County Odell, Hood Valley, northern Oregon
Portland Protective Association
April 17th, CY23/2021 AD
"It really is worth coming here for the blossom-time," Mathilda Arminger said wistfully, taking a deep breath of the cool morning air. "Too bad we have to leave right away."
This had always been fruit country, and still was; neat orchards mantled the rolling floor of the valley on every side, apple and cherry and pear, a froth of cream and pink and white, the scent as intoxicating as cool wine. Petals fell in drifts from the trees on either side of the road to catch in her hat and hair and the russet-brown suede leather of her jerkin, and there was a deep murmur of bees amid the blossoms.
The great white cone of Mount Hood hung in the sky to the south, looming over the valley that ran north to the Columbia Gorge. The cream of its summit was tinged with a little pink from the rising sun. It looked a bit odd to see the snowpeak there, even though this was far from her first visit to the Chancellor's home fief—in Portland and the Willamette you saw the mountain from the west.
The ferroconcrete bulk of Castle Odell on Lenz Butte behind them was two years younger than Mathilda, but the bright white-stucco mass might have loomed there for generations, with banners flying from the high turrets and terraced gardens falling from the outer edge of the moat to the valley floor. Odell Town huddled at its base as if for protection, its churches and dwellings and workshops mostly red-tiled and built since the Change; a half-finished cathedral in the fashionable Cypriot Gothic style was already the tallest building in it.
Steep forested hills rose green and blue with distance on either side, and Middle Mountain a few miles south separated the lower valley from the upper. A few fleecy clouds floated overhead, and the air was busy with birds journeying north. The road their horses trod came out through the town's western gate and followed the old Union Pacific. Trains of ox-drawn cars went by northward on the steel rails, mostly with barrels of fruit brandies and cordials, apple vinegar and honey-mead; south the return cargoes were grain and wool from the Count's vassals in Grass and Tygh Valleys.
As the road and rail turned west and then south they passed manors and villages and even a few isolated farms—the latter very rare in Association territory, and a sign of long peace. Peasants cutting hay in riverside meadow paused to wave their straw hats; a friar on foot told his beads as he walked and raised a hand in blessing as they passed; once a raggedy-gaudy troubadour with a lute slung over his back doffed his cap and bowed as they rode by. A little later a half-dozen mounted crossbowmen on road patrol saluted smartly.
And now we have to figure out how to get rid of Lady Catherine, she thought as she returned the gesture with a wave of her riding crop.
As Princess she was exempt from most of the usual rules, but Catherine was young—daughter of one of the Countess of Odell's ladies-in-waiting—and took her duties as chaperone seriously, sitting primly on her palfrey in her modest divided skirt and leggings. Her lips were compressed; it had taken a direct order to stop her hauling along a round dozen mounted attendants and guards. Mathilda's own mouth quirked.
Chaperone, indeed! As if I couldn't kick up my heels anytime I wanted! And Odard would be happy to cooperate—he isn't a pest about it, but you can tell. There's no real guard against impurity but determination.
The hills closed in on either side as the way turned south and closed with the Hood River, brawling and leaping white over rocks with spring's snowmelt. A roadside shrine caught her eye, a miniature carved wooden shed above a saint's image. It was a naked man with one hand on his chest and the other holding a cross.
St. Dismas, she thought; the thief who'd been crucified at the side of Jesus. The one who repented, that is. Patron saint of criminals who've gone respectable.
Conrad Renfrew wasn't openly old-fashioned, but he had an odd sense of humor she'd noticed sometimes in those who'd been adults before the Change. It was just like him to find a special devotion to that particular member of the calendar.
"Let's stop and ask the Saint's help," Mathilda said.
That was always a safe thing to suggest, and in this case she really wanted it as well. They reined in and dismounted; Odard gallantly gave her a hand down, which was sort of superfluous—Catherine was the one who might actually need it. As he did he whispered:
"I'll fix her saddle to slip off when she remounts. She couldn't ride a rocking-horse bareback and she won't notice until it's too late. Then we can just gallop away and she'll have to walk back to the castle."
Mathilda nodded unhappily; the Count wasn't at home, but his lady and his eldest son were, and they'd smell a rat as soon as Catherine got back to town, and messengers would start galloping in every direction and heliograph messages would fly to the outposts all around. It would be touch and go whether she and Odard could make it south to the border before a conroi of lancers caught up to 'escort' her home... and there would be hell to pay from her mother.
The three young nobles tied their horses to the hitching-rail, dropped a few copper coins in the box and lit the small tapers provided, planting them before the image. Then they knelt on the dense green turf, signing themselves, kissing their crucifixes and taking up their rosaries. Mathilda continued with silent intensity as they all bowed their heads in prayer:
Saint Dismas, patron of the repentant, I am not sure that what I plan to do is right, and I am torn between my duties. I know I should obey my mother, but God has called me to guard the folk. I can see no other way than this to best fulfill my oaths and help my friend in this task, and so do what is best for both our peoples. If I do wrong, misled by my rebellious heart, help me to repent. May God bless this quest and my companions on this road. St. Dismas, teach me the words to say to Our Lord to gain pardon and the grace of perseverance; and you who are so close to Him now in Heaven, as you were during His last moments on earth, pray to Him for me that I shall never again desert Him, but that at the close of my life I may hear from Him the words He addressed to you: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise."
As Mathilda stood and brushed off her knees she heard a quick beat of hooves from the northward. She looked up in alarm, a hand going to her sword-hilt, but it was a single rider leading a pair of pack-horses.
As he came closer she could see that it was a monk with his dark robe kirted up over practical-looking deerskin pants and stout riding boots; a telltale chink and shift hinted at a short mail shirt beneath the coarse dark robe. A longsword and dagger hung from his belt, besides a steel crucifix and a rosary of maple-wood beads, and a bowcase and quiver rode at his saddlebow. One of the led horses had a four-foot shield strapped to its pack-saddle.
The canvas cover was still on that, but she suspected she knew what it would show; a raven over a cross. And his face was vaguely familiar...
"Knight-brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict," Odard said quietly, agreeing with her unspoken thought. "Not the worst possible news. He won't be reporting to the Regent, or Cardinal-Archbishop Maxwell. But they're an independent-minded bunch."
Mathilda nodded. The Benedictine monastery at Mt. Angel had come through the Change on its own and had been a rallying-point for resistance to the Portland Protective Association and its then-schismatic Church. Mt. Angel and the Protectorate both sent delegates to the Meeting at Corvallis these days, but there was still a lingering suspicion. And she knew that her mother resented the influence of the Order's missions and daughter-houses in the interior and the far south.
"Wait a minute," she said as the man drew closer. "I recognize him. That's Father Ignatius—he's a priest as well as a brother—he was in Sutterdown when the Cutters attacked. He's been at court in Portland lately, too, some sort of diplomatic mission from Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski."
The hood of his robe was thrown back to show bowl-cut black hair and a tonsure. The face beneath was weathered like leather and had a scar along the right side of the square jaw, but it was only a few years older than hers, the eyes dark and watchful and slightly tilted, shaped a little like Odard's. He was of medium height, only a bit taller than she, but broad-shouldered. The hands on the reins were shapely but large, with thick corded wrists.
The warrior cleric drew rein and signed the air. "Bless you, my children," he said. "Dominus vobiscum."
"And with your spirit, Father," they replied. The priest went on to the young chaperone:
"Lady Catherine, it was thought that I would make a more suitable escort for Her Highness, since she plans to push on to the upper valley to see the scenery there, and may stay overnight at Castle Akers in Parkdale. The Chatelaine there can see to her needs."
Duty warred with sudden hope on the young noblewoman's round plump face. Mathilda gave her a smile and a nod, and she burst out happily:
"Thank you, your Highness, reverend Father!"
Mathilda fought down both relief and suspicion until the other young woman had heeled her placid gelding into a trot back towards the civilized comforts of the castle solar. Then she turned narrow-eyed inquiry to Ignatius.
"Who exactly did you mean when you said it was thought you'd make a better escort, Father?"
The priest's blue eyes were calm. "I suggested it to the Countess, my child," he said. "Without, I'm afraid, drawing attention to the fact that I did not say I would be returning from there. It allayed her worries about you, and you won't be missed until tomorrow evening at the earliest... You are planning to escape over the border and join Rudi Mackenzie on his journey to the east, aren't you?"
"Why, Father, why would you suspect any such thing?" she asked in turn, controlling a gasp of dismay.
Answer a question with a question when you don't want to answer, she thought, and then went on: "That would be a reckless thing to do!"
"Daughter, don't lie to me. For starters, you're rather bad at it."
He began to tick off points on his fingers. "Primus, you were with Rudi Mackenzie when the assassins attacked. Secundus, you were privy to his tale of the mysterious events on Nantucket—"
Her eyes went wide in shock. "How do you know about that?" she said.
He smiled grimly, showing teeth that were white but a little uneven.
"Holy Mother Church has many sources of information—and from well beyond this corner of the world. Tertius, you and Rudi Mackenzie and his half-sisters and Baron Odard here have all dropped out of sight... heading east. The inference is obvious. I might add that as soon as your mother hears of your disappearance, she will know what you have done."
"I left a letter for her with someone I trusted," Mathilda said sullenly.
"Clever clerics give me heartburn," Odard chuckled. "They tend to push in where they're not wanted. Shall I rid you of this troublesome priest, Princess?"
He laid his hand on the hilt of his sword and raised a brow at her.
"Oh, stop posturing, Odard," Mathilda said impatiently. "I know you'll bash whoever I tell you to bash, but that's ridiculous here."
At least, I hope he's posturing. Priest-murder is sacrilege! she thought. Aloud she went on:
"And in case you hadn't noticed, he's got a sword too."
"I did," Odard said, with the same lazy smile. "A man who wears a sword should expect to have to use it, tonsure and robe or no."
"I am willing to use it," Ignatius said. "Against the enemies of peace, and of the Faith, whom we've been given dispensation to fight by the Holy Father. Do you wish to join one of those two categories, my lord Odard?"
"A Knight-Brother knows how to use the sword too," Mathilda pointed out. "Let's hear what he has to say."
The priest turned his gaze to her. "Daughter, are you determined on this course? For as you said, it is reckless."
"You're not my confessor, Father!" she snapped.
Unexpectedly, Ignatius smiled. "For which, thanks be to God!"
Mathilda found herself chuckling for an instant, and abandoned the attempt to hold on to her anger.
"Then what are you questioning me for?" she asked. "Father," she added after a moment.
"My child, being who and what you are, your actions affect more than yourself. This is your responsibility; God gives us each a cross to carry, as heavy as we can bear—neither more nor less. My responsibility is to the Head of my Order... and he has ordered me to investigate the matter of Ingolf Vogeler, and the assassins who pursued him here. The Order of the Shield has been watching the growth of this dangerous cult in Montana for some time now. What we know does not please us; and we must know more."
Mathilda arched her brows. "You don't intend to try and stop me?" she said bluntly.
Ignatius shrugged. "The Regent is not my ruler; Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski is. Furthermore you will be Lady Protector in only a few more years, and it is my judgment that your displeasure then if I, ah, fink you out, would do more to endanger the interests of the Order than angering your mother now. Besides which, if we hurry we can probably cross the border well before anyone finds out what's going on. When... if... we return, things will be very different."
Mathilda stood for a moment, and then threw up her hands with a laugh. "Let's go, then. It'll be a comfort to have the sacraments available on the way. Not including Extreme Unction, I hope!"
When Ignatius grinned, you suddenly remembered he was a young man himself. He slapped his sword-hilt and replied:
"Perhaps I can help us avoid that one."
Odard bowed slightly. "As the Princess commands," he said. Then after a long considering look at the priest: "And perhaps it's just a good idea anyway, too."
They swung back into the saddle and headed south at a ground-covering pace, walk-trot-canter-trot-walk; she and Odard had chosen their horses carefully. Not the big destriers that cost more than a knight's armor—those would be waiting for them in Bend, if all went well—but good-sized long-legged palfreys. The cleric's horses were fine stock as well, and not carrying too much weight; he was whipcord and sinew rather than bulk. Mt. Angel had rich lands, including stud farms with a growing reputation.
The narrow passage along the river opened up into broad fields and orchards again southward; the skin between Mathilda's shoulderblades crawled as they passed the last castle of the Upper Valley, where the railroad stopped and just before the valley floor rippled up into the ridges around the base of Mt. Hood. The tall square tower of the keep flew a banner with a saw-edge circle, sable on argent. Those were the arms of the Akers family, barons but not tenants-in-chief, vassals of the Counts of Odell rather than the Throne. She expected the garrison to be as alert as any of her mother's own Household forces, but they evidently didn't consider a monk and two gentlefolk heading out of the valley any of their business.
"Phew!" Mathilda said as the last field gave way to forest.
It was cooler under the shade of the great Douglas and Grand fir, and the ground was rising; they were more than a thousand feet higher than the Columbia gorge now. The faint smells of woodsmoke and habitation were gone, noticeable only by their absence. The tiny white and pink blooms of shade-loving sourgrass bloomed under the tall trees, and snowy-colored trillium; ferns were sprouting though the damp litter of leaf and needle, and a patch of Yellow Violet trembled gold beside a stream. After the first few miles they saw few traces of human hands except the road itself. Birds were noisy with their spring mating rituals, and once a small herd of elk crossed in front of them and went crashing eastward in alarm.
The area of the old Mount Hood Wilderness and much besides was Lord Protector's personal reserve, land under forest law where nobody could hunt or cut timber without special leave. Odard and the priest looked over at her as she snorted laughter.
"It's just that technically speaking, this is my land we're on. Yet I'm sneaking through it like a poacher afraid of a whipping from the verderers!"
The two men chuckled. Odard lifted his head. "And speaking of poachers, I think I smell venison cooking. Good man, Alex. And a dab hand with a crossbow."
Mathilda tested the air; there was woodsmoke and grilling meat, sure enough. A minute later the narrow road turned and revealed a small stretch of meadow, an ancient campground. Twenty-odd years and heavy rains had left nothing of picnic tables save green mounds, but the stone hearth was still useable. Odard's manservant Alex was there, with five hobbled horses, their pack-saddles... and yes, pieces of venison on skewers over glowing coals, giving off a smell that made her mouth water. The neatly butchered carcass of a yearling doe hung in sections from a branch; Alex had wrapped the chunks he was cooking in bacon from the supplies, since the meat would be lean this time of year.
It had been a long time since their breakfast at Castle Odell, and it would have looked suspicious to pack along supplies for what was supposed to be a short trip to look at the flowers.
"Your Highness," Alex said, bowing, not even a twitch to show he was surprised at seeing three riders instead of two. "My lord Odard. And most reverend Father in God. No sign of the foresters who ought to be patrolling. Even if the Princess was graciously pleased to give me a signed warrant, they should have checked, the idle bastards. It's not as if I'm hiding."
Odard grinned; he'd told her Alex could manage getting their gear ready and meeting them with it, and evidently he'd been right.
"No problem getting past the road patrols?" he said to his servant.
Alex shrugged. "I'm just another commoner, my lord. Nobody notices us—and there's no tax on goods leaving Association territory. It's not like the old days, when they were on the lookout for runaway peons."
Ouch, Mathilda thought. Well, those were hard times, hard measures were necessary. The thought was well-worn and increasingly unsatisfying.
She dismounted; they took a moment to unsaddle and hobble their horses, and pour out oats from the pack-saddles. Those contained a little food, but mostly the essentials of their gear, things you couldn't buy in a town market. Principally their armor, since a really first-class suit had to be fitted like fine clothing. Her battle harness included a set of titanium mesh-mail, the priceless work of half a dozen specialists laboring for years, stronger than even the best steel and only a third the weight, besides being rustproof.
Sneaking it out of the palace had been a major pain. She'd felt a quiet glow of accomplishment when she managed it without—she very much hoped without—anyone important noticing. Right now the venison kebabs felt more important. Alex had fresh bread with them, and butter and soft cheese and pickled vegetables...
Two days later Mathilda's horse drank, and then raised its dripping muzzle from a pool. The spring that made it flowed from a split in the dark basalt lava, and they'd paused to fill their canteens and let their mounts drink. Hers nosed towards a tall purple stalk of larkspur; she put her hand on its muzzle and pushed against the hairy weight to distract it—the plant was pretty, but its other name was poison delphinium.
"How did you beasts survive before we people came along to look after you?" she asked it with rhetorical indignation and fed it some dried apple.
Then the animal lost interest in water and feed both. Its ears cocked forward and it raised its head, snorting and staring westward. A crow launched itself from the boughs of a willow that stood a little downstream trailing its branches in the water, calling gruk-gruk-gruk as its wings flogged the cool air. A pair of pintail ducks swam away, then decided to follow it, skittering down the little creek with their feet splashing at the surface as they made their takeoff.
"Heads up, your Highness, Father," Odard said quietly. "Told you we were on Warm Springs land by now. The Three Tribes are touchy about their borders, too. There was a lot of raiding around here in the old days."
"Yeah," Mathilda said, tightening the girth. "Someone spotted us yesterday, I think. They probably high-tailed it for help."
She swung back into the saddle, and stopped her hand on its way to the bow cased at her knee with an effort of will; they weren't here to fight. Her warning hiss made Alex stop his hand reaching towards the light crossbow he kept hanging at his, and the four of them rode up out of the hollow onto a long open swelling. The grassland was green with spring and starred with white flowers and sage that gave a strong clean scent when hooves crushed it, and scattered with dwarf juniper. Mt. Hood loomed directly west, which meant they were on reservation land.
The rumble of hooves grew louder, and a dozen horsemen came out of the rise half a mile southward. They headed straight for the travelers at a gallop, and then split and surrounded them amid high yelps and ki-yi! yips and thundering hooves; that was good tactics, and it would give them a psychological advantage. All of them had bows, quivers over their backs, shetes at their waists and lariats hanging from their saddlebows. They had round painted shields as well and one or two carried light spears; their hair was in braids, and most wore feathers in it. More feathers and beads and shell-work picked out their gear and horse-harness and the leather vests they wore over colorful shirts or bare skin.
"Let's hope they're honest," Odard murmured as the noise and dust enveloped them.
Mathilda nodded, and her mouth went a little dry; their horses and gear were worth a good deal. The strangers' leader reined his own beautiful white-spotted Appaloosa in; he had a band of white paint across his upper face and black circles around his eyes and a tanned wolf-head on his steel cap, with the muzzle shading his face like the bill of a hat and a fall of hide covering his neck.
He looked as if he were about thirty, with raven-black braids hanging past his shoulders and halfway down the steerhide vest sewn with stainless-steel washers he wore as display and armor. He also had the nearly beardless ruddy-brown skin, high cheekbones and narrow black eyes of a full-blood Indian; his followers were all younger, and they ranged from looks much like his to tow hair and blue eyes. People had moved around a lot right after the Change, even out here where the die-off hadn't been so bad, and then mostly copied the customs of whoever took them in. Or the customs those people put together out of half-memories and legends in a world gone mad...
"So," he said, after looking them over. "You folks are from the Protectorate, right? And maybe the priest, too?"
Mathilda felt herself flush at the tone. He could tell where she and Odard and the servant came from by their dress—boots, baggy pants, and belted t-tunics worn over full-sleeved linen shirts. She and Odard had left off the golden spurs of knighthood and avoided the distinctive roll-edged round hats with dangling side-tails that nobles wore, using broad-brim Stetsons instead. She flushed again as she realized that the man had seen her reaction.
The other Indians talked among themselves in a language she recognized—Chinook Jargon—but couldn't speak. She didn't think they were making complements, though; and they were probably using the tongue to psych out the intruders, since she knew they spoke English at home most of the time. Her temper boiled over.
"The Charter of the Meeting at Corvallis says people from all member states can travel freely through the territories of the others on peaceful and lawful business," she snapped. "Last time I looked, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs were members of the Meeting."
The men circling them bristled at that. "I'm in charge of this section of the Council's border guards," their leader said sharply. "Foreigners have to give an account of themselves. You could be bandits or rustlers—we've lost some stock lately."
The priest raised a soothing hand.
"I'm Father Ignatius, from Mount Angel," he said. "We're peaceful travelers heading for Bend."
The narrow dark eyes of the Indian leader flicked from her to the priest, to Odard's politely watchful smile and to Alex's blankness.
I shouldn't have said anything, Mathilda told herself. I'm noticeable enough, in men's clothes.
That wasn't actually forbidden in the Association's territories anymore, but it was fairly rare.
"If you're heading for Bend, you're doing it 'way off the main road," the Indian said. "Except on the highway nobody travels our land without our leave."
"Yes, we are off the road," Ignatius replied in a friendly tone. "But just passing though none the less, and taking nothing but a little water and grass."
The other man thought for an instant and then gave a slight nod; his followers relaxed.
"Name's Winnemucca," he said, extending a hand.
The priest shook; there was a jostling and shifting of horses as the others of their party did. The Indian's eyes widened a little as he felt the sword-calluses on Mathilda's hand, and the strength of it. His own was like a rawhide glove over living metal.
"Thank you for giving me your name," Father Ignatius said.
Winnemucca laughed, and some of the others grinned in more friendly wise.
"We've got a scholar with a sense of humor here," he said. Then to Mathilda's obvious incomprehension: "That's what Winnemucca means, in Paiute. He Who Gives."
He leaned his hands on the horn of his saddle. "Maybe you'd like an escort south to CORA territory?"
Mathilda tried to hide her wince. Just what they needed; something to draw more attention!
I'm lucky photographs are so rare and expensive now, she thought despairingly. But it looks like I can't keep myself hidden for a single day. If only we could get further from home...
"But maybe not, eh?" He Who Gives said. After a moment's pause: "You can be on your way then. If you're not looking for company, head a little west as you go south—we haven't moved our herds up that far yet."
He gave a high shrill call and wheeled his horse, shaking his bow overhead. The others followed him like a torrent, until only the sound of their hooves was left, a faint fading rumble in the earth.
"Phew," Mathilda said, wiping her forehead.
"Your Highness, I thought for a moment there he'd made us," Odard said. "Or would have if the good Father hadn't intervened."
"I think maybe he did," Mathilda said. "But maybe he'll keep his mouth shut, too. Let's get going. It's another day's ride to Bend."
Capital of the Central Oregon Ranchers Association
April 19th, CY23/2021 AD
"Well, that's a relief," Ritva Havel said.
She looked at the dusty white road ahead of them as they ambled along behind the horses they were driving, and at the irrigated fields of wheat and potatoes and pasture to either side, divided by rows of poplars, drowsing under the afternoon sun. Puddles and lines of water glinted between the young green of the spring crops.
Her sister nodded. The Santiam Pass had been cold. They hadn't been caught in a bad snowstorm—you had to be really unlucky for that, towards the end of April, even over six thousand feet. But the ground beside the road had been wet and it had gone down to freezing every night they were up in the high country, often with sleet accompaniment. They were young and in hard condition and they had the equipment they needed, but that didn't make it fun the way it would be in July, or even the way a winter hunting trip on skis could be.
Bend was three thousand feet lower than the summit of the pass, and it was sunny and mildly warm and Lord-and-Lady-bless us dry this bright noonday, and the smells were of river-water and turned earth and woodsmoke as well as everlasting pine-sap as they came towards the city. The white fangs of the mountains—she could see Three-fingered Jack and the Sisters and Mt. Jefferson—were merely pretty from here. Up there at this time of year you soon started thinking they hated the tribe of men, like Caradhras in the histories of the War of the Ring. At least there weren't any orcs, or bandits either in this season.
"And I wish you wouldn't snore when we have to share the same little tent," Ritva went on to her sister.
"I do not snore!" Mary said indignantly. "Besides, our flet back at Mithrilwood isn't much bigger."
"Yes, you do snore, and at home there's a wall between our beds at least," Ritva said, and continued with ruthless logic: "Besides, I snore. And therefore you snore."
"How do you know you snore? I was never rude enough to tell you," Mary said.
A boyfriend had informed Ritva that she snored like a water-powered ripsaw and slept with her mouth open—something not easy to express in Elvish, and it was among the reasons she'd dropped him—but she wasn't going to say that right now.
"How do I know you've been eating beans?" she said snidely instead, and they both laughed.
Epona chose that moment to start a purposeful move towards a cart-full of baled alfalfa hay on the road before them. They both moved their mounts to cut her off, and the big black mare stood staring at them with one hind foot slightly raised, swishing her tail, ears just a bit back. For a horse, Epona was extremely intelligent, disturbingly so; you could see the thoughts moving in her great dark eyes as she looked at you.
"Remember what Uncle Will said about her when she's doing that?" Ritva said.
"Yeah," Mary chuckled, and dropped into Texan-accented English for a moment. "Girls, she ain't lookin' at us that way 'cause she loves us."
The other horses fell back into an obedient clump when Epona decided she wasn't going to make trouble, even her daughters Macha Mongruad and Rhiannon. Contrary to what a lot of people thought, it was the lead mare that ran a horse-herd... and there was absolutely no doubt about who was boss mare when Epona was around. The problem was that when she was away from Rudi she got less and less interested in what people wanted.
They had their own mounts and a spare each, dappled gray five-year-olds with a big dash of Arab blood; and besides Epona and her get there were six others, all big warmbloods and battle-trained—what Portlanders called destriers, bred and trained to carry armored lancers in battle.
Destriers weren't much seen this side of the mountains. Folk out here favored quarterhorse and other ranch-breeds, mostly; agile and tough and suited alike to working range cattle or to the quicksilver eastern style of mounted combat. Destriers of the quality they were bringing cost more than a knight's armor and weren't common anywhere, the Association's territories included. They'd let the coats get rough and shaggy, and the light pack-saddles were an additional disguise, but there was only so much you could do to hide their quality from people who knew horses.
Epona wasn't carrying anything, of course. She never did, except to bear Rudi.
It was good to get the fortune-on-hooves they were driving to the paddock of the livery stable the Dúnedain used here, a bit outside the walls of Bend, over towards the forested slopes of Pilot Butte. The proprietor was busy when they came up, giving a worm-killing herbal drench to a blindfolded horse, a messy but essential task you had to do every couple of months at least, involving funnels and rubber hoses; they'd treated theirs before the trip started. A couple of his employees ran to open the log-frame gate. Part of the turnout had fine grass, watered from the Falls North canal, and a larger section a little higher bore gray-green sagebrush on good firm dry soil. There was a strong smell of manure from the heap beside the stables, and a smell of scorched metal and ting-ting-ting from the farrier's shop.
The owner himself came over when he'd finished the task, looking muddy and swearing under his breath. Horses didn't like having their mouths held open and things pushed down their throats; despite steel-toed boots he limped a bit where it had stepped on his foot accidentally-on-purpose.
"Mae govannen," he said, which sounded odd in a ranch-country twang.
Then he dropped back into English, since that exhausted his Sindarin: "Pleased to see you ladies again."
"Good to see you again too, Mr. Denks," Ritva said, mentally pushing the lever that switched her thoughts to English likewise. "You don't look too busy."
"Still the quiet time of year," Denks said as she leaned over to shake his hand; he hitched at his suspenders and then ran a hand over his glistening bald scalp. "We get some traffic down from the Columbia in winter, and from out east, but you're early to come over Highway 20."
Then, cocking an eye at the horses and making a tsk sound: "Look rid hard and put away wet, these'uns."
Epona was doing a circuit of the five-acre field, tail and head high, followed by her progeny. The others headed straight for the water and feed. There wasn't much grazing in the high country this time of year, and anyway horses like these couldn't get by on grass alone.
"Nice-lookin' critters if you like 'em big," Denks went on.
"Well, we'll be here long enough for you to feed them up a bit," Mary said; they'd slung bags of milled oats over each horse's back to get them over the mountains. "And have them reshod. We'll be needing some more stock—nothing fancy, enough to pull a Conestoga, harness-broke mules would do. And we'll be having a good deal of stuff dropped off here."
The man nodded without asking questions, which was welcome but not unexpected; he'd done business with the Rangers for years. They stored most of their gear with him in a hay-loft as well, taking only their swords, some money and documents, and a change of clothes into the city proper.
That involved a half-hour walk through the outskirts—places where suburban tracts had lain, burned over or torn down for their materials. Now they housed everything from truck-gardens to warehouses full of raw hides to the tanyards that turned them into leather with a stink of lye and acrid bark-juice to plain weeds and sagebrush and greasewood and stubs of wreckage. The city walls were the usual type, concrete and rubble around a core of salvaged steel girders; they were thick and strong, but the inhabitants hadn't bothered to smooth the outside as much as some places did, leaving it rough and gray-brown with edges of rock sticking out.
Which was a good metaphor for Bend in general. The clotted knot of would-be entrants on the road outside the eastern gate wasn't very big, but it wasn't moving much either, besides yelling and waving their arms and making their horses rear and snort. Being on foot the twins could push forward until they saw the reason; a Rancher and his cowboy-retainers arguing with the gate-guard. Ritva smiled to herself as he grumbled and eventually paid over the entrance-tax the city charged.
The CORA—the Central Orgeon Ranchers Association—was as much of a government as this area had; its assembly met here in Bend, and its lariat-and-branding-iron flag flew over the gatehouse. But though the city of Bend had shrunk drastically, there were still fifteen thousand souls living within the circuit of the walls in a bend of the Deschutes River. Its town council was scrappily independent of the big herding spreads, and so were the small farmers of the irrigated areas north and south of town.
Just to add spice to life in these parts, the Ranchers all quarreled with each other regularly too, partly from things like strayed unbranded mavericks ending in the wrong roundup and partly from sheer bull-headed cussedness. They got the essentials like defense and keeping up the dams and canals done, somehow, but you always wondered how when you saw their usual barroom-brawl notion of governance.
"Not much like Corvallis," Mary observed.
"They're organized down to their boot-laces," Ritva agreed. "I'm glad Bend doesn't do that peace-bonding nonsense on your sword."
Inside the streets were more crowded, as was inevitable in a walled town; empty spaces had been built up, and some of the single-story buildings raised a story or two. More people were on horseback than in a town west of the mountains, but by way of compensation there were good if thronged brick or board sidewalks, and squads of dung-scoopers.
They walked past cobblers and harnessmaker's shops—Bend was famous for its leather goods—and bookstores, furniture-makers, stores selling pre-Change and modern cutlery and pottery, clothiers and tailors with a hum of pedal-driven sewing machines, a printshop, cook-houses and taverns, and an entertainer strumming his guitar and singing with a bowl in front of him. They didn't drop any change in it; he used the whining nasal style of singing popular around here, and neither of them liked it.
"Mah horse is gone bad lame, mah dog done died, my woman don't love me no more and I ain't got no money for beeeeeeerrr," Mary crooned, in the same fashion.
Ritva laughed. It sounded a lot funnier when you said it in the Noble Tongue.
"You've created a new style, sis," she said. "Country and Elvish."
For a moment Mary's face turned sad. "The reason I don't like that type of song is it reminds me of Dad," she said. "He liked it—or something a lot like it, I think."
"Yeah," Ritva said, putting an arm around her sister's shoulders for an instant. "I miss him too."
They'd been two years short of ten when he rode away to war and never came back, only his body in a box, and their mother was different after that. These days their recollections of him felt faded somehow, as if they were memories of the memories rather than the thing itself. But she could remember the effortless strength as he scooped the both of them up, one under each arm, and twirled them around until they were all breathless and laughing...
Then they passed a school where children sat on the steps eating from their lunchboxes.
"Meren aes," Mary said.
Ritva could feel she was making herself cheerful; she nodded agreement as she realized she was hungry too. Time dulled grief, which was a kindness of the Lord and Lady to human kind. The smells of grilling and roasting and frying from the cookshops and taverns and street-vendors were making her mouth water.
"E yaxë olgaren nubast gwasolch," Mary went on.
"Yeah, I could use a hamburger and fries," Ritva replied.
The phrase translated strictly as cut-up cow beneath bread with edible roots, but usage had made the modern meaning plain.
"I like that spicy ketchup they make here."
Macy's Travelers Rest was familiar too; it had been a motel before the Change, though now the courtyard parking spaces held a timber bunkhouse for those without the rather stiff charge required to rent a room for themselves. The same people owned the grill/bar next door, and beyond that was a public bathhouse with a good reputation and plenty of hot water; between them an alleyway had been turned into a bowling-alley-cum-shooting gallery. Voices and an occasional shout and hard thunk came from there as they came down from their room—the Traveler's Rest was safe enough to leave ordinary gear unattended.
A hopeful voice called out: "You girls new in town?"
The words were unexceptional, but the tone wasn't and neither was the low whistle; from his worn leather clothes, the man was from the outback, probably in town for a spree, and it was only too apparent he and his friends hadn't visited the bathhouse yet. He wasn't much older than they were. Ritva sighed internally; that wouldn't have happened back west over the mountains, but the Rangers weren't quite as familiar here. They both turned so the loungers could see the trees-stars-crown on the front of their jerkins and take in the left hands resting casually on the long hilts of their swords. Another of the men started whispering in the ear of the one who'd spoken, but the speaker pushed him aside.
"Anyone can sew stuff on their shirt," he said, then turned what was probably intended to be an ingratiating smile on them.
It would work better without that black tooth, she thought.
The hangers-on had been whiling away time throwing tomahawks at the target down at the other end of the closed-in alley; it was a baulk of seasoned oak, and they were throwing hard at a chalked-out human outline on it. You had to throw hard to make a hatchet stick in an oak target fifty feet away, as well as getting the rotation just right—several had hit without the blade striking and bounced back halfway to the thrower's bar. One or two of them had wooden mugs of beer; and throwing edged iron around while you were drinking was truly stupid.
"Toss me one of those," Ritva said with a smile.
"Hey, these are dangerous, the edges are sharp," one of the others said.
He tossed one anyway, slow and underhand. Ritva caught it and flipped it to Mary, who threw it back.
"A couple more."
The men looked at each other; a couple of them grinned. They started throwing more of the hatchets, some of them harder and faster, but without hostile intent. The twins intercepted them and began flipping them back and forth to each other, a pair, then four, then six, then eight. Then they turned so that they were both facing towards the target and walked up to the throwing-line; the onlookers scattered as the whirling figure-eight of sharp iron approached.
"Hathyl hado!" Ritva cried, and suited action to the words: throw the axes!
Thunk! and the first tomahawk sank into the chest of the target, its handle quivering. Then they had to snatch the hatchets out of the juggle with one hand and throw with the other; that took concentration, but they'd been practicing tricks together a long time. Thunk—thunk—thunk—
"Thanks for the entertainment, boys," Mary said to the spectators politely, and they walked on towards the bar and grill, leaving an echoing silence behind them as the men contemplated the neat grouping in throat, midriff and crotch.
"Rym vin thûannem," Ritva said, feeling slightly guilty at her own enjoyment.
"Well, yes, we were blowing our own horns," her sister acknowledged. "But remember what Aunt Astrid said about spreading legends. That's a help to all the Dúnedain who ever come through here in times to come."
Ritva snorted. "Just a conjuring trick, anyway. Tomahawks are more trouble than they're worth."
A couple of the customers scurried back from the windows to take their seats again as the twins pushed through the swinging doors of the bar and grill and into the dim interior, their feet scrutching in the sawdust on the plank floor. A plain middle-aged waitress in a yellow dress and white apron came over. They returned her smile as they pulled out chairs at a vacant table and hung their sword-belts over the backs.
"Hi, ladies," she said—they'd been promoted from girls the last time they visited. "Welcome back to town—what'll it be?"
"Two bacon-cheddar burgers, Sarah," Ritva said, and then sighed in exasperation as she realized she'd stopped thinking—and speaking—in English again, and her Sindarin had gotten an amused raised eyebrow.
She repeated it in the Common Tongue and added. "Mayonnaise, onions... got any tomatoes?"
"Dried or pickled."
"Pickled. Two mugs of root beer."
The twins passed the time waiting for their food by playing Mubledy Peg, resting their daggers' hilts on the backs of their hands and trying to set them point-down in the floor by flicking them off—they weren't the first by a long shot, to judge by the state of the boards. The hamburgers' smoky richness was a welcome change from venison jerky; hard work outside in cold weather made you crave fats. And they were only ten cents each for patrons of Macy's.
As they left, Mary looked down at the list she'd taken out of a pocket in her black Ranger's jerkin. Bend was a good place to pick up supplies for a trip; routes from north and east and west and south funneled trade and travel here, and sellers came where the buyers congregated. So did the best makers and artisans this side of the Cascades.
"One steel-axle twenty-foot Conestoga wagon with extra covers for the tilt, spare wheels and hubs and tire-rims," she began.
"Náyak!" Ritva said, wincing slightly and thinking of the price: "Painful!"
"It's not our money, sis. Hmmm... Shovels, picks, axes, hauling chains, grease bucket and keg of good-quality axle grease, heavy jack, caltrops, lariats, hemp twine and rope, canvas, extra shoes and boots, sweaters, hats, knit socks, underwear, needles and thread, soap, blankets, oilskins and tarpaulins, three tents, saddler's tools and leather, horseshoe blanks for cold-shoeing, small hollow anvil, farrier's tools, nails, lanterns, alcohol for lanterns, flints and wicks for lighters, water barrels and a keg of water purification powder, medicine chest, horse medicine chest..."
"Did you ever wonder how the Fellowship made do with only one pack pony?" Ritva said, looking over her shoulder.
That ordinary-looking man might have been following them. On the other hand, he went into a shop as she watched, so probably not.
"They probably didn't change their underwear or use soap," Mary said.
Aunt Astrid would have been appalled. They both had the thought at the same time, and giggled.
Then: "And there's the food."
Buying first-quality in bulk would be expensive this time of year, before the crops started coming in.
"We shouldn't load too much," Ritva said.
They both knew you ended up foraging or buying locally eventually on a long trip; that was why modern trade routes tended to detour around deserts, unlike the pre-Change interstates. But...
"I think Rudi's going to be taking us through out-of-the-way places where foraging takes real time. With a twenty-footer we can afford a little weight and Denks will help us with stowing the loads. Let's see... barreled salt pork, smoked hams, bacon, jerky, hard-tack in sealed boxes, dried beans, dried peas, dried fruit, shelled nuts, cornmeal, whole-meal wheat flour, yeast in sealed packets, milled oats with molasses for fodder, sea-salt..."
"Did you notice who got stuck with the chores on this glorious Quest?" Ritva added as they came out of a feed-store several hours later, squinting up at the afternoon sun over the Cascades. "Admittedly we're the ones who can do it without attracting much attention, but... They'll have us fetching the tea, next."
"Well, if we're spending other people's money, let's blow some on plastic containers –"in English perforce; nobody had come up with a Sindarin equivalent "—for the bulk foodstuffs—less chance of weevils, if we're careful. Those old trash barrels are getting ragged, but the fifty-gallon kind are still good."
"Expensive, but they're worth it," Ritva nodded, then looked down at the list again. "Just the weapons, and we're done."
The proprietor of A. E. Isherman's Fine Arms and Armor knew them of old and greeted them beaming under the swinging sign—'The right to buy weapons is the right to be free'—not far from the old Town Hall. He was a short dark strong-featured man of about forty with shoulders like a blacksmith, two fingers missing from his left hand and a remarkable set of scars that ran from the angle of his jaw under the rolled top of his sweater. They looked very much like someone had tried to tear out his throat with their teeth once, and come quite close to succeeding.
"If it isn't my favorite elf-maidens," he said with a grin and a bow that showed the little knit skullcap on the back of his head. "On your own this time, eh? Still ohtar or have you been promoted to Roquen yet?"
Ritva smiled slightly and caught the let's play vibe from her sister. Ish was one of the ones who couldn't tell them apart when they were putting it on.
"Ohtar. But we're not elves," she said loftily.
"It's the Fifth Age," Mary continued. "The Age of Mortal Men. And Mortal Women. The Fourth Age ended with the Change."
"There haven't been any elves around for a long long time," Ritva continued.
"Not since the early Fourth Age, probably."
"The elves all departed into the Uttermost West long ago, everyone knows that."
"Which is even further west than Oregon."
"We just talk Elvish."
"Isn't it interesting, though: the kids at Stardell Hall are probably the first people in Middle Earth to speak it from the cradle for... well, nobody knows how long ago the Third Age was, really."
His head went back and forth like someone watching a tennis-ball, and then he shook his head and made a broad welcoming gesture.
"Only the best for the Rangers, mortals or not. Come on in."
They both made a respectful gesture to the little silver scroll beside the door as they entered. The big siding-clad frame building had been a fishing outfitter's store in the old days; despite the new skylights and a couple of good modern lanterns it was rather dim inside, and the new potbellied stove probably didn't keep it very warm in winter either.
There was an enticing smell to the weapon shop of Isherman, though: the sharp acrid scents of oiled steel and brass, the richer mellowness of leather and seasoned cedarwood, boxes of horn and sinew and wicker baskets full of gray goose flight-feathers. Spears and polearms gleamed in horizontal racks or rested with their butts in wire cages like sheaves of demonic pruning-hooks; bundles of arrows bristled from barrels, and arrowheads rested gleaming in little kegs. Armor stood on old store mannequins, looking like ghostly headless warriors in the gloom, and helmets hung like bunches of huge grapes from the ceiling.
Isherman didn't manufacture most of it, but he had contacts with plenty of the best craftsfolk east of the mountains, and some west of them—Ritva recognized a set of Sam Aylward's bows.
"We'll be taking quite a bit," Mary said, looking at her list again, and began mentioning quantities.
"Going on a long trip, Ms. Havel and Ms. Havel?" Isherman asked when she'd finished. "The Rangers getting a big caravan together? Planning to start your own war?"
"Ish, what's the polite way to say if I wanted you to know, I'd tell you?"
He stroked his black chin-beard with the remaining digits on the mutilated hand and looked at the two young women.
"There is no polite way to say that, Ms. Havel... though it's usually men saying it to ladies."
"Shall I think of a more impolite way to say it?" Ritva enquired with a bright, cheerful smile.
Isherman shrugged and smiled himself as he waved a hand at two chairs in front of a table he used as a desk. It held ledgers, piles of paper, and several inkwells and sets of trimmed quills.
"Isaac!" he called to one of the teenaged sons who worked with him. "Some clover tea and honey and biscuits for our guests!"
"Aha, serious haggling is in store," Mary said, and rubbed her hands. "Gell!"
Ritva left her to it; her sister had more natural talent in that direction, though neither of them was really in Isherman's league. She drank some of the sharp-sweet tea and nibbled at a shortbread biscuit rich with pinion nuts while the samples were brought out and gravely considered.
Everyone on the expedition had their own personal armor and sword, custom-made and better than Isherman's best, but you always needed spare arrows and makings, and bits and pieces to maintain your war-harness in trim and repair damage, down to little bottles of fine linseed oil for keeping the straps supple. A few good bows were also advisable; bows were fragile. And while a first-rate sword could be passed down several generations with proper care, even the best shield was lucky to survive one hour of strong arms and heavy blows; they ended up buying a couple for each member of the party, adjusted to their height and heft, both ordinary round ones and the big kite-shaped Norman style Association nobles used.
"And twenty lances. Knight's lances, ashwood," Mary said.
The long poles were another thing that was unlikely to make it through more than one fight. So...
"And another twenty spare shafts," Ritva amplified.
Isherman's eyebrows went up, and he looked as if the urge to ask questions was about to make steam come out of his ears. Instead he shrugged and showed them what he had in stock. The weapons were ten feet of gently tapering wood, with a head like a narrow two-edged dagger a foot long heat-shrunk onto the end and a weighted butt-cap to make it balance two-thirds of the way back from the point. These were the very latest type, with a hand-guard like a small shallow steel bowl fastened just ahead of the grip.
"Good spring steel for the lanceheads, and properly retempered, not just ground down," he said.
"Ish, you never try to short anyone on quality," Mary said severely. "Prices the Gods couldn't afford, yes; quality problems, no. And don't tell me how it pains you to part with the lances. Out here, they're not real popular."
"I'll go down another twenty dollars, but no more." The man shrugged with a wry smile. "Inferior gear would get my customers killed, not to mention my reputation. So, is it a deal?"
Both the sisters shook with him to seal it; he added an omayan and they invoked the Lord and Lady and the spirits of the Uttermost West. The proprietor looked happy—sort of—as Ritva took out her checkbook; it would be insulting for him to look too happy, since that would mean he'd diddled them to an excessive degree. She dipped the quill pen in the inkpot on top of his desk and made one out to Isherman's Fine Arms and Armor, drawn on the Dúnedain Rangers' account at the First National and carefully noted the amount in the registration book at the back.
Uncle Alleyne pitched a fit if you weren't careful about accounts.
We might have gotten another five, ten percent off if we'd split up the purchases and gone all over town, Ritva thought. But that wouldn't be worth the time and trouble since we're in a hurry—and Ish is more reliable on quality than anyone else here.
"And you're not going to tell me a word about what this is all in aid of, are you?" he said as he waved the check in the air to dry the oak-gall-lampblack ink and slid it through a slot into his strongbox, then made out an invoice.
Ritva cleared her throat and looked at her sister; Mary had stepped over to the door even as one of the apprentices opened it in curiosity. There was a small open park across from the shop; locally it was called Free Speech Corner, and by convention everyone from wandering religious enthusiasts and local politicians to general wingnuts with a new theory about who, Who or what had caused the Change could address whoever would listen there. There were even a couple of conveniently-shaped rocks, so that you didn't have to bring a bucket, barrel or chair to stand on.
"What's that?" Ritva called; all she could see from here was people's backs, many of them standing on wagons.
"Some new preacher who's been tearing up the scenery lately. The Ranchers don't like 'em, which means some here in town do."
They caught a few phrases through the rumble of the crowd: Ascended Master Jesus Christ... wrath of God on us again, like the Change... arrogance of the rich, who God will surely humble as He exalts His poor... soulless minions...
"Hey, who you calling a soulless minion?" a cowboy standing on one of the wagons shouted. "You bossless son of a Rover whore!"
Someone in the crowd below grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him down; he yelled twice, once in outrage and once in pain as he thumped against the hard ground. Two of his friends jumped down and started kicking and punching the man who'd grabbed their friend. Someone jumped on the back of one of the cowboys and began punching him...
"Uh-oh," Mary said.
"Uh-oh," Ritva agreed.
Then a knife glinted and they heard the distinctive wheep of a sword coming out of a sheath. Normally they would have to help the locals restore order—Rangers were supposed to do that. This time they couldn't.
"Ere!" Mary said. "Rudi will kill us if we get ourselves killed right now."
"Ere," Ritva agreed. Shit seemed appropriate.
"There's one of the pagans!" a scrawny man in well-worn clothes screeched, pointing at the tree-and-stars on her jerkin, visible in the doorway. He threw a rock at her.
Crash. The two-pound cobblestone went through an irreplaceable pre-Change window and knocked over a stand of arrows. A number of people in the crowd-turning-into-a-riot started their way.
Ritva and her sister looked at each other and picked up two of the round shields, slipped on their helmets, and each grabbed a yard-long axe-handle from a bin.
"Isaac! Reuben!" Isherman called.
His two sons were seventeen and eighteen; otherwise they looked almost as much alike as Mary and Ritva, and much like their father, down to the skullcaps. The young men scooped up helmets and shields and clubs. Half a dozen other shopkeepers from up and down the street were coming out as well, carrying everything from a sledgehammer to a blacksnake whip.
In Bend, most respectable citizens were sworn in as deputy peace officers in advance. You could riot here pretty freely, as long as you accepted that the local taxpayers were just as free to bash your head in for it.
Another rock cracked off the two-foot circle of bullhide-covered plywood on her arm as she hopped down into the street off the board sidewalk. She took a dozen paces and made a long lunge of the sort she'd have used with her sword and poked the man in the belly with the end of the stick, hard. He went uffff! and folded over. Unlike someone stabbed in the gut with a longsword, he'd be getting up again; Mary rapped him behind the ear with carefully calculated force as they went by to make sure his resurrection didn't happen too soon or too comfortably.
"Adventure," Ritva said, as they moved in well-drilled unison and tried to watch all directions at once.
I really wouldn't like to get stabbed in the back here, or have my brains knocked out with a brick.
"Ere," her sister said, nodding.
The High Cascades, Central Oregon
April 20th, CY23/2021 AD
"We're not moving fast enough," Ingolf said, hitching his thumbs into the straps of his pack.
His teeth wanted to chatter. It was an effort of will not to be depressed—the sensations of being wet and cold were similar enough that it was easy to let the one slip into the other. And another not to snap at Rudi's indecent cheerfulness.
White flakes were falling out of the sky, drifting down silently between the tall dark-green firs and hemlocks, muffling sound, making even the smells of sap and wet earth seem faded. The flakes that landed on him were big and fluffy and a little wet, the sort you got at the beginning and end of winter back home as well. So far they were sticking on the branches but not much on the ground, and the rocky dirt of the game-path was turning to rocks mixed with cold mud. But the temperature was falling with the sun, somewhere up above the gray ceiling that was coming closer and closer.
The breath of the three men steamed in the cold air, and Garbh was walking along with her head down and a white scruff starting to build up on her black-and-gray fur.
The clouds already hid the mountaintops, and now the thin air was wet at the same time. Luckily the pathway ran along the slope here rather than up and down the forty-degree mountainside. You could trust a couple of generations of deer to find the easiest way through.
"At least you two know how at how to handle cold weather in these mountains," Ingolf said. "Cold winters I'm at home with, but I was born a lowlander and I nearly got killed coming over the Cascades last year."
Something in the way Rudi's shoulders set ahead of him made him go on a little sharply: "You are experienced at handling winter weather here, right? It's only a couple of days walk from where you live."
Rudi stopped; behind Ingolf, Edain did as well. "No, I'm not," Rudi said shortly, turning to face him. "Nobody comes up this high except in summer, usually. Not even bandits."
"No point," Edain said helpfully. "The big game all migrates down to the foothills or the valley in wintertime. And these are wet mountains, here on the western side, as wet as wet can be."
Rudi chimed in: "They get a lot of snow, twenty, thirty feet in a winter, sometimes more. And it can happen right up until June."
"Yeah, I can see that," Ingolf said dryly. "If we really didn't want anyone to notice us, this was the way to come, by God."
He looked up the boulder-strewn slope where the old granulated drifts were still waist-deep, the surface rapidly disappearing under the new fall. Off to the right a fair-sized river was rushing unseen in a deep cleft, hard enough with the first of the spring flood that sometimes it shook the rock under his feet. The temperature was dropping faster now, and the snow fell more thickly. But not in straight lines out of the sky; the tips of the tall pointed trees were beginning to move a little, and the snow slanted as it picked up speed.
A low moaning began as the wind strengthened, at first the sort of teasing almost-sound that you couldn't swear to, then louder and louder.
"Look, we have both lain out in the woods often enough in wintertime," Rudi said.
Ingolf nodded, but that was not the same thing. Down on the floor of the Willamette snow lasted a week at the outside, usually a lot less. He'd been told that some winters didn't have any at all. There was nothing like the months of hurt-your-face freezing weather he was used to back home in the Kickapoo country on either side of Christmas. Or the blizzards that he'd experienced out on the high plains in the Dakotas, which could kill a man trying to get from the campfire to a tent fifteen feet away. Up here, six or seven thousand feet higher than the valley floor, it probably got just that bad—or possibly even worse. Judging from what he'd gone through last year in the Santiam Pass, which was lower and warmer than this area... it was worse.
The trouble was that every particular stretch of the world had its own way of killing you, and the counter-measures were usually highly specific too. What worked in the Kickapoo country wouldn't always in the north woods, and neither set of skills would map right onto the shortgrass plains of the Dakotas. He guessed that went double for mountains... which, to date, he'd mostly traveled in the summertime.
"OK, it looks like our luck has run out," he said, jerking a thumb upward.
Rudi and Edain looked up, took deep breaths to taste the weather, looked at the snow, blinking as flakes drove into their faces.
"You could be saying that," Rudi said with a wry smile, and the other Mackenzie added:
"Just a wee bit."
Rudi went on: "I'd say we're in for a really bad one—last of the season, perhaps, but bad. By tomorrow morning it could be twelve feet deep. Good day to stay home drinking mulled cider and roasting nuts by the fire and telling stories."
Ingolf joined in the laugh. They were experienced woods-runners and hunters, after all. Just not in as many environments as he'd seen. Rudi wrapped his knit scarf around his face, leaving only the eyes uncovered.
"And cold enough to freeze off your wedding tackle," Ingolf said. At Edain's grin: "I'm not joking, kid. I've seen it happen."
The young man looked stricken and visibly refrained from a reassuring clutch at himself. Rudi thumped him on the back.
"And are you glad you switched to trousers the now, eh?" he said.
Edain shuddered and nodded. They were all in thick wool pants over long-johns and fleece-lined boots of oiled leather, with bulky sheepskin coats worn hair-side-in and knitted caps and good gloves; that and the heavy packs made them look like fat white snowmen in the growing blizzard. They had their cased bows and quivers over their backs as well, and the two clansmen wore their plaids and carried six-foot quarterstaves of ashwood with iron butt-caps. The warm clothes weren't perfect protection against freezing to death, particularly if they got wet. And they would, if they kept walking too long, or they'd simply get buried, if the snow could come as deep as the other two said.
"OK, let's keep an eye peeled for someplace to fort up," he said; louder now, to override the soughing of the storm. "You guys have been up here in summertime, right?"
"That we have," Rudi said, and Edain nodded vigorously. "In the general area, as it were."
An hour later he was starting to get really worried. The wind was slashing at them like a Sioux raiding party off the high plains, coming from any direction or none without any warning; and it carried enough snow to feel like someone was socking you with a snowball every half-second or so. He could barely see ten yards, and that only when a gust cleared the way, and the snow was up past his knees. That meant even with the pants bloused out and tucked into the boots snow was working its way inside, then melting and running down into his socks; the burning in his calves and thighs was bad enough to distract him from the feet.
Ingolf thought Rudi was looking a little worried too—it was hard to tell when all you could see of a man was snow-covered eyebrows, what with the cap above and the scarf wrapped around his face below. And of course Rudi wouldn't show it. The best way to keep fear under control was to simply refuse to acknowledge it; not to others, and not to yourself if you could help it.
He scraped the wet clinging stuff off his face with one glove and peered ahead. "I think that overhang ahead is our best bet," he said, pointing. "Unless you know about a real cave around here?"
"No, I don't," Rudi said. He hesitated, then nodded. "Better than nothing."
The snow was starting to sting when it hit exposed skin, ice-crystals hard and sharp in the colder air. They fought through a gust like a punch in the stomach and into the shelter of the overhang, where the rock of the mountainside showed bare and leaned a little over the trail. It wasn't a cave by any means, but it did slope in six feet back from the trail proper, with a floor that was nearly horizontal. From the way dirt and needles had mounded up there it didn't flood. Ingolf looked around as best he could.
"We need some saplings!" he shouted into the other's faces. "These firs are too big!"
Edain was lost in a stolid misery, ready to keep going until he dropped but more likely to do that and die than think; Garbh nuzzled at him, whining. The elder Mackenzie shook Edain until some semblance of humanity returned to the gray eyes.
Then Rudi shouted back to Ingolf: "I think there's an old burn just down from here!"
They all threw their packs down in the back of the overhang, where the snow was thinnest, laid their swords over them, then took off the coils of rope tied to the outside of the horsehide haversacks. Those had metal clips swagged onto their ends, and snapped together.
"Work as if your life depended on it," Ingolf said. "Because it fucking does!"
Rudi turned out to have some old-time metal tent-pegs in his pack. Ingolf beat two of them into a crack in the rock with the back of his tomahawk.
"You've got to be ready to haul up!" Rudi yelled at Edain. "Are you ready, clansman?"
Edain whacked himself on both cheeks with the palm of his glove. "That I am, Chief!" he shouted back through the white noise of the wind.
The rope went through the notches in the steel pegs; Edain took a hitch across his back and wrapped it around his left arm, paying out with his right. That way he could walk backwards against the weight when he was hauling in. The two older men went down the rope swiftly, using it more to steady themselves than to bear their weight, through a screen of snow-heavy bush and into a patch of tall thin Douglas fir saplings, wrist-thick and fifteen feet long. He couldn't tell how big it was, not with the snow swirling thick about them, but it was more than enough.
"Perfect!" Ingolf said. "Get 'em!"
They both had hatchets—his own was his tomahawk. He cut a sapling off at knee height with two strokes, forehand and backhand, and pushed it over; it caught on half a dozen uncut ones as it started to slither downslope. The next time the round handle turned against the slippery surface of his glove; he wrenched himself aside, and it was the flat that bounced against his boot rather than the cutting edge... enough to hurt, but he broke a cold sweat at the thought of what a wound would mean here and now.
By the time they'd sent four bundles of saplings up to Edain, Ingolf was afraid that everything would blow away anyway. He and Rudi climbed back up to the trail to find that the younger Mackenzie had already started stacking the saplings in a half-moon, their butts braced with rock and the tops trimmed and jammed against the stone, each woven to the next with their branches. The other two men pitched in; by the time the little shelter was complete snow had already covered its sloping sides six inches deep.
When they crawled inside and pulled the small door of branches to behind them the—relative—quiet was more stunning than the noise outside had been. They all lay panting in the dense dark while their ears recovered enough to hear the muted wail outside. Cold got Ingolf moving again; it was actually better in here, and improving as the body-heat of three men and a dog warmed the still air, but not what you'd call comfortable... and between sweat and melted snow, he was wet at the skin.
The flame of his lighter showed the rock of the overhang and the semicircle of trail the sapling shelter covered. When he began scraping a circle clear and piling tinder—of which they had plenty, since the ground was covered with fir-branches—Rudi and Edain looked at him in alarm.
"You can't light a fire here, Ingolf," Rudi said. "We'll smother—the snow's making this as airtight as a kitchen breadbox. Our body-heat will keep us from freezing."
Ingolf grinned as he stripped off his gloves. It felt good to be able to smile without ice crackling from his face.
"Watch and learn, children," he said.
He'd brought in a fair amount of bark, as well as deadwood; the bark was from some fortunate Mountain larch trees, thick and furrowed and fairly fire-resistant. He tied sections into a rough hollow square tube, reinforced it with sticks, and thrust the completed article up along a crack in the rock at the edge, through the sloped saplings and the snow on top of them. More of it made a smoke-hood beneath the improvised chimney, and then he got a small fire going on the floor. Flickering reddish light opened out the little chamber they'd made, seeming to push back the noise of the storm a bit. The men stripped off their outer garments and hung them from the saplings, making added insulation and an opportunity for them to dry as well.
"Well, we're not the first here," Edain said grimly, as he spread the boughs across one corner of the overhang.
What had seemed like another brown rock was in fact a skull. The bone was clean and dry, long since picked bare by insects and decay; the gold in the teeth gleamed in the firelight.
Ingolf nodded. Edain reburied the remains, and Rudi made a sign over it and murmured a few words he didn't catch. None of them were much put out; you still found the like pretty well everywhere except places where people had lived since the Change to clean things up. A lot of people had died that year, and skulls lasted.
The fire cast a grateful warmth. The little shelter would have been habitable without it, given the depth of snow piling up outside to insulate it. But it certainly helped to have their own temporary hearth.
"This is a good trick," Rudi said, grinning at Ingolf. "Home away from home."
"Well, I wouldn't go quite as far as to call it homelike, if you take my meaning, Chief," Edain said. "I'll remember the way of it though, if I'm ever caught out like this again."
"I learned it from an old Anishinabe named Pete—Pierre, actually—Pierre Walks Quiet. He worked for my father," Ingolf said. "Wandered in from the north woods a couple of years after the Change and ended up bossing the Readstown forests for us—timber runner, looking after the game, stuff like that. He helped teach me woodcraft when he took me and my brothers on hunting trips... and scared the bejezus out of us with stories about windigo. We get a lot of snow, and we get it every damned year."
Rudi stretched and yawned. The sun was probably barely down outside, but they were all ready for rest.
"I'm part Anishinabe myself," he said. "One-eighth. My father's mother's mother was Ojibwa. My blood-father came from your part of the world—further north and east a bit, if I remember the old maps."
Ingolf nodded. You wouldn't have thought it from the way the young man looked, except maybe the high set of his cheekbones and the slightly tilted eyes.
"And I'm a member in good standing of the tribe called hungry," Edain said.
He mixed meal from a bag in his pack with melted snow and set the dough on a thin metal plate over the fire that he greased with a pat of butter. It rose and browned, filling the shelter with a mouth-watering smell that was not quite like baking bread but close enough; Ingolf felt his hunger return as warmth and the scent reminded him of just how much effort his body had put out today. The meal was premixed with baking soda and a little salt, a Mackenzie trick he admired; it gave you something a lot better than the usual travelers' ash-cake.
The rest of their supper was the last of the pork-chops and trail-food; after today they'd be down to leathery, salty smoked sausage for meat to go with the hard cheese and dried fruit. Oatmeal and some of the fruit went into a pot of water, to cook overnight in the ashes and be ready for breakfast.
"When you're hungry enough, this all tastes good," Rudi said.
"When you're hungry enough, your boot-laces taste good," Ingolf said tolerantly. "Hope we don't come to that on this trip."
Though we probably will, sooner or later, he thought, and went on aloud: "Now for another trick."
He'd collected the saplings he needed along with the firewood, and he had plenty of leather thongs in his pack; a few minutes work gave him two teardrop-shaped snowshoes, a little crude but useable. The Mackenzies watched carefully as the shavings peeled away from the wood beneath his knife and he tied the ends together and knotted the webwork across. The only tricky part was the square opening in the middle and the loop to catch the toe of a boot.
"I've heard of those, but I've never actually used them," Rudi said, turning one over in his hands. "Skis yes, sometimes, snowshoes no. Not much call for them, down in the Valley."
"There's nothing like them for deep snow in the woods," Ingolf said. "Especially when you don't know the ground; you've got better control than you do on skis, even if it's slower. Your turn."
It was his turn to watch, but the two younger men were both good with tools and used to handling wood and leather, and produced passable if not elegant results. Then they played paper-stone-scissors to see who'd take which night-watch. Nothing was likely to hit them from the outside in weather like this unless it was a particularly mean bear, but someone had to keep the fire carefully, given the combination of open flame and the tinderbox materials of their shelter.
Then the two Mackenzies made their evening prayers; it made Ingolf feel a little self-conscious about the way he'd gotten lax over the years, so he said a rosary. It would have made old Father Matthew smile, anyway.
"Wish we were over the mountains already, though," Edain said, wrapping himself in his sleeping-bag and stretching out on the crackling, sweet-scented boughs. A smile: "Mom told me not to get my feet wet, you see."
Garbh curled up against his stomach; now that it wasn't so cold in here it smelled powerfully of wet dog, the wet leather of their boots and gear and the tallow that greased it, and the more pleasant scents of fir-sap and the sputtering coals and the slowly cooking oatmeal. Even the muted howling of the wind was comforting, with a full belly and a soft place to sleep.
"Wish we didn't have to leave at all," Rudi added. "Curse the Prophet and whatever-it-was you saw on Nantucket both, Ingolf. Nothing personal."
"Not much point in cursing it, any more than the weather," Ingolf said, twisting to find a comfortable position. "Mind you, times like this I wish I was settled down somewhere with a nice warm girl and a good farm, myself."
"No, it doesn't help... but cursing it makes me feel a little better," Rudi said, flashing him a grin.
"I'd settle for the nice warm girl, right now, meself," Edain said. "Not that you two aren't good companions for the trail, but you're a mite hairy and smelly for perfection."
"Bite your tongue," Rudi said. "You might be camping out with my half-sisters."
"No offense, Chief, but..." Edain said, and shuddered theatrically.
"You two done much traveling together?" Ingolf asked. In other words, 'why did you pick this kid'?
"Just a wee bit, you might say," Rudi said. "And he was with me up at Tillamook last year, when the Haida hit us."
"So was Garbh," Edain said, and thumped the dog's ribs.
"Yeah, but she wasn't so useful," Rudi said. "Tell the man about it, Edain—we're all going to be together a long time, and we need to know each other."
Modesty, Ingolf decided, listening to the protest in the tone. Whoda'thunkit?
"Wait a minute," he said. "Wasn't that the fight where Saba's husband got killed?"
"Sure and it was," Rudi said. "He was on a trading trip; the Brannigans and their kin are all good at that. Myself and Edain and a few friends had been traveling up north, seeing the sights you might say, and went along with Raen and his wagons for the last bit when they headed to Tillamook. I know the baron there, and could introduce them. Then..."
Edain stayed silent. Rudi snorted. "You tell him or I will, boyo!"
"Everything was fine until we got to the coast," Edain said at last, starting slowly, as if dragging things out of the well of memory that wanted to stay submerged. "This was... by the Wise Lord, more than a year ago now. We were riding along and singing—"
County Tillamook, Portland Protective Association
October 1, CY 21/2019 AD
"It was upon a Lammas night
When corn rigs are bonny
Beneath the Moon's unclouded light
I lay a-while with Molly..."
The song died away, muffled in the clinging mist, and they rode on in silence; though usually you couldn't get four young Mackenzie clansfolk to shut up, riding abroad for adventure and strange sights. The air was too thick, and the way it drank sound made the song forlorn.
I feel like a ghost, Edain Aylward Mackenzie thought, peering through the fog.
Then he shivered a little at the thought, spitting leftward to avert the omen and signing the Horns. Thick morning mist off the sea puffed and billowed about them, and moisture dripped from the boughs of the roadside trees. Drifts wandered over the graveled way; the fetlocks of the horses stirred it like a man's breath in smoke. Slow wet wind soughed through the Coast Range firs behind him, louder than the sounds of the little caravan's hooves and wheels; the Association baron and Rudi Mackenzie rode directly ahead.
"These clansfolk have come all the way from Sutterdown to see about your cheeses and smoked salmon," Rudi said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder towards the wagons. "Not to mention that attar-of-roses stuff you wrote about. If trade's not below your notice, Juhel."
"Men with wheat-fields and vineyards in their demesne and Portland on their doorstep can afford to get picky about dérogeance," the young baron growled. "What I've got is trees, grass, cows, potatoes and fish. God has given this land and these people into my charge—and now that I'm Anne's guardian, the whole of God-damned County Tillamook's on my plate 'till she's come of age, not just Barony Netarts. It's up to me to see to it the people prosper. I'm sick of courtiers making jokes about Tillamookers in wooden shoes."
Edain listened and snorted quietly to himself. He'd seen enough in this visit to know that any Association aristo would say that sort of thing, and a lot of them were right bastards all the same. Evidently Rudi thought this one meant it, though—he'd gotten to know the man while he was up north in Protectorate territory on his yearly visits.
That was why Juniper Mackenzie's son and tanist had agreed to speak for the wagon-train's owners. Edain and his three friends had come along for the fun of the thing, this being after Mabon and slack time on their parents' crofts. There were casks of Brannigan's Special and carved horn cups from Bend and raw turquoise and such packed in the wagons, and blankets and cloaks woven on Mackenzie looms—his own mother and sister's among them.
He let the conversation blur into the background noise of hooves and wheels on gravel and looked around instead; he'd come along on this trip with Rudi to see new things.
That I have! he thought.
The ruins of Salem, the steel gates of Larsdalen, great empty-eyed skyscrapers in Portland staring like lost spirits of the past at the present-day pomp of tournament and court, the majesty of the Columbia gorge and hang-gliders dancing through it like autumn leaves, Astoria and its tall ships and crews from as far away as Chile and Hawaii, Tasmania and New Singapore and Hinduraj...
And the sea, the Mother's sea. And whales! And sea lions!
His eyes went left, towards the ocean about a mile away. The great gray vastness of the Pacific was out of sight now—fog still clung in drifts and banks over the flat green fields of the Tillamook plain.
It gave them glimpses as if curtains were drawn aside for an instant and then dropped back. They rode past drainage ditches and levees and rows of poplars with leaves gone brown-gold and the skeletal shape of a windmill that pumped water to dry out the soggy land. Cows with red and yellow and brown coats grazed between rose-hedges, mostly on the rich grass of the common pastures; now and then there were fields that looked like reaped oats, and potatoes; others bore ranks of rosebushes, an odd-looking thing to be grown like a crop, and he wished he could see them in summer's glory.
He could smell the sea, though, the wild deep salt of it, and the rich silty scent of the vast salt marshes on the seaward edge of the plain. They were full of wildfowl at this time of year too, and the gobbling and honking and thrashing of their wings came clear.
A village passed, stirring to the morning's work and giving off a mouth-watering scent of cooking and baking; there was a roadside calvary; then a manor's sprawling outbuildings, and ahead the gray concrete of a castle's tower on a hill, with the town walls of Tillamook glimpsed at the edge of sight when a gust parted the fog for a moment. A fisherman had told them there would likely be an onshore breeze most mornings. The view would be better from the castle where they'd be guesting...
And I'm sharp-set for breakfast.
They did an excellently good veal-and-potato pie here, and fine things with seafood you couldn't get in the Clan's home territory.
The baron's young son dropped his pony back from where the talk had turned boringly to trade. His father's men-at-arms and crossbowmen rode on the left side of the road, and the four Mackenzies who'd come with Rudi on the right, and behind it all the wagons and the clansfolk from Sutterdown who were wrangling them. He angled back towards the fascinating strangers and gave a would-be-regal nod.
"The best of the morning to you, young sir," Edain said.
That was polite enough, and Mackenzies didn't call anyone lord—even the Chief herself herself, the Mackenzie, much less some foreign kid in strange clothes. The boy was dressed in a miniature version of his father's green leather-and-wool hunting garb, down to the arms in the heraldic shield on the chest of his jerkin—a round cheese one-half sinster, with a holstein head dexter, a crossed sword and crossbow below. He also had a real if boy-sized sword; otherwise he looked like any tow-haired and freckled seven-year-old.
"You guys sure talk funny," the lad said seriously.
"And sure, we think you northerners are the ones that talk funny," Edain replied, exaggerating his lilt and winking.
The youngster laughed, but Edain did think that; the Portlanders' accent was flat and a little grating to an ear accustomed to the musical rise and fall the younger clansfolk put into English, and the nobles here sprinkled their talk with words from some foreign language in an absurd, affected fashion.
The boy threw a look at their kilts and plaids and bonnets; Rinn Smith and Otter Carson had painted up too, with designs on their faces in black and scarlet and green and gold—designs of Fox and Dragon, for their sept totems. Not from serious expectation of a fight, but to play to the Clan's image and look fierce for the outlanders. Rinn thought it impressed outlander girls no end, often onto their backs in a haystack to hear him tell it, but then he was a boaster who'd have worn himself away to a shadow in the past couple of weeks if everything he claimed was true.
And he's not traveling with his girlfriend.
"And you wear weird clothes, too," the nobleman's son went on. "Even weirder than Bearkillers or the people from Corvallis."
"They are strange there," Edain agreed gravely. Though not so strange as you Portlanders.
"You've been to all those places?"
"To most of them. The wagons have come direct from the Clan's land, but the young Mackenzie and we have been wandering with our feet free and our fancy our only master for weeks now, and only joined them these last days."
Pure sea-green envy informed the look he got. "Cool! I'm going to go to be a page at the Lady Regent's court in a couple of years, in Portland and Castle Todenangst and places. So I can learn to be a squire and then a knight and stuff. That'll be cool too."
Edain found himself grinning; he'd come into the wide world himself now and seen some of the wonders of it, but to the lad this little pocket of farm and forest by the sea was the world, just as Dun Fairfax had been to him at that age. More so, because he'd had Dun Juniper just an hour's walk away, with all its comings and goings, and the Mackenzie herself dropping by to talk with his father. This place was a backwater.
The boy drew himself up then, consciously remembering his manners:
"I'm Gaston Strangeways," he said, left hand on the pommel of his miniature sword. "Son and heir of Baron Juhel Strangeways—Lord Juhel de Netarts, guardian of County Tillamook, with the right of the high justice, the middle and the low."
"It's an impressive array of titles, that it is," Edain said, and they shook hands solemnly, leaning over in their saddles.
"And his father was a knight, too. Even before the Change. He died a year ago, the same time the Count did."
Edain had suffered through hour after hour of tedium in the Dun Fairfax school from his unwilling sixth summer to glad escape at twelve, and some of the pre-Change history lessons had rubbed off.
"I don't think they had knights or barons or counts before the Change, the old Americans," he said. "They had Lobbyists and Presidents and Consultants instead."
"In the Society," young Gaston said. "Granddad told me about the tournaments and things." Then he cleared his throat and went on formally: "Welcome to our lands."
Edain grinned again; toploftiness like that was irritating from a grown man, but funny when it was a kid.
"And I'm Edain Aylward Mackenzie," he said. "My sept's totem is Wolf."
The boy's eyes went a little wider. "You're Aylward the Archer?" he said breathlessly.
Then an accusation: "You're not old enough! The Archer fought in the Protector's War, and my dad wasn't old enough for that. Granddad fought in that war and he got his limp then."
"That's my dad you'd be thinking of," Edain said, a little sourly. "Sam Aywlard, First Armsman of the Clan. Well, he was until a couple of years ago."
Hecate of the Crossroads and Him called the Wanderer, hear me; now wouldn't it be a braw thing to travel far enough that people think of me when I say my name's Aylward! I love my dad, but it's like being a mushroom growing on an old oak, sometimes.
"Oh. Well. That's cool too, you've got ancestors... Did the Archer make your bow? Can I see it?"
"He did that, and you can. Careful now! It's well-oiled with flaxseed, but I'd not want to drop it in this wet."
Edain reached over his shoulder and slid the long yew stave free of the carrying loops. It was strung, and the boy tried to draw it after he'd admired the patterned carving of the antler-horn nocks and the black walnut-root riser. The young Mackenzie let him struggle with it, and there were chuckles from the rest of the clansfolk as the youngster handed it back and said gravely:
"That's a pretty heavy draw." He looked at Edain as he returned it. "I've heard a lot about Mackenzie archers. Is it true you guys are witches and can make magic, too?"
"Well, I'm not much of a spell-caster myself, beyond the odd little thing to keep the sprites and the house-hob friendly, or for luck when I'm hunting—"
"I shot a rabbit with my crossbow just last week. It was eating the cabbages in Father Milton's garden."
"Sure, and if the little brothers won't mind your gardens, that's what you must do. Also a rabbit is good eating."
"Could you teach me a spell for luck when I'm hunting?"
"Mmmmm, I think your Father Milton might not like you making luck-spells, so you'd best ask him for a prayer to your saints, instead. We're followers of the Old Religion, which you are not," he said, touching the Clan's moon-and-antlers sigil on his brigandine.
Then he glanced aside at his lover Eithne.
"Now, this one you'd better be careful of!" he said, teasingly solemn. "A priestess of the second degree! She can sing a bird out of the bough, and 'chant a cow's teats to give butter ready-churned, and blind a man's eyes with love by a rune cut on a finger-nail. The fey themselves give her a wide birth, hiding beneath root and rock unless she bids them fetch her tea and spin wool for her, the which they do in fear and trembling before her power, so."
The boy looked at her wide-eyed and crossed himself. "Is that why you've got a girl along?" he said, loading the descriptive word with scorn. "'cause she's a real witch?"
The mounted Mackenzies all laughed. The four of them were every one younger than Rudi; old enough to travel and fight but not solid householders weighed down with responsibilities like the group by the wagons. Eithne stuck out her tongue at the boy, or possibly at Edain. She was eighteen too, a tall lanky brown-eyed girl with skin one shade darker than olive and long black braids falling from beneath her Scots bonnet. The clasp on that held a spray of feathers from a red-tailed hawk, to show her sept totem, and she had a round yellow flower tucked behind one ear, late-blooming Coast Maida.
"It's because otherwise the boys wouldn't know what to do, the dear creatures, without a woman along," she said, her tone mock-lofty. "Pretty? They are that, but dim. Ná glac pioc comhairie gan comhairie ban, as the Chief would say. It's a female's guidance you need when advice is given."
"Very true! That's why I've got Garbh with me," Edain said guilelessly.
The big rawboned bitch walking at his horse's heels should have looked up at the sound of her name. Instead she made a sound halfway between a whine and growl, stopping stock-still and looking westward, the heavy matted fur over her shoulders rising and her ears cocked forward.
"Aire!" Edain shouted, loud as he could. "Beware!"
He blushed furiously as his voice broke despite the sudden sharp stab of alarm, but the clansfolk stiffened at the danger-call.
He had just enough time to flip off his bonnet and slap his sallet helm over his curls before he heard something. Something familiar as breathing; the wshhssst sound of arrows cleaving air, but this wasn't a practice-ground back home, or a riverside thicket with an elk in it. Someone was shooting at them, and doing it while he couldn't see three times arm's length.
"Down!" he yelled, conscious of eyes turning towards him. "Incoming!"
Young Gaston was still on his pony, gaping. Edain kicked his feet out of the stirrups and dove off his borrowed mount, grabbing the boy as he did and hugging him to his chest, turning his back to the deadly whistle. Black arrows with red-dyed fletching went smack into the mud around him. There was a harder, wetter thwack as one struck flesh, and someone screamed, and a horse bugled pain and fear. Then a hard bang and something hit him between the shoulderblades, also hard. Pain lanced through him, but it was gone in a moment—the little steel plates riveted inside his brigandine had shed the point.
"Down and stay down," he shouted to Gaston, throwing the boy flat in the roadside ditch. "Garbh—guard! Stay!"
Then he had his own bow out, slanting it to keep the lower tip off the ground as he knelt. As he whipped an arrow out of his quiver, he was suddenly and wildly certain that someone out there was trying to kill him, and felt an indignation he knew even then was absurd.
A high screaming rose from the misty field west of the road, and spears and axes glinted through the fog.
"Haiiiii-DA!" they called, a rhythmic screeching. "Haiiiii-DA!"
His father had told him that it was the waiting beforehand that was the time of fear, and you were too busy for it when the red work began. It turned out to be not quite that way for him; he was aware of being afraid, but he didn't have any attention to spare for the emotion.
Most of the strangers' arrows hit the Protectorate men on that side of the road, or whistled past into the fields and fog. Then there was a roaring onrush of half-seen figures, running in to strike in the confusion.
Edain drew and shot and drew shot and drew and shot again, the deadly fast ripple he'd been taught from infancy, something else he didn't have to think about, and the other Mackenzies were with him. His quiver was half-empty when a man in a helmet with a raven-beak covering half his face came at him no more than arm's-length away, spear drawn back for a thrust, a shield covered with blocky angular patterns in his other hand. Edain dropped his bow and snatched for shortsword and buckler, feeling as if he was moving through thick honey...
The snarling tattooed face behind the mask's beak went slack with shocked surprise as a horse floated by behind him with a flash of steel.
"Morrigú!" Rudi Mackenzie shouted in a voice like brass and steel as he struck.
He swung the long blade in an arc that crunched into someone who staggered back in ruin on the other side. His black horse reared, its milling forefeet smashing heads and shoulders as he called again on the Crow Goddess.
Edain had his own sword out now, and the buckler in his left fist. His friends were with him and they rushed across the road, shouting their totem warcries; somewhere he could feel part of his mind gaping in bewildered horror, but he was too busy for that, too busy howling and hitting, spinning and dodging and leaping over a hiss of steel and stabbing as he came down... Shapes loomed up out of the fog, a man swinging an axe at a fallen crossbowman. Edain punched him with the buckler before he could look up and felt a shivery sensation as a jaw broke beneath the steel.
There were shouts all around him. Haiiiii-DA; calls of Haro! and St. Guthmund for Tillamook! Further off a church-bell started to ring, and a hand-cranked siren wailed from the castle's tower.
Then suddenly there was nobody within sight standing up except the people he'd started with. A man sprawled in unlovely death at his feet, dark eyes wide in surprise at the arrow in his chest. A broad-built broad-faced man not much older than he was; very dark, with blood in his black hair, wearing a jacket of sealskin sewn with bracelet-sized steel rings. A short thick bow of yew and whalebone and sinew lay near his hand and a dented steel cap not far away.
Edain stood panting and glaring around; Eithne handed him his bow, and he checked it automatically before sliding it back into the loops. He still had half of his arrows left. The fight had been too brief and too brutally close-quarters to shoot them all away.
Rudi cantered up, the visor of his helm up, and the baron with him.
"They must have come in before dawn," Juhel Strangeways de Netarts said, and then swore lividly: "Satan's arsehole, with piles like fat acorns! They'll be all over the country between the bay and the hills by now, stealing and kidnapping –"
"So we'll cut them off from their boats, before they can get back with loot and prisoners," Rudi snapped. "Where will they have come ashore?"
"Over there," Juhel replied, pointing a little south of west with his red-running broadsword. "It's the best spot near here—where we pull up the boats—no water deep enough anywhere else short of Bay City. They'll have one of their schooners off the coast. They tow the landing boats down from the islands for longshore raids, damn them. It's a good idea to take their boats, but I have to rally my retainers and the militia! Otherwise we can't hit them hard enough to overrun them."
"Juhel, we Mackenzies will keep them busy. You get your people together and relieve us—get them ready, but for the sweet Lady's sake, don't take too long!"
He swung down from Epona's back and looped up the reins to the saddlebow; the horse followed him like a dog, but this wasn't the weather for playing at knights, nor were there many Mackenzies besides Rudi who could. Edain and the clansfolk fell in behind him, his friends and a round dozen from the wagons, led by a lanky man named Raen with the twisted gold torc of a married man around his neck; he was old Tom Brannigan's son-in-law.
"Who are we fighting, Chief?" Edain asked as their feet splashed through a slough.
Wish I'd painted up, now, he thought to himself. It'd be... comforting, like.
His father disapproved of the custom of painting your face for war, but few Mackenzies under thirty agreed.
"They're Haida," Rudi said absently.
Cold water sloshed into his shoes, and then they were on dry land again; he could sense a river to their left, and the loom of the low Coast Range beyond that, but their path was wet pasture. Fairly soon his knee-socks were as sodden as his feet. They moved at a steady jog-trot, as fast as was practical in unknown country with dense fog about them, spread out in a loose triangle.
"Haida, that's Indians, right, Chief? From somewhere up north?" Edain went on; he liked to get things tidy in his mind.
The Indians he'd met had all been folk much like anyone else, just with different customs; the Clan got along well with the Warm Springs tribes, who were allies of the CORA and had always been friendly to the Mackenzies. That wasn't always the case everywhere...
"A lot of them are Indians and that's where they got the name," Rudi agreed. "From the Queen Charlotte islands. Their ancestors used to raid like this in the old days, too, for plunder and slaves—long long ago, before white men came here. Great seafarers and boat-builders they were, back then. And things were... very bad... where they live, I hear, after the Change. So they probably remembered the old tales. Now quiet."
Traveling through a fog like this when there might be enemies at hand in any direction made your balls try to crawl up into your belly; sometimes he could see a hundred yards, sometimes barely well enough to place his feet, and it muffled sound and smell. He wished Garbh was still with them.
At first they found nothing; then a two-wheeled oxcart tumbled empty. The oxen had been speared, whatever was in the cart carried off. A child's body lay by one wheel, picked up by the heels and with its head beaten in against the steel. The child's mother lay dead beside it, her skirts rucked up around her neck, legs spread and a stab-wound low in her belly to show how she'd died.
The Mackenzies stopped as if halted by an invisible wall. Edain felt his stomach try to rise as his eyes went round in disbelief; all the parts of the picture were there, but he couldn't force his mind to take them in—and he didn't want to. Eithne was making a sound deep in her throat, a growl that would have done Garbh credit. Rinn did bend and spew. Otter backed away, making protective signs with his left hand and shaking so badly that he obviously didn't think they'd do much good.
And maybe they won't, Edain thought, fighting blind panic and feeling the hair bristling on his neck. A curse, a curse, seven times a curse just to see it!
Rape was bad enough, a dirty profanation of the Mysteries, of the loving union between Lord and Lady that made all creation. But there were evil men in any people and such things happened sometimes, especially in war. To kill a woman's child and then force her and then kill her through the womb, though—he half-expected Earth Herself to open up and swallow him and everything else male and breathing within a mile, down to the hedgehogs, and at a gulp.
The thought made him look down uneasily and shudder, but at least it distracted him enough to let his stomach settle.
Rudi winced and looked aside and began to speak, to wave them all forward, but Eithne held up a hand and stopped him. Her face was white and set as well, but in fury rather than fear. She moved forward and bent quickly to rearrange the dead woman's clothes. When she straightened again there was blood on her hand; the woman's blood, and the child's.
"Stand still!" she snapped as he and the other men began to back away. "We don't have time for nonsense! You first, tanist of the Chief."
Rudi bent to receive the defiled blood with a face like iron. Edain shuddered again as she touched his forehead and cheeks, then repeated it quickly with the other men.
"You who bear the Lord's semblance—avenge this His Lady's blood, and make Earth clean of it," she said. Suddenly her lips skinned back over her teeth and white showed all around her eyes: "Kill!"
She was an Initiate and priestess; Edain was still simply a Dedicant, but he knew the voice of the Mother when he heard it... and She was angry. There was blood and death in that sound, and his skin rippled like a restive horse's at the midnight magic in it.
Rudi nodded grimly. "Let's go, Mackenzies!"
They did. Rinn and Otter dropped back a little to trot beside Edain.
"Your girl," Rinn muttered, tracing a sign. "The Night Face has her. The Dark Mother."
"That means we'll win this fight," Otter said, snarling eagerly. "Good!"
Edain shook his head. The Mackenzie herself had stood as Goddess-mother at his Wiccaning—and Dun Juniper was the center of the Mysteries. Also his mother was High Priestess of a coven. He knew more about it all than most young men his age.
"No, it means the other side's going to lose this fight," he said grimly. "That's not the same thing as us winning, boyos, and you'd better believe it. Nobody's safe when the Devouring Shadow shows up."
Rinn winced. "The manure's hit the winnowing fan for true."
Whether the kettle hits the pot, or the pot hits the kettle... Edain thought, but did not say.
"Lord Goibniu, shelter us with Your arm," Otter prayed; his family were smiths, and favored the Iron-Master. "Goddess Mother-of-All, gentle and strong, be gracious to Your warriors."
Fire showed through the murk. They stopped, fitted arrows to string, then moved forward at a walk. Mud squelched beneath his brogans and the pleated wool of his kilt shed beads of wet as it swayed about his thighs. Edain took a deep breath and let it out, another and another; ground and center, ground and center.
Dad was right; waiting's hard. The fighting just past spun through his mind in a welter of foul images, like butchering-time but with people, and then there was the horror near the cart. Lugh Long-Spear, spare me to avenge that!
The mud-smell was starting to yield to that of burning timber, but the fog was thicker than ever close to where the river ran into the bay, like having wool pushed in your nose and ears. The firelight was like a candle seen through glass thick with frost.
"Good as a beacon," Raen said to Rudi, softly.
"Probably why they did it, to show their raiding-parties the way back. The fog works for them, but not if they get lost themselves."
The Haida had scouts out, but the fog that had helped them hindered now. One loomed out of the dimness, started to level his spear, started to yell, a high thin sound. Rudi killed him with a snapping lunge to the throat and it ended in a gurgle. More yells came out of the fog, from the direction of the burning light. The raiders there knew something was wrong.
Rudi turned and vaulted into Epona's saddle.
"Hit them hard and keep moving," he said to the Mackenzie warriors. "They won't know how many we are if we don't let them have time to think, and by the time they do the Tillamookers will be here."
Then he filled his lungs and called, a great brass cry like a chorus of trumpets given words:
"We are the point—"
Edain drew a deep breath and joined in as the others took it up:
"We are the edge—
We are the wolves that Hecate fed!"
"At them, Mackenzies! Follow me!"
A knot of Haida warriors loomed out of the fog, standing guard over a clot of several dozen locals, men and women and children bound and sitting on the ground; bundles of tools lay beside them—adzes and broadaxes and two-man saws and drills and the rest of what you used for working wood.
The whole party dashed forward. A sudden banshee wail from beside him made Edain start; Eithne had been quiet since they left the dead woman. Now she wrenched a spear away from one of the Sutterdown men as she gave that appalling cry, a snatch so hard and swift he yelled in turn from the pain of his bruised fingers as she dashed past.
It was what the Clan called a battle spear, six feet of ashwood with a foot of double-edged blade on one end and a heavy steel butt-cap on the other. There was an art to using one...
Eithne charged into the knot of guards with the spear blurring over her head like the fan of a winnowing-mill, shrieking, face contorted into a gorgon mask of horror, striking with butt and blade-edge and point, leaping and using the torque of the spinning length to whirl herself around in mid-air. The guards were taken by surprise; one died in an instant splash of red as the blade whipped across his throat, and another as the butt crashed between his brows with a smack like a maul splitting oak and his eyes popped out of their sockets...
Too many of them for her to handle, Edain thought grimly, setting his feet and ignoring everything else. Got to—
The string of his longbow went snap on his bracer. A man about to swing a warhammer with a head of polished green stone into the back of Eithne's skull went down as the arrow tore through his throat in a double splash. Another, another...
Dimly he was conscious of shooting better than he ever had before, even at the Lughnasadh games at Sutterdown just past, when he'd carried away the silver arrow. Not much distance, but bad light and moving targets—and some of the arrows were passing close enough to Eithne to brush her with the fletching, a shaft for every two quick panting breaths.
Things burned behind them; sheds and houses and the ribs of a fair-sized ship on a slipway. Four big boats of cedar and fir were grounded bow-first on the mud nearby, shark-lean flat-bottomed things forty or fifty feet long, their prows carved in blocky angular depictions of ravens and orcas and hawks colored black and white and blood-red. Heads were spiked to the wood below their grinning jaws.
Edain was even more distantly aware that Rudi and the others were doing something... cutting the bonds of the first set of prisoners, and the men were snatching up their tools—a maul or a broadaxe made a weapon, if you were strong and full of hate.
The freed captives swarmed over the last of the Haida guards. But more raiders were coming in, driving people before them, often laden with huge bundles of their own goods; and then armed Tillamookers started arriving themselves in dribs and drabs, hunting through fog for the flames and the sounds of battle. Village militia with hunting spears and crossbows and farming tools, the town guard with glaives and poleaxes, a snarling scrambling brabbling fight amid burning buildings and ankle-deep mud and shoreside rocks that shifted under foot as the fog began to lift. Some of the Haida tried to keep them off while others heaved to push the boats back into the water.
The core of them only broke when the baron came with his knights and their menies behind them, their fighting-tails of men whose trade was war; barded destriers, lances and men-at-arms and wet-gleaming gray chainmail hauberks.
He remembered seeing Rudi racing down the beach with gobbets of mud flying out from under Epona's hooves, throwing torches into the Haida boats. Three of them were burning, black choking smoke as the oiled cedarwood caught. Then the last started to slide free, and there was a savage scrimmage around its bow. A Haida chieftain with a raven's-wing on his helmet thrust a spear down at Rudi and Raen and Juhel de Netarts, and swords were scything up at men along the ship's side who clubbed back with oars and tried to row it out deeper. Raen fell back wounded and Rudi reached down to pull him out of the red-stained water, throwing him across his horse's crupper, and Edain put the last arrow in his quiver through the Haida as he thrust downward at Rudi's face.
A few raiders jumped into the water and swam into the bay, but the others threw down their weapons...
Edain staggered as silence fell, suddenly aware of his chest heaving against his brigandine as he struggled to suck in air, and the stink of his own sweat mixed with the tacky iron smell of blood. Or what felt like silence fell; there was still the crackle of fire—and the shouts of men trying to put it out, and others from the wounded, and a great crowd of people. A Catholic priest came up with a wagon, the Red Cross on its side and a load of bandages and salves within, and a brace of women in plain dark dresses and wimples—nuns, they called them. They began setting up a field hospital. The baron's lady and his mother and a round dozen of others in cotte-hardies and ordinary women in double tunics pitched in beside them.
The people cheered the Mackenzies, waving scythes and pitchforks and spades, some of them dripping red; people were pounding him on the back, harder than he'd been hit in the fight.
And they cheered Baron Juhel and his men as well, and harder, holding up their children to see the good lord who would not leave his people to the terror from the sea. Rudi looked around, visibly thought for a moment and then dropped back from where he'd been riding at the baron's side...
To leave the cheers for Juhel, Edain realized suddenly, blinking and feeling as if his mind was floating up from deep water into the sun. Well, that's the sort of thing a Chief has to think about, eh?
The sun was out now, burning away the last wisps of fog; he blinked against that, and the harsh smoke stung his eyes and made him cough, conscious of how dry his mouth was
Juhel de Netarts had his plumed helmet off, hanging from his saddlebow, and pushed the mail coif to fall back on his shoulders. The smile he'd worn as he waved to his people slid off his face, and though he was well short of thirty he looked a lot older.
"God's curse on them," he swore, looking up at the burned ribs of the ship on the slipway. "I put money I couldn't afford into this, and borrowed more against Lady Anne's inheritance, and so did a lot of her subjects, at my urging. We were going to send her far south—down the coast to the Latin countries, and deal for coffee and sugar and cochineal on our own, make Tillamook a real town again with its own traders, with jobs for craftsmen and cash markets for our farmers. Those bastards in Corvallis and Newport skin us on every deal and the Guild Merchant in Astoria and Portland aren't any better. Now... now I don't know what the hell I'm going to do."
"Petition the Lady Regent," Rudi said promptly, dabbing at a long shallow slash on the angle of his jaw and holding a swatch of bandage to it. "Get Lady Anne to deliver it. Say if you get three year's relief of the mesne tithes from your barony, you'll promise to put all of it into rebuilding. She wants people like you to do well. It's good for revenue, and it gives her more bargaining power with the Guild Merchant as well. That should let you repair the shipyard as well as the rest of the damage—it's just wood that burned, mostly, and you didn't lose many of your skilled workmen or their tools."
"Thanks to you for that," Juhel said, and looked at him dubiously. "They'd have gotten away otherwise, and taken a lot with them. But the Spider's awful tight with a coin. Happier taking it in than giving it out. Usually bleating about the tithes just gets you what the sheep gets at shearing time."
"Yeah, she's not what you'd call open-handed. But she knows you have to spend to get, believe me... and I know the Princess Mathilda, and that her mother listens to her."
Juhel grinned delightedly and clapped the younger man on the shoulder.
Ah, Edain thought. And the tanist doesn't even have to come right out and say he'll urge the Princess to advise her mother. What a Chief he'll make for the Clan some day!
Rudi lowered his voice: "And if I were you, I'd be very careful. The Haida knew too much about just where and when to hit you. Something smells there, and not like attar of roses, either."
Juhel nodded, then walked his horse a few steps over to where the other Mackenzies were grouped. Raen's friends and kin from Sutterdown had laid out his body and those of three others; they weren't keening them, being among strangers, but they'd put the coins on their eyes and laid holly on their breasts, and were chanting softly:
"We all come from the Mother
And to Her we shall return;
Like a stalk of wheat
Falling to the reaper's blade—"
Otter and Rinn were a little way off with nothing worse than nicks and bruises, accepting basins of water, soap and towels and bits of food and mugs of beer from an admiring crowd that seemed to include a lot of teenage girls, starting to grin as the relief of surviving their first hard fight sank in. Eithne leaned on her spear, still white and tense, sweat like teardrops making tracks through the blood on her face.
"Lord who holds this land," she broke in, her voice with an edge like sharpened silver. "What will you do with your captives?"
There were about a dozen of them, mostly wounded, bound and under guard. Juhel looked at her oddly, and shrugged.
"Take off their heads and send them to Portland, I suppose, mistress," he said. "Easier than sending all of them."
"No," she replied. She pointed with the spear.
The whole length of it still glistened dark-red as the blood grew tacky. Juhel looked at her... but over her head, rather than in the face.
I wouldn't like to meet her eyes right now, either, Edain thought as she went on, giving orders like a queen:
"Is it that there's an ash tree there, not far from your castle, tall and great?"
The nobleman nodded, and his look grew odder still and more sidelong.
"Put your men about it—about it in a circle, wearing iron and carrying spears and the emblems of your god. Bring your dead and lay them beneath a cairn with the blessings of your mass-priest. Then hang the evil-doers from the tree in sight of the dead and leave them for three days and nights. Do that, and you'll have... luck, luck for you and your land. Do that, or bury them living at a crossroads with a spear driven in the earth above."
"Ahhh..." Juhel swallowed, crossed himself and looked aside, shivering a little.
Rudi gave him a nod, short but sharp, and the baron drew a deep breath.
"I suppose we might as well hang them now. Sir Brandric! See to it! And the rest, as well."
"A pleasure, my lord. Very much a pleasure," the tall grizzled knight who commanded the garrison of Castle Tillamook said, and stalked off barking orders and grinning.
Eithne's knees buckled then, as if something—or Someone—withdrew a hand that had worn her like a glove. She shook her head as Edain tried to help her, then almost fell. When he caught her in his arms the eyes rolled up in her head and she went limp; somehow he'd been expecting her to be heavier, but it was the familiar slender form he picked up, though her head rolled limp against his shoulder. Cold fear worse than any he'd felt in the fight clawed at his gut as he bore her over to the aid station the nuns had set up, letting the spear fall to lie in the wet trampled grass.
One of them bent over the pallet he laid her on, pushed back an eyelid, felt her forehead and took her pulse with professional briskness. He showed her how to unbuckle the brigandine along the side and draw it off.
"Just stress and exhaustion, but a bad case of it," the nun said, clucking her tongue and drawing blankets over her. "A young girl's got no business doing this! She'll be fine with sleep and a good meal—just a few little cuts and scratches and some bruising here. Now, if you're not going to help, young man, get out! She won't be waking for a good many hours and I've got urgent cases to see to."
Edain blew out his cheeks in a whistle of relief and backed away; they were busy here, and he would be as useless as an udder on a bull.
Rudi and the local lord had dismounted, holding their horse's heads not far away as they spoke.
"Remind me never to piss your people off, Rudi," Juhel said with feeling.
He looked at the spray of dead where the Mackenzies had struck out of the fog with surprise and terror at their backs; bodies in the mud with gray-fletched arrows in them, or tumbling gashed and bloodless in the gray water. He shook his head.
"Dad fought at the Battle of Mt. Angel back in the Protector's War, and evidently he wasn't exaggerating."
While he spoke, a crossbowman with his arm in a sling came up leading a pony Edain recognized. Young Gaston was on it again, looking none the worse except for some dirt and bruises. Garbh trotted at his heel, then dashed over to Edain and gave a single bark as if to say the job's done.
The baron's heir gulped a little at some of the sights around him and went paler, but sat his pony proudly beside his father. Juhel looked down at him for a moment with a quiet and tender delight that went oddly with the blood-splashed armor and sword, and put his hand on his shoulder.
Then he looked at Edain and smiled. "I've thanked Rudi," he said. "But I haven't thanked you yet, master Aylward. I saw you save my son. That was bravely done, and done for strangers."
Edain felt himself blush to the roots of his hair, and shrugged awkwardly as they shook hands.
"It's a poor excuse for a man who won't fight for his host, or help out a little kid caught in a battle," he said shortly. "Besides, I didn't notice these Haida buggers telling me they wouldn't hurt me if I were to kindly stand aside."
Rudi grinned. "He's a good man to have your back," he said, and clapped Edain on his. "And that's a fact."
Juhel laughed. "I don't doubt it. Fought with you before, has he?"
"No," Rudi said. "This was your first real fight, eh, Edain?"
The younger Aylward nodded and the Chief's son went on: "But I thought he would be someone I wanted with me if it came to one. Now I know it."
Juhel's brows went up. "If that was your first fight, I'd hate to see what you'll be like in ten years! But you did save my son; you put your back between him and those arrows. Name a reward, and if it's mine, it's yours. In honor I can't do less."
Edain drew himself up despite the burning tiredness that made him want to crawl into the nearest haystack and sleep for a year.
"I didn't do it for that, sir," he said. "I'll take your thanks, and that's all that's needed—the Gods and the Three Spinners will see to any reward."
Juhel looked bewildered, and Edain cursed himself as he saw the beginnings of offense. For a fact, he didn't understand how an Association noble's mind worked. Outsiders didn't understand Mackenzies, and that was a fact too.
"There is a gift you could give him, Juhel, and one he'd value highly, though he'd never ask for it," Rudi said.
He was grinning again, like a fox for all that his totem was Raven.
"What's that?" Juhel said. "Horses? Weapons? Gold? Land, even?"
"Better than that. Write a letter to his father, telling what he did—and that he wouldn't take anything for it, either. I'll deliver it."
Edain stifled an impulse to shuffle his feet. His father wouldn't say much, just smile to himself and nod. He blushed again and fought not to grin.
"I will write, then," the baron said. He looked at the son of the Mackenzie chieftain, a long considering glance. "Your people don't have princes, Rudi, do they?"
Rudi looked a little impatient as he replied: "I'm not even really a lord, Juhel; just the Chief's tanist. My mother's Chief, and I may be after her—if the Clan wants me, and for as long as they want me. No, no princes."
"That may be a great pity," Juhel said thoughtfully, then looked around. "Now, I'd better get to work."
Ingolf raised his brows as the story came to an end; silence fell, save for the low crackle of the fire and the howl of the blizzard outside.
Well, I guess there is a reason Rudi picked the kid. Though from the sound of it, maybe his girlfriend would have been just as good a choice... no, too spooky.
Edain yawned enormously, breaking the quiet that had followed his tale.
"Yeah, even if we can sleep in late tomorrow, we'd better get some rest," Rudi said.
Edain nodded, mumbled something, and slept with sudden finality. Ingolf drifted off next; his last sight was Rudi dropping a careful handful of sticks on the coals.
Rudi Mackenzie knew that he dreamed. But the dream was different... this time he was a viewpoint, detached.
Same place, he thought.
The little overhang was still there. The trees weren't, though a few charred stumps still showed where they'd burned. Great gullies scarred the mountainside instead, the mark of torrential rains long-gone; the only other vegetation he could see was a few stems of some thorny brush, and those were dead. A white-gray light pervaded everything, but he couldn't see all that far. The air held no haze—it was painfully clear—but somehow he had a sense that it was thick with a crushing weight. Thick and hot, very hot, like a sauna just at the edge of your ability to bear, so that rocks and clods glimmered in the middle distance.
A body lay under the overhang, dressed in a seamless overall of some odd silvery stuff that merged into boots and gloves of the same, and into the base of a helmet like a glass bowl. The face within was a sunken-eyed mummy's, desiccated into the texture of leather and an eternal snarl of yellow teeth, gray-white hair still stubbly on the scalp.
The dream seemed to last for a very long time. The slow heavy wind blew; now and then a piece of rock would flake off the barren mountainside and skitter downwards. Nothing else happened. Nothing else ever would.
"Huh!" he woke with a start.
"Last up, Chief," Edain said cheerfully, and handed him a bowl full of the oatmeal.
Cold sweat prickled under his arms and at the back of his neck where his hair lay on the skin. The horrors of the dream faded, leaving only an overwhelming sorrow; it was as if he felt another's grief, and that too large for a human mind and spirit to contain. Then that lifted too, as he shook his head to clear it. The little shelter was dark, just a little red glow from the fire... and a trace of cold grayish light down the improvised bark chimney.
"Storm's passed," Ingolf said, wolfing down the thick fruit-studded gruel. "But it's four feet deep out there, I'd say."
"Higher with the drifts," Rudi agreed. "Best we make as much distance as we can. Snow's bad, but this time of year it could warm up and melt right up to the saddle of the pass—and that would be worse."
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>