Sheaf and Sickle Inn, Sutterdown, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Samhain Eve, CY22/2020 AD
Rudi Mackenzie dreamed.
He saw mountains, but not the mountains of home, green and steep where the Cascades rose above Dun Juniper's walls. These were bare save for a scattering of silvery-gray scrub, up great walls of rock and scree to the glaciers floating far above, and he was all alone except for Epona. His senses were sharp; the smell of cold rock and aromatic herbs and old sweat soaked into wool and leather, the rattle of stone under shod hooves, far and faint a baying like wolves, but he knew it was men. The horse's breath came sharp, and there was a sense of overwhelming grief and dread...
A hoarse shout kicked him into wakefulness. He'd always been one of those who came alert easily; an inner clock told him it was the third hour past midnight, the hour when the Hunter came to lead away the old and sick, the time when sleep guttered closest to death. He swung his feet down and grabbed up sword and buckler and opened the door in the same motion, and went down on one knee to peer out first. Nothing in this short length of corridor—he had good night vision, even in the velvet darkness. The rain was back, and the drumming on the strakes of the roof made a white noise that drowned everything but the sharpest sound.
In the room across a lantern flared as a door cracked open; that was Odard, always cautious. His head came out at the same level as Rudi's. The twins were on this side and down one; as he watched their door opened too, and Ritva—or Mary—rolled out, coming up in a crouch with longsword in one hand and dirk in the other.
No, it's Mary. She has that little scar over her hipbone. The twins tried to look as similar as they could, which was why he was careful about it.
Mathilda was the last door down, and a mirror showed there stuck in the wax on the end of a candle-stub. She checked the ground before coming out in her knee-length nightshift, blades ready; the embroidered garment looked a little odd with a swordbelt buckled around it.
A faint clash, the sound of metal on metal, and more voices. Their eyes met, and she nodded. The scream had come from around the corner to his left; how far down was hard to tell. The new noise came from the same direction. None of them had their body armor with them, or missile weapons, or any shields beside his buckler. They only all had sword and fighting-knife because they'd been reared to put them on as automatically as shoes whenever they went outside their own home-hearth doors.
Not worth taking time to get dressed, he decided. It would be if we had our war harness, but all clothes do in a fight is comfort you.
Ritva dashed down to the corner in four deer-swift bounds, then dropped flat to peer around the edge, landing on her fisted hands with the blades still in them.
Rudi called up his knowledge of the Sheaf and Sickle's layout as the rest of them followed. It was chaotic—Brannigan's steading had grown over the years from the original core of the pre-Change tavern and microbrewery, knocking together half a dozen old buildings and modifying them as the business and the number of children and grandchildren and employees and their families grew. New doorways and corridors and staircases, and new chimneys for woodstoves and fireplaces...
The five of them gathered at the intersection, naturally keeping back where they couldn't be seen from the next stretch of corridor. Odard had brought his bedside lantern, but with his shirt wrapped around it so the light it threw was muffled. The fruity smell of burning alcohol and hot wick melded with the acrid sweat of tension.
Eyes gleamed in the darkness, and teeth showed as bright as the steel; none of them was what you'd call timid, or complete virgins when it came to a fight, but sudden death in a friendly inn wasn't something that happened every day. And they were all of them children of field and farm, river and hill and forest; a town was an alien environment to them, much less fighting in a warren like this building. He could tell they all felt as cramped and out-of-place as he did.
He had his buckler, a little foot-wide roundel of steel shaped like a soup-plate, with a hand-grip in the hollow boss. As it happened, they also all favored double-edged longswords with cross-guarded hilts. The others were carrying their daggers as parrying-weapons; Mathilda tossed strips of woolen blanket to each of the shieldless ones, and they quickly wound them around their left forearms. That wasn't much protection, but it was a lot better than nothing.
Always thinking ahead, that girl, Rudi thought, with a taut grin. Let's see, half a minute since I heard that first scream...
Left down the corridor, bare feet nearly noiseless on the wooden floorboards. More light leaking out from under doors as people woke; one Corvallan merchant opened his, saw warriors naked as the swords in their hands padding by and prudently slammed the door shut again, with a thumping to show he was bracing a chair against it. The sound of fighting was louder now; an unearthly shriek of astonished agony, and a Mackenzie battle-shout in a woman's voice:
Someone calling on the Dark Goddess in Her most terrible form. Scathach: She Who Brings Fear. The red work of killing was being done within earshot. You didn't invoke the Devouring Shadow unless you really meant it.
The corridor ended at the door to the kitchens. To their left was a staircase that went through a ninety-degree turn as it rose to the second floor and a row of guest-rooms. Mathilda slipped in front of him; she'd brought along her candlestick-and-mirror arrangement, and he nodded as she went up the stairs two at a time. The rest followed in a silent rush that froze for a moment as she reached the top and extended the mirror just up over the lip; they poised ready to attack if someone peered over the edge. Light spilled from above; someone had lit a lantern, and their dark-adjusted eyes saw the dim flame as brightness.
Then she put down the mirror and spoke in Sign: Six with shetes and shields. Three facing this way, three the other. One door open between them, the fighting's coming from there.
Decision flashed through him, and his hands moved, quick and fluent: Matti, Ritva, Mary, you go back down, through the kitchen and up the other stairs—that's how they're planning on getting away.
They turned and raced down and around the stairs, leaping recklessly despite the razor-edged steel in both hands, as sure-footed as wildcats. Rudi looked over and met Odard's slanted blue eyes. The other man smiled and shrugged ruefully. Rudi filled his lungs and called on the Crow Goddess in an enormous shout as he leapt:
"Haro, Portland! Face Gervais, face death!" Odard yelled, the battle-shouts of his nation and his House.
You screamed at a time like that to freeze your enemy for a moment. This time the freezing bit didn't work. The men facing him and Odard attacked immediately, the forward pair moving with smooth precision and the one behind alert on the balls of his feet, ready to step in if one of his comrades went down. They were wearing loose mottled gray-brown jackets with hoods and cloth masks that covered all but the eyes, trousers of the same material, and stout boots. It made him feel a little conspicuous in his underdrawers and bare feet, but not nearly so much as did the yard of sharp curved steel slamming towards his face.
His buckler shed it with an unmusical crash and a jarring shock to his left hand and arm. His own cut-and-thrust blade darted out, and was deflected in turn by the two-foot circular shield blazoned with a sun-disk and three letters—C-U-T.
That was all too appropriate; he jumped as the shete hissed beneath his feet, aimed in a looping, hocking strike at the side of his leg. The man was as good a master of the slashing style as he had ever met, and his shete was a whirling blur like a power-driven saw, but the cramped quarters worked against him—once it nearly caught on the ceiling overhead.
Just then another man dressed like his opponent staggered back out of the door where the first shouts had come from; he had a tomahawk planted in his forehead, the blade sunk deep enough that the shaft was jammed against the bone. The outlander bounced off the opposite wall and fell in a tangle of limbs that twitched like a pithed frog.
A naked man was in the doorway; Ingolf, the stranger from the sunrise lands. He clutched a knife in his left hand, but the limb hung limp and he had a nasty cut down the shoulder and upper arm on that side, with blood that looked black in the poor light glistening in a sheet down his side and dripping on the floor.
"Saba's hurt!" he cried. "Hurt bad!"
"Then get back inside there and look to her!" Rudi shouted.
That seemed to cut through the haze of pain and shock; the big man looked around, saw what was going on, and slammed the door in the face of one of the hooded men. An instant later the blade of the bowie appeared beneath it; the easterner had driven it in as a wedge with a blow of heel to hilt, and the only way to get the door open would be to batter it off its hinges. Two of the hooded killers started trying to do just that, kicking at the stout brown planks and then chopping white splinters out when that didn't work.
As he spoke Rudi cut downward, a savage chopping blow from the wrist, too fast for the movement of the shield to block. It struck, and hard, but the glint of chain mail appeared through the ripped cloth. The armor kept the blade from cutting, but his opponent grunted in pain and the shield dipped lower; Rudi could feel the muffled snap of something giving way up the steel and into the hilt.
"We are the point—"
He chanted the line as he whipped his sword across and caught another shete-chop on his own steel; the weapons slid together with a tinging crash and locked at the hilts, and he smashed the buckler into the man's injured shoulder, putting all the power of his hundred and seventy-five pounds into it.
"We are the edge—
This time bone crumbled audibly, and the power went out of the grip holding his sword locked. The man wailed through his mask, blue eyes flaring open with agony and the despair of imminent death above the dark knit cloth.
"We are the wolves that Hecate fed!"
Rudi threw him backward with a flexing push of both arms and then killed him with a snapping thrust to one eye, a gruesome crunch as the long point of his sword smashed through the thin bone behind the socket and into his brain. Blood and matter spattered the walls as he freed it with a sharp jerk of his arm.
There was motion on the stairs behind him. It had to be friendlies...
"Healer! Get a healer up here, now!" he called crisply. "And some more weapons, bows, spears!"
The rear man of the three guarding this end of the corridor stepped into place before Rudi could turn on Odard's opponent. Odard and his man were fully engaged, a flurry of steel moving in blurring arcs, gasping breath, shuffling stamp of feet on the floorboards. The hooded man fought silently, but the knight shouted again:
"Face Gervais, face death!"
His opponent had to be good to keep the young knight off, even with the advantage of a proper shield and a mail-lined coat. He was good, and so was the one who'd replaced the first casualty to face Rudi...
What's going on here? There aren't that many folk around who're that good with a blade. It takes too much time away from working to feed your family. These aren't some gang of bandits. They're trained. They're someone's armsmen. Someone with a deep well to pick from.
Two blond heads appeared at the stairs on the other end of this stretch of corridor. The hooded man left on sentry-go there called sharply, and one of the ones hacking at the door left off and raced to join him. The first had to give back a half-dozen paces before his comrade was at his side. If they were disconcerted at finding themselves fighting two identical stark-naked amazons, it didn't show. Mathilda followed behind perforce—there wasn't room for more than two with swords to deploy in the strait confines of the corridor.
"Mail under the jackets!" Rudi called.
Steel rang on steel. Even fighting for his life, Rudi grinned at the surprise they were about to get. The twins had been doing everything together all their lives, and a lot of that involved swords. Fighting Mary and Ritva together was like taking on a single organism with four hands, and they'd been trained by Astrid Larsson and Alleyne Loring—who were two of the three sparring-partners Rudi had left who still beat him as often as not. He could usually take either of the twins in a straight up-fight, but they'd never lost a pair-against-pair match with anyone since they got their full growth.
"Lacho calad! Drego morn!" the two screamed as one.
The Dúnedain war cry, known throughout the Valley: Flame light! Flee night!
"Duck!" Mathilda shouted from behind them, as she wound up.
They both did. The cast-brass candlestick flew over Mary—or Ritva's—head. It arched over the two hooded men facing the Larsson twins as well, bringing their shields up in reflex. But it blurred past, to go thunk into the shoulder-blade of the one hacking at the door. He collapsed, sinking to his knees in a scrabbling fall, dropping his weapon and clutching at the battered panels. After an instant he struggled to his feet again and began hacking once more, but his blows were feeble and he held the weapon in his left hand.
Goddess gentle and strong! This bunch are determined! Rudi thought.
Aloud, between panting breaths and the deadly flickering and belling of edged metal:
"Surrender! You're got no way out!"
They didn't even bother to reply. Rudi raised his voice and shouted to the others. "We'll want one alive!"
That did bring a reaction, probably because there wasn't any way for them to escape now that the cry was raised; there were shouts and noise all over the Sheaf and Sickle. One of the hooded men barked a single order—Rudi couldn't make out the word, or even if it was in English. Suddenly the pair facing him and Odard leapt backwards, a simultaneous panther bound; then they turned and drove their shetes into each other's throats. The broad points slashed to the spine almost instantaneously.
Rudi was left gaping for an instant as blood fountained out, splashing to the ceiling before the bodies convulsed and went limp. Ritva and Mary were frozen in shock on the other side; their opponents had done the same.
"Get the other one!" Mathilda called, trying to push between them. "Quick!"
Cursing, all five of them did. Rudi managed to grab his right shoulder just as the left arm drove a dagger up under his own breastbone; the body kicked and died. The young Mackenzie forced down an impulse to stand panting and bewildered amid the bodies and the blood that filled the corridor with its copper-iron stink beneath the sickly smell of pierced body-cavities.
Instead he and Odard moved as if they'd rehearsed for days; they set their swords point-down in the floor, put their backs against the wall of the corridor across from the wedged door, jumped up and lashed out with their feet.
The planks hit his soles with a hard drumming thump that shocked up through his whole body, leaving him feeling as if he'd been folded too far at the hips. There was a tearing, crunching sound as the upper hinge came half-free of the wood. Both young men dropped crouching to the blood-slick flooring, sprang upward as if driven by springs, and struck again. This time the upper hinge came completely free and the lower twisted three-quarters out. The door fell inward, resting on a body there. Rudi snatched up his sword and jumped through.
The inside was darker than the corridor. It took an instant for his eyes to make sense of what he saw. Two dead men. One half-under the door, with an arm-joint bent back in a way not suited to the nature or construction of elbows, a jaw smashed so completely it dangled free within a sack of cloth, and his head back between his shoulderblades. Another was hacked and slashed around the neck and face as if by a bear in a frenzy.
On the bed a woman's body, naked but looking like a glistening black statue with the blood. It couldn't all be hers, but a lot of it was; a long curved knife had been driven into her stomach just above the pubic bone and ripped upwards.
The stranger was trying to hold the obscene wound closed, despite the steady flow of blood from his own gash; his shoulders shook with the harsh sobbing of a man unaccustomed to tears. Astonishingly, the woman still breathed a little. As Rudi watched she seemed to speak—he thought he heard Raen in the echoing silence—and went limp. Seconds later the man who held her collapsed.
"Sweet Mother-of-All," Rudi whispered, darting forward.
Saba was beyond help, but the stranger wasn't. And if he lived, he could talk.
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>