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THE TEARS OF THE SUN

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


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

Dun Juniper
Dùthchas of the Clan Mackenzie
(Formerly the east-central Willamette Valley, Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July 31st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Rudi Mackenzie—Artos the First, High King of Montival though yet to be formally crowned—finished the last crusty bite of the ham sandwich, savoring the smoky taste of the cured meat and sharp cheese, and washed it down with the last swallow in the clay crock of beer. Then he leaned back against the smooth-worn roots of the gnarled wild apple tree and sighed, listening to the soft sough of wind in branches, the hum of bees. A sharp tup-tup came from a flock of little yellow-faced warblers diving through a cloud of mayflies, and then a buzzing zee-zee-zee-bzz-zee as they swarmed off like swooping dots of sunlight into the Douglas firs above.

"Now this," he said, "is something on the order of a homecoming, so it is. Or close enough for government work, until the war is over. Which is appropriate, since now we are the government."

His newly handfasted bride Mathilda Arminger snuggled into the curve of his shoulder, a pleasant solid burden, her brown hair smelling of summer like the sun-warmed grass in which they rested, and her strong not-quite-pretty features relaxed as she turned her face towards the sun. The weight didn't bother him, though Mathilda was a rangy five-nine and had the leanly solid build of someone who'd trained to fight in armor most of her life. He was a tall man, born late in the first year of the Change—which made him a few months older than his bride—long-limbed, broad in the shoulders and narrow in the waist, with a regular high-cheeked face just on the edge of beauty, a shoulder-length mane of hair a color halfway between gold and molten copper, and light eyes of a changeable blue-green-gray.

"It's fair beyond bearing this is. We've seen everything from the Sunset Ocean to the lands of Sunrise and nothing can quite compare," he said softly.

He pulled a strand of long grass free and chewed meditatively on the stem as they looked down through the screen of firs to the open benchland below. That made an irregular oval of grassland running east-west along the side of the hill, about a mile long and half a mile wide at its broadest. Most of it was rolling meadowland where horses and red-coated cattle grazed thick green grass starred with pink lupine and white daisies, separated by hawthorn hedge and weathered board fence into paddocks studded with great garry oaks or the tall black walnuts his mother's great-uncle had planted long before the Change. Beyond that the forested ground fell away steeply and blocked sight of the little valley of Artemis Creek flowing westward into the broad green-gold quilt of the Willamette lowlands. Those faded in turn to the blue line of the Coast Range on the very edge of sight, even to keen young eyes on a day cloudless from horizon to horizon.

Mathilda crossed herself and touched her crucifix to her lips for an instant.

"God made all lands beautiful, in their own way," she said. "But this is our way, or part of it. For Rudi and Mathilda, not just the King and Queen."

"It's a good thing to have your heartstrings rooted in one place, small and very dear," he agreed. "You build from there, but it's the foundation, as the love of your kin is the starting-place for a regard for folk in general."

When he'd left this place two years ago to journey to the Sunrise lands and return there had still been a good deal of a boy in his face. Though he'd already been a warrior of note and chosen tanist of the Clan, successor to his mother as Chief. There was little of that lad left, though the man the boy had become was contentedly relaxed for the moment. Living out a prophecy every day was much more wearing, he found, than simply living with one looming in his future had been, and you needed to take the moments of peace when you could.

"I like the beard," Mathilda said, tickling his jaw; he arched his neck and purred like a cat. "Very distinguished looking. This time. Not mangy, like the previous attempts."

"Like a wheatfield struck by rust and weevils and blight that was, the black sorrow and shame of it, but the third's the charm."

"I remember when you were sixteen and tried for a mustache. Your mother said: And aren't you getting old enough to shave that peach-fuzz on your lip the now, boyo? You blushed crimson."

The short-cropped growth was a slightly darker shade than his head-hair, and had come in dense and even this time.

It adds a few years to my looks, Rudi thought. The which cannot hurt when I'm dealing with so many touchy men and women of power. Human beings are like that; buried memories of our childhoods, perhaps, when age is authority.

She sighed. "Remember how we used to come up here as kids and lie finding shapes in the clouds?"

"It drove your attendants mad. Not that some of them ever liked your spending part of the year here."

"Those ones didn't last. Anyway, it was in the treaty."

Off to the left was the little waterfall, falling like a strand of silver lace over a lip of rock and into its pool, and below it the dam and querning gristmill, busy with grain from the just-completed harvest. Beyond that the distant snow-peaks of the High Cascades glittered like islands of white against blue heaven in the east; the enemy held the Bend country overmountain, up to the forts in the passes. To his right he could just see the white stucco on the walls of Dun Juniper, and over it a blink of paint and gilding from the Chief's Hall. The wind down from the crags carried a hint of the glaciers, and the strong wild scent of the great fir-forests that rolled mile after mile along the west-facing scarps.

"We're still driving them all crazy," Mathilda said. "Just in different ways."

The oval of pastureland and garden on the knee of the hill below was a little crowded, with tents in many of the paddocks and far more horses than usual, including those of Dun Juniper's share of the eastern refugees quartered in every Mackenzie settlement.

"I wish we'd been able to do more than a flying visit in Portland and Castle Todenangst, though," she added. "They're home too."

She was in a kilt and plaid herself, not for the first time. She'd spent half of every year here since they were both ten, back at the end of the War of the Eye, and had often gone in Mackenzie dress for convenience sake. Now it was also a statement that the High Queen belonged to all her peoples, not just her native Portland Protective Association, the same reason she'd taken to wearing jeans and turtleneck when they were in Corvallis.

Which was wise, given the long and well-merited grudges many bore from her ghastly bachlach of a father's reign and the wars against the Association; there were still people to whom the sight of a cottie-hardie or hose and houppelande were like a red rag to a bull. Some simply feared the Colossus of the North because it had more territory and as many people as all the rest put together. The War of the Eye had trimmed it back, but it had recovered quickly and had been growing steadily stronger in numbers and wealth and power all three under Sandra Arminger's steady far-sighted rule. That had made everyone nervous until the rise of the Prophet and the Church Universal and Triumphant had buried old feuds in a common fear.

"Or the PPA outweighed all the other powers before we proclaimed Montival," Mathilda murmured. "If you look at it in terms of everything from the Pacific to the Sioux country and not just as far as the Rockies, then the Association is cut down to size... and people may learn to relax about it a little."

Rudi chuckled. Their minds did tend to run alike. He'd heard that long-married couples were often so. They'd been wed about one turning of the Moon, but he supposed being friends from childhood as well as lovers now hastened the process. Plus both being the children of rulers, and extremely shrewd ones.

"But we have to win the war to make that more than a claim," he said, and kissed her. The touch was soft and sweet, and he murmured: "In the meantime, your wearing a kilt does have its merits..."

"Eeek! Rudi!"

He stopped, a little unwillingly even though he'd been playing.

"But we have permission from the Gods themselves, now," he said, teasing. "Yours in particular, since we were married in a Catholic church."

"Not in the open air. Someone might come by! I am Catholic, remember, not a witch-girl."

"Nobody's coming by, not with Edain and a score of the High King's Archers on guard."

"And they're too close!"

He sighed dramatically. "Alas, it's right you are; their silent presence just out of sight would make for a little constraint?"

"Just a little!"

They rose, brushing bits of grass and the odd leaf off each other; Rudi put on his flat Scots bonnet with the spray of raven feathers in its clasp. There was a clump of meadowsweet growing half a pace away; he made a sign of apology and murmured:

"Let us share your beauty for a while, little sisters," as he bent and plucked them and wove a garland. "My thanks to you and Her."

"There," he said, setting the lacy cream-white flowers on her head, binding the long seal-brown hair that fell past her shoulders. "Queen of the Meadow to crown my Queen."

She kissed him again, and the sweet almond smell of the flowers encompassed them both.

"Duty calls," she said a moment later.

"In a shrill unpleasant voice," he agreed mournfully.

Reflex as deep as instinct made them reach for their sheathed swords where they leaned against the tree with the belts wound around the tooled black leather of the scabbards; you didn't go a step without steel in reach. Rudi felt a slight sudden cold shock as he touched his and swung the belt around his waist, doubling it and tucking the tongue under and settling the weight on his right hip with a twitch.

He'd born the Sword of the Lady for more than a year now, since that memorable day on Nantucket, and it still made the little hairs prickle along his spine every time he put his flesh to it anew. It was quiet today, or as much as the Sword ever was. There were times a casual eye might have mistaken it for an ordinary weapon of extraordinary quality. The form was that of a knight's weapon, a yard of straight two-edged tapering blade with a slightly crescent-shaped guard and a double-lobed hilt of black staghorn. He gripped it and drew it slightly, enough for a handspan to gleam above the silver of the chape. Steel, at first glance. Then you could see the rippling, curling marks on it weren't damascene work. They drew the eye inward, every pattern repeating, down and down and down, as if it was a window through the world.

And the pommel, a sphere of crystalline moon-opal gripped in antlers. Light swirled in it—

"Rudi!"

Mathilda's voice was sharp as she called him back to the world of common day. He snapped the weapon home with a click of guard against chape.

"It's so creepy when you... go away like that."

He looked up at her and smiled. "Don't say it's always bad, acushla," he said. "Here, put your hand on mine, and we'll see together what I glimpsed."

She did, where his left—his sword-hand, since the wound that nearly killed him leached a hair-fine edge of the strength and speed from his right—rested on the hilt. Then she gasped.

Rudi went on one knee in this very spot, sinewy wedge-shaped torso brown and bare above his kilt. But older, a little, with scars she didn't recognize, and his hair longer and worn Mackenzie-style, tied back with a spare bowstring into a queue. He smiled as he extended his arms, and a two-year-old toddled towards him, a girl in a yellow shift, chubby feet bare, white-silk hair falling around her shoulders, huge turquoise eyes sparkling above a gap-toothed elfin grin. Rudi seized her beneath the arms and tossed her high, catching her and tossing her again.

Mathilda watched, laughing, an infant in her arms...

They took their hands from the Sword and looked at each other, wondering.

"Is... that what will be?" she asked.

"No. It's what might very well be, though, which is close enough for government work this time as well, eh? Making it so is up to us."

"Two children," she said wonderingly; he could hear happiness bubbling up beneath it. "In a few years from now, at least, and maybe more later. Oh, thank you, Holy Mary, mother of God. My children! Our children!"

"A daughter and a son," Rudi added, nodding; then his mouth quirked. "Crown Princess Órlaith, and little Prince John."

Mathilda looked at him sharply; the order of succession hadn't been settled yet, whether it should be the eldest or the eldest son. The conservative nobility of the Association mostly wanted the latter, of course; and he knew she was ambivalent herself. Then her eyes went wider.

"You know their names. The Sword knows their names?"

"Well, we could choose others now, just to spite it, so. But they have a nice ring to them, don't they? So we might as well... though it's most surely a matter of the snake biting its own tail..."

"Órlaith," Mathilda said. "That means... Golden Princess, doesn't it?"

"So it does, in the ancient tongue. Her hair will be like white gold as a child, and palest yellow when she's grown, with eyes like the sunlit sea; she'll be tall and graceful as a willow-wand, stronger than sword steel."

He frowned seriously. "And she'll be mad for strawberries and cream in season, and love cats, and play the mandolin—"

Mathilda mock-punched him in the chest. "Now you're making it up!"

"That I am. It's true about the hair and all that, though."

She paused for a moment. "And John... that was Dad's middle name."

"And so it was," Rudi said mildly, meeting her eyes.

"I wouldn't have dared suggest naming him Norman. I know that's impossible. The politics."

"Your father did great things, my heart, for good and ill. Let that part of him which did well and saved lives and built for the ages be remembered with the name, and the part of him that loved your mother and you. Let all else... be forgotten."

Mathilda looked away for a moment. "Thank you," she whispered.

Her father Norman John Arminger, the first Lord Protector and founder of the PPA, had been a very able man. A warrior to be feared with his own hands, and himself fearless as a lion, and still more to be respected as a battle-leader. Intelligent and quick-witted enough to see immediately what the Change that stopped the machines meant, while others dithered and denied and died. And with power of will enough to inspire and bully others into following him. Without him most of what became the PPA would have been ruins and charred bones split for marrow and wilderness long since. He'd truly loved Mathilda also, and in his odd way her mother Sandra.

A strong man, Rudi thought. Even a great one, but bad at the heart; though no man is all one thing.

As a ruler he'd also been a brutal terrorist and outright tyrant both from policy and by natural inclination, and from a half-mad determination to bring his obsessions to life and impose them as far as his sword's writ reached. One who killed with a relish and delight that would probably have appalled even his idols and models, William the Bastard and Strongbow and Bohemond and Godfrey de Bouillon. Opportunities for that had been many in those early years of chaos and despair, when the most of human kind perished in a welter of famine and plague and desperate violence.

And ten years after the Change he'd have killed me, if Matti's mother hadn't hustled us out of his way after Tiphaine d'Ath rescued Matti from us Mackenzies, and captured me in turn. Killed me with embellishments, just to give Mother anguish, I think. His mind worked that way, the creature. But Sandra saw she might have use for me, even then.

Lady Regent Sandra Arminger was just as ruthless as her spouse had been. She was also even more intelligent, vastly more patient, and not hag-ridden by his inner demons. Since Norman's death at the end of the War of the Eye she'd even been a good overlord to the Association from pure rational calculation; a hard ruler, very hard indeed, but not vicious. She had men killed without passion when she thought it necessary, like a croft-wife picking a chicken for the pot, and with as little regret; in just the same spirit as she calculated taxes or which bridges needed repair or how to balance factions in the dance of intrigue. She was even popular with the commons in the PPA territories, because the Counts and barons feared and obeyed her and she kept them in check and enforced the law on high and low alike.

Out of... craftsmanship, I think. It's with good reason they call her the Spider of the Silver Tower. Yet she wept tears of joy when she saw Mathilda again; and she raised Mathilda... me too, when I was spending those months there every year after the war... as well as could be asked. Certainly we both learned much of kingcraft from her. We can never know the whole inwardness of another, nor all the paths their souls take from the Eastern to the Western gate. Not even our own, until the Dread Lord comes for us, and we stand before the Guardians in the place where Truth is seen whole.

"Our children," Mathilda said again, leaning against him.

"When we've made a world safe for them," he said. "So, let's be about it, eh? We've troops to muster. Nearly as important, we need to get a better handle on what's been going on here while we were away questing for the Sword."

Mathilda nodded vigorously, her eyes going narrow with calculation. When she did that, she could look disquietingly like her mother. Rudi knew he was quick-witted; he suspected that in her way his handfasted wife was more intelligent still. More subtle, certainly, and perhaps a little more systematic.

"And not just the big things, battles won or lost, castles defended or not," she said. "All the details. It's going to be crucial to manage the politics properly from the start and we can't assume things stood still while we were gone."

"That's my girl!" he laughed. "Though Chancellor Ignatius will have to take most of the burden perforce... and I'll need him in the field eventually."

"He's a very able man. And not from the Protectorate."

"Sure, and that's one reason I appointed him. That and being absolutely sure of him."

She frowned, still lost in thought. "And that's why I'm glad we sent your Aunt Astrid off on Operation Lúthien."

"I took your advice on that, acushla, though it's a thin chance, but what's the relation?"

"Mom always said you have to remember that individual people exist in themselves, but things like nations and clans and armies and classes and religions only exist because people think they exist. They're not rocks, they're a swarm of people all flocking in the same direction. I mean, think of Montival—it didn't exist two years ago, and now it does, and that's because we pretty much talked people into thinking it did. By letter, at that."

"A point, though we were pushing on an open door. The folk wanted to believe in a... dream of greatness. When people by the scores of thousands are convinced something is true, that truth can hit you very much like a rock. Hence our problems with the Church Universal and Triumphant and its Prophet Sethaz, the creature."

She nodded. "That's so. But Mom also always said that when bunches of people are fighting against each other, whether it's with arms or words, you have to remember that they're not rocks colliding. They're people colliding. Every helmet has a head under it, and the head can think. The whole point of politics is to get people to do what you think they should. Bashing them is just one way of doing that. That's why Operation Lúthien is so important. I think it might help us... talk some people out of thinking that a certain set of rocks exist. And make them believe in our rocks."

"With the Sword in my left hand, and you at my right, I'm going to be invincible," Rudi grinned. Then more soberly: "Though we'd best remember this is far bigger than either of us the now, the story of many and not ours alone. We may be at the center, but it's the wheel that matters, not just the hub."

One arm went around her shoulders. He put the other hand's thumb and forefinger to his lips and whistled sharply. There was a moment's silence, and then figures with long yew bows in their hands came trotting down out of the trees, hard to see at first in their green-covered brigandines and Mackenzie-tartan kilts and plaids. As they formed up around the High King and Queen for the walk back to Dun Juniper one began to sing, and they all took it up. When he recognized the tune so did Rudi, despite Mathilda's laughing gesture of protest:

 

"Near Sutterdown, in the country round
One morning last Beltaine
Down a boreen green came a sweet colleen
And she was whistlin'
Rudi's Tain.
She looked so sweet from her sandaled feet
To the sheen of her nut-brown hair
Such a coaxing elf, sure I shook myself
To see if I was really there!
"

 

"That song's a mutilation!" Mathilda said. "I've heard the original."

"I call it an improvement," Rudi said. "This isn't Erin, after all!

And he continued in a strong tenor:

 

"From Ashland's plays up to Portland's quays
From Bend down to Coos Bay town
No maid I've seen like the fair colleen
That I met near Sutterdown!
As she onward sped I shook my head
And I gazed with a feeling rare
And I said, says I, to a passerby
"Who's the maid with the nut-brown hair?"
He smiled at me, and with pride says he,
"That's the gem of our own Clan's crown...

 

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Copyright © 2011 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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