Cover P 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Kerajaan of Baru Denpasar
Ceram Sea
November 17th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

Between waking world and shadow

 

Deor sighed, looking down at the body on the snowy cotton sheeting of the carved teakwood bed, stripped and washed and dressed in a light cotton robe.

“Not injured at all,” Pip muttered. “But...”

No one was counting the chafing and scrapes and bruises that mottled the fair skin. That was just the cost of doing business when you fought in full plate, and better than the alternative.

They’d politely rejected the offer of Raja Dalem Seganing’s personal physician; luckily victory had the Baru Denpasaran court preoccupied enough that they weren’t suspicious and Feldman had stepped in smoothly. Even giving the servants here leave to go join their families for the ceremonies of thanks and the riotous celebrations you could just hear in the distance over the whisper of the palms shouldn’t arouse too much comment. The folk of Baru Denpasar hadn’t seen any outsiders save enemies in two generations now; few remembered the world before the Change. Perhaps the foreigners were kind, perhaps too grief-stricken that their Prince was badly injured, perhaps both and who could say?

Toa had grunted satisfaction at that. “Better if we’re sodding careful about who we let see him.”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Carcosa.

“I wasn’t having you on when I said Scrag ‘em and let the Gods sort ‘em out is their motto. If they realize he’s not just had a thump on the noggin we’ve got problems, gratitude or no gratitude.”

Deor nodded. “Not to mention that Timorese sailor you mentioned, the one they found drifting and mad after his ship tried to escape from here.”

Pip and Toa nodded, both looking uneasy to a degree that was alarming in a pair so fearless. According to them, the man had been strangled in his sleep... either by his own hands...

... or possibly by his own shadow.

Fortunately Prince John had been given the use of a villa of the Raja’s outside the palace compound, one built before the Change with its own gardens and stretch of beach, blinding white sand where the waves broke in blue and foam. That made it less desirable to the local folk if anything; they’d brought from Bali itself—which he and Thora had visited—the conviction that kelod, evil and chaos, came from the sea while virtue and right order ran down from the mountains.

Evrouin rose from John’s bedside, tight-held frustration on his olive-skinned face.

“I’ll go check on Sergeant Fayard and the guard detail, then, my lords, my ladies,” he said unhappily.

Fayard commanded the detachment of the Protector’s that had followed Prince John to the Tarshish Queen. After the battle at the Carcosan fort he’d be doing his commanding on crutches for a while, but only one of his men was too badly hurt to walk. Deor thought they were all happier to be serving their Prince outside this room, being Associates and strong Catholics to a man and uneasy with...

What they know I must do, he thought.

John was Catholic too, of course, but he was of House Artos and... broadminded. Deor and Thora were both heathen and offered to the northern Gods, though they called them by slightly different names. Deor’s folk in Mist Hills used the Saxon names, Woden and Thunor; the heathen half of Thora’s Bearkiller kindred used the Norski ones and called their faith Asatru. And while Thora gave Them due honor and the seemly offerings and paid respect to the land-wights wherever she dwelled—she’d had the Hammer on a thong around her neck since he’d first met her—she was content to leave it at that.

Deor was Woden’s man and had been since childhood. The All-Father gave battle-fury and victory to His chosen warriors, but He also sent the mead of poetry to inspire men... and to some, the knowledge of seidh, the workings of things beyond common ken. After all, had He not given His eye for wisdom?

The villa was private enough, brightly open, cool with the sea-breezes and comfortable, though odd to Montivallan eyes since it was more a matter of pillars of coral limestone than of solid enclosing walls, columns holding up a high steep roof of shining black-streaked borassus timbers covered in neat palm-thatch. Inside the rooms were partitioned with bamboo, and the floors were smooth cool cream-colored marble over the concrete slab foundation.

“We don’t have all that much time,” Thora said. “They’ll suspect, if we wait too long.”

“And Johnnie can’t eat solid food,” Pip said.

You could see the slight shadow of wasting on him already. They’d all had bowls of rice and spiced fish; the body and the spirit strengthened each other.

“He’s not getting enough fluids, either,” Ruan said. “I may have to intubate him. But that’s risky in itself. Infection...”

Prince John had not regained consciousness during the journey, though there had been times when he stirred and moaned as though his spirit were still fighting somewhere far away. The rest of the time that sense of absence was, if possible, even more apparent, if one could say that of a negative, although his body had stayed visible, perhaps because Pip had never let go of his hand if she could help it.

“But there has to be something we can do!” Pip exclaimed.

A knock at the door showed Captain Ishikawa. The Nihonjin sailor had shepherded the catapults back and was overseeing their repair in the Raja’s machine-shops.

“Is there anything I can do?” he asked quietly.

Pip started to shake her head angrily, then snapped her fingers. “Ishikawa-san, I think there is. You can go to the machine shop and stage another fight with the Raja’s chief engineer.

Who did not like foreigners in general, or ones from Nihon in particular; there were memories of great war of the last century current here, even after a full century.

He was startled into a grin. “Ah so desu! You seek a distraction! That will be easy!”

The bow he gave her was both courtesy and a genuine gesture of respect. She returned it, then sprang up and paced, her vital energy in almost shocking contrast to the absolute immobility of the man on the bed, who made no movement but the slight rise and fall of his chest.

“Well, if his spirit isn’t here, we’ll just have to seek him elsewhere,” Thora replied.

“I know.” Deor felt his flesh pebble despite the heat. “Watch my back.”

“Always...” she said. Then briskly to Evrouin: “We need you to keep everyone local out of here.”

The valet-bodyguard nodded. “I’ll see to it, my lady, my lords.”

Thora added: “But it has to be done quietly. We don’t want them wondering why, either. Moishe... Captain Feldman... is taking care of the Raja, but he’s not the only pair of prying eyes on this island.”

Evrouin grinned; he was exhausted enough that he looked twenty years older than his true early thirties, or possibly newly dead.

“That’s why I’ll go help Sergeant Fayard,” Evrouin said. “He’s a brave man and a good soldier and loyal to the death, and they don’t let dunderheads in the Protector’s Guard, but tact isn’t his strong point. The Queen Mother picked me for this job, and for my wits as much as my quick hand with a blade.”

Deor nodded. And you’re glad that your duty takes you out of this room, knowing what we must do, he thought. Strange folk in truth, Christians.

Deor could feel Thora’s spirit, veiled by the vivid envelope of flesh as through closed lids one can still see a candle burn. And he thought it was a little brighter because of that added point of radiance that was the child.

“I want you with me in the link,” he said aloud. “I will have to journey to find him, and that will help.”

“And me?” snapped Pip.

“I’ll need your help too—“ Deor looked from Thora to Pip and back again. “Because of your connection, and—”

One eyebrow lifted as his focus sharpened. In her womb, tiny but intense, was another point of light.

He coughed. “And because you are carrying his child...”

For a moment Pip’s gaze went inward. “You can see that?”

“He saw it for me—“ Thora said dryly.

Deor sensed consternation, but Thora had always been able to hide her reactions, and to take a joke.

Pip’s eyes widened. “You mean that he’s knocked up both of us?”

She glared first at Thora and then at Prince John, then her eyes crinkled and she loosed a bark of half-willing laughter.

“Busy little bastard, isn’t he, our Johnnie!”

Some creatures, thought Deor, are compelled to reproduce when death is near...

He thrust it away.

“Understand,” he said aloud. “We will have to journey to find him.”

“And me—“ growled Toa. “I don’t let her go alone.

“Have you done this before?”

“Close enough,“ Toa grimaced. “Not something I went looking for then or now.”

His eyes went inward for a long moment. “Her Mum saved more than my life, once,” he said. “And I promised her I’d look after Pip.”

“Very well.”

Deor looked down at Prince John. It was one of the moments when the prince’s wanderings had brought his spirit nearer. His face creased with an echo of suffering, like one of the shadow plays they were so fond of here, where puppets lit from behind cast silhouettes upon a screen.

“Make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Time is... different, where we’re going, but it won’t be a matter of seconds.”

He paced around the room, pausing at each corner to reach out to the house-spirits and pour a little arrack on the floor.

“Wights of this steading,” he murmured, “Hail to you. Bless and ward our work today.”

“Is this another of your Norse magics?” asked Pip when he had done; her head turned a little to one side in lively curiosity.

Well, John wouldn’t be that attracted simply by a pretty face, Deor thought. Not for long, anyway. Though she’s very comely.

Women didn’t arouse him, but he could appreciate beauty as he might in a hawk or horse. Pip was striking by the canons of his folk, who prized that fairness and regularity of feature; their tales and poetry had praised it since their most ancient days. After all, she was of the old blood, the Saxon and Norman kindreds whose ways his father Godulf had followed in the Society for Creative Anachronism and had drawn on to found Mist Hills afterwards. Like a golden cat who’d wandered far from the home-ground of their folk to find a new place in these sunlit seas. She moved well, too; like a dancer and warrior both, and with an inner confidence.

There’s a mind there, a shrewd one that’s always observing, and a strong will. And a ruthlessness in getting what she wants... but then, John was always attracted by strong women. Thora for one! Considering who his mother is, no surprise there.

“Norse?” Deor shook his head, and wasn’t going to waste time making fine distinctions among Heathen. “I learned this skill from the Mackenzies.”

From his chair in a corner where he’d be watching over them, Ruan spoke: “I thought I recognized some of it. I never went deep into the Mysteries myself. No knack for it, but all my clansfolk learn a little.”

Deor nodded: “My folk at Mist Hills had none who’d gone deeply into the lore before the Change—apart from a little runecraft and such—and I fumbled at it untaught, until Lady Juniper took me as apprentice. I learned still more in Norrheim on the Sunrise sea, where they did have those deep into seidh, and then in Iceland, but Dun Juniper was the core and beginning of it for me.”

Involuntarily he smiled, remembering the flicker of sunlight filtering through fir branches and Lady Juniper’s murmur as she led him out of the world. He had been strung taut as a bow with mingled excitement and fear, wondering if he would fail, or more frightening still, succeed.

“Lady Juniper taught me to journey by seeking a part of myself lost when my father died.”

Memories surged—the darkness in Duke Morgruen’s torture chamber, the vivid crimson of blood, and the wrenching grief as his father fell.

Godulf died for me! That was all I could see at first.

What Lady Juniper had brought back for him was his father’s ring, the same ring Deor’s brother had passed on to him before he and Thora left for Montival.

I wore it, he thought, remembering, but I did not think I deserved it. It healed my heart, to hear her tell me what she had found. How better for a man to die, than for his son? His duty was the core of him.

“After that,” he said aloud, “I learned to journey for others.”

“But this is different.” Thora still looked troubled.

Deor nodded. “This time we have to bring back the whole man. He is neither dead nor alive now, body and spirit sundered, and we must make him whole.”

He looked at Ruan. “Be careful, my heart, and take no action unless you are very certain that there is no choice. If a body is woken while the spirit lingers elsewhere... what comes back may lack parts left behind. Or it may be... partly something else.”

He tried a few taps on the hand drum he had bought in the bazaar of Baru Denpasar. It was made of a ring of coconut wood and the skin was from a goat; it throbbed with a staccato beat that sank into bone and blood as his skilled fingers evoked the rhythms at the heart of life.

“Then let us get on with it!” snapped Thora

“You sure you want to use that?” Toa nodded toward the drum. “We might get ‘em suspicious about the Prince.”

“They already know I’m a spirit-walker,” said Deor. “They will only think I work to heal.”

I hope, he thought.

The bedframe creaked as Pip sat down on the bed and then swung her bare feet up onto the sheet that covered John’s body. Most would have said she was calm, with even a slight smile on her curved lips.

She’s strung as tight as a MacKenzie bow.

Toa settled himself on the floor by her side and they clasped hands.

“What do you want us to do?” Pip said.

“Be close; take his hand.”

She did, in her left.

“You are linked as closely as by blood, now.”

Thora’s swordbelt clanked as she hung a loop of it around a bedpost and lay down on John’s other side.

“Wherever he’s wandering, I don’t think he’s enjoying it,“ she observed as the Prince’s firm lips parted in the ghost of a groan.

Deor nodded, arranging himself cross-legged at the foot of the bed. “Get comfortable. We may be here for a while.”

He began to tap on the drum, locking his muscles into the rhythm. “Try to relax—“ viewing their tense faces, he forced a smile. “This has got to be easier than storming that fortress.”

“I’m not so sure,” Thora replied. “When someone comes at me with a sword at least I can hit him back.”

“If you need them, spirit weapons will come to you,“ Deor answered. “Remember the weight of your sword and it will come to your hand.”

“A sword made of thoughts?” she said.

“Thoughts have power even in the waking world,” Deor said. “You’ve seen the Sword of the Lady, oath-sister. In the place we go, thoughts make the very substance of things.”

She nodded soberly, and he continued: “And call on your allies. Mine is a meadowlark. You may see him when we’re in the Otherworld. Thora’s protector is the Bear, the Grizzly.”

He looked at Pip, who shook her head in bafflement.

“She’s a lion... lioness, if you want to get technical,” growled Toa from the floor. “Mine’s te Kiore, the bushrat—that’s what my lot call the war-party’s scouts who go out through the forest in front of the main force.”

“So—“ Deor tapped the drum until they had all settled once more.

Tha-ba-da... tha-ba-da, sinking into bone, into blood, into pulse and gut.

He relaxed his throat muscles, let his voice go smooth. “Sink down... let each limb relax... The bed supports you, the floor is Earth, our guards protect you, the wights—”

He reached out, felt a watchful, if slightly confused, awareness.

“—grant permission for our work this day. Let your eyes close...”

As he shut his own he felt awareness begin to alter, at once expanding and shifting focus. He could feel Thora’s steady disciplined strength and Pip’s vivid energy, reached to add them to his own. As he touched the sparkle that was Pip he felt her surprise.

She’s more sensitive than I expected, he thought, maybe more than she herself knows.

Show me your love for John, he sent. Make your yearning a beacon!

He reached deeper, searching for the point of light that was the child, and then for the brighter blaze cradled in Thora’s womb, seeking the vibration of identity they had inherited from John. He brought to mind his memories of the Prince and Thora sparring, laughing as they danced with steel and each other. He had tried not to imagine them in bed together, but he opened his awareness now. John would need some powerful memories to come back to.

And what about my own feelings? Deor thought wryly.

By the time he met Prince John, he had known all too well how to tell when a man, however unwillingly, felt interest—and when he did not. The Prince was as completely a man for women as he had ever seen, but that did not change Deor’s own appreciation, only its expression.

Remembering, he brought to mind all his admiration for John’s intelligence and his feeling for the complexities and delights of music, the occasional, well-hidden, diffidence, his love for his family and for Montival and that youthful eagerness for the sight of new lands and peoples that reminded him so much of his own self half his lifetime ago. And that sudden burst of wild raw courage that had led him over the rail of the Tarshish Queen to rescue First Mate Radavindraban from the great saltwater crocodile; not for kinship or oath, but because it needed doing for a comrade.

Thora and I followed him then, and we returned despite the terror beneath us in the waves. Now we’ll lead him back. Lawerce guide me... Woden guard me...

He began to build up the visualization of the path. He drew on his feeling for these lands, the times he’d sailed these waters and walked jungled hills like these. Bits and pieces came from the trip inland to the fort; the triangular gateway of a temple, the sight of a great drum hanging below a carved spire, the smell of paddy and the rustle of palm-leaves.

“So—“ he began to tap a little more quickly. “Let us fare forward. Think of it as a long patrol.”

His expanded awareness could feel each of them behind him now. Toa added a bass note to it, something deep and massive, scarred by wounds within but stronger for it. A fluttering rose around him, as of a bird with a white body and a red beak. And something peeked out from behind a massive log, something with beady eyes full of cunning.

“See in your mind’s eye the jungle through which we came, but now the path we are following dips down beneath the earth.”

He could smell the mingled scents of the jungle, both fetid and fertile, moist earth and the heavy perfume of frangipani blossom. And as they went further, a reek of old blood and the alkaline dust of drying bones.

Suddenly those scents were alive in his nostrils, carried on a hot moist wind. There was rutted mud beneath his feet and wisps of mist in the jungle to either side. He was in Mist Hills dress, a linen tunic and cross-gartered hose, leather shoes and seax and sword at his belt and his harp in her case of tooled boiled leather slung over his back. A rift in the fog showed a tall building on a hill nearby with a tower at one end; for a moment he thought it was a Christian church because of the field of grave-markers at its foot, until he saw that atop the tower was not a cross but a circle, and within it a spiky three-armed symbol in black on gold. Then the drifting tendrils showed it again.

The Yellow Sign. The sign that was on the crocodile’s armband when we fought the great beast of the waters.

“Come to me, comrades,” he said, feeling the strings of their fates in the fingers of his mind. “Come to me in my need!”

A meadowlark circled about his head.

“Come! For the Prince!”

“Well, here I am, oath-brother,” Thora said.

She as in a simple Bearkiller jacket and trousers and boots, unsheathing her sword and looking around. The gesture had some of a grizzly’s arrogant assurance, though.

“Come!”

“Come on, you scheming yellow-headed bitch, I know you’re not timid, at least,” Thora added cheerfully. “Front and center!”

“I’m here, I’m here,” Pip said. “Let’s not be catty, shall we?”

Deor turned; for a moment he thought he saw a great tawny she-cat indeed, and then it was Pip—not in the robe she’d worn to lie on the bed, but in the odd outfit of round-topped black hat, white shirt and shorts, suspenders and boots and knee and elbow-guards, the kukri-knives and slingshot at her belt and the ebony cane with its two silver-gold heads. A circle of mascara marked one eye.

“Bloody hell,” she murmured, looking around her. “It really happened. Now this is a fair suck of the sav! Uncle Pete will love hearing about this, even if he doesn’t believe a word of it.”

“Come! Come!” Deor called, with his voice and spirit and the thunder of the drum sounding... somewhere.

Something rustled in the undergrowth. Something flitted through the tall alien trees. The Maori was there, leaning on his spear and panting. Then he held up a hand to silence Deor’s greeting.

“What’s that?” he said very quietly.

It came from the place that might or might not be a graveyard. A hollow sound, like a horse’s hooves on dirt, or now and then harsher on stone. Slow, though, and irregular. As if it were a horse ancient and sick and weary unto death. They all peered, trying to make out the threat.

Pip’s eyes went wide. “Don’t look!” she said. “Turn around, now!”

They all obeyed, Thora last; it was against her deepest nature to turn her back on an enemy.

“Something that John said to me... an old legend. Old, from Europe... something from a ballad he recited...”

Then she nodded and winced as the memory came back fully: “The beast that grazes among the graves. The Hell Horse.”

Thora touched the Hammer slung around her neck and started to turn.

“Then why in Almighty Thor’s name are we facing the other way?” she snarled.

Pip caught her arm. “If you see the Hell Horse you die!”

The hooves sounded again, slow and dragging... and nearer.

 

@@@

Cover P 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Copyright © 2016-2017 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com