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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

Pendleton, eastern Oregon

September 14th, Change Year 23/2021 AD

 

“And I though our political speeches were dull,” BD said quietly.

Shhhh!” Murdoch said.

They’d gone on for hours, in the great oval amphitheatre where the yearly Round-Up was held. At least they were over, and the VIP’s and their families had shifted into the Bossman’s House with the coming of sunset. She could hear the fiesta for the commons going on outside, a surf-roar of music and voices in the distance.

The Bossman’s residence was a compound rather than a single building, out at the northwestern corner of town at the edge of the river and surrounded by its own strong wall. Within were barracks and storehouses and workshops, as well as the patios and gardens around the actual house, a rambling two-story structure with a red-tile roof and arches upholding balconies with wrought-iron grills. Strong yellow light spilled through the tall windows of the house, and torches on the pillars and walls round about lit the brilliantly-clad couples, the servants in their white jackets and bow-ties, and the charro costumes of the mariachi bands who moved about.

Long tables were set out buffet-style, with chefs in white hats waiting to carve the roasts and hams; whole yearling steers and pigs and lamb roasted over firepits behind them, the attendants slathering them with fiery sauce wielding their long-handled brushes like the forks of devils in the Christian hell. The rich scent of roasting meat drifted on the air, and the little spurts of blue smoke rose in the lantern-light.

Interesting assortment of costumes and uniforms, BD thought, accepting a glass of wine.

She wasn’t wearing a peplos tonight; no point in hanging out a notice. Instead she’d opted for a long denim skirt embroidered with geometric patterns around the hem, jacket, belt with silver-and-turquoise conchos and tooled-leather boots... what a Rancher’s wife or mother would probably wear here. The owners of the big herding spreads were the most numerous element, many of them getting a little boisterous as they talked about what they’d do to any invaders of the sacred soil of Pendleton; those that weren’t feuding with each other, of course.

When the hour came, her job would be to stick close to Bossman Peters. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and with the beginning of a paunch straining at the buttons of his embroidered waistcoat. His dark-brown hair was thinning on top, and his bushy muttonchop whiskers were going gray, but his laugh boomed hearty, and the little eyes were shrewd.

Estrellita Peters was beside her husband, in an indigo dress with a belt of sequins, and ivory-and-turquoise combs in her high-piled raven hair. She was seven or eight years younger than her husband’s mid-forties, slight and dark with a face like a ferret, albeit a pretty and extremely cunning one. Rumor said that she was rather more than half the political brains of the family business. Two sons in their teens followed dutifully behind their parents, one rather heavyset in a way that only the families of the rich could be nowadays, the other lean and quick.

Not time to get close to them, BD noted, swallowing past a dry throat and covertly drying her palms on her skirt. Just keep an eye on them. And in the meantime, look for anything unusual.

The foreigners were gathered together in two clumps, on the tiled verandah near the broad iron-strapped wooden doors of the house proper. BD sidled closer.

One group was in blue, or long robes of a dark reddish-brown color. The Church Universal and Triumphant, she thought.

They all wore neat little chin-beards; the soldiers in blue-gray had their hair cropped close, the robed priests—Seekers, she’d heard they were called—were shaven-pated. The priests were glaring at any number of things; some of the guests were smoking tobacco, which their faith forbade, and there were women with uncovered hair, or some wearing pants, and mechanical clocks. All of them maintained a disciplined quietness, except their leader.

Could it be him, here? BD wondered. He’s around thirty, that’s the right age... medium height, brown beard, hazel eyes... trouble is, that’s a description of Everyman just as much as it is of the Prophet Sethaz!

He was certainly more sociable than the others, smiling and chatting easily with a succession of Pendleton VIP’s. Some of the Ranchers avoided him—the Mormon ones, in particular, who were a fair scattering of the total. And the smaller minority who’d taken up the Old Religion as it drifted eastward were even more frankly hostile.

And that’s Denson’s cowboy... George, she thought, puzzled.

The young man was in one of the dull-red robes, his head newly shaven. Their eyes met just for an instant, and BD shivered. The rage she’d seen was still there, but it was transfigured, focused like light from the edge of a knife, a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun.

The other clutch of outlanders were even more exotic. BD’s lips quirked; they were exotic because they were so like things she’d seen in her youth. The green uniforms with the service ribbons, the berets, the polished black shoes, the archaic shirts with collar and tie, even the neat high and tight haircuts. The only thing different from the old Army of the United States was the swords at their belts; shortswords, or cavalry sabers for a few. Young men, mostly from their mid-twenties to their thirties, and notably hard-faced even by modern standards, with impassive rock-jawed features and wary, watchful eyes.

Their commander turned, the four stars of a general on his shoulders. BD’s eyes went wide in shock, and she turned naturally to place the wineglass on a tray.

Martin Thurston himself! she thought; self-promoted since his father’s excessively-convenient death. Oh, Astrid, I think you’ve let yourself in for more than you thought!

 

@@@

 

“My Lady Grand Constable, there’s a deserter,” her squire Armand Georges said. “She’s asking to see the commander, and she has documents.”

“She?”

“It’s a woman, my lady. A cavalry sergeant; Boisean army.”

Tiphaine d’Ath’s brows went up; that was rare in the interior... and of course in the Association territories. And the Meeting had sent this army here because they were afraid the US of Boise and the Prophet might be intervening; apparently they hadn’t been worrying without cause.

“I’ll see her here.”

She flipped the empty porridge bowl back to the scullion, yawned and finished coffee brewed snarling-strong to wash down the taste of the bland mush and dried fruit and the scorched bacon that had gone with it.

At least coffee always smells good brewing, she thought. Even when it tastes like soap-boiler’s lye.

She was feeling a bit frowsty this morning, with wisps of her pale hair still escaping from the night’s braid. The black arming doublet she wore—like a jacket made up of vertical tubes of padding—and the leather pants tucked into her boots both had the faint locker-room smell that never came out once they’d been worn under armor, with metal-and-oil from the patches of chain mail under the armpits that covered the weak points in a suit of plate. The leather laces that dangled from strategic spots to tie down the pieces of war-harness always made her feel like an undone boot at this stage, but there was no point in putting on sixty pounds of steel just to look spiffy. Not yet. It tired you fast enough when you had to wear it.

That freedom and the coffee were about the only mark of rank, that and a private privy. You didn’t take pages or hordes of servants or a pavilion on campaign—at least, she didn’t, not even when they were operating along a railway—and her tent was barely big enough to serve as a map-room when her bedroll was tied up.

The war-camp of the allied army was just waking, a growing brabble across the rolling plateau as light cleared the far-distant line of the Blue Mountains beyond Pendleton. The high cloud there caught the dawn in streaks of ruddy crimson that faded to pink froth at their edges. Fires smoked as embers were poked up and stoked with greasewood and fence-posts and brush. Faint and far to the south she could hear the Mackenzies making their greeting to the Sun:

 

“...my soul follows Hawk on the ghost of the wind

I find my voice and speak truth;

All-Father, wise Lord

All-Mother, gentle and strong...

 

Her mouth quirked. Some of her own troops were praying too—Queen of Angels, alleluia—more of them were just scratching and stretching and getting in line by the cookfires, or turning in and trying to sleep if they’d been on the last night-watch. A few were singing, a new song—

 

“He sang to me of the Sunrise lands

And a shrine of secret power

Where the sacred Sword of the Lady stands

And awaits the appointed hour;

The hero’s right, Artos his name...“

 

The quirk grew to a small cold smile. That was Lady Juniper’s work, if she’d ever heard it. It didn’t do to forget that the Chief of the Mackenzies had been a bard—a busker, they’d said in those days—back before the Change. For that matter, half the troubadours in the Association’s territory trained down south, for all that it prompted rumors you were a witch. And that story about Rudi’s secret name, Artos, had been circulating since the Protector’s War. Sandra knew with the top part of her mind how powerful song-born tales could be, but she thought the Lady Regent had trouble believing it down below the neck.

Her squire made a signal. “Rodard has the deserter, my lady. Here are the documents she carried.”

Armand was a tall young black-haired blue-eyed man in his early twenties, ready for knighting and hoping for it during this campaign. He and his younger brother Rodard were also the nephews of Katrina Georges, who’d been Tiphaine’s companion from the time the Change caught their Girl Scout troop in the woods until she was killed in the War of the Eye... by Astrid Larsson. It gave Tiphaine a little twinge to look at their boldly handsome faces, though the resemblance wasn’t as strong nowadays.

He was already in half-armor, breastplate and mail sleeves and vambraces on the forearms; his brother wore the older-style knee-length mail hauberk. She took the packet of sealed papers and turned back into the tent, and looked at the t-shaped stand that carried her war gear and shield.

This will be my last war, I think, at least for leading from the front, she thought with cold calculation; she’d lost just a hair of her best speed, and it would get worse. Now, let’s see if I can go out with a bang.

The folding table had been set out, and canvas stools. She sat on one and waited; by reflex her fingers itched to open the report on the table, which was the one about reconditioning the railway to here from the Dalles. Keeping four thousand troops fed and supplied out here in the cow-country wasn’t easy, and the Protectorate had agreed to take on the logistics as part of its share. But paperwork would eat every minute of your time if you got too obsessed with detail work, and questioning a valuable prisoner was also important.

She liked to keep her hand on the pulse of intelligence; possibly because she’d been as much a spy as anything in the first years of her work for Lady Sandra.

Not to mention a wetwork specialist, she thought wryly, and touched one of her knives—not the obvious one on her swordbelt.

Rodard had his sword out as he showed the prisoner in; his brother stood outside the tent-flap to make sure nobody got within earshot without permission, even if they had the rank to muscle through the perimeter of spearmen. With the east-facing flap back there was good light and she was sitting to an angle to it so she’d be in shadow.

Always an advantage, to see without being seen.

The deserter had a square dark-olive Hispano face and black eyes and coarse straight bobbed hair so dark there were iridescent highlights; around five-foot-six or seven, Tiphaine thought, and in her late twenties or early thirties—hard to be sure when someone spent their days outdoors in this dry interior climate. Lean, wiry and tough-looking, probably quick and very dangerous with a sword... Which was no surprise; in their line of work a woman had to be extremely good to compensate for the thicker bones and extra muscle men carried. She wore breeches and boots that had the indefinable look of uniform, dyed mottled sage-green, and a waist-length mail shirt with chevrons on the short sleeve; light-cavalry outfit. The belt held laced frog-mounts for a saber and dagger, and there was a slightly shiny patch in the mail on her right shoulder where the baldric for a quiver would rest.

She came to attention and started to salute, looked down at her bound hands, and shrugged.

“Ma’am, I’m sergeant Rosita Gonzalez—“

“That’s my lady d’Ath,” the squire whose sword hovered near her back said.

“Gently, Rodard, gently,” Tiphaine said, her voice empty of all emotion, like water running over smooth rocks. “She came to us.”

“I’m looking for Grand Constable d’Ath,” the prisoner said. “I’ve got messages from ah, Princess Mathilda and—“

Tiphaine didn’t sit bolt upright. Rodard didn’t raise the sword or swear; he and his brother had been trained in her household for more than a decade, as pages and squires. Instead the Grand Constable untied the bundle of letters and looked at the seal on the first. It wasn’t the usual shapeless blob of tallow, but a crimson disk from a stack of pre-made blanks, the type the Chancellor’s office used. And the seal-ring was one she recognized, the Lidless Eye crossed by the baton of cadency.

“Seals can be duplicated, sergeant,” she said softly. “Or taken from prisoners.”

The other woman looked at her warily; not afraid, exactly, but obviously conscious of the sword behind her, and of the pale gaze on her. A poet had once described Tiphaine d’Ath’s eyes as the color of berg-ice floating down the Inland Passage on a sunless winter’s day.

“The Princess said you’d say that. So she gave me a message that only you two would know, and nobody would think to ask her.”

Torture out of her, Tiphaine thought, and was slightly surprised at the surge of anger she felt. Well, I did help bring the girl up from her cradle...

She nodded, and the prisoner approached. Rodard rested the needle point of his longsword over her kidneys, and Tiphaine leaned forward to hear the whisper:

“She said that you met Delia at the party, when she was serving at your feast when you took seizin—“ the woman from Idaho mispronounced the feudal term “—of Ath, and Delia asked if you wanted to look at the embroidery on something.“

Tiphaine’s eyes narrowed a little, as close to a smile as she would get here-and-now. Mathilda had been there at that first feast at Castle d’Ath; it had been just after she rescued the girl from the Mackenzies, and was ennobled for it and given the fief. For that matter, Rudi Mackenzie had been there too, since she’d captured him in the same raid, and Sandra had wanted to get him out of Todenangst and from under Norman’s eye. She hadn’t thought Mathilda had known... but Delia had always gotten on well with the Princess, and had a perverse sense of humor.

“Right, you’re from the Princess, sergeant,” she said. “What were the circumstances?”

The noncom gave her a brief précis; the noblewoman’s eyebrows went up.

Lady Sandra is going to have kittens, she thought. Matti prisoner of the Cutters... and Odard’s man working for, or with them. Which means Odard’s mother still is... Hope the headsman sharpened his axe after the last one. Or it might be the rack and pincers...

“But there’s more,” Gonzalez said. “President Thurston... Martin Thurston is here. Four battalions of regular infantry and one regiment of cavalry—that’s how I got here—and a lot of field artillery. And the Prophet Sethaz, he’s got about the same of his goons, all cavalry. About a third of them the Sword, the household troops, the rest of them ranchlander levies, but they look like they know what they’re doing. They got a lot of experience in the Deseret War.”

Now, that changes the equation completely, Tiphaine thought. Our pre-emptive strike just got pre-empted.

“And there was something going on at the Bossman’s House last night,” Gonzalez said. “Fighting, and then a fire. Then we were ordered out to beat the bushes all around the town, with the priority on anyone trying to break west. Meanwhile it looked like the whole force was getting ready to move in your direction. As soon as those Pendleton tontas got their thumbs out.”

Ah, Tiphaine thought. Astrid’s little black op didn’t go as planned. But it didn’t go entirely pear-shaped either, not if they’re looking for fugitives rather than putting the heads on spears outside the gate.

“I can make it back if you let me go right now,” Gonzalez said. “My squad are all in on it and they’ll cover for me. Any longer and I’ve got to stay.”

“Rodard, release her and give her back her weapons and her horse. Then get to Rancher Brown and tell him I need two hundred of his men, or as many more as he can get here within half an hour, ready for a running fight. Armand, send for Sir Ivo and Sir Ruffin, and then arm me. And call for couriers!”

She dipped her precious steel-nibbed pen into the ink bottle, and wrote:

To the Regent: I have confirmed the authenticity of the enclosed.

Then she threw that in a pre-addressed courier bag and handed it to the first of the messengers, a slender whipcord man in leathers.

“Get this to the forward railway station for forwarding to Portland, maximum priority,” she said, and was writing again before he’d left the tent.

By the time Sir Ivo arrived she’d sent six messages out, several clerks were writing out more, and the camp-noise was beginning to swell as getting-up turned into frantic-scramble.

Ivo pulled up before the open flap and swung out of the saddle; he was wearing an old-style hauberk and conical helmet, and the loose mail and padding made him look even more troll-like than usual. Ruffin was on his heels, with his mail coif still hanging down behind and his squires scurrying behind him with visored sallet helmet and shield and lance. Ivo pushed his helm back by the nasal bar and looked at her as she stood to let the squire fasten the more elaborate modern gear on her, bending and twisting a little occasionally to make sure the adjustments were correct.

“This to First Armsman Barstow, over with the Mackenzies,” Tiphaine went on to one of the clerks, who beckoned to a courier. “Ruffin, you’re in charge here until I get back.”

“Back?” he said.

“Something needs doing, and I don’t have time to brief you. Ivo, get me two conroi of the Household men-at-arms.” Those were at full strength; that was a hundred lances. “Full kit, now.”

He left at the run. She went on: “Ruffin, the enemy’s strength is much higher than we expected—Boise regulars and the Prophet’s men are here, about two thousand of each.”

He grunted as if someone had hit him in the stomach; that turned even odds into something like two-to-one against the allied force.

“We’re going to have to fight to break contact, rock them back on their heels, then use the cavalry to hold them off while the infantry retreat. Get the heavy stuff moving out now. If it can’t be on the rails or roads in an hour, burn it.”

The last of the armor went on, the metal sabatons that strapped over her boots to protect her feet. She stepped over to the table and sketched with her finger on the map. “Put the Mackenzies here, and—“

Ruffin was nodding soberly as she concluded: “I should be back in about an hour. If I’m not, get this army out. Concentrate our troops at the Dalles, but alert the border forts as well.”

“I’ll handle it, my liege,” he said; the heliograph network would flash it all over the Association by the end of the day, and the news would be in Corvallis by midnight. “God go with you.”

“Or luck,” she said, with a cruel smile as she thought of her immediate errand.

Astrid Larsson had killed Katrina Georges, back in the War. Tiphaine’s own oaths meant that she had to do her very best to rescue the Hiril Dúnedain and her husband and soul-sister and brother-in-law...

Which will be sulfuric acid on her soul, if only I can pull it off.

Armand handed her the sword-belt; she ran it around her hips twice and buckled it, tucking the double tongue through, and then pulled on her steel gauntlets. The coif confined her braided hair, and she settled the sallet helm with its expensive lining of old sponges on her head and worked the visor. Daylight vanished save for the long horizontal bar of the vision slit, then returned as she flicked the curved steel upward again.

A groom led her destrier Salafin up, and she swung into the high war-saddle. Armand handed her the shield and she slung it diagonally over her back like a guitar in the old days, the rounded point down to her right. By then the CORA light horse were ready, and the block of tall lances and steel-clad riders and barded horses that marked the Portlander men-at-arms, with their arms blazoned on their shields.

“My lords, chevaliers, and esquires of the Association!” she called.

She reined in ahead and turned the war-horse to face them as she drew her sword; the barding clattered as the big black gelding tossed its head and mouthed the bit. “Our souls belong to God, our bodies and our lives to our liege-lady—“

“A cheer for the Princess Mathilda!” someone called from the ranks of the knights.

Haro!” rang out from a hundred throats.

Tiphaine blinked, as horses caracoled and lances were tossed in the air in a blaze of pennants. She’d had Sandra Arminger in mind. Sandra was respected, and feared. The Grand Constable was feared, and respected. Evidently Mathilda was...

Loved? She thought, as she thrust her blade skyward. Well, she’s their generation. I suppose a lot of hopes are riding on her.

“—and our swords belong to Portland! You have given your oaths; now you shall fulfill them, and I at your head.”

Oddly enough, Chateau generals were obsolete now that real chateaux had made a comeback. She chopped the longsword forward.

Haro! Holy Mary for Portland!

The destrier stepped out beneath her, and the light horse from the CORA fanned out eastward. Beside her Rodard held the banner of the Lidless Eye, and the black-and-crimson of it fluttered in a cool breeze from the distant Pacific. The winter rains were coming...

I wonder what the hell happened with our pseudo-elf’s plan? Tiphaine thought, beneath the running assessment of terrain and distances playing out against the map in her head. Usually she’s pretty good, or at least she has the luck you expect for small children and lunatics.

 

@@@

 

“Here,” Astrid Larsson said.

She didn’t need to take the radium-dial watch out of the leather-covered steel case at her belt; even in the deep darkness of the tunnels, her time-sense was good. This was just short of midnight, time enough for the Bossman’s party to really get going above, and for everyone to punish the wet bar hard. Pendleton men drank deep at a fiesta, by all accounts.

They had a single lamp lit. She saw Eilir put her hands against the concrete blocks of the wall ahead of them and close her eyes.

I can feel the music and the dancing from above, she Signed. Sounds like quite a do!

Good, Astrid replied. Get the line of retreat ready for us, anamchara!

Eilir sped off down the tunnel with her four helpers and their burdens. Astrid put her left hand on the hilt of her longsword and tapped the silver fishtail pommel against the blocks: tap, and then tap-tap-tap.

A wait, while she listened to the blood beating in her ears. The air was cool and dry here, and dusty, but there was a faint living smell that the rest of the tunnels hadn’t had, more like a store-room. There was even a slight scent of spilled wine soaked into flooring. Behind her there was a slight clink and rattle as the others of the Ranger assault-party did their final equipment check. Astrid took a deep breath and touched her weapons and gear; beside her Alleyne did the same and gave her a thumbs-up.

And then not far away: tap-tap... tap-tap...tap.

“We could use a few dwarves,” he said whimsically, and brought his heater-shaped shield round onto his arm.

“We’ll be above-ground fairly soon,” she replied. “Lantern out, Húrin!”

Utter darkness fell, like having your eyes painted over, as the lantern’s flame died and the mantel faded to a dim red glow and went out.

Alleyne’s cool voice sounded: “John, you do the honors.”

She could feel the air move as big man turned and groped for the steel lever that stood upright in a niche. The lever was fastened with a pin; there was a slight chink as he pulled that free to dangle—that little chain to keep it from getting lost on the floor was so typical of a plan with Sandra Arminger behind it—and heaved. There was a moment while the inertia resisted the huge muscles she knew bunched in his tight black sleeve, and then the wall ahead of them began to swing up.

Once it started the movement was smooth and sure, as counterweighted levers swung the steel plate and the camouflaging blocks up out of the way. Sound came through the four-foot gap in the wall, faint and far, a hint of music and a loud burr of voices and feet.

The cellar beyond was dimly lit by occasional night-lanterns, but it looked bright to dark-adapted eyes; the secret door opened between two huge wine-vats, looming above them and resting on double X-shaped cradles. A figure waited, in the bow-tie of the Bossman’s servants. He gave back a step at the sight of John Hordle’s bulk uncoiling from the low entranceway to his full towering height, the long handle of his greatsword standing up over his right shoulder.

“Quickly!” the spy said then, licking his lips. “The way’s clear up to the kitchens.”

“Good,” Astrid said. “You should go now.”

The man nodded jerkily and scurried away. They gave him a few seconds lead, and then followed. The cellars here were sections of tunnel, joined by narrower linking passages; they went by rows of barrels of various sizes for wine and beer and brandy and whisky, flour and salt pork and salt beef, shelving with potted meats and vegetables and jams and jellies, sacks of onions and potatoes and bins of dried peppers and beans, vats of pickled eggs and sauerkraut, racks of hams and filches of bacon in wrappers of waxed canvas... all the varied supplies a great household needed.

It reminded her a little of the storage sheds at Stardell in Mithrilwood, down to the deep rich mélange of smells and the arrogant air of a patrolling cat, before the moggie took one horrified look at the strangers and fled with its ears back in a flying leap to the top of a stack of boxes full of apples. There it arched its back and hissed and spat with a sharp tsk! sound, its eyes glowing green in the faint gleam of a lantern.

“Peace between us, sister!” she laughed. And a sudden thought: “Every second pair, take some of that lamp-fuel.”

They shouldered large jugs of it, ten-gallon models of pre-Change metal full of pure alcohol. The map was printed on her brain. And there were the metal stairs that led up. She went first in a soft-footed rush.

“Húrin, Melendil,” Alleyne said, his sword indicating two.

The pair halted just below the top of the stairs, ready to deal with anyone who came by. Astrid led the rest up a corridor that led past a fuel-store with billets of firewood and sacks of dusty-smelling charcoal.

“Morwen, you and Aratan wait here,” she said softly. “Soak down this stack and keep fire ready, but hidden.”

The two of them took the metal jugs and began pouring the spirit over the combustibles. She led the rest into the flagged hallway beyond and took a deep breath. The smells of cooking food were strong from the doors ahead, from frying onions to baking pastries with their buttery richness; this was the kitchens, where the made dishes would be prepared while the whole carcasses roasted outside. She and Alleyne looked at each other, nodded slightly, and pushed through, each turning to one side with shield up and blade poised.

The light was painfully bright, from lanterns set all around the great rectangular room and hanging from the groined arches of the high ceiling. One wall was lined with cast-iron and tile-and-brick stoves and ovens and grills; the central island and the counters all around were lined with cooks and scullions and hard at work, chopping and rolling and setting out arrangements on bright silver platters. The sound of knives and tenderizing hammers and rolling pins dropped away as flushed, sweating faces turned towards the dark-clad warriors who rushed through the doors.

A small party of Rangers sprinted to the other exit that gave on the main house, tall metal portals with oval glass windows set in them. A man pushed a trolley of empty serving plates through it, then froze with the doors swinging behind him as a sword-point pricked him behind the ear. The rest of the Dúnedain fanned out to either side of her, arrows on the strings of their drawn bows, the vicious triangular heads motionless.

“Hear me! We have no quarrel with you,” Astrid said. “Only with your master.”

Her clear soprano filled a sudden silence broken only by the flicker of flames and the sputter of fat dripping on embers. She knew their eyes were all on her sword, the blue light of the lanterns breaking off the honed edge.

And the most of these people will be thralls, not willing servants.

Just then a burly cook cocked back his hand with the cleaver in it. John Hordle had his sword in his right hand, but the left shot out and clamped on the man’s fat bull-neck. Fingers like wrought-iron bars drove in, and the man purpled and then went limp. His head hit the brown tile of the floor with an unpleasant thock sound.

“But we will kill if we must,” she added.

Two dozen pairs of eyes followed the point of her sword as if hypnotized. She pointed to another set of doors, these of oak. That led to the day-pantry where supplies were stored for immediate use. It had only the one entrance, and it was windowless, with walls of thick adobe.

“In there. All of you; take that one on the floor, he’s not dead—“

She shot a glance at Little John Hordle that said he’d better not be dead.

“And be quiet about it.”

They obeyed in a clumsy scramble; despite her demand for quiet, there were crashes as crockery cascaded to the floor and silverware chimed. In a minute they were all tightly packed among the barrels and crates and jars and crocks; she could see some of them crawling up on the emptied shelves. One of her Dúnedain shoved the door closed, dropped a wedge and heel-kicked it to seat it tightly. The portal wasn’t particularly strong, and the kitchen-workers should be able to hammer it down in time, especially since the hinges were on their side. That wouldn’t be soon enough to hinder her plan. Everyone waited, their eyes on her...

Except for one who was flicking slices of glazed roast pork loin into his mouth from a plate where they were arranged and chewing with relish.

John!” she hissed, enraged. “Not now! Great deeds await us!”

“Not bad, roit tasty touch of apple in the glaze, but a bit ‘ot. They put chilies in every bloody thing out here.”

The sudden wave of fury vanished, and left her balanced and sure. She smiled at him, and turned to her folk. Alleyne poised beside her, shield up and eyes grim.

Now,” she said.

 

@@@

 

BD forced herself not to take another glass of wine. She didn’t usually try to drown anxiety, but her throat was dry and tight, far too tight to try any of the little nibblements going around.

God, these cowboys can pack it away, she thought, watching men who’d downed racks of lamb-ribs and heaped plates of roast beef with all the fixings taking fruit-tarts and pastries of pine-nuts and honey and cream from the silver salvers.

Not to mention the way they can drink. I’m impressed, and I was in Barony Chehalis for a Stavarov wedding!

Instead she took a glass of cold herbal tea—not many of those had been taken, she supposed they were kept for the Mormons among the Bossman’s followers. Her eyes kept going back to the clock, willing the hands to slow down. The room got more crowded, as the night outside grew colder and more people moved into the heated interior of the house; if anything it was uncomfortably warm here, with fifty or sixty people in the big ballroom besides the great wrought-silver chandelier above with its spendthrift weight of wax candles, and the lamps in their wall-sconces.

Then the doors to the kitchens burst open, and her throat squeezed shut at the shock, even when she’d been expecting it.

Lacho Calad! Drego morn!” rang out and a stunning bull-bellow of: “Every one of you buggers freeze and nobody’ll get ‘urt!

The three Dúnedain leaders made a bee-line for the Bossman and his family, a half-dozen more at their heels; they didn’t use their swords to kill, but battering shields and the flats of the blades scattered men and women out of their way in a chorus of screams and groans. More Rangers pushed the musicians off their dais and covered the ballroom with drawn bows.

A third party ran to the outside doors and slammed them closed, shooting the bar home in the wrought-steel brackets that looked merely decorative until you realized that they were as thick as a man’s wrist. The Bossman’s house wasn’t exactly a fortress, but those doors were made of heavy oak beam and plank, strapped with iron as useful as it was ornamental, and the hinges were on the inside. The windows were small, high in the exterior walls, and barred by steel grillwork. The Rangers had stout padlocks and chains to fasten the bar in place; nobody was going to open that door soon without sledges and bolt-cutters.

The screams and babbling rose to a crescendo; most of the men present were drunk, a fair percentage of the women were too, and nobody had time to think or adjust to the sudden shocking violence. The guards around the perimeter of the room were sober, and they were armored and armed with shetes and glaives, but the Bossman was in the center of the room and they weren’t, and it took them crucial seconds to switch their mental settings from ceremonial guard to muscle squad.

There were metal bangles at BD’s studded belt. She pulled one of them free, and her wrist did a quick snap-flick-and-roll; that put the blade of the balisong butterfly-knife out and the handle that had concealed it in her hand. Two steps took her to Estrellita Peters’ side; she threw one arm around the smaller woman to pinion both of hers, and set the knife-blade to her throat.

Don’t do anything foolish,” she snarled.

Suddenly anyone looking would know why she’d been called La Loba in one of Mexico City’s tougher schools forty years ago.

The Bossman’s wife jerked very slightly, and a trickle of blood ran down the smooth olive skin of her throat; the scent of the rose-essence perfume she wore was strong this close. Her eyes rolled down towards the knife-hand with a reflex like a startled horse, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with her wits, and she froze into immobility.

Her sons noticed almost immediately; their hands went to the silver-hilted daggers they wore, but the elder one, the one with the swordsman’s build, stopped and shot out his right hand to his brother’s wrist instead.

“Be still, Jorge! She might hurt Mama!”

Carl Peters himself took a little longer to wrench himself out of the initial bewilderment. His hand went to the well-worn hilt of his shete, but then stopped again for an instant as he saw the glitter of the little knife at his wife’s throat.

“Kill her, querido!” Estrellita gasped. “She won’t dare hurt me!”

“Try it and she bleeds out,” BD rasped, the skin between her shoulderblades itching; she made the knife dimple the skin again. “Better her than a thousand boys dead and a city burning.”

In the seconds he needed to decide to draw his sword anyway Astrid and the others were there, and they made a shield-wall around the ruler’s family and two points were at his throat.

“Rangers!” Peters blurted, taking in the tree-and-stars blazons on their leather-covered mail shirts. “God, what are you bastards doing here?”

“Nobody expects the Elvish Inquisition,” Hordle said good-naturedly... but his sword was four feet long, and he was holding it as effortlessly as if it were a yardstick.

“We’re not going to harm you, my lord,” Alleyne Loring said smoothly; the cultured tones conveyed sincerity... and the rock-steady point of the longsword did as well. “Your memory as a martyr would be a formidable threat. We just need to take you away for a bit of quiet negotiation.”

As he spoke several of the Rangers grabbed the Peters family and trussed their wrists behind their backs. BD stepped back with a wheeze of relief... which turned to a yelp of agony as Estrellita Peters brought her narrow heel down on the instep of her foot, hard, the instant the steel wasn’t touching the skin over her jugular.

“Toma! Cabrona!" she snarled.

The whole sword-edged circle of captors and captives began to move smoothly back towards the exit to the kitchens; the guests were mostly unarmed, and goggling with surprise anyway.

We’re going to do it! BD thought as she hobbled along. The Kindly Ones be praised.

Then she made a propitiatory gesture with the fingers of her right hand to avoid the jealousy of the Fates. The Registered Refugee Regiment guardsmen had forced themselves through the crowd; there were a dozen of them clumped together in a bristle of glaives. BD saw horror warring with anger on their faces, but Peters had himself well in hand by now. Someone was beating on the door from the outside, and then it began to boom as someone quick-thinking organized a battering-ram out of a stone bench. A few more of the guardsman began beating at the chains with their glaives as the Dúnedain there retreated to join the others.

Peters is going to tell them to stop. Apollo, but I’m glad of that! Those points look way too sharp.

The Bossman gave the Dúnedain a wry look and raised his voice. “Well, boys—“ he began to say to his men.

Kill,” Sethaz said.

BD gave an involuntary moan; the single word was not loud, but it seemed to vibrate in the little bones of her inner ear, running out along veins and nerves like a dry hot wind that made every sinew in her body creak. A guardsman leveled his glaive and lunged. Alleyne smashed the heavy blade of the weapon upward with his shield, but the other man turned it and caught the rim with the hook on the reverse, dragging it down so his mates could stab across it. Spears poised amid obscene curses; Peters shook his head in startled futility. Alleyne killed the man who held his shield with a single snapping lunge to the throat, withdrawing the longsword with a cruel professional twist.

The crowd had stood gaping as the black-clad Rangers swarmed in. Now they roared as the guardsman twisted, blood spraying ten paces from his slashed-open neck. Roared and surged forward; the first fell to the sweep of John Hordle’s sword, three men spinning away, a hand flying loose, another slashed open across the chest, the last screaming through a split jaw. The four-foot blade looped up and poised, but the snarls of the ones beyond were bestially unafraid, teeth red with the spattered blood. The salt-iron stink of it mingled with the food and spilled drink until her stomach clenched and nearly climbed up her throat.

“Back to the doors!” Astrid called, in a voice like a trumpet. “Quickly!”

The Dúnedain bows began to snap; the archers were backing up themselves, shooting as fast as they could draw shafts from their quivers and loose. A guardsman went down with an arrow through his face; there was a tunk! as another punched through a breastplate. The glaive clattered on the floor as its weilder went down on all fours, coughing out blood and bits of lung. The green-uniformed Boise men had closed in around their President in a flicker of blades; then he shouldered his way through with his saber out and led them to the attack, a reckless white smile splitting his brown face.

BD ducked behind one of the Rangers. The man fell an instant later when Thurston’s curved sword bit through the mail beneath his jerkin, cutting the great muscle of the shoulder and breaking the bone with a greenstick snap sound that made her feel as if someone had run a copper pick along all the surfaces of her teeth painfully hard. Alleyne Loring stepped into the gap, and they were at each other in a rage of steel.

BD fell as well, then set her teeth and reached out to grab the fallen man and drag him backward. Pain shot through her back; Estrellita Peters had kicked her just above the base of the spine and leapt over her, and her sons followed her, lost in the not-so-miniature riot.

Turn about’s fair play, BD thought, and set herself to crawl and pull the wounded man again.

That gave her a view through a momentary gap. The red-robes and blue uniforms of the Church Universal and Triumphant had closed around their leader too, though they hadn’t been allowed weapons. She could see him behind them; he was standing with arms raised and spread wide, on wide-planted feet, and his mouth was stretched in what might be a smile—it bared his teeth, at least, and there was a joy in it that made her want to close her eyes and beat her face against the hard tile of the floor in an effort to scrub the memory out of her head.

His eyes were an ordinary brown, but she could see something surfacing there, like a dead body floating up towards the surface... an absence, an un-meaning...

His hands swept closed on the head of the cowboy she’d heard called George. As they did the young man’s expression became a mirror of that on the face of the Cutter prophet leering over his shoulder.

“Kill, Sethaz said again, and it was no louder than an ordinary speaking voice, but it seemed to echo back and forth within her skull.

The young man grinned, moving in jerks, like a man whose limbs were attached to strings. But these strings wove him through the complex obstacles of battle like a weaver’s shuttle through the loom.

“Look out!” BD shouted, trying to move away on the blood-slippery tile and pull the man with her.

The sound was lost in the uproar, but a Dúnedain arrow struck the young man in the shoulder. The arrow sank deeply; it was a powerful bow, and close. His lean body recoiled with the impact, flexing loosely; then he reached up and pulled the arrow out and threw it away, advancing with that same fixed grin. John Hordle stepped forward. The great blade of his sword spun up and around in down in a hissing loop, lost in the guttural roar that split his face beneath the thatch of bristling dyed hair.

George moved aside, just enough, and the greatsword sliced empty air and smashed into tile with crackle and a shower of sparks as it pierced to the lime-rich concrete beneath. His fist lashed out and caught Hordle beneath the short ribs, and the big man’s breath came out in an agonized huff!

Then he was past, and Astrid came at him in a lunge, fluid and smooth and so fast she seemed to stretch rather than move, with the round shield she carried hugged impeccably against her.

The young man’s hands slapped together, and the blade of the longsword was imprisoned between them. Astrid Larsson froze, her silver-veined eyes going wide, and the hands jerked forward, punching the hilt of her sword out of her hands and into her forehead.

The thock resounded even through the white noise of riot. The sword clattered on the tile floor near BD’s nose, the shimmering water-patterned steel flexing as it jumped and whined and fell back again. One of George’s hands flashed out and caught Astrid by the throat as she began to crumple. The other clamped down on the top of the woman’s head, ready to twist... and BD recognized the gesture. She’d killed hundreds of chickens that way herself, these past twenty years and more, and before then in Mexico when she was a girl.

The balisong was in her hand again. She reared up on one elbow and sliced at the back of the young man’s knee. The finger-length blade was honed to a wire edge; it slid through denim and flesh and with only a little tick of extra effort when it cut the tendon. George howled, a sound of bestial frustration rather than pain, and lurched before his other leg could adjust to carry his weight. Hordle was turning even as he did, and the blade spun—horizontally this time, from left to right across the other man’s shoulders. The head came free, and fell beside her.

BD looked into the dead man’s eyes. And they looked back at her; his mouth was still grinning as she saw consciousness flow back into them, a single instant of utter horror before the blackness.

I’m going to faint dead away, for the first time in my life, she thought with a curious detachment, and did.

 

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“No,” Sethaz said. “Do not waste more men down that tunnel. Send them to scour the land outside the walls instead. We’ll have a battle to fight tomorrow anyway.”

Thurston of Boise gave him an odd look, a single nod, and then turned to stride away, issuing orders to the men around him even as he did.

Estrellita Peters stood before him, flanked by guardsmen and with her hand resting on the shoulder of her eldest son. Behind them servants were clearing away the ruins of the Bossman’s feast. She swallowed and met the Prophet’s gaze for a moment before she shifted her eyes to look over his head. Her voice was still calm as she spoke:

“The thanks of my family and Pendleton to you, my lord Prophet. My husband has been abducted by these vicious bandits, but at least you saved me and my sons from captivity. In the future, you and yours may carry weapons here as you please.”

Sethaz smiled, a wryly charming expression. “For the present, Doña Peters, we’ll be wielding our weapons outside the walls, against your enemies.”

She nodded. Her son spoke, eagerness on his seventeen-year-old face.

“Your man was so brave, and so quick and strong! He defeated the head of the Rangers, and knocked down John Hordle! The truth you teach must have much in it, if you can inspire men so!”

The Bossman’s wife gave her son a warning squeeze, and he cleared his throat and extended his hand. Sethaz took it in both of his, a firm shake:

“Thank you for rescuing me and my mother.”

“Your mother did a good deal to rescue herself,” Sethaz said, looking into the dark young eyes. “We will speak more of such matters later, Mr. Peters.”

And a whisper, felt along the edges of his mind: I—see—you.

 

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