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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Castle Todenangst, Portland Protective Association

Willamette Valley near Newburg, Oregon

September 10th, CY 23/2021 AD

 

Astrid Larsson, Hiril Dúnedain, frowned upward at the curiously graceful bulk of Castle Todenangst. The great fortress-palace of the Arminger dynasty had been built around the slopes of Grouse Butte in the first Change Years, a little east of the town of Newberg. Built by thousands glad to haul concrete on their backs and claw away earth and rock, for a regular bowl of gruel from Portland’s commandeered grain elevators and a taste of the whip from the overseers. In those days of the great dying it had been a good bargain.

Still a symbol of tyranny, I suppose, she thought. Complete with dark tower. But...

Now it looked as if it had been there forever, a great circuit of crenellated concrete wall and tower covered in shining white stucco, the gates like castles in themselves and the broad moat bright with water-lilies in coral pink and white and purple. The high mass of the inner donjon loomed over it all where the builders had carved away the central butte and cased it in ferroconcrete, covered with pale granite salvaged from abandoned banks and rearing hundreds of feet higher than the surrounding plain of dark forest and green pasture and yellow stubble-field, vineyard and orchard and village.

Towers higher yet studded the oval wall, the greatest of all on the southern height nearest them, sheathed in black stone with glittering crystal inclusions that made it sparkle in the bright sunlight of a September dawn. Its roof was conical and tapered to a spike, but not green copper like the others. It was covered in gold leaf, and it blazed like a flame as the sun cleared the forested Parrett mountains to the eastward, a monument to the dark and ruthless will of the man who’d reared it amid the death-agony of a world.

He’s been dead twelve years. Does his spirit still linger here?

Proud banners flew from the towers, and lords and ladies in bright finery stood on the battlements to look down on the assembled armies of the Meeting. Several thousand peasants and townsmen crowded around the lowered drawbridge in their best Sunday-go-to-Church dress of jerkin and hose and cap or double tunic and wimple, ready to wave the little Lidless Eye flags they carried. A rank of soldiers stood on either side to keep them back, facing outward with their spears held horizontally.

“I have to admit, though, it’s almost... like something out of Gondor, isn’t it?” she said with grudging admiration in her silver-veined blue eyes.

That she used Sindarin kept the conversation private from outsiders. It was even more so because only she and her husband Alleyne, and her anamchara Eilir Mackenzie and her man John Hordle stood near her. The rest of her Rangers were in a solid mass behind her two hundred strong, each standing at their horse’s head, clad in light armor and spired helmets. The White Tree with its surround of seven stars and crown flew from a tall banner a proud ohtar held beside her own dappled Arab.

“Possibly like Minas Tirith,” Alleyne said, smoothing a finger along his neat blond mustache. “Or possibly more like the offspring off a fleeting romantic encounter between Carcassonne and San Simeon. I’m certainly glad we never had to try and storm it.”

Eilir nodded, and Hordle grunted agreement around the last mouthful of a massive smoked-venison-and-pickled-onion sandwich.

“John!” Astrid hissed under her breath. “Do you always have to be eating? You’re as bad as a hobbit!”

He swallowed and licked fingers like great sausages backed with red furze, and belched comfortably.

“Takes a bit to keep a Halfling my size going, m’lady,” he said mildly, and leaned on the ball pommel of his heavy four-foot sword. “Can’t roitly expect me ter live on just a bit o’ lembas, now can you?”

There was some truth in that, since he was ten inches taller than her five-nine and weighed over three hundred pounds, with shoulders as broad as a sheathed sword and a face like a cured ham atop a wedge of muscle where most men kept a neck.

“Besides, it’ll be all jerky and hardtack soon enough, with raisins if we’re lucky. Maggoty dead horse if we’re not.”

She nodded. The allied army was drawn up on the great open fields that sloped down from Todenangst’s south gate towards the forest of oak and fir along the Willamette River; they served as green pasture for the castle’s horses in peacetime, and now they blossomed with orderly rows of tents and pavilions. The smells of any war-camp—woodsmoke, scorched frying pan, slit-trenches inadequately shoveled in after use, horses, leather and metal and sweat—mingled with the mild sweetness of the crushed grass.

The Rangers had the center station since she’d be in command. To her right were the thousand Mackenzie archers that Juniper had brought, beneath the banner of the antlers and crescent moon; beyond them were the two hundred and fifty Bearkiller A-listers with their black bear’s-head on crimson, all full-armored and equipped with lance and horseman’s bow; flanking them were a hundred knight-brothers of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict from Mt. Angel, with the cross-and-raven emblazoned on their shields.

To her left was the Corvallis contingent, standing with their burnished armor and equally shiny field-catapults, and the orange-and-brown flag of that rich city-state, with the letters PFSC above for the People and Faculty Senate of Corvallis. The flag bore the image of Benny the Beaver, a rodentine head scowling ferociously and baring chisel teeth. Her brother-in-law Mike Havel had called it dorky beyond words to use the University’s football flag as a battle emblem, and she had to agree, but at least today they didn’t have those cheerleaders in short skirts leaping and cavorting and making pyramids in front of the troops. She’d always hated that, particularly on serious occasions.

The Portland Protective Association’s contingent was on the far left. Several hundred were armored lancers on destriers, knights and men-at-arms riding great steeds that themselves wore armor on head and neck and chest. A thousand were footmen, half with spear and shield, the rest crossbowmen. The Association’s men stood a little apart from the others—all of whom had fought the Protectorate during the War of the Eye twelve years ago.

Or at least their parents and elder siblings did. That’s going to be awkward, she thought. Far too many of us have the memory of friends or kin killed by those men under the Lidless Eye banner. And vice versa, I suppose.

There was a stir in the crowd of commoners. Heralds in bright tabards and plumed hats marched in a double rank through the open gates of Castle Todenangst, formed lines on either side of the roadway and raised their long flare-mouthed silver trumpets. From behind them came the white glitter of polished armor and the glow of embroidered silk and vestments, and the flutter of heraldic banners. The trumpets screamed in high sweet unison, and then a great voice cried out as the echoes died among the walls and towers:

“Our sovereign liege-lady, Sandra Arminger, Regent of the Portland Protective Association for Crown Princess Mathilda Arminger! Lord Conrad Renfrew, Count of Odell and Chancellor of the Realm! The lady Tiphaine d’Ath, Grand Constable of the Association! His Grace, Abbot-Bishop Dmowski of Mt. Angel and Head of the Commonwealth of the Queen of Angels! Lady Juniper, the Mackenzie of Clan Mackenzie!—”

“The glory of the Elder Days, and the hosts of Beleriand,” Astrid murmured softly, as the Protectorate commoners uncovered and bowed, or sank into deep curtsies before their rulers and those of the allied realms of the Meeting.

“Yet not so many, nor so fair,” Alleyne replied in the same quiet voice. “And they’re coming to us, and not vice versa.”

“And not enjoying it at all, some of them,” Astrid said happily. “It hasn’t been a nice day for Tiphaine, at all, I imagine.”

 

@@@

 

Even here in the midst of the castle, in the arming chamber of the Grand Constable’s quarters, you could hear the low grumbling surf-roar of voices from the walls and the field to the south. It was time to go; she had to meet Sandra and Conrad and do the ceremonial necessities. Tiphaine d’Ath wasn’t looking forward to it, but that had been true of a lot of the work she’d done for Sandra since the Change. You couldn’t complain about the pay or benefits, and it was usually interesting.

“And they say I’m obsessed with fashion!” Delia de Stafford said.

“We’ve all got to look pretty to keep up the Association’s credit in front of the foreigners,” Tiphaine said, then looked down as the last buckle snapped home.

“Very neat, Lioncel,” the Grand Constable said to her page, who was also Delia’s eldest son. “But you musn’t touch the plates with your bare palms; just the fingers. They smudge a lot more easily than the old chain mail did.”

The harness was her parade armor, the same design as her field kit and just as practical in terms of stopping sharp or pointy or heavy things wielded with ill intent, but a good deal more showy, since the plates were made of chrome-steel and burnished—white armor, the term was.

The page blushed painfully as only an eleven-year-old boy could do, and buffed away the marks with a chamois. He stood back after a moment; his younger brother Diomede knelt and wiped down her greaves and the steel cover of her riding boots. Unconsciously Lioncel’s hands clenched in admiration as he stared at the slender form of steel and black leather he’d helped arm, her pale eyes nearly the color of the burnished metal.

That all showed to better advantage because of the tailor’s-style three-valve wall mirror. The rest of the room was mostly bare and lined with sheets of salvaged marble and shelves bearing spare parts, polish and tools. Empty armor-racks like skeletal mannequins showed where her field-kit had been packed up. The room had a rich clean odor halfway between metallic and that of a saddler’s shop.

Maintaining a chevalier’s armor was something pages worked on, under the supervision of squires, as part of the noble career path. The two boys walked around her with anxious eyes and ready cloths, to see if anything needed touching up, from gorget to the golden rowel spurs of knighthood.

“Now make your devoir to your lady mother. And then go and tell my lords the commanders that I’ll be along shortly,” she said, picking up her gauntlets. “Lioncel, take the helmet for me. Diomede, my sword-belt.”

They did, glowing with pride and pacing side by side, making a pretty picture in their dark liveries and brimless caps, one black-haired and the other almost as white-blond as Tiphaine herself.

Nice kids, she thought. Even if they are males.

Tiphaine had never had the slightest impulse to reproduce, even via turkey-baster; Delia was enthusiastic about children, though, enough to use that venerable pre-Change technology. And the pro-forma marriage to de Stafford had served to ennoble her as well as to make her offspring respectable.

I’ll do this part,” she said.

She stood, a little awkwardly in her seventh month and the maternity version of the long-skirted cotte-hardi; the pregnancy had fleshed her delicate brunette prettiness out a bit, too. Tiphaine bowed her head for the flat, round black hat with its roll about the brim, and then stood as Delia arranged it on the Grand Constable’s straight blond hair, twitching the broad tail to fall down past a steel-clad shoulder. A small livery badge at the front bore the d’Ath arms, quartered with Sandra Arminger’s.

“And this,” Delia said.

She unwound a long silk scarf from her headdress—a tall pointy thing with a passing resemblance to a brimless version of a witch’s hat—

Which is ironic, Tiphaine thought.

—and looped it around the Grand Constable’s neck, tucking the ends beneath the mail collar. Tiphaine fell to one knee for an instant, took her hand and kissed it; their goodbyes had to be private.

And since I ended up in this Paleo-Catholic feudal wet-dream of Norman’s that’s the way it’s going to stay, dammit...

“Come back safe,” Delia said, fighting to smile.

“With my lady-love’s favor to hearten me, how can I fail?” she said whimsically.

Her hand touched the silk. For a single moment, as their eyes met, the neo-chivalry didn’t seem silly at all.

“And if you start dallying with any pretty cowgirls, it’ll choke you,” Delia said, smiling through eyes shining with tears. “I’ve enchanted it... and I’m a witch, you know.”

They both smiled; Delia actually was a witch, albeit closeted in that respect as well. While the Old Religion wasn’t illegal in the Protectorate any more, it wasn’t anything you advertised if you were a member of the nobility, either.

“Never, my sweet,” Tiphaine replied over her shoulder as she turned to go. “I don’t like the smell of the rancid butter they use as face cream out east.”

 

@@@

 

Signe Havel noticed that Chuck Barstow, First Armsman of the Clan Mackenzie, was humming under his breath as they walked towards the banner of the Dúnedain Rangers—protocol said the commanders of all the allied contingents should be there for this. Technically she should have been riding out from the castle with the other heads of state, but damned if she’d spend even one night beneath the same roof as the widow and partner-in-crime of her husband’s killer.

And since Mike killed Norman Arminger too, I don’t think Sandra Arminger feels very hospitable where I’m concerned, either. Though she’d hide it faultlessly.

Then Chuck began to sing, very softly indeed beneath the crowd-noise, his eyes on the splendors of Castle Todenangst and the feudal state of the party riding out through the gates amid caracoling horses and the snap of lance-pennants:

 

“Em Eye Cee, Kay Eee Wy, Em Oh You Ess Eee...”

 

He was a lean sinewy man in his early fifties, with thinning sandy hair and long muscular legs showing beneath his kilt, and he’d been around thirty when the Change struck. It took Eric Larsson and his sister a bit longer to recognize the tune; the Bearkiller leaders had been only eighteen then, forty now. Eric coughed into a fist like an oak maul encased in a steel gauntlet to conceal his initial bellow of laughter, the plates of his composite armor rattling, and Signe shot them both a scandalized look.

Well, yes, it does all have a touch of Disney, but this isn’t the moment!

And that castle wasn’t a fantasy for children made of plaster and lath; the walls were very real mass-concrete many yards thick, and the towers held murder-machines and flame-throwers and lots of completely serious soldiers with spears and swords meant for use, not show. If you had the men-at-arms, you got to decide what constituted reality.

Eric grinned, a piratical expression with his Vandyke beard and yellow locks flowing to his armored shoulders. A golden hoop earring glittered in his right ear.

“Says the man in a kilt and a feathered bonnet,” he said to the Mackenzie armsman. “Not to mention a golden torc.”

Chuck snorted. “Hey, the torc’s just our equivalent of a wedding-ring, nowadays. And I was doing this stuff—“ his fingers tapped the hilt of his sword “—when I was eighteen.”

“Geezer! So was I, but by then it was real life, not fantasy,” Eric said cheerfully.

“Says the man whose younger sister thinks she’s the great-granddaughter of Aragorn son of Arathorn and Arwen Undomiel,” Chuck shot back.

“It’s not quite that bad; she just thinks she’s their remote descendant,” Signe said. “Anyway, we Larssons do come from a very ancient line of sand and gravel magnates in the eastern part of Middle Earth.”

“I thought your folks made their money off wheat and timber here in Oregon?” Chuck said. “Back about a hundred years pre-Change?”

“Yeah, but before then we farmed sand and broke our plows on rocks in Småland for Freya-knows-how-many thousands of years.”

Eric inclined the ostrich-feather plumes of his dress helmet towards the Dúnedain banner for an instant.

“Chuck, did I ever tell you the one I made up for Astrid, back before the Change?”

He whispered; they were getting closer, even with the general hubbub.

“No, Eric, I don’t think you did. But feel free.”

As softly, Eric went on:

 

“Ho, Tom Bombadil!

Tom Bumboydildo!”

 

Shut up,” Signe said, suppressing an unwilling smile. “Besides, you need to dance and click your heels with that simpering look and the daisy stuck up your nose, for the full effect.”

The Bearkiller banner was borne by Bill Larsson, Eric’s eldest son; he was nearly as tall as his father, with hair of brown curls and a skin the color of lightly toasted wheat-bread and just this year the brand of an A-lister between his brows. He exchanged a look with Mike Havel Jr.; the fourteen-year-old rolled his eyes slightly despite the tight discipline of the Outfit his father had founded. They were both obviously wondering what the hell their elders were talking about. Chuck’s foster-son Oak carried the Clan’s moon-and-antlers flag; he was thirty-one, and about as bewildered.

Changelings, Signe Havel thought, with fond exasperation.

And a stab of pain. Even that slight tilt to Mike’s head and the habit of raising a single eyebrow was so like his father...

They fell in beside Astrid and the others. And she’s being the Noble, Stern, Wise, Grave, Kindly Leader, Signe thought as she took in her younger sister’s pose. Well, she can carry it off with style. A bull-goose loony she may be, but she’s still a Larsson.

 

@@@

 

Astrid exchanged a single regal nod as Sandra Arminger approached; they were both sovereigns. Cardinal-Archbishop Maxwell raised his crosier and signed the air in blessing; Juniper Mackenzie did the same with her staff topped with the Triple Moon—she was in a formal arsaid today, and jeweled belt and headband with the sign of the crescent Moon on her brow. The others made brief greeting, but this was a military occasion, strictly speaking.

Then Tiphaine went down on both knees before her sovereign. She drew her longsword, kissed the cross the hilt made, and then raised the blade on the palms of her gloved hands.

“My liege, my sword is yours, and all my faith and obedience, under God.”

Sandra took it—a little awkwardly, since she was petite and had never been a warrior of any sort. She turned to Astrid and extended the blade.

“My Grand Constable’s sword I tender to you, Lady Astrid of the Dúnedain Rangers, in token of your command of this army.”

She had a high voice, but trained to carry by a generation of public events. Tiphaine rose and then went down on one knee facing Astrid—the lesser salute to a ruler not her own, and done with liquid grace despite the sixty pounds of armor. Astrid’s eyes met hers for a moment; then the Ranger leader swung the sword with casual expertise in a shimmering arc that ended with it presented to Tiphaine hilt-first.

The Grand Constable took the blade and sheathed it without glancing down. “Lady Astrid, at my ruler’s order I tender you my obedience and faith so long as this alliance shall last; so help me God.”

She extended her hands, palm pressed to palm, and Astrid took them between her own:

“Grand Constable d’Ath, so long as this alliance shall last, I acknowledge you as second-in-command of this army, and in my absence or if I should fall, its commander. So witness the Lord Manwë and the Lady Varda, and the One Who is above all.”

Signe’s eyes went a little wider. That hadn’t been on the agenda! Sandra’s expression mirrored her own, under a control that couldn’t be called iron because it was far too supple.

Now, that was a smart political move, little sister, Signe though grudgingly. And you did it despite the fact that you hate Tiphaine as much as I do Sandra... and unlike Sandra, Tiphaine hates you right back. She’s not nearly as emotionless as you’d think, underneath that Icy Elegant Killer Dyke facade.

The Association contingent raised a cheer, hammering their weapons on their shields and shouting out Lady d’Ath! Lady d’Ath! The sound grew as the news spread to those out of earshot; the harsh male chorus echoed back from the walls of the castle, and frightened skeins of wildfowl into flight from the Willamette behind them, rising like black beaded strings into the cloudless sky.

It sounded a lot like Lady Death, which was Tiphaine’s nickname in Portland’s domains.

The cheer gradually swept down the ranks, since it wouldn’t do to leave the Protectorate troops on their own. Each group joined in its own fashion—you could tell the banshee shrieks of the Mackenzies as soon as they came in, or the Bearkiller growl of Ooo-rah. And the warrior Benedictines of the Order of the Shield sang a few stanzas of a military hymn instead of just yelling:

 

Kyrie Eleison, down the road we all must follow—“

 

The other leaders made their variations on the same speech as Sandra, and the commanders of the forces they’d contributed did homage to Astrid; Eric was grave as he went to one knee and put his hands between hers—Signe had been half-afraid that he’d absently call their younger sibling sis or peanut. As the affair wound up Sandra looked aside.

“Isn’t that your son, Lady Signe? He’s the living image of his father these days.”

“Yes,” Signe said brusquely. “He is.”

And I have him and his four sisters, Signe thought, and knew Sandra was thinking it as well. While your precious singleton Mathilda is off east of the mountains in the Goddess-knows-what peril. I don’t wish Rudi any ill... not any more, and I love Ritva and Mary even if they’re difficult and prickly. But your daughter, on the other hand, is all you’ve got...

“A handsome lad, but then, his father was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, in an extremely masculine way. In fact young Mike looks a great deal like Rudi. With less red in the hair, of course,” Sandra went on politely.

Ouch, Signe thought.

It was true, too; Mike had been Rudi’s blood-father. That brief encounter with Juniper Mackenzie had been before they were married, but...

Don’t try to get into a meaner-than-thou contrast with the Spider of the Silver Tower, she reminded herself.

“He’ll be going east with your brother?” Sandra went on.

“Yes,” Signe said. “He’s a military apprentice now, and among the best of his year.”

And this isn’t a time when a ruler can keep himself safe, she thought. I don’t wish Rudi ill, but my son will have his own heritage. And to do that, he has to have experience and to gain it in front of the other warriors.

“Ah, yes, that Spartan-style thing you Bearkillers have,” Sandra said smoothly, looking at her out of the corners of her brown eyes. “I pray that every mother’s child shall return safely.”

It isn’t a time like that, Signe thought, controlling her glare. But oh, how I wish it was!

 

@@@

 

Hey, hey, laddie-O

Paint your face and string your bow!

 

Juniper Mackenzie waved as she passed by the campfire where they were roaring out the old marching-song to a skirl of pipes and a hammer of drums. The air in the Mackenzie encampment beneath Castle Todenangst was thick with the smell of woodsmoke and grilling food and the incidental odors that even a cleanly folk couldn’t avoid, as the sun fell westward behind the towers in a blaze of black and golden clouds above the Coast Range. It had been a warm afternoon, perfect for the speeches and rites; she and Judy Barstow were still in their robes of ceremony as High Priestesses and carrying their staffs.

“This is how it starts,” she said sadly.

“Hopefully, it will be over soon, at least this first phase,” her handfasted man Nigel said beside her. “Though I hesitate to say Home before Christmas... or Yule. That prediction hasn’t got a happy history.”

“Wars are always easier to start than end,” Juniper agreed, and sighed. “Sure, and you can start them yourself, but the other side must agree for the dance to stop. And their outcomes are never certain. If it weren’t for all that, and the waste and pain and grief and sorrow and general wicked black ugliness, it’s a splendid and glorious thing war would be.”

 

Hey, hey, lassie-O

Plant the stake and face the foe!

What use the lance and the golden rowel

As their faces turn white at the Clan’s wolf-howl?”

 

She winced slightly; that was a song from the War of the Eye, and not too tactful now considering the time, place and circumstance. Though there were Protectorate folk mingling among the Mackenzies. One dark young squire was even dancing to the beat of the war-chant—the golden bells on his shoes twinkling in the air as he did what the old world would have called a break-dance and clansfolk no older clapped and cheered him on.

“They’re all so young,” she said despairingly.

“You asked for volunteers,” Chuck Barstow said with infuriating reasonableness, and his wife Judy nodded. “So you get the young ones who don’t have kids and crofts depending on them.”

“They weren’t born yet when the Change came.”

“Or near as no matter. Even Oak—“ his foster-son “—doesn’t remember the old world much, and he was... what, nine, when we found that school bus on the way here?” A shrug. “It’s all easier for the Changelings.”

Judy Barstow silently reached over and put a hand on her shoulder; Juniper covered it with her own for an instant, grateful for her oldest friend’s presence.

Only a scattering of the warriors were old enough to have fought in the War of the Eye, mostly the bow-captains, and they were quieter. The two couples passed another fire where the youngsters were kneeling in pairs, touching up the savage patterns swirling across their faces and bodies and limbs in soot-black and leaf-green, henna crimson and saffron gold.

That’s a bit early,” Chuck said dryly. “They’re going to run out of war-paint before there’s any fighting, if they keep that up every day.”

One tall girl among them suddenly sprang up and snatched a sword free, whirling naked into a battle dance around the fire with the sharp steel flashing. Her painted face contorted as she leapt and lunged, her eyes blank and exalted as they stared beyond the Veil, graceful and deadly as the cougar whose catamount shriek she gave. Her blade-mates joined her, screaming out the calls of their totem beasts, their bare feet stamping the measure as they invited those spirits to take possession on the road to battle.

Juniper shivered slightly, watching the snarling faces and the steel that flashed blood-red in the light of the dying sun.

“Oh Powers of Earth and Sky, what is it that you’ve brought back, to run wild once more upon the ridge of the world?” she said softly. “You know, I don’t understand the younger generation. I love them, but even Rudi... we were never as strange to our parents.”

“I don’t think so,” Judy said dryly; her old friend had always had that gift of bringing her back to earth. “But they and we didn’t have the Change between us. You’d have to skip back quite a few more generations to get that, eh? Go far enough back, and we’d be the odd ones, not the Changelings.”

Juniper nodded. “They... they accept things in a way we didn’t”

Her companions all nodded.

“They speak English, but they don’t speak our language. When they say ‘time’ or ‘death’ or ‘rebirth’, it means something different from the way we used the words,” Judy said.

Death... how many of these happy youngsters will lie stark and dead in a month’s time, all their fierceness and beauty gone too soon? Juniper thought. And rebirth, yes, but death comes first, and we are right to fear it, for it is dreadful to pass through the dark gate, even if you know what waits beyond.

They walked beyond the fires and the encampment, into the woods that lay along the river, parkland kept as a pleasaunce for the castle-dwellers of noble rank, a pretty amendment of nature. Far eastward the tiny perfect white cone of Mt. Hood caught the dying sun for an instant, flushing pink and then fading away as the first stars appeared.

A few birds sang, and the river ran slow beneath the willows, glimpsed through the big oaks of the old parkland, some tangled with green English ivy. They came to a clearing where green grass was starred with red paintbrush, green-sweet beneath the cooler forest-smell; a bank of poison-oak had been turned fire-red by last week’s early frost. A doe and two fawns were grazing there, half a hundred yards away; the mother raised her head sharply, then bent again as she saw no movement. There was an added stillness as the humans withdrew their presence, a trick they all knew well.

Judy nudged Juniper softly and leaned close to say quietly:

“Left,” she whispered, and Chuck and Nigel froze as well, with the smooth alertness of warriors and hunters.

Juniper turned her head in that direction and almost started in surprise. Not far along the forest edge was Chuck and Judy’s son Oak, and his wife Devorgill and their children who’d come along to see him off. One was a baby at the breast, and there was his daughter Lutra and his son Laere. Oak was looking at his parents and grinning. As far as looks went he might have been Chuck’s blood-child, a big rangy-muscular man a little past thirty, with long tawny mustaches that dropped past his shaven chin and a shaggy shoulder-length mane bleached by the harvest suns that had tanned his body to the color of his name-wood.

That showed because he and Devorgill were wearing only their kilts and sandals and a little body-paint—his was a badger’s head on his chest—while the children went naked and barefoot, as young Mackenzies often did in warm weather. They had a basket on the ancient but well-maintained rustic picnic-table and the remains of a meal set out on it, a chance to take one last supper together without the bustle of the camp or the strained formalities of the castle. The adults’ longbows and quivers and sword-belts leaned against an alder behind them, and a long-headed battle spear, though it would be a mad bandit indeed who dared to come here. Still, habits learned in the years of the great dying stuck hard and got passed down.

Juniper nodded back. The children’s gaze stayed fixed on the spotted coats of the June-born fawns, who peered about at the world big-eyed. She could hear the low whisper of Laere’s five-year-old voice as he asked:

“Are you going to hunt them, Dad? There are an awful lot of people here the now, they must need an awful lot of food too.”

“No, boyo, that I will not, and for two reasons,” Oak said.

Devorgill moved, laying a gentle finger on Lutra’s mouth as the girl started to burst forth with the answer before her younger brother. Oak went on, in the same low voice:

“When’s it lawful to hunt, my little Laere?”

The boy was his father in miniature and minus twenty-odd years; his hair was a mop of white tow and his eyes brilliant blue in his freckled, summer-darkened face as he frowned in thought.

“For food... an’... an’ when they try to eat our gardens?”

His mother spoke: “That’s true; but you must also never hunt a doe in fawn, or any deer less than a year old. That brings a curse, unless you’re starving and make a special rite. The Mother’s hand is over them.”

Young Lutra nodded, making the dark-brown hair that fell in a thong-bound horse-tail to the small of her back bounce. She spoke quietly:

“And this is a place that’s never hunted, like a nemed, so they’re not man-wary and it’s geasa to kill here, sure and it is.”

Laere stuck his tongue out at her, and she replied in kind, being all of five years older herself.

“But we can go and visit them in peace today,” Oak said, smiling down at them with a warm delight on his rugged face. “The wind’s from them to us. Come, and let’s see if you can walk very quietly. Step when I do, and be as careful as mice!”

He took each by the hand, winking at his wife—and at Juniper and Sir Nigel and his own parents.

Father, son and daughter walked out into the dappled, darkening shade of the clearing, still lit by a few beams of the setting sun slanting like orange fire though the tall trees. Both children walked softly, but no more so than their woods-wise father’s hundred-and-eighty pounds of bone and hard muscle. He kept the deer in focus but without meeting their eyes when their heads turned, avoiding a predator’s fixed gaze. Each step flowed like slow water, and whenever their heads came up and scanned he stopped smoothly without the least betraying jerk, as natural as grass swaying in the wind. The children followed his movements intently.

The doe walked a little away from the fawns, her tail quivering, her reddish-brown coat fading to darkness as the light failed. Closer...

Lutra dropped her father’s hand and reached out. A fawn sniffed her fingers, began to dodge, then stopped as she gently ran her hand down its neck. It tilted its head and looked at her oddly as if wondering what she was. Laere tried to do the same with the other, but he moved a little too sharply. It shied, and a stick crackled beneath its hooves; the doe brought her head up and made a sharp bleating sound.

Juniper chuckled a little then as the deer bounded away, in arcs that made them seem like weightless shadows that vanished under the trees. The two children stood waving and calling farewells for a moment, then came back to their blankets.

“That’s her saying—Great Goddess, foolish child, it’s a human!” Juniper said, and the others laughed as her singer’s voice made it sound very like the doe’s bleat. “They’ll eat you! Will you be friends with a wolf next?”

“Grandma!” Laere said, and charged past Juniper to hug Judy around the waist and be lifted up on her hip and given a smacking kiss.

“Merry met,” Juniper said to Devorgill and her children and her man.

That was a little formal for people who lived in Dun Juniper year-round, but Oak was off to war tomorrow. It would have been inconceivable for the son of the Clan’s Chief Armsman not to march with the war-band, and Oak was bow-captain for Dun Juniper’s own contingent.

“Merry met, Lady Juniper,” they replied.

Lutra had hair as seal-brown as her mother’s and eyes the dark green of fir-needles; she made a solemn reverence, bowing her head with hands pressed together and thumbs beneath her chin. That was a little too formal for the occasion, but the girl was obviously feeling very adult and knowledgeable today.

“Dad says I can go hunting with him next year,” Laere said proudly, trotting back to stand by the man.

“To help with the camp chores,” Oak said firmly; his hand ruffled the boy’s head in a rough caress. “With your sister. Neither of you is old enough to hunt yet, not for years, not until you can make a kill quick and sure.”

Lutra nodded. “You know the song of the law, Laere,” she said.

Laere looked like he’d rather stick his tongue out at his sister once more for playing at old-and-wise again, or possibly pull her hair this time, but had too much in the way of manners to do so in front of the two awesome old women with their staffs. Juniper smiled at him and sang softly, just a snatch of it:

 

Let the death be clean as life’s release

So we show our honor to the beast

For your own death you will understand

When you hold life’s blood within your hand—

 

The boy smiled back and continued in a pure treble:

 

Though we draw the bow an’ we ww... uh...

 

His father and mother came in to help him as he wobbled:

 

—and we wield the blade

We respect the Law the Gods have made;

For we know not when the shadows fall,

And the Huntsman comes to claim us all.

 

“And the shadows have fallen, and now we’d best go back to the camp, before it gets too dark and you two take a chill,” Devorgill said, burping her youngest and wiping up the results with a cloth. “Merry part ‘til later, mother Judy, Lady Juniper.”

They walked off. As they passed, Juniper could hear Laere talking to his father:

“I wish I was old enough to go with you and granddad to the war! I’d take a hundred heads, like the Hound did when Maeve invaded Ulster! Chop-chop-chop!”

His sister’s outraged tones faded through the forest: “Laere! You bloodthirsty little brute of a boy! That’s just in the stories! It’s geasa now!”

Juniper looked up, and saw the first stars hovering over the snowpeaks of the Cascades.

“And we must go back to the castle, and smile and look brave at the feast,” she said. “What a fraud I feel!”

Nigel faced her as she turned. “My dear,” he said, putting a hand beneath her chin and kissing her. “You are without doubt the bravest of us all.”

 

@@@

 

“He is?” BD said, her weathered, wrinkled face blank for an instant. “Murdoch is a spy for Lady Sandra?”

Astrid Larsson leaned back in the chair and nodded—not smugly, she hoped. The little chamber was very private, with only one narrow slit window high up on the curving outer wall; Castle Todenangst was full of places like that, nooks and crannies you could get to without anyone being the wiser and leave unnoticed.

Unless someone’s watching from a secret passage, of course. I think Sandra did a lot of the detail work on the plans for this castle.

The light was good, gas-lamps with incandescent mantles, unaccustomed brilliance for an hour this late and reflecting off wainscoting of blond oak. There was a table of fine polished mahogany, a few chairs, a rug, and a bottle of wine and glasses by a bowl of raisins and walnuts and hazelnuts. Despite the charming little fireplace with its tiled surround of hummingbirds and meadowlarks it was a bit oppressive after a life spent mostly in the wilds or on the open roads, or at most in Stardell Hall with its loose scatter of homes through forest.

She could feel the uncounted tons of steel and concrete above, almost smell them under the odors of wine and burning fir-wood. And imagine the dungeons below, and the great foundations where the Fortress of Death-Anguish gripped the soil of the land.

But there are advantages, she thought. Privacy seems easier to come by amid many people. Odd.

She sipped at her glass of wine and watched the older woman think.

“He’s good, then,” BD said. “I’ve dealt with Murdoch and Sons every time I swung out that far east, and I’d never suspected he was her man in Pendleton.”

BD was from the Kyklos, a scatter of independent villages around Silverton, not far north of the main Dúnedain holding in Mithrilwood. Besides being a High Priestess of the Old Religion she ran the Plodding Pony service, which delivered high-value freight over much of Oregon, and which had employed Rangers as escorts almost as long as there had been Rangers in this Age of the world. That sort of business led to the collection of information as naturally as breathing. It also made you a shrewd judge of character.

Astrid went on: “Murdoch has been working for Sandra since before the War of the Eye. She planted him in Pendleton when we made the Protectorate withdraw from the area, after her husband was killed. And he’s got... connections there. Sort of an underground.”

BD looked down at the map and her eyebrows shot up. “I’ll say! But how are you going to use them?”

Astrid shrugged. “I’m not altogether sure,” she said. “But I’m a little uneasy about just marching up to Pendleton’s walls and telling them to surrender so we can guard them against Boise and the CUT whether they like it or not. We can’t even prove that either power is planning to move on them.”

“You don’t think you can beat the Pendleton Round-Up?”

“I don’t want to beat them in a stand-up battle and I certainly don’t want to burn down the city or lay the countryside waste. We Rangers generally don’t go in for mass head-butting. It’s... crude. And Pendleton’s just badly governed, not evil like the CUT and its Dark... Prophet. Every man we kill will be one who isn’t on our side later, in the real war, when Rudi returns with the Sword. We ought to be able to make something of an asset like this Murdoch and his... connections.”

She leaned forward. “You’ve been there in person. Tell me about the Pendleton bossman, Carl Peters. The things that don’t get into written reports.”

 

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