telling a man their mind under the right circumstances, but...

“You won me?” he squeaked.

“It’s not as if there’s much of a selection.” At his gape she stroked his head and went on: “Ingolf, there’s you, there’s our brother, there’s a celibate Catholic priest, and there’s two kids. I mean, Edain? Cradle-robbing.”

“He’s about your age,” Ingolf said weakly.

“That makes him younger. And boys that age are even more dicks on legs than men your age. Besides, he’s scared of us.”

“There’s Odard...” And I can’t believe I said that!

“Euuu! He’s been trying to get into our pants since we were sixteen! Euuu! He’d smirk. And it’s Matti he really wants. Besides, he’s too... smooth.”

“I’m not smooth?”

“No, you’re rugged.”

“Look, Mary...” he said slowly. Are these words really coming out of my mouth? “I... well, I like you a lot, but I haven’t, you know, thought of you that way.” Except in passing. “Couldn’t we, ummm, get to know each other better—“

That was evidently not the right thing to say; she reared back like an offended cat and moved away from his embrace. Half of him wanted to snatch her back... and he was humiliatingly aware that some of the other half was sheer fear that he couldn’t, not after what happened in Sutterdown.

“Eny!” she said, and then a sputter of musical syllables he knew were Sindarin, though he hadn’t learned more than the odd word. “Men!”

Actually that let’s-get-to-know-each-other-first is usually the girl’s line, he thought, bemused, as she flounced back to where her sister lay.

Slowly a smile spread over his face as he lay back and pulled up his blankets. His body was giving a sharp protest at what he’d done, and a big part of his mind was agreeing, yearning for the sheer comfort of closeness. The rest of him...

Maybe she didn’t just set out to make me feel better, but for some reason I do!

 

@@@

Cover Map P 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Copyright © 2007-2008 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com