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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

“Cold falls the night where nothing sounds

Save weeping and the grief of the weak

Hot his heart and ready his hand

He and his companions sworn and trusty

Blade and bow ready for avenging of wrongs

Though wiser it were to think of the Sword

That waited where the Lady had bidden—“

 

From: The Song of Bear and Raven

Attributed to Fiorbhinn Mackenzie, 1st century CY.

 

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Eastern Idaho, near Picabo

September 10th, Change Year 23/2021 A.D.

 

Caravan, Rudi Mackenzie thought. They’re putting together a big one, for a place that size. Or a big one’s passing through. Not about to leave just now, though.

They were a lot further north and closer to the edge of the mountains now; the stark foothills of the Pioneers were just ahead on the other side of Silver Creek, mostly summer-bleached grass up steep slopes, with shallow valleys leading northward. A little higher he could see groves of quaking aspen—and, alarmingly, some of them were beginning to turn, a hint of gold where none should shine. They had to get over the Rockies, and soon, if they weren’t to risk being hit by bad snowstorms in the passes. The ones they could use, at least; the lower ones would be strongly garrisoned by the Prophet’s men, or even fortified.

Maybe we should have headed south through Nevada and tried the mountains there!

The creek was about a mile away, flowing from west to east and flanked by a narrow band of fields watered through irrigation channels. Most of them were dun-yellow reaped grain with dust smoking off the stubble at this time of year, but the alfalfa was so deep a green that it seemed to hum, and there were fields of potatoes and apple-orchards as well. Split-rail fences marked off the cultivated land, an island in a huge rolling wilderness of lava beds and gritty sagebrush-dotted soil southwards, mountains to the north.

The settlement wasn’t large, no bigger than a Mackenzie dun, room for twenty or thirty families if they didn’t mind living tight. It had a well-kept fifteen-foot rammed-earth wall on a fieldstone base, topped with a sloping roof of timber and sheet metal, with one square tower beside a gate. Barns and sheds, corrals and vegetable gardens lay outside, but nothing higher than a man’s knee rose within bowshot of the wall. The gate was open, and there were animals and people and wagons milling around before it, and herds of horses under the eye of mounted cowboys moving across pasture and stubble to the north and west.

“Get me Nystrup,” he said softly, lowering his binoculars and tapping them thoughtfully on the red-gold stubble on his chin. “I don’t like this. There’s something wrong.”

Ritva nodded. “Not enough people working. Too many horses. And where are their herds? And there should be more smoke from inside the town, too—more cookfires and a couple of smithies.”

She ghosted away. A sage grouse walked past Rudi a few minutes later, pecking at a grasshopper, and overhead two hummingbirds fought a dive-and-buzz duel like ill-tempered flying jewelry before flitting off towards the river. Some sort of black-and-white insects were a haze over the creek, almost like slow-motion snow; when he brought the glasses back up he could see the silver forms of trout leaping for them now and then. The banks of the stream were green with willows and dense with reeds, and blue herons stalked through them with their beaks cocked. Ducks swam on the waters as well, cinnamon teal and mallards.

It would have been a remarkably pleasant-looking place after weeks of short rations and fear, but...

Nystrup slid into place beside him. “It’s one of our settlements,” he said without preliminaries. “About two hundred and fifty people, and it was the center for some outlying ranches; the last big thing to happen here was moving a bunch of people up from Pocatello right after the Change, part of our resettlement program. I don’t know how it’s fared just recently.”

A warm breeze stirred across the land, raising dust-devils. It fluttered out a flag from the pole atop the gate tower; a many-rayed sunburst, gold on crimson. The banner of the Church Universal and Triumphant. Below it was a smaller triangular flag, with three triangles outlined in white on blue—some Rancher’s brand-mark, the personal sigil of whoever commanded the CUT’s forces here.

“Well, that answers the question as to how they’ve fared,” Rudi said. “Not well. Ritva, keep watch.”

His half-sister settled in behind a clump of gray-green rabbitbush, a tall shaggy plant that had clumps of yellow flowers and smelled like a sweaty saddle. She went still beneath her warcloak; even at only a few feet, and knowing where she was, Rudi found her hard to see.

He eeled backward on his belly until they were well out of sight before standing. Nystrup turned and made an arm-signal; by the time they were back at their cold camp most of the Mormon guerillas were there too, leaving only the minimum perimeter of lookouts.

Rudi glanced at Ingolf. The easterner shook his head. “I passed a lot further south than this, when I came west. Around Bear Lake.”

“We can swing around them,” Mary said. “Move south, then back north to cut the road again.”

Rudi shook his head in turn. “We’re out of food and we haven’t been able to hunt much,” he said. “I don’t know how they’ve been able to press us so hard... but they have. We’ve spent more time covering our tracks than running, and we’ve been running further north than east.”

Silence fell; they were hungry, in the way you could only get when you combined not enough food with working hard. Several of the wounded Mormons had died; the hale members of their band weren’t weakened much... yet.

But we don’t have much time before we are, Rudi thought unhappily. And the horses are losing condition. I wouldn’t like to have to rely on them if we had a running fight, or the enemy were in sight and we had to break contact. We need to get them good grazing and rest.

They might have been able to make more progress if they’d kept all the food they’d had and cut the Mormons loose immediately. On the other hand, that would probably have been bad luck as well as wrong... if there was a difference.

Ingolf rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, the cropped beard scritching under his calloused fingers. The sight made Rudi’s face itch slightly and he consciously stopped himself from imitating the gesture; he hadn’t been able to shave for the past week, and the silky stubble was annoying. Plus the hairs came in white in along the thin scar on his jaw, making him look ridiculously older than his real not-quite-twenty-three.

“You know, we haven’t seen any sheep or cattle or horses around here. But the range has obviously been grazed. Until lately, at least,” Ingolf said.

“There’s stock in the corrals,” Rudi said. “And a lot of horses. Hundred, hundred and thirty.”

“That would mean fifty or sixty Cutter levies,” Ingolf replied. “The Cutter soldiers are mainly ranchers, or even Rovers—“ which meant nomad, more or less “—not full-time fighters like the Sword of the, umm, False Prophet. They get hives if they don’t have at least one remount for every fighting man. It makes them feel pinned down.”

Nyquist sighed. “We were always being surprised by how fast they could move, and how many men they could throw at us,” he acknowledged. “It hurt us, and more than once.”

“The Church calls them up to fight when they’re needed,” Ingolf said. “A ranch isn’t like a farm—the old people and kids and women can keep it going pretty well for quite a while, at a pinch. Cowboys can make most of their own war-gear, too, and their ordinary work is damned good training to fight.”

“Besides the horses there were six or seven hundred sheep, maybe half that number of cattle,” Rudi went on.

“Not as much as there should be,” Nystrup replied. “I’ve never been here myself, but from the reports and the taxes they paid and the way it looks, this is good land.”

Ingolf made a gesture of agreement. “I’d say what’s likely happened is that a couple of ranches or Rover bands worth of levies hit the place just recently, on their way home. Some of them have already left with part of the stock. The ones there now plan to loot it bare before they leave—they’re shorter on craft-workers than you Saints are and they’re always short of tools and so forth likewise. I’d say they’re about halfway through the process here in... Peekaboo?”

“Yes,” Nystrup said grimly. “We counted on that, their being backward, too much during the war, and on their absurd superstitions about gears and machinery.” He looked at Ingolf shrewdly. “You have an idea?”

“Sort of. We have to know what’s going on in there, and if we can get some supplies and fresh horses for your people, Captain. It would take a pitched battle to fight for them, and we’re not in shape for a stand-up fight, and they outnumber us. But if we send in some people in who can pass for... oh, I don’t know, merchants from one of the Plains towns come west to buy up plunder, that sort of thing. There are a few places like that in the Sioux country, tributary to the tribes. Then we could buy what we need. Last I heard, the CUT and the Sioux had made peace.”

“We don’t have much contact with the Sioux,” Nystrup said. “The CUT was always between us and them. Most of the Indians in New Deseret are... were... friendly and part of our Church. I don’t think any of my people could fool the Cutters.”

“Well, I’ve had a lot of contact with the Lakota tribes,” Ingolf said, with a lopsided smile. “Mostly not too friendly, as in, contact with their arrows and shetes and tomahawks. That was my first war, when our Bossman in Richland sent men to help the Republic of Marshall fight ‘em. And later when I was working for some traders in the Nebraska country, I rode guard on a caravan they sent out west, to Newcastle, and I got caught there for the winter. There was this girl... anyway, I can’t pass for a Sioux, but I think I could buffalo outsiders who’d never seen the place into supposing I came from that town.”

Rudi felt a broad smile growing. “Sure, and that is an idea. You think it’s possible?”

“Like I said, most of the Cutter levies are just cowboys, or a few are farmers or townsmen,” Ingolf said. “Yeah, they believe in that crazy religion—or say they do, if they’re smart, anywhere Corwin controls—and they’re suspicious of outsiders, but they’re just... men, otherwise. I saw a fair number the first time I was a prisoner of theirs; they let me out a bit once I’d convinced them I’d swallowed their line of bullshit.”

“Well, if we were to try it, certainly you’d have to be one of our spies,” Rudi said musingly. He looked around. “Their leader, in fact. I’d be another...”

Ingolf spoke again: “Three or four men would be the maximum. No less, though. Corwin makes a big noise about how safe their territory is for traders, but nobody travels with a lot of cash all by himself. And there should be a woman—a Mormon woman.”

Rudi blinked. “Why?”

“Camo-cover, Rudi. We’d be refugee-traders as well as buying loot in general.”

“Slaves, the Cutters call them, don’t they? It seems a bit too honest for them.”

“Refugees is the word out east, and some places allow that sort of thing; everyone’s always short of working hands. Say four men and ten, twelve horses—we’d have the horses to carry stuff. We’d be pretty popular, too; coin’s a lot easier to transport, and they’d want to change some of what they’ve taken into hard cash.”

“We don’t have any of the CUT’s minting,” Rudi mused. “Or any from further east. Boise currency might do at a pinch, but not the Association’s or Corvallis.”

“The Sioux don’t coin but they do use gold and silver. A bar of gold’s a bar of gold. And at the least we could buy up some folks and get them out to their kin, and enough supplies.”

Rudi winced a little; he hated the thought of playing slaver even as a deception, but it was a legitimate ruse of war.

“I’ll go if they need a woman,” Rebecca Nystrup said.

Her cousin opened his mouth, then closed it again. It was good protective coloration. Rudi sympathized with him as he visibly suppressed the desire to say that she’d do no such thing—he could scarcely order one of the other women to do it, when his own kin had asked for the nasty, dangerous job.

“I volunteer!” Fred Thurston said.

“Sorry, Fred,” Ingolf said. “You’d stand out too much.”

Frederick looked at him blankly for an instant, then struck the palm of his hand against his forehead. “Right. Damn, I hadn’t thought of that. We haven’t gotten far enough away from Boise for people to just take me for myself.”

Black folk were even thinner on the ground here in the interior of the northwest than they were on the Pacific coast—Mrs. Thurston was Anglo, but her husband’s African strain was plain in her son, too plain for him to pass for Hispano or Indian.

And since his father had been ruler of Boise ever since he brought order out of plague and chaos in the first Change Year, the association of young black man and Prince of Boise—specifically, fugitive prince with a massive price on his head—would be all too likely, even for Cutter levies from beyond the Rockies. Their leaders at least would have some familiarity with local politics.

Rudi ran the rest of his band through his mind. They couldn’t take any of their own women; Cutter females were close-kept, even more so than in the Protectorate back home. Which left...

“Edain... and Odard, I think,” Rudi said. “Would Edain’s accent pass? Or mine, for that matter?”

“Sure,” Ingolf said. “You get all sorts of funny ways of talking in little pockets and backwater settlements, nobody can keep track of them all. These Montanans all sound like hicks with head-colds to me anyway. You’ll have to leave the skirts—“ he grinned at Edain’s bristle “—pardon me, the kilts, behind. Odard’s OK too—you could pass for part-Injun, my lord baron. Most of the folks who call themselves Sioux look pretty much like white-eyes these days, mostly because they are white-eyes, but the important families are likely to have the old blood.”

Odard Liu nodded; his father had been half-Chinese, and it showed in his coarse crow-black hair, high cheekbones and the fold at the corners of his blue eyes. Father Ignatius had similar looks save for black eyes, courtesy of a grandmother from Vietnam, but his tonsure wasn’t the only thing that made him too unmistakably a Christian cleric.

“Happy to volunteer,” the Association noble said dryly. “Even ex-post-facto.”

Mathilda snorted. “You volunteered for everything when you joined up, Odard.”

He gave her a charming smile, and a courtly sweeping bow that went oddly with his grimy wool and leather outfit and shapeless floppy-brimmed canvas hat. Somehow it evoked the image of the impeccable court fashion he delighted in at home.

“That is most true, your highness. My sword is ever at my lady’s service.”

Ingolf made a passable imitation of the bow himself as she blushed and cleared her throat:

“You can be the Injun prince, if you want, Odard. It’d be likely we’d have a chief’s son along, if the local tribe where we came from were putting up part of the money.”

“No time like the present,” Rudi said, looking up; six hours to sunset. “We’ll have to have a set of signals—“

 

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“Stop right there, strangers!”

The words were backed up by half-a-dozen stiff horn and sinew horseman’s bows drawn to the ear. Ingolf let his balance shift back a bit, and Boy halted between one pace and the next; his favorite mount had a lot of quarterhorse in his bloodline, and would pass anywhere in the plains-and-mountain country. Rudi managed that as well, and Edain, which Ingolf had worried about—the younger clansman’s horsemanship had improved over the past couple of months, enough to pass for a city-man from Newcastle. Odard had mastered the cow-country style too, and it was different from the long-stirrup Portland seat. At least he’d been brought up on horseback, which was something you couldn’t counterfeit.

One thing that wouldn’t pass was a Sioux who couldn’t ride, he knew.

Everyone in their party raised open hands in the peace gesture; except for Rebecca Nystrup, of course, but hers were handcuffed, with the chain looped through a ring on her saddlebow. The Cutters eased off on their draws, which was reassuring—it was all too easy to let a bowstring roll off your fingertips if you held it too long. An arrow in the face killed you just as dead whether it was intentional or not.

The leader of the patrol was in his thirties and looked much older, with a plainsman’s wrinkles and a nose that had been damaged by frostbite once, leaving part of a nostril missing. The others could have been his brothers, cousins, or even his son if you counted one in his mid-teens. Most of them wore simple boiled-leather breastplates with the Church Universal and Triumphant’s sunburst on it over thin sheepskin jackets, though the leader had a mail shirt instead, and their metal-strapped leather helmets were at their saddlebows, traded for broad-brimmed hats in the hot sun.

All of them had knives, tomahawks and heavy-bladed shetes at their waists, quivers full of arrows over their backs, and round hide shields and lariats hung from their saddles. And a powerful aroma, the harsh rank musk-sweat of men who lived on meat and milk and hadn’t had occasion to wash themselves or their clothes lately, added to horse and leather and iron greased with tallow and the odor of lank straggly hair of various shades. Several had minor wounds that looked fresh but not immediate. Their equipment was well-made and beautifully cared for, though, and their horses glowed with health and careful tending.

Ingolf held up his hands and smiled. “We’re peaceful traders, men of the Dictations,” he said.

Peaceful but too tough to rob conveniently, was conveyed by his looks and gear, and that of the men behind him. Swapping around among the nine comrades and the Mormon guerillas had given them suitable equipment, suitably varied. Even Garbh helped with the picture, her massive shaggy barrel-shaped head held low and showing her teeth just slightly at the strangers after Edain called her sharply to heel.

“You’re of the Faith?” the leader said, his eyes probing. Over his shoulder: “Jack, Terry, backtrack ‘em a couple of miles. Keep your eyes open and check there aren’t any more. There’s all sorts of buzzards circlin’ around hereabouts.”

Two of the Cutters reined around and galloped eastward down the remains of US 20, riding on the old graveled shoulders of the road to spare their horse’s hooves from the cracked, frost-heaved asphalt that was breaking up in pale chunks. Ingolf went on:

“No, we’re not of your Church, but we have permission to travel in the Church’s lands by the Prophet’s treaty with the Oceti Sakowin. We’re out of Newcastle, which is an ally of the Seven Council Fires.”

Ally meant pays the Sioux off so they don’t raid, of course, but a man from there would use the polite phrasing. Ingolf nodded towards Odard, who managed to look haughty enough for a modern-day Sioux chieftain—something that came naturally to him—and stared over the Cutters’ heads. People who didn’t know Indians well tended to think they were impassive; in the Richlander’s experience, they were as cheerful and chatty as most folk, unless they thought the occasion called for solemnity.

Which this does. But don’t overdo it, Odard.

Ingolf went on:

“This is the worthy itancan—“ which meant chief, roughly “—Wahuk’eza Washte, Good Lance.”

Odard had insisted on that one when Ingolf ran him through a list of Sioux names, although the suggestions from the rest had started with Two Dogs Fucking from the twins and gone downhill from there.

“He’s here to, ah, watch over his people’s interests in this trading venture.”

Odard lifted a hand with the palm out, made a surly grunting sound, and said the Lakota equivalent of Hello, how do you do?, as he’d been carefully coached:

Háu kola! Doe ksh kay ya oun hey?

To Ingolf’s horror, the Cutter leader raised his hand in a similar gesture and replied:

Háu kola! Wakantanka kici un.”

Which meant Hello, and may the Great Spirit bless you, and just about exhausted Ingolf’s knowledge of the language as well unless you counted swearwords and phrases you learned on campaign, like Reach for the sky!, Where are the warriors? and Give me your money/horse/weapons/food.

Sweat broke out on his forehead, prickling through the coating of dust; this wasn’t fair. Most of the people who rode with the tribes and called themselves Sioux didn’t actually speak it, apart from a few words they threw into the more usual English to sound authentic—the same reason they tended to go in for leather and beads and feathers even more than the tribesmen with more of the old blood. To run into a non-Indian who actually knew the language when their own pretend-Indian didn’t would be...

Just like the rest of my luck since I first met Kuttner. Like meeting Saba and having her die the same night.

He hid a shudder; priests had told him—including ones that he respected—that there was no such thing as fate, that there was only a man’s choices and the will of God. But there were times when he thought he was cursed, and not only him, but anyone he cared for. Rudi’s hand made the smallest of gestures towards the hilt of his borrowed shete. But if it came to a fight, they’d almost certainly die. Ingolf forced himself not to gasp with relief when the Cutter chieftain smiled and went on:
“The Prophet says we’re to treat all you of the Seven Council Fires as brothers, now that we’re at peace with the Lakota tribes. May you come to the truth of the Dictations! I’m Jed Smith, Rancher of Rippling Waters in Havre district, and these’re my kin and my riders.”

Upper Missouri river, Ingolf thought. Damn, that’s pretty close to the frontier between the CUT and the Lakota. Just our luck. A long way north of Newcastle, though, thank the saints!

Then Jed went on casually: “You’d be kin of the mayor down in Newcastle?”

“Larry McAllister?” Ingolf said, feeling the beads of sweat start up again.

Thank God I actually stayed there and not so long ago!

Aloud he went on, equally relaxed: “No, but my father’s a good friend of his—he sponsored us when Dad moved in from Casper, right after the Change.”

Good friend and sponsored meant someone who got protection in return for favors and political backing... which in Newcastle involved showing up with your shield and shete from time to time.

What did Father Ignatius say... right, client and patron.

Jed Smith nodded, satisfied. Ingolf made the introductions under their assumed names. The Montanan went on:

“What’re you trading for? Doesn’t look like you have much to trade with, unless it’s the crowbait remuda you got there or—”

He indicated Rebecca with a jerk of his head, though he’d politely kept his eyes from her face; the girl was in ordinary overalls, but had a CUT-style kerchief hiding most of her fair hair. Ingolf smiled back and indicated her with a salesman’s sweep of his hand:

“No, we’re buying and we’re paying in bullion. Anything you brave soldiers of the Church might have picked up. Cutlery, cloth, wine—“

“No chance of that here! The misbelievers don’t drink it, or even beer or whiskey or applejack. I haven’t tasted wine but once myself—traded west from Iowa.”

Ingolf nodded. “But mostly we’re buying refugees, like this girl here. Skilled workers, if we can get them. Slaves, you say, don’t you, instead of refugee?”

Jed nodded. “That’s the word in the Dictations.”

Just then Jack and Terry rode back up. “Same horses for miles back,” one of them said, pointing behind him with his bow. “We checked on the hoof-marks. Nobody joinin’ or leavin’.”

The other scout spoke to Ingolf:

“But they had good stock and tools here. They make stuff you wouldn’t believe was new instead of salvage. And plenty of right pretty gals, too, even if they’re sulky. We kilt all the grown men, o’ course.”

Ingolf sighed as if he’d been expecting that and regretted it. Even if his regret wasn’t for the reasons his audience assumed, he had expected it. Ranchers didn’t need masses of field-labor, and a man you couldn’t trust to ride the range alone and armed was useless as a cowboy. Women did most of the processing work on a ranch, though—tanning, leatherworking, weaving, milking, whatever—and they were easier to keep. If nothing else their children pinned them down, and by Cutter custom the children were free if they took the Church Universal and Triumphant’s faith when they came of age.

“Shut up, Jack, y’damned pup,” Jed said crossly; at a guess, he was afraid his subordinate would lower prices by prattling about how much they’d gained. “You run your mouth too much.”

In friendly wise he went on: “That’s a nice one you picked up there, Mr. Vogeler. Lively in the bedroll? She’s quite a looker, yes indeed. How much did you pay for her? Get her from someone heading home?”

“That’s right. Don’t know what she’s like in the sack,” Ingolf said casually. “Yeah, she’s easy on the eyes, but she’s also a good weaver, cloth and rugs both, and a cheesemaker, which is what I was looking for. Refugee ass... slave, you folks say... is cheap and looks don’t last, but good cheddar cheese or cloth always fetches a price. We paid forty-five dollars for her, cash money—weighed-out silver, that’s easier than coin for big purchases.”

He could see the rancher mentally adding half again to that. Odard spoke up, making a sweeping gesture at the same time:

“She will go to the tipis of my people. I have spoken. Ugh.”

Jesus, don’t play it too heavy, Ingolf thought, but the Cutter leader nodded. OK, a lot of Sioux do talk like that. ‘cause they think people expect it, I suppose.

“As you please, Chief,” Smith said. “The Dictations say a man may do as he wants with his own within the law, right? C’mon, then, you Newcastle men, and you, Chief Good Lance. Plenty of room for lodgings and I hope you’ll do fine business here.”

He grinned; combined with the mutilated nose and the straggly beard, it looked fairly alarming as he went on:

We surely did!”

 

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Picabo had been a little farming and tourist hamlet before the Change. The Mormons had walled it in, and added more buildings—settlements within a defensive perimeter were always as crowded as people could bear, to keep the length of rampart that had to be held as short as possible. Most of the buildings were homes, thick whitewashed adobe on the first story, white-painted frame covered in clapboards above, with steep-pitched shingle roofs.

Rudi noticed that they’d also added the sort of touches Mackenzies would, if more tidy and less flamboyant—window-boxes and plantings of flowers, trees and bushes along the streets, a small playground with slides and swings, buildings that would have been their church and school. The village had piped water from a tank on salvaged metal legs with a whirring wind-pump atop it, but irrigation channels also tinkled pleasantly in stone-lined ditches on either side of the streets, to water the fruit and blossoms and herbs. None of the white farmhouses or workshops had burned down...

“Nothing got torched when you took it?” Rudi asked one of the Cutters.

The man riding next to the Mackenzie chieftain was about his own age or a few years younger; it was hard to tell exactly, with the weathering of their harsh climate making them all look older to eyes reared in the gentle Willamette country. Not many of the Cutters were over thirty, and half were in their teens. This one had shaggy black hair, a wispy young beard, green eyes and a missing front tooth; he cackled laughter at the question.

Jack, Rudi thought, remembering his name.

“Nope, we didn’t fire a single lit-up arrow,” the young plainsman said boastfully.

Even a modest wall with a fighting platform behind it could give defenders a big advantage. Picabo’s had a roofed hording as well. If you didn’t have a modern siege train, the quickest and easiest way to storm a defended town was to shoot fire arrows over the wall into the roofs and then rush the defenses while folk turned aside to fight the fire, as they must. And there was no sign of any siege equipment more sophisticated than a lariat or improvised ladder among this band of CUT levies.

“That must have taken some doing,” Rudi prompted. And you like to talk, Jack, he added coldly to himself.

Jack laughed and slapped his thigh; a couple of his friends chuckled too, although a few of the older men rolled their eyes at his chatter.

“It was dead easy, friend!”

“How did you get over the wall, then?” Rudi went on.

A caravan guard was the next thing to a soldier, and the question was natural.

“That’s Uncle Jed for you,” Jack laughed gleefully. “Said we could get ashes and dead bones at home without the bother of fightin’ for ‘em, ‘cause all we had to do there was ride on down to Billings and look at the ruins. So we druv a bunch of these Mormons we’d caught a bit south of here right up to the gate ahead of us, making like they was coming here for sanctuary.”

Jed had been listening. He looked over his shoulder now with a slight feral smile:

“They really had been coming here for sanctuary. Which made it more convincing, you know what I mean?”

Rudi nodded soberly. He didn’t like Jed Smith, but the man was no fool, unlike his nephew. The younger man went on:

“We had our men mixed in among ‘em in the same clothes and their blades hid.”

“They opened the gate without making sure?” Rudi said, a little surprised they’d fallen for the old trick.

“The rest of us hung back a little, whoopin’ and shooting arrows and makin’ like we was chasing them. We’d kept their kids so they’d play along, and they all yelled out to hurry up so’s they could get inside before we caught ‘em. By the time the ones inside this Peekaboo place knew the score, the gate was already open and we had a wagon full of rocks halfway through. With the wheels ready to be knocked off, so they couldn’t drag it away, and then they couldn’t shoot us without hittin’ their own folks.”

“That was clever work.” Rudi looked around, counting households and multiplying, then subtracting because Mormon women rarely bore arms. “But there would have been hard fighting still. They should have had... what, sixty or seventy men under arms? You’ve a deal less than that, I see.”

Jed Smith looked back at them, silently at first this time; his brows were up, and there was a wary respect in them. Rudi swore inwardly. The last thing you wanted an enemy to do was respect your wits. The older man spoke after a moment’s considering stare:

“Maybe there was sixty or seventy fighting men here before the war, that would fit with how many women and kids. But I’ve lost more men from Rippling Water Ranch in the last three-four years than I like, and we won. I figured it had to be a lot worse for them, and I was right. And they were surprised, and we had more men then—two other bunches were with us. It weren’t no fair fight, which is the way I like it, youngster.”

“I kilt three of their fighting men myself,” the one called Jack said.

“In your dreams, maybe, Jack,” another of the Cutters said. “Unless every arrow you shot off was guided by the Masters, personal-like, and since one nearly hit me in the butt-cheek I sorta doubt that.”

“Well, I kilt one for sure, Lin, which is more than you can say.” To Rudi: “Uncle Jed says they thought all our troops were still down south along the Snake.”

“And you took no losses?”

“Naw. Well, they killed Kennie, he got a spear in the gizzard while we were rushing the gate, he was an old guy, nearly forty, slooooow, and he never did learn to keep his shield up under his eyes, them geezers are like that.”

“Watch your mouth, pup,” Jed said. “I ain’t going to see thirty again neither, and I can still whip you any day of the week and twice on Sundays.”

“Sorry, Uncle Jed. And Dave, my second cousin Dave Throsson, not Big Dave Johnson who got killed at Wendell, he took an arrow in the leg, but we fixed him up good and poured whiskey in it so’s it hasn’t gone bad so far, and Tom Skinner got his ribs stove something terrible when he got pushed out of a window by this gal he was chasing—Lord—

Jed Smith looked over at him with a cold eye. Jack cleared his throat and corrected himself:

“—by the Ascended Masters, didn’t we all laugh when he fell straight down with his stiff dick waggin’ out! That’s all our ranch lost, apart from some cuts and little shit like that. We got hurt a lot worse at Twin Falls, and we had a right bad day at Wendell; that was a real fight, let me tell you!”

“You took the village with only one dead?” Rudi asked.

“One from our ranch, like I said. Those stupid bastards from the Runamuk and Sweet Grass outfits lost six, maybe seven, and plenty more hurt bad, but they couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with directions written on the heel anyways. It was their fault a bunch of the enemy got away, out over the north wall, too—their fault and no one else’s, the greedy sons of bitches, running on in before they were called. They’re gone now, Uncle Jed sent them on along with their share, and good riddance.”

“And the plunder was good?”

“Plunder?”

“Taking their things.”

“Ah, the salvaging, you mean! I’ll say it was good! The misbelievers were richer than rich, I tell you. And this time we got it all to our own selves, on account of we took this way home just so’s we’d hit some places the main army didn’t get to yet. Uncle Jed thought of that. I know the Sword of the Prophet do the hardest fighting, saw that my own self at Wendell, but it’s enough to anger a man bad the way they get the best pick of–“

Jed Smith threw a look over his shoulder again, and Jack went on hastily:

“Anyway I got ten bolts of that good tough linen cloth the misbelievers make, saddlemaker’s tools, twenty bucks in coin, some rings and pretties and blankets and sheets and dresses and cookware things for Jenny—she’s my intended—two young gals who’ll take the work off Ma now that she’s getting the rheumatism so bad, a good oil lamp with a glass chimney, a bunch of other stuff, and I fucked until I couldn’t raise a stand no more.”

“You can believe that last part at least, mister, not that it would take much with him,” another young Cutter said, and he and Jack exchanged mock-punches before the talkative young ranch-hand went on:

“Plus I got six good horses earlier, and some more coin back in Twin Falls, but we sent that all east with the first folks from our district released from service. Like the Prophet says, the unbelievers are spoil for the Brotherhood of Light-bringers. Priest says spoil used to mean good stuff, not meat that’s gone off.”

Rudi made himself smile and nod. Picabo stank of spoiled meat in truth now—of death, like rancid sweet oil smeared into your nose and mouth. The eastern levies who’d taken it hadn’t bothered to clean up the bodies except to roll them out of the way, probably because they were planning on leaving soon, and flies were thick. They were thick on the eight men crucified upside down to the inner side of the adobe wall with railroad spikes, too. Fortunately they all seemed to be dead now, but it hadn’t been quick, even for the ones who’d had small hot fires lighted beneath their heads.

At a guess, Uncle Jed wanted to ask those some questions.

“Those ones tried to sneak back for their hoors and brats,” Jack said with a wave. “But Uncle Jed knew they would, and we were ready for them. The Black Void drank ‘em down!”

The young man went on in a less boastful voice: “You folks got much silver?”

“Plenty, for the right goods,” Ingolf said over his shoulder.

“That’s fine, fine. I sure would like to turn some of the stuff I got into silver. Then I can trade it for livestock back to home a lot easier than riding through blizzards to line camps and swapping around all winter. My Jenny’s father won’t let us get married until I have at least twenty-five heifers in the Rippling Waters pool besides a good remuda—“

“Jack, like I told you, stop flapping your lips, the horseflies will get in there and buzz around in your empty head. Here’s the house I’m using,” Jed Smith broke in. “You Newcastle men can have the one next door. Some of our folks was using it and cleaned it up before they left and I’ll send some of the gals in. You can start your barterin’ in the morning, and then we’ll leave. We close up tight at night here.”

“What’s that one?” Rudi said, pointing with his chin at a building with boards nailed over the windows to make an improvised prison.

A few of the Cutters were lolling about on the steps, one whittling at a stick with a foot-long fighting knife, another sitting propped against the wall with his floppy hat pulled over his eyes and his strung bow across his lap. Rudi thought he was asleep until he saw an eye following the horses. A Mormon woman carried a yoke with two buckets of milk up the front steps as the mounted men passed, and others followed behind with aprons full of loaves of bread or covered pots of cooked food wrapped in towels against their heat. They turned their heads aside to avoid meeting the eyes of the Cutter patrol, some of whom called out greetings of their choice.

“Oh, that’s where we’re keeping the brats,” Jed Smith said. “They’re part of the Prophet’s portion of the spoil.”

“Brats?” Ingolf enquired.

“Their kids, the ones too young to be worth anything, under about six. We’ve got orders to look after ‘em careful, for the Houses of Refuge. A lot of them can be raised in the Faith, you see. Or if they’re soulless, they can go to the breeding pens.”

“Yeah, some of ‘em will end up in Corwin,” Jack put in. “Not just working—they get to be priests or in the Sword of the Prophet. That don’t seem—“

“Jack, what did I say about flapping your lips?” Jed barked. “Don’t your ears work or are you a natural-born damned fool like the minions of the Accursed?”

He whirled his pony around with a shift of balance and thighs, and slapped the younger Cutter across the face with his leather hat, hard enough to sting. The younger man yelped and then fell silent, face red.

“See you folks in the morning,” Jed went on. “May the Masters keep the Nephilim from your dreams.”

 

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“Uff da,” Ingolf swore in a tired voice, running a hand over his head and kneading at the back of his neck. “I’d forgotten how much I don’t like this kind of shit. And how much I really don’t like the Cutters.”

Smith’s cleaned up had been a relative term; no bodies left to rot, or human excrement in corners, basically. Little things like the fan of black congealed droplets that arched across one wall of the kitchen where they’d been left by the backswing of a blade didn’t count. A team of village women with mops and brushes had come in to give it a going-over, working in silence like machines in the old stories. When they left the comrades sat around the kitchen table, beneath a bright lamp; sunset came early inside a close-packed walled town.

The women had left food, too, and Rebecca Nystrup had started a fire in the ingeniously-designed tile stove with its iron top.

“Your people have some evil foes,” Edain said awkwardly, patting her on the shoulder.

She nodded silently and began making dinner—slicing ham and cracking eggs into a couple of big frying pans where melted butter browned, and chopping potatoes and onions for hash. Edain moved automatically to help her as the good smell of cooking mingled with the stinks.

“No!” Ingolf said with quiet emphasis, the tone contrasting with his relaxed, casual posture and expression.

Rudi looked at him curiously. The man from Richland was sitting at the head of the table, where he could see out the window into the little walled garden that fronted the house, and through the open door as well. Nobody was close enough to overhear them... but they were visible from outside too. It would be suspicious if they closed up before the night grew cool.

“It’ll look damned funny if you’re helping the bought woman with the chores, kid,” Ingolf said flatly. “Not only that she’s supposed to be a slave, but Cutters don’t hold with men doing women’s work at the best of times. Plus generally speaking sweet helpful types just plain don’t take up the business we’re supposed to be in.”

Edain sat and moodily pulled apart one of the loaves, buttering it and biting into the warm fresh bread. Rebecca looked over her shoulder and said:
“But thanks for the thought,” and he nodded, blushing.

Rudi tore a loaf as well. The bread was well-made, with an egg-glaze crust that crackled when he ripped it. The butter was sweet and fresh too, although they had to keep a piece of cloth across it to deter the flies. It was the flies and the smell and the thought of where the flies had been that made him hesitate, and evidently the same occurred to Edain just as he was swallowing, for the younger clansman turned a little green under his ruddy tan.

You didn’t grow up squeamish about stinks or bugs in a Mackenzie farming dun, but this...

“Ground and center,” Rudi said quietly, making himself eat.

Food was life, human toil and the sacrificial blood of the Powers, so it was sacrilege to waste it; and he was going to need his strength, and he’d done without a good deal for the past week. Odard murmured a prayer before he took some of the bread himself, which surprised Rudi. He’d always thought that the young nobleman was only conventionally religious because it was expected of him. He’d confessed to Father Ignatius a couple of times on the trip, but once he’d had to go back a day later before the priest would agree to communicate him, and he’d come away from that one with his ears turning pink.

Sure, and a man’s inward self is like the woods on a moonless night, Rudi thought. Even your own self. Especially your own. It always surprises you, sometimes with a noise, sometimes with a jab in the eye.

Ingolf spoke to Edain; his voice was rough, but Rudi thought he detected a certain sympathy in it:

“There are going to be worse things to see and smell before we reach the east coast, kid,” he said. “You’ve got to get case-hardened pretty quick.”

“I’ve seen fights before and men killed, sure and I have!” Edain snapped. “And worse things... like that Haida raid we were caught in, up near Tillamook on the ocean, Chief, and what they did to that poor woman and her bairn. But this is... very bad.”

Rudi replied: “It’s worse because here the raiders won, Edain. The which they didn’t at Tillamook, and you can claim some of the credit for that.”

Edain looked heartened. Rebecca set the plates of food before them and then sat at the foot of the table herself. Rudi found he was hungry enough to enjoy it after all, and a deep drink of cool milk rich with cream. The day’s heat was fading, though the thick adobe walls of the farmhouse’s first story radiated a little of it back.

“This is... squalid,” Odard observed. “And did you smell those animals? I’m no rose myself, not after the way we’ve been traveling, but...”

Ingolf gave a short dry laugh. “Oh, I know why they’re a mite rancid,” he said. “They’re from the Hi-Line.”

At their glances he went on: “I’ve talked to men who’ve been through there. You can travel fifty, sixty miles at a time and not see a single tree. The only way to heat water or cook is over dried cowflops. And the winters are almighty cold. You get out of the habit of taking baths, or taking off your clothes at all mighty fast, out there.”

Odard nodded. “I do hope we don’t run into anything worse.”

The easterner made a sound, but this time it wasn’t a laugh of any sort. Rudi looked at Ingolf, but the easterner’s eyes were blank, as if all his attention was focused within.

“Worse?” he said softly, coming back to them. “Oh, yeah. I’ve seen as bad as this, during the Sioux War. That was a hard bitter fight, and a lot of... questionable... things got done. By us and them both.”

His hands closed and opened unconsciously, and he swallowed as if the food had turned sour in his mouth before he went on.

“East of the Mississippi, that’s a whole different thing. It’s like God pulled out the plug at the bottom of the world, and everything human drained out. And then something... else... came trickling in, and messed things up, twisted them. I don’t mean just the Change. I swore I wouldn’t go back to the dead lands again, not even for a fortune... and now I’m headed back all the way to Nantucket because of a vision and a dream. Go figure.”

Edain paused a minute, swallowing, then doggedly cut another piece of ham, dipped it in the mustard pot, chewed and swallowed. Everyone was silent for several moments. That was the way they were headed, into the death-zones where the hordes fleeing from the stricken cities had overlapped and eaten the earth bare, and then each other. Not everyone had died, not quite, but their descendants weren’t really human any more. The stories were gruesome even at a distance; enough rumors had trickled back from the borders of California. From what Ingolf said the mega-necropolis on the Atlantic coast was just as bad, and he’d seen it first-hand.

“That’s as may be,” Edain said stoutly; dangers rarely daunted him when they arrived, and never beforehand. “You said these Cutters were just men. Well, that they may be, but they’re roit bad ones an’ no mistake.”

Rudi mopped his plate and poured himself more milk from the jug. Halfway through, he wondered if the women who’d milked the cows had spat in the bucket, but finished anyway. She’d have reason.

“They are men. Men who’ve been encouraged to give guest-room to the worst parts of themselves,” he said thoughtfully.

Edain made a protective sign. “They’re blaspheming the Goddess, that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “I just hope we aren’t caught in Her anger.”

He held his hands up before his face. “Use these my hands to avenge Your likeness, Dark Mother, Morrigú Goddess of the Crows, Red Hag of Battles. So I invoke You.”

Rudi nodded soberly and joined in the gesture and the prayer. “So mote it be!”

We fight, we of human kind, he thought. Man against man for pride and power, tribe against tribe for the land that feeds us and our families... That’s the nature of things, the way They made us, neither good nor bad in itself. To fight is the work of the season, just as wolves fight each other for lordship of a pack, or a whole pack battles another for hunting-range in a bad year to keep themselves and their cubs from hunger.

But taking women by force wasn’t war. Nor just a crime, either, not even a serious one like murder in hot blood. As Edain had said, it was a profanation of the holy Mysteries, the divine union of Lord and Lady, Spear and Cauldron, that made all creation.

Mackenzies buried a rapist at a crossroads, with a spear thrust in the soil above; and they buried him living when they could, as a sacrifice to turn aside the anger of the Earth Powers.

These Cutters have overstepped the bounds They have laid on us, and must pay for it.

The vengeance of the Lady could be slow; it was also very thorough.

Thorough to the point of being indiscriminate, sometimes, Rudy thought grimly, feeling the hairs along his spine crawl a little. It would be well to make ourselves that vengeance, before it falls from somewhere else like an avalanche on all and sundry.

“Hard times make for hard men,” Odard said. “Things were bad everywhere right after the Change, from what the oldsters say, and you had to be bad yourself sometimes to survive. I imagine Montana was the same, even if they weren’t as crowded. My mother doesn’t talk about those times much, but some of the older men-at-arms who served my father do. From what our, ah, hosts have let fall, there hasn’t been much order or peace out there since then, except what the CUT imposed at the sword’s edge.”

Rudi nodded; that was true enough that he could be polite. His own mother had had to drive away strangers and foragers, lest the Clan-in-the-making and its neighbors be eaten bare before the first harvest. And to keep out the plagues which had killed as many as raw famine did. Away from habitation you still found the skulls lying in the brush by the overgrown roads, or bones huddled in heaps in the ruins. Sometimes they’d been scorched and cracked for the marrow.

But what Odard said was true only to a point. There was doing what you had to do to ward off death or worse, and there was treating disaster as opportunity.

“You know Chuck Barstow?” he said to the Association nobleman.

Odard nodded. “I’ve met him. First Armsman for you Mackenzies now, after Sam Aylward retired.”

Rudi nodded himself. “He was a Society fighter before the Change. On the day, he lifted two big wagons and their teams from a... living-history exhibit, whatever that was... in Eugene on his way to Dun Juniper with the Singing Moon coven. And he loaded the wagons with food and tools and seeds he... picked up... along the way, and drove along cattle and pigs and sheep they acquired likewise, with worthless money or just by lifting them. This was before people had a chance to eat everything, you see, or even to realize what was happening, the most of them.”

“There you are then,” Odard said. “All our parents did that sort of thing. If you have to—”

“And he ran into a load of lost schoolchildren along the way, and picked them up too, and adopted three of them himself,” Rudi finished, interrupting him. “Oak—he used to be named Dan—has three sons and daughters of his own now.”

“Oh,” Odard said, and cut himself a wedge from the cheese.

Rudi didn’t say any more; Eddie Liu, the first baron Gervais, hadn’t been that sort of man, and everyone knew it.

In your father’s day, Odard... Matti’s father’s day... your lot were just as bad as these Cutters, for all the fancy titles. Eddie Liu and Norman Arminger among the worst of them; not just hard men, but rotten bad. If they’d won the War of the Eye, you’d be worse than you are yourself, my friend, and even so there are things about you I don’t much like.

And at least Arminger’s had been a mortal evil, while the CUT seemed to corrupt everything it touched.

And... he remembered the dead man laughing.

“The times were very hard indeed,” Rudi went on aloud, controlling a slight shiver at that recollection. “But hard isn’t the same thing as bad. It depended on the leaders and what sort of things were in their souls, and what paths they led their folk down. My mother says a tribe is like a man; it becomes more itself as it gets older, and as what it does writes on the heart. Things were... loose, for a while after the Change. They could be turned this way or that. Now they’re getting set again, for good and ill.”

Ingolf shook himself and loaded his plate, doggedly plowing through eggs and ham and fried potatoes. When he glanced up at Rudi the haunted look gone for now, and a tough shrewdness back in charge.

“I gather we’re not just going to buy some supplies, and ransom some people, and ride quietly away, Rudi?”

“No, that we are not,” Rudi said forcefully. “Not if we can do more. I won’t command us to certain death—but I will take a risk.”

I’m the one who was raised on tales of knights-errant,” Odard said dryly. “We have the Princess to think about, Rudi... and your precious Sword. We have a long way to go. We can’t right every wrong we find, not when we’re outnumbered fifty to four. We’re fugitives, not an army with banners and trumpets. I don’t mind a fight, but...”

Rudi nodded; that was true. And he didn’t doubt Odard’s courage. It had been shown often enough that there was no need for him to go out of his way to prove it.

“I’m not going to try to right every wrong,” he said. “But when the Powers shove one under my nose, and it smelling no better than a goat turd on a hot day, then it becomes my business.”

“Yes!” Edain said, his eyes bright.

Rebecca’s blazed. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you both.”

“You’re welcome,” Rudi said.

“Well, then we need more information,” Ingolf said practically. “More than we can get cooped up here. And that Jed Smith may have acted real friendly, but he’s no fool like his nephew Jack. He’ll let us see just as much as he thinks is needful for him, and not a bit more.”

“No, he’s a dangerous man,” Rudi acknowledged. “He’ll keep a close eye on us.”

“Not on all of us,” Rebecca said.

A sharp scream came from the middle distance, and then sobs and the sound of men laughing. She shivered, but went on:

“My people here will know all we need.”

 

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