Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon
April 14th, CY23/2021 AD
Everyone who could in Dun Juniper was out on one excuse or another, after the long confinement of the Black Months; the bright chill air booming down from the mountains smelled of fir-sap, sweet grass, apple-blossom, the faint cool scent of hawthorn blossom from the hedges
"We should start the quest soon," Ritva said
She was panting slightly after the sword-and-targe bout with her sister Mary. Ingolf and Rudi watched with professional appreciation for their quicksilver lightness of movement. The easterner also looked as if he appreciated their looks.
Hmmm, Ritva thought, looking at him. He is shaping up nicely. Possibly...
Mary took up the conversation seamlessly, leaving Ingolf looking a little nonplussed. It took a while to get used to their conversational style.
"The high passes will be open in a few weeks. Or there's the Columbia gorge, it's year-round."
They were all armored for practice; a blunt blade could still kill you. Rudi was in a Clan-style brigandine; the twins wore what the Dúnedain used for light armor on scouting trips, a mail shirt a lot like Ingolf's but riveted to a covering of soft dark-green leather to make it quieter and less conspicuous.
A crowd of excited six-year-olds went by, shepherded by a teacher in an arsaid—an ankle-length version of a wrapped kilt and plaid—showing them plants and telling them the names and uses. Usually they'd have ignored him, or waved; he'd grown up here, after all, Chief's son or no, and Dun Juniper wasn't all that populous. Now a number of them looked at him with awe, and some pointed and murmured.
"Now, by the Dagda's club, how do you start off on a secret quest when everyone knows your face and who and what you are and how that ancient prophecy about you seems to be coming to life?" Rudi said, mouth quirking.
"Hell with me if I know," Ingolf Vogeler said. Then he brightened: "But at least I haven't had any more of those damned dreams."
The pasture below the dun's gates and past the hillside orchards was thick grass starred with yellow dandelion and blue camas-flower; it stretched away on either hand beneath a bright blue sky, and the scent alone was enough to make a man feel as if he was sixteen and had just gotten his first kiss. It must be better for someone recovering from wounds and illness that took him close to death.
"Sure, and the regard of the Powers can be uncomfortable," Rudi said.
He began a pattern of cuts and thrusts, moving slowly at first and then speeding up, feeling muscles warm and stretch. The longsword moved easily in his hand.
"I doubt you'll have any more trouble with them, provided we go and see about this sword," he said.
"I thought you were the sword," Ingolf said dryly.
Rudi cocked an eyebrow at him and grinned. The eastern wanderer was a nice enough sort for a Christian, but he was obviously a bit disturbed to be fulfilling a prophecy made by the pagan gods.
"Well, it's never simple when They are involved," he said cheerfully. "Both, neither, all at once. You can't bind Them with words... not even true ones."
"I suppose if I got the Villains in and out, I can get you there and back," Ingolf said. His face went bleak: "And I won't have a dirty little traitor along this time, either."
Rudi blinked, not letting his eyes narrow. "I'll be careful to listen to your advice," he said—carefully. "You having the local knowledge and the experience and such."
Ingolf was examining a practice shete he'd had made up—the long point-heavy slashing swords were what he'd trained with all his life, and it would be more trouble than it was worth to switch styles.
"Just a minute there," Ingolf he said, the flat rasp of his native accent strong. "I'm shepherding you to the east coast, right?"
Rudi shook his head, meeting the other man's eyes. Best keep things straight from the beginning.
"Indeed and you're not," he said quietly. "It's my quest, Ingolf. I'd rather it wasn't, but the Powers have marked me for this task all my life, and it's myself must lead. Not that I won't listen to you, for I can see you'll be a right-hand man to me, none better."
A smile. "I'm young, but not a young fool, sure."
"I'm the best salvage-boss in the business," Ingolf said, obviously not relishing the prospect of being right-hand man to someone half a decade younger and still only shaving every second day.
"I don't doubt it," Rudi acknowledged.
"Hell, I'm the only one who's ever gotten to Nantucket and back... and I don't think many have gotten out of Corwin alive, either, or crossed the continent. No offense, Rudi, but you haven't done any of it. Hell, you've never left home."
"You've done more than a little in the way of traveling," Rudi acknowledged. Though I've been most places in the Valley, and round about it from the ocean to Bend.
His voice was friendly but with a trace of iron in it as he went on: "But it doesn't alter the fact that this is my journey. I'd like your help with it, Ingolf... but if you can't accept that, then I'll go without you, and thank you for the message you brought."
The other man's heavy brows drew together. He grunted without speaking. They'd left unspoken the matter of whether the Powers would leave his rest alone if he dropped out of the matter. Ingolf thought for a moment, then brought the shete up in a salute.
Mary Havel was refereeing; she waited while they settled their helms. When Rudi flicked the visor of his sallet closed she chopped her hand down:
His blade flicked into motion towards Rudi's neck—
The shete smacked into the young Mackenzie's buckler. He knocked it away and thrust in riposte. Ingolf jerked his body back from the waist without moving his feet; it wasn't a counter Rudi was familiar with, but it worked, leaving him extended and off-balance for an instant with the tip of his sword just touching the other man's mail shirt before his shield knocked it up.
The easterner used the motion to bring his shete round and down in a diagonal slash that would have beheaded an ox, or taken off a man's head and his shield-arm at the shoulder too. His shield stayed well up all the while, not thrown to one side and leaving an opening. Rudi swayed out of the way as far as he could, and brought buckler and blade both up to meet the blow.
The force of it drove him down on one knee and numbed his left hand so that he almost dropped his buckler.
Cenn Cruaich, this one is strong! he thought, eyes going a little wider.
Ingolf cut three times before Rudi could get back on his feet. The Mackenzie parried with his sword—not directly, which would have driven it down on his own head, but by slanting the metal to shed the blows, ting-ting-ting, a threefold shivering crash faster than heartbeats. The big easterner hit like a blacksmith with a forging hammer, but he didn't let the force of his own blows throw him off balance either, which was always likely to be a problem with a point-heavy weapon like the shete.
Rudi feinted a thrust at his opponent's knee to break the rhythm of the attack and then bounced erect. Ingolf stepped backward and shook his head.
"That's enough for me today," he said. "Too much and you lose more than you gain. I'm still a little short-winded."
"You pushed me hard there," Rudi said, grinning. "Not bad, for an old man just up from a sickbed."
"Same back at you, youngster," Ingolf said in turn.
He smiled himself; he was doing that a little more often now.
"All right," he went on soberly. "I'm the guest here. I'll just have to hope you can listen as well as you fight, which is pretty damned good. But you're not going to cut your way across the continent, no matter how good you are with a blade."
Off to their right in the next field archers were practicing, ninety-nine of them and a bow captain, most of the dun's First Levy standing in the staggered three-deep harrow formation.
Right hands went back over the shoulders to the quivers, twitched out one of the arrows, set it to the string with the smooth economical motion of an action as familiar as walking.
The varnished yellow-orange staves of the yew bows glistened in the bright spring sunlight as they rose and bent, drawing past the angle of the jaw.
"Let the grey geese fly—wholly together—loose!"
The strings of the longbows slapped the bracers all at once, like one great snap. The long arrows slashed upward with a multiple shsshshshsh sound like a distant whickering and came almost to a halt at the top of the trajectory. The pile-shaped heads glinted as they plunged downward towards the target, a line of shields propped near the hedge at the southern edge of the field, two hundred paces distant. The hammerfall of the arrows was still as sharp as heavy hail on a tile roof; they drove deep into the wood, and they would have punched through most armor. Three seconds later the second volley hit, and two more were in the air before they struck, and more followed in a steady nock-draw-loose rhythm.
"You're not going to be taking them with you, either," Ingolf said, nodding at the archers. "Much as I wish we could."
Mary and Ritva sighed with heavy patience. "If you two are through with playing little-boy games, what does Lady Juniper say about it?" one of them asked. "About the quest, not who can pee furthest."
"She's not happy about it, but there doesn't seem to be much choice," Rudi said. "If I didn't know her better, I'd say she was procrastinating. She has given me the go-ahead. The details are up to me; Mom's good that way."
"No there isn't any choice, Sword-of-the-Lady-Artos," the other twin said with malice aforethought.
They unpacked the picnic basket. Rudi unstoppered a jug of fresh milk, and took a long draught of the cool rich creaminess; it always tasted a bit better after the grass really got going again. Ingolf bit into a sandwich of sharp cheese and smoked pork loin and slivers of pickle while Mary and Ritva opened the crock of potato salad. None of them took off their gear, except the helmets; you had to keep yourself used to the weight and constriction.
"One thing that's bothering me," Ingolf said hesitantly. Then he went on: "Look that... voice... told me to go find the Sword of the Lady. But it showed me a sword. That's sort of..."
"Contradictory," Mary or Ritva said helpfully. "Is Rudi the Sword of the Lady, or is the sword the sword?"
Rudi nodded. "That had occurred to me. Well, it's an oracle—they're usually gnarly and hard to figure out. But it doesn't change what we have to do, the which is get to Nantucket, sure."
"Get you to Nantucket, like a bolt at a target," Ingolf said. Somberly: "I've already been there, and I wish to God I didn't have to go again. Even without the weirdness, it's not exactly a merry outing like sugaring-off in the spring."
"Let's break it down," Rudi said. "We need to make the preparations, then we need to go, and preferably we need to do it quietly so this Prophet doesn't get wind of it."
"How many people?" Mary or Ritva said. "Nine is traditional."
Rudi looked at them, unable to decide for an instant if they were putting him on. It was a very Rangerish thing to say, but... he decided they were; the bland butter-wouldn't-melt was the giveaway.
"As few as possible," he said in a quelling tone. "We have to sneak there and back—we couldn't take enough to cut our way through, not if we turned out all the troops of the Meeting."
"Right enough," Ingolf said, sounding a little reassured. "But not too small. Most of the country we'll be crossing isn't what you'd call easy. We'll want enough to discourage bandits and look out for each other. Nine sounds good—in fact, I'd be happier with a dozen or so."
"We've got one asset already," Rudi said thoughtfully. He pointed at the twins: "You two."
"That's true, but you're not usually so perceptive, Rudi."
He snorted and went on: "You're Dúnedain ohtar. Rangers go all sorts of places and deal with all sorts of people; I mean, yeah, you're my sisters and your dad was Bear Lord, but by now people are used to you showing up wherever without a lot of fuss. And the Prophet's men won't be looking for you specifically yet."
"And you're gir... women," Ingolf said. At their enquiring look: "The Cutters don't hold with women doing much besides keeping house and raising kids, or working the churn and loom," he said.
"Canuidhollin," Mary or Ritva replied crisply. Which meant roughly: What complete idiots.
"Yeah, but they'll be less likely to notice you."
"Notice us do what?"
"Here's my plan..." Rudi went on.
Dun Fairfax, Willamette Valley, Oregon
April 16th, CY23/2021 AD
Edain Aylward Mackenzie stopped and took a deep breath at the entrance to his home. This part of it had been a two-car garage in the old days; someone had told him what that meant once, but he'd forgotten. He was nineteen... well, nearly nineteen. All his life it had been the place where his father made bows and fletched arrows, and his mother wove at the big loom, when they weren't out about the chores of house and farm.
Umm, Dad... he began mentally, rehearsing what he'd say, then wrung the flat Scots bonnet in his hands. Oh, Wild Hunt take it, I could never fool him!
If he stood here eventually someone would ask him what he was doing; the Aylward house was only one of twenty inside the log palisade that enclosed Dun Fairfax. He took a deep breath, said:
"Stay, Garbh!" to the shaggy half-mastiff bitch at his heel, then opened the door and plunged in, blinking as he went from light to shadow.
There he stopped in alarm; his father was seated at his workbench, bent over with a hand pressed to his side.
"Are you all right, then, Dad?" he blurted sharply, his own burden forgotten.
His father grinned back at his seriousness and straightened. "No, I'm not all right," he said. "I'm old, boy, and there's no cure for it. Some bones I had broken on me when I was about your age caught up with me for a bit there."
Edain was worried still. He was young enough for his gut to think that his father and mother went on like the rocks and trees while he changed. Some of his first memories were of sitting like this, watching his father at his bowyers' craft. Often while his mother made the loom thump at the other end of the big room, amid the smell of glue and varnish, sawdust and linseed oil and wax, with his elder half-sister helping her and the youngsters in the cradle or crawling about with Grip and Garm, his father's hounds.
But I'm old enough to know different. Even trees don't live forever, he thought with a chill. Grip and Garm are dead.
And his younger brother Dick was fifteen and insufferable now, and his youngest sister Fand was twelve and worse.
Even rocks don't go on forever.
And his father was old; in his sixties. His hair was still thick and curly, but the brown had turned mostly gray or white, and the flesh had fallen in a bit on his strong square-jawed face. He still got about well enough and did most of a man's work, but he'd retired as First Armsman some years ago now.
"So, spit it out," the elder Aylward went on, leaning back with his elbow on the table with its clamps and vise.
Edain shuffled his brogues on the well-swept concrete of the floor. But for the age he looked much like his father, only a finger above average height but broad-chested and stocky-strong, with muscled arms and the thick wrists of a plowman or archer—both of which he was. His eyes were the same gray as the older man's; his hair was a little lighter, with a touch of yellow in the earth-brown, and he wore it shorter than most male Mackenzies of his generation, though longer than the short-back-and-sides his father had always kept to.
"Ah, it's a trip, Dad, one that Rudi was talking about," he said, feeling sweat breaking out on his forehead. "Talking about us doing it together."
He was too old now for a swat on the backside, but he'd learned early never to lie to his father. No matter what scrape he got into, honesty was the best policy with Samuel Aylward, late of the Special Air Service Regiment.
"A hunting trip?" his father prodded. "Or a jaunt for the sake of the thing, like that trip to Tillamook?"
The beads of sweat grew and he suppressed an impulse to wipe them away.
"Quite a bit of a trip, a long 'un," he said. "Weeks, or more. We'd be going off right away."
Horned lord and Mother-of-all, do you have to ask so many bloody questions? he thought desperately. And then: Oh, bugger, I let it slip.
Normally he spoke with nearly the same accent as any other Mackenzie his age, except that it was a bit stronger since he lived close to Dun Juniper. That musical lilt and its rolled r-sounds was natural to him, though he'd heard that it had started right after the Change when people tried to imitate Lady Juniper's manner of speech. His father always found it irritating or amusing, depending on his mood.
When he was in the irritated phase, Sam Aylward called it life imprisonment among the Stage Irish, whatever that meant.
But when he was under a strain more of his father's own voice came out in his, and Sam Aylward had been born in England—on a farm near Tilford in Hampshire, to be precise—and the soft burr clung to his tongue despite more than twenty years here in the Willamette.
Edain could see his father relent; he laughed then, and the younger man flushed.
"It's all right," Sam Aylward said. "Just that you're about as good at keeping something off your face as I was at your age. Still, you're a better than good shot and useful otherwise for a long trip."
"You know?" Edain blurted.
His father grinned like a wolf. "I may not be the First Armsman any more, but Lady Juniper does still ask me for advice, I'll have you know. I was your age when I took the Queen's Shilling, pretty much, and ended up on a transport to the Falklands not long after. Your mother knows too, by the way."
That was no surprise. His mother was High Priestess of the oldest coven in Dun Fairfax, and she heard everything from this world and the Otherworld both.
"You want to go?" Sam Aylward asked.
He looked at his father in astonishment. "Well, of course I do, Dad!" he said.
"Ah, I should remember what nineteen's like," Aylward senior said. At Edain's affronted look: "You'll understand in a while."
"It's the farm I was worried about, with the spring work, and all," the younger man said awkwardly. "I mean..."
"Lambing and shearing's over," Aylward said. "And besides, we've got Tamar, and her man's about the place now, and young Dickie is getting to be a real help, and your little sister with your mother. We'll manage."
Edain blew out his lips in relief. A huge excitement grew beneath his breastbone; it dimmed only a little when his mother came through the door from the main house with his siblings, including his elder half-sister Tamar—she'd been born a little before the Change that killed her father—and her handfasted man Eochu, and their firstborn in her arms.
Baby Forgall just gurgled quietly, but everyone else looked at him. His mother with worry; she had the upper section of her arsaid over her head like a hood, which meant she'd just been at some rite before the house-altar. Dick was looking at him with naked envy. Young Fand was nearly as distressed as mother, her fair redhead's face flushed.
Then her expression changed and she spoke: "I guess we can't tell Eithne, sure?" and giggled, back to her usual hateful twelve-year-old self.
That made him feel better about it. For one thing, Eithne would be spitting mad that he was going and she wasn't when it all came out, so he wouldn't be sorry she didn't hear of it. And things had never been quite the same with them since that trip north last year. He felt even better when his father snapped in a tone harder than his usual:
"No, and if you want your brother back alive, you'll keep your mouth bloody well shut, girl!"
She looked properly abashed. Then Sam Aylward went on to his eldest son:
"Rudi has the gear you'll need for the first part ready. But you'll need a spare war-bow."
There were dozens racked on the walls, finished or in the making. Edain's eyes went wide when he saw the one his father took down. It wasn't new—he'd gotten a new one as a gift at his birthday this spring, just after Ostara—but it was beautiful, from the darkly shining riser of black-walnut root to the carved horn tips at either end. The staves were yew, the whole weapon six feet long with a subtle double curve, out a little from the riser and then back again, what the old books called reflex-deflex.
His father was known as Aylward the Archer throughout the Willamette, and his marksmanship was only half the reason.
"That's your war-bow, Dad!"
"Too heavy for me, these days. I get a twinge in me shoulder at full draw with it. A hundred and fifteen pounds with a thirty-inch arrow... Give it a try."
Edain flushed again at doing it with everyone watching. The actions were automatic: he strung it Mackenzie-style, with the lower tip braced against his left foot and his right thigh over the riser. Then he brought it up and drew, pushing out his left arm and pulling with the muscles of his torso and gut as much as the right arm. A little to his surprise it bent easily, and he held the draw without any betraying quiver.
"You'll do," his father said when he'd eased off from the draw, then pulled him into a quick rough hug. "You'll do me proud, boy."
His mother was crying a little; she was a decade and more younger than his father, but he suddenly realized with a shock that her yellow-brown hair had gone mostly gray too. When had that happened?
He knelt before her. She made the Invoking sign over his head—a pentagram, starting with the top star—and spoke with a catch in her voice:
"Through darkened wood and shadowed path
Hunter of the Forest, by your side
Lady of the Stars, fold you in Her wings:
So mote it be!"
The whole family joined in on the final line of the spell-prayer. It made him feel stronger; then his mother handed him a sack.
"Just a few extra things. There are some simples in the white box, they're all labeled in case you take a chill. Try—"her face worked. "Try to come back safe!"
He was glad to finally get out and on his way; goodbyes were all well and good, but he had to go. He strode down the graveled lane between the houses and sheds, the Covenstead and the big communal barn, and out through the gate, with Garbh padding at his heels. It was midmorning, and most of the folk were out in the fields; he passed a few younger children playing or watching still younger siblings, and the odd adult whose work kept them in the dun even now. Outside the gate he paused to leave a few crumbs by the grave of the Fairfaxes, the old couple who'd owned the farm around which the dun had grown, and then turned east.
He kept to the road, passing people busy in the garden-plots with their eternal battle against slugs and couch-grass and creeping shoots, their hoes flashing as they sang a working song:
"Remember what old granny said
These beetles are pretty—but better-off dead;
They can be compost—and we can be fed!"
Eithne gave him a look and went back to work; he winced a little. Her mother gave him a look that was even worse and called out:
"Care to try a spell at the hoe, if you can spare the time from a walk in the woods?"
He shrugged and kept walking. "No, no, these mysteries of the Earth Mother are too sacred for my eyes!" he called with mock solemnity.
That got him a chorus of good-natured hoots and jeers, particularly from the men and boys working there, and he waved back as he went by. Nobody was too upset; they knew he wasn't one of Dun Fairfax' few shirkers. This was a solidly prosperous settlement and proud of it—prosperous by standards no older than Edain, which meant that everyone in it had plenty of food all year 'round, at least two spare sets of clothing and a clean bed of their own. But it stayed that way because everyone in it worked very hard indeed.
The fields narrowed as he went east towards the head of the valley. A quick skip from rock to rock at a ford put him over the river that flowed down from Dun Juniper's hillside bench. Then he was into the green gloom of tall forest, land that had been Mackenzie-owned in the old days, Lady Juniper's land; that meant a century of careful tending since it was last logged. Red alder grew tall along the stream, ten times his height, with its bark mottled white and the new leaves green and tender. Fir and hemlocks and redcedar stood taller still and candle-straight on the drier ground; beneath the forest floor bore a carpet of low-growing red-stemmed kinnikinnick, starred with pink flowers in this season.
Birds were many; away in the middle distance he heard the mating-season boom-boom of a Blue Grouse, and closer to hand a pair of hummingbirds hovered above a patch of iris. It was all nearly as familiar as his family's house, or the fields. He still smiled to see it...
But I'm leaving, he thought. I'm going far and far away, and I may never be back again!
He stopped for a moment to look back for a last glimpse through the trees and down at the valley's dappled spring quilt of plowland and pasture and young wheat. That was enough to sober him for a few minutes; with every pace away he could feel how his heart-strings were deep in this good brown earth. And it make him look at each tree and turn of the creek in a new light as it went past; but he was cheerful enough again in a few minutes. He was young, and strong, and the Chief's tanist had chosen him as his companion on the great journey.
When he came near the old overgrown logging trail above Dun Juniper he was grinning again. He decided to approach on the quiet—and was congratulating himself on how well he was managing, though only deer and elk and the odd hunter had kept fern and brush from totally closing the way. It was Garbh's low growl that alerted him; he wheeled with a sudden start of alarm.
"Not bad, kid," a voice said from behind him.
He knew from the flat harsh accent that it was the foreigner Ingolf. Very slowly he turned, cheeks blushing with embarrassment, biting down on anger.
He out-sneaked me! he thought indignantly. And on ground I've hunted over all my life!
Rudi stood grinning, leaning on a quarterstaff. Three big A-frame packs rested at his feet, and another of the walking sticks.
"Ready, Edain?" he said, tossing it.
Edain caught the length of ashwood and looked up, through the trees to the high white peaks eastward. Mackenzie Pass would still be cold this time of year...
"Ready, Chief!" he said, rearranging his quiver and shrugging one of the packs onto his back with a grunt of effort.
Usually Rudi didn't like being called that; and technically he wouldn't be, not until his mother died or stepped down and even then only if the Clan hailed him—though that was pretty well a foregone conclusion now that they'd made him tanist. This time he shrugged it off with a grin.
"Then let's get going!"
"After you, Chief," Ingolf said with a smile.
Rudi did scowl at him; then they set their faces eastward and walked into the forests and towards the peaks that walled the world.
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>