Shattuck Hall, Temporary Chancellery
Crown City of Portland
(Formerly Portland, Oregon)
Portland Protective Association
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July 31st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
"My Lord Chancellor," his executive assistant said. "Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski to see you."
"Thank you, Ms. Wong," Ignatius said, with a polite nod.
Many hats to keep straight, he thought; the title still felt a little unnatural.
Though at present, with the hood of his scapular thrown back, there was nothing between his tonsured head with its rim of raven hair and the ceiling. He was a slim broad-shouldered man of medium height, with a pale weathered regular face and slightly tilted black eyes, the legacy of a Vietnamese grandmother brought back here after some half-forgotten war of the ancient world.
Knight-brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict, priest, Lord Chancellor of Montival. Remember that names do not make the man. You are a human soul like uncounted millions more, the smallholder's boy baptized Karl Bergfried; as precious to God as they, and no more so.
"Please send him through immediately," he went on. "Then the mustering reports from the Ashland... no, it's the Liu matter, isn't it?"
He concealed a rush of embarrassment at her raised eyebrow. Adjunct Professor Felicia Wong was from Corvallis, part of the University Faculty of Administration there—which meant that she was a junior to middling level bureaucrat on secondment from the city-state's government, and hoping to get in on the ground floor of the new High Kingdom's administration. Faculties were the term Corvallans used for what most people called guilds; a little confusingly they were also part of the University's teaching structure. Like their terminology, they also insisted on dressing in what Ignatius considered an absurdly archaic manner; in her case, a turtle-necked knit shirt, a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, blue denim trousers and a painstaking modern recreation of an old-world type of shoe known, for no discernable reason, as a sneaker.
She was also hard-working and efficient, and everyone was entitled to their foibles. Even if she was in her early thirties, scarcely older than he. Effectively they were as much Changelings as those born after that day in 1998.
"Yes, my lord Chancellor. The Liu children are expected momentarily."
"Notify me when they arrive."
I have been lurching from emergency to emergency all month. This lack of system wastes time, but there is no time to introduce a system! I must delegate more! But there is no time to test and come to know my subordinates. I must know more, I have been absent for two years, but there is scarcely a moment to spare to read, think or question people.
She left and held the door for the next entrant; a clicking noise of counting-boards and scritch of pens came through from the open-plan spaces beyond, and the clatter and ring of typewriters and adding machines. Ignatius rose from behind his desk and advanced with a smile of relief. The man was in his sixties, twice Ignatius' age, balding and white-haired with penetrating blue eyes under tufted brows, but likewise in the simple black Benedictine habit. Around his waist was a broad leather belt with a plain cross-hilted longsword, a dagger, a rosary and crucifix, and a buckle bearing the shield-and-raven badge of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict that he had founded.
Don't be excessive, Ignatius, he told himself. Yes, he is a very intelligent and holy man. But you are not the hero-worshipping novice Karl Bergfried any more. You have your own tasks to do and cannot always run to the Reverend Father for reassurance.
Dmwoski had been thicker-set than the younger man but was growing gaunt, and stooped a very little now. Ignatius bowed and kissed his bishop's ring.
"Are you well, Most Reverend Father in God?"
Dmwoski shrugged. "At my age and in this world of ours, a man is either well, or dead, my son." he said. "At present I am consumed with curiosity at this task you have for me. Curiosity and eagerness."
Ignatius indicated a chair and poured cool water before he resumed his seat behind the desk; the day was hot for Portland, probably over eighty. Dmwoski removed his sword-belt and racked it beside Ignatius' on the stand to the left of the door before he sat.
"I ask you only because, Reverend Father, you are one of the few able men I know who is not impossibly busy. Merely very busy."
Dmwoski nodded. "The forces of the Order and of the lay militia of the Queen of Angels Commonwealth march even as we speak; the Abbey and its daughter-houses and the civil administration are functioning well."
"I expected nothing else," Ignatius said. "It's not the first time we've marched north towards Portland."
They both appreciated the irony of that; the last time it had been to fight the Association, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, at the end of the War of the Eye.
He indicated his desk as he sat behind it. It wasn't precisely cluttered; he was a man of painstaking neatness, the habits of a monk and a soldier and an engineer combined. But it was certainly crowded, and it also held a tray with the remains of a working lunch of bread, butter, cheese, sausage and a vegetable salad. The room was brightly lit by an overhead skylight, but the shabbiness of long disuse lingered in corners that had evaded a whirlwind of hasty patching and renovation.
"I am in the midst of trying to erect the skeleton of an administrative structure to coordinate our efforts while His Majesty fights a major war. All in the course of a month and without a legal or constitutional framework as yet. Not to mention no source of funds once what we brought from Iowa runs out."
"I hope that is not self-pity I hear in your tone, my son. The reward for work well done..."
"Is more work, yes."
"It seems the Association is providing generous assistance," Dmwoski said, a slight dryness in his tone.
"As you see, rather too much so; that is why I picked this building, unused since the Change and obviously temporary. It would have been easier just to use the Lady Regent's administrative apparatus..."
"... which would have meant a most unfortunate precedent, and all the other states would be justly terrified that the new kingdom is the Association in disguise, yes," Dmwoski said.
"Your lecture to the novices on that curious old concept of initial path dependency suddenly seems much more relevant," Ignatius said.
They shared a brief chuckle. The Order was a militant offshoot of the original Benedictine house at Mt. Angel; that mutation had been a necessity of survival in the terrible years, approved by the Church a decade later when contact had been restored with the new Pope and Curia in Badia. It had organized an enclave of survival, and it had played a significant role in the wars against the Association and Norman Arminger's schismatic antipope Leo. In the years since the Order had helped bring civilization back to remote areas, spreading skills, teaching and guarding. That necessarily meant a fairly close acquaintance with politics, if only to protect their bailiwick around Mt. Angel and the daughter houses.
In all that time since the War of the Eye Sandra Arminger had played the part of a loyal daughter of the Faith with smooth skill and used the Church in the PPA lands as an instrument of her rule whenever she could. The arrangement wasn't completely one-sided; it had kept up and consolidated in less violent form the momentum of conversion that had started with Norman Arminger's motto of kiss the cross or the sword. The dangers were still all too apparent.
They were both morally certain that she had had Leo assassinated, as well, during her housecleaning after Norman Arminger's death. The timing of his mysterious collapse had simply been too convenient. That knowledge went silently between them in a glance, and Ignatius murmured:
"When a man causes you a problem—"
"—remember, no man, no problem," Dmwoski finished for him.
"Fortunately, our new High Queen will be quite a different type of ruler. And she is now very close indeed to her delayed majority. Early next year, in fact. That will make her Lady Protector of the Association as well as High Queen of Montival."
"Yes," Dmwoski said. "And she really is a loyal daughter of Holy Mother Church."
"Which does not mean she will necessarily defer to a cleric's political opinions, of course," Ignatius said. "I know her, and believe me, that is the case."
"Nor should she. However, she will not necessarily defer to her mother's opinions, either, close as they are. Yet the Association's apparatus is one designed by and loyal to her mother; even when Norman Arminger was Lord Protector she managed the detail work. It is a tool shaped and fitted to her hand. You do quite right to build anew, my son, even in these desperate circumstances. Institutional inertia is a very powerful force—which, as Catholic clerics and heirs to two thousand years of it, is something we should know down in our bones."
Ignatius nodded. "I am improvising, and pulling in whatever personnel I can from wherever I can get them, but there is method in my madness. It keeps things fluid. And every power in our new Montival is of course fully occupied with mobilization for the campaign to come, down to the littlest autonomous village. If it were not for the fact that all the other powers were jealous of the Association—"
"And each other," Dmwoski added.
"—and each other, and hence anxious to have their people involved, I could never have pried loose a single clerk."
"And I am whatever you can get as well, my son?"
Ignatius flushed slightly, despite the detached amusement in the Abbot-Bishop's voice.
"I am attending to political tasks His Majesty understandably cannot do in his own person yet recognizes are utterly essential. He must have the support of the realm, and what is that if not a political matter? And for that, I need your help."
Dmwoski nodded slowly. "Which speaks well of him," the older cleric said. "I knew he was a very able field commander, but a King requires far more than that. More than a charismatic presence, as well. He must be able to govern, or he is a disaster in the making. Especially in a new kingdom without a cushion of institutions and traditions."
Ignatius spread his hands. "Even before the Sword, his grasp of detail was phenomenal. Since then... miraculous. And I mean that in a fairly literal manner, Reverend Father. Yet he can still only be in one place at a time."
"I presume from the files you sent me that your request has something to do with the problem of the false Church Universal and Triumphant's infiltrations here."
Ignatius nodded. "Precisely. Most particularly, the matter of House Liu. This is not simply a political matter, either. Their mother's machinations may have begun that way, as a plan to make their brother Odard Lord Protector, but her contacts with the Church Universal and Triumphant quickly became more than that... spiritual elements seem to have been involved."
"Infernal elements, and there is no spoon long enough to sup safely in that company. She went from ally to unwitting tool to possessed rather quickly," Dmwoski said grimly. "I understand that you had direct experience with agents of the CUT."
Ignatius crossed himself and shivered slightly. "And only by the very great mercy of God and the Virgin was I able to cope with them."
"You are fortunate, my son. The Queen of Angels has taken a very personal interest in you, and you are hence protected against this... filth. For those less armored in Faith it is a contagious foul leprosy of the soul."
Ignatius blinked at the choice of words. Dmwoski was usually a very temperate man. Then he recalled looking into eyes that were windows into nothing, whose very existence was a wound in the fabric of the world and an invitation to the mortal sin of despair...
He shook his head, refusing to be daunted. "The matter of the Liu family is very delicate. Baron Gervais, Odard Liu, was one of our companions on the Quest. By the end of it, at least, he was a true comrade; and he saved us all several times."
"This bureaucratic morass must seem infuriating beyond bearing by contrast!" Dmwoski said.
"Am I so obvious?" Ignatius said. "It is valuable work. And the quest was... often a nightmare. Hunger, thirst, heat, cold, battle and perils, constant fear for my companions, constant worry for those back here at home facing the enemy."
"A single, comprehensible aim to which you could devote heart and soul; the company of honorable friends who became as dear to you as brothers and sisters; each day a new vista and a new challenge; the inexpressible glory of a direct vision of the Virgin calling you to be her chosen knight..."
Ignatius laughed. "I am so obvious, then! Yes, this is almost squalid by contrast. Absolutely essential, though. And I must not let my life be one long declension from a moment of glory. I must make that a beginning and this work also an offering to Him, the Cross I am called to carry up to Heaven's gate."
Dmwoski nodded. "I do not blame you in the least if you find that difficult. Let difficulty be a spur to effort. And even in your very bare-bones reports, my son, it is obvious that everyone on that quest—with the exception of Baron Odard's traitorous servant Alex—saved each other many times. I was a soldier before I became a monk or a priest; and then after the Change, soldier and monk and priest as well, as you are now. I know the strength of those bonds. The exhilaration of shared danger is not necessarily sinful, so long as it does not become an addiction."
"Even Alex Vinton saved the Princess... the High Queen... at least once, though without intending anything but treachery."
"So does God turn even evil to the service of good," Dmwoski agreed.
"And I am doing essential work here. Yet it will be a relief beyond expressing if you can lift some of that burden from me. And frankly, the tale of the quest to Nantucket and the Sword of the Lady is also an important element in rallying support to the new kingdom."
"What is a kingdom, if not a tale that many agree is true? Or a nation, if not a collection of shared stories? To lead is to tell stories through action. To embody them and give them substance. We shape them; and then they shape us."
Ignatius nodded. "So if we emphasize the, ummm, cleanness and loyalty of the younger generation of House Liu, it will be useful politically. It will also show that the High King is not biased against the Association's nobility either. They are half at least of Montival's military power and must be, ummmm, kept sweet."
"I should be glad to help, my son."
Ignatius sighed slightly. I expected that, but it is so good to hear it! And the Abbot has always had a gift for dealing with the young.
"I knew a little of these matters as they occurred," Dmwoski said. "And I have studied the papers you forwarded. The Lady Regent Sandra was always a little obsessive about complete files on every conceivable matter!"
"For which, thank God," Ignatius said sincerely, and crossed himself again. "This matter is personally important to the High King and Her Majesty as well—they have sworn to protect Baron Odard's younger brother and sister. Her Majesty promised it to him as he lay dying. But it is also important that they gain an overview of how it relates to the larger problem. We must defeat the CUT in battle, but in the longer run its remnants will be a severe problem, perhaps even a mortal threat... ah, the children have arrived."
Though they were not really children any more. Yseult was a striking yellow-haired maiden of seventeen with delicate umber-tinted features very slightly marred by four small deep pinhead-sized scars on the left side of her face, one at the corner of her eye. She wore a plain gray robe and white wimple, the habit of a lay postulant-ordinary of the Sisters of Compassion. Her long, slanted blue eyes were slightly haunted, and she was limping a little from an injury about which the records told a remarkable story. Huon was younger and darker, fifteen and obviously shooting up, in a page's outfit with the arms of the Barons of Mollala on its chest, the Lion-and-Assegai quartered with the mon symbol of House Liu. Both of them looked more than a little apprehensive as their made their curtsey and leg-forward bow respectively, and then turned to kiss the bishop's ring. Their past year had been traumatic, to say the least.
"You are not in trouble, my children," Ignatius said warmly. "Quite the contrary. I was with your brother Odard for over a year, all the way from Odel to the Sunrise Ocean. The second Baron of Gervais was a very brave man, a loyal comrade and a true knight whose name will live forever when honor's praise is sung, one whom the High King has several times said to me he sorely misses at his right hand. I heard his last confession and administered the Sacraments to him. He died in great hope, and I think that hope was justified. His last request to the Princess... High Queen... was that she take you under her protection, and that she swore to do."
The youngsters relaxed a little, though both were still a little wary under impeccable manners.
Their lives have been much disrupted, Ignatius thought. Their brother gone, their mother a traitor... to God as well as the Realm... and unpleasantly dead, themselves under virtual house arrest, and then the direct attack of the CUT's powers. Also the result of their mother's folly, ably abetted by her brother.
"Young lord Huon, I am directed by Their Majesties to assure you that you are confirmed as heir to the Barony and lands of Gervais upon reaching your majority, and that there is no question of attainture for the actions of your mother and uncle. You will understand that the Lady Regent felt this matter had to be reserved for Their Majesties' final judgment."
"Yes, my lord chancellor."
"Furthermore, your education has been severely disrupted by... the unfortunate events. Her Majesty is now forming her own household—a riding household, primarily, a fighting menie, for the duration of the war. You have completed your time as a page and Lord Chaka gives you excellent recommendations. It would therefore please Her Majesty to take your oath as squire."
Ignatius folded his hands on the desk and went on gravely:
"I can testify from personal experience that Her Majesty is a knight of no mean skill with her own hands, and she will often be in the forefront at the High King's side, or on independent commands of her own. As her squire you would share her perils and her achievements. This is a post of both honor and danger, in which you will be given the opportunity to show what is in you. Do you accept?"
Huon flushed crimson, stammered, nodded wordlessly and then nodded quickly again. It was also a public affirmation of his family's loyalty and a promise of great preferment, if he showed well; a plum position at which any young nobleman would jump.
After a moment he spoke: "Yes, my lord Chancellor, that is, if Lord Chaka agrees. Lord Chaka has been very kind to me when it was, ummm, politically and physically dangerous to be anywhere near me, and I would not desert him."
"He has given his consent, and—" Ignatius looked down at a letter "—says you show promise and that he wishes he could have been a better master for you as a page, for your brother's sake and your own. Do sit, young man."
Huon sat, nearly collapsing into the chair and looking rather stunned. Ignatius turned his attention to the boy's sister, standing with her hands modestly clasped before her and obviously happy for Huon.
"My child, I understand that you have a special devotion for St. Bernadette of Lourdes. I take it you do not feel a vocation for the life of a religious, though?"
"No, Father... my lord Chancellor. That is, I've wondered, and prayed, but... I want to be married and have children and a home of my own someday. Though I've been glad to be useful with the Sisters."
"It is good that you know your mind and heart," Ignatius said robustly. "We are not all called to make the same sacrifices and a vocation must be firm and unambiguous; if there is doubt, the answer is no. According to your superiors you have worked well and uncomplainingly with the wounded. Her Majesty instructs me to tell you that when matters are more settled—"
When we know we're going to survive the next year as something besides guerillas in the hills, went unspoken among them.
"—she will take you into her own household as lady-in-waiting. Furthermore, she will settle lands on you from the Crown demesne, several manors, to be held by you in your own right for life as a tenant-in-chief of the Crown, and to descend to the heirs of your body. As to the matter of your marriage, that will be taken under consideration in due course in consultation with you and your brother. There's no hurry; Her Majesty does not approve of early marriages. And in memory of your elder brother, Their Majesties will stand godparents to your children and your brother's, when they come, which God grant."
It was Yseult's turn to flush and look dazed; she'd been turned from a dubious prospect to a prize catch in one stroke, and given a promise she could take her pick of the suitors she'd eventually have rather than be played as a card in the game of politics. In fact, with manors of her own she could take a landless man if she preferred him. Godparenthood was also something their generation took very seriously indeed; it was called compadrazgo in the Association territories, and established lifelong bonds almost as strong as kinship by blood. To have the right to call the High Queen comadre was a cadeau of incredible value.
Ignatius chuckled slightly. "Don't look quite so stunned, my children. I didn't speak lightly when I said how highly Their Majesties held your brother in their esteem. He is sorely missed in this time of war and trial. He would have been trusted with the most vital missions and highest offices if he had lived."
Then gravely: "Take him as your example in loyalty and service, and you will find the High King and Queen very faithful friends and good lords, and House Liu will rest secure in their favor."
"I... we will, my lord Chancellor," Huon said fervently.
"And your service can begin now. Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski has kindly agreed to take charge of preparing a full report on the attacks by the CUT on your family. On the quest we suffered from the attentions of the diabolists, but you fought the same fight here."
Which is a tactful way to put it. But for the best. We need to draw a line beneath the machinations of their mother and uncles.
"Lord Huon, you'll need a few days to outfit yourself before you join Her Majesty, probably in Goldendale. Here is a letter of credit for arms, horses and field gear, and a note giving you precedence. I would appreciate it if you and your sister would cooperate with the good Abbot while you're preparing."
"We will stop at the inn where I am staying, for a little while," Dmwoski said, as they made their way out onto Park and turned onto the thronged sidewalks of Broadway.
Shattuck Hall was near the southern part of modern Portland, where the city wall curved in towards the Willamette along the eastern edge of the old Interstate 405. The shadow of the great works of the Barbur Gate reached almost as far as the street where they stood, and you could see the towers of the outworks on the other side of the highway, tall on the hills that guarded the approaches. Edged metal blinked there as sentries paced the ramparts, and a blimp-shaped observation balloon floated in the sky above at the end of the long graceful curve of its tethering cable.
"I will return you to good Sister Cecilia at the War Ministry, and she can escort you back to Bethany Refuge when we are done for today, Lady Yseult. Or your brother could escort you, if you feel the need for some private conversation."
Huon Liu nodded. He seems OK, he thought.
The Order of the Shield of St. Benedict had a reputation for severity in the Association territories, but its founder scarcely seemed the ogre that legend made him. If you subtracted the black robe and the sword-belt, he seemed like everyone's favorite uncle, in fact, or a good-natured but shrewd teacher. Huon exchanged a quick glance with his sister, and they shared a wary nod.
We've always been close, Huon thought. After the last couple of years, we're each about all the other has left, though.
"I am not simply going to ask you questions, my children. I am going to tell you things as well. Nothing will be withheld. You have a right to know the whole story of what has happened to your family, and how it bears on the kingdom and yourselves. I have the time for this, you understand, while Fr. Ignatius..."
They both nodded; the Lord Chancellor had been opening a new file even as they left, gnawing absently on a heel of bread as he did.
The office building that he'd picked was a little out of the way and had been vacant since the Change, a low nondescript brick structure convenient because of its location, its position on the preventative maintenance list, and the fact that the pipes could be turned back on for city water. Huon was glad to be out of the slightly musty scent of a building unoccupied for twenty-five years. Most of the time his generation were thoroughly indifferent to the world before the Change, but settings like that could give you a slight subliminal knowledge that the present was built on the bones of six billion dead.
Told everything! That's a change from being treated like a mushroom, he thought, with a sudden eagerness. It's going to be fun being the High Queen's squire, but I'm still sort of burning a bit over the way we were kept in the dark about things. I suppose it was necessary, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. The Spider... the Lady Regent... is tighter with information than she is with money, and that's saying something.
He felt a slight guilty spurt of pleasure when he thought of the letter of credit in his belt-pouch, after years on a close allowance while Barony Gervais was under Crown wardship. He could run amok through the quality armorers that catered to the nobility, even with the war. No need to accept good-enough Armory standard gear. It was even justified, since he was going to be a royal squire. He had to show well to do his patron credit!
And horses, he thought. A pair of rouncies and a good courser... maybe even a destrier—
Destriers were the ultimate luxury; they cost many times what a suit of plate armor did, and wore out much faster.
If I bought a young one, just out of a training farm, he would still be in his prime when I'm old enough to fight as a man-at-arms, that's only three years or so from now... and he'd be really well-used to me by then.
Yseult have him a sharp elbow in the ribs and he glared back; they knew each other too well to hide much, even of their thoughts. Then he smoothed his expression. He had a feeling that the elderly cleric didn't miss much either.
Most of the gathering troops were passing directly east, or were being held in tented camps outside the city walls, but there were armed men in plenty—noblemen and officers clutching papers as often as swords, afoot or on horseback or in pedicabs, with sergeants on bicycles or trotting doggedly with a rasp of hobnails on asphalt and cement. Most of the traffic was freight, though; endless wagons of grain, barreled hard-tack, racked armor, crossbows, and the salvage metal and timber and leather that the city's craft guilds and factories would transform into the sinews of war.
The noise was a continuous grumbling roar, voices and steel-shod hooves clattering hollowly on pavement, and steel wheels grinding on the steel rails of the city's horsecar network. The inn was not far away and had been a hotel before the Change, called the Benson after some lord of old. It occupied most of a block, three stories of pale terracotta and many more of brick above, graded by ease of access. The reception rooms and dining chambers and kitchens were on the first two, the guests of rank on the next pair, those of more humble background on the three above that, and the rest fading up through servants and attendants to the hotel staff themselves.
Right now more than a dozen miniature heraldic shields were hung beside the main doors, showing that guests of armigerous family were staying—knights and lesser nobles who had no town-houses of their own and rented suites here instead for themselves and their families and retinues when duty or pleasure called them in from their estates. Huon read them as casually and automatically as he would have so many printed signs. They flanked a larger fixed shield bearing a Madonna and Child; the Virgin was Portland's patron.
The staff were dashing around looked harried themselves, but one man with a towel over his shoulder showed the bishop and his party to a corner booth of the big common-room with its cut-glass wall at one end. The good odors of cooking overrode the city-smells of smoke and horses and sweat and wool; they were not far from the riverside docks where barges and the craft that plied the Columbia above its joining with the Willamette unloaded. Even ocean-going ships came upstream from Astoria sometimes, and they added their tang of bulk produce and salt fish and exotics like sugar and coffee and indigo and tea to the symphony of scents.
It was all exciting, and would be even in peacetime compared to the quiet routine of a castle or manor, though he didn't think he'd like it for more than a visit. The great walls and towers that surrounded Portland made it immensely strong, but they also gave an uncomfortable sense of confinement. You could get out of a castle quickly, at least, and most of them had green fields right up to the moat. A swift look at the menu chalked on a blackboard made him dither a bit, but Yseult had been teasing him about always getting the same thing; he forewent the double-bacon cheeseburger and had the souvlaki and pita with fries and a Portland Crown Ale. Yseult chose the batter-fried sturgeon with a salad and a glass of white wine, and Dmwoski settled for bread and a piece of grilled fish.
"It's not a fast-day, is it, Most Reverend Father?" Huon asked, with a prickle of stricken embarrassment.
He wasn't as devout as his sister, but he tried to do the right thing. Yseult shook her head doubtfully, then pulled out a little bound Book of Hours and checked the reference table at the back as the platters arrived to be sure. Dmwoski chuckled.
"Just Father will do, my children. No, it's simply that at my age the fire needs less fuel. Fat monks are figures of fun for good reason."
He pronounced a short brisk grace and they fell to; Huon was feeling hungrier than usual, since he'd been too nervous to do breakfast any justice. Dmwoski nodded at his appetite.
"You, on the other hand, are building bone and muscle yet, my son. Give me your hand for a moment."
He did, and they squeezed. The soldier-monk's grip was astonishingly strong for a man his age, and felt as if it had been carved from an ancient dry-cured ham.
"Good," the cleric said. "Lord Chaka's report did say that you were shaping well. What is the first thing you wish to know?"
Huon opened his mouth, closed it again, and thought. He was warmed and irritated both when Yseult gave him an approving look, and though Dmwoski's face was calm he thought there was something similar in the monk's blue eyes.
"I'd like to know what really happened with our—with Barony Gervais—contingent at the Battle of Pendleton. With my uncle."
"Sir Guelf Mortimer, your mother's brother."
"Yes. I know something went badly wrong, Father, at the battle or just after, and there are all sorts of rumors. But our men are not cowards!"
"No, they are not," Dmwoski said. He frowned, tapping his fingers together. "In fact, they did rather well."
When he went on his tone was dry, the voice he would have used to speak to an adult:
"What happened was this: the allied powers of the Corvallis Meeting—we were not yet Montival then, Rudi Mackenzie and the Princess and the other questers were still struggling through eastern Idaho—tried to steal a march on the CUT and Boise and seize Pendleton. That was just a little under two years ago now. We meant to strike before its Bossman could make a pact with them and they could send troops to secure the city and its territories. Unfortunately, it turned out that they had stolen a march on us. As nearly as we can tell, from reports and interrogations later, what happened is..."
Huon leaned forward as the old soldier-monk spoke. The room around them faded away; he could smell the oiled metal of armor, feel the fierce interior sun—
Pendleton Round Up Territory
City of Pendleton
(Formerly northeastern Oregon)
September 15th, CY 23/2021 A.D.
This is not going to be a good day.
Sir Guelf Mortimer of Loiston Manor frowned down at the map spread over the gritty soil and weighed down at the corners with chunks of volcanic rock. It showed the city of Pendleton, capital of the Round-Up territory; or the Associated Communities of the Pendleton Emergency Area if you wanted to be technical, which he didn't. He could look up and south across the river and see the low rough-built walls with bits of rusty iron showing where the reinforcement cropped out through the concrete and rubble and odd angles where buildings had been incorporated into the defenses. Modern Pendleton was a rectangle, roughly, on the south bank of the Umatilla River; that acted as a natural moat on three sides.
Sir Ruffin Velin was delivering the bad news. He was the Grand Constable's second-in-command right now, a hard-looking man in his thirties with thinning brown hair, and one of her vassals and hatchetmen. You had to be careful around them. They'd been the Lady Regent's kill-squad before Baroness d'Ath went into the mainline military. He wasn't going to take Ruffin on lightly. Tiphaine d'Ath... made his skin crawl. He wasn't the only one. Nor was the Regent called the Spider without good reason.
In fact, it's going to be a very bad day, Guelf thought.
He was head of the Barony Gervais contingent here today, as senior fighting vassal in the absence of his nephew Baron Odard... who was off somewhere to the east on a quest like something out of one of the Dúnedain storybooks, hopefully making the runaway Princess Mathilda helpless with admiration of his heroism as they tailed along behind the Mackenzie brat.
And what I'm doing today won't be in front of a beautiful... well, passably good-looking... Princess who's heir to immense wealth and power. Hell, let Odard get her flat and I'll be content to be his uncle and shake the patronage tree in his shade.
They'd been up before the dawn, working like mules to set up the siege machinery along the bank of the Umatilla. He was sweating like a pig inside his suit of plate and wishing he'd switched to an old-fashioned mail hauberk; the interior was still beastly hot this time of year, and they were a long way from the Pacific's cool breezes. Plate might as well be waxed canvas as far as keeping the air out was concerned. All he was getting was the occasional tantalizing draught through the joints when he moved. Little metallic clanks sounded as men jostled around the map and their harness rattled, or the leather straps and padding beneath creaked.
The stated objective—
Right up ‘till now, thought Guelf, casting an irritated eye at the quarter high sun
—had been to install the machines to sweep the bridges across the river, then advance to take out the city wall of Pendleton by the Emigrant Gate when the beaten forces of the Round-Up tried to hold the city. Meanwhile the rumor was that the Dúnedain were to do something unspecified but wonderful, if it worked.
"The whole operation got blown," Ruffin said bluntly. "They pushed in more forces at precisely the wrong time for us. We don't have very much information yet, mostly from enemy deserters, but the Grand Constable..."
Sir Ruffin was looking at Sir Érard Renfrew, who was also Viscount Chenoweth, heir to the Count of Odell, and his younger brother, Sir Thierry Renfrew, who was something of an artillery specialist.
Sir Guelf allowed himself the luxury of a grimace of distaste and a quick turn of his head and spit. With enough dust to make your teeth gritty every time you swallowed no one could prove it was a statement of opinion. Of the Grand Constable, and of House Odell. d'Ath had been Conrad Renfrew's protégé as well as the Lady Regent's; the families were tight, part of the glacis around the Lady Regent's position.
"... says we also have intelligence that we are facing almost twice the numbers we expected, say two or three thousand men each from Boise and the Church Universal and Triumphant as well as the Pendleton troops we knew about."
That brought grunts. Everyone here could add.
"They suckered us and got their forces in here first. We can't fight this one and win with what we've got here and there's no way to get meaningful reinforcements in time to do any good. We need to break contact and retreat as far as Castle Hermiston, on the old border. The fortifications there will give us an edge and we can put in enough additional forces to make them think three times about trying to invest the castle."
Guelf growled at the thought of giving ground. He knelt next to Thierry and traced the bridges over the Umatilla north of the walled city of Pendleton.
"They can cross these and flank us. We control the 18th St. bridge and the footbridge next to it. But 10th, 8th and Main are weak points. If we can cut those off, they'll have to go all the way up to Fulton—
His gloved finger traced north, over the river and then back down.
"—and sneak back down Highway 37 to get near us. Which will give us the time we need."
Sir Ruffin nodded. "So, here's what we'll do—Sir Guelf, you'll take your men and neutralize those bridges. Caltrops, barbed wire, oil slicks, burn them, saw them, fucking piss on them, whatever it takes. Just make them impassable for long enough if you can't destroy them."
He turned to the scions of House Renfrew: "Sir Thierry, we're abandoning the siege engines, so you can start the teams and limbers out now, at least we can save the horses. You'll hold this headland until the evacuation is complete. Breaking contact is going to be a bitch."
Thierry thought for a moment, then grinned like a coyote scenting a housecat.
"I think we can get some use out of the engines first, Sir Ruffin. There's only a couple of ways they can get at us here, if a place is hard to get into it's usually hard to get out of as well. And if we channel them a bit that narrows it even more. Done right we can turn it into a real killing ground and they'll lose all interest in chasing us for a while."
Sir Ruffin nodded: "Good, use your discretion. I need you and you, my lord Viscount, to hold here and get as much materiel out as possible as well as the troops. We've got the pedal cars all set up; they'll go to Hermiston and return for a second trip if possible, and anyone marching in that direction can hop on when they reach them. When you leave, take out these three bridges over the Umatilla..."
Sir Ruffin marked a cross on the bridge at highway 84, the Westgate Bridge and the rail bridge.
"They have to be impassable for at least twelve hours, more if possible. That'll bottleneck the enemy long enough, hopefully."
The elder Renfrew brother looked east. "We don't have enough men for that, Sir Ruffin. If there's a sortie in any strength from the city to capture the engines, we'll be up Shit Creek, not the Umatilla River!"
The Grand Constable's right-hand man nodded. "I'll send a couple of conroi of men-at-arms and infantry to help you hold. Most of the fighting is down around the John Day highway and south of the old highway 84 and 30, that's where it looks like the battle line is shaping up. The enemy is anchoring their right on the city and trying to swing up north. We'll have to rock them back on their heels there, that's where we've got most of our lancers and the Mackenzie longbowmen, but this position has to be secured or they can use their reserves to flank us out too soon. As soon as I can spring the men I'll send them to you."
"What forces specifically, Sir Ruffin?" the Viscount asked a little more formally.
Ruffin chewed his lip and shook his head. "How good are you at kicking butt? The only one I think we can detach is going to be from House Stavarov's contingent from County Chehalis; Sir Constantine and his menie, you know."
"Piotr's brat? He'd better not mess with me. But he won't."
"His reputation isn't long on discipline."
The heir to Odell snorted. "To hell with discipline, Sir Ruffin. He likes to fight. He's a complete loss at knightly courtesy and social graces, in fact his vocabulary is limited to variations on drink and fuck and kill, but give him a chance to charge screaming at the head of his men-at-arms and he's happy as a drunken pig in a grape-vat. That maneuver is the limit of his military knowledge but he does it well. And he'll take my orders."
Guelf glanced curiously over at the iron expression on Viscount Chenoweth's face, but decided not to ask. Sir Ruffin nodded and picked up the yard square map. Guelf hurried to help him shake it gently and roll it up. Map paper was horribly difficult to press evenly and cost the earth. Only the Albany presses of Corvallis made this grade of paper. He tapped it very carefully and slid it into the carry tube for Ruffin.
The Viscount took off his helmet with a single pungent word as Ruffin mounted and left in a spurt of pebbles and dust, the pennants of his escort flapping as the lanceheads glittered in the sunlight. He scrubbed his short, light-brown hair and growled.
"Thank you so very much for this gift of a helmet full of horseturds, Sir Ruffin! Guelf, get your men; take out those bridges. I don't need to teach you how to suck eggs. What the hell happened to the Dúnedain? That op was tricky, but they've pulled off harder. Beelzebub's arse with piles the size of plums, I wish I knew the details!"
Guelf didn't answer, limiting himself to a duck of the head and thump of fist on breastplate in salute. He took off looking for Sir Harold Czarnecki, the other Gervais knight here, and waved their squires forward. But he bared his teeth in a sudden angry grin.
The Dúnedain, huh? Hope that bitch and her sidekicks all bought it. That would be a nice little dividend on Gervais' arrears of revenge for my brother Jason's death back in the Protector's War! Baroness Mary will be pleased. And they promised me, uncle to the King, they did indeed promise me that. Which doesn't mean throwing this fight. Uncle to the King of As Much As Possible, that's the thing.
"Chezzy! Get the menie together; we're on dirty tricks! Grab some mantlets, one of Thierry's engineering wagons and let's go burn and destroy!"
His men-at-arms and footmen...
Odard's men! he thought. But I'm here and my nephew isn't.
...roared with pleasure.
"Valentine! Valentine! St. Valentine for Gervais! Let the arrows fly! Valentine will suck them up! Face Gervais, face Death!"
The battle banner of the barony waved in the hot sun with its black-and-red image of St. Valentine, transfixed with arrows, on a yellow background.
Looks painful, he thought, not for the first time.
The crossbowmen slung their weapons and put their shoulders to the heavy wheeled shields, heaving them up on their props like wheelbarrows.
"Six men pulling, six pushing on each!" Guelf snapped. "Get to it!"
The spearmen moved their shields to their right shoulders and fanned out in a protective screen between the mantlets and the city walls.
"Dismount the lancers," he decided. "We won't have time to get the mounts out and warhorses can't be wasted."
There was grumbling at that, but Association knights trained to fight on foot when they had to, and being armored cap-a-pie the men-at-arms would stiffen the footmen nicely. The mantlets trundled along, bouncing on their spoked steel wheels over the irregular ground.
"Idle bastards," Guelf said, looking around at the ruins of what had been Pendleton's northern half.
Nobody had to ask who he meant. The wreckage of the suburbs here had mostly been left to decay naturally, with only occasional efforts to clear a field of fire on the north bank of the river—or perhaps that was simply people salvaging building material. Concrete floor-pads and basements and the ruins of burnt-out houses were still thick, and others had been converted into workshops or storage or piles of rubble had been shoved aside for truck-gardens and turn-out pasture. There were even occasional rusted automobile hulks littering the dirt-drifted, sagebrush-grown roadways, though they'd been stripped of useful items like springs and glass windows. Anywhere in the Association territories—or at least anywhere with an inhabited countryside and a city in the middle of it—would have been a lot neater.
The wagon with the engineering supplies followed behind, lurching and jerking as the heavy horses dragged it up the footpath east along the bank opposite Pendleton's walls.
"Keep going!" Guelf called. "Eighth Street first, then work your way back!"
They broke out into open country as they traveled, east of the ruined suburb. There was the Eight Street bridge, the last one actually fronted by the wall of the smaller modern city on the south bank. A couple of sentries pelted back across it, their yells thin with distance; a sally port beside the main gate opened for a second to their frantic pounding, and then slammed with a hollow boom as they dashed through. That looked as if everyone in the city was firmly focused on the battle shaping up to the southwest.
"My lord, where should I put this stuff?" a sergeant asked, gingerly holding a cloth tube of the mixture of powdered aluminum and iron oxide.
"The thermite? See there, where the crossbeams are riveted to the main support pillars? Pack it in there. Crossbowmen here, ready to give covering fire!"
The mantlets swiveled to face the city walls, trundled forward and dropped on their support props with a thunk. The crossbowman took position behind them, thumbing bolts into the grooves of their weapons and leveling them through the firing slits. Working parties scrambled down the steep slope to the foundations of the bridge, men standing on each other's shoulders to reach the vulnerable part he'd pointed out.
Guelf sweated more than running around in a sixty-pound suit of plate and carrying a fifteen-pound shield in ninety-degree heat demanded. Pendleton was notoriously sloppy, but Boise was equally notorious for paying tight-arsed attention to detail. And the CUT...
His mind seemed to skip a beat. He blinked in confusion. What was I about to think? What—
"Done!" the sergeant called.
"Light the fuse. Back west, next bridge!"
The river turned a little south of west; the Main Street bridge was absurdly wide in the fashion of pre-Change construction, and the banks of the Umatilla were forested here.
"Sentries!" yelled Sir Harold, pointing.
Guelf looked up. Several men were standing on the wall, visible between the crenellations as light flashed off field glasses. One had a transverse crest of scarlet-dyed horsehair on his helmet.
Boise centurion, that one, he thought. The rest are Registered Refugee Regiment, no mistaking the red pants. The Pendleton bossman, Carl Peters, must have ordered some of his household troops to stay back and protect his precious hide.
"Get going! They're not going to stay asleep forever!"
Damn! he thought. It made sense to rush to the end of the job and work my way back, I thought; we have to take these down so they use the ones we want when they sally. At five hundred feet from the wall to us this one isn't safe, that's long crossbow shot. Much less the next one, it's barely half that. Should have taken the nearer ones out first before they got men here to harass the working parties. Crap! No help for it, got to get it done. They'll be waiting for us at 10th; might even defend it.
"Chezzy! Grab thirty men and the wagon and go start on 10th street! Be careful; be smart, but get it down. Take two of the mantlets!"
He turned back to the Main Street bridge, wishing he had Thierry's training as a field engineer. Crossbows began to twang and thump from the wall; most of the bolts fell short, but he ordered spearmen forward to hold their shields up to protect the working parties. Just as they finished the work and were forming up, a scorpion was wrestled up onto the wall. Men looked up and yelled in alarm; they were well within range of the four-foot bolts and you couldn't count on a siege mantlet stopping them.
Guelf laughed; it was even mostly genuine.
"They haven't fastened that thing down, men!"
Recoil would buck it right off the wall if they tried to fire it without a solid anchor. Pendleton was short of artillery; the Boise army had probably brought in a lot, but there wouldn't be pre-fitted bolts ready to secure them on the walls. There were men working around it, probably trying to improvise braces.
"Give them a salute, boys!"
He turned his back on the wall, pulled the knot on his trews' waistband and mooned the useless scorpion; a knight's plate armor left the seat bare to grip the saddle.
Dangerous, he thought. But it puts fresh heart in the men.
The Gervais contingent roared and laughed and followed suit, waggling and slapping their buttocks at the wall and shouting remarks that started with shoot this, you sheep-fuckers and went downhill from there. The thermite charges lit with a hissing dragon's roar, and off-white smoke poured heavenward. Metal bubbled and ran, and concrete cracked with a snapping crackle. Guelf yanked his trews up, pulled a new slip knot and pointed his sword west...
"Back! Let's help Chezzy stick it to them again!"
He led the way down the old footpath, mantlets clanking and rattling beside them. Over the rattling sound of his men double-timing in pounding unison and the banging of the mantlet's steel wheels came a sudden wheep, like an arrow hugely magnified.
"Hurry!" he roared.
The muffled impact came with a scream, high and pain-laden. Guelf pounded up onto 10th St, into chaos. The men he'd sent were milling about, on the ground... he clenched his jaw against the welling of despair—Chezzy and Chezzy's squire, Terry Reddings, a huge bolt transfixing his body. Terry was his wife's younger brother and as like to Layella as a twin.
God! Thank you! He's face down. I couldn't bear to see his dead face... her face—dead... She's not dead, she's not!
He laid about with the flat of his sword, banging on mail and shocking men back into sense.
"Get that mantlet set up, get us some cover!"
He turned to see Father Stanyon working on Chezzy.
"He's alive? What's happened to him?"
"Crossbow bolt in the scapular,"
The doctor-priest jerked a thumb to the right.
"They got a man over the wall and he sneaked up close enough to take a shot. Young Reddings is dead, and Sir Czarnecki isn't. But the bolt hit a vein; luckily not an artery. I can't budge it and we need it out to cauterize it. I have to get him back to the cars. Probably need to get him to Hermiston before we can do anything."
Guelf nodded. "Brandon! Take three men for stretcher duty. Take Chezzy and... and... Terry, Terry's body, back to the rail head. Evacuate all non-essential personnel, now. Charlmain! Get those drums unloaded all over the bridge, spill the oil, now!"
The flat tung of the scorpion twanged again and everybody threw themselves flat. This one was properly anchored, which meant they could reload it quickly. The bolt went overhead with a tooth-grading wheep and then a whunk of impact as it buried half its length in the soil. They worked, using the mantlets as best they could to shield themselves. Another bolt hit one, and half the shaft stood through it; a man stumbled back swearing as the sharp three-sided head stopped a hand's-breadth from his face, then dropped flat with a yell as crossbowmen volleyed at his suddenly exposed form.
Beyond the walls a slowly growing brabble sounded; pounding feet, equipment clanging and thumping against other men or walls and stairs, shouts loud enough to be almost comprehensible. That meant hundreds of men at least, massing in the open space just inside the walls. When there were enough of them the gates would spring open.
"They're getting ready to sortie," he muttered to himself.
And there's nothing much we can do but wait for it, and hope those Stavarov men get here the way Ruffin promised.
He looked up and was shocked to see the morning was gone and the sun was in the west. A squire handed him a couple of hardtack biscuits and a lump of rock-hard cheese strong enough to make you feel that it was biting you, and the sight brought on a sudden raw hunger that had nothing to do with taste and everything with fuel. He worried at both, and drank from a canteen of Umatilla water cut one-to-five with bad brandy to kill the bugs.
Then the banners of House Stavarov, a glitter of lance-points and footmen trotting behind; just far enough away to see clearly, as they reined in beside the flag of House Odell. He breathed out in relief—they might not be enough, but he certainly didn't have enough without them.
"Pile it all up!" he shouted. "The tents, the food, tear down those corrugated-iron sheds. There, there, there! We'll stop them in these ruined streets just north of here!"
The stink of blood, sweat, spoiling food, dust, oils and distillates was compounded by the filth three hundred men could void in a single day of hard and ceaseless work.
Go ahead and shit, pee, spit and foul the nest. We'll either lie in our filth with the coming of dark, or leave them lying in it.
The last pedalcars were already pulling up on the rail line to the west, ready to take them out. Viscount Chenoweth, Thierry and Guelf met at the railhead; it was close to sundown.
"Are we ‘bout ready?" Chenoweth asked.
"Yes." Guelf answered shortly. Then, seeing anger begin to darken the other's eyes, apologized. "Too long a day and too much sun, my lord. What's the plan, now?"
To his relief, Chenoweth nodded an acceptance for the implied apology.
"They're going to launch an attack soon; it must have taken this long to get enough troops up from the main battle south of town. Thierry's specialists will fire the Highway 84 Bridge the moment they do, then double-time over to the Westgate Bridge and fire it with incendiary bolts from the prearranged positions. It's thick with the HD40 now. We'll all converge on the rail cars."
Constantine Stavarov's face fell. "Well, fuck your mother, don't I get to fight?"
"Yes, you do, Sir Constantine," the Viscount said patiently. "You have to hit the head of their column when they come out of the city and across the bridge. Hold them. Then I hit them. Then Sir Guelf hits them in the flank. Then you withdrawn, we withdraw, and we spring our little surprise on them when they're nicely stalled just where we want them. Understand, my lord?"
"Da, da. They come out and I charge them down this street here."
The heir to Odell sighed. "Exactly. My lords, Sir Constantine and his people will hold until we get there and then take the first pedal cars off. Most of Thierry's specialists will follow in the next two cars. They won't need their reloading crews and the machines will be laid in advance."
Guelf nodded, frowning as he looked for his squires. Brandon and Charlmain were... back by the rails, arguing? He strode back, a blistering rebuke behind his teeth. They were confronting a child of eleven. Odo Reddings, his wife's youngest brother and his youngest page.
"God's teeth, Odo! I sent you back to Hermiston with orders to accompany the wounded into Portland, hours ago! This is no place for a page!"
Odo looked up at his lord, his defiant, angry attitude towards the squires crumbling. "I missed the train, Sir. Do I take the one with the Chehalis menie?"
God, of course not! One of Constantine's knights, I know his reputation. I can't tell them Odo hid from his brother's dead body, but I'm sure that was it! Damn! I didn't think of that!
"Brandon, detail someone to get this brat on the train with you—"
"And what is going on here?"
At the angry voice, Guelf turned, baring his teeth at Thierry. "A little bit of a snaggle. My page is still here!"
"Get your men into position, Mortimer. I'm going up."
Guelf nodded, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. And Odo's butt is going to burn!
"Brandon, Charlmain; back to your position. Sir Thierry, the padre will be at your orders. I'll see you at the rendezvous."
Guelf and his squires double timed it to the formation point in the tangle of dead streets. As Guelf strode up the line, checking his men's readiness, he saw many reach for their scapular or the saint's medal they wore around their necks, murmur a brief prayer and tuck it back.
With a sour smile, he did the same. The plain gold disk dangling on a fine gold chain around his neck was set with a small piece of jasper. Unless somebody took it in hand and looked at it, they wouldn't realize his old St. Valentine medal was gone, nor what the new one signified.
The Ascended masters are real. So is their power.
Then a shout of: "Here they come!"
He skipped backward a few steps to get a line of sight. The city gates were open, and at least two hundred men were quickstepping out with more behind; the assault party was Pendleton city militia from the looks, wildly mismatched armor but long pikes, coming straight down the road to the bridge and heading equally straight for Constantine's banner. His position would be invisible to them... hopefully until too late.
"Face forward, all of you. When the signal comes we're going to run down this street, turn right—that's right, everyone—into the cross street and hit, in a wedge, splitting the join between the Oregon City men and the enemy. I want you all to think that you're wild Celts! Like the McClintocks, fangs out and hair on fire. We have to hit them like a sledgehammer; it's our asses if we don't. Charlmain, you're there! Brandon, there!"
He took his place at the head of the lines, spearmen and men-at-arms with their shields forward, the lighter-armed crossbowmen on the flanks.
"Nobody look back! Everybody, eyes front! You'll follow me!"
He turned his head over his right shoulder, waiting for the flash of red, stamping his feet rhythmically and hearing the whole menie take it up as they jogged in place. Just a few feet forward was the entrance to the north-south alley they had numbered two. He could hear the fight struggling back and forth, like the sound of sea surf in storm as a bristle of long Pendleton pikes slammed up against the County Chehalis men-at-arms and spearmen. Chenoweth was at the other end, though he couldn't see him. Thierry's flag signal would synchronize the attack.
Thierry's squire swung the red flag from his position on top of the post and Guelf lifted his sword and knocked down his visor. The world shrank to a bright slit, and he put his left fist four inches below his chin. The shield covered him from face to knee, and he tucked his sholder into it, making his armored body into a battering-ram. Then he filled his lungs and screamed the order:
"With me, forward."
Everyone stepped off together, synchronized by their stamping unison. He moved at a trot, building momentum and speed as his menie came behind him in a thick wedge of muscle and bone and steel and wood and leather, a harsh stink of sweat and oiled metal like a wave moving with them, a crashing rhythm of hobnailed boots and clattering steel. Voices echoed, muffled by the visors and booming from the curved inner surfaces of the big kite-shaped shields:
"Forward for Portland! Haro! Face Gervais, face Death! St. Valentine protect us! Haro!"
Ahead the clatter and thump of close-quarter combat, the unmusical crash of steel on steel, like scrap falling on a stone floor. The grunting and panting of the heaving shoving match, shield against point or shield, men crushed forward by the weight at their backs and forced into the enemy ahead. Shocked screams of pain as steel bit home, shrieks of animal rage and fear, the patterned bellow of war shouts from the men of County Odell:
"Dismas, Dismas, Saint Dismas protect! Odell, Odell, Odell! Haro! Haro!"
They hit the enemy force locked with the Odell and Chehalis men, and the sound turned shrill as they realized they were being flanked and the crossbow volleys struck home. He rammed his shield into a pikeman's unguarded right side with an impact that knocked into all his joints and the small of his back, smashed him off his feet and into the press of stamping boots below and thrust over and down into a man's neck above the breastplate. The points of spears and guisarmes slammed past him from behind, thudding home in faces and guts or screeching off armor with tooth-grating tortured squeals.
Odell's oliphants were sounding retreat. Guelf kept his head moving as he fought; you had no peripheral vision with a visor down, but he could feel the Pendleton men crumbling. He could also see Constantine Stavarov, shieldless, his visor knocked away, with blood spattered across his flushed high-cheeked, snub-nosed face and the white showing all around his eyes as he swung a two-handed war-hammer with a thick spike on the other side in a blur of smashing, stabbing motion.
He was either laughing or just giving a bestial roar of joy, mouth like a red-and-white cavern. It was impossible to hear him in the tumult, but it was utterly obvious he wasn't going to obey any trumpet-call to retreat and probably hadn't even heard it. Two of his squires grabbed him neatly in what was obviously a rehearsed maneuver, each throwing an arm about him to pin his to his sides, pushing their shields forward to guard all three as they backed up with their lord's feet almost off the ground as he screamed and struggled wildly.
Stavarov's menie turned and ran west, to the waiting railcars and retreat. Viscount Chenoweth's men and Guelf's plugged the hole at the intersection, holding the enemy at bay while Thierry's siege engineers and artillerists worked behind them in a ratcheting clack and clatter of machinery.
Smoke billowed upward as the bridge was fired, black and oily and rank with a scent of burning petroleum seldom smelled these days. The Pendleton men crumbled away, but behind them were ranks of square hemispherical shields like sections of tower wall, each marked alike with an eagle and thunderbolts. The grim faces behind the low domed helmets and face-guards looked completely unfazed by being cut off from reinforcements by the fire. They moved in a unison like the bristle of a porcupine's quills around an eagle standard, and the points of long javelins cocked backward with a ripple on brawny thick-muscled arms.
"Ware spears! Up shields!" Guelf shouted, and he wasn't the only one.
The kite shields came up and the crossbowmen ducked and grabbed for their small steel bucklers. From the other side, a steady unhurried bellow of:
"Pila... ready... front rank... throw. Second rank... throw. Third rank... throw."
A whistle of six-foot throwing spears at less than ten yards distance. Guelf grunted and took a step back as two hammered into his shield, then cursed and threw it aside as the long soft-iron shanks bent, making the defense useless. He tossed his longsword up, settling it in the two-handed grip and working his fingers in the armored gauntlets. The setting sun cast long shadows, and the rusty patchwork of the sheet metal building beside him reflected the red rays. Guelf felt squeezed like grapes in a press as the close quarters caused the sound to echo and re-echo up and down the hot, airless, man-made canyons.
"Charge!" the enemy commander shouted, and the blatting tubae echoed it.
The eagle standard moved forward, carried by a man with a lion's-skin headdress over his helmet.
"Hooh-RAH! Hooh-rah!" chanted the Boise infantry, pushing forward, their shortswords flickering out from the wall of shields. "USA! USA!"
"CUT! CUT! CUT!" came the eerie scream of the Church Universal and Triumphant's men, somewhere not far distant.
Guelf wondered if any red-robed Seekers were with them, but he was too busy flexing with his line. Swaying aside from the glaive that poked over his shoulder at the shield in front of him, the hook catching it and pulling it down. Delivering a sweeping overarm cut onto a low-crowned helmet with all his strength, and feeling something snap. The man in hoop armor fell, and the one behind him stepped forward into his position with stolid speed. No time to really think through the implications.
Like two turtles, he thought as the lines drew apart for a few seconds, breathing hard.
The dust, the smell of blood, voided bowels and urine rasped at his throat, and the burning oil made him cough. He panted, mouth hanging open, ignoring the taste on his tongue. In front of him he could see a Boise sergeant rallying his men for the next push, more confident as the PPA ranks moved back. They flexed, swords poked out, polearms reached over the shields; individuals pushed harder, probed for openings. Guelf grinned savagely as he lifted his sword overhand. The late sun was in the enemy's eyes and he stabbed at a face. Chenoweth was by his side as they worked in tandem to hold the plug until Thierry's men had done their work. He watched for the swath of whitewash on a wall by the side of the road that marked the prearranged spot. The Boise men paused to regroup, wounded dragged back and fresh men stepping forward, new pila handed forward too.
Five, four, three.... wait for it, two, one...
The oliphants screamed. "Back!" he shouted.
The Gervais men skipped backward, shields up but moving fast; then in one fluid motion the PPA men threw themselves down; the front rank holding up their shields as they went to one knee.
The Boise men drew back, paused, and in the instant, were lost. All the siege machinery that would be abandoned had been pre-sighted on this spot; behind each crouched a gunner with a lanyard in his hand. They jerked the cords in unison, and the murder-machines flung their loads in a chorus like the harps of tone-deaf demons. Cast-iron roundshot, darts, incendiaries lashed down on the small crowd of warriors. Men screamed as napalm ran down their shields and under their armor in splashes of clinging fire. Shields cracked under the roundshot and legs snapped like twigs as the twelve-pound balls bounced and spun. At this range four-foot darts nailed men together through armor and shields back.
Guelf stood, his balls crawling up inside as he saw what remained of the enemy rank; smoke and flame billowed up behind them. Even if the asphalt of the surface didn't catch, it would be a while before anyone could cross that bridge.
It only takes one dart thrower... he thought.
"Back, retreat!" he shouted, and the oliphants echoed it. He stooped and snatched up an intact shield someone had dropped. "Back! This place is rigged to burn. Fast, fast!"
The men turned and trotted away; some of them had the arms of wounded comrades over their shoulders, and others were making rough carrying seats from two pairs of crossed hands. One giant even had an armored form slung across his back. The knights and squires were last, backing in a controlled rush and trusting to their fuller armor to shield their subordinates.
Chenoweth's eyes flickering back and forth over the broken bodies they left behind. Guelf was doing the same. Stopping to pick up the dead was out of the question; even the wounded weren't always possible. If they could recognize the fallen, it made it easier later to compile the lists of the dead.
Then they were out, running, running for their lives to the rail bridge, 84 to the left and Westbridge dead ahead, engulfed in flames. The warehouses behind them burst open like an over-ripe watermelon dropped off a castle's battlements, the stacked incendiaries collapsing as the thermite charges ruptured their glass walls. A wave of liquid fire poured out of the ruined buildings, running knee-high like surf on a beach.
The screams of the enemy rose to a peak and then died as the fire ripped the air out of the narrow alley. Men fled burning; even Boise's discipline couldn't take this.
Guelf leapt aboard the first of his contingent's pedalcars, ignoring the Odell brothers doing likewise ahead of him.
"Push, damn you!" Guelf screamed. "Half push, half pedal!"
His men threw their weapons and shields on the cars; some clambered aboard and threw themselves into the recliner seats, booted feet searching for the pedals. The rest rammed their shoulders into the sides, so enthusiastically that Guelf had to grab for a support as his car almost came off the tracks. It began to rock forward with the rough, irregular neglected bed giving it a sickening side-to-side motion as it gathered speed. He and a few others went around the edge, bending and straining to get the now-trotting groundlings up and onto the surface.
"Pull your arms and legs in, don't get in the way of the men pedaling!"
More stacks of incendiary shot and barrels of the noxious stuff were going up in the warehouses to either side. The wave of heat washed over them. Men covered their faces and held their breaths and pedaled even while they coughed and retched. The heat seared the membranes of their noses and throats, and hoarse screams sounded. Fortunately the only way to panic was to pedal harder.
Guelf felt dizziness edging his vision with gray, sparks and black spots dancing before his eyes. He drew a cautious breath in and then another. Hot, but not hot enough to burn his lungs. Around him men were fainting or breathing cautiously through wet cloths that lay over the train.
He could hear the rough jeers and laughter from the ones who'd stayed conscious. They'll rib their mates for days. he thought. It will keep them all alert.
Someone shoved a canteen of improved river-water into his hand; he drank, coughed liquid out through his nose, spat and drank again despite the savage pain as the diluted alcohol struck the damaged membranes, and passed it along. They pedaled onward into the setting sun, blood red sunset to the fore; blood red fire to the rear.
Huon Liu frowned. "So... so he didn't really do anything bad, there?"
"Not there," Dmwoski said grimly. "Your uncle was no coward and not a bad soldier. It was his bad judgment that gave the enemy their opening; his refusal to let go of hatred and the desire for revenge. We learned the details of that later; from his deeds, and his words."
Copyright © 2011 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>