Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon
December 17th, CY22/2020 AD
"You poor man," Juniper said, leaning forward and putting her hand on Ingolf's.
The easterner looked wasted again as he stopped. Rudi frowned; he wanted to know about the sword.
First and foremost if it's real, he thought. That was a wild tale!
A glance at his mother's face brought him back to a host's obligations. She frowned at Ingolf's silence, then leaned forward and tapped him on either cheek.
His eyes were wild and blank for a moment. Then he licked dry lips and took the cup of hot borage tea she pressed on him, drinking with a trembling hand and spilling a little.
"Sorry," he said huskily. "Haven't... I tried to keep from thinking about that." He swallowed again. "So, I'm crazy, right?"
"This sword," Juniper said. She met his eyes and held them with her own. "It was a longsword, double-edged, with a guard like a crescent moon, and a pommel of moon-opal held in antlers. Is that it?"
Rudi's breath caught. She had shared that vision with him, but as far as he knew with no other. A great relaxation came to Ingolf's face, as if some tension were unwound at last.
"Christ, I'm not crazy, then?"
"No, my poor Ingolf, you're not. It's far worse than that."
Just then Aunt Judy walked into the Hall. She gave an angry hiss as she saw Ingolf's face, came up and took his pulse. Then she examined his eyes; he moved his face obediently to her prodding, passive as a child.
"Juney, are you trying to kill my patient? I said he could talk, not be wrung out like a dishrag!"
"I'm sorry, Judy," Juniper said meekly. "We can stop now."
"We certainly can! I want this man in bed, now. I'll get some green oat milk in wine to calm him."
"I want—" Ingolf began.
"You want a good night's sleep, so you can tell us the rest tomorrow," Juniper said. "We've a guest room ready for you here in the Hall. And Judy's word is final on matters of health!"
Unprompted, Rudi came forward and helped the other man rise, then took an arm around his shoulder. When they'd put Ingolf to bed he stopped in the corridor outside the guest room, and looked at his mother.
"Who's the sword for?" he asked bluntly.
Juniper looked at him, and he was shocked to see that the leaf-green eyes were full of tears.
"Oh, my son," she whispered. "You know as well as I. What did they call Mike, your blood-father?"
The Bear Lord.
"And what did the Powers speak through me, when I held you over the altar in the nemed?"
He didn't need to speak that, either. That was when she'd named him Artos, in the Craft. And... to himself, he whispered what she'd said:
"Sad winter's child, in this leafless shaw—
Yet be Son, and Lover, and Hornéd Lord!
Guardian of my sacred Wood, and Law—
His people's strength—and the Lady's sword!
"I don't want to go," he said softly. "I thought... not yet." His eyes went out past the walls of his home. "I'm not a boy any more, mother."
They both knew what he meant; that he was old enough to know how easily and quickly a man could die. Ingolf's tale had rammed that home anew. He went on:
"And I don't want to leave you and father and Maude and Fiorbhinn," he said. "Or the Clan, and home. Someday, yes, but... not yet."
Love and sorrow warred in Juniper's eyes. "I don't want you to go either, my darling. I just don't think you've much choice."
Rudi's temper flared for a moment: "I thought we were the Lord and Lady's children, not their slaves!"
Her palm reached up to cup his cheek. She was a full nine inches shorter than he, but he felt like a child again at the gesture. Then she tweaked his ear sharply and he jumped.
"Yes, we are Their children," she said. "So are cockroaches... and crocodiles... and crocuses. We are not the sum whole of the scheme of things! So don't be thinking that They'll necessarily favor you, any more than I'd put you before your sisters."
"Sorry, Mom," he said after a moment. A grin. "I've been hanging around with Christians too much, sure and I have. Nice people, a lot of them, but they've got a strange way of looking at things."
"Oh, my dearest one," she said.
Her voice choked a little. Suddenly he noticed how many gray threads there were in the mane that had always been so fiery fox-red.
When did that happen? he asked himself, and put an arm around her shoulders. She turned into it and rested her forehead on his chest. Her quiet voice went slowly on:
"And They can be as harsh as sleet and iron, as the wolf in winter and Death itself. They have given you so many of Their gifts for a reason. And a man who refuses a duty They lay on him is... not punished... but... forsaken. And he will never know love or honor or happiness again."
He shivered at the look in those infinitely familiar green eyes; they were looking beyond.
Then they squeezed shut, and tears leaked out, sparkling in the lamplight; she grabbed him by the plaid.
"But how I wish you didn't have to go to that dreadful place! I am so frightened for you, and it will only get worse!"
"There, and I was just grousing," he said, holding her close and remembering her rocking his troubles away. "I'll come back with a shining sword and fine tale, since the Powers would have it so. It's just that I would have them be a bit more open about the reasons for it all!"
Rudi Mackenzie dreamed. The air was sweet and mildly warm, smelling of earth and growing things; some crop that grew in leafy blue-green clumps stretched to the edge of sight in neat rows separated by dark, damp turned earth. A well-made road ran through it, neatly cambered with crushed rock, and a milepost stood nearby. It was granite, hard and smooth, and the rayed sun on it was cut deeply, but time had still worn it down until the shape was only visible because of the slanting rays of the real sun setting in the west.
A crack and a wretched gobbling sound came from behind him. He turned, or at least his disembodied viewpoint did. A score of... creatures... were working their way down the rows of the crop.
They look like men, he thought absently.
A little; they stood on two legs, and their hands held tools, digging-sticks of polished wood set with blades of smooth stone. But their legs were too short and the arms that hung from their broad flat shoulders too long, and the heads sloped backward above their eyes. Those eyes were big and round, on either side of a blob of nose and set above big chinless thin-lipped mouths; it made them look like children, somehow, and the more horrible for that. The naked bodies were brown, sparsely covered in hair.
A nondescript-looking man with a loose headcloth covering half his face rode a horse behind them, a long coiled whip in his hand. He swung it again, seemingly to relieve his boredom; the creatures were working steadily and well, jabbing the sticks downward in unison every time they took a step forward. Another worker jerked and moaned as the lash laid a line across his shoulders, then turned his too-big eyes down and drove the stone-headed tool into the earth again.
No. They're not men, but their ancestors were, Rudi's bodiless presence thought.
Then he woke. Shudders ran through him, and he could feel sweat running off him to soak the coarse brown linen of the sheets. That turned chilly quickly in the damp cold air of winter. The girl who was sharing his bed had awoken too; she snapped a lighter on the bedside table and touched it to the candle in its holder.
"What a dream," he gasped, clutching at the blanket as if it would help him keep the shattered, fragmented images clear. "My oath, what a dream!"
"It must have been, Rudi!" Niamh said.
Her blue eyes were wide as she tossed back tousled straw-blond hair. Like half the people in Dun Juniper she was an apprentice from somewhere else, in her case studying under Judy Barstow. They'd been friends and not-very-serious occasional lovers for years; she didn't want anyone long-term here, since she planned to go back home to Dun Laurel when she was consecrated as a healer.
"You clouted me a bit, thrashing around the now, and I couldn't wake you."
"Sorry, Niamh," he said contritely, shaking head and shoulders and letting the dream go. "Maybe it was just a sending from the fae."
Who weren't all kindly, he knew, particularly those from the wildwood. Looking around grounded him; he'd slept in this room ever since he stopped using a pallet in his mother's. It had a cluttered look and a lot of souvenirs; there was his baseball bat and glove—he'd been first batsman for the Dun Juniper Ravens Little League team as a kid—and the images of the Lord and Lady over the hearth he'd carved when he wasn't much older. A shelf was stuffed with his books and ones he had out from the Dun's library. A stand in the corner held his armor and weapons.
The blanket was of his mother's weaving, done while he was a captive of the Association in the War of the Eye, a bit worn now but still beautiful with its subtle pattern of undyed wool in shades of white and brown and gray. He smoothed it and lay back.
"What was it, then?" she said, yawning and laying her head on his shoulder. "A sending? Or just a dream?"
"It's never just a dream," he said. "But... you know how it is."
She nodded. There were dreams, and then again there were dreams, and deciding which meant what was as important as it was difficult.
"On the whole, I think it was the Powers telling me to get my shoulder to the wheel and my arse in gear," he sighed.
"Oh," she said. Then: "Something to do with that cowan Ingolf?"
His mouth quirked in the candlelit dimness; cowan was a term for those who didn't follow the Old Religion... and not an altogether polite one, either.
"So much for secrecy. Yes, but don't ask me anything more about it... yeeep!"
"Anatomy. I'm just studying anatomy."
Castle Todenangst, Willamette Valley near Newburg, Oregon
January 14th, CY 22/2021 AD
"Yes, I gave them hospitality in Gervais," the dowager Baroness of that holding said, glaring at the three faces across the broad malachite table from her. "Why shouldn't I?"
She was a gaunt woman with gray streaks in her blond hair; Sandra thought the green silk of her long cotte-hardi dress went badly with her rather sallow complexion.
The Lady Regent of the Portland Protective Association answered calmly:
"Why? Because it would have made me look very bad if it came out that a noblewoman of the Protectorate had done that, particularly if this man they attacked had been killed... and our own children were there. Questions raised in the Lords. Questions raised in Corvallis at the next Meeting. Embarrassment, fines laid on the whole Association... I do not like being embarrassed, Mary. Do you understand?"
Sandra was an unexceptional woman in her fifties, petite and round-faced. Her stare could still make others flinch; it did now.
"I understand, my lady Regent."
"Good. Then don't let it happen again. You have my leave to go. In proper form, Mary," she said.
The baroness halted, made a sardonically precise curtsey that bowed her head just a hair more than manners required, and stalked out.
Sandra steepled her small elegant fingers and cocked her head a little, looking at the door through which Mary Liu had just gone in high dudgeon. It was massive, of light-colored oak over a steel core, and Liu hadn't been able to slam it, which must have annoyed her no end.
"Do you know the problem with the Dowager Baroness Gervais?" the Lady Regent asked.
Conrad Renfrew, Count of Odell, took a walnut out of the bowl on the table between them and cracked it between finger and thumb, tossed the nutmeat into his mouth and thought for a moment while he chewed.
"Is the problem that she's an evil, murderous, spiteful bitch who's conspiring with these assassins from the cow-country?" he replied meditatively.
He was a thickset man in his fifties who'd always been built like a fireplug and had put on a little solid flesh lately. He wore casual-formal dress, a wide-sleeved shirt of snowy linen beneath a brown t-tunic cinched with a studded swordbelt, and loose breeches tucked into half-boots; a heraldic shield on the tunic's chest held his arms—sable, a snow-topped mountain argent and vert. His face was hideous with old white keloid scars, his eyes blue under grizzled brows, and his head as bare as an egg with less need of the razor he'd used in his youth.
"No, that's not the problem," Sandra said, toying with one of the trails of her silk wimple.
"She's a stupid, evil, murderous, spiteful woman who can't even speak a simple English sentence without translating it into High Formal Bitch?"
"No, she's bright enough. What she lacks is self-knowledge. I, for example, am fully aware of the fact that I'm an evil, murderous, spiteful bitch. And that I like it that way. Mary Liu just thinks she's hard-done-by and never given her due and has to stand up for her rights in a hostile, unfeeling world. And her habit of self-delusion leads her to do things that are quite unwise. Attempting to deceive me about helping this Prophet fellow, for example. If I said Mary, darling, as one evil bitch to another—don't... Why, she'd be quite insulted."
All three of the nobles sitting about the table in the presence chamber chuckled. It was in the Silver Tower, sheathed outside with pearly granite originally stripped from banks in Portland and Vancouver when Castle Todenangst was built by the Lord Protector's architects and labor gangs in the second and third Change Years.
That color scheme continued within; white marble floors, light silk hangings, elegantly spindly furniture of pale natural woods or antiques salvaged from mansions and museums in the dead cities, only the rugs providing a blaze of hot color. A workshop in Newburg had spent two decades rediscovering the secrets of Isfahan and Tabriz carpets, but with modern themes; local wildflowers, hawks among trees and tigers creeping through reed-beds beside the Willamette.
The air smelled slightly of jasmine and sandalwood; the closed windows kept the noise of the great fortress-palace and the cold bright January day at bay, leaving only the slight hissing of the gaslights and an occasional gurgle from the recessed hot-water radiators behind their screens carved with scenes from the Morte d'Arthur.
Conrad of Odell cracked another nut, dropping the shells into a Venetian-glass bowl.
"Stop showing off, Conrad," the third person said. "So you can still crack walnuts with your fingers. So what?"
She put one on a ceramic coaster and tapped it open with the plain brass pommel of her dagger; the two halves of the shell fell neatly apart. Then she continued:
"Big fat hairy... hairless... deal. You're Lord Chancellor now, and I'm the new Grand Constable. Breaking things is my job, and the method doesn't matter as long as the job gets done."
Tiphaine d'Ath—Baroness d'Ath in her own right, very unusually for a woman in the territories of the Portland Protective Association—was the youngest present by fifteen years, which put her in her mid-thirties.
In contrast to Lady Sandra's headdress and long-skirted cotte-hardi of pale silk and dazzling white linen she wore male garb; in her case, black silk and velvet, with arms of sable, a delta or over a V argent in the heraldic shield on her chest. Her face was calm, as it usually was; strong-boned, with pale gray eyes and hair so fair it would take a long while for the first gray strands to show, worn in what another age would have called a pageboy bob. She was tall for a woman, just under five-ten, built with compact long-limbed grace. Some people called the Regent the spider. They called her henchwoman Lady Death, in a pun on her title.
Nobody laughed. It wasn't that sort of joke.
"I'm not spiteful, in any case. Murderous, evil and a bitch, yes; spiteful, no," Tiphaine added, taking a sip at her glass of wine after eating the nut.
"Some would say a duel a month for six months shows a certain amount of spite," Renfrew said, smiling; she'd been his protégé too, if not for so long as she had been Sandra's. "Particularly since you cut them to ribbons and they died by inches, screaming. Quite a performance; you couldn't have done better with a dungeon and its entire staff. Fulk De Wasco looked like he was naked and nailed to the floor even while he still had his sword."
"No, that was policy, not just fun. If Lady Sandra wanted me as Grand Constable, since I'm a woman I had to kill some of the more inveterate assholes, and in a way that would intimidate the others. A sword through the throat doesn't scare them enough; they're mostly too stupid to be cowards. Doing a little preliminary carving and trimming around the edges does give them pause for reflection at the closed-casket funeral, for some reason."
"Everyone knew you were good with a blade," Renfrew said. "Even Norman realized that, and he wasn't what you'd call the equal-opportunity type."
"He was smart enough to believe his eyes, when he didn't let his obsessions get in the way. With some people you need to use visual aids to make a point. I'm still a freak of nature, but I'm a freak they don't dare to diss."
A long-haired Persian cat jumped up on the table. Tiphaine dumped it unceremoniously down; Sandra smiled slightly.
She wouldn't have dared to do that once, she thought, tucking a lock of her graying brown hair back under her headdress; the silver-and-platinum band around it chinked softly.
Aloud: "Isn't it interesting that this Prophet fellow was prepared to send assassins all the way to Mackenzie country? And isn't it even more interesting that they knew this Vogeler was heading there? What do we know about these people? Refresh my memory; I've had more pressing business lately."
"It's a father-son team running a cult," Tiphaine said, speaking without consulting the notes in the folders before her. "Our sources aren't certain if the son is natural, or adoptive and the natural son of the woman who ran the cult before the Change."
"The Church Universal and Triumphant, yes?"
"Yes, my lady. Generally known as the cutters, or at least their musclemen are, or the Corwinites, from their headquarters. It's in the country just north of the old Yellowstone National Park. They were there before the Change, and already had a couple of rungs missing from their ladders if you ask me, but the Prophet moved in and took them over with a group of followers in late '98 and added a lot of new stuff."
"He's not native there?"
"Rumor has it he was in California on the day of the Change itself. He'd been blowing up scientists in the 80's and 90's—had a major hate-on for technology—and he was in jail in Sacramento. He escaped in the confusion, felt that God had personally answered his requests with the Change, and headed for Montana. That he got there does say something about his survival skills."
They all nodded thoughtfully; California had been a charnel house as bad as anywhere on the globe, that day when the lights went out... and the water stopped coming through the pipes that kept nearly two-score million alive in a natural desert. Not one in a thousand had lived through it, the ones who'd run early and fast; reports said there were places where the desiccated corpses still lay three-deep on the edges of the Mohave, despite a generation of sun and wind and crows and coyotes.
Dead as LA, went the proverb.
Tiphaine went on: "The new management of the C.U.T. started small just after the Change, but they've been expanding recently, both by straightforward conquest and by conversion; they cover most of what was Montana by now, and chunks elsewhere. If they take over you convert or die, so it snowballs. I've looked into the theology. They're..."
Her tone remained flatly unemotional as she paused for a moment to search for the appropriate phrase and then resumed: "... mad as Tom O'Bedlam. Living on a different planet. Fucking bughouse nuts."
"Yes, I've perused it a bit, too," Sandra said. "Even stranger than the late unlamented Pope Leo here. Sort of a mishmash of Christianity and Buddhism and every lunatic and charlatan from Madame Blavatsky on, with an explanation of why God sent the Change, too—floods having been tried before, as it were. And they're getting uncomfortably close, if they win this war with New Deseret. I wish we had access to this easterner Vogeler who was involved. The Mackenzies didn't exactly brief Mathilda on it."
Conrad's brows went up; when the scars on his face moved, he looked more like a gargoyle than ever. "The CUT are a bit far away to worry about, surely?"
"That's the time to worry. Knowledge is power. And now that we've absorbed the Palouse—"
"The western half of it," Tiphaine said, with pedantic accuracy.
"—there's only Boise and Deseret between us and them."
Conrad shrugged massive shoulders. "You're the sovereign. They're basically a bunch of sheep-shaggers, though. And they think anything with gears in it is sacrilegious, don't they?
"Yes, but you should read more widely in history, dear Conrad. There are any number of cults which've caused no end of trouble, though their first followers were few and poor. Especially when they preach salvation at the sword's edge. In the event of trouble, how are we placed?"
She knew most of the answer, but it never hurt to go over the facts again. Conrad's blue eyes took on a slightly abstracted look. He'd been an accountant by trade before the Change, as well as a fellow-member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and a close friend of Norman and Sandra Arminger.
"The Treasury's got a full year's revenue on hand in cash, our paper is trading at par and we can borrow at excellent rates if we have to—the customs and excise taxes are blossoming nicely with the way trade's picked up. It would be even better if it weren't for the Haida raiders and plain-and-simple pirate scum all over the Pacific basin."
"The pirates we'll have to leave to the naval powers like Tasmania, but for the Haida we need a Warden of the Coast. But who to appoint Marchwarden? Piotr has the most lands in that direction, but..."
"But I wouldn't appoint him to supervise an orgy at the Slut and Brew," Conrad said.
Tiphaine nodded. "There's Juhel Strangeways, Lord de Netarts. He's competent, and even fairly honest. And he already has County Tillamook in ward, for Lady Anne. It'll be...
"Five years until she reaches her majority," the Regent said.
"By then, he could have the place organized. He already dealt with that Haida raid, October before last."
"A matter in which our Rudi had a hand," Sandra said thoughtfully, stroking the cat in her lap. "He attracts trouble as sparks fly upward, that boy."
"Coincidence?" Conrad rumbled.
"I'm far too paranoid to believe in coincidence, Count Odell."
The other two smiled. "Neither do I," the man said, and Tiphaine nodded. "De Netarts, for Marchwarden of the West, then?"
Sandra nodded, and he went on: "The basic mesne tithes are coming in without too much trouble as well; it's easier now that we don't have to split them with the Church."
Sandra smiled like a cat. That had been one of the many reasons she'd unobtrusively arranged for Pope Leo to shuffle off his mortal coil, and for Portland's Church to be reunited with Rome—or rather with the Umbrian hill-town of Badia, which was where the Swiss Guard had escorted the remnant of the Vatican when Rome went under.
Poor Norman, he did so want a Pope of his own in true medieval style, and Bishop Rule was just the sort of madman to suit the role, once he'd decided that God considered everything since about June 15th, 1297 a mistake. Of course, the Change was some evidence for that... on the whole, though, Pope Log is preferable to Pope Stork.
Despite the occasional tussle with Benedict and his successor Pius XIII over things like the nomination of Bishops, and despite how useful a tame Inquisition had been. One sane Pope six months away was far easier to deal with than an all-too-active lunatic in Portland, and it had made reconciliation of a sort possible with Mt. Angel and the other so-called Free Catholic bishoprics. Mt. Angel's mutant order of warrior Benedictines was becoming uncomfortably influential, through its budding university and with its daughter-settlements helping the more badly battered areas get on their feet again.
Stalin had meant mockery when he asked how many divisions the Pope had, but in the end his bewildered successors had found it didn't matter; and men-at-arms and castles could come into the same category. At seventh and last men were ruled from within their heads by ideas as much as by clubs from without, and a careful ruler kept it in mind. The Church of Rome had outlasted any number of systems that looked stronger than iron at the time, and had ridden out many storms that claimed to be the wave of the future; she was wise with years, and infinitely patient, and bided her time.
Best to take advantage of that, for herself and her daughter and her daughter's children to come, rather than trying to build dams against it.
Conrad nodded, as if reading her mind. "We're making a mint off the salt-works on the coast and the Columbia tolls, too. Basic population has more than recovered from all those laborers who left after the Protector's war."
They both scowled slightly; of all the conditions imposed after the Portland Protective Association's qualified sort-of-defeat in what everyone else called the War of the Eye, the one allowing peons to leave without paying their unpayable debts had hurt hardest. Everyone had a lot more land than farmers to till it, even now. People were wealth in the most fundamental sense, strong hands and backs to work and fight.
"Between natural increase and immigration from the more chaotic areas like Pendleton, which unfortunately goes to the other realms as well as to us, and the fifty thousand left in the Palouse when we annexed it—"
Sandra smiled her cat-smile, and Tiphaine d'Ath nodded, and Renfrew grinned. It had even been voluntary.
At least, it was voluntary on the part of the collection of Sheriffs and strong-arm types who took over there after the Change, she thought. And their sons.
They'd been unable to compose their own feuds—not least because of the Association's subtle pot-stirring—and had been left in the end with a choice between the neo-feudalism of the PPA and the iron-fisted centralized autocracy of the United States of Boise under General-President Thurston. Now the Free Cities of the Yakima League were surrounded by Protectorate territory on three sides, too, and could be squeezed, as long as she was subtle and indirect about it.
Conrad went on as she mused: "—we're up to about four hundred thousand people all told. Portland-the-city's nearly as big as Corvallis now."
Sandra shifted her gaze to Tiphaine; the military was her responsibility. She'd been Conrad's deputy there for years, before getting the top command last year when the Count of Odell decided to concentrate on his Chancellor hat.
"The sons of the knights we lost in the war are grown now, or mostly," the Grand Constable said.
Which was fortunate. It took years to train a mounted lancer; the best had to be virtually born at it.
"What with that and new creations, when we call out the ban and the select militia, we can field twenty thousand men and keep them in the field as long as we need. A thousand knights, four thousand men-at-arms, a couple of thousand good light cavalry—horse-archers, mainly—and the rest infantry. Half crossbowmen, who finally all have modern rapid-fire models, and the rest spearmen. I think we should raise some pike units like the Bearkillers and Corvallans, but that would take a lot of retraining time."
Tiphaine and Conrad started an argument about the relative merits of eighteen-foot pikes versus spear-and-shield; Sandra ignored it while she thought. She'd never pretended to be a soldier of any sort, any more than she was an engineer. You found people who knew what they were doing and left them to do it... provided you also found ones you could trust.
"— admit the phalanx has an advantage on open ground but pikemen are too specialized for my taste. Spearmen are more flexible, and—"Conrad said.
Sandra cleared her throat. "The big picture, please. Proceed, Tiphaine. And if we're pressed?"
"In an emergency? Forty thousand if we call the arrière-ban for a defensive war, though of course those won't all be as well trained and it would be awkward during the harvest. The castles in our core territories are all in good shape, the armories and emergency food-stores are full, we've got reserves of trained destriers to replace horses lost in the field, the river fleet on the Columbia is fully ready, and we've finally got the field artillery up to spec as well as the siege train."
"The Palouse. We haven't had time to get it castellated properly yet, so it's vulnerable in a way the rest of our territory isn't. The strongholds there are mostly earthwork-and-timber, motte-and-bailey at best. The local lords can't afford to rebuild right away. Also the roads there are lousy—the fools haven't even been filling in the potholes or keeping bridges from washing out, and the railroads are a wreck. But if we try to make them repair twenty-two years of neglect overnight, they'd be bankrupt. Except that they'd revolt first, of course."
"I presume we have the necessary plans ready to fix the situation?"
"Of course, my liege; we started on that before the annexation. It's simply a matter of money... a very great deal of money."
Tiphaine named a figure, and Sandra winced slightly. Then she held up a finger:
"Conrad. Do you think you can get the Lords to approve a special subsidy for infrastructure improvements in the Palouse, along the new eastern border at least?"
The stocky man winced in turn. The Association's landholders didn't like paying even the standard assessments, and an extra one would cost him political capital—which was to say soft-soaping, bribing and threatening.
"Yes, if you think it's worth the trouble. And it will cause trouble," he warned.
"Twist the necessary arms—I have some files you'll find useful. It'll keep the new lordships in the east sweet if we loan them the money and supply engineers and materials. I could pay it out of the Privy Purse, but I prefer to keep that for unforeseen emergencies."
Renfrew gathered up his papers. "I'd best get on to it; young Lord Chaka will see sense, I think. His mother will help. Stavarov will cause problems but I can talk him 'round if I offer some of his people land..." He raised an eyebrow at her.
"By all means, but bargain hard. I want to keep as much of the vacant areas of the Palouse in the Throne's demesne as I can. Granting land is a lot easier than getting it back, unless there's a convenient case of escheat for treason."
He nodded and made a formal bow, kissing her extended hand and grinning like something carved on a waterspout: "Farewell for the nonce, Sandra, you evil bitch."
"That's my sovereign liege-lady and Regent of the Association evil bitch to you, Conrad."
Laughing, he bowed again and turned to go. Sandra pulled at a tasseled cord; the door opened smoothly and showed the corridor outside, with the guards standing to attention; their mail gleamed with a gray oiled sheen as they brought their spears to the salute.
When the door closed again, Sandra stood, gently stirring a cat out of her lap. "Come," she said to Tiphaine.
The warrior-woman helped her into a long robe of white ermine, and they walked out onto a balcony, closing the sliding glass doors behind them. The day was bright and sunny for January in the Willamette, with only a few drifts of high cloud; you could just see Mt. Hood's white cone to the east, over the battlements. Above it a glider swooped, its long slim wings dark against the aching blue of the sky.
The two women's' breath smoked as they looked down, into a flagged hexagonal courtyard twenty feet below. It was overlooked by two stories of barracks and store-rooms on all sides as well as the Silver Tower. Todenangst was full of things like that, unexpected crannies and vantage-points. She'd put most of them into the plans herself; Norman had been much more... straightforward... and not nearly as fond of Peake's work as she.
"They say this castle had a man's bones in it for every ton of concrete poured," she said, with a nostalgic smile for the grand adventure of those early years.
Sometimes I think we only got away with it because nobody could believe how crazy we were.
Tiphaine nodded; she'd been newly come to the Household then, and barely fourteen. "I remember a bit of it; they used to throw the bodies into the mix, sometimes. You kept telling the Lord Protector it could wait until we had the farms fully up and running again, and he said it could wait, but he just didn't want to, he wanted his castle and he wanted it now."
"Poor Norman, that was his great fault. He was in too much of a hurry to realize his dreams; it killed him in the end, as much as Havel did. If only he'd known how to wait, he'd be alive today... and we'd have it all. I miss him."
The courtyard below was one where her private guard exercised. Rudi and Mathilda were there now, in Protectorate-style armor, based on early-medieval models; she was resting for a moment, watching him take on three knights of the Household. Odard called the start with a flourish of his white-painted wand:
The knights spread out; Rudi waited for a moment, smiling faintly. Then he leapt, so quickly that it wasn't even a blur, more as if he stretched out impossibly for a second. A flat crack sounded as he slammed into the closest of them, one big kite-shaped shield slapping into another, Rudi's tucked close into his left shoulder in perfect form. The knight was knocked flying with both feet off the ground, to land flat on his back with seventy pounds of armor and gear to drive the wind out of him. His sword pinwheeled through the air to land with a dull clang.
Rudi whirled before knight or blade landed, caught a sword on his own shield and cut backhanded into the side of the second's helmet with a crashing bonnnggg, and met the third blade-to-blade before he could strike himself. The knight was good—the Household took only the best, and trained rigorously—but he seemed to be moving like a slo-mo scene in the movies in the old days, while Rudi wasn't.
Or he moves like that tiger we had at the baiting, the one they matched against the bison bull. So much power, and so fast...
After a flurry impossible for an untrained eye to follow the Portlander stopped and looked down at the rounded point of the blunt practice sword just inside the split skirt of his mail hauberk and prodding at the leather of his breeches. In a real fight it would have hamstrung him and opened the femoral artery.
He swore admiringly and stepped back, letting the point of his own blade drop to the earth and his shield dangle from the guise, the diagonal strap around his neck. He and the young Mackenzie high-fived each other as the other two clambered groaning to their feet, grinning ruefully.
"He's very good indeed, isn't he?" Sandra asked.
"Yes, my lady," Tiphaine replied, without taking her cold grey eyes from the scene below. "When my team took him back in the War, he was ten—and he cut a grown man badly with his knife and would have killed another if he hadn't had a mail-lined jacket on. Now... You know what the pagans say of him?"
Sandra nodded, smiling. "That his secret name is Artos, and that he's the chosen Sword of the Lady? Yes? There was the prophecy at his birth, and that thing with the raven right after the war, at his mother's wedding. That was a wonderful touch, if Juniper stage-managed it."
Tiphaine shuddered slightly at the memory. She had been there, although not in the front rank, and she tried not to remember it... because when she did the all-sufficient cynicism her mentor had taught her was shaken. The rumors hadn't lost in the telling over the years, either. Instead she hung on to her clinical detachment as she went on:
"Well, he's so far up the bell curve that I'm tempted to believe it myself, sometimes. It's not natural—and I helped train him these past twelve years, on his visits."
"I do believe in his legend," Sandra said, then chuckled quietly at Tiphaine's raised brow. "Oh, not the pagan gods; they're as much a myth as Jehovah or the Risen Christ, whatever dear Juniper thinks. Myths are lies; but I believe in the power of myths the way I believe in rocks... rulers have had the various pantheons carrying water for them since the first con-man met the first sucker, and priest-craft was born. That was long enough ago that they were probably both walking on their knuckles."
Mathilda took up her shield and walked out to face Rudi. The mail hauberk she wore rippled in smooth gray-white, a treasure that had taken a team of experts more than a year to make from double coils of titanium wire.
"And my daughter?" Sandra asked.
Tiphaine pursed her lips; her duties had included the warlike part of the Princess' education since the girl turned nine. She also knew that Sandra Arminger hated inaccurate information with a passion.
"It's a disadvantage being a woman, of course, even if it's not as much of a one as our macho idiots think. The Princess is... very good, enough to hold her own on most battlefields. About as good as Odard, say. That means she's better than him in natural talent, since he has an extra twenty-odd pounds of muscle on his upper body. And she really works at it. But she's not in the same class as Rudi. Not in mine, either, frankly. She's fast, far faster than average, and very strong for her weight... but Rudi's faster than that."
Sir Odard was standing ready again with the referee's white baton. He waited until they faced off, then brought it down sharply and shouted:
Tiphaine hesitated for a moment, then went on: "He's faster than me—and I've only lost a hair off my best speed so far."
Tiphaine was a little past thirty-five, and she'd been an up-and-coming junior gymnast before the Change, only out of the running for future Olympics because she was too tall. Sandra had rescued her and seen the possibilities...
"And he's strong even for his size; he can lift and toss twice his own body-weight, even in a full hauberk. I've got a lot more experience, which makes up for it... so far."
"Interesting," Sandra said, narrowing her eyes. "Of course, Mathilda will be ruling, not fighting with her own hands. She only has to be good enough to win respect among, as you so accurately put it, our macho idiots. Iron on their shirts, iron between the ears."
Tiphaine chuckled slightly, which was the equivalent of a belly-laugh for her.
"And the joke is?" Sandra Arminger said; normally the remark would have won only a slight narrowing of the eyes in amusement.
"Here we are in the Land of the Iron-Shirted Machos, and the people making the decisions at the top are nearly all women. You, my lady, me... Mary Liu, the Dowager Baronesses of Dayton and Molalla. And Juniper Mackenzie and Signe Havel, down south."
Sandra's own laughter was warm and genuine. "Well, not so surprising, Lady d'Ath, Grand Constable of the Association. So many of first generation of the male upper nobility got themselves killed, one way or another."
"That happens in this business," Tiphaine replied, tapping at the long hilt of her own blade. "You have to be smart and lucky to die old—which our distinguished Chancellor looks to be doing. I probably won't," she added clinically. "Too many people hate me and more will before it's over. You should start grooming possible replacements."
Mathilda and Rudi were circling, the big round-topped kite-shaped shields up under their eyes, longswords held over their heads hilt-forward. Mathilda attacked first, boring in with a fixed snarl visible even from above and through the bars of the practice helmet.
"Haro, Portland! Holy Mary for Portland!"
"Morrigú! Morrigú! Blackwing!"
Blades clashed, banged on shields, rattled on mail, thrust and cut and parry in arcs that glittered silvery-cold in the winter sunlight, striking at head, hip, thigh, neck without pattern or warning. The supple young bodies moved with a beautiful minimalism despite the weight of the metal confining them.
"Mathilda seems very determined," her mother said.
The heir to Portland moved aside from a shield-up rush by letting one bent knee relax and swing her out of the way, cutting at the back of Rudi's leg with a viciously economical swipe. He caught the blow aimed at his hamstring on the long tail of the shield, whirled...
"Oh, she is. She's got the anger, the fire in the belly; most of the best fighters do. She hates being taken lightly or coming in second in anything, which I can sympathize with, and it drives her hard. It's like fuel, once you learn to ride it rather than be ridden."
"Rudi, on the other hand, always struck me as a very sunny-spirited boy," Mathilda's mother observed.
Tiphaine's long fingers tapped at the vines carved into the marble of the balustrade. "True... and he kills without fear, or anger, or hate, with regret even, simply because it's necessary. That's rare, and it's rarer still among the really first-rate. God help the enemy that finally frightens him or makes him mad."
When they went back into the chambers, Tiphaine sank to one knee and formally kissed Sandra's hand.
"My lady liege," she said. "I'd better start getting things ready, if you scent a war."
"My dear, as one evil bitch to another... it's beginning to smell very much like that."
Alone, Sandra sat again and toyed with the cat that leapt into her lap, teasing it with the ends of her wimple. She had always found that an aid to thought.
"Hello? Mother?" Mathilda said, as the guards thumped the door shut behind her.
The slight figure in the chair started, and the cat gave a silent meow and jumped down. Mathilda turned and called:
"Agnes! The lights, please."
A silent maid-cum-secretary in double tunic and tabard came out and turned up the gaslights and returned to wait against the wall at the far end of the chamber, hands folded.
"I was deep in thought, love," her mother said. "Is it dinner-time already?"
The early January sun had set; Oregon was further north than you might think from the climate, and the winter days were short. Soon the yellow flame made the mantles glow bright, and Mathilda sank down on the rug near her Sandra's feet, taking off her hat; it was the usual round flat type with a roll of cloth around the edge, and a broad silk tail at one side.
"Not quite. I thought I'd sit with you a while, if that's OK and you're not too busy. I always enjoy sparring with Rudi, it makes me better even though he wins. But I don't like it as much as he does."
"Likes to fight, does he?" Sandra said thoughtfully.
"Oh, yeah. He says there are only two reasons to fight."
"Joy and death."
Her mother's brows went up. "Joy in death?"
"No, no... For joy, to stretch yourself with a friend; or death, to kill as quickly as you can. Nothing in between."
She frowned. "I can see what he means, but it isn't that way for me, not most of the time. I mean, I like practicing with arms, but you put a sword in Rudi's hand and he's... transported."
"And waxes poetic about it. He's a young man of some depth, our Rudi... but if it's going on for dinnertime, you should change to a cotte-hardi for the meal," Sandra said gently. "We'll have important company. You have to wear skirts occasionally, you know, or... ah... people will talk."
"Or people will think I'm Lady Tiphaine's girlfriend?" Mathilda said dryly. "Or vice versa, accent on the vice."
Sandra gurgled laughter. Her face was still smooth in her fifties, and the wimple was kind to it, but that made the laughter-lines stand out around her brown eyes. Mathilda joined in the chuckle; in fact, Tiphaine's lover was and had been for twelve years a miller's daughter from Barony d'Ath by the name of Delia. Who was in theory a lady-in-waiting to the Baroness and who'd been ennobled by an equally theoretical marriage to a knight who had no more interest in women than the current Grand Constable had in men. Her children had been the result of intervention by a pre-Change turkey baster. The two of them were quite ridiculously devoted to each other and completely monogamous.
The cream of the jest was, of course, that Lady Delia de Stafford was delicately beautiful in an entirely feminine way and a complete clothes-horse and never wore anything less than the height of fashion—female fashion. Since she was cheerfully ready to lie truth out of Creation about it (being a secret witch, as well, and therefore not in awe of Christian sacraments), her naively sincere confessor was among the few at court who didn't at least unofficially know or guess. Tiphaine's own chaplain had been carefully chosen for complaisance, guaranteed by the files Sandra had on him.
I suppose that's sinful, what they do, Mathilda thought.
She certainly liked boys herself; she'd enjoyed kissing a couple, Odard and Rudi among them. But she was also fairly proud of the fact that she was still a virgin, and intended firmly to remain so until her wedding-night. And she fully confessed everything she could think of in meticulous detail, tried her best to repent, and dutifully did every penance set. Sometimes the thought of her mother's files made her a little queasy; even more so the thought of reading and using them herself, even on priests. Better than chopping off heads or burning people at the stake, but...
A ruler has to kill sometimes, for the good of the realm and the people. Blackmail, that makes you feel... dirty. Mom has to live like the spider they call her, at the center of a web of paper and secrets.
"Rumors aren't a joke, though. They can hurt; they can kill," Sandra said. "As a ruler, you can protect someone like Tiphaine... which helps ensure they're loyal... but if people believed rumors like that about you, it could threaten your position. Which means threatening your life. Don't ever doubt that."
Mathilda nodded. And it's a sin even if it doesn't hurt anyone else. But it's not as bad as a lot of things some people do, like bullying peasants or waging blood-feuds over some piece of nothing. We have to kill to live sometimes, but it's not something you should ever do lightly. Besides, I like Delia. It's lucky I don't have to confess other people's sins. Father Donnelly is sort of strict... I wonder why Mom picked him for me, and not someone she could control?
That reminded her of her worries. "Mother... I've been thinking."
"Something I heartily recommend," Sandra said, her eyes shrewd as always.
It was a bit daunting, sometimes, to realize that she was always thinking, and always had been. Even more daunting to think of living like that, never saying or doing anything without having a dozen possible consequences dart through your mind.
"Mother... when I'm Protector..." She'd come of age for that in five years; you had to be older than the heir to a lesser title. "Will I really be Protector?"
"Ah," Sandra said; she sounded satisfied somehow. "I was wondering when you'd ask that."
"Well, will I be? Like Father?"
Sandra smiled again. "There will never be another Norman Arminger," she said. "What you mean is—will you really hold the power, as I do?"
Mathilda nodded, and her mother went on:
"That depends entirely on you, my dear. It won't be easy. Half the nobles will want to marry you, or have their sons marry you, and rule through you; and you must marry, and fairly soon—a ruler's first responsibility is to have an heir, to keep the peace after you're gone. It would really be best if you married and had a child before you come to the throne; a ruler should have an adult heir, and at least one spare, and it's better if they have an heir in turn before coming to the throne. Your father and I would have had more children, if we could have."
Unspoken was what would have happened if one of those had been a son. Mathilda went on:
"But if I married anyone here, or their heir, wouldn't that turn the others against me? As long as I'm single, I can sort of keep them guessing and trying to court my favor. The way Elizabeth did."
Sandra silently clapped her hands. "Bravo! But you don't want to die childless the way she did, do you, my dear?"
"Well... no. I want kids, someday. But not whole litters, like Victoria; just four, that would be perfect—two boys and two girls. A small family's better, I think... what's funny?"
"Nothing, my dear. Just reflecting on how perspectives change."
"Like you said, I can't not have any. I mean, we don't have a lot of relatives; nobody like James Stuart was to Elizabeth the First. It's my kid or they fight over the throne 'til the last one standing takes it. And they might rip the Protectorate apart doing it."
She made a moue. "James wasn't any great prize, but he was better than a civil war."
"Smart Stuarts were few and far between," Sandra agreed. "Charles the Second, maybe, though he was lazy."
"And... there's Rudi. He wouldn't be, you know, here a lot; he'd never want to live here all year 'round. And the Mackenzies are definitely going to hail him Chief after his mother, now that the Assembly's made him her tanist. And the fighting-men here all respect him. A lot. If it didn't turn everyone against me, those who were against me would really think three times about revolt—I could call on the Mackenzies for help. And I like him muchly, and God knows, he's cute as hell."
Sandra nodded. "You know his mother and I have talked about that. But it would be chancy. He's a witch, he'd never take the Faith even in form, and the Church isn't as much under our control as it was in your father's day. Plus there'd be the question of what religion your children followed—no witch could ever rule here, and no Christian in Dun Juniper. A lot of our believers and priests would be angry enough at a pagan consort. That could mean trouble; assassination attempts, say."
"If I died without an heir, who would succeed? The Grand Constable?"
Sandra looked at her and smiled again, this time slow and fond. "That's my girl! No, Tiphaine couldn't lead a big enough faction. It would be Conrad, probably. Though only after a fight. He doesn't actually want to be Lord Protector, but he'd take it rather than let some of the others in."
"And the Stavarovs and the Joneses and the others know that, and that helps keep me alive," Mathilda said.
"Bravo! And he does have an heir already—three—and very able lads they are, too, with very good matches already lined up. But your father built all this for you, my dear. You have a duty to his blood."
Mathilda nodded slowly. Her mother went on:
"And some of the rest of the lords will try to rule through you whether you're single or not, and some will be ready to bring the whole Association down in wreck as they jockey for power, if they're not restrained... or occasionally, killed. I'll advise you as long as I'm around, of course, but the decisions will be yours. You'll have Conrad and Tiphaine and a few others you can trust but ultimately it's your wits that the realm will depend upon."
"I think... I think the common people will support me. And the town guilds. If I offered charters..."
Sandra nodded; Mathilda could see she was pleased.
"Yes, for what that's worth, they would support you; they know what a cabal headed by someone like Count Piotr Stavarov would be like, and they want a strong Protector to keep the barons in line. But remember, this isn't the Clan Mackenzie or Corvallis or even the Bearkillers. What counts here in the end is the great tenants-in-chief, and their vassals and men-at-arms and their strong walls, and if you do anything that unites all of them or nearly all of them against you, they'll destroy you. Your father knew that—it's a balancing act. They have to be afraid of you, but not too afraid, or for the wrong reasons. You'll be stronger than any one or two or three of them, but not all of them. They've tolerated me because I leave them alone beyond enforcing their dues and keeping them from killing each other too often. And because we got hurt badly in the War and the uprisings, which left a lot of widows ruling for underage sons—you won't have that advantage."
"A lot of them would like to make the peasants serfs again," Mathilda said with sudden bitterness. "The older ones, they give me the chills, sometimes. I know... I know that Dad did a lot of hard things, but he had to."
Or did he? a small voice within her wondered.
She lashed back at it:
He did save all sorts of people! Portland is the only big city we know about that didn't have everyone die! And the whole country around here has more people than almost anywhere else that was near a town before the Change. If it weren't for Dad there wouldn't be anything human left between Seattle and here and Eugene except bones boiled for stew.
"But the Change is a long time ago. We don't have to be like that any more. I want to be a good ruler," she said, the words tripping over each other. "I want my people to love me."
She managed to throttle back the next part: I don't want to rule like Dad... or even like you, Mom.
Sandra looked at her, and there was no fathoming her expression, except that there was love in it.
"Those are two things that don't always go together, my darling," she said.
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>