“Curse and ill-wishing have no power
Save that the heart lets them in
Hard the lesson learned by the undefeated
That strength and right may end in ill—“
From: The Song of Bear and Raven
Attributed to Fiorbhinn Mackenzie, 1st century CY.
Eastern Idaho, Highway 20, east of Picabo
September 13th, Change Year 23/2021 A.D.
Rancher Jed Smith yawned and turned over in his bedroll, conscious of the growing light in the east and the frosty air on his face.
That was a good dream, he thought sleepily. It’s good luck to dream of home.
He’d been there, out where the horizon went on forever. Where the grama and wheatgrass brushed against your stirrups and ran in rippling waves beneath the biggest sky in the world, cloud shadows racing the wind across prairie green with spring and thick with blue lupine and white pennycress and golden gromwell, so beautiful it made the breath catch in your throat... and the air was fresh enough to hit like a shot of whiskey. Riding his own range and his herds had been around him, red-coated, white-faced cattle up to their hocks in the good grazing, sheep fat with the grass of a year with no drought, a promise that all his folk on Rippling Waters would be full-fed and warm come the blizzard season.
Dry mild wind on his face, a good horse beneath him, his sons Ted and Andy and Mark riding by his side, grown to tall men and talking horses and hunting, grass and cattle. The land at peace again, not even a feud on his borders. Then somehow he was at the head of his table, forking steaks from the serving platter onto plates, while Katy spooned out beans and Lorrie came in with a basket of biscuits in each hand and the kids were young again as they bowed their heads for the grace from the Book of Dzur...
He yawned again and shook the last of it off; it wasn’t quite dawn, and he could go back to sleep for another half-hour. One of the perks of being the Rancher was that you didn’t have to stand a guard-watch yourself, but he always got up and did the rounds himself at least once a night, in enemy territory. And at unpredictable intervals.
Dad taught me that. But he forgot, that once.
And he and Gramps and that whole party had been left stripped and butchered by a gang of road people who crept past a sleeping sentry. Jed had been only twenty then, but he’d held the Rippling Waters spread together and led them into the embrace of the Dictations.
It was pleasantly warm inside the glazed leather sleeping bag; it was made of sheepskins with the fleece turned in, and the girl who shared it with him now was as good as a campfire. She’d been much less sullen last night, and the thought and the feel of her and the scent tempted him to have another go while he had the chance—women generally didn’t like it in the morning, and a sensible man didn’t push his wives that way too often. It wouldn’t be the same even with the bought gals they kept, when they got back to Rippling Waters.
Whatever the priests said should be, a man’s wives did object if he diddled the slave girls openly in his own house, in the morning or otherwise. And Church law might say a man could correct his wives with a quirt if they scolded or back-talked, but a man who tried that too often was asking for trouble with them and maybe with their kin, and it didn’t make for a happy home life either. The only worse thing than having your women quarreling was having them gang up on you.
He was a man who liked tranquility and smiles under his own roof-tree, not sulks. Everyone on the ranch had to pull together for things to go well—though an occasional quick one behind a haystack did no harm.
And I’m not nineteen no more, he thought. C’mon, Jed, get up, take a leak, lead the morning prayers, get some breakfast and chicory inside you and git this outfit on the road. Those Newcastle men’ll be splittin’ off today; good riddance. Long way to home, so up an at ‘em! Sooner we’re back, the sooner we can start getting the place back running smooth.
The decision saved his life. He pushed the woman aside and was yawning and stretching when she turned, snatched his own bowie-knife and drove it at his throat, rather than helpless on his back.
He’d grown to manhood in the years after the Change when chaos and death went stalking through the Hi-Line country, and survived them. There was nothing wrong with his reflexes, even in the strait confines of a sleeping bag. The blade slithered along his forearm in a shallow cut as he blocked it, turned his hip to take the attempt to knee him in the crotch on his hip-bone, and smashed his forehead down into her face. That hurt him, but nose and cheek-bones crunched under the blow and she screamed in shock and agony. The bowie dropped from her hand. He snatched the hilt; the cutting edge was turned in and he stabbed downward twice with all the strength in his lean corded arm and shoulder. The scream cut off in a gurgling, choking sound.
There were more screams as he pushed himself clear of the twitching body and climbed to his feet. And a shout he recognized all too well from the past few years:
“Come, ye Saints!”
Though he wasn’t used to hearing it in high-pitched female voices. The dim light showed a heaving, thrashing confusion in the rocky flat where they’d camped; he dropped the bowie and snatched out his shete just in time to cut down another woman running at him with a woodchopping axe already wet with blood.
“Rippling Waters men! Here, here, here!” he shouted in the rally call. “Back to back!”
He quickly stamped his feet into his boots, which were the only part of his clothes he hadn’t taken off to sleep, and caught up his shield. A man came running, limping with blood on his knee but with his shield and shete. Another, and another... and his horse came trotting as well, and then a clump of men. He jerked his cow-horn trumpet loose from the pile of gear on the ground as they formed up around him and blew a long dunting blast, huuu-hhhhrrr-uuuu!
“Here, here, here!”
The light was waxing, and he could see half a dozen little fights going on, and men sprawled bloody and still in their bedrolls, one going down under half a dozen shrieking women armed with knives and a camp-kettle and snatched-up rocks. How had they planned it? But that didn’t matter now; if they could just live through the first couple of minutes, strength and weapons would beat down any amount of desperation. A woman could knife a sleeping man, but that was about all she could do.
“Here, here, here! Kill those bitches!”
Then the trader Ingolf came loping; his shete was wet too. More of his party were behind him. They’d be useful, but they were running away from a mob of women—
Then the hatchets and knives in their hands registered, and the blood dripping from the steel. The women weren’t chasing the Newcastle men; they were following them into battle. Rage warred with disgust.
That gal of theirs, Rebecca. She went around among the others before the shoot... they must have used her as their go-between for this!
“Hey, Rancher Smith,” Ingolf called. “Why don’t you kill me? I’m more your size!”
Steel slammed into steel, shedding a tail of sparks, banged on shields. His sworn men and kin closed in on either side of him and threw the outlanders back.
“Bastard!” Smith wheezed. His arm dripped blood, and one of his men took an instant to tie it up. “Lying bastard! Cut! Cut!”
Rudi Mackenzie leaned aside and thrust past Edain’s back, feeling bone pop and crunch as the point went through the body and into the dry gritty soil. The Cutter named Jerry tried to scream once as the blade nailed him to the ground, writhing around the steel and coughing out a single gout of dark blood that steamed in the cold dawn air.
“I had him!” Edain said—almost snarled.
From the red-purple blotches on the dead cutter’s throat he was right. And Garbh’s fangs had already cut his hamstring; the right leg sticking out beneath his dirty shirt looked as if it had been chewed to rags, which was a pretty accurate description.
“We don’t have time to settle scores,” Rudi panted.
A rally shout sounded, and the dunting of a war-horn, and someone screamed out: Cut! Cut! Cut! A good many other people were simply screaming.
“Come on. We’ve a fight to win.”
Edain came, snatching up his bow. Odard was finishing a man already wounded by the woman who sprawled beside him dying slowly with a crushed larynx; he whipped the shete around his head in a Portland-style flourish blow, and the sharp edge drove halfway through the Cutter’s neck.
“Haro! Face Gervais, face death!”
Odard surprised the Mackenzie by dropping to his knees for an instant and pressing the heels of both hands against the woman’s throat.
“All I could do,” he panted, loping on beside him. “If the tissues don’t swell shut... and damn this peasant’s overgrown weeding tool! I want a proper longsword, and a knight’s shield!”
The three young men came up with Ingolf; the big easterner was just pulling his shete out of a man’s back, bracing his foot on the body to get the broad point free of the bone.
“The sentries?” he said.
“Dead,” Rudi replied succinctly.
“Let’s go pay a call on Rancher Smith,” Ingolf said quietly. “Kill them ourselves, or wait? I’d like to kill them, but...”
“Let’s see how things lie,” Rudi said. “Nystrup should be here soon but it’s better to overrun them ourselves, if they’re still rocked far enough back on their heels. We can’t let them get their feet under them.”
They ran on, past wagons and horses wandering loose or rearing and tearing at their picket ropes, past blankets and tumbled cookware and bodies lying still, or crawling or writhing or clutching themselves and calling for their mothers—high-plains cowboys and Mormon women both. The smell of blood and filth mixed with brewing chickory and scorched bacon that had fallen into the embers.
Some of the wounded just shrieked with pain greater than they had ever imagined, and those were of both sides too. The Mormon women still standing fell in with them, running or hobbling at their heels, holding weapons snatched from their captors. Rudi was disappointed when he saw the Cutters’ forming shield-wall; there were thirty men still on their feet, though many of them were wounded. They all had their shetes and shields, and many had managed to snatch up bits and pieces of their war-harness as they ran to the sound of the horn and the rally-call. His own folk had all been able to put on their gear, mostly leather with pieces of steel riveted to it, but Ingolf had his mail shirt.
A good many of the women were naked and barefoot, and none had more than a shift and drawers.
“Here, here, here!” the Cutter leader called. “Kill those bitches!”
“Hey, Rancher Smith!” Ingolf cried; there was a note of playful ferocity in his voice, release from the role he’d had to act. “Why don’t you kill me? I’m more your size.”
Rudi saw Smith’s face change, twisting into something inhuman. Then he and Ingolf were at handstrokes, their blades lashing out in the hacking eastern shete-style. An arrow flashed past the Mackenzie chieftain’s shoulder, and lanky brown-haired Lin toppled backward limp as a rope, with a gray-fletched Mackenzie arrow in his eye.
“Now be eating that, and a sodding apple too, a phiosa chaca bréan!” Edain shouted. Then in angry frustration: “Get out of my way!”
The mass of women ignored that; ignored anything. They threw themselves on the Cutters’ points in a shrieking mass, sheerly mad—at home he’d have said the Dark Goddess had them, from the fixed glaring eyes and the froth on some lips. Rudi engaged a Cutter himself, bringing his round shield up in a looping curve to stop the downward stroke of the shete without blocking his own vision. The weapon banged on the hard leather; he threw it sideways with a twitch of his long arm, but another came at him from the side and he had to block that...
Even Lugh can’t fight two, he knew angrily; not in a straight-up fight between lines. There aren’t enough of us!
Then three women threw themselves on the man ahead of him, so quickly that he nearly put his back out halting his own strike; one grabbed at the Cutter’s shield, the second hung on his sword-arm despite a chop that sliced open her leg to the bone, and the third leapt up and wound her legs around his waist and stabbed him in the face, over and over again with a long-tined roasting fork held in both hands, her arms pumping like a water-driven machine in a foundry. She stopped only when a tomahawk whirred across the width of the Cutter formation and sank into her skull with a chock that was horribly like an axeman landing a cut on a tree.
Rudi’s shete and shield moved as fast as he could turn and wheel and strike, a blur of motion, but the other two women died in the next three seconds; one quickly with a shete thrust to the gut, the other thrashing and gobbling with half her face cut away. Then an arrow struck his own shield with a hard whirr-thuck and a blow like a sledgehammer, the sharp point showing on the inside of the curve of bullhide and sheet metal and wooden frame. He blocked, struck, blocked, skipped backward two steps to give himself room to look to either side.
“Cover!” he snapped.
He retreated again and crouched behind an overturned wagon. Edain was beside him.
That’s as well, Rudi thought, wincing at what he saw. This isn’t war. It’s... sure, and I don’t know what it is, except that it’s ugly.
The mass of women had struck the Cutter shields with a reckless fury that made them more effective than he’d dreamed; half a dozen of the plainsmen were down, dead or badly hurt. But for the most part they hit the wall of shields edged with sharp swinging metal and splashed, the way a man might if he’d been shot out of a catapult at a castle’s ferroconcrete ramparts. They had few proper weapons, no shields or helmets or armor, and none of the Cutters’ hard-gained fighting skills; and while they were strong from churn and loom and hoe, the enemy were stronger still by far.
Rebecca had said the women were all willing to die rather than be led away captive; and they were. It would be good if they accomplished something by it. Trying to fight with them would do nothing but see Rudi and all his companions dead at their sides.
“Cut, cut, cut!” the warcry rang out.
Then the rush was over, and the recurve bows of the plainsmen began to snap.
Moments now, Rudi thought, judging the distance to their horses. Nothing more we can do unless Nystrup comes. What’s keeping the man?
He pursed his lips and whistled for Epona. Another arrow slammed into the wagon beside his ear and he ducked backward. The sun was up now, over the peaks eastward, and casting long shadows down the road. A knot of horsemen came over the rise, dust and gravel and bits of broken asphalt paving flying up from the hooves of galloping horses, and Rudi let out his breath in a whuff of relief. They were supposed to have been here a little earlier, but things like that happened in fights, and there’d been no way to coordinate more than to say at dawn.
Then he saw that the Deseret guerillas and his own companions were shooting backward from the saddles, and arrows flickered towards them. They had most of Rancher Smith’s remount herd running ahead of them, though, running wild-eyed and with their heads down.
There wasn’t time to give way to bewilderment. Epona was there, drawing ahead of the other horses with every step, moving with a grace that was beautiful even then. Rudi leapt with all the power of his long legs, three bounding paces and a snatch at the saddlehorn. It slapped into his hand, and he clamped down with a blaze of determination, pouring will up his arm and into fingers and wrist. Two-thirds of a ton of horse tore by, and his grip turned the momentum that threatened to rip his arm out at the socket into a vault that landed him in the saddle and his feet in the stirrups seconds later.
That was good, because they’d almost run into Rancher Smith and his men. Epona reared, crow-hopping on her hind legs; Rudi leaned forward until his face was in the black silky-coarse hair of her mane. Her forefeet milled like steel-edged clubs. A shield cracked under them, and the arm under it, and another man catapulted backward as a shod hoof crushed his face. Rudi caught himself as his legs clamped down on his mount’s barrel. The Cutters’ rank was broken, more by the rush of riderless horses than by the mounted men and women behind and among them; the easterners were too surprised to fight and too brave to run.
One of them shook himself out of his daze and ran in at Rudi’s side; it was Rancher Smith, moving with lizard-quick skill to slash at Epona’s hamstring. With most horses it would have worked. The big black mare had already set herself, her head around and judging the range. She kicked out with her left hind, powerful and accurate and blurring-fast. Smith would have died then if he hadn’t turned his rush into a frenzied leap backwards, dropped his shete and tucked his shield into his gut as he realized what was happening.
The hoof punched into it with a crack like mountain ash breaking in the coldest part of winter, and the plainsman flew backwards, his feet off the ground for six feet or more. Then he rolled across the rough ground, shrieking as it battered his broken forearm amid the warped and shattered remnant of the shield’s frame. The thump when he struck a wagon’s wheels was enough to stop the sound.
Rudi ignored him; a man Epona kicked wasn’t going to be a problem anytime soon, even if he was lucky enough to live. The mare spun beneath him, agile as a cowpony despite her size; sparks shot as her hooves scored rock.
There were men coming behind Nystrup’s Deseret guerillas and Rudi’s own companions. Men in the lacquered-leather armor and spiked helmets of the Sword of the Prophet, a score or more of them, their ranks disordered with the hard pursuit that had left them clumped in ones and twos and little bands. A swift glance told him their horses were spent, laboring, their necks and forequarters thick-streaked with lines of yellow-white foam, but the riders were ready with bow and lance.
“Too many!” he called. “Run!” Then: “Edain!”
The younger Mackenzie was shooting at the oncoming troopers of the Sword; one went down, another, another. But there were too many for any single archer to stop, even an Aylward; a Cutter was coming, his horse’s gallop a wheezing shamble, but faster than a man could run and with his lance leveled. From the look of Edain’s set face, gone milk-white and staring, he didn’t intend to stop killing until he died. The Dark Mother had him, and the Devouring Shadow was a dangerous thing to evoke.
Epona moved, responding as if she were part of him. His desperate sword-stroke knocked the lance out of the line that would have brought it into Edain’s chest. But that meant it struck his, and Rudi wheezed in astonished agony as the blade scored across his flank and slammed him back against the cantle of the saddle. Armor snapped, and something within him. Half a second later the horses struck shoulder-to-shoulder, and the Cutter’s lighter gelding went back on its haunches and then over backward with a bugling scream of terror; the Cutter’s scream was cut off as the weight landed square across him.
Edain shot again, and again. He reacted only to struggle blindly when Rudi threw his shete aside, snatched him by the back of his jacket and tossed him with a grunt of back-crackling effort across his pony’s saddle. White fire washed across Rudi’s eyes at the effort, and injured muscle tore.
“Go!” he shouted, and Epona nipped at the gelding’s haunch.
It shot eastward with a squeal, and Rudi turned again. More Cutters were coming at him, more of the Sword of the Prophet—and they were close enough that he’d only be lanced or shot in the back if he ran. The first went by him at the gallop; he ducked in the saddle so that the lance went over nearly close enough to part his hair, then rose and smashed the hammer-edge of his fist down on the man’s neck. Something cracked, but the Mackenzie froze and grabbed at his side; it was as if he were coming apart, and only the strength of his arms kept everything inside from tumbling out.
A whirring thock, and a hammerblow that forced a grunt out of him and a feeling of intense cold. He stared for an instant at the arrow-shaft in his right shoulder, punched through leather and mail and planted deep in bone. The arm wouldn’t obey him, and Epona turned and bounded eastward on her own.
Whirr-thock. Another impact, in his back this time. Blackness.
“No,” Jeb Smith said, looking up from his back at the officer of the Sword standing over him.
“What did you say?” Major Graber barked.
Jeb Smith hissed between his teeth and stiffened into quivering silence as one of his men set the bone that had snapped under the torque from the arm-loop of his broken shield. Then he gasped as the splints were bound with coils of bandage. It was a simple greenstick fracture and ought to start healing in a month or so...
“I said, no,” he rasped tightly. “What part of that don’t you understand, Major?” Then, to his own man: “Whiskey!”
The cowboy who’d set the arm handed him a flask. He drank, letting the cold fire burn down his gullet. It took away a little of the pain, and more of the heart-sickness.
“I’m on the Prophet’s business!” Graber said incredulously. “And I need those horses.”
“And I’ve been fighting for the Prophet, the old Prophet, since before you got your first hard-on!” Smith snarled. “And I need them horses worse than you do.”
He jerked his head at the chaos of the camp. “I lost more men this morning than I did in the whole Deseret War, and half my horses. I’m not giving you the rest, not when I have to get wounded men back to Rippling Waters... and these kids, somehow, and our plunder, what’s left of it.”
“We’ll leave you our mounts,” Graber said. “They’re better stock than yours and there are more scattered back for ten miles.”
“They were good stock,” Smith said, taking another swallow of the raw grain liquor.
As if to make his point, one that had been standing with its head down slowly collapsed, going to its knees and then to its side in a clatter of gear. The trooper of the Sword knelt beside it, stroking its muzzle as it rolled its eyes in blind supplication.
“Now they’re foundered and half of them are like to die and most of the others will be wind-broke until they do die. I’m not leaving my men stranded here with nothing but this dog-fodder to ride and the passes due to close soon and that’s that.”
Graber’s face was slick with sweat and the mud it had made of the dust on his face. He still glanced around at his men, and Smith knew exactly what he was thinking. There were at least twenty-five of the Rippling Waters men still fit to fight, and they were grouped around their Rancher and glowering at the regulars out of Corwin—whose arrogance nobody liked. Half the Sword troopers were scattered back along the way, walking and carrying the tack from their foundered mounts.
Graber thought he might—would—win any fight, but that would leave his command utterly wrecked and easy prey for any band of Mormon guerillas, or half a dozen other threats. And Corwin would be very reluctant to punish a powerful Rancher with a distinguished record of early support for the Church.
The Major of the Prophet’s household troops slowly flushed, until his face was brick-red, then stared at Smith with his lips moving—verses from the Dictations.
“The wise... man... is... known... he... commands... his... passions—“
The blood of rage slowly ebbed, and he spoke calmly:
“Four horses, then. Four fresh horses.”
Smith pushed away the throbbing hot-and-cold sensation of his arm, and the growl of the whiskey in his empty belly. Corwin would not be happy if he denied all help... and he didn’t want to, either. The Dictations and Book of Dzhur said a man had an obligation to repay, for good and ill. The false merchants who’d said that they came from Newcastle had built up quite a balance.
“Fine, Major. Pick ‘em yourself,” he said. “We’re going home. Consider them a gift in the service of the Church.”
Graber nodded curtly and turned, pointing his finger to one horse after another. His men ran to prepare them in silent obedience, and the officer said:
“Scout! High Seeker!”
A tall lanky man with his hair in braids ambled over; he looked tired, the way a horse did after pulling a hay-cutter for a day, but strong as seasoned wood anyway. The Seeker... Smith blinked. He didn’t look tired, or fresh, or like anything, somehow.
“It’ll be days before we can move,” Graber said. “I may have to find fresh horses, somewhere. Follow them. Mark the track. Don’t lose them.”
“I haven’t yet,” the Scout said.
The man in the robe the color of dried blood shrugged and nodded, smiling.
“Shit, shit!” Ingolf Vogeler said. “We can’t stop, not here. It’s bare as a politician’s lie!”
Mathilda looked at him wide-eyed. “He... those arrows have to come out. He’s badly hurt. But—“
Father Ignatius nodded without turning around as his fingers worked. Ingolf looked around; the Mormons were getting ready to leave, turning north into the mountains or southward to the Snake River sagelands. Edain Mackenzie sat by Rudi, elbows on knees and face buried in his hands, his dog pressed against him and whining softly as she stared up into his face.
Epona was a little distance off, giving soft snorts of equine distress. He’d thought for a moment he’d have to kill the mare before she’d let them pull Rudi off her back.
“I’m sorry,” Nystrup said, at his own horse’s head. “You’ve done well by us, but I have to get my people out of here. We’ll scatter, and that will draw some of them away.”
“Not if their scouts are as good as I’m afraid,” Ingolf said, beating his right fist into his left palm. “Shit!”
Nystrup winced. “Goodbye... and we’ll pray for him. For you all.”
Ingolf took a deep breath as the guerilla leader mounted and legged his horse southward; the others were looking at him anxiously, and you had to show willing. Nothing broke men’s morale faster than the leader showing the flibbertigibbets.
The problem is that if this had happened during the Sioux War and he was one of my troopers, I’d give Rudi the mercy stroke and we’d run like hell to save the rest of the outfit, he thought. Not exactly an option here!
“Father Ignatius?” he said.
The cleric finished his examination. “I don’t know how much damage the arrow in the shoulder did, but moving him will make it worse. The one in the small of the back is a more immediate danger. The point turned when it broke the mail-links. It is lodged at a slant and it is far too close to the liver and to several large blood vessels; motion may work it inward. And four ribs were broken, and there’s soft-tissue damage. But if I operate now, he cannot be moved at all for some time or there will certainly be fatal bleeding.”
“He’ll certainly die if we stay here until the Cutters arrive,” Mathilda said; her face was drawn, but her mouth was firm and her brown eyes level. “Their guardsmen, the...”
“Sword of the Prophet,” Odard said neutrally; he was watching Rudi with an unreadable expression in his narrow blue eyes.
“The Sword of the Prophet, they’ll be slow, from the state their horses were in. But the other one, this Rancher Smith could come after us quickly.”
“If he wants to,” Ingolf said. “He doesn’t know we’ve split up. If he did want to chase us, he’d be here already. But someone will come after us, and sometime from the next fifteen minutes to the next couple of days.”
“We could move a little north and find a place to hole up, then tend Rudi,” Odard said. “I don’t like to risk moving him more than absolutely necessary.”
Mathilda nodded anxiously, and clasped his hand where he rested it for a moment on her shoulder.
Ingolf looked around, drawing on the maps in his head. They were several days out of Picabo—call it a bit over a hundred miles eastward as the crow flew. The mountains had been closing in from the north for a while, but there was still open country to the east north of Idaho Falls. It would be crawling with Cutter patrols... but probably with Mormon guerillas, too, and if they could—
“No, we’re going to head east, fast,” he said. “This is too close, too easy to saturate with men once they get organized. We’ve got to break contact. The only part of Wyoming the CUT doesn’t really control is thataways. And the mountains start well west of the old state line. We’ll have to chance it. When we get to the mountains, we can tend to Rudi.”
They all looked at him, then at the wounded man, and most of them looked westward as well.
“Cross-country,” Mary—or Ritva...
Her troubled face gave a brief flash of pleasure as he used the right name.
“You and your sister are going to have to cover our back-trail.”
Copyright © 2007-2008 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>