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THE SUNRISE LANDS

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


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

Stardell Hall, Mithrilwood,

Willamette Valley, Oregon

January 30th, CY22/2021 AD

 

"E-ndan Ingolf warn?" Astrid Larsson said, when Ritva finished the tale that Ingolf Vogeler had told.

Mary and Ritva Havel halted on a footbridge. For privacy they and the commanders of the Dúnedain walked the Path of Silver Waters, past waterfalls frozen into arching shapes of glittering white, fantasies that shone with an almost metallic luster beneath the pale brightness of the winter sun. Likely they would melt in the next few days. Mithrilwood—what had once been Silver Falls State Park, and a good deal around it—was higher than the Willamette valley floor, and colder, but not as winter-frigid as the great mountain forests that ran eastward from here until they met the glaciers of the High Cascades.

"Then the man Ingolf surrendered?"

The language they were speaking was Sindarin, the tongue most often used in a Dúnedain steading. There was a slight tinge of distaste in her voice.

"Alae, duh! naneth-muinthelen Astrid," Ritva said, in the same language.

Her version used more loan-words than Astrid's book-learned variety; she had learned it as a living tongue.

"Well, duh, Aunt Astrid."

Light flickered bright through the boughs of the firs and hemlocks, and the bare branches of oak and maple; it was still three hours to sunset, though there were clouds gathering in the north and she thought it smelled like more snow tonight.

She went on: "E-ndan i guina." Which meant: The man lives.

"His friends asked him to avenge their blood," Astrid pointed out.

There was a persistent rumor that she was an elf, or at least half-Elven. Ritva had to admit that as far as looks went it might have been true; her mother's younger sister was tall and willowy-graceful, with white-blond hair that fell almost to her waist and features that had an eerie cast, eyes too large and rimmed and streaked with silver through their blue, chin a little too pointed. Which was the way elves were supposed to look, pretty well. Only the slight lines beside those disturbing eyes belied it; she was thirty-six this year.

"Apa rasad pilinidi terëaldamo mengiel?" Mary Havel scoffed. "Sort of hard to avenge anyone after he'd gotten a dozen arrows through his brisket. As it is, he escaped eventually—we didn't get the details on that—and he still has a chance to get vengeance, someday, maybe."

"You have a prosaic soul, Mary," Astrid said regretfully; she used the same tone she would have to diagnose a skin disease.

The Lady of the Dúnedain could tell Mary and her sister Ritva apart easily. How, nobody knew; their own mother had more difficulty. Her consort Alleyne was with them, and her anamchara Eilir and her man John Hordle, but the six of them were alone apart from that.

The thing that worries me most is this story about the sword, Eilir Mackenzie said in Sign.

Eilir was the same age as the Lady of the Dúnedain, the same five-foot-nine height, and had the same graceful sword-blade build; her features were a little blunter, her hair dense raven-black and her eyes green. She had been deaf since birth, as well.

John Hordle snorted, and spoke in a basso rumble: "Well, if there's a bloody magic sword involved, at least the sodding thing isn't stuck in a stone!"

Astrid scowled at him for a second; the big Englishman could make even the Elven-tongue sound as if it were being spoken in a country pub over a pint. Or possibly at the top of a beanstalk, since she barely came to his shoulder, and he was broad enough that he looked almost squat. Beside him Alleyne Loring walked like an Apollo, six feet of long-limbed blond handsomeness, with the first gray threads appearing in his mustache in his fortieth year.

Astrid nodded at her soul-sister, speaking with hands as well as voice, as had become second nature since they met in the first Change Year:

"It's the sword that bothers me, too. Obviously, it's important; obviously, this Prophet doesn't want us to get it. Or at least that's the way it looks to me. From what Ingolf said, he made at least two attempts to probe Nantucket—one that failed completely, and then by stealth with Ingolf's band, through the spy they had at the court of the Bossman of Iowa."

Alleyne spoke thoughtfully: "Or the Prophet could have planted it all as a story to get Rudi out of the Valley and where he could get at him. Plenty of people know that... ah..."

"Prophecy," Ritva said helpfully.

"Yes, that prophecy about Rudi."

Astrid smiled at him: "No, I don't think so," she said. "If they just wanted to kill him, there are a lot less complicated ways."

Which they seem to have tried at Sutterdown, Eilir pointed out.

"No... no," Astrid said. "Rudi only got involved with that by chance—if chance you call it. They were after Ingolf. Which means they didn't want us to hear the story; and it couldn't have been collusion to give credence to his story, he very nearly did die before he told us."

"They were trying to kill him, all right," Ritva said, recalling the night in the Sheaf and Sickle's upper corridor; her nostrils widened slightly, smelling again the iron-copper rankness of blood and fear-sweat.

Her sister Mary nodded: "That slash on his shoulder and arm must have let out half the blood in his body. From the look of it, the cutter was aiming at his neck."

She described it again, and they all nodded; everyone here was a warrior, and intimately familiar with the ways edged metal had with human flesh.

"We're both going," Mary added flatly, preempting her aunt as she drew breath to speak.

"Going where?" Alleyne said, arching one brow.

"On the quest, Uncle," Ritva said, feeling a great happiness bubbling up under her breastbone. "The quest for the sword, with Rudi... with Artos. I mean, isn't it obvious?"

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Aunt Astrid opening her mouth. They moved to forestall her:

"You can't go! You're Hiril Dúnedain, the Lady of the Rangers, and there may be war here—you can't go off into the wilderness," Mary said.

"You're like Elrond or Theoden," Ritva added, using the clinching arguments. "You have a people and a place to ward. We're just ohtar."

The word meant warrior-squire, one rank down from Roquen, knight–commander.

"But there should be Dúnedain involved," Ritva added.

She did not go on to say that it was the best they could do in the absence of real hobbits, dwarves or elves, though the thought made her smile and exchange a glance with Mary. They loved the stories of the elder days—the two of them wouldn't be here if the tale didn't speak to their hearts—but Aunt Astrid took them with an appalling literal-mindedness sometimes. So did a lot of other people in the Dúnedain Rangers, for that matter.

But this is the Fifth Age of Middle Earth, or possibly the Sixth; the Third was who-knows-how-long ago, and things have changed.

Alleyne caught her eye, and one of his moved in the slightest hint of a wink:

"I think that would be wise, my lady," he said gravely to his spouse. "After all, Thranduil sent his son Legolas on the quest of the Ring, and Glóin sent Gimli likewise—they didn't go themselves."

Eilir and Hordle nodded vigorously. Astrid sighed deeply, and Mary hid her relief. Wild horses hitched up with triple-reduction gearing couldn't shift Aunt Astrid once she got her mind set on something; she was the only person the twins knew who could out-stubborn them, though their mother Signe came close.

Eilir went on, signing emphatically: I'm not leaving Beregond and Iorlas. They're too young. And I'm your anamchara not your nanny; you're most certainly not dumping your three on me and going off on an adventure!

"I suppose so. Though Thranduil was thousands of years old and I'm thirty-six. Oh, well, it's the Doom of Men."

"I suspect we're all going to get our fill of adventure much closer to home," Alleyne said grimly. Then he shook off his mood: "But we'll have some time to get ready... and time to live in."

Astrid sighed again. "Yes, yes, Mary and Ritva have leave go on the..."

She hesitated, then brightened. "The Quest of the Sunrise Lands."

"Ring!" Mary said.

"Cool!" Rivta echoed.

You have to admit that Aunt Astrid has a way with words. She always comes up with a neat phrase.

Voices were singing as they turned and walked along the path beneath the cliff towards Stardell Hall, a party of hunters in from the woods with their dogs trotting at their heels, bows in their hands and a brace of elk over their pack-horses. But it might have been anyone here; a good singing voice wasn't exactly an essential qualification for membership in the Dúnedain Rangers, but it helped. This tune had a happy sound with a fast-tripping chorus:

 

Sing ho to the Greenwood!

Now let us go—

Sing hay and ho!

And there shall we find both buck and doe

Sing hay and ho!

The hart the hind and the little pretty roe

Sing hay and ho!

 

Stardell had been old when the Change came, originally built by the CCC as the headquarters for the park. There was some cleared land nearby for turn-out pasture and gardens, snow-covered now. But this steading got more from hunting, and more still in payment for the services of the Rangers. The core of it was tall forest with the high-pitched shingle roofs of the log buildings scattered beneath; homes and workshops, stables, barns and a granary built of rough stone, a Covenstead and a small chapel for the Catholic minority.

Ritva looked up. Several of the larger trees bore flets, round platforms cunningly camouflaged high above the ground, some with walls and roofs above; there were more of those further up in the mountains, and cave-redoubts as well. The flet on the big Douglas fir was where she and her sister stayed when they were in the steading; it had bunkbeds and a very pleasant little cast-iron stove.

There were people in plenty bustling about on the ground, near two hundred at this time of year. This was the largest of the Ranger stations, and their main work was as seasonal as farming: guarding caravans and running down bandits and evildoers, with a sideline in destroying man-eaters, carrying messages and small valuable parcels, rescuing the afflicted and defending the helpless. Evildoers liked camping out in the cold no more than respectable folk, bandits were no more able to cross snowed-in passes than merchants, and this was the time of year when messages could wait.

There were shouts of greeting as the Hiril Dúnedain and her kinfolk came back from their long stroll. A pair of tow-haired girls of not-quite-three came out of the Hall, stumping along in their snowsuits with the mittens dangling on strings. At the sight of Ritva and Mary they sent up a shout:

"Gwanûn! Gwanûn!"

"Yes, we are twins," Mary said, and took Fimalen up on her hip; Ritva took Hinluin.

"And so are you, little Yellow Hair," Ritva said.

"And you too, little Blue Eyes," Mary said.

They're so cute, they almost make you want some of your own, Ritva thought. Someday. Not yet! And it was a bit thoughtless of Astrid to give them interchangeable names like that.

The Larsson family ran to blonds, as did the Lorings. The Larssons also tended to produce twins, both fraternals and identicals, but Astrid's eldest—her son Diorn—was a singleton. He was also black-haired and gray-eyed and preternaturally serious for a ten-year-old.

"Mae govannen, gwenyr," he said gravely, putting hand to chest and bowing: Well-met, my kinswomen.

They replied with equal formality; Ritva remembered her struggles with the complex vocalic umlauts in the Elvish plural form and envied him being brought up with it from birth. Then everyone trooped into the Hall, after shaking out their cloaks. Stardell looked a little like the Hall in Dun Juniper, but there was no second floor, only a gallery around what had been the roofline before they raised it. And the carving on the pillars and vaulting rafters above was more restrained, the colors mostly greens and pastel blues and silver-grays, and the old gold shade of oak-leaves in the fall.

The style was what her mother Signe had once told her was more Art Nouveau and less Book of Kells than that the Mackenzies favored, eerily elongated dancing maidens and their lords, sinuous trees with blossoms of iridescent glass, and little gripping trolls grinning with bone teeth, peering from corners and holding up the stone finals of the hearth.

The sisters went over by the fire; there was a pleasant smell of pine-boughs and hemlock amid the grateful warmth, and a scatter of children's toys on the floor—a hobbyhorse, little elk on wheels, a stuffed tiger on a rug made from the hide of a real one. The black gold-embossed leather covers of the Histories stood above the hearth on the mantelpiece, flanking images of the Lord and Lady as Manwë and Varda. A Corvallan was waiting there, a small rather dumpy man in the four-pocket jacket and pants that people from the city-state favored when they were traveling.

Ritva hadn't seen him here before, and he was looking around with the I'm seeing it but it can't be real expression outsiders often got in Stardell, lost amid the pleasant liquid trilling of Sindarin conversation.

"Mae govannen," Astrid said curtly, and then dropped into English: "Well-met, if you prefer the Common Tongue."

"Lady Astrid, Lord Alleyne," he said, bowing courteously. "I'm here about that little problem you were concerned with."

Alleyne grinned to himself. Ritva caught the expression and suppressed an urge to giggle, and heard Mary snort as she did the same. It wasn't a good idea to diss Aunt Astrid at the best of times; right now she was feeling sore as a tiger with a nail in its paw because there was finally a real quest, for a sword of power... and she couldn't go.

I'd feel mangly bitter about that myself, in her position, Ritva thought. Mary gave her a little nod. Squared. This is going to be fun... to watch.

"It isn't a little problem," Astrid said, glaring at him with a cold fury that made him wilt visibly. "By the treaty which ended the War of the Eye, all the realms of the Meeting pay a subsidy to the Dúnedain Rangers for the work we do. By the same treaty, the People and Faculty Senate of Corvallis, as hosts of the Meeting, are responsible for collecting it and forwarding it to us. Quarterly."

"There have been problems—not everyone pays on time, and I'm sure you realize that means we have to take out short-term paper—"

"And I'm sure that is your problem and not mine!" Astrid roared, an astonishing husky sound.

Everyone in the Hall stopped and looked; Fimalen and Hinluin hid their faces in Mary and Ritva's necks, and Diorn stared with bristling suspicion at the man who'd angered his mother. Astrid went on:

"Spay snur khug! What do you think I am, some huckstering dog of a merchant like you, a banker, a debt-collector? I have my people to feed and my warriors to arm! You have a debt of honor for the blood we shed in the wilds to keep you fat!"

The Corvallan looked around, licking his lips. The eyes on him were not particularly friendly, and in unconscious reflex he searched for someone who wasn't glaring. Eilir tapped her ear with two fingers and shook her head at him with a look of pity that he found disquieting. John Hordle was smiling... but he was also leaning an elbow on the pommel of the four-foot sword he usually carried slung across his back, with his right hand on the long quillions of the guard. When their gaze met, his thumb jerked out to point to Alleyne Loring.

The envoy made a mute appeal to Alleyne, and the Englishman shrugged slightly and silently mouthed: Pay up!

The Corvallan sighed and reached inside his jacket. When it came out he held a rectangle of black leather; he opened it and pulled the fountain-pen out of its loops.

"Will you take a check drawn on the Faculty Senate's account with First National of Corvallis, Lady Astrid?"

"By all means," Astrid said, all graciousness again. "Make it payable to Dúnedain Enterprises, Ltd., if you prefer the Common Tongue. In Edhellen, that would be Gwaith-i-Dúnedain, Herth."

 

@@@

 

Corwin, Valley of Paradise, Montana

February 1st, CY22/2021 AD

 

The Church Universal and Triumphant had come to the high green pastures of Paradise Valley a decade before the Change. Their leaders had told them that the end of the world would come soon, in nuclear fire. The elaborate maze of underground shelters and stockpiled weapons hadn't been very useful when the end came instead with a soundless flash of light, but the massive stores of foodstuffs and tools and clothing most emphatically had. Still, they had been deep in quarrels with the local ranchers when the Prophet arrived with a few followers, fleeing the great dying of California. The Church had taken him in, and its leader proclaimed that his vision was from the Ascended Masters...

Sethaz felt himself sweat as he backed out of the Presence. It was getting worse, the darkness and the smell and the long ranting harangues. Thank the One that it had been fairly comprehensible this time. It was almost has bad as his mother had been, once the Alzheimer's had progressed. The pillow had been a mercy. Perhaps...

No! he thought. Not yet.

The path outside was lined with his personal Cutters, Guardians of the House of the Ascended, the Sword of the Prophet; they went to one knee in the snow as the Son of the Prophet appeared, the sheathed tips of their shetes resting in the snow ahead of them, their heads bent over the hilts. The red-brown of their lacquered leather armor showed brilliantly against the pale carpet of winter, with the golden rayed sun on their breasts; if they'd been on a mission instead of guarding the House of the Prophet, they'd have worn white cloth over it.

The cold lay on his face as he looked up to the Absaroka Mountains to the east, so intense that it made the air seem liquid. Snow-peaks cradled the Valley of Paradise on both flanks, floating high and holy where the air thinned between the world of Man and the Beyond. Between him and the mountains loomed the unfinished bulk of the Temple of the Dictations, swarming with workmen even in winter. Smoke drifted high against Heaven, smelling of hot brick and scorched metal.

There was a long silence as he stood and watched the morning light tinge the jagged white horizon with a hint of pink, letting the clean wind blow the nausea out of him. He wasn't an imposing sight in himself, a man just short of thirty, a little on the tall side of medium, his cropped hair brown and his eyes an everyday hazel, slender and strong with a swordsman's thick wrists and an archer's broad shoulders. Yet the aura about him was enough to keep others at a deferential distance.

At last Councilor of the Way Charom came over, boldest of a knot of ecclesiastical bureaucrats. They had grown over the domains of the Church Universal and Triumphant like mold over bread this last ten years, but there was no way to do without them.

"What is the word of the Prophetic Channeler, your holiness?" he said.

"Wheel may turn wheel, and that wheel may turn a wheel or a shaft, but no more, lest the anger of the Ascended Masters be again turned on us, and mankind's pride be broken in the dust again."

The stout shaven-headed man in his wool and furs bowed over linked hands, but he couldn't hide a flicker of relief. Sethaz inclined his own head, very slightly, but a mark of acknowledgment all the same. It would have been very awkward if the gearing necessary to run windmills to pump water had been declared Abomination. The Guardian of the Way was what a secular state might have called an Interior Minister, and it would have been his responsibility to enforce the edict.

There was enough trouble making sure that all the women covered their hair.

"May I ask how the Prophet is?" he asked, greatly daring.

Sethaz thought, then decided to allow it. "His earthly, human shell of this Embodiment grows weak," he said, which everyone knew. "One day soon he will rejoin the Unseen Hierarchy and cast aside the envelope he wears. It is a burden and a torment to him, though one he bears willingly for us."

Charom nodded again and spoke with unctuous relish: "It is good that you will be here, his chosen Son and successor, trained through many Embodiments to receive the Dictations."

You mean it's good that you got in with the winning side early, Sethaz thought, and flicked a hand in dismissal. The minister withdrew.

Alone he paced between the compounds, with only the six Triads of Cutters that accompanied him everywhere. Little remained of pre-Change Corwin; most of that had burned in the fighting when the Church took full control of the valley. Now it was a complex of new buildings, most built in two-story blocks of gray stone and shingle roofs set around courtyards, a few of the older ones of timber; covered walkways connected them above the streets. In the summertime the gardens were very beautiful, but now they lay dormant, banked under earth and straw and mounded snow that glittered with ice-crystals.

The snow was colored brown with dirt where sleds carried loads through the tree-lined streets; grain in sacks, salvaged metal bound for the smithies or weapons and tools out of them, firewood, charcoal, frozen sides of beef and mutton, a thousand other things that came in as tribute from the regions that acknowledged the Dictations.

People swarmed as well, women in headscarves and long skirts and over-coats, men in pants and jackets and fur caps, officials of the Church in their heavy robes, expressionless slaves in thick rags carrying burdens or pulling sleds. All paused reverently when a priest climbed a podium set beside the street and read a brief passage from the Dictations. He caught a snatch of it.

"...Vigil of the Violet Flame, but the soulless minions of the Nephilim prevailed over the men of Camelot, and..."

"Amen! Amen! Amen!" the chorus thundered out when he'd finished, and then the folk turned back to their business.

Sethaz went in under an arch marked with the sun-disk; he liked to do unannounced inspections. If you relied too much on written reports or scheduled visits there was always the danger you'd end up in a puzzle-palace of deceptions stage managed by underlings. The guards there—trainees were strictly segregated—slapped left fist inside right hand and bowed low. This building was one of the Prophetic Guard's; the courtyard was roofed over, rising in a laminated timber barrel-vault with many skylights, with the cells of the students looking down from all around and open classrooms, offices and libraries and refectories below. The layout made it easier for a single observer in the courtyard to keep track of everything that occurred, as well: it was called the panopticon, and the Dictations attributed the method to the Ascended Master Plato.

Several dozen of the youngest students knelt in one end of the court, resting from physical training and chanting:

 

"The beloved Maha Chohan gave Me a Grant

Of many good and fine lifestreams

Like a golden chain, girdling the Earth,

Is the Unseen Hierarchy of the Ascended Lords.

Without the Unseen Hierarchy,

The Earth would long ago

Have passed into oblivion,

The electrons which compose it

Returned to the universe, and the souls

Depending upon it for existence

Snuffed out like candles before the wind..."

 

A senior student prowled behind them with a rod of split ash, waiting for an error or hesitation. The faces of the novices were glazed with the effort of the endless repetitions; only so could the Truth be ground into the soul, with sleeplessness and hunger. Not an eye of the juniors flickered away from the Preceptor who lead the chant. The rattle and thud of weapons-practice came from the center of the courtyard; for a moment he and his personal guards watched.

The trainees were young, their faces smooth and hairless, scalps shaved, a mixture of levies from the newly conquered regions and the sons of ambitious families closer to the core territories. The Sword of the Prophet were like the priesthood, a pathway to office and power. The older classes were sparring, stripped to the waist, using wooden swords or staffs or hand-to-hand. There was a constant clatter of wood on wood, an occasional thump and grunt as a blow went home. Sweat ran down their shaven scalps and muscular torsos, giving the air a musky pungency under the scents of wood and soap and stone; the instructors here were in the armor of Guardians, often nearing middle-age, always scarred. Some lacked a hand or foot or were otherwise crippled.

The students bore scars as well, of the scourge and hot iron, from punishment or self-inflicted efforts to reach the trance state where you became one with the Masters. Pictures of those Ascended Lords graced the walls, above the mirrors and stretching-bars; Christ and Zoroaster, Muhammad and Gautama Buddha, Blavatskyand Mundy, his own mother and the current Prophet.

Sethaz watched the practice in silence for a few minutes. Then he snapped his fingers and the senior instructor came over. He had the chinbeard and close-cropped hair of a Warrior Elder, streaked with the first gray hairs. He'd been a fighting-man even before the Change, and joined the Church not long after.

"How do they progress, Commander Sean?" the Prophet's son asked.

"Son of the Prophet, they're doing fairly well," the man said. "But we haven't the training cadre to expand the program as quickly as I'd like."

Sethaz cocked an eye at the oldest class, the eighteen-year-olds. He was less than thirty himself, but he felt like one carved from the granite of the hills compared to them.

"They look to be shaping well."

Sean nodded. "Yes, Dispenser of the Word, and they can help with the basics for the new intakes. But their knowledge is still theoretical. They need combat experience before they're fit to be instructors themselves."

Sethaz nodded. "Let's see how they do at second-level trials."

Then he stripped off his heavy winter coat, and the sweater and silk shirt beneath it. One of the students let that distract him, and went down under his opponent's staff. The instructor added a few hearty kicks before he rose.

"Those three," Sethaz said.

Staff scurried to bring practice-armor, much like the combat variety except that it was more battered and worn, and blunted blades—a step up from the lath-and-wood of everyday drill. After the suit had been strapped on he reached out his arms, and shield and shete were there. The rest of the students grouped themselves in files of three and went to one knee, watching silently and controlling their breathing with drilled ease.

Sean was grinning as he turned to the similarly-outfitted students. "The Son of the Prophet does you a great honor. Push hard on the word of command... fight!"

The students didn't waste any time on preliminaries; the center man of the Triad lunged with blade outstretched.

"Cut! Cut!"

Not bad, Sethaz thought, as he swayed aside and clubbed the trainee on the back of his helmet with the edge of the shield, a short chopping stroke. In the same instant he caught the second's stroke at the side of his leg on his own shete and kicked him in the belly, hard. The armor spread it; the steel-toed riding boot would have killed a man without the plates and padding, and even with he doubled up with an ooof.

That left the third. He came on gamely, shete flashing. It cracked hard on Sethaz' shield, then rang on the steel of his blade. After a moment he found the rhythm of it, and left an opening. The student's shete lunged and then it was caught between his right arm and his flank, clamped hard by the inside of his arm. The trainee foolishly tried to wrestle it clear rather than abandoning it and going for a dagger, and took a head-butt in the face. Sethaz pulled the blow; that was another one that could kill. It jarred him a little, even with the steel of the helmet and the padding between him and the impact. The youngster's nose broke with a crunching sound and he lurched back to the matting, lying dazed with blood pouring down his face.

Sethaz kept the grin off his face, standing and making the air whine as he whipped the blunt practice shete through figure-eights.

"What have you learned from this?" Sean barked at the kneeling spectators.

One of them raised a hand. At a curt nod, the youth said: "Sir, that a fighter should not think only of his shete, just because he has a shete in his hand. Everything is a weapon to the warrior's mind."

"Correct," Sethaz said. "And always use conditions and circumstances, which are unique to each fight. Remember that."

He let the servants strip off the armor, went through into the bathhouse, showered and took the cold plunge. Then he sighed and changed into a robe.

Back to business, he thought, crossing over a street in the enclosed walkway and into the building that housed his private offices and quarters and his Women's House.

The sanctum he used for most of his despised but could-not-be-avoided paperwork held only a mandala, desk and office furniture, but the broad windows looked out across a vista of river and cottonwoods and snowy pastures, up to the green of Ponderosa-pine forest and the glaciers above. A murmur and click of abacus beads came from the offices on the ground floor, but he felt private here—except for a Triad of the guards, of course, and his secretary Geraldine. It had been a refuge when he was younger, still uncertain and feeling his way as the Prophet withdrew into his visions and the generals and priest-bureaucrats jostled for power.

More servants brought him fresh bread and a bowl of lamb stew with onions and potatoes as he read through the most important dispatches. Things were going well down in the Powder River country; the last of the powerful ranchers there were asking for terms, ready to accept the Dictations. And the Sioux had finally yielded all the Hi-Line, retreating eastward into their strongholds in the Dakotas and agreeing to allow missionaries from the Church to preach in their camps.

Let's hope that works, he thought. They make poor slaves but they'd be very valuable subjects.

He clapped hands to have the tray taken out, and sat sipping borage tea. Which left another matter, one less easily solved with a few regiments or preachers.

"Bring him in," he said.

The secretary genuflected and went to the door, and a near-naked figure was thrust through to stumble to a halt and stand blinking. Kuttner was in his thin drawers, teeth still chattering from the cold of the unheated basement cell. His hands were bound before him, and the guards had thrust a pole between his elbows and his back, and were steering him by it. They pushed him down on his knees; Kuttner bent to touch his forehead to the tiles of the floor. There was a crusted slow-healing scar on his left cheek, ending in an empty socket.

"I beg for mercy, Son of the Prophet!" he wailed. "I have failed the Prophet and the Church Universal and Triumphant. Mercy!"

Then he sensibly fell silent. There was no excuse for failure; it showed a lack of proper openness to the Dictations.

"I am disappointed in you, Kuttner," Sethaz said, offering none of the usual titles or formulae of politeness. "We had great hopes... and the Prophet himself has said that the matter of Nantucket is important."

If that's not just his madness speaking, Sethaz thought, then pushed the deadly siren-song of doubt away. I must have faith.

Kuttner licked his lips. He was a capable spy, and they'd spent years infiltrating him into the household of the young Bossman of Iowa before he inherited from his father; his file indicated that he was cynical, but fundamentally loyal, ambitious, and highly intelligent. Brains were in far shorter supply than zeal. Now there was something in his single remaining eye that made Sethaz a little uneasy.

"Son of the Prophet, the Prophet's words were truer than my weak and doubting spirit could have imagined. There is something dangerous on the island. Something... I don't understand, something beyond the world of men. Our previous expedition disappeared without trace, until I found that shete with our mark. My attempt penetrated the mystery."

"Yes," Sethaz said, looking down at the report on his desk.

How much of it can I believe? he mused. Kuttner used to be a reliable man.

"And we'd have known more of it if you hadn't let this man Vogeler escape. To be precise, he penetrated the mystery; you were lost in visions."

Kuttner licked his lips again. "I was sure that he had made submission to the Church and was ready to learn the Dictations," he said.

"And you thought you had established a secure control link."

"I was not wrong, Son of the Prophet. I... just didn't have time to use it. I was careless."

"And lost an eye because of it," Sethaz said.

Though that is fortunate for you, he thought. If you had not been so badly wounded, we might have suspected collusion.

Kuttner went on in desperate haste: "But Son of the Prophet, he did tell me of his vision before I revealed myself. He had no reason not to, and no reason to lie while he still thought I served the Bossman of Des Moines. The vision of the sword, and the dreams that told him to take the news to the far west and seek this Sword of the Lady."

Sethaz came to a decision, and motioned. One of the guards drew his shete and flicked twice at the cords in the same blur of motion. Kuttner remained motionless while the knife-sharp weapon went tick against the wood of the pole. The staff clattered on the floor of the sanctum; another flicker of steel between his bound hands, and Kuttner grunted as he rubbed his wrists and felt the pain of circulation returning.

"However, the men I sent to the west didn't do too well with Vogeler either," Sethaz said. "A most obdurate apostate and traitor. In fact, the observation team saw him carried out of this Sutterdown place towards the lair of the Witch Queen herself... and that is precisely who we wanted to keep Vogeler's story from. You are pardoned, provisionally, and restored to your rank of High Seeker of the God-flame. You have until snowmelt to come up with a plan. Consult the archives and interview agents as you wish."

Kuttner rose to his feet, met Sethaz' eyes, gave a single bow of precisely the right depth, turned on his heel and left.

Sethaz smiled to himself and opened a drawer, taking out a box and resting it on his table. In it was a clock; not just a pre-Change model, but made new of steel and brass, its exposed interior a mass of gearing. If the pagan witchcraft of the far West wasn't enough to bring the attention of the Church Universal and Triumphant, such blasphemous meddling with forbidden things would be.

He glanced at the agenda on his Rolodex. "All right, Geraldine. Generals Walker and Graham next."

The war against New Deseret was necessarily on hold for most of the winter, but that didn't meant there weren't steps that had to be taken before the spring grass grew enough to support horse-soldiers.

 

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Barony Gervais, Portland Protective Association

Willamette Valley, OregonFebruary 18th, CY22/2021 AD

 

"Welcome home, my lord Baron!"

Odard Liu caught the apple the shopkeeper tossed. It was still fairly crisp, and he bit into it as he rode through the gloomy drizzle of a February afternoon, waving thanks with his free hand as he enjoyed the rush of sweet juice.

The rain fell in a mist of steady silver-gray, flattening the smoke from the chimneys and dappling the puddles in the asphalt streets. Hooves—his palfrey, the chargers of the two men-at-arms and the rouceys of the half-dozen mounted crossbowmen who followed him—landed on it with an endless hollow wet clop-clop-clop-clop; he could catch glimpses of the streaked concrete of the castle's towers over the shingle roofs. The column of horsemen swerved now and then to avoid an open oxcart full of split firewood, or covered ones hauling bales and boxes and sacks. A priest signed the air as he went by in his one-horse, twin-wheeled carriage with its collapsible hood, and they all bowed their heads in respect.

Gervais wasn't very large, more of a big village than a town or city, and not much survived of the pre-Change settlement save the southwest-northeast grid of the layout and the roadside trees. Lamplight spilled out onto the street, amid a pleasant tap and tinkle and clang of folk at work, with the whirring moan of spinning wheels and the rattling thump of looms beneath it. A wave of doffed hats, respectful bows and curtsies and greetings followed him, often with umbrellas above.

Odard liked being popular here. It wasn't very difficult; he didn't chase any girl who really didn't want to be caught, collected no more than his legal due and was ready to remit a bit when times were hard, made sure the baronial court was honest, and kept his vassal knights from fighting out their quarrels over the tenants' crops and homes. Most of that had been his mother's policy before him and he intended to continue it now that he was of age.

He sighed heavily. Unfortunately, his mother didn't seem to realize that he was of age, or that he wasn't always going to fall in with her idea of what the Baron of Gervais should do. He hoped Mathilda didn't have the same problem with the Regent when she turned twenty-six.

I'm not looking forward to this homecoming.

A wet moat separated the castle from the town, but the drawbridge was down and the portcullis up. Spearmen and crossbowmen snapped to attention to either side of the gate and on ramparts and towers above, and a trumpet rang.

Castle Gervais was built to one of the standard plans the Association had used back in the early days. A curtain-wall with towers had a gatehouse facing the town and another on the eastern wall. Within was the Outer Ward, an open paved space on all four sides. Within that was the Keep, a square block with tall round towers at all four corners, and two big U-shaped ones for the inner gatehouse, all built to overlook the outer works.

He rode through the inner gatehouse with more ceremony, and dismounted in the Inner Ward, ringed around with smithy, stables and the Great Hall and lord's apartments. Odard returned the salute of the watch and nodded to his escort. From the bustle and the lights a welcoming feast was in preparation; nobody was in the stocks in the center today, he noted.

"Gavin, Armand, go get dry, get something hot to drink and then report to the Seneschal. I'll be here some days, possibly weeks."

The men-at-arms had hooded cloaks of the same unfulled wool that Odard wore, but theirs were over helmet and hauberk, a gleam of oiled gray under the wet cloth. The pennants on their tall lances drooped likewise, the wet canvas clinging to the ashwood. Sergeant Gavin grinned at him, the smile white in his brown face; he was in his late thirties, old for his trade, and as a young man had served Odard's father, the first Baron.

"Yes, my lord. Good to be home, eh?"

"Better than being out in the rain."

The steward greeted him in the vestibule of the Hall, with a mug of priceless hot cocoa, along with the rest of the senior staff.

"Ah, Romarec, you're a lifesaver," he said.

He sipped at the hot sweetness as a servant took his cloak and another offered him a heated towel to dry his face. There was a slug of good brandy in it, too.

"Your lady mother waits to greet you in the solar after you've refreshed yourself, my lord," Romarec said.

Well, that's Mom, Odard thought wryly, nodding to several of the others and giving his old nanny a hug before heading for his private quarters.

His valet had come ahead by train from Todenangst with the baggage. Odard's own rooms were in the southeast tower of the keep, four stacked one above the other. All of them were brightly lit, with fires crackling on their hearths, and had been for long enough to take the curse off the winter's day—not easy, in a structure made of thick mass concrete and in this climate, even when all the walls were paneled and hung with tapestry.

Alex Vinton was a small foxy-faced man with red hair and freckles, about six years older than Odard, wearing a soberly rich tunic of russet-dyed linen, shoes with turned-up toes, and a gold-link belt. He did not wear the usual servant's tabard over it, and only a discrete livery badge clasped to the brim of his hat. He'd proved extremely useful in a number of ways.

"Hi, Alex," Odard said, lowering himself into the steaming lavender-scented water of the bath. "Christ, that feels good... Been busy?"

"Yes, my lord," he said, folding the clothes Odard had discarded. "I've been back two days now and there's quite a bit of gossip."

"Oh, God and His merciful saints—" Odard steepled his hands in mock prayer and rolled his eyes upward "—tell me she didn't have those assassins here at the castle!"

"No, no, my lord," the valet said. "The hunting lodge over at Fairfax."

"Ten miles away and in a swamp, that's something," Odard said meditatively, scrubbing at his fingernails with a small brush; he was a fastidious man and bathed every day when he could. "When did she meet them?"

"She didn't, my lord. She had her younger brother Sir Guelf do it."

"That's also something. Not much, but something."

Alex held the towel for him as he stepped out on the mat, then helped him dress with foppish care in the latest fashion, just below the court-appearance standard—dark trousers cut closer than had been the custom in his father's time, tooled-leather shoes with little golden bells on the upturned toes and ceremonial gold spurs on the heels, a knee-length tunic of heavy indigo-dyed silk with silver embroidery on the square-cut neck and elbow-length sleeves whose flared points extended halfway to his knees, and a white silk shirt beneath it. He added a ring or two and examined himself in the full-length mirror, smiling at what he saw.

"Not bad," he said taking a belt of leather covered in worked-silver plates and buckling it around his waist.

It had a purse and a ten-inch poignard; the hilt had patterned silver and gold wire inlaid in the black stag-horn grips, and a pommel in the shape of a silver cat's-head. You didn't usually wear a sword inside in time of peace, but a gentleman didn't go unarmed outside his own chambers, either. Alex added the round hat with the roll around its brim and flicked the long silk tail from the side to lie over Odard's right shoulder. The badge at the fore was the mon arms of the House of Liu in a turquoise that set off his eyes.

"You're the pattern of chivalry, my lord," the valet said unctuously, then spoiled the effect with a grin.

"All right, I admit it, I like looking well," Odard said.

"Tell the comptroller when he has to pay the bills, my lord," Alex said, grinning still wider.

There was something to that. Barony Gervais was rich in anything grown or made within its boundaries or available in local trade, but the silk came from Burma or New Singapore or Hinduraj, and it cost—regular trade with the portions of Asia not irretrievably wrecked by the Change was just getting started again. The price of fashion was one reason he was just as happy to get away from Court for a while.

"See if there are any details you could find," he said to the valet. "Talk to Guelf's men; maybe you can smoke out something."

Odard whistled a tune he liked as he walked through the corridors towards the solar, looking his usual cheerful self. Hearing it, someone within earshot began to sing the words—a woman's voice:

 

"I forbid you maidens all

That wear gold in your hair;

To come or go by Carter Hall

For young Tam Lin is there—"

 

Inside, he was on edge; a little like the time just before a fight when you wondered which bush hid a man with a crossbow bolt ready to punch through your armor, or a hunt for a tiger or boar. Usually politics was something he enjoyed, even the junior jostling-for-position that heirs did, and he'd been getting more and more involved in the real thing as he approached the magic age of twenty-one. Having to play the game with your own mother was another kettle altogether.

It wouldn't do to let it all show. Instead he raised his own voice for a moment:

 

"None come or go by Carter Hall

But they leave him a pledge—

Either your rings or green mantle

Or else your maidenhead..."

 

And then laughed as he took the spiral staircase.

The castle solar was in the south-facing upper turret of the southwestern tower, the one nearest the Hall; that height let it have real glazed windows all around the circumference of the big round room rather than arrow-slits, though today more light came from lanterns of brass and mirrored glass. It glowed on the tapestries, the pale tile of the floor, on polished metal and bright rugs, on a big rood-cross of black walnut inlaid with semiprecious stones.

The Dowager Baroness Liu was sitting there with her women—mostly sisters or daughters of knights who held land in fief from the barony—and his younger sister Yseult. Everyone stopped what they were doing and rose as he stood in the doorway, except his mother; as he turned to her the ladies-in-waiting curtsied, a wave of colored flowers in their cotte-hardis and headdresses.

"Ladies," he said, taking hat in hand and bowing in return with a sweeping gesture. "I'm enchanted to see you all again. Would you excuse my mother and me? We've a good deal to discuss, and I'll see you all in the hall at dinner."

He smiled charmingly as he said it. Some of the younger and prettier women smiled back invitingly, but he wasn't going to make a fool of himself in that direction, beyond a little light flirtation. They were all of a rank that could expect marriage, and he was the sole heir to the barony and a notable catch. Almost all of them also had male relatives equipped to resent misbehavior with edged metal; people of their generation were a lot stricter about such matters than their parents had been. Odard fancied himself with a sword, but he also disliked real fighting without a very good reason.

Yseult squealed and ran towards him and then—being just turned fourteen—slowed her pace and curtsied gravely. He reached out and tweaked her nose, which made her squeak again and got their mother frowning.

"Greetings, my lord brother," she said, kissing his extended hand, and then both his cheeks.

"My lady Yseult," he said, bowing in turn. "You're looking good, sis."

She was; she'd gotten their mother's blond hair, worn loose to her shoulders under a simple headdress in maiden's fashion, but more of their father's face, high cheekbones, blue eyes sharply slanted and nose a graceful tip-tilted snub, complexion like pale honey. He suspected that in a few years she'd be making the young gentlemen of the district do some real suffering to win the right to carry her handkerchief to a tourney.

"My lady mother," he went on, with a deeper bow.

She nodded and stuck her needle in the half-finished tapestry in its frame by the hearth. The women were working on yet another something with warriors and dragons and a very large wolf, probably from the cover of some trashy book his mother had liked when she was young—it seemed that every woman who'd been in the Society before the Change had that weakness, even Lady Sandra, and the others had all caught it, like some chastely ideational form of the clap.

Dried sachets scented the air, along with the fruity smell of the alcohol lanterns and faint cedarwood from the hearth. A page in livery sat on a stool not far away, strumming a lute—his younger brother Huon. He frowned at that. The kid should be doing page service in someone else's household, to bind the families and get the best training as page and then squire, but his mother had been dragging her feet about it.

So... no time like the present to establish publicly who's boss now.

"Hello, Huon," he said, as the boy stopped playing and came forward to pour a cup of the mulled wine from the flagon heating on the tiled stove. "Lord Chaka says he could use a page, and then a squire, over in Barony Molalla."

The boy's dark eyes lit with eagerness. Odard went on: "Talk to me about it after dinner."

Several servant-women in their double tunics and tabards stood motionless on call, eyes cast down and hands folded before them. One glided forward to refill a teacup from a pot that rested over a little spirit-lamp; they all turned and tripped out of the room when he made a gesture.

When everyone was out of earshot he kissed his mother's hand and then her offered cheek, kicked a padded leather settle over close and sat. His mother's eyes were as blue as his own, and colder—nobody had ever said Mary Liu operated on charm—but he favored his father in his lithe build. His features were a compromise, which left his nose straight but short, unlike her slightly hawkish beak.

"Were you trying to wreck the family fortunes?" he demanded, preempting her complaint about Huon. "You and my precious hothead of an uncle?"

He could see her considering denying everything. Instead she stuck her needle in the fabric and shrugged.

"It was an opportunity to get some revenge for your father, and my older brother," she said flatly. "With... plausible deniability."

"Plausible to the Spider?" Odard asked incredulously. "You expected to keep it secret from the Lady Regent?"

She frowned, lines appearing between her plucked fair eyebrows and touched her wimple.

"That was a risk," she admitted.

"Risk to my own precious personal hide, mother—I ended up in the middle of that cluster... heap in Sutterdown."

For a moment genuine distress showed in her eyes: "I didn't mean for that to happen, darling!"

"Mother, that doesn't mean those lunatics weren't trying to kill me."

"It... went wrong. You shouldn't have been there. That was unfortunate"

"That was stupidity!" he replied. "And what exactly do you think Lady Sandra would have done to our family if they'd killed the Princess? Besides which, do you know how many years of effort I've put into cultivating Mathilda?"

"Years spent hanging around with that Mackenzie brat as if you were his boon companion!" she spat suddenly.

"There are worse companions to have," Odard said, and held up his hand. "Don't explode, mother. I'm as aware of the debt I owe my family as you are. Unlike you, I'm also aware that a man can walk further than he can run."

"I made a policy decision."

"And one that ended putting me in a fight to the death with the men you let use my land as a base!" he repeated.

That made her look embarrassed; but her face also closed in like a fist, and he knew that it took something drastic to shift her when she started looking like that.

I suppose I'll have to be frank, Odard thought. Deplorable. Give me honeyed equivocation anytime.

"Mother, I came of age several months ago," he pointed out with gentle implacability, holding her eyes. "I am the Baron. If you wish, you can select one of the demesne manors as a dower house, and establish your own household there."

And sit and rot with the servants and some gossiping old biddies, he thought grimly.

"Or you could have apartments at Court."

And have Lady Sandra keeping a very close eye on you twenty-four-seven.

Shocked, she followed the thought. "I... darling, I just want to be of help to you!"

He smiled. She is my mother, after all. With all that that implies.

"I know, Mom. You do a great job of keeping the comptroller and the bailiffs in line and the mesne tithes coming in, which frankly makes my life a lot easier."

His face went stern. "But you will not interfere in matters of high policy again without consulting me. Mine is the final word. Do—you—understand?"

Their eyes locked. After a moment hers turned aside, and she nodded.

"But... contacts with the new power in the East could be valuable..." she said. "I have assurances from them—passwords and signs—"

"Perhaps. But I will be the judge of that from now on," he said. "And not so incidentally, there's something very strange going on here. That man Ingolf the Cutters are so hot to ventilate saw something out there in the barbarian lands. Rudi and his mother are very interested. Mathilda's interested. Which means I am interested... and I want any information you get. Understood? And I will use it as the Princess requires. From now on, a double block-and-tackle and a team of oxen couldn't get me away from her."

She nodded again.

"Excellent. Let's go down, then."

He rose and extended an arm. She followed and laid her fingers on it, and together they paced down towards the Hall.

And someday, one way or another, I will be Lord Protector.

 

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