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THE TEARS OF THE SUN

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Dominion of Drumheller
(Formerly Province of Alberta)
Western North America
June 21st, CY 25/2023 A.D.

 

Ritva Havel blinked. "I thought I was fully recovered from the concussion," she said, stepping back and lowering the point of her wooden blade.

"Aren't you?" Ian Kovalevsky said anxiously, doing likewise and letting his shield down.

Neither of them went entirely out of stance until they were three paces backward. He was barely limping any more, and neither was she, though they were still being careful. Not as careful as Dr. Nirasha would have liked; but they were both in their early twenties, in robust good health and in a profession where a fairly casual attitude towards risk was part of the package and wounds just a cost of doing business. Ritva doubted the doctor would have approved of the padded practice gear, or the cloth-wrapped wooden swords in their hands. The hot, bronze, hay-smelling distances of the shortgrass prairie stretched around them, with the white walled mass of the Anchor Bar Seven homeplace tiny in the distance, and the blue eye of the little lake and the green-and-yellow streak of the irrigated land. An eagle cruised not far away, looking over a flock of ewes and lambs, but respectful of the mounted shepherdess' bow.

"I thought so, but I could swear that's—"

She went over to her saddle by the picnic basket; their mounts were grazing free, both being too well-trained to need hobbles. The binoculars were securely cased; she freed them and trained them to the northwest.

"Ah, the palantír en-crûm," Ian said; he'd been picking up a little of the Noble Tongue. Then he blinked. "That isn't a bunch of cowboys or militiamen, is it?"

"No," she said, without taking the glasses from her eyes; her voice bubbled with delight and curiosity. "I'm afraid not."

Kovalevsky looked down at the picnic basket with its earthenware jug of beer, roast-beef sandwiches and pickles and salad and Babushka pirozhki, sweet pastries stuffed with sour cherries and nuts. His vanishing hopes were in his sigh. Ritva began stripping off the practice gear. The redcoat did the same.

"Who is it?" he asked in a resigned tone, absently rubbing at the still-sore point on his right buttock where the arrow had struck.

A series of liquid trills answered, and then she shook her head and dropped back into English: "Sorry, forgot."

Poor boy. You actually had a pretty good chance of getting lucky, she thought. You're sweet, which is a welcome change from Hrolf.

"I think it's my aunt," she went on. "My mother's younger sister. The Hiril Dúnedain. A party of my people."

By the time the party reached her it was obvious. Eight Rangers, all of them known to her—the Dúnedain weren't so many yet that she couldn't remember them, especially the ones based out of Mithrilwood. She waved and called greetings to the green-clad riders. They had a couple of Anchor Bar Seven riders with them, probably from the patrols; one peeled off and galloped for the homeplace.

Lots of remounts and they've been pushing hard, she thought.

You could go nearly as fast as a rail-born pedalcar if you had three or four horses and switched off several times a day. For a while, at least, and if you didn't mind your backside getting thoroughly tenderized. There was a very old joke about a book titled: Thirty Years in the Saddle, by Major Assburns.

And in front of them all were Aunt Astrid with her disturbing eyes of silver-rimed, silver-threaded blue; Uncle Alleyne blondly handsome, Uncle John bulking huge under a red-brown thatch just showing some gray with his greatsword slung over his back, and raven-headed Aunt Eilir beside him grinning. The whole ruling quadrumvirate of the Folk of the West; it must be something important to bring them all out here in the middle of a war when they'd be badly needed closer to home. Everyone dismounted, and Ritva went to one knee, put hand to heart and bowed:

"Well-met, my liege-lady and kinswoman; and all of you, my kin, my brethren."

Astrid smiled and advanced, holding out her hands. Ritva placed hers between them. Close-to you could see that she'd spent many days in the saddle moving fast, but she showed the strain little as yet, though there were small lines beside those odd compelling eyes.

"Ritva Havelion, you have brought honor to the People of the West. You have helped to bring our King, your kinsman, back once more to his people. You have helped to lay the very foundations of the Kingdom of the West, of Montival. Mae coren! Very well done!"

Ritva felt herself blushing, and astonished at it. Off by yourself, you could think of Astrid Loring-Larsson as something of a figure of fun, however formidable. In her presence, the sheer burning power of belief caught you up again. Looking into the moon-rimmed eyes, you saw yourself as something else again from the light of common day.

I don't think I have it in me to believe in anything quite that strongly. Does that mean I'm more sane, or something less than she is?

Then, rebelliously: But I probably have more fun!

"Did you see Rudi... Artos, Aunt Astrid?"

A brilliant smile answered her. "We did, at Castle Corbec, for the handfasting with Princess Mathilda."

Neithan! she cursed silently. Bad luck to be laid up healing.

She didn't resent it... much. There simply had been no time to waste waiting for her, and she hadn't been in any condition to be moved. War was like that; she might have been crippled or killed, with only a little less blind luck.

"And we saw the Sword of the Lady. Marvelous, a wonder, like Glamdring or Orcrist or even Andúril Flame of the West!"

I hope you didn't tell him that, she thought. Mary and I tried to convince him to name it Andúril and he didn't react well at all.

"Through it the light of the Elder Days is brought to Middle Earth once more. And we are on a mission of our own at the High King's command," she went on. "One which will bring the Rangers glory and undying fame!"

Uh-oh.

"The code name is Operation Lúthien."

We are so fucked! she thought.

"We'll need fresh horses, Ritva," Alleyne said; he dropped into English for that, looking at the redcoat. "I understand they're available here?"

"Yes, sir," Ian Kovalevsky said. "This ranch raises them and sells saddle-broke four-year-olds, and the Force and the Militia regiments have brought in more."

Ritva introduced him, adding: "A very brave man, and he fought extremely well against the Easterlings... the Cutters. The Force are the local equivalents of the Rangers."

A party were riding out from the tented camp beside the homeplace. They cantered up the rise and drew rein, a dozen men in light-cavalry gear over plain gray-green uniforms of linsey-woolsey. Their leader was a tough-looking bandy-legged little man of about forty with a face like an intelligent rat and sergeant's chevrons riveted to the short sleeve of his mail shirt. He took off his helmet as he dismounted, scratching vigorously at his cropped graying brown hair, and then his eyes went wide in astonishment.

"Little John? John 'ordle? Fuck me sideways! You're alive?" he blurted in a thick clotted accent.

"Was last toime Oi looked!" Then the big Ranger did a double-take himself. "Geoff? Geoff Bainbridge? What the 'ell are you doin' 'ere, Geoff? You were on Salisbury Plain, last toime Oi saw you, drivin' a Challenger. Oi got over 'ere from Blighty about fifteen year ago. Thought you were a gonner these twenty-five years."

"Ah were on a trainin' course at CFB Suffield, me and two thousand others, just before the Change. Lucky as fuck that were an' all!"

"You don't know the 'alf of it, mate!" Hordle said feelingly.

"Aye, Ah do. An RN ship docked at Churchill three year back and dropped off a packet o' English newspapers. Sounds laak it were raaght bad back 'ome for a while. Expected Leeds were totally fooked any road—seems Ah were raaght. Raaght bad all round, sounds laak."

"Bad? Fuckin' 'ell, worse than bad, mate. Worse than bad... but over quick, for most of 'em at least. How'd things go over 'ere?"

"It were raaght rough the first couple o' years 'ere too; fuckin' Calgary and Edmonton near dragged us down wi' 'em an' buggered t'lot o' us. Would've, if hadn't been so fuckin' cold, that got most who walked out. Then we got things sorted out, laak. Ah've got a wife an' kids and a bit o' a farm goin' a ways north o' 'ere now. Till Ah got called oop fer this lot, any road."

"We need some 'orses, Geoff. Quiet loik, away from pryin' eyes. Paperwork'll all be done roit later."

"Ah think sommat can be dun," the little man grinned. "If that there redcoat lends an 'and."

"Good. 'ave a sandwich, mate," he added, taking one out of the basket in each hand and starting his own with an enormous bite. "S'goof," he added through a mouthful.

"My picnic!" Ian said... but quietly.

 

@@@

 

"You Rangers can move," Ian Kovalevsky said a week later. "Even by the standards of the Force."

"They sold us good horses back at the Anchor Bar Seven," Ritva said; they both had the habit of talking without looking at each other as they rode, which was useful—her eyes were moving ceaselessly and so were his. This was potentially hostile country. "And we have well-callused backsides."

Ian grinned. "After the way you got wounded bringing the alarm about the Cutters and your brother Artos saved everyone's bacon by showing up in the nick of time it's not surprising. You guys could have had the horses for free, if you'd asked. With me thrown in."

The Rangers—plus one member of the Force sent on special detached service by an amused and agreeable captain—were riding under a bright cloudless summer sky. Around them lay bunchgrass and bluestem turning from green to gold, whispering in long ripples to the end of sight and standing high on the horses' fetlocks. Land crept by to the steady walk-trot-canter-walk pace, changing from flat grassland to occasional steep wooded hills, or cut by deep ravines and then subsiding to open level ground again. This high plateau that had been known as the Eye of Idaho once; white-topped mountains showed west and east, with the deceptive look of the big-sky country that fooled you into thinking something three days ride away was only a few hours distance.

The air was warm with summer, but not hot; they were four or five thousand feet up here. Small blue flowers starred the tawny-green grass in swales where the dark basalt soil was damper, and insects burst out of it before their hooves, or now and then grouse or partridge. Ahead the party's spare two score remounts—the remuda, which despite the sound was a Spanish word, not Sindarin—grouped together in a well-trained knot, requiring only an occasional canter by the pair assigned to rearguard to keep them bunched. She was glad of that; leading-reins were a trial, especially when you had three or four horses each. A big remuda was the way to travel fast, though. With enough remounts you could make a hundred miles a day or more in summertime, especially if there was good grazing or feed available along the way.

"Beautiful beasts," he said.

Ritva nodded, watching their glossy hides move with pleasure. These weren't the ones they'd taken south over the Drumheller border, through the lands where the Dominion, the PPA, the US of Boise and the Prophet's domains met over hundreds of miles in a tangle of wilderness they all claimed but mostly didn't control. They'd given the garrisoned fortress-city of Moscow a wide berth, and then Nez Perce supporters had supplied remounts at the northern edge of their territory; the nascent Bearkillers had made friends there and elsewhere in this district when passing through Idaho right after the Change, and Hiril Astrid had been with them then. She'd returned last spring, as well, and had renewed those ties with locals who didn't care for President-General Martin Thurston and his wars.

These glossy Appaloosa-spotted beasts were still quite fresh, and they'd brought the Ranger party far and fast. Now it was time to meet the next set of helpers here in enemy territory.

Though I should remember Idaho and its people aren't the enemy. The usurper Martin Thurston is the enemy, and his ally the Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant.

They swung westward a little to skirt a marsh where water glinted amid stands of reeds and patches of open water; the Rangers were in a loose diamond formation, carefully irregular so as not to attract attention from a distance by hanging up a we are military sign.

Ducks lifted thousand fold from the swamp, and white herons waded around its edges, probing for frogs; a line of old fenceposts stood disconsolately in the shallow water, tilted and blackened, gaps showing like missing teeth and with a few strands of rusty barbed wire still clinging to them here and there. There was a dense fringe of youngish willows and cottonwoods and other water-loving trees tangled with undergrowth along its edges, and the horses snorted and shied as the party approached.

The Dúnedain leaders had probably veered that way to keep the timber between them and prying eyes on the higher, drier ground eastward beyond the wetland. Ahead someone stood in their stirrups and raised a hand, then swung it leftward: investigate.

Ritva swung her horse into a lope with a shift of balance and the grip of her thighs, an arrow ready on the string of her recurve saddle-bow. Her mount was usually a well-behaved beast, but laid its ears back as they approached the woods, and now and then snorted in a fashion that plainly said in Horse:

Smells bad, boss, are you sure you want to go there?

When its hooves started to squelch a little and the ground gave off a rich muddy smell she leaned far over, left knee bent and right heel hooked around the saddlehorn as the horse walked slowly along the edge of the firm ground. The marks in the bare mud between two clumps of grass were unmistakable, cat-pugs about as broad as she could have spanned if she stretched thumb and little finger apart as far as they would go. Bigger and squarer than the more common cougar, and mountain-lion didn't like this sort of ground anyway. Tigers, on the other hand...

They do like a swamp, the stripe-kitties, when they can get it. Big snowshoe feet and they swim well too. Is it my imagination I can smell him? No, it's there, like a tomcat, but even more rank. A male then, and big, warning off his brothers. The wind's in my face, right from the woods, so he can't be too close or the horses would be acting up more than they are. I wish we had Edain and Garbh along, she's the best tracking dog I ever met.

The lead party had halted. They'd be looking at her with Astrid's Zeiss binoculars, an heirloom from her father Kenneth Larsson. Ritva remembered her grandfather with affection—he'd died in a boating accident when she was about fourteen—and he'd loved gadgets, having been an engineer as well as a very wealthy man before the Change. The 20x60 S-type monstrosity was typical of the sort of thing he'd collected, with an utterly ingenious mechanical stabilization system that hadn't been in the least affected by the Change, and it would make nothing of a thousand yards. She pulled herself back into the saddle with a flex of the leg, then slipped her bow back into the scabbard at her left knee and the arrow into her quiver, stood in the stirrups and brought her hands before her face, palms in.

Then she made claws of the fingers and raked them outward sharply, twice, making the gesture broad and obvious. That was Sign for tiger, and her honorary Aunt Eilir had made the visual language part of the Dúnedain curriculum, back when she refounded the Rangers together with Astrid in the years after the Change. That was probably because she'd been deaf since birth, but also because it was extremely useful to be able to exchange complex information silently.

Two more of the party trotted back on the other side of the remuda, pushing the beasts toward the marsh and its fringe of woodland despite their unease. The commanders came up; Hiril Astrid was casing her binoculars in their padded-steel case.

"That was good scouting, Ritva," she said with a nod.

"Thank you, my lady," Ritva acknowledged.

Which was a bit formal, but they were in the field, not sitting over wine in Stardell Hall listening to a song or a reading from the Histories. The four older Rangers looked a little more worn than their followers; not that they were anywhere near their limits, merely that there was more discomfort behind their hard-held faces.

"Scout net," Astrid said, and two more of the Rangers trotted away.

Alleyne brought out a map, and everyone else squatted around it with their reins looped through their belts and their horses occasionally taking a nuzzle at their hair.

"This marsh isn't mapped, but I think it's here," he said, tapping a spot. "The wetland's probably recent. Within the last twenty years from the trees, though cottonwoods grow bally fast."

"And this St. Hilda's place should be about six to eight miles south and west," John Hordle rumbled, his finger moving over the waxed linen like a sausage with auburn fuzz.

Astrid sighed. "This all looks so different from when Signe and Mike and Dad and I came through in the first Change Year," she said, gesturing at their surroundings. "Most of this was plowed land, winter wheat and black fallow, with gravel roads every mile. See where the dimpled lines run, with more sagebrush and less grass? That's the old roadbeds."

"The ironic thing," Alleyne said, his eyes still on the map, "is that there are probably more people living here now than then. There wasn't any famine here, and this Lewiston place over a bit west was a substantial city and the ranchers here must have taken in some of them. And of course everyone's been breeding like rabbits since."

That's an odd thing for him to say, Ritva thought absently. Uncle Alleyne and Aunt Astrid only have three themselves. That's not many at all.

"There was black plague in Lewiston," Astrid said, her weirdly beautiful face looking stark for an instant. "Pneumonic form. It came in with refugees from Spokane; we heard about it, and Mike turned us back when we saw the smoke from where they burned the bodies. Saw it. And... we could smell it. But I know what you mean."

It took a moment for Ritva to follow the thought; she was distracted by the casual mention of a journey that had become a legend in itself, and hearing her father—who she barely remembered herself—referred to so humanly as Mike. It had been Astrid who coined the great title of Bear Lord for him, much against Michael Havel's liking, from what she'd heard.

But I've been on a longer trip, and one that will be more of a tale! she thought suddenly. All the way to Nantucket and... well, not quite back, for me, not yet. Dad would have been so proud!

Ian nodded agreement.

"It's the same where I come from, Sir, Ma'am," he said, in English—he'd been following the Sindarin conversation fairly well after a spell of total immersion and a lot of saddle-time studying a borrowed phrasebook. "We have more people now than before the Change in the Peace River country too, but there are abandoned fields and big grain elevators and such all over. We only need... oh, about one twentieth the tilled land. Less, maybe. I guess it must be like that in a lot of places."

"Lot o' people fed from these fields," Hordle said. Unspoken: And they all died when food couldn't travel far any more. "No need to farm most of it now, loik the lad says."

Eilir Signed: But we know St. Hilda's still there. Sheriff Woburn said it's thriving, in fact. And it's friendly; it should be, the way you guys rescued them from those awful bandits back in the day. He said he'd have the Abbess... Reverend Mother Dominica... warned to expect us. We need local help approaching Woburn at his own ranch. There's sure to be some sort of government surveillance.

Ritva winced slightly at the reminder of what was fairly ancient history to her, because the tendrils of it came down to her own time. The bandits' leader, the self-proclaimed Duke Iron Rod, had turned out to be working with Norman Arminger, who'd tried to push the PPA's borders this far in the early days—Lewiston was the head of navigation on the Columbia-Snake system. Eddie Liu, the first Baron Gervais, had been his liaison with them, supplying weapons and advice; he'd been the Lord Protector's right hand in any number of malicious plans. But his son had been Odard Liu, and he'd been one of the nine questers who'd gone to Nantucket. He'd saved Mathilda's life in battle at least once on the journey, and might well have saved them all in Iowa by the way he'd kept the mad tyrant Anthony Heasleroad amused and distracted.

And he'd died just short of the goal on the shores of the Atlantic, in a last stand that left him lying like some paladin from a Chanson with a broken sword in his hand and dead Moorish corsairs in a ring around him. She'd watched him die, making his last farewells calmly despite the bone-spears in his lungs and smiling as he felt the breeze of Azrael's wings.

Not fair to blame us in the younger generation for our parents' sins. You have to keep that in mind a lot with the PPA. Odard could be a pain in the ass, especially all that time when he was trying to get into our pants just so he could notch the Havel Twins on his belt, but he really shaped up on the quest and got over himself. That last part of it he was like an obnoxious brother you love anyway.

"We should approach them carefully, even with the password from Woburn," Astrid said. "The probability of running into enemy agents goes up very sharply from now on, and nothing attracts the eye like group movement. This here would be a good place to keep the horses; there's cover, water, and grazing. And the tiger's scared off a lot of the game, so hunters are less likely to stumble across us."

Hmmm, Ritva thought. You know, she's right. I haven't seen any elk or black-tails or buffalo or antelope for the last hour or so. And there should have been sign of muskrat and beaver around here, it's prime for them.

"Kitty might 'ave a go at the 'orses," Hordle mused.

"Not too likely, with say four guards," Alleyne said and nodded thoughtfully. "This is rich land in high summer, and a tiger would have to be very hungry indeed to try for something guarded by that many humans. Easier to go out where it usually hunts, and cats don't go looking for fights."

Eilir nodded. Unlike humans. We should do a sneak. Here, west of the monastery, through these wooded hills. Then we can send one or two people down to make contact.

"Let's do it," Astrid said. "Time presses, the armies are already moving toward battle in the West, and Operation Lúthien must succeed in time. Condis, you're in charge here."

A short, olive-skinned young woman silently bowed with hand on heart.

"I'm leaving... Hírvegil, Tarachanar and Ýridhrenith with you. Hold and keep close concealment for three days, and then use your initiative if we haven't returned."

Ritva felt a moment's sympathy as Condis gulped slightly and bowed again.

"N'i lû e-govaded 'wîn, Hiril," she said: which meant Until we meet again, Lady, roughly.

Rangers had discipline; within fifteen minutes a rope corral had been made on a dry spot shielded by half a dozen willows for the remuda, the pack-beasts offsaddled and the gear and supplies covered by camouflage nets, and the stay-behind party were busy building a concealed blind—what Dúnedain called a flet—in the limbs of the biggest cottonwood. The rest of the band switched to fresh horses and remounted.

"By pairs, at ten minute intervals, and be careful not to cross each other's paths. Gwaenc—we go!" Astrid said.

 

@@@

 

Why did I have to be the one person sent down to make contact? Ritva thought a little sourly underneath the pine trees. I'm not really a diplomatic type. Oh, well, it's part of the job.

Most of the Rangers were further back, keeping watch in all directions. Eilir looked at her and smiled a little impishly; you could see her mother Juniper Mackenzie in her then, though her face was longer.

Then the world seemed to shift a little. With a tiny shock Ritva noticed that there were more small lines beside her eyes, and not just weariness and the weathered look of those who were often outdoors regardless of rain or season. Eilir Mackenzie-Hordle was growing older.

Woah. It's just being away two years. She looks fine and I'm older too—not a teenager any more.

Eilir was a mother and near to middle age now, though it would be a trim handsome middle age. It was natural, the Doom of Men... but somehow it felt as if the ground had stirred.

Mary and I went to join the Rangers because Mom seemed like a prematurely old fuddy and granddad was dead and the Rangers were all young like us... and because the Histories spoke to our souls, of course. And Aunt Astrid was family, and Eilir was for all practical purposes except Mom never really liked Lady Juniper but come on, Rudi's my half-brother, get over it Mom. Mithrilwood was like an endless game that never had to stop. But it's not a game, it's life. I'm grown up now.

Eilir's grin got wider; a lifetime spent lip-reading had also made her uncannily acute at following expressions.

You're growing up, niece of my anamchara, she Signed. Even Astrid and I did that, you know, eventually. Mithrilwood isn't Neverland, nor yet Aman the Blessed. It's just home and the place my children were born, which is fine enough and more.

Ritva replied in Sign herself, which was policy where even low voices might be overheard: Ah... sorry... I was just wondering why me, really. For this contact mission."

Really?

When you were used to it, Sign could convey dry pawky irony as well as any tone of voice.

Eilir went on briskly: Well, we picked you because you're the most experienced Ranger we have here who's not well known yet. We four are. I'm deaf, my beloved little John's freaking fee-fi-fo-fum huge, Alleyne looks like, well, Alleyne, and Astrid is... Astrid, she Signed. And because you're younger and people pay less attention to the young. Because you're a woman and people feel less threatened by women—Manwë and Varda alone know why. Plus tall fair people fit in even more here than most places. Take a look, familiarize yourself with the layout.

She handed over the precious Zeiss glasses and Ritva leveled them across a low-cut stump; the woods on the hill above the settlement were obviously carefully managed and healthy. St. Hilda's Monastery lay below them, the shadows just beginning to lengthen. From the look, most of it had been there before the Change, but there had been a great many alterations and more than a few additions. The core building was built of bluish-gray stone, twin-towered, as much like a castle as a church, and surprisingly modern in appearance; the lower windows had been sealed. There was a brick wing that had the alien boxy look of late pre-Change work, and a stretch of buildings off to the north.

Further out were truck gardens, fairly substantial orchards, and a big neatly laid-out farm with fields of varied crops separated by board fences and rows of poplars; a few hundred acres of wheat and barley rippled, yellow streaks showing amid the light green. More recent construction surrounded by fenced paddocks was probably barns, storehouses and workshops; the tall arms of a timber-framed windmill were unmistakable, though the sails were feathered and bare right now. Several well-kept dirt roads led away, east and north and south; they were fairly busy, wheeled traffic and bicyclists and folk on foot.

All in all it looked like a prosperous town, or perhaps a great noble's estate, except that there were no obvious defenses. Though the twin-towered church could easily be turned into a fort: the chronicle Astrid had written of the Bearkiller journey westward, The Red Book of Larsdalen said that the bandit lord Iron Rod had done exactly that.

They all gathered at the back of the hillock to see her off, except for the lookouts, of course. Most of that was to take turns examining her from head to toe; you always did that when you could, before a clandestine insertion. Nobody caught everything, and a different pair of eyes was always welcome.

I'll look less conspicuous without this sword, Ritva Signed, though she'd feel naked without it, too. Straight longswords aren't much used here, from what we've heard.

Ian hadn't learned the finger-tongue yet, but he understood when she undid her weapons belt, and silently held out his own with the stirrup-hilted curved saber and bowie. Sabers were the second-most-common long weapon in Idaho, after the wider-bladed cutting sword known as a shete. She slipped it out of the sheath and tried the balance; somewhat heavy for her wrist, but the weight wasn't thrown as far forward as she expected. You could thrust with this, though not as well as with the double-edged blade the Dúnedain usually carried.

She buckled the belt, drawing it in to the last notch and working the leather there to make it look used before tucking the tongue in and out, and checked herself over.

Ian was helpful again: "That braid is sort of distinctive too."

Eilir clucked her tongue in agreement, and Rivta sighed and turned, kneeling and letting her quick fingers undo their own work.

The Ranger fighting braid did what it was supposed to do—kept your hair out of your eyes when you were moving quickly—and it was ornamental, running from brow to nape in a series of intricate tucks and plaits. Unfortunately nobody else but the Folk of the West used it, as far as she knew. Also it was impossible to keep up all by yourself.

And Mary and I aren't always together anymore. Good luck with Ingolf, sis, and I still wish I'd won the coin-toss for him. Though Ian is refreshingly nice, I think. I have got to stop being attracted to Bad Boys like Hrolf. They don't change.

Eilir tapped her on the crown of her head to show it was done; now her wheat-colored hair fell halfway down her back in a single simple braid, tied off with a plain rawhide thong at the end.

None of them were in the special Dúnedain field kit right now; they'd packed that away and picked up bits and pieces of local gear to give the right mixed look and plausible little details of craftsmanship and style. Only the wealthy or their close retainers dressed in new or nearly-new matched outfits, now that the last reserves of pre-Change salvage had worn out or rotted. Standing out from the patchwork masses was one of the main reasons the upper classes spent lavishly on that look.

Ritva wore stout nondescript boots and doeskin pants and a long pullover linsey-woolsey shirt, a broad-brimmed low-crowned hat and a kerchief around the neck drawn through a leather ring, all none too clean after their long journey. A sheepskin coat worn bald in places was rolled and strapped to the blanket behind her saddle; her recurve in its scabbard by her knee would pass as the type anyone might use, and a quiver and round shield were as much part of outdoor wear as shoes. She had laced leather arm-guards and steerhide gauntlets, though armor would have been going too far.

All in all, she looked like many another thousand cowgirls here in the mountain and range country.

Except where the Cutters run things, she thought with a scowl. They think women in pants are an abomination. But then, they think pretty well everything is an abomination. From the way most of them smell, soap included.

Here in notoriously well-policed Idaho it wasn't even so very odd that a comely young woman would come into a town by herself. She'd still be noticed; strangers were always noticed. The only places she'd ever been where that wasn't so were a handful of large cities. And there weren't more than a handful of large cities in the world a generation after the Change, a world where the overwhelming majority lived in places the size of St. Hilda's or smaller.

"I'm off to Bree," she said, and Aunt Astrid chuckled.

"Let's hope there aren't any alarming and unexpected delays with your contact."

 

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St. Hilda's wasn't entirely without defenses. A quartet watching some black-coated Angus in a meadow noticed as she cantered along with a pack-horse on a leading string, and three set arrows to their bows as they legged their horses closer while another drew a shete.

Closer, and she could see that the archers were women, and the man with the shete was a hard-worn thirty and with only two fingers on his mutilated left hand. That could have been an accident in half a dozen trades, but she would bet on a sword-cut. He rode close and checked her over, noting the rolled pup-tent, duffle-bag and camping gear on her spare horse.

"Your name?" he said, sheathing the blade.

"Jane Cross," she said, falling into a ranch-country rasp.

It was actually the accent of the Bend country just across the Cascades from the Willamette and Mithrilwood, but it would pass anywhere in the interior in a casual conversation with people expecting a stranger. Local ways of speech had diverged widely in the last generation now that twenty miles was a good day's journey again and everyone from further than that a de-facto foreigner.

"What're you doing in these parts?"

"Lookin' for respectable work and a bunk, before summer's past, sir. Maybe some place to settle."

"You don't look hungry."

A shrug. "Rabbits ain't hard to come by, but..."

He nodded understanding. Anyone with the right tools and skills could feed themselves for a while in the wilds in the warm season, though even then it was risky to travel alone. A simple sprain or fall could kill you with nobody there to help. Winter would be deadly. Plus even if there was much empty game-rich land between settlements all of it anywhere near civilization was claimed by somebody, who'd eventually run off a vagrant hanging around the fringes. You had to; neglecting that was how bandit gangs got started.

"How come you're wanderin' loose?"

"My Rancher up in the Panhandle country had to let some hands go, what with the war and the taxes. Got no kin there now, my folks is dead and they were from Spokane way back. Don't know how they'll manage without us, but—"

She shrugged. The man nodded, a little sympathy softening his hard scarred face.

"You're not the only one on the road. The good Sisters do what they can, but times is hard hereabouts too. All the younger menfolk gone with the call-up, and fewer hands to do the work and taxes higher than ever so the Ranchers have trouble payin' the ones they do have."

She looked at the wounded hand; it was healed, but the mutilation must have been fairly recent from the purple flush still around it. He shrugged:

"Damn Protectorate shellbacks got me at Pendleton last year, the knight-boys. Anyway, tell 'em up at the convent that Seven-Finger Jack passed you through."

She nodded respectfully, and walked her horse forward as he reined aside.

Rudi would have left Idaho alone if Martin Thurston hadn't allied with the CUT and attacked us, she thought. He is a wicked man, a parricide and a bad ruler and he must be put down, but I wish we didn't have to kill and maim honest farmers and herdsmen to do it. If we can bring all these lands into the new High Kingdom and under the King's Peace, people can live safely by their own firesides and reap what they sow. Now that's worth fighting for!

"Even worth dying for," she murmured very quietly to herself. "Though I'd rather not. It's a fine summer's day and I'm young yet."

She rode past a gate. There were tents up in what was usually a pasture, and more in the orchard beyond; their occupants seemed to be mostly women and children. Closer to the main buildings of the abbey several long sheds were under construction, with work-crews pounding earth down between the moveable frames and trimmed logs and shingles waiting to make rafters and roof.

One of the workers looked up and then climbed down the ladder to walk over towards her; Ritva politely dismounted and even more politely hung her saber from the saddle over the bow-scabbard. The greeter was a nun, not much older than Ritva and with her dark robe kirted up to her knees, showing practical denim pants and boots beneath. Her sleeves were rolled back from hands thick with mud, and more splashed on her cheeks and her off-white headdress.

"Seven-finger Jack said to tell you he'd passed me through," Ritva said, and gave her cover-story again.

"I'm Sister Regina," the nun said. "Welcome to St. Hilda's! I'd shake hands, but—"

A laugh, and a wave of a capable-looking muddy paw.

"What can we do to help you, child of God?"

"Ah... I'm looking for a place I can sleep safe and not be bothered 'cause I'm female while I look for work," she said. "I'm more than willing to pitch in with anything here, too. I can rope and brand, do any sort of ranch job with stock or crops, milk and churn, spin and weave. I'm not afraid of sweat and I'm not picky."

She put on a scowl. "I tried the army, but they've got this fool new regulation against women, even if they can pass the tests and volunteer. Didn't used to be like that in the old General's time! Not for the cavalry, at least."

Sister Regina smoothed a scowl of her own with what was obviously an effort of will.

"We live by the Rule of St. Benedict here," she said, pointedly looking at the worn, sweat-stained hilt of Ritva's borrowed saber. "We insist on peacefulness. There is no room for quarrels here."

"I'm peaceful as all get-out, sister, as long as others are peaceful around me. I don't belong to your Church, though."

"That makes no difference; you belong to God, as do we all."

She pointed up the graveled dirt track. "You're welcome to stable your horses there, and your gear will be safe—you can deposit any money or valuables with the Bursar for safekeeping. We're crowded, but there will be a place to sleep, and food for you and your beasts."

"I can pay a little, sister."

The nun smiled. "We ask nothing, not even many questions. Our houses are the Inns of God, the last refuge of the weak. Help in whatever way you wish or can, when you can. God bless you."

Ritva pushed on; the place had a hospital, and a big school—apparently one for girls, who all wore an odd archaic pinafore-like uniform. On top of that, it looked to be taking care of a lot of displaced people, cripples and the sick and just plain desperate, the detritus and backwash of war and of a government harsh in its demands and merciless with any sign of dissent.

It took a while to get the attention of the harried sisters in charge without being obtrusive, and all of them looked too junior to trust with her message to the Mother Superior. For that matter, many of the nuns and all of the grey-robed postulants looked younger than her own early twenties.

Supper was served in a long refectory that had been hastily converted from some sort of storehouse, clean but very plain and very crowded indeed, mostly with people who looked as if they had stories worse than the one she was using for cover. It was dim, as well, lit only by pine-splints clamped in metal holders to the walls; that probably meant they were economizing on the fats usually used for lamps, keeping it to cook with or make soap instead.

The food was dark bread, butter and cheese and chipped plastic bowls ladled full of a thick soup of barley and potatoes and other vegetables that tasted as if it had some passing acquaintance with meat-bones on the stock side of its ancestry. There was enough if no more, but the meal would have been more appetizing if it hadn't been clear that the bathing facilities were being worked in shifts too, and if there had been fewer unhappy children, some of who needed changing.

When her group was finished eating she helped load bowls and plates and carry them to the kitchens, and volunteered to help wash. That ended up meaning mostly carrying wood to feed the hot-water boiler. There were many hands, but she was taller and stronger than most here. Patience finally got her close to the middle-aged Sister supervising the whole process.

"Hot work, Sister," she said, grinning and wiping her forehead with one sleeve; it was still warm in the building, though cooling rapidly into the clear night air outside. "Hope there's water enough for a bath?"

"Cold water, I am afraid, child," the nun said.

"That'll do fine, in summer," Ritva said cheerfully. "Like to shake your hand in thanks for you folks' kindness. Makes me think well of your religion, so to say."

The nun beamed at her in a tired sort of way. Then her eyes widened very slightly as she felt the scrap of paper in Ritva's palm. The corner was dark; she seized the Ranger's hand for a moment, turning it over and examining the calluses before dropping it and casually tucking the folded note into a pocket in her habit. If you knew what you were looking for a person's hands were one of the best indicators of what they were. Most people had calluses; even clerks usually developed one on their pen-finger. The patterns were very distinctive, though.

You got a very particular set from drilling with the sword for hours a day nine days in ten from the time you were six or so. That was one of the things even a really skillful disguise couldn't completely hide; Ritva had the swordsman's ring of hardened skin running all the way from the tip of her right index finger around the web of her hand and up to the top of the thumb.

"Sleep well, my child," the nun said smoothly. "May only good visions visit you."

Ritva was tired, but she thought she might not have slept all that well even if she hadn't been waiting. There had been a stress on the visit part of that.

Waiting for arrest, perhaps, she thought mordantly. I'd certainly be more comfortable out under the stars. Praise to the Valar I got the outside place!

The long tent was so old that it smelled of a pre-Change synthetic canvas, much patched over the years with this and that. It was also very crowded and too warm for blankets; all women, or older girls, but no children. Someone not far away had an alarmingly persistent cough, too. She found being confined with that rather more frightening than most straightforward dangers; you couldn't shoot a germ with arrows or cut it with a sword.

A glimmer of starlight and lighter air, and a hand touched her shoulder.

"Come, my child," the figure said very softly.

The dark habit disappeared in the moonless light, but the coif gave the face an eerie detached frame. It was the same nun she'd seen in the kitchens. She was glad that the Sisters weren't so otherworldly that they let more people than absolutely must know a secret.

"I come," Ritva replied as quietly.

She picked up her boots and followed that beckoning, walking a dozen paces with dew-wet grass soaking through her socks before she could stamp them in to the welcoming leather. The night smelled of green growing things and wetted dust, intensely clean and welcome.

"There's someone back there with a very bad cough," she said quietly.

"We know. It's a chronic pulmonary disease, not tuberculosis. Probably caused by smoke. Unfortunately we can do nothing for her but pray and give morphine when the pain is bad. Beds in the hospital are needed for the treatable sick or the infectious and those closer to death."

They walked together beneath the rustling fruit trees of the orchard, the pruned branches just over their heads with green apples showing like the fists of babies. Most of the settlement was dark as well, with only a few lanterns glowing, but the high rose window of the church shone.

As they approached down a narrow lane flanked by poplars, Ritva heard slow solemn music and voices singing. A swelling chorus of women's voices, rising and then sinking to a background as a single high clear alto rose with an almost unbearable intensity:

 

"Ave Maria, gratia plena
Dominus tecum, virgo serena;
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Que peperisti pacem hominibus
Et angelis gloria
Et angelis gloria—"

 

For an instant she shivered with a feeling that was chill down her spine, yet without the slightest hint of threat or malice. It was not her faith, nor was this a way of life that had the slightest attraction for her, but there was a power and clarity in it that could not be denied.

Many paths, she thought. Trite but true.

They came to a small door; the nun unlocked it before them and then secured it behind again. Up a narrow staircase, feeling her way along with one hand on the worn pine of the handrail. Then the kindly glow of lamp-light from under a door. The nun made a gesture to stay her and slipped through the door; a moment later after a murmur of voices she returned, beckoned, and then left with a smile.

That's a little odd, Ritva thought an instant later as she returned the nod. We didn't exchange more than a few words, but I actually feel as if I knew her.

The chamber within was an office, but there was a neatly-made cot in one corner, and a window that probably gave on the interior courtyard when it wasn't tightly shuttered as it was now. The walls were unplastered brick, and the battered pre-Change metal desk and shelves bore books and account-books and sheaves of indexed letters arranged very neatly. The only touches of color were a portrait of a robed woman with St. Hilda of Whitby beneath it, a Madonna and Child, a beautifully carved modern crucifix and a portrait of the current Pope, Pius XIII, that looked like a woodblock done from a photograph.

Ritva made the gesture of reverence that the Dúnedain shared with the Old Religion towards the holy images, clapping her palms twice, softly, and then bowing with them pressed together and fingers beneath her chin. Her people were courteous towards the fanes of others, whether it was reciprocated or not. Then she stood easily, waiting a moment for the lady of the plain clean chamber to speak first if she would.

It wasn't a bleak room, though; the austerity was of a friendly sort, the bareness chosen because it sufficed and didn't distract from things thought more important. The stern-faced woman behind the desk probably looked friendly often enough too, judging by the way the lines around her mouth and eyes lay. Right now she looked very tired, and not just because she'd probably been up all night, and extremely serious. Her face was rather horse-like, and Ritva judged she'd been about the Ranger's age at the time of the Change.

No point in a who-can-wait longest match, and I'm the guest here asking for a favor, Ritva thought.

Then she put hand on her heart and bowed: "Ni veren an gi ngovaned, naneth aen," she said. "In the Common Speech, I am very pleased to meet you, Reverend Mother."

"Sit, my child," she replied, with a wry quirking smile. "I have been expecting this visit for some time, since my last talk with Rancher Woburn."

Ritva pulled a small knife from her boot-top first, slit open a seam on her belt, and produced a set of thin onionskin paper documents. The abbess took them in worn fingers, fished spectacles out of a pocket, turned up the lamp and read. At one point she looked up sharply:

"The leaders of the Dúnedain?"

Ritva spread her hands, and the Abbess nodded.

"Yes, there is no need for me to know more about that."

At last she sat back and sighed, then crossed herself and bent her head over clasped hands for several long moments, in prayer or meditation.

"You come highly recommended," she said when she looked up again. "Not least by Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski and Father Ignatius. I know of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict, and news of the good father's vision of the Virgin in the Valley of the Sun—"

She paused to bow her head to the Madonna.

"—has spread widely to us of the Church."

"I was with him on that journey, Reverend Mother," Ritva said. "I'm not of your faith, but he is a very holy man. And a very clever one as well; clever, brave, a faithful friend. The High King has appointed him Lord Chancellor of Montival."

The eyes of the Abbess were a cool blue-gray. They studied her for a moment before the religious spoke herself:

"But his is a militant order, and necessarily involved in politics and war. We... are not. We have our life here according to our Rule, here and in the daughter-houses we have established since the Change. We work, we teach, we heal, we help God's poor, and for our joy and our rest we have prayer. All this I would endanger, if I help you and you fail. Possibly even if you succeed, in the end."

Ritva nodded gravely. All that was perfectly true. Reverend Mother Dominica had to think of it. She was responsible for her followers, after all; and for all those who depended on her Order.

"Everything you are and do is endangered if we lose, Reverend Mother. As it was in the days of Duke Iron Rod, but more so."

The older woman flinched; very slightly, but Ritva was sensitive to such things. Ooops, she thought. She must have been a member back then too. Or one of Iron Rod's prisoners, or both.

"I have tried to forgive," the nun whispered after a moment. "But to forgive evil men is not to submit to the evil they do. You are right that we owe your family a debt from those days."

She sighed. "I've also heard of this Sword of the Lady. A pagan thing, and a pagan King wields it."

I'm a pagan thing myself, Ritva thought; she restrained herself from arguing: It's all different avatars of the same Lady, right?

Christians could be irritatingly rigid about that. She'd had two years of Father Ignatius' implacably polite certainty to drive home the lesson.

"I'm the High King's half-sister," she pointed out instead. "And I've known him all my life and besides, it's the same with us Dúnedain as it is with the Mackenzies: it's a point of our faith that everyone finds their own path to the Divine. We're in more danger from you than you from us. There will be a lot more Christians in Montival than anyone else, and your type of Christian is the commonest. Matti... the High Queen Mathilda... is one of you. Whereas the Church Universal and Triumphant..."

"They are evil and they serve evil," the Abbess whispered. "I don't say that idly or simply because their theology, the public version, is absurd. There must be freedom—even for error."

She smiled a little. "Even for taking the stories of a long-dead Englishman who was a good Catholic with appalling literal-mindedness, for example, my child."

Ritva suppressed an impulse to stick out her tongue. She suspected that the Abbess read it anyway.

"But while that may be wrong, it is not evil," the Abbess continued earnestly. "And General-President Thurston has... changed since he came back from his meeting with the false Prophet Sethaz in Bend last year. He was always a very hard man, very ambitious, but... the new decrees are ominous."

"They're straight out of the CUT's book," Ritva said; she'd been reading the briefing papers the leaders had brought along during the ride south. "And they're just a start."

"Can you tell me what use you will put our aid to, if we give it?"

"No, of course not, Mother Superior. You don't need to know. That's need to know in the technical sense. You know we'll use it to fight the CUT and the parricide Martin Thurston and I can't give details."

A long silence, during which the older woman's gaze turned inward. Then: "Yes. Tell me what you need us to do."

"No more questions?" Ritva asked.

The Mother Superior smiled. "If it is to be done at all, it should be done well. When you make a decision, think carefully, pray, consult where appropriate, and then make it. Half-measures give you all the drawbacks of each alternative and none of their advantages."

Ritva rose and bowed a salute, hand to heart, as she would have done for her own superiors.

"So also says the Lady of the Rangers, and the other leaders of our people, my kinsfolk," she said. "And my brother Rudi... Artos... as well. Are you sure you were never a soldier, Reverend Mother?"

She smiled and shook her head. "Only a foot-soldier of Christ, my child. But in this office I have had to make decisions in plenty. Your aunt is a wise lady, if she grasps that, because it is not an easy thing to do. And your High King doubly so, because he is still a young man."

A slight wince. "It is no easier when lives ride on it."

Ritva listed the aid that Operation Lúthien would need. The Reverend Mother sighed, pushed herself back slightly from the desk, and opened a drawer that proved to hold a typewriter.

"What you need, then, is primarily information and recommendations," she said, as she inserted a sheet of paper in the roll. "Between us, St. Hilda's and Rancher Woburn will be able to furnish those."

Then she smiled; it made her face much younger for a moment, reminding Ritva of Mary's—which was to say, herself—when they were thinking up some prank.

"In fact, we may be able to furnish unexpected help from above, so to say."

Ritva nodded. I wish I could be as carefree about this as Mary and I used to be on missions, she thought. But this time it's not just my life. It's the life of my home... not just the Dunedain, either. All of Montival.

 

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