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THE SUNRISE LANDS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Mt. Angel Monastery,

Mother House—Order of the Shield of St. Benedict

Queen of Angels Commonwealth, Willamette Valley, Oregon

January 10th, CY 22/2021 AD

 

Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski rose from his knees before the image, feeling them creak and pop as he signed himself and turned back to his desk and sank into the swivel chair. He was a broad-shouldered man who had been thick-muscled most of his life, but going a little gaunt now as white and gray replaced the blue-black of tonsured hair and short-cropped beard. Pale blue eyes showed beneath his shaggy brows, in a square pug-nosed face graver than the smile-lines said was natural. He put his palms on the silky polished wood of his desk and sighed.

It was not the one of plain pre-Change metal he'd used for so many years; on this last Christmas he'd come in to find that the brothers had replaced it with one they'd been working on in secret for years. This one was mostly burl-grained walnut, and the panels on the sides and front were carved with Biblical scenes, and the top shone with the intricate patterns of the dark grain.

He sighed again. He hadn't had the heart to demand that they replace his old desk and turn this one over to the town mayor down in town, as had been his first impulse.

I still miss that old monstrosity, he thought. I have seen so much change in my life—the Change most of all—that I find myself craving stability more and more. Perhaps not the worst of yearnings in a monk, but I must be cautious that it does not cloud my judgment as head of the Order. Even God knew mortality and change when He became flesh in this fallen world, and we must remain supple before time's gales.

The top of the desk was painfully neat with its piles of paper, inkwell, seal, pens and typewriter for very private correspondence; he had been a soldier before he found his vocation, and then again after the Change when Mt. Angel became the core of survival in this corner of the Willamette, and he was a precise and methodical man by nature and training. The office walls held a crucifix, a Madonna and Child done in a spare style that looked—and was—both Eastern and very old, and abundant book-cases, stocked with works on everything from agriculture and medicine to theology, tactics and engineering.

There were few personal items. A framed photograph of a middle-aged woman with a square face, tired and lined and resembling the Abbot's own more with every year. Also framed was the Rule of the Order of the Shield that Pope Benedict had returned with his approval when contact was reestablished, together with an addendum in his own hand: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

He opened several files and arranged them before him, pulled the plug out of the speaking-tube and called: "Send in Father Ignatius, please, brother."

The young soldier-monk came in, bowed and kissed the bishop's extended ring, then stood at the Order's equivalent of parade rest—feet at shoulder width apart, head slightly bowed above braced shoulders, hands clamped together beneath the concealing sleeves of the robe. Behind an immobile face, Dmwoski smiled at the earnest discipline of the young man. It reminded him of himself, once—though there were aspects of the younger generation he would never understand, short of Heaven.

We are separated by the death of a world and the birth of another. Perhaps never since Noah and his grandchildren has there been such a division.

"Your reports on the Vogeler affair have been excellent, my son," he said. "Be seated."

Ignatius perched uneasily on the edge of the chair. "Thank you, Father," he said.

"You have familiarized yourself with this?" the bishop went on, tapping another folder.

The younger cleric drew a deep breath. "Yes. Extraordinary! Nantucket is the center of some disturbance of space and time, possibly the epicenter of the Change itself."

"That is apparently so. The Holy See's information and the... evidence... that the British visitors brought make it plain."

"I wish they had stayed longer, Father."

Dmwoski shrugged. "They had told all they knew. What is also plain—not least from your work, my son—is that the Mackenzies have other information from this Vogeler with respect to Nantucket. Information that they have not shared with us."

Ignatius frowned, though his hands rested motionless on his thighs, one sandaled foot flat on the ground and the other bend back slightly beneath him. Dmwoski's lips quirked slightly—the young man was in the First Position For Swift Drawing, quite unconsciously ready to leap, whirl and strike. Mt. Angel's martial training bit deep. There were times when the Order of the Shield reminded him a little of tales about Shaolin monks from the old days.

"Father, I think that... they would only do so in a religious context. The Mackenzie herself does not keep secrets for the pleasure of it, and the Clan, frankly, usually leaks like a sieve. I would ordinarily say that while capable of many wonderful things, they cannot keep their mouths shut for any reason whatsoever. But in this case..."

Dmwoski nodded. "Yes. In their view of the world, the Change must necessarily be of supernatural agency."

Ignatius looked up, startled into showing his surprise: "You do not think so, Father?"

Dmwoski allowed himself a smile. "All things are accomplished according to the will of God, but He usually acts through mortals and through the natural world. Miracles would not be miracles if they happened every day, would they? Their purpose is to show us a possibility."

The Abbott's face grew somber: "And while even evil is made to serve His purposes in the end, those purposes are beyond our comprehension. If it serves His purpose to deliver the world to a catastrophe such as the Change, He may well have done it by allowing... oh, the aliens that the Corvallans postulate... or wicked or heedless men misusing or misunderstanding the laws of nature. Or it may have been God allowing the Adversary to exert his power."

"Or, with respect, Father, it might have been a veritable miracle, as when He stayed the sun above Joshua."

Dmwoski nodded. "All things are possible to Him, Brother. If that was the cause of the Change, then of course no probe of its source can do further harm. If however mortal hands and minds were the agency... who knows what might result? Even to the destruction of the world."

"Pray God and the Saints that may not happen!" Ignatius said, eyes wide in shock.

"Pray indeed; but God imposes on us a duty to act in this world. I would be much more comfortable if one of our own were involved in any expedition to Nantucket. The more so as the followers of the false Prophet seem to have an interest in this—and perhaps know things which we do not."

Ignatius looked down in thought. "You mean to give me this task, Father? I will of course obey, but would not an older and wiser man..."

He is frightened, Dmwoski thought. But not for himself; he fears failure only. Good! God deliver us from recklessness and arrogance masquerading as courage!

"Such a journey will require a young man in his full strength," Dmwoski said. "Also you have already successfully completed several difficult missions, both military and diplomatic; your teachers give you excellent reports."

"Thank you, Father. But how exactly am I to gain access to any mission the Mackenzies launch? I am reasonably well-liked there, for a Christian cleric and an outsider, but I am a Christian cleric and an outsider and the Clan are... clannish. I presume that is your intention, rather than the Order sending an expedition of its own?"

Dmwoski nodded. "Needs are infinite, resources always limited, my son," he said. "With the threat of the CUT, the Order will need all its strength. One man—one man of unusual abilities—we can spare. More we cannot."

His blue eyes grew shrewd. "And if the Mackenzies send their tanist—"

"They will, Father. Given the legends which surround his birth and early life, it would appear inescapable to them. And he is a... a most formidable man. As a warrior I have not met his match, save possibly the Grand Constable d'Ath; and he has equal intelligence. And much more charm as well."

Dmwoski nodded. "Just so."

He supposed there must be some people who liked her, but even putting her private life to one side, personally he'd met snakes who had more charm than Tiphaine d'Ath. He knew the Cardinal-Archbishop had contemplated excommunication, and had only refrained when a tacit agreement was reached that she would abstain from the sacraments most of the time.

Aloud he continued: "But consider also the relationships which Rudi Mackenzie... Artos Mackenzie... has acquired in that storied and adventurous young life of his."

"Ah," Ignatius said, and bowed his head in respect. "The Princess. She and Rudi Mackenzie—"

"Have been raised together and took the oath of anamchara. Which requires the sharing of secrets. If Rudi is to investigate these matters for his mother, he will tell her. She will not allow him not to."

"What do you think she will do, Father?" Ignatius said. "I have little knowledge of her beyond matters of public record and a few meetings."

"She will, I think, find some way to accompany him."

"With respect... I cannot see her mother allowing that!"

"Neither can I," Dmwoski said dryly.

The unspoken: and teach your grandmother to suck eggs made the young man flush, but the Abbott smiled to lessen the sting and went on:

"Nevertheless, she will try. She may or may not succeed. We cannot in good conscience abet her possible defiance of the Regent; it would be politically suicidal as well. But we can..."

"... help her if she succeeds in it," Ignatius said.

"Just so. She is a most loyal daughter of Holy Mother Church, in an independent and occasionally self-willed manner," Dmwoski said.

"Well, she is a princess, born to rule, not an apprentice dairymaid," Ignatius said.

Dmwoski nodded. Wryly, to himself: And to you, my son, a princess born to rule is the most natural thing in the world, whereas I must every now and then remind myself that such things do again walk the world... the Changed world... even if gryphons and unicorns do not.

Aloud he went on: "Considering her parentage, we have been blessed indeed that she earnestly seeks the good. Hence she is likely to accept our help, if events take the turn that I expect."

"But her contacts are primarily with her confessor, and the hierarchy in the Association dioceses, are they not, Father? I assume we are keeping this hypothesis secret from them?"

"Yes. It is necessary. Working through the regular hierarchy in the Association territories is an unacceptable security risk in this matter. They are too intimately involved with the Protectorate's secular governance. Frankly, I would be afraid of the Lady Regent learning too much if we consulted in that direction. Nor do they have any man of your particular abilities."

"And the Princess does not share the prejudice so many Association nobles have against our Order," Ignatius said, nodding thoughtfully.

"Precisely, Brother. If anything, she favors us—from appreciation of our work, and also from reasons of policy as a counterbalance to the Dominicans. Many of whom regret the ending of the schism and the disbanding of Antipope Leo's Inquisition."

Ignatius had lost his doubts; his mind was working quickly behind an impassive face. Dmwoski nodded.

"We must consult others of our brothers, speak at length, and pray for guidance. But I think, my son, that your first step on this journey will be towards Portland."

 

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Flying M Baronial Hunting Preserve, Coast Range foothills

Portland Protective Association, Oregon

January 30th, CY22/2021 AD

 

This is a bit different from our last hunting party, back last Samhain, Rudi thought

He inhaled deeply. All he could smell was the damp snow, and the deep sweet pungency of conifer forest. The sun was a little west of noon and well south, which made him squint as he watched the edge of the woods ahead, where the snowy natural meadow narrowed down to a point between two steep hills.

The twins weren't with them; they didn't like visiting Association territory, for which he couldn't blame them, and they'd gone off to stay with Hiril Astrid at Stardell Hall. Mathilda was the only woman in the half-dozen actual hunters, though there were a few young ladies-in-waiting and a middle-aged chaperone back at the lodge. Everyone else was a young male Associate, a nobleman; then there were the beaters ahead of them on the other side of this stretch of forest.

Rudi held up his right hand. The others came to a halt, spread out across the field where sun-cured grass stuck through the snow in beige-upon-white. Especially after Mathilda hissed at them about hunt-discipline.

The Flying M was in a valley that wound up from the Willamette near Yamhill into the Coast Range ahead and to the west. They'd come further where the tall forest of Douglas fir and hemlocks closed in with a tangle of steep forested ridges, rippling around them in tall dark green ranks. The branches were heavy with the white of the recent snowfall and the Alaskan air-mass was still over the Valley, keeping the air well below freezing.

The wind was cold in his face, and the sound of the hounds was a musical belling at least a half a mile further on—though sound was tricky among woods and hills, particularly after snow. A hundred yards behind them the horses were starting to snort and plunge in the hands of the grooms. Epona bugled her challenge to the scent of predator drifting in from the westward.

"He's coming," he said, softly but clearly.

Grins of excitement to match his own ran up the line, breath coming heavier and puffing white in the chill air. The villagers in the first manor east of here said the tiger was a big male, and it had taken several sheep and a cow; they were terrified that it would be a child next.

That might be simply fear talking. The old man-eaters who'd escaped or been released right after the Change had died out by now, though the memory of them remained vivid. As humans grew scarce and better-armed, stalking natural prey like deer and elk and feral cattle and swine in the burgeoning wilderness became a wiser strategy for their descendants. Those who learned, lived.

Still, nobody wanted to take chances. To a tiger a human looked temptingly edible, just about the size of a deer, and winter was their hungry season too. You had to teach them to avoid men and their homes...

There was a deep stillness, the snow-hush drinking sound, with their own breath as loud as the quiet creaking of boughs under their white burden. He was in Portlander outdoor dress, quilted jacket and stout wool breeches and fur-lined leather boots, his feet only a little cold, but he'd kept his own yew longbow rather than the crossbow they favored.

The shaft on the string had a hunting broadhead, a razor-edged triangle whose ultimate origin had been a stainless-steel spoon. Mathilda was armed Clan-style too—she'd grown up using longbows part of the year—and the rest carried hunting crossbows with spring-steel prods, the wicked four-bladed heads of the bolts glittering when the intermittent sun broke through the clouds. Everyone had a hunting spear too, with a broad razor-edged head and a crosspiece below that, standing upright with the buttspikes driven into the ground.

Crack-crack-crackle...

He caught that, and Odard, and Mathilda, then the others. That was the sound of frozen snow-laden brush breaking under heavy paws as the great cat moved quickly; Rudi's consciousness focused down to a diamond point, everything growing crisp and clear and slow. Then a call, as the king predator realized there were men in front of it as well as behind.

A moaning mhgh... mhgh... mhgh, building to what wasn't quite a roar, then a deep guttural snarling sound of anger and fear: ouuurrrh... ouuurrrrh...

Mathilda spoke: "He's going to break cover! Rudi and I have first shot!"

The tiger eeled through the brush at the edge of the clearing with a delicacy astonishing in an animal that weighed as much as a pony, and stood looking at them from two hundred yards away.

"Big 'un," Lord Chaka Jones said exultantly, his chocolate-brown face alight with pleasure. "Damned big. Siberian, and pure or nearly."

He was right; it was a six-year-old male in its prime, with its shaggy winter coat a pale yellow-white between the black stripes.

"Ten feet without the tail," Rudi agreed. "Six hundred pounds, easy, maybe seven hundred."

Seeing them it snarled, a sharp racking sound, barring teeth like ivory dirks, ears laid back and golden eyes blazing, tail held stiff and low, twitching slightly at the end. A white puff of breath obscured its head for an instant. It half-turned as if to go back in the woods, but the sound and scent of the hounds brought it around again. The great head went back and forth, looking at the six humans, and then it began to pace forward in a half-crouch, belly almost touching the snow.

"Remember, these things can jump thirty paces in a single bound," Odard Liu said.

"Yes, teacher," one of the others grumbled.

At first the tiger moved step-by-step, placing each foot carefully, just like a housecat stalking a ball of yarn. Then it began a rocking trot... and suddenly it was coming at a flat-out gallop, a series of amazing bounds with a puff of snow shooting from under its rear feet every time it took off and then again when it landed, seeming to float in long gravity-defying arcs.

"You first, Matti," Rudi called.

He bent his bow nonetheless, the yew limbs flexing back into a shallow curve as he drew Mackenzie-style past the angle of his jaw, eyes locked on the white patch on the big cat's chest.

Snap.

The sound of the string hitting Mathilda's bracer was sharp and crisp. The arrow blurred out in a smooth shallow arc, and it met the tiger's latest leap at its peak. The elastic grace turned to a squalling tumble; the tiger landed whirling, trying to bite the thing that had hurt it, and he could see the peacock-feather fletching of her shaft against its rear flank. That would kill it... but not quickly.

Then it screamed and charged, belly to the ground now, broad paws churning a mist of snow that glittered in the sunlight.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

He shot twice, Matti once, in the next six seconds. All three arrows struck; her last buried itself to the fletching right in the V at the base of the beast's throat. And still it came on with a roaring coughing growl, blood smearing the snow now as it tensed for the last leap.

Then it collapsed, the fierce grace turning to tumbling limpness, flopping not five feet from Mathilda's boots.

"Streak, 'ware streak!" Odard shouted frantically, trying to get into position to take a shot without chancing hitting a human.

Rudi pivoted automatically. He saw blurred yellow-and-black, a second tiger just taking off for the final killing bound, its huge paws spread with the claws ready to grip and the mouth gaping for the bite to the neck. He shot once and threw himself forward under the leap, snatching his spear as he went by. That meant landing in an ungainly heap, and the ashwood shaft cracked him painfully on the knee. Rudi forced himself into a shoulder-spring, coming to his feet and whirling at the same time.

The tiger landed where he'd been, then turned in a whirling spray of snow and blood and slaver, screaming its challenge. It came up on its hind-feet; his arrow had struck it low in the belly, but the wound wasn't crippling or a quick kill. Now it hunched and drove for him. Massive paws slapped forward with the claws out like giant fishhooks in a left-right-left-right that melded into a single slamming blur of movement, each blow strong enough to crack bone or disembowel.

He screamed a snarl back at it, giving ground but jabbing fiercely at its face, short quick stabs to keep it distracted and make it rear and expose the vulnerable underside. One blow landed on the broad spearhead, numbing his hands but splitting the paw against the razor edge as well. The cat screamed again, recoiling from the pain.

"Haro!"

Mathilda drove her spear into the beast's side with a meaty thump, the blade sinking between two ribs until the crossbar stopped it. A second later, Chaka's hit it a little further back, with all the burly black nobleman's two hundred pounds lunging behind it.

Rudi poised for a stroke of his own, but the blaze in the animal's sun-colored eyes went out. It moaned, dropped to the snow and bit savagely at the whiteness with red pouring out between its fangs, then went limp.

Rudi paused, panting and grinning. The three who'd made the kill spent a minute thumping each other on the back and asking if anyone had been hurt.

"Not a scratch," Rudi boasted.

"No?" Chaka said, wiping sweat off his face. "Then how come you're bleeding?"

"I am?" Rudi said, then felt the sting.

A probing finger found a tiny patch of skin gone from the outermost tip of his nose, flicked off by a claw. Three inches closer and his whole face would have gone the same way...

He shrugged off a complex shudder and cleaned his spear by jabbing it repeatedly into the snow and the wet earth beneath it, then wiping it down. The air was full of the smell of blood and the rank tomcat musk of the tigers, and their own sweat. His longbow's string had snapped, probably cut by the spearhead, but it was fine otherwise and he slid it back into the carrying loops beside his quiver; there were arrows to retrieve as well.

Then he stooped, leaning on the spear, and touched a finger to the blood, mingling it with his own on thumb and forefinger and touching it to his forehead.

"Go in peace to the Summerlands and hunt beneath the forever trees, brave warriors," he said quietly. "We honor the fight you made; speak well of us to the Guardians, and be reborn through the Cauldron of She who is Mother to us all."

Then to the woods: "Lord Cernunnos, Horned Master of the Beasts, witness that we kill from need and not from wantonness, to protect our farms and our folk; knowing that for us also the hour of the Hunter comes at last. And to Your black-wing host, Lady Morrigú, I dedicate the harvest of this field."

A few of the Protectorate nobles crossed themselves or touched their crucifixes in alarm as he invoked the Powers—though this time not, he noted, Mathilda or Odard. Rudi suspected some of them were giving thanks that Matti hadn't been hurt for reasons other than love of their Princess; he wouldn't have liked to have to account for an injury to the Lady Regent himself. Then everyone was smiling and exclaiming over the size of the tigers and the rareness of finding a streak—a group—of young males together. Usually one would drive all others out of his territory, even his siblings.

"They might as well be our nobles," Matti said dryly.

Everyone laughed at that. Chaka unstoppered a chased silver flask and they all took a sip of the brandy as the foresters and varlets came up to skin the kills. Odard took out a tape measure and sized them both.

"Nine feet six inches and nine feet eleven inches, nose-tip to base of the spine," he said, and stood back to let the servants do their work.

"Not a record, but close," Chaka added. "That's a day not wasted!"

One of the foresters grinned up at Rudi as they turned the animals on their backs to begin the flaying; he was an older man in his thirties, a little gray in the close-cropped yellow hair.

"I've never seen a man move so fast, my lord," he said. "That was a good piece of work, keeping the tabby in play with the spear. You saved yourself a bad mauling there, maybe your life, and perhaps saved a couple of others as well."

Rudi nodded thanks and handed him the flask; he'd never liked being called lord or having people wait on him hand and foot—Juniper Mackenzie had always done her share of the chores, and seen that he was raised the same way. The forester looked surprised, then took a quick swallow and handed it back, with a gasp of thanks; it was good brandy. Rudi drank again and returned the flask to Chaka, then puffed out a cloud of white breath.

"I was just barely fast enough," he said.

"That tiger had reflexes like a cat!" Odard said.

Rudi groaned. "Too close for comfort!"

"Let's get back to the lodge," Mathilda said. "It looks like more snow, to me."

Rudi cocked an eye skyward. It had been cold all day; now the temperature was falling again, and the wind was from the north. The tall firs swayed with it, sending showers of fine white crystals from the last day's fall down, and whipping up a ground mist. Snow rarely lay more than a few days in the Valley flats, but this was a little higher; it might stick as long as a week here, in a cold winter. He swung into the saddle with the others and they headed back along their own trail; everyone started an old hunting song with a fierce bouncy tune, The Eye of the Tiger.

"A good hunt," Chaka said again when they'd finished. "Nothing like it on a winter's day."

Rudi nodded agreement: "It is one way to liven up the Black Months, and it needs doing. Though it's more fun still if you stalk them alone or with one or two others. The best way is to use a blind over a waterhole or a game trail."

Mathilda smiled quietly; a couple of the others probably thought he was putting it on.

"Oh, come on," one of Odard's friends, a knight named Drogo de Gaston. "I know you Mackenzies are supposed to be hardy and all that, but that's going a bit far, isn't it?"

Rudi grinned. "Well, we don't have as many tigers down in our part of the Valley," he said. "Also all our crofters have longbows, and know how to use them."

That brought more good-natured chaffing, for all that some of these young men had lost fathers under the Mackenzie arrowstorm in the War of the Eye.

Soon the hills swung back, and they were at the Lodge. The Flying M had been a place for country pleasures long before the Change, and it was built in rustic style of notched logs. Smoke whipped almost horizontally from fieldstone chimneys as they pulled up before the verandah of a long low main building; there were some detached cabins for the staff, plus stables and paddocks, and an airstrip with a ramp-and-catapult arrangement that was used to launch gliders in the summertime. Rudi found it homelike, and flying was one of life's great pleasures, right up there with sex—his blood-father had been a pilot by trade, and had been aloft on the day the engines stopped.

Dinner was roast venison they'd killed two days earlier, and a lot of fun—though he suspected it would have been a good deal rowdier if Matti wasn't present, and the making of assignations with the servant-girls was reasonably discreet under her eye. Rudi refrained entirely.

Though why she minds when she doesn't want to sleep with me herself, I don't understand, he thought. Strange folk, Christians.

When the cake had been demolished, they had the luxury of real coffee. That was still rare and very expensive since it had to be shipped in from Hawaii or South America, through seas that were often stormy and which held more pirates every year—his mother refused to serve it, except at feasts where everyone could have some. He was cautious about it, because he wanted to be able to sleep tonight. The same trade had brought in the oranges and dates and figs that went around with the sweet desert wine. The liqueur was from the Valley's own vineyards but also an import to the Protectorate, from Mt. Angel and done Trockenbeerenauslese-style.

When he and Mathilda were alone by the fire she sipped from the golden-colored stuff in her glass and looked at him levelly before she said:

"All right, Rudi, spill it."

He shrugged. "All my secrets I will share," he quoted, from the anamchara oath they'd sworn as children. "But these aren't all my secrets. They're the Clan's secrets. And you're the one who has to tell your mother no when she asks... which isn't something I'd want to have to do."

She winced slightly, then sighed. "I've done it before and I'll do it this time. Now spill it."

"OK, you remember that guy from the east, Ingolf Vogeler?"

"Yeah," she said dryly. "Seeing as we all nearly got killed saving him. You and he and Juniper were spending an awful lot of time talking."

"It was a story worth hearing," he said, and told it.

"What?" she said, when he was finished, sitting up and putting her empty glass down, impatiently waving away one of the servants who came up to refill it. When they were alone:

"Are you bullshitting me again, Rudi?" Her eyes narrowed. "Because if you are, this is no time for one of your jokes—"

"No, no, I swear it by Brigid and Ogma, may they curse me with stutters all my life if I lie, and that's how we had it from him."

Mathilda's mouth dropped open slightly. "And you all believed it? Juniper believed it?"

"We had reason," he said, going a little grim; and he noted that she thought he was more likely to be credulous than his mother.

Well, fair enough... Juniper had once told him there was nobody more skeptical of charlatans than those who'd been genuinely touched by the Divine. And I've seen a few try to fool her over the years. Anyone stupid enough to try came away sorry and sore; nobody tried twice.

"I'm not all that happy about it, you know, Matti. Things are... awkward. Mother went to the nemed."

"The sacred wood? Why, what happened?" Mathilda said, startled and alarmed.

She had never been there except as a spectator for public rites like Juniper's wedding to Sir Nigel at the end of the War of the Eye; even that was pushing the limits of what her faith permitted. She knew what Rudi was talking about, though: a Circle-casting and questions asked of the Powers. That was dangerous at the best of times, and when Juniper Mackenzie called, They were all too likely to answer.

I love the Lord and Lady, but They can be dangerous, he thought, remembering her white-faced exhaustion afterwards.

And They show us the Aspect that is in our hearts. Whether the pot hits the kettle or the kettle hits the pot... I think that's why They move so indirectly in this world. They are... too real... for it to be safe for us to meet Them face-to-face on this side of the Veil. So we see Them in dream and vision and prophecy, and through Their world itself instead. Even for people like Mom, meeting them face-to-face isn't something that can be done too often.

He looked up at her. "What is that bit in your Christian bible? About asking for bread, and getting a stone? They told her something about me—have been saying it since I was just born. And it frightens her. Frightens her for me, and also for all of us."

Matti bit her lip, then shook her head as if clearing it. After an instant she burst out: "How can you think They're good, if They do things like that?"

Rudi found himself chuckling ruefully: "You can't tell everything to a two-year-old, can you?" Then he quoted, with malice aforethought: "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, eh?"

Mathilda winced and smiled at the same time, started to say something, then decided not to—they'd learned a long time ago that religious arguments were pointless. Particularly when, as she said, arguing doctrine with a witch was like trying to cut fog with an ax. Then she shook her head, as if trying to bring it back to the world of men:

"Well, what happened after he saw this so-called Sword of the Lady? Wait a minute—aren't you supposed to be the Sword of the Lady?"

"Yeah. It's a Mystery."

Mathilda sighed; there was no answer to that. "What happened next?"

Rudi paused for a long moment, staring into the low blue-and-crimson flames that danced over the coals in the hearth. He shivered a little, remembering the haunted look in Vogeler's eyes whenever he forced himself to think of what had happened on the island.

"Then he came out of that place on Nantucket..."

 

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