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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Avenger the Archer high-hearted

Deadly the skill of the bowman’s hand

Stronger still is fate hard woven

Than any shaft nocked by mortal man—“

 

From: The Song of Bear and Raven

Attributed to Fiorbhinn Mackenzie, 1st century CY.

 

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Eastern Idaho, southwest of Picabo

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

 

Peter Graber, newly-promoted Major in the third battalion of the Sword of the Prophet, was a believing man. He recited from the Dictations nightly, or the Book of Dzhur, and had since he was a child in the House of Refuge. He treasured the occasions when he could feel that chanting bring him into contact with the Beyond, a joy as great as holding his first-born son in his arms, and greater than any his wives could furnish. The Ascended Masters would welcome his lifestream in time, and eternal glory would be his.

He believed that so deeply that danger to his life aroused only an animal wariness, not the fear some men felt. And his combat record had been excellent as he rose from trooper to squadron commander; against the Powder River ranchers, the Sioux, the Drumhellers, and then in the great battles of the Deseret War and most recently at Wendell against the US of Boise.

But I still don’t like this Seeker, even if he comes from the Prophet’s right hand. There’s something... wrong... about him.

Right now High Seeker Twain was just an unexceptional-looking man of about thirty-five, wiry and tough, with a dull-red robe over his traveling clothes, huddled on his horse with a blank expression on his face as beads of sweat ran down through the dust. He rode well enough to keep up, but not to the standard of the Prophet’s elite guard regiment, or even as well as the average cowboy. Graber would have placed him for a townsman, if he hadn’t been so uncomplaining of hardship... but then, the Seekers had their own code.

Fifty of the Sword were spread out to either side, in a single rank to make it easier to spot any turning in the trail they followed. The dull russet-brown of their lacquered leather armor faded against the volcanic soil in the distance, with an occasional eye-hurting blink as the lanceheads above them caught the harsh noonday sun. The men rode in disciplined silence except for an occasional order from an under-officer, the spiked helmets rising and falling with the walk-trot-canter-trot-walk pace.

The noise came from the slow steady pounding of hooves, the clatter of the hard metal-edged scutes of their war-harness, creak of saddle-leather, the dull clank of a shete-scabbard against a stirrup iron or the rattle of arrows in a quiver.

Unavoidably they raised a plume of dust, in this stretch where even sagebrush was sparse; they rode into a wind out of the east, so the dust fell behind them rather than hanging about to get in nose and eyes, but it would be visible for some distance. The remuda, the remount-herd, was behind them, and its cloud was larger. Most of the Snake River country wasn’t so different from the plains of eastern Montana or the Powder River ranges, though a bit drier. This particular eerie stretch of cinders and conical hills was strange, though, and he distrusted it.

“High Seeker,” he said respectfully.

You told us to come this way, and now my battalion is scattered over a front a hundred miles wide. Now tell us how to get out of it! I’m going to lose horses soon, if we don’t get to forage and water. May the Nephilim eat your soul in the Black Void if I’ll lose good men without an explanation!

“High Seeker?” he repeated.

The man’s pupils were shrunken to pinpoints, and his jaw worked as if he chewed a bitter truth. Graber shrugged with a slight clatter of gear and swung up a clenched fist. The unit halted within three paces, horses as well-trained as the men. Dust smoked backward; he could hear a slight hissing sound as the heavier particles fell out. Everyone dismounted; you stayed out of the saddle whenever you could, if you wanted your horse to last.

“We’ll wait for the Scout,” he called. “Loosen girths but keep the tack on.”

All his men could follow a trail; they were trained horse soldiers, and hunters besides, and many came from ranching families. The Scout wasn’t of the Sword; his tribe were called the Morrowlander Troop, and they lived deep in the forests and grasslands south of Corwin, what the old world had called Yellowstone. Rumor said that they’d fallen from the sky right after the Change.

Graber didn’t believe that; but they were almost inhumanly skillful trackers. They served the Church by sending their best for work like this, and paying a tribute in hides and furs. In fact, his superiors had said something about their ancestors being Scouts... some weird woodland cult of the olden times.

Graber considered taking a stick of jerky or a hard-tack biscuit out of his saddlebag; he was hungry. Then he decided not to, as an example to the men of rising above material things. Instead he took off his helmet, unsnapped and peeled out the lining, then poured in a measured quantity of water. His horse drank eagerly, chasing the last drops around the bare metal with its lips. The rest of the unit followed suit.

Only then did he drink from his canteen himself, a precisely measured amount. No need to check on the others; the under-officers would see to water discipline.

And we are the Sword of the Prophet, he thought proudly, as he finished exactly the amount that the lowliest trooper would have. In the Sword there is no rancher or cowboy or refugee, only servants of the Messenger of the Ascended Masters... dammit, how did he do that!

Somehow the Morrowlander scout got within a few hundred yards before he was spotted. His horse was shaggy but sound; the scout ran along beside it at an effortless distance-devouring lope with one hand on the simple pad saddle he used, using the beast to set his pace.

He was a tall lean man, dressed in moccasins and fringed leather leggings dyed in mottled colors and a brownish-green tunic over a shirt starred with circular badges sewn with bows and tents and other curious designs. A kerchief went around his neck, the ends held through a leather ring. Plaits of red hair held with leather thongs and stuck with eagle feathers bumped on his shoulders beneath a bandana, and he was lightly armed, with knife and tomahawk and bow. Three parallel scars gashed his cheeks on either side of a snub nose.

“Scout,” Graber said politely.

“Prophet’s man,” the Morrowlander said, equally expressionless, saluting by putting three fingers to his brow with the others folded under his thumb.

Then he held out his hand. Graber tugged thoughtfully at his brown chin-beard; the grimy paw held a horse-apple, and one that was fairly fresh.

“How long ago?” he said.

“Two days. Wind scrubs out the hooves in this place, but they went this way. Water about half a day’s ride north, a little east—spring beneath a big hill. The nine rested there, and met some more.”
“More?”

The Morrowlander grinned, showing strong yellow teeth. “Here.”

He opened his other hand like conjuror, with a twinkle in his blue eyes. In it was half a glass ornament, a golden bee.

“Mormons,” Graber said thoughtfully, and whistled sharply in a signal to summon the under-officers.

His three subordinates gathered around him; there should have been four noncoms and a lieutenant, but casualties had been heavy at Wendell. All of them squatted and leaned on their sheathed shetes as they watched the Scout sketch in the dirt.

“How many?” one asked.

“Twenty, twenty-five of the Deseret men,” the Scout said. “They came in from here –“ his finger traced a route “—but they don’t have many remounts, and their horses walk tired. And the nine we chase came in like this, met them there at the spring. The nine have plenty good horses—“ he opened and closed his hands, showing the number “—some very big, never seen any tracks like that before. Big but not slow. They buried their ashes, and their own shit, but not the horses’! All rode off together, the nine and the Deseret men, making east-and-north.”

“Two days ago?”

“Two days. Traveling slow-a-bit, walking, riding, walking. Half our pace. Be careful. They have good lookout, and they watch their back-trail. Their scout almost spotted me, I think. Had to wait half a day hidden up, buried myself in the dirt.”

Another grin. “He didn’t see me, though! I like to meet their scout, someday.”

He tapped at his tomahawk to show how he’d like to meet the unknown man. Graber grunted and pulled at his beard again. That the nine were traveling at a long-distance pace argued that they didn’t know someone was right on their trail—they were trying to conserve their horses for a long haul. He wished he could do the same. A ridden horse couldn’t equal a fit man for long-distance endurance, though you could do better than foot-speed with a string of remounts.

Provided there’s grazing, he reminded himself. Which there isn’t, here.

“Northeast is old Highway 20,” he said, drawing a line at the base of the wavy marks the Scout had used to represent the mountains. “They may be trying to cross the Tetons. Or work north through the mountains and then across; there are old tracks there.”

“Bringing twenty-five Mormons into Church territory, sir?” one of the underofficers asked. “Pretty much like holding up a sign that says: Hurrah, we’re here, now kill us!

“A lot of it’s Church territory that’s pretty thin on people, just around there,” Graber said thoughtfully. “And they may not be taking the Mormons... but we’d better catch them before then. General Walker will be pleased if we finish off some bandits at the same time.”

Suddenly the Seeker spoke. “Give me two of your arrows, Major Graber.”

Graber blinked in surprise; at the statement, and at its sheer disconnectedness. He obeyed automatically, reaching up over his right shoulder and twitching out two of the long ashwood shafts. As it happened they were both armor-piercing bodkins with narrow heads like a blacksmith’s metal-punch.

The Seeker took them and studied them for an instant, then slowly licked each head. Graber controlled a grimace of distaste; there was something dirty about the gesture. He took them back reluctantly, and only because you never had enough—there were thirty-six shafts in a regulation quiver, and you could shoot them all off in a couple of minutes skirmishing.

“By the Ascended Masters,” someone muttered.

It had been said softly, but the Seeker smiled; Graber wished that he hadn’t.

“By the Masters indeed,” he said, and the smile grew broader. “Oh, we have learned much, and we shall learn so much more of Them!”

“Do you have anything to say?” Graber asked neutrally. Technically I’m in command, but...

The Seeker nodded, his eyes growing distant again.

“There,” he said. His arm stretched out, the hand like a blade, pointing precisely northeast. “There. The Son of the Bear... the Son of the Raven... where the weak are strong and the vanquished slay.”

Graber felt sweat prickle out on his face, more than sun and armor would explain. He looked at the Scout, and the lanky man shrugged and pointed more nearly straight north.

“Mount,” he said harshly. “We’ll go for the spring and then track them from there. Until we reach it, water only for the horses.”

His underofficers sighed and shifted slightly with relief; the big canteens on the pack-saddles were nearly empty. The reserve on the men’s belts wouldn’t last long.

“We’ll push the pace now, and stop just long enough to water at the spring and fill our canteens. Change off with the remounts every hour, but no rest stops until dark.”

As he swung back into the saddle he racked his brain for what lay ahead. A string of small Mormon settlements at the foot of the mountains; General Walker had said they were to be mopped up at leisure, as troops became available. And one pass over the Rockies eastward, so obscure they hadn’t bothered to garrison it. Would any of the levies be heading there on their way home? Possibly not...

These misbelievers will not defile the homeland of the Dictations, he thought; the Prophet had given him this mission personally, and that was honor beyond price... and responsibility heavier than a mountain. By the beard of the Prophet, I swear it!

 

 

 

@@@

 

Picabo, Eastern Oregon

September 12th, Change Year 23 (2021 AD).

 

Edain Aylward Mackenzie heard Rebecca squeal in shocked alarm, and then a cry of rage and a smack like wet laundry hitting a rock. He whirled, his hand snapping to the hilt of his unfamiliar shete.

They were in the Covenstead at the center of the town... no, the Saints called it a Meeting House. The center was a big hall lit by clerestory windows around the edge where the bright light of dawn showed. One half was full of pews, the second—oddly—equipped with basketball hoops and a recessed stage, and there had been big folding partitions that could close off one from the other. It smelled of wax and paint and lamp-oil and careful cleaning, or at least those had been the predominant odors until recently.

One of the Cutters was rubbing at his fuzzy cheek. It was Jack, and his face looked as if it had been well and truly slapped. There were a dozen or so there, working on their gear or muscling bundles of loot out to the wagons. Some of them were grinning and haw-hawing—he’d noticed that young Jack didn’t get much respect, despite being their leader’s nephew. Others looked angry. Jack himself certainly did. Rebecca backed towards the Mackenzie, her cheeks flaming and visibly forcing herself not to rub where she’d been goosed.

Edain elbowed by her; the sooner they were distracted from the Mormon girl, a woman of the vanquished enemy, the better. The men of Rudi’s band—Ingolf’s—were supposed to be from a friendly or at least neutral realm, protected by treaty. He pushed forward and thrust his face into Jack’s.

“Now, why would you be thinking you could get away with that, boyo?” he asked quietly. “The girl’s not yours.”

Though maybe you can get away with it, if it comes to a fight with these shetes, some part of him thought.

Not afraid, but considering as he would the weight of a billhook and the look of a hedge.

If they don’t all just mob me. But I’m thinking the curse of the Goddess is falling on you the now, and me Her instrument.

He was a passable fair-to-middling swordsman... with the gladius-style shortsword and small buckler that most Mackenzies used when things got too close for the bow. He’d never had more than a little cursory practice with the weapon the easterners had developed from the machete.

Of course, there’s no reason for you to know that, he thought, and stared at the blue-eyed Montanan, his own gray eyes as flat and cold as his father’s.

Not many men cared to face Samkin Aylward in that mood. Garbh was beside him, growling slightly and eyeing the Cutter in a way that was quite obviously focused on where to bite first. Jack split his attention between the two threats and took a step back.

“Mister, you’d better collar your she-dogs—both of them,” he said, his own hand on the hilt of his weapon. “We of the Church Universal and Triumphant don’t take back-talk from even from our own free women, much less slave bitches.”

Someone spoke sotto-voice behind him: “Yeah, that’s why Jenny chased you round the bunkhouse with that frying pan last Messenger Day and you were hollering about how sorry you were.”

His voice rose to a falsetto squeak: “Oh, please, darlin’, don’t hit me no more, I promise I’ll be good!

You shut the fuck up, Lin!” Jack snarled, truly furious now.

He drew the long curved sword at his hip and pointed it at his comrade, then swung around to face Edain once more. The broad point-heavy slashing blade was quivering a little from the tightness of his grip as he spat out:

“Look, Mister, you owe me for what your she-bitch there did. You can pay in coin, or lend her to me long enough to teach her manners, or I’ll take it out of your hide!”

With an effort at self-control. “I’ll even pay you for her time, though you rightly should pay me for properly breaking her in.”

“Is it that you’re after calling me a pimp the now, boyo, or just a coward?” Edain said flatly; he could feel the sweat trickling down his flanks, but nothing showed on his face. “Well, every man chooses his end, they say. If it’s the day you want to die, just say so. For if I draw my blade, I’ll cut your throat where you lie begging.”

Jack’s face twitched slightly; there was another haw-haw from behind him. He’d backed himself into a place where he had to fight or lose credit, and Edain had just upped the stakes to life and death.

First time I’ve ever done that, he thought. In cold blood.

“Hey, fellahs, no need to get all bloody about the bitch,” one of the Cutters said. “It ain’t worth it. There’s plenty more of them. They don’t grow shut.”

“Maybe Jack wanted this’un because the others hit him with a frying pan,” another added, which got more laughter. “Hell, you know, I’m getting tired of ‘em all. I’ll be glad to get back home and see a woman who’s glad to see me.”

“There’s one as is, Artie? News to me,” one of his comrades said, and they laughed again.

They were all a little more casual than Edain would have expected, and less inclined to take their comrade’s part. Mackenzies rarely fought each other beyond a behind-the-barn punchup now and then. It was against the law, for starters, and if someone was hurt badly a priestess might curse you or your dun out-law you. The PPA allowed duels, but under an elaborate formal code and only between Associates.

These are wild men, he realized. Guts and skill at arms are everything to them. And they’re away from whatever law they have at home, and used to killing from this war they’ve been having. That works for me now. If I win, that is...

A thought struck him. It was a risk... but less of one than meeting the other man with cold steel. Mostly less for Rebecca; if he lost a fight, she’d be in the Cutter’s hands.

“Or we could try a bit of a game, if you’re man enough for it,” he said.

“Ah, dang it to the Black Void,” one of the spectators said. “I was lookin’ forward to a fight. All this lying around eating and sleeping soft and screwing’s got me feelin’ bloody.”

“Game?” Jack said suspiciously.

“We’ll shoot for her,” he said. “Bow against bow.”

The Cutter visibly restrained himself from speaking. He looked at the longbow across Edain’s back, and his eyes narrowed in thought. Archery was a skill that had spread far and fast after the Change—most rural areas had had at least a few hobbyist bow-hunters who suddenly found their pastime deadly serious business. Bowyers had been rarer and more precious than gold. Edain’s father had been a hunter and student of the English longbow from his childhood—it was an old family tradition of the Aylwards—and western Oregon was full of good yew, which grew like a weed in the understory of the great mountain forests.

But these easterners were horsemen, raised in the saddle in an empty land. Bows meant to be used from horseback were the only kind they knew, short powerful recurves modeled on pre-Change hunting styles but far heavier on the draw. Those complex constructions of laminated sinew and wood and horn needed months to make and were the single most expensive things most cowboys would own.

To Jack the Mackenzie weapon probably looked like a simple bent stick, the sort of awkward makeshift primitives without real bowyer’s knowledge would improvise. His uncle wouldn’t have made that mistake, but...

Jack isn’t the sharpest shaft in his family’s quiver, I’m thinking.

“Well, if you’re that anxious to lose the bitch, I’ll take you on,” Jack said, confirming Edain’s estimate. “Rounders or rovers or at the bull’s-eye?”

Then he grinned slyly. “I’ll even sell her back to you for forty-five dollars... later.”

Edain nodded, but the audience groaned. “Ah, hell, it’s not even worth getting’ up to go watch you two shoot,” one said.

“Did anyone ask you to come along, Lin?” Jack said. “I didn’t hear it. Sitting on your ass sucking on a jug’s more your style.”

The lanky brown-haired one named Lin snapped his fingers. “I know!”

“You don’t know much,” Jack said.

“I know an old story,” Lin said enthusiastically. “’bout a cowboy that got in Dutch with this bossman, so the bossman made him shoot an apple–“

The Cutters cheered and clapped when he’d finished; evidently they thought that a lot more entertaining than a simple shooting match; they were making bets as if it was a settled thing before the story was fully told. Rebecca sucked in her breath sharply. Aylward the Archer’s son felt his skin go pale, and clammy with cold sweat.

He wouldn’t have expected one of these grass-country men to have heard of William Tell.

 

@@@

 

“I don’t know how long we’ve got,” Ritva murmured.

Or is it Mary?

Rudi couldn’t tell while he stood looking down southward on the little town of Picabo. He was half a mile north of the town wall, and several hundred feet up on the scrub-covered slopes of the hill. From this distance it still looked the pleasant place it must have been once.

For one thing, you can’t smell it, he thought grimly.

Here there was nothing but the clean warm wind, and the scents of rock and dirt and sage. His half-sister was behind him, and close enough that they could talk, but she was invisible beneath the lip of a ravine. To any casual observer in the town—and he’d noticed that at least one Cutter was always in view wherever he went—he was simply looking out over the valley of Silver Creek and the long plains beyond.

“It’s not a place I’d linger of my own will,” he said.

“Bad?” she said.

“No, it’s a merry place, like an inn where you’d be glad to get your feet up and have an ale and a song in good company. Well, if you don’t mind rape, plunder, murder and the stink of rot and the flies crawling over your face and your food. Tell me more.”

“We’re not sure, but...” the young woman said. “We backtracked and watched our trail, and... it’s possible there was someone there, scouting around our campsites.”

“Possible?” he said; he’d hoped they’d broken contact with the Cutters in the lava country.

“If there was, they were really, really good at not being noticed. More of... a feeling... than anything definite. We didn’t want to take more than a few hours to check.”

Rudi’s eyebrows went up. He wouldn’t care to try playing dodge-the-scout with Mary and Ritva working as a team. They’d had very careful training from experts all their lives, natural talent, and for their age a lot of experience in varied types of country. Aunt Astrid kept her Rangers busy.

“There was only one, though, if there was one. He could have been a wandering hunter being cautious, but I didn’t like it. Meanwhile, Ritva—“

Ah, so it is Mary. Someday I’ll be able to tell the difference without looking close.

“—found where the other people who cut their way out of this Picabo place were. Hiding half a day’s travel north of here; they had a hideaway in the hills, with a deep tube well and some caves, and supplies. There are about thirty; all men, say twenty fit to fight—the rest are badly wounded.”

“Ah, that explains something,” Rudi said, doing a little mental arithmetic.

Explains the men with the fires under their heads. But presumably they didn’t talk... probably Jed Smith didn’t know the right questions to ask. Brave of them to attack, but foolish... still, in their place...

“The Cutters are pulling out of here tomorrow,” he said.

“Hit them at dawn?” Mary said.

“No, they’ll be expecting something then, or at least sort-of-expecting and taking precautions. Their leader, Jed Smith, is too shrewd by half. Here’s what we’ll do—“

He finished and she repeated the salient points back to him. Then she cleared her throat.

“How’s Ingolf?” she asked casually.

Aha, Rudi thought, but carefully kept the smile out of his voice and off his face.

“Better,” he said. “It helps him to have work to do—and he’s been doing a good job of it. I couldn’t have carried it off in a thousand years, not without a lot of experience I haven’t had.”

“Well, you’ll be twenty-three in December, Rudi. You’ll have a chance to accumulate it.”

He nodded, and thought: If I’m not laying stark for my totem bird to eat my eyeballs fairly soon.

“I’d better get back,” he said. “It wouldn’t look good for Ingolf’s assistant to be absent through all the bargaining.”

“Manwë and Varda watch over you, Rudi,” she said soberly.

“And the Lady hold you in Her wings, and the Lord ward you with His spear, my sister,” he replied softly.

Then she was gone; there wasn’t a noise, just a feeling of emptiness, and perhaps the staccato chuck-chuck-chuck calling of an oriole was a little louder. Rudi rose smoothly, his sword-scabbard in his left hand, and half-slid down the slope; there was a click of rock and sliding earth—he wasn’t trying to be quiet. Epona greeted him at the bottom with a snort, throwing up her head from where she’d been grazing, and then trotting over. He caught at the saddlebow and vaulted up as she passed, giving her a friendly slap on the neck as his feet found the stirrups. They needed no conscious signals; she turned her head towards the village gate and floated into a canter, taking a rail fence with a bunching of the great muscles between his thighs, and landing with a deceptive thistledown softness.

She pulled in her pace as they approached the gate. Rudi wrinkled his nose, and Epona snorted through hers; she knew what that smell meant. There was enough of a breeze to make it more tolerable than inside the wall, though. The Cutters had the captives they were ready to sell there, together with bundles of other loot, and the women’s tools and goods of their making—cloth mainly, but also some handicrafts. Ingolf had been running them through their paces, questioning them sharply on their skills.

“Lifestreams of the Masters and the hearts of the Men of Camelot, but that’s a purty horse!” the rancher said as the Mackenzie cantered up.

“Not just her looks, either,” he went on, and listed her points. “You or your kin have any of her get?”

“Back home in Newcastle,” Rudi said, inclining his head respectfully. “A stallion at stud, and a colt.”

The good manners were acting, of course, but Rudi felt an unpleasant moment of empathy with the man; he had to, when someone appreciated Epona so knowledgeably.

Which gives me the crawls, the man being so detestable otherwise, he thought. Yet what man is all of one piece? He may be a loving husband and kind to animals and concerned for his folk.

“I wouldn’t use her as a riding horse, not on a long dangerous trip or for war,” Jed said, shaking his head. “Waste of a good brood mare, you ask me.”

“We’ve a good stud, back home in Newcastle,” Rudi said with a shrug.

The Mackenzies were passing as Ingolf’s young cousins—Ingolf and Rudi were about the same height and build, and all of them not so different in coloring or cast of features that they couldn’t be close kin. Supposedly they dealt for a family business, farms, smithies and weaving workshops, and livestock—which latter made them respectable enough for a rancher to deal with as near-equals.

“I’ll say you do! If only you could bring some up our way, I’d give seven, eight hundred for a stallion colt out of her, if the sire was anything.”

The Cutters were all passionate horsemen and horse-breeders; Jed would have been content to talk over Epona for longer yet, and drop some heavy hints about buying her, though there wasn’t the slightest doubt he knew she was well past mark of mouth. Ingolf cleared his throat.

“Don’t mean to hurry you, Rancher, but...”

Jed sighed. “Yeah, we got to get goin’. All right, you want them to strip down?” He jerked a thumb at the captives. “It’s not as if they were respectable.”

“I’m not buying them for their looks,” Ingolf said, shrugging. “It’s their work I’m interested in.”

Jed slapped him on the shoulder. “You’re more sensible than most men your age,” he said; he was perhaps a decade older than Ingolf’s twenty-eight.

Which means he was fourteen or fifteen when the Change came, Rudi thought suddenly. I wonder what sort of lad he was? And what might he have been, if the old world had not died in an instant?

“Most of my boys, they get a sniff of a woman and they can’t think of anything but putting her flat on her back,” he went on, with a male laugh. “Or bent over a saddle, according to taste.”

Ingolf shrugged again. “Silver’s harder to come by. And gold doesn’t take sick and die on the road, or run off and get et by wolves or tigers, or get the galloping miseries and kill itself. Silver and gold you can trust.”

“Oh, things can get confusing for a while when someone finds a big cache of bullion in one of the dead cities,” Jed Smith said.

Ingolf grinned; the old time’s coins were worthless, except as raw materials for arrowheads, but the new currencies hadn’t settled down yet either.

“How often does that happen these days?” he said. “The ones near where people live have been picked over, and the others... friend, you do not want to go there.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard,” Jed said. “So, what do you say to forty-five dollars a head for these twenty-five? And the older children thrown in with ‘em.”

“I say you’re kidding me and it’s not funny,” Ingolf replied. “I say you’re a thief. I say you’d get half that much in a wet-dream. I say get serious or don’t waste my time.”

Jed scowled at him. “They’d fetch that back to home.”

“You’re not home,” Ingolf pointed out. “You’ve got over a hundred women and their kids to get back to your ranches over the mountains, all the way to the Upper Missouri. They’ll have to walk, and it’s getting late in the season. What happens if you run into blizzards in the high country?”

Jed reflexively cocked an eye at the heavens; they were mostly blue, with a few towering clouds like mountains of whipped cream in the sky. Anyone who made their living from the earth and feared the weather’s fickleness would recognize the glance. So would a soldier.

“Should make it before the passes snow up, if we push ‘em,” Jed said.

He absently popped the lash of the riding quirt thonged to his wrist. Ingolf shrugged.

“That’ll wear on them. And you’re not planning on keeping them all yourselves, are you?”

“Oh, Black Void, no. They’d be nearly as many all up as the free women on Rippling Waters then. That’d be trouble, ‘specially at first, give ‘em too much chance to dream up something bad together. We’ll swap at least half for livestock. Our range on Rippling Waters can carry a lot more than we’ve got, good grass goin’ to waste.”

Ingolf looked at him in surprise; a cow-herd could double every three years. Jed caught the glance and explained:

“We’ve had a couple of bad winters, and lost some to lobo-wolves and tigers, more of the damn things every season. There’ve been too many prime hands away fightin’ to ride guard proper or to cut enough field-hay. A healthy woman who knows weaving and cheese making or leather work will fetch ten good breeding an’ milking heifers or twenty steers, easy. That’s why I let the Runamuck and Sweet Grass boys take most of the stock from here; easier to get one gal home than twenty cow-beasts.”

Ingolf smiled like a wolf. “That may have been true before your war with Deseret ended, but now the prices you get for everything you took will go down, sure as sure, with so much loot chasing the livestock. And the women will eat every day, and some of them will die and leave you with nothing for your trouble. Selling some to me now means you don’t have to try and move them in a glutted market... and the bullion you get you can carry on one pack-horse and lend out at interest until prices for livestock drop again.”

Jed grunted, pulling at his beard and looking as if he’d tasted something sour. Ingolf had explained his bargaining strategy to Rudi, and it was based on the Cutters’ wants, just as a real trader’s would be. In the end, cattle and sheep and horses were the only wealth that was really real to the plainsmen...

“Well, hell, Mr. Vogeler, you’re makin’ me feel guilty at unloading any of ‘em on you,” Jed said dryly. “Mebbe I should pay you to take ‘em off my hands?”

Ingolf shrugged. “Newcastle’s a city. There are plenty of workshops there, and farms around it, and police and a town wall to keep order. We make a lot of stuff for the Sioux and for trade—they buy our buffalo-hide shields and our bows as far east as Nebraska—and we can make more if we get more hands. Hell, if you could sell us men, we could use them in the coal mines and the lamp-oil works.”

“Which means you can afford to pay more than my neighbors for the gals.”

“But they’re not worth as much to you, which is what matters in a bargain. If I push on to Twin Falls, I’ll get what I need even cheaper; I can buy from the Church’s officials, or your army quartermasters. And you’re not selling me the best you have here and you know it. Come on, Mr. Smith, make it worth my while to turn back now and save an extra two weeks travel.”

“You’ll get a lot more than forty-five dollars each when you get home,” Smith pointed out.

“On the ones that live; some won’t,” Ingolf said with an air of patience. “Plus there’s the tax to the Oceti Sakowin, and the cost of transport, food, depreciation on working stock and those wagons I want to buy from you, and my men’s wages... I’ll give you fifteen each for all twenty-five and that’s generous. They’re none of them as good quality as the one we’ve already bought. And I should get a bulk purchase discount—“

Rudi had been avoiding looking at the women who waited, mostly in stolid silence beside the little bundles of food and spare clothes that would go with them, many with children clutching at their skirts. A few of the women wept, but the children were too frightened, and most of their mothers looked like they’d used up a lifetime’s tears. They all glanced back at Picabo, though, as a party of young Cutters came through the gate, whooping and shoving each other in rough horseplay. Edain and Rebecca were in their midst, and they both looked as though a wagon had just run over their puppy.

No, Edain does, Rudi thought. Rebecca looks more like a queen surrounded by oafs, and walks like it. She’s a fine brave girl... no, a fine woman, and no mistake... but perhaps not the best person to impersonate a slave.

Jed and Ingolf turned from their leisurely bargaining. They listened to the story—told in bits and pieces by excited youngsters—and the older Cutter’s scowl would have done credit to a summertime thunderhead.

“You damned pup!” he said after a moment, and snatched his hat off. He looked as if he’d like to hit Jack with it again, too. “What’re you thinking of, playing grab-ass with someone else’s property? And these folks are guests in our camp, under the Prophet’s protection, too! You’re a disgrace to the Rippling Water brand!”

“It was a little forward of her ass he grabbed,” Lin put in, and then subsided at a look.

Behind him Odard looked at Ingolf and Rudi, his brows fractionally raised. The man from Wisconsin shook his head very slightly, and Rudi flicked his eyes in agreement. If the ‘Sioux Chief’ intervened, there was no telling how things might go—probably back to a duel to the death between the two young men.

For once Jack wasn’t backing down from his uncle’s anger; he certainly looked determined enough. He flushed at the rancher’s insult, but stood straight and went on doggedly:

“Uncle Jed, she hit me. In front of everybody! And he didn’t do anything but try to face me down! Am I supposed to let a slave gal hit me like that, or a stranger walk on me?”

Jed spat disgustedly just before the pointed toes of Jack’s tooled-leather boots and then waved him aside. He lowered his voice as he spoke to Ingolf:

“Mister Vogeler, I’m sorrier than I can say about this. I can’t make the pup apologize... not even if they were still fixing to fight serious. As it is, though... well, if the arrow hits your bought gal, I’ll give you two of ours in recompense, and you can pick which. And Jack’s going to pay for it, you can bet on that!”

Rudi walked over to Edain. “What happened?” he said quietly. “Beyond the obvious.”

“Father Wolf be my witness, Chief, I just challenged the filthy scabhtéara to a shooting match!” Edain whispered frantically. “I figured I’d be sure to beat him at that, but it would be even odds with cold steel. It was those sodding bastards who had the idea about the apple!”

The brown-haired Cutter named Lin cleared his throat as his comrades and others of the Rippling Waters men gathered around, letting their preparations drop.

“Hear the terms of this shoot!” he said, trying to be formal. “Eddie here can shoot three arrows. If he misses the apple and the gal with all three, then our own Jack gets the gal, or Eddie pays him forty-five dollars cash money. If he hits the gal, then he and his bear the loss ‘cause he isn’t as good a shot as he claimed. If he hits the apple, then Eddie has to pay him forty-five dollars fine for groping his bought gal and being a natural-born stupid dumb fuck as we all know he is.”

“Fuck you, Lin!”

“Not while there’s sheep on Rippling Waters, Jack,” Lin said cheerfully. “They smell better’n you, too. Let the fun begin!”

“No help for it, then.” Rudi studied the younger Mackenzie’s face. “Ground and center. No, I mean it, clansman! Breath in—breath out. Slow and steady.”

Edain obeyed, and a little of the grey tightness left his face as he controlled lungs and heart.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said, and held up his hand.

There was a slight quiver to it.

“You can,” Rudi said. “You’re the laddie who won the Silver Arrow younger than any before you, and then beat me for it the next year!”

Edain’s grimace showed his teeth. “That was just a target!”

“And this is just a target,” Rudi said, and forced all sympathy out of his voice; if he couldn’t banish fear, he’d have to make Edain use it. “And that’s what you’re going to do, because you must. Invoke Them... and then get out there and let the gray goose fly, clansman!”

The young Cutters had hustled Rebecca over to the town wall. She stood with her arms crossed, staring straight ahead with a faint smile on her face as they placed the apple on her head; it was a large one, bright red, and still unwithered. Rudi looked aside and noticed Jed Smith looking at Edain... with a considering expression in his eyes.

“That young nephew of yours is a mite soft,” he said quietly to Ingolf. “Getting all bothered about a bought gal, as if she were kin or his sweetheart.”

The man from Wisconsin shrugged. “Young guys are like that around women,” he said. “Especially young, pretty women.”

“You should’ve let him screw the bitch silly and get over it,” the rancher said.

“Well, Good Lance decided he fancied her, you see. I’ll still get her sale-price, but otherwise...” Ingolf shrugged. “I’m not going to piss off a Sioux clan who’re good friends now to let my own nephew blow off some steam and get the girl out of his head.”

“Ah,” Jed said, glancing over at Odard. “Good thing he’s not too mad about this.”

“He may be. Hard to tell, with Injuns. But they’re sticklers for taking up a challenge, you know—at least, the Sioux are.”

“Right. Well, I’d have lent you boys some of ours... let’s hope your Eddie can pull off that shot. I swear, even if Jack is my sister’s son, the little bastard is such a pain in the ass, I almost wish it was him there with the apple on his head!”

Edain strode out to the mark Jack drew in the scrubby grass with a boot-heel. It was fifty yards to the wall where Rebecca waited, far enough that her face was mostly a blur and the apple only a red dot. He looked expressionlessly at her, at the movement of the grass in the light irregular wind. Then he stripped off his leather jacket, tossed it to the ground, and laid bow, quiver and swordbelt on it. Jed made a grunting sound and watched more closely as the young clansman flexed his arms and rotated them slowly to stretch sinew and tendon, working his fingers as well. Cords in his forearms stood out sharply, moving beneath the taut white skin. Edain was only average in height, but he looked strong even in that company, and he had quite a few scars for a man so young.

Then he picked his leather-and-steel bracer, adjusting the straps to fit his bare forearm, took up the bow and strung it Mackenzie-style—bottom end over the left instep and right thigh over the riser, pushing down with his body-weight as his right hand slipped the cord into the notch in the elk-antler nock. When that was done he picked the agreed three shafts from his quiver, all with hunting broadheads that had started their lives as stainless steel spoons. The triangular heads were honed to razor sharpness, and they glittered in the strong sunshine as he rolled each arrow over his thumbnail to test its straightness.

He’s using broadheads because he hopes they won’t break the skullbone even if he misses, Rudi thought sympathetically. Not a hope, my friend. At that range and with a draw that heavy...

“That’s a good bow,” Jed said slowly. “Strange-looking, but it’s made by someone who knows what he’s doing.”

“We’ve got first-rate bowyers in Newcastle,” Ingolf said. “Have since the Change.”

“But I’ve seen Newcastle bows, and they’re our style, pretty much—we buy some from you, traded hand to hand. I’ve never seen one quite like that’un.”

“We got the idea from further east,” Ingolf said easily. “Just these last couple of years. Too long for easy horseback work, but some of the younger men have taken them up.”

“What’s that wood? It doesn’t look like bois d’arc.”

“Yew. Grows in the canyons,” Ingolf lied with easy fluency.

Jed Smith could almost certainly read, unlike many of his younger cowboys. But he probably didn’t have occasion to do so very often, and he certainly couldn’t go look up the natural vegetation around Newcastle, Wyoming.

Ingolf went on: “They’re good for hunting on foot in the Black Hills up north of town, or shooting from the town walls. Don’t have to cure in a hotbox, or be lacquered against the wet. And they’re cheap, a tenth or a quarter the cost of a saddle-bow, so you’re not out of pocket so much if you damage one.”

Smith grunted again, rubbing at his jaw. “Might be worth the trouble, then, for townsmen,” he said with kindly scorn for men who lived behind walls and worked on foot.

That turned to an instinctive duck and snatch at the hilt of his shete as Edain drew, turned on his heel away from the town wall, and loosed. Jack did throw himself flat; Edain had wheeled to face him, and there was nothing wrong with his reflexes. He lay on his back with his fighting-knife naked in his hand, gaping upward at the trajectory of the arrow Edain had shot nearly straight up. There was a murmur of amazement from the watching cowboys as something fell back—two things, the arrow and the mallard duck it had transfixed.

The bird thumped into the dusty earth not more than arm’s length from Jack’s gape. Two of his friends dodged neatly as the arrow plunged into the dirt with a shunk! The young Mackenzie strolled over, pulled the shaft out of the dirt, then leaned over the Cutter.

“Are you not going to thank me, then, Jack-me-lad?” he inquired mildly, reaching out with the end of his longbow to nudge the limp blue-green shape of the bird. “You’ve the makings of a fine roast-duck dinner there, and the flight feathers will do for fletching when you’ve plucked it. And I’ll ask no more of you if you decide to call this quits. Save yourself forty-five dollars, friend... and enjoy your duck.”

Rudi found himself smiling involuntarily. Jed Smith snorted a laugh, and the young Cutter’s friends roared until they staggered around wiping at their eyes and slapping each other on the back; a few fell helpless and drummed their heels on the ground. Several urged their comrade to accept the terms, between sputters and whoops. Skill with the bow was the thing they admired most in all the world, after horsemanship and raw courage.

Jack came back to his feet with a shoulder-roll. The Cutters all looked a little awkward to Rudi’s eyes when they were afoot, though they were as graceful as panthers in the saddle. That didn’t mean the young man wasn’t strong and quick, and Rudi judged that he’d be good with a blade. He didn’t draw, quite...

“You got two more shafts, or the split-tail is mine,” he said with quiet venom, all garrulousness washed out of him by the hate that made his face go white around the nostrils. “Now shoot. I’m of a mind to see how many ways I can fuck that bitch and you can keep your forty-five dollars.”

Edain shrugged; Rudi thought he alone could see the flash of despair in the archer’s eyes, but anger was deeper. He turned and smoothed the fletching of the arrow against his lips, blowing softly on the feathers and setting the shaft on the string. Then he stood stock-still while he took one long breath, drew past the angle of his jaw and loosed in a single continuous movement.

The arrow flashed out, seeming to drift as it gained distance. There was less than a second before it struck... and Rebecca Nystrup pitched forward on her face, limp as a sack.

Silence fell for a long moment. “Well,” Jed Smith said. “Want me to finish her off for you?”

 

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