Near Sutterdown, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Samhain Eve—October 30th, CY22/2020 AD
Ingolf Vogeler slapped his horse affectionately on the neck; he felt a little better now that the rain had stopped, even though it was the tag-end of a chilly October day with a ragged sky the color of damp raw wool rolling in from the west. His gloved hand made a wet smack on his mount's mud-spattered coat; its breath smoked in the harsh wet air, and so did his. The hooves beat with a slow clop-crunch on the good crushed rock of the road, sending up little spurts of muddy water whitish-gray with limestone dust.
He summoned up a little of the old excitement at heading into fresh country as he looked about at the Willamette Valley, inhaling the musky-silty smell of fallen leaves and turned earth, and the faint tang of woodsmoke drifting on the wind.
Riding damp and cold was nothing new to him for all that he'd only turned twenty-six last summer, but the struggle to get over the High Cascades had been brutal. He'd barely crossed the Santiam Pass alive; the last blizzard would have killed him for sure, if he hadn't had two warm horses, a good sleeping bag covered in oiled bison-leather and lined with fleece and stuffed with down, and a lot of experience with cold weather. He hadn't been really dry or warm in the days since either, and he could still feel the storm's white death in his bones, though down here five thousand feet lower things were just uncomfortable.
Look on the bright side, he told himself. If any of the Prophet's cutters were still on my trail by then, they're surely dead, dead and frozen under twenty feet of snow until spring.
"Hang in there, Boy."
Boy smelled powerfully of wet horse; but then, Ingolf smelled of the wet wool of his jacket and pants, and wet leather and oiled metal from his gear and the harness. It had been a good long while since his last bath, too. You didn't, not out alone in the wilds in the cold season; you didn't take off your clothes at all if you could help it.
"That town should be coming up soon, Boy. Good warm stable and oats for you, if it's as fine as those yokels said it was."
The horse snorted and shook its head in what he could have sworn was doubtfulness; the big gelding and he had come a long way together, a lot farther than the remount-cum-packhorse on the end of the leading rein, which looked nearly ready to keel over and die. He'd seen that happen often enough; you could usually follow an army by the bodies of the horses. Past a certain point their hearts broke and they just lay down and gave up.
"You too, Billy."
He stopped to lean over and give the packhorse some hoarded honeycomb; it barely had the energy to lip it off his glove, and Boy didn't even protest.
"Just one hoof ahead of another, that'll do it."
They passed the odd wagon or ox-cart, once a flock of sheep whose wet wool smelled a lot worse than his clothes; that had both horses crow-hopping a bit even tired as they were. And plenty of other riders and passers-by on foot, now and then a bicyclist; most of the folk wore the funny pleated skirts he'd started seeing as soon as he got down into the valley, men and women both. Ingolf touched a finger to the floppy brim of his leather hat whenever he passed someone, and usually got a wave and a smile back, despite the foul weather; most people seemed to be cheerful and friendly here west of the Cascades, which made sense since they also seemed unusually well-fed and clothed.
Wonder just how far it is to Sutterdown? he thought.
Traffic had died down as the sun sank, except for a few hurrying in the same direction he was, probably hoping to get inside before the gates closed. That gave him a good idea of when they were likely to shut... and that it would be soon.
"Uff da," he swore mildly.
Most places wouldn't let you in once they'd buttoned up, and the ones that did usually charged a fine for opening a postern after curfew. He touched Boy up with a pressure of his legs. That was hard on him, and even more on Billy... but he didn't think Billy would survive a night in the open right now.
There were tall hills to his right—the last stubs of the mountains he'd crossed. The rolling floor of the valley opening westward was divided into small farms, their fields bordered by hedges and rows of trees. Within the enclosures were the green of pasture or new-sown winter wheat just beginning to mist the soil, dark brown of plowland with wind-ruffled puddles between the furrows or the rather messy look of a well-dug potato field, the bare spindly branches of orchards, cherry and apple, pear and peach. Now and then there was a clump of woodlot, oaks and firs, and more thickets along the river. He recognized the crooked stump-like plants on a south-facing hillside as grapevines, still with their spindly branches unpruned, though he hadn't seen their like often before.
I have drunk wine, though, and I wouldn't mind some at all he thought, and smacked his lips absently. Though right now something hot would be very good.
Days like this, as the shadows grew darker and the wind blew colder, even a young man felt how the years would tell on him in another two decades. He coughed to clear his throat and spat aside.
There weren't any buildings in the fields apart from the odd byre and shed. The land was all worked from walled hamlets like the one he'd passed not long ago—they called them duns, here. The Sutter River gurgled and chuckled to his left, flowing westward into the Valley; the steep hills just north were densely forested, dark-green and brooding with tall firs.
Then a scatter of sheds and workshops loomed up to either side of the road out of the misty dimness, showing lamps or furnace-light—mostly strong-smelling tan-yards and pottery-kilns, the sort of trades smart towns didn't leave inside the wall. He heard the splashing and grinding sound of water turning millwheels to his right, and saw the occasional yellow glitter of flame through the branches of thick-planted trees.
His lips shaped a silent whistle when he came through the last fringe of bare-limbed oaks into a clear space and saw the town walls.
"Wouldn't like to have to storm those," he muttered. Even allowing for how the darkness made them seem to loom... "No, sir."
Must be thirty feet high, and pretty damned thick, he thought. And towers every hundred yards, half bowshot apart, and I'd say they're half again as tall. You don't see many things built after the Change that height.
He'd seen walls that had a bigger circuit—the town couldn't have more than three or four thousand people; Des Moines had thirty times that—but few that looked stronger.
And never any painted like that.
The surface looked like pale stucco; along the top below the crenellations was a running design of vines and flowers with... he peered through the murk.
Faces. I think. That's a woman's face, isn't it? With vines for hair. And that's a fox or a coyote. And that's...
The towers along the wall had pointed conical roofs sheathed in green copper and shaped like a witches' hat, which was appropriate if the wilder rumors he'd heard were true. There were two hills showing above the ramparts, off west to the other side of the town. One was crowned by a huge circular building without walls, just pillars supporting a roof; he could see the outline of it because a great bonfire blazed there, and even at this distance catch a hint of eerie music and dancing figures. He crossed himself by conditioned reflex at the sight, but without real fear—he'd never been excessively pious, even before he became a wandering freelance.
Maybe the rumors are true, but nobody said they set on visitors here.
And it didn't smell as bad as some towns did; just woodsmoke and barnyard, mostly. They probably had working sewers.
Four more towers around the gatehouse there... right, that's where the bridge leads in.
The town was built in a U formed by the river, which meant a natural moat on three sides; an old but well-kept pre-Change bridge ran to the edge of the gate. A carved and painted statue twice life-size was set into the wall on either side, a beautiful woman with long golden hair standing on a seashell on the left, a naked man holding a bow and crowned with the sun on the right.
As his horse set a hoof on the pavement he heard a thunder of drums from the gatehouse towers, and a screeching, skirling drone that sent Boy to tossing his head and snorting, and made the hair rise along the back of Ingolf's neck. His eyes were still flicking up to the source of that catamount wail when he halted before the gate-guard.
"Never heard bagpipers before, eh?" one of them said with a chuckle. "It's not someone biting a cat's tail, honest. We're bidding farewell to the Sun, you see."
Ingolf smiled back and nodded. "Just startled me a bit."
It was always sound common sense to be friendly with armed strangers and anyway, the one who'd spoken was a good-looking woman about his own age, with a freckled snub-nosed face and lively brown eyes. Which was a little odd, but while fighting women weren't numerous, they weren't so rare that he'd never met one before either. He'd campaigned with a couple who were pretty good, in fact, and one of them had been notably better than that.
He took off the hat, slapping it against his knee to shed the water, and incidentally to let them see his face in the circle of light cast by the big lamps. Looking him over was their job, and he didn't have anything... well, not much... to hide.
They'd see a big man, a little over six feet and broad-shouldered, with a pleasant enough face despite a scar on his forehead and a nose that had been broken and healed very slightly crooked; his close-cropped beard and bowl-cut hair were light brown, his eyes dark blue, and his skin had the ruddy weathered look of someone who spent his time out-of-doors in all weathers.
His gear was likewise plain and serviceable; a thigh-length shirt of chain mail under his long leather duster, a yard of point-heavy curved shete hung from his belt, and a ten-inch knife balancing it on the other side. A horseman's short horn-and-sinew bow was cased at his left knee; his kettle helmet hung by the right, and a quiver was slung over his back, covered right now with a round shield painted dark brown with an orange wedge; a tomahawk had its three-foot handle through a loop at the back of his belt.
There was no glitter of gold or gems on hilt and buckle; unlike some fighting-men he didn't boast by wearing his portable wealth.
While he let them look he studied them in turn. Two of the six guards were women, in fact. They were dressed like the others, in a pleated knee-length skirt of wool tartan-checked in brown and dark green divided by slivers of dull orange, with boots and knee-socks and an odd blanket-like stretch of the same material wrapped diagonally across their torsos and pinned over one shoulder with a brooch. Everyone here seemed to wear their hair shoulder-length or better, braided or loose, and the men sported mustaches; one example dangled down below the chin on either side.
Shortswords and bucklers and long daggers rode at their waists. Four had yew longbows in their hands and quivers over their backs, and two held polearms; a seven-foot spear and an ugly thing like a great axe on a six-foot shaft whose blade tapered upward into a point, with a spike-hook on the rear. The man who held it was taller than Ingolf, and broader, and wore a beard the color of rust halfway down his chest. The spear and ax-thing slanted crosswise to bar his way; behind them were the open leaves of massive metal-clad gates, and a raised portcullis. There were murder-holes in the arched ceiling of the gate-passage, and another set of gates on the inner side.
"Who are you, stranger? Where from, and what business would you be doing in Sutterdown?" the young woman asked, with her thumb hooked in her swordbelt.
Now that she was closer he could see she wore a ring of twisted gold around her neck, the open end over her throat ending in two knobs. She had the same accent he'd noticed in the village—the dun—where he'd stopped to buy bread and cheese and ask a few questions this morning, but stronger. Sort of a rolling lilt, and sometimes a strange choice or order of words; it sounded exotic and musical but not unpleasant, and easier to understand than some dialects that had grown up in out-of-the-way places.
"The name's Ingolf Vogeler," he said, conscious of how his flat hard Badger vowels would sound strange here. "Out of the east—"
"Not Pendleton, I hope," one of the others said.
"Christ, no, and I didn't like what I saw of the place when I passed through," he said honestly.
Several of them laughed, nodding, and Ingolf went on: "I'm from a lot further east than that. East of the Rockies and the plains."
Best establish that I'm respectable, he thought, and went on:
"My father is... was... Sheriff of Readstown in the Kickapoo country, in the Free Republic of Richland."
At their blank looks he called up the memory of old maps and books from his brief schooldays and added: "Southern Wisconsin, if that means anything to you."
"East of the Mississippi!" the woman who seemed to be in charge blurted, her eyes growing wide in surprise. "From the sunrise lands! Stranger, you have come a long way!"
They all looked impressed. Natural enough. People would get excited back to home if someone from here showed up. I'm a little impressed they all know where Wisconsin is. A lot of ordinary folks back home couldn't name Oregon to save their lives.
"Yup," he said. "I wander and do this and that—caravan guard, peace officer, some cowboying, or any honest work—I'm a passable carpenter and blacksmith, and I can handle horses."
He touched the side of his duster, where it covered an inner pocket. "I can pay an entry-tax, if you have one."
"No need," the woman said. "All honest travelers and traders are welcome here, but we have a short way with thieves or outland bandits—scourge for the back or Lochaber ax for the neck, as needed—so take warning."
The hulking redhead with the gruesome bladed weapon grinned through his thatch of beard and hefted it, so that must be a Lochaber ax; he looked cheerful rather than menacing, though.
"Fair enough," Ingolf nodded. It was what he'd heard about these Mackenzies along the way. "I'm a peaceable man, when I'm let be."
Her voice took on a formal note as she continued: "Enter then and be welcome, guest within our walls, with the blessing of the Lady and the Lord, who hold dominion here in Sutterdown as the Foam-born Aphrodite and Apollo of the Unconquered Sun."
Wow, he thought. The names were vaguely familiar, but... They are strange here!
Aloud: "Anywhere I can get food and lodging for myself and my beasts? And I could use a hot bath, by God! I was in Bend four days ago."
The big man with the ax whistled; that was a hundred miles, a lot of it very cold this time of year and very steep in any season.
"You've good horses, then, Ingolf the Wanderer! And weather-luck in plenty."
"Take my word for it and don't try going back east that way until spring, unless you've got skis."
Just then a voice shouted down from above, where the wild music had been. "Hey, will you be talking through 'till dawn, then? We can't go home until you close the gate!"
The woman turned and shouted back: "Would you leave a stranger out in the cold, and on the holy eve of—"
He didn't catch the next part; the word wasn't one he'd ever heard before.
She turned back to him. "I'm Saba Brannigan Mackenzie, Mr. Vogeler; my sept's totem is Elk. And my father keeps an inn here, and you'll be very welcome. I'll show you the way; we're being relieved by the night-guard now."
She shook his hand as he dismounted; her brow went up as she felt the heavy swordsman's callus around the inner edge of his thumb and forefinger, and his at the strength of her grip.
They walked through the gatehouse and into streets laid out in a grid, mark of a pre-Change settlement. This one was better kept up and better lit than most and free of sewage-stink, the houses neatly repaired and big lanterns on posts where the streets met, the folk looking well-fed and prosperous if oddly dressed. But though it was fairly dark—nothing was so dark as a town at night, unless it was a windowless basement—he caught glimpses of things that did look strange.
A terracotta of a bearded face over a door with horns growing from its brow; the wood of a shutter carved into leafy tendrils that seemed to be looking at him somehow; a stone post with a head on top and a phallus jutting from its middle, wrought in knotwork; a set of running and laughing children wearing costumes fantastically shaped and painted...
He snapped his fingers. "It's Halloween, or nearly!" he said. "Kids wear masks and things back home too, on Halloween."
"Samhain, we call it," she said, and spelled it out for him: she pronounced it soween.
He nodded and made a mental note of it; that was the word he'd heard her shout up to the tower. Then she smiled and winked at him and added:
"You'll find we take it, oh, a wee bit more seriously than your basic trick-or-treat."
Just then a snatch of song came from another group making its way down the middle of the street, youngsters nearly full-grown dancing amid a cold trilling of panpipes. And singing:
"As the sun bleeds through the murk
'tis the last day we shall work
For the Veil is thin and the spirit wild
And the Crone is carrying Harvest's child!"
A girl led them, with a half-mask shaped like a raven's head covering most of her face. Her black-feathered cloak flared in the darkness as she danced a twirling measure and beat a little drum with snake-quick taps of her fingers. Saba made a sign with her forefinger and joined in the chorus:
Run ye back to the light of day
Hope and pray
All ye meet are the gentle Fae."
Then the raven-masked woman stopped in front of Ingolf, and he had to check to avoid running into her. The dancer's eyes were wide and fixed behind the slits of the mask, holding his locked for a long moment; they were alight with a combination of fear and ecstasy and forgetfulness of self that was not quite like anything he'd ever met before. It made him shiver a little and suppress an impulse to cross himself.
The rest of her group surrounded him, masked as horse and boar, dragon and wolf and elk. She sang again, swaying and beating counterpoint to the words:
"Stranger, do you have a name?
Tell us all from whence you came!
You seem more like god than man—
Has curse or blessing come to this clan?"
Ingolf wondered for a moment whether he was supposed to answer, and then she danced away again, leading her band with their leaping shadows huge against a wall:
Run ye back to the light of day
Hope and pray
All ye meet are the gentle Fae."
When the band had vanished around a corner Ingolf swore quietly and shook himself. Saba smiled at him.
"Told you," she said merrily.
He asked a few questions; in his experience, that got you further than talking about yourself, at least to start with, and it never hurt to learn. He found that the odd pleated skirts were kilts and over-the-shoulder blanket-things were called plaids; that the ring around her neck was called a torc and that couples exchanged them when they married; that she was a widow with two children, her man killed on the western coast by Haida raiders a year ago; that she took turns with wall and gate duty and practiced with arms, above all with the longbow, as all fit adults did here; and that she was the eldest of three sisters, worked at her father's inn, and kept his books on that and a vineyard and fulling-mill the family owned.
She asked in turn: "What brought you so far from home? We don't hear anything but fourth-hand rumors from that far east."
"I didn't get on well with my elder brother," he said; which covered a good deal of bitterness. "My father died and my brother became Sheriff of Readstown, and we quarreled. So I joined the Bossman's army, when we Richlanders sent men west to help Marshall against the Sioux."
For a moment he fell silent amid a wash of memory: the shusssh of arrows over the tilts of the wagons in the dark amid the stale smell of dying campfires, a sudden roaring brabble, thunder of hooves and screams of surprise and pain. The panic-stricken tightness of his grip on the rawhide-wound hilt of his shete as he ran half-naked through the night away from his fallen tent, slashing at figures that seemed to spring out of the ground before him, fighting his way towards the horse-lines.
The ugly shock up his arm as the edge cut muscle and cracked bone, the first time and so different from a practice-post. Glaring eyes and barred teeth, painted faces and horned headdresses and the long knives in their hands glinting ruddy with the lights of sudden fires. Voices shrieking:
"Hoo'hay! Hoo'hay! It's a good day to die, Lakota! Kye—eeee—Kye!Hoo'hay!"
Then the guttural: "Hoon! Hoon!" of the blood call as the blades went in, the sick-making butcher's-cleaver sound of metal hammering home in flesh, the frenzied screaming of a man scalped alive.
"That war took longer than anyone thought it would," he said carefully.
"They usually do," Saba said, with a grim smile.
"And afterwards I couldn't seem to settle down, somehow. Went east and west, north and south—to the dead cities, often, doing salvage."
By then they were in the stables attached to her father's inn; the tavern was a rambling two-story affair seemingly knocked together from several pre-Change buildings, but the stables were newer, made of beam and plank with brick floors. He liked what he saw of the accommodation for the beasts, and he was pickier about that than about where he slept himself. Boy and Billy went into stalls, and he rubbed them down carefully, put on dry blankets and saw to the fodder—good timothy-clover hay without any musty smell, a hot cooked mash of oats and beans, and fresh water.
It looked like the muck was shoveled out regularly, with fresh sawdust and straw laid down; he checked their feet, and made a note to have Bill reshod—the one on his left rear had looked good enough in Bend, but it was a little loose now and definitely getting thin. Pavement wasn't kind to hooves, especially when years of frost and storm had roughened it.
"You boys rest up. You can take it easy for a while," he said, rubbing Boy's forehead as the horse butted at him. "You both earned it."
"You know how to look after horses," Saba said with approval, as she and a teenage boy helped him with the tack and the loads from the packsaddle.
Ingolf grinned. "You have to, if you want the horses to look after you. I had to push these two fellahs a lot harder than I liked, but it was that or get stuck in Bend or Sisters for the winter. I got Boy in the Nebraska country and he's the best all-round horse I've ever had."
She nodded, handed him a room-key with a number on the wooden tag that dangled from it, and pointed to a door:
"Bathhouse is through there. Bran here will show you the manner of it hereabouts; the stairs on the right past there go to the rooms. Come down those and turn left to get to the main room. See you there—you'll want to wash up before you eat."
He nodded, though in fact he was so hungry that it was a tossup. But they seemed a cleanly lot here; so was he, when he had a choice, which sometimes you didn't if you were a wandering man. By the time he stowed his gear in the room and finished his bath—they soaped down and scrubbed with buckets of steaming-hot water poured over the head first here, before getting into the tub to soak—and dressed in his good suit of blue denim jacket and pants and roll-necked sweater from the pack-saddle, he felt a lot more human and ready to face the Sheaf and Sickle's common room.
And I'm hungry enough to eat an ox, live.
Luckily he'd managed to keep clear of nits despite being on the road for weeks, and didn't need to use the special and very smelly soap provided. That did make him hope the beds would be free of biting company, another thing you had to get used to on the road.
He settled in a booth and Saba brought him a big mug of hot cider, to get the last of the chill out. Her father came with her; he looked formidable still despite the broad streaks of white in his dark beard and the kettle belly under his leather bib-apron. His grin showed a full set of teeth and the hairy legs beneath his kilt were like grizzled treetrunks even though he must have been a man grown and then some at the Change, which was a thing you saw less with every passing year.
The stories said that in those days people had commonly lived to eighty or a hundred or even more... but then, those stories said a lot of wild things; flying to the moon, talking-machine servants, sword-blades made of fiery light, and islands filled with dinosaurs. Nowadays sixty was old, most places he'd seen, and few reached the Bible's threescore-and-ten.
"I hear you're from Wisconsin, Mr. Vogeler," Brannigan said, his voice a deep rumble.
Ingolf noted that he had less of the lilting local accent than his daughter, but there was wonder in his tone as he went on:
"Wisconsin! Haven't seen anyone from that far east since before the Change—wait, no, there was one, came all the way from upstate New York on a bicycle, that first year. Big guy, went up north and became a knight or something. None since, though."
"We haven't seen many from the west coast, either, Mr. Mackenzie," Ingolf said.
Brannigan chuckled; he seemed to be one of the jolly plump innkeepers of song and story. Which was lucky; in Ingolf's broad experience they were just as likely to be skinny po-faced tightwads soured on humanity in general and their customers in particular.
"Mackenzie is the Clan name, Mr. Vogeler, and there are going on for sixty thousand others! Just Tom will do, anyway."
"How much do I owe you, Mr. Brannigan... Tom?"
"Normally, half a silver dollar a day for a man and two horses, not counting drinks. Today and tomorrow, nothing."
At his puzzlement: "It's Samhain Eve. We set an empty place for a stranger at sunset tonight and tomorrow. A stranger from far away means double luck."
Brannigan's grin got wider. "You could be a god in disguise, after all!"
"I thank you kindly." He sipped the cider, and his brows went up. "And I thank you kindly! This is the best cider I've had since I left the Kickapoo country!"
He smacked his lips meditatively. There were herbs in it, and the scent had a deep fruitiness that was like a memory of September afternoons in the hills of home when the maples blazed. For a moment homesickness seized him, and he was back amid the bee-murmurous orchards in April, looking down from a bluff across fields like rolling snow, with petals blowing on in drifts over his father's house and onto the stark blue water of the river...
"Thank you for a taste of home," he said sincerely. "Join me in one? And that I will pay for."
He'd directed the invitation to both of them. Brannigan shook his head. "Maybe later. Business to attend to," he said.
A little to Ingolf's surprise, Saba nodded. "I will... if we're not too busy, Dad?"
"Nope, it's a slow night, everyone's getting ready for tomorrow," Brannigan said.
Then he made a gesture, index and little finger outstretched, the middle two folded down under the thumb: "Or out defying the fae, the young idiots. See you later, Mr. Vogeler."
She returned with the platters and some cider of her own, and sat across from him. He grinned and clinked his glass mug against hers, happier still when he saw she meant to eat with him. The odd grace she said over the food didn't put him off; you expected to meet strange customs far from home, and nothing here was as weird—or as nasty—as what he'd seen in the Valley of Paradise among the Prophet's folk.
"Your health, Saba," he said.
"And yours, Ingolf. To the Lord, to the Lady, to the Luck of the Clan!"
He was hungry enough that even with a pretty woman smiling at him the plate was the first priority. Everything that went into the food was something he might have had at his family's board—roast pork with crackling, gravy, potatoes, carrots and cauliflower and broccoli, applesauce on the side, brown bread and butter. The details were different; the outer cuts of the pork were crusted with herbs, chopped dried cherries in the gravy, potatoes whipped creamy with dill and garlic and chives, the vegetables steamed rather than boiled, and a fruity red wine to go with it all when his cider was drained.
Wholly homelike was the wedge of apple pie with whipped cream, and a piece of yellow cheese beside it, sharp and dry and crumbly, just right to cut the rich sweetness of the pie-filling and the buttery taste of the crust.
"Now, that's real cheddar," he said, sighing with contentment. "We Richlanders make good cheese, it was famous even before the Change, and this matches it. Is it yours?"
"No," she said. "It's from Tillamook—on the coast northwest of here, in Portland Protective Association country. That's where my man Raen was, trading for it, when the raiders landed."
"Sorry," he said awkwardly.
She smiled and sighed and patted his hand. "It's a year ago now, and he's in the Summerlands, waiting to come back... and he helped burn their ships at the water's edge. The Haida carry people off for slaves and steal and burn everything if they get a foothold, the raids are worse every year... Battle-luck comes from the Morrigú; a dozen others of our folk were there that day..."
She shook off the thought: "That's an interesting name, Ingolf. It sounds like one of ours."
"It's not usual back on the Kickapoo, either; it's after my grandfather's uncle," Ingolf said. "People used to tease me about it, when I was a kid. What are your children's names, if I may ask? You do have unusual ones here, except for a few like Tom."
"Ioruath's my boy; he's three," she said; her smile grew broader. "And Emer, my girl, she's just one; never saw her father, poor thing."
"Pretty names," he said. "But I haven't heard them before."
"We used to have the same names as most people—some of the older people still do; you know, Tom and John and Mary and David, that kind, like Dad. But a lot of people took other ones after the Change, when we turned back to the Old Religion. Names from the ancient stories that teach us about the Gods. Or they gave names like that to their children—my mother changed to Moira, and she changed me from Sally to Saba."
"I like Saba better," he said.
"So do I," she said, and wrinkled her nose at him. "I like Ingolf... and nobody will tease you about it here. It isn't silly, like some of the ones they use up in the Protectorate. Odard and Raoul, I ask you!"
He took a moment to admire the sight of her. She'd switched to just her kilt and shirt and shoes, and everything he could see was just as he liked it; she was broad in the hips and shoulders and narrow in the waist, long-legged, with strong round arms and the full bosom of a woman who'd born and nursed children. Ingolf liked her frank eyes too, and the way she returned his interest without being coy about it.
He learned that she wove, and embroidered, and played the guitar, liked to hunt and fish in season. There was a small tattoo above the upper curve of her bosom and below the finals of her torc, a miniature strung bow that also suggested the crescent moon.
"What's that?" he asked, indicating it with his eyes.
She grinned at him. "Never seen a woman's breasts before, you poor man?" she teased, and laughed with him. Then she touched the tattoo. "That's the Warrior's Mark. I got that when I turned eighteen and passed the tests for the First Levy... the militia, you'd probably call it."
When she gathered up the empty plates and took them back to the kitchen he watched the sway of her kilt with unfeigned pleasure.
I could stay here a while, he thought. I'm not broke by a long shot, and this is where the Voice and the dreams pointed. His mind tried to turn aside, but he forced it back. I'll need a base while I look around for... whoever it is I'm supposed to find.
The door to the vestibule opened as he mused, and he looked up with the wariness his wandering years had bred. A group came in, three women and two men, all younger than him but not by all that much; they all wore longswords and daggers, which they racked by the door. They all moved as if they knew how to use them, too.
He noticed the twin girls first, since they were identicals and dressed so alike he guessed they worked at it. Both were tall, five-nine or so, with yellow-blond braids down their backs, dressed in dark trousers and boots rather than kilts; when they took off their jackets, they revealed sleeveless jerkins of black leather over their shirts, blazoned with a white tree and seven stars and surmounted by a crown.
The other girl was a year or two older and an inch or so shorter, with brown hair cut shoulder-length and brown eyes and features a little too bold for beauty. She was in pants and a short-sleeved thigh-length tunic of fine-woven wool, forest-green, over a full-sleeved shirt of indigo-dyed linen. The tunic had a slit-pupiled eye wreathed in flame on a black shield woven over her chest, and the same device showed on the buckle of her silver-chain belt; it carried a rosary of worked coral and crucifix opposite a dagger.
Saba returned with two small glasses of applejack. Ingolf smiled at her, lifted his and sipped cautiously. It was potent but made from good mash, light-crushed and well strained, and aged a couple of years, just right for sipping liquor.
"Who are those?" he said quietly, nodding to the group as her father bustled over to them.
VIPs, he decided by himself.
Tom Brannigan wasn't in the least servile, but there was an indefinable air of respect. Ingolf's eyes narrowed slightly in professional appraisal.
"The big fellah with the bright hair particularly," he said.
One of the men was in a kilt and was about Ingolf's own height, six-one or a little more; a bit lighter than his own one-ninety, he estimated, but not much. Broad-shouldered and long-limbed, well-muscled but moving like a racehorse, looking like he was about to leap even when completely still. And strikingly handsome in a way that was almost beautiful without being in the least pretty, down to a cleft in the square chin.
"Oh, that's Rudi Mackenzie," Saba said, with the tolerant tone of a woman towards a younger man she'd known when he was just hitting his teens. "The Chief's kid."
Ingolf's eyes flicked to look at hands and wrists, the way the young man held himself and moved. And at the scars that showed when a sleeve of his saffron-yellow shirt of linsey-woolsey fell back from a muscular forearm; there was another along the angle of his jaw. He looked young—probably looked younger than he was, the well-to-do didn't age as fast as ordinary folk—but formidable.
"That's not just a kid," he said. "That's a fighting-man. And a very dangerous one, or I miss my bet."
"Well, yes. He fought with Raen... and very well, by all accounts. Took that cut on his face pulling my man out of the water with a Haida trying to spear him, but it was too late."
"He's your bossman's son? The heir?"
"Our Chief's a woman," Saba said. "Juniper Mackenzie, herself herself. But he's her son, right enough—and her tanist."
At his enquiring glance: "A tanist is... sort of an understudy. His father was Mike Havel—Lord Bear, some called him, the head of the Bearkiller Outfit, over west of the River. The twins are Havel's kids too, Rudi's half-sisters; their mother's Signe Havel... He fathered Rudi with the Chief before he married Signe."
"Yeah, there's a family resemblance," Ingolf noted.
High cheekbones and slanted eyes; a trace of Injun there, he thought. The man's eyes were a light changeable gray-blue-green, the girls' the bright blue of cornflowers; his hair was worn shoulder-length and there was a strong tinge of copper-red in its yellow curls. He looked as if he laughed a lot; right now he was grinning at the innkeeper.
"Greetings to the Mackenzie!" Brannigan said grandly, then winked and made a sweeping bow. "You honor our humble establishment."
"Hey, Tom, I'm not the Mackenzie," the young man—Rudi—said, shaking his hand; that lilting accent of Saba's was stronger still with him. "My mother is the Mackenzie. I'm just a Mackenzie, like you and the rest, to be sure."
"You're just a clansman, and I'm the Horned Lord come in the flesh," Brannigan said.
"Well, you are," Rudi pointed out.
"Only in the Circle," Brannigan said.
Ingolf looked a question over at the innkeeper's daughter. "Dad's High Priest of the Sunhill Coven here," she said casually. "So when he Calls, the God comes to him. Mom's the High Priestess. Lady Juniper is High Priestess of the whole Clan, of course—she's the Goddess-on-Earth. The living vessel of the Mother."
"Oh," Ingolf said. And I'm not going to ask more about that until I know my way around! he thought.
"You're not staying at Raven House?" Brannigan went on to... Rudi, Ingolf thought. Rudi Mackenzie.
"Nah, Mom and Sir Nigel and the infants are in, and some guests from overseas, and a whole lot of other people from Dun Juniper, so we just dumped the hunting gear there, said hello, and came on over. You mind putting us all up? The girls can share a room if it's tight, and you can put me and Odard in another."
"You snore, Rudi," the other man in the party said; that must be Odard.
He was dressed like the brown-haired woman in t-tunic, shirt and pants; his were of beautifully woven dark-blue cloth embroidered around the neck and hem with gold, but there was a circle on his chest with what looked like a Chinese symbol in it—Ingolf knew enough to recognize them. He went on with the air of a man making a concession:
"You could chivalrously sleep here on the floor by the hearth and give your room to the Princess. It would be more suitable to her state to have one all to herself."
"I'm not sharing with you, Odard," the brown-haired woman said, pointing a finger.
"Oh, of course not, Your Highness," the man said smoothly. "I said all to yourself, didn't I?"
"Then you'd have to sleep on the floor too, Odard," Rudi grinned. "Which isn't like you. Chivalry or not."
"No, no, you sleep in front of the hearth, Rudi, and I'll share with the twins."
"And then you wake up, Odard," one of the siblings said.
Her sister just snorted; they both looked down their noses at him—about half-serious, Ingolf thought.
"No, plenty for you and the Princess and your friends to have one each," Brannigan said, laughing at the byplay. "Business gets slow after the Horse Fair, and slower after Mabon. Highway 20 won't be open much longer—it may be closed now. They've already had snow up there, though we got one in from over the Santiam Pass just a little while ago—that's him. He's from far back east, 'way far. East of the Mississippi!"
He nodded towards the booth in a corner; Ingolf raised his glass politely as they nodded at him; they looked in frank curiosity, then gave him what he recognized as the same expert's once-over he'd given Rudi. There was a little more than that in the way the three young women looked at him; they put their heads together and said something in a language he didn't recognize, and giggled for a moment.
Then they went off to their own table, still bickering amiably. Like pups in a litter, he thought tolerantly, from the lofty height of twenty-eight, and asked:
"Oh, that's Mathilda Arminger," Saba said. "She comes from up north; her father was the Lord Protector of Portland, and she's his heir, so they call her the Princess. Mike Havel and he killed each other in the War of the Eye, eleven years ago—no, sure and I'm lying, it's twelve years the now. By the Sun Lord and the Foam-Born, but the Wheel turns faster each time!"
Ingolf felt his brows go up. "Their kids seem awful friendly," he said.
And meant it. He recognized the playful banter, of a style you only used with those you knew well, and it brought a pang of loneliness. He hadn't had the like since the Villains were wiped out last year.
"Long story," Saba said. "Part of the peace agreement was that she'd come here for part of the year, and Rudi... Artos... would go north."
He nodded thoughtfully; that sort of mutual exchange of hostages was common enough. The Bossmen of Richland and Ellisworth had a similar arrangement back home, which was a big improvement on calling out your Farmers and their following of Refugees to burn down barns and chop each other up.
"And the other guy is Sir Odard Liu; he's a knight of the Association—the Portland Protective Association, that's what their top people call themselves—who comes down with her. His father was a nasty piece of work, too; Lady Eilir and Lady Astrid killed him—
At his enquiring look she amplified: "Lady Eilir is the Chief's eldest child; Lady Astrid is the twin's aunt, their mother's sister and Mike Havel's sister-in-law, she's the Hiril of the Dúnedain Rangers. They're anamchara, soul-sisters. Astrid's married to Lord Alleyne, the son of the Chief's husband, Sir Nigel. His son by his first wife back in England, that is... he and the Chief have two daughters. Sorry to dump all this on you!"
He filed away the unfamiliar names and relationships; family was usually the key to understanding politics, which could mean life and death.
"Odard's not bad... except that he thinks he's the Lady's own gift to women."
"That's a delusion I've never had," Ingolf said. "I always thought it was more that women are God's gift to an undeserving mankind."
That got him a laugh. He went on: "You've got a mixed lot in here."
"We do," she said pridefully. "The Sheaf and Sickle is famous all through the Valley."
She pointed out a few. "Those two are Bearkillers, from over to the west of here; Mike Havel founded their Outfit."
A tough-looking pair, with bold challenging eyes.
"See those little blue scars between their brows? That means they're Initiates of the A-list—sort of like being knights, but they're a lot less likely to be assholes than the ones from the Protectorate, sure. And that's a monk from Mt. Angel. Father Ignatius—if there were more like him, I'd think better of Christians. No offense."
"None taken," Ingolf said, sincerely enough
The cleric was a spare muscular young man in a black hooded robe; Catholic clergy were still thin on the ground back east, but Ingolf would have pegged him for a fighting-man, except for the dress. He read from a small book and told a rosary with his left hand, occasionally taking a sip of wine or a bite of a frugal dinner of bread and cheese and smoked fish.
Ingolf listened as Saba spoke, but found his eyes straying to her more and more often, until she laughed at him and finished her brandy.
"See you around, Ingolf Wanderer."
He'd barely turned out the lamp in the small tidy sleeping-room when the door opened again. He reached for the belt with his weapons where it hung from the bedstead, and heard her quiet chuckle in the dark as the scabbard knocked against the wood.
"I'm not that fearsome, am I, Ingolf?" she teased.
"Let's find out," he suggested.
The whiteness of her skin was half-glimpsed in the darkness as she slipped out of her robe and under the quilt. Some hours later they lay in a happy tangle, warm while the rain tapped at the west-facing window.
Wow, he thought again. They're not shy around here, either!
Suddenly a thought occurred to him. It should have been earlier, but he'd been lulled by the friendly reception. Still, you could never tell—
"Your father isn't going to mind, is he?"
Then he yelped as she tweaked his chest-hair, hard. "That's for waiting until now to ask! No, of course not. I'm a grown woman; it's my business who I worship the Goddess with."
He rubbed at his chest and then settled her back on the curve of his shoulder. "Worship is what you call it here? Beats fasting and prayer, I can tell you that!"
"All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals," she said; it had the sound of someone quoting. Then she chuckled: "And She is well and truly worshipped!"
He smiled himself; that was the oddest complement a woman had ever given him, but far from the worst.
"And I haven't been with anyone for a year, since Raen died. Time to let him go. You're a strong man, and I think a good one. If you leave, I've had the night and maybe a child—I always wanted more than two. And if you don't leave... well, we'll see, shall we?"
She yawned and stretched and settled herself, with a thigh flung across his; he could feel her breathing slowing down to the deep regular rhythm of sleep, and his own followed.
Ingolf's dream was the same as always; the screams of his comrades, the terror of the blinding light that pierced hand and eyelid, and the sword, the sword hanging impossibly in the blaze, the Voice tolling in his mind.
When he woke, he thought himself still asleep for an instant, his chest heaving and sweat running down his neck. In a moment more he'd wake to the warm stuffy darkness of the room and find Saba beside him, and they'd go down to breakfast. He'd find what jobs he could do around the inn, or for neighbors, and get to know people before he started asking around. Maybe the Voice would leave him alone for a while.
Then he realized that the long curved dagger raised above him was very real, and threw himself aside with a great hoarse shout. Saba screamed as well, as the razor edge kissed her flank and left a trail of red as it plunged into the quilt and let free a blizzard of goose-down.
Thought too swift to notice with his waking mind made him ignore his shete; the long weapon would be deadly awkward in these cramped quarters. Instead he stripped the Bowie and tomahawk out of his belt and rolled to the floor, bounding erect with a shoulder-roll. There were a full Triad of them, three knives glimpsed in the dark, hooded faces covered to the eyes by black half-masks. His stones tried to draw up into his belly as the faint light from the window glinted on the sharp metal in their gloved hands. A knife fight was bad enough at any time; knives moved too fast to really see or block well.
A knife fight naked in the dark against three opponents who didn't care if they lived or died...
"The Ascended Masters have called your name, apostate," one of them hissed. "Did you think mountains and ice could save you from the Prophet's judgment?"
Then to Saba, as they spread out and approached: "Silence, pagan whore!"
The speaker tried to backhand her out of the way as she struggled free of the tangled sheets. She caught the arm, heaved and twisted to lock it with a speed and skill that would have been a pleasure to see in better circumstances, and swung the elbow wrong-end forward against the bedstead with all the strength of her arms and weight of her body. The joint broke with an ugly crackling crunch of tendon and bone, like a green branch giving way across your knee. Her hawk-shriek overrode the Cutter's scream of outraged pain:
The knifeman's ululation at the ruin of his arm was cut off as her foot raked up and kicked him under the jaw with explosive power, toes neatly rolled back to present the ball of her foot. She snatched at the knife as it fell from his nerveless hand.
Ingolf roared and lunged himself; the thrust of the bowie in his left hand rammed into a jacket lined with mail—
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>