Castle Odell, County of Odell
(formerly northern Oregon)
Portland Protective Association
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July 31st, CY 25/2023 A.D.
Castle Odell was small compared to the great fortress-palace of Todenangst, but substantial compared to anything else built in the PPA's territories since the Change; towers and curtain-walls and rearing central keep beneath bright banners. Conrad Renfrew had started it in the second Change Year, right after he was granted the fief to hold as tenant-in-chief, direct vassal of the Crown.
After he'd conquered it for the Association, Sandra Arminger thought.
The carriage of the Lady Regent of the PPA rolled past the tents of the levy's encampment and men gaped or gathered to cheer as the black-and-gold coach and its escort of men-at-arms and mounted crossbowmen of the Protector's Guard swept by. More bowed and then waved and called greetings in the town.
Though considering who was in charge before, it's no wonder he's always been popular here. Not something that you could say about all our new lords. Mind you, Lady Valentinne had a good deal to do with it, starting with being native to the place. Tina mellowed him, which caused problems with Norman if not with me. He was still angry about the accident and the scars in those days, and she helped him deal with that.
His engineers had used Lenz Butte as the base, rising nearly two hundred feet over the rolling surface of the valley; the little red-tiled town of Odell clung to its base to the east by the road and railway, dwarfed by the castle and the newly-completed Cypriot-Gothic cathedral. The slopes below the white-stuccoed ferroconcrete ramparts were terraced gardens. Just now they were a blaze of roses, the scent full and sweet in the warm drowsy summer air through the open windows of the carriage. The clatter of her escorts' hooves came through as well, then the hollow drumming on the drawbridge; trumpets rang from the gatehouse, and they passed into its gloom beneath the arched ceiling that held the murder-holes and portcullis and out into light once more.
"This is a bit private, Jehane," she said to her amanuensis as the driver pulled up with a whoa. "It'll be easier to tell the Lord High Chancellor to act his age and stop being an idiot if it's all in the family. Keep going on the précis of those reports."
"Yes, my lady. The Castellan here is currently Lord Ramón Gómez González, Baron de Mosier, his family are vassals to House Renfrew. Arms, Gules, a castle of three towers argent, in base a key fessways the ward to the sinister or. His wife is Lady Gussalen of House O'Brian, and they just had their first boy. Named Bertrand. He's taking the field with the rest of the arrière-ban, and Lord Akers, Baron de Parkdale succeeds him as Castellan then."
"Lord Akers the elder?"
"Yes, Sir Buzz is down on the southern border with the forces of the Three Tribes and his own meinie. They're screening against the enemy concentrated in the Bend area."
"Thank you," Sandra said warmly.
She had most of the same facts at her fingertips, but it was nice to see that Lady Jehane had made such progress. She smiled again, a closed secret curve of her lips.
"Just remembering how much raiding there was back and forth across that area during the Protector's War. Castle Parkdale was built to guard against the Three Tribes. Time, politics and war make strange bedfellows."
A varlet leapt down from behind the carriage to open the door and fold down the step. Sandra gathered the pearl-gray silk skirts of her cotte-hardie and let Tiphaine d'Ath hand her and Jehane down. The courtyard was bright, and she blinked for a moment amid the stamp and clatter of destriers and coursers and rounceys, the rattle and gleam of armor. The interior walls all glowed with color as well, climbing roses twined through light lath trellises, until they seemed to flame and shimmer in green and crimson and white and pale pink. There was another clank and thump as the soldiers present all brought their right fists to their chests and bowed, which was protocol for fighting-men under arms in a public venue.
The roses are Tina's work, Sandra thought. And she does it very well. She hasn't much head for politics but she's not stupid at all.
"Baron de Mosier," she said to the dark-faced nobleman who saluted Tiphaine and bowed Sandra through into the gate of the keep.
He had a neatly-trimmed black mustache and goatee. Which makes him look like Evil Spock from the Mirror Universe. And nobody here but Conrad and possibly Tina would have the least idea of what I was talking about if I said that.
"How pleasant to see you again," she went on. "I trust that Lady Gussalen is well, and young Lord Bertrand?"
"She is very well, God be praised, and thanks be to my patron St. James, to whom I have lit many candles," the man said, trying to hide his flush of pleasure as he crossed himself. "My son is also well, my Lady Regent."
"The Grand Constable and I wish to see my lord Count Renfrew. We're expected, you needn't have us announced."
"He and the Countess and their children are in the solar, my lady Regent," the baron said, looking a little dubious at the informality but obedient nonetheless. "We were expecting them down momentarily. This way—"
"I'm sure you're extremely busy with getting the garrison ready to march, Lord Ramón," she said with a smile.
"That is so, my lady," he said as he took the hint.
"Though if you could show my lady-in-waiting Lady Jehane to the reception chamber?"
"I'll see to it at once, my lady Regent. God give you good day."
The escort from the Protector's Guard fell back as well, when Tiphaine raised one pale brow at their commander.
"I think I can take care of the Lady Regent, Sir Tancred," she said dryly at his hesitation.
The Baroness of Ath was like a slender silver statue in a full suit of plate, and her fingers rested on the pommel of her longsword. The grip had scales of dimpled black bone; they were cut with twelve small notches, and each had a tiny piece of silver wire hammered in for emphasis. Those only represented the noble Associates she'd killed in formal duels, of course. Mostly on Sandra's clandestine orders; a few had just been people she thought needed to be dead.
"Certainly, my lady Grand Constable," he said, saluting stiffly.
Though you can feel their paranoia burning, convinced that Cutter assassins with curved knives are lurking behind the tapestries, Sandra thought. Or possibly that the Lord High Chancellor and his family will strangle me and the Grand Constable. Then again, you don't want much of a sense of humor or proportion in your bodyguards.
A solar was always on the higher levels of a keep's towers; that was the only place where it was safe to have larger windows. Castle Odell didn't run to elevators, either. She lifted her skirts slightly and toiled upward, reminded of the loathed but conscientious hours she put in on the steppercizer back home. The floral motif continued in tile and wall-paintings as they climbed—a castle had to be strong, but that didn't necessarily mean bare concrete. Her soft shoes scuffed upward through the narrow bands of light cast by the arrow-slits, beneath the ring and clang of the Grand Constable's steel sabatons—Tiphaine could walk like a cat in anything else, and didn't apparently feel the fifty pounds of armor at all.
They were as alone as possible; in fact, she couldn't recall being more alone anytime recently, and spent a moment enjoying the unfamiliar sensation. Then she halted at a landing, as if for breath, and spoke quietly.
"What do you think of Operation Lúthien? From your own experience doing special operations for me back in the day."
"I was your assassin, my lady."
"Same thing, and answer the question."
"It's insane, my lady," d'Ath replied. Grudgingly: "That doesn't mean it won't work, necessarily. The Rangers are good at what they do, and they've pulled off stunts nearly as weird. It's just... I'd prefer fewer trappings out of myth and legend. Astrid Loring is always the starring lead in her own production of Middle-Earth: the Fifth Age and the Rebirth of Glory, playing on the inside of her eyelids."
Sandra laughed, a gurgling sound. "Baroness d'Ath, where are we? At this moment, I mean."
"Castle Odell... oh."
Sandra saw a rare moment of confusion on the Grand Constable's impassive, regular-featured face. She was a borderline Changeling, old enough to remember the world before that March day in 1998, but young enough that she usually didn't unless reminded.
"Point taken, my lady. This... well, it's not what I expected as the rising gymnastics star of Binnsmeade Middle School, let's put it that way. But unlike the Third Age, the Middle Ages actually did exist, once."
"Not like this, they didn't," Sandra said.
"As they should have been," Tiphaine quoted sourly.
"Exactly. I have studied history, and believe me I know. And I made sure you did, too."
"I wonder what a real fourteenth-century European would make of the Association?"
"Fascination and horror, I should imagine. He'd probably think he'd been carried off to Faerie or Avalon by Morgan le Fay."
"Or gone to heaven, if it was a woman."
"A good point. Now, Operation Lúthien might work?"
"Yes. With Astrid and her merry band doing it in person."
"Could you pull it off?"
"Not now. I'm still better than she is with a sword—in my own opinion—but I've been playing general for years; I'm a little rusty at the ninjitsu. Of course, there are probably plenty of very able up-and-comers, but while they might be a hair better physically none of them would have had as much practice in planning and execution. Both of us are just about to reach the point where increased experience no longer fully compensates for the reflexes slowing down. And even back in the day I wouldn't have recommended anything so risky... though the upside if it does work is large?"
"Huge," Sandra said flatly; that was a political question more than a military one.
"And if it fails..." Tiphaine said, and a slightly anticipatory note crept into her normally expressionless voice: "... if it fails, all we've lost is one deranged fangirl and a few adults who are still obsessed with tree-houses."
"Tsk, tsk, I believe you're letting your personal dislikes influence your judgment, Tiph. Besides which, the Dúnedain Rangers may be very useful to the dynasty in the long run."
"I can see that. A self-financing, independent clandestine operations unit that doesn't have to account to anyone for what it does... or for its budget."
Sandra smiled and turned one hand palm up: "Useful, that could be. Convinced, I am."
"Classical reference. Sorry."
Tiphaine blinked and went on: "But it doesn't need her running it."
"It would be better if she did for a while yet. Her own obsessions will make her extremely loyal to the bearer of the Sword, you see. Which is to say, to the father of Mathilda's children, and therefore loyal to his heirs, who will be Mathilda's heirs and hence my heirs and Norman's heirs; and with a little luck she'll plant that deep in the Dúnedain cultural memory-bank. And in her own children. After that it will be Mathilda's worry, or that of her descendants, but they won't be able to complain I didn't do my job."
Tiphaine's lips curled upward very slightly. "As always you see further than any of us, my lady."
"It's a moot point if we don't win the next campaign, which Operation Lúthien might help with. And now let's try and talk some sense into Conrad about strapping on a sword again at his age."
"Not much chance, my lady."
"Around five percent, if that, but one has to try." A frown. "It's annoying. I need Conrad as Chancellor. There's nobody else who has the same precise combination of abilities and contacts and reputation, and who's also absolutely reliable. His sons are too young to fill his shoes yet."
And besides that, I would actually miss him, she thought but did not say.
The solar's inner room opened off the stairwell, and it had a lived-in look of scattered books and pictures, a big embroidery frame for tapestries, a spinet and harp and lute, comfortable sofas and armchairs, a bowl of nuts on a table before the empty swept hearth with its bouquets of roses and dahlias. And it was full of the younger Renfrews. The Count of Odell's elder sons were both in their twenties and blue-eyed like their father, one with light-streaked brown hair and one with dark. They were taller than their father's middling inches, but both were taking after his solid muscular build, which their suits of plate emphasized; the armor clattered as they took one knee before her on the glowing rug. Their younger brother Ogier was taller and lanky and just on the dark side of blond, green-eyed, and seventeen, with an unfortunate spray of acne across his cheeks. The age meant he still probably had a few years of squirehood to go, and also that he was growing restive with it.
He knelt gracefully in his half-armor and thigh-boots, sweeping off a roll-circled hat with a dangling liripipe tail. That involved transferring the two visored sallets he was carrying to the crook of his left arm. Sandra Arminger extended her hand for the kiss of homage, and to touch the proffered sword-hilts. She had to suppress a smile as Ogier provided a moment of unintended comedy, juggling the helmets and the blade to free a hand and blushing at the noise.
"My lord viscount Érard, Sir Thierry," she said to the older boys.
They're men now, she thought. Do keep up with the times, Sandra! But it does seem only yesterday they were playing hide-and-seek with Mathilda.
"And young Ogier, ready to win your spurs, I see."
That was more than a metaphor, these days; the older sons had the golden rowels of knighthood on their heels and he didn't. He perked up at the thought, since wars were the fastest way to do so, though he was rather young for it.
The girls were in a cluster of their own; Deonisia, raven-haired, pale and striking at nineteen, with a twin-peak headdress; Genovifa, sixteen, with red-brown hair flowing out of her maiden's plain wimple and freckles and a figure already lush which even under modern conditions would grow plump before thirty if she didn't watch it, and Melisant who was black-haired like her elder sister and just eight though destined to be tall judging from her hands and feet, solemn in a young girl's long tunics, and already with a reputation for being scholarly.
I must keep my eye on her. The others are loyal and no fools, but she has real potential. She's clever. It would be a shame to waste her on the Church. I'll suggest that she be enrolled as a lady-in-waiting when Mathilda sets up her own household.
"And my ladies of House Renfrew," she said to them, repeating the gesture.
They sank into deep curtsies and then kissed her hand and murmured: "My lady Regent!"
More bows and curtseys for Tiphaine d'Ath, part of the complicated dance of precedence; she was their superior by official rank, and a tenant-in-chief, but not their overlord in the chain of vassalage and of lower title than their parents.
How solemn the younger generation are about it all! They live it. Tiph and I have known these children since they were crawling and dribbling, but the ritual is part of being grown-up to them.
"Is your father still determined to take the field himself?" Sandra asked.
"Of course, my lady Regent," Érard said, looking slightly astonished. "Where else would the Count of Odell be at this hour of peril, unless it was sword in hand at the head of his men, foremost in your host?"
"He has always been House Arminger's greatest support, my strong right arm," Sandra said with a sigh. "Where else indeed?"
Because at seventh and last, he's a male idiot, after all, she thought, as the whole family fairly beamed with pride. They never really grow up, even the smartest ones. Even poor Norman could be led around by his pride. Led to his death, at the last.
The young viscount hesitated, then asked, presuming a little on long friendship:
"Your Grace, is it true that the High King and the Princess Mathilda have returned and are wed, with a great army at their back?"
The Prophet and President-General Thurston undoubtedly know the strength of the League of Des Moines to the last man and pike, she thought. There's no harm in encouraging people here by telling them the same things. Don't make things secret just for secrecy's sake, Sandra! That way lies madness.
She paused for a second, then decided and spoke: "It's true that the High King is in Montival once more; and the former Princess Mathilda is now Her Highness, Mathilda, High Queen of Montival. Though of course we haven't had the coronation yet, that will have to wait a little."
That brought exclamations of delight, and she went on: "They're hurrying south with a substantial force of troops, from our allies to the east and from the Okanogan baronies. And their diplomacy has secured a very much larger army to attack the enemy on their eastern border; over eighty thousand men are marching on Corwin, according to our latest news."
We can fight wars across continents again instead of merely with our immediate neighbors, Sandra thought. Oh, hurrah for the light of returning civilization!
"And the Sword?" Deonisia asked breathlessly. "My lady?"
And there's no point in pretending that the Sword isn't what it undoubtedly is.
"The Sword of the Lady is..."
Terrifying, she thought. Like a myth, something out of the Chansons de Geste or Wagner, but actually there to be seen and touched. Putting me at serious risk of terminal worldview collapse.
Aloud she completed the sentence: "... all that rumor spoke of, and more. Forged in Heaven for the hand of our High King Artos, like Durendal and Curtana and Joyeuse."
The siblings all smiled and glanced at each other. "That's very good hearing, Your Grace," Érard said. "God be praised, and Holy Mary who watches over the Association... I mean, Montival... and the Princess... High Queen... Mathilda!"
"God be praised indeed. And His mother and all the bright company of the saints," she said, and joined in crossing herself.
With perhaps a sliver less sheer pleasure at her own hypocrisy than the gesture usually gave her, since it turned out from all the evidence that there really was something to it. It was hard, to be stripped of the cold comforts of her simple atheistic faith in middle-age. The more so as the evidence seemed to lead to the conclusion that all the religions were true, including the ones that flatly contradicted each other.
My head hurts when I try to reconcile that with... with anything! It's one thing to be an atheist, and another to be a flat earth atheist. But whatever else is true, it's also true that human beings can no more live without politics than they can without air. Politics I can handle.
"Now if you'll excuse me..."
She walked through the vestibule; there were no ushers or ladies-in-waiting or other such vermin around at present. This would be a family matter; she and Tiphaine counted more-or-less in that category. As she paused under the open pointed-arch doorway of the solar's light-filled outer room she heard two voices singing; Conrad's growling bass, and Valentinne's light wavering soprano under the tinkling of a lute. Sandra recognized the music and words instantly: it was an old minstrel's tune from the Society days before the Change, but seldom sung as whole-heartedly back then as she heard it now.
It's The Old Duke, she thought. Well, I knew this was a forlorn hope.
She paused for an instant, looking through and seeing Conrad's shaven dome beside Valentinne's silver-streaked light brown:
I laugh at those who call me old
Who think my age their best defense;
For often fall the young and bold
Who fail to laud experience.
My sword and I are much the same:
Our actions swift and sure...
Each scar I wear, each graying hair
The life I gave to her.
Sandra felt a slight pang at the sight. There had been no-one for her, not since Norman died... the politics were impossible... and they'd never had quite that sort of relationship anyway. The pair went on:
Throughout my life I've led my men
Where Crown and Prince command
And always does my Lady tend
To children, hearth and land.
My wife and I are much the same:
Our actions swift and sure...
A husband fair, a home to share
The life I gave to her.
They started a little as she came into the room. She inclined her head, then gestured Valentinne to continue playing. She did, and Sandra sang the next verse by herself, with a few modifications: she was a contralto, and her voice was larger than you'd expect from someone several inches below average height:
To those who thought our lack of sons
Would end my Norman's line
I laugh and toast my daughter
Who upon her throne shall shine.
My child and I are much the same:
Our actions swift and sure...
A privilege rare, a crown to bear
The life I gave to her.
Conrad grinned at her, the hideous old white scars knotting on his face, and all three finished together:
So every passing year preserves
Familiar rhythms and the new
And through it all I lead and serve
With joy—as I was born to do.
My land and I are much the same:
Our spirits swift and sure...
Each oath I swear, each shouldered care
The life I give to her.
"It's good to see you again, old friend," she said to Conrad, taking both his hands for an instant.
"And you too, Tina," she went on, exchanging a kiss on both cheeks.
Valentinne was in her early forties, twelve years younger than Conrad. The Countess of Odell was of average height, with the beginnings of a double chin and warm green-flecked brown eyes that were usually happy and a little distracted; there were faint paint-stains on her fingers, from the art whose results hung on walls and stood on the big easel beneath the eastern window of the solar: it was a redoing of her classic Raoul of Ger and the Easterlings.
"You haven't been able to talk him out of this folly, and convince him he'd be more useful here?" Sandra said. "He's my Chancellor, after all!"
Valentinne looked as if she'd been crying last night, and she was in the formal cotte-hardi that she usually managed to avoid, a pale blue-and-gold affair.
"No, Sandra," she said, a determined smile on her face. "I knew it wouldn't work, anyway."
"Didn't keep you from trying," her husband observed.
"And good to see you, Lady d'Ath," the Countess said; though in fact Tiphaine's cold coiled violence had always made her a little nervous. "How's Lady Delia? It's six months along now, isn't it?"
Tiphaine smiled slightly; the Countess of Odell and the Châtelaine of Barony Ath were good friends.
"Delia's well, but growing huge, and sends her regards. And she'd like you to be there for the accouchement, Lady Odell, particularly since neither I nor Lord Rigobert are likely to be able to take the time."
"Of course, if..."
If we're not all under siege in our castles by then, Sandra filled in. Or dead.
"... if circumstances allow," Valentinne finished.
"No reason they shouldn't," Conrad said. "You could take the girls. This campaign's going to start a long way west of here."
The Count of Odell was already in full armor except for the helmet, which showed his fireplug build; he'd put on some flesh since he resigned as Grand Constable to be Chancellor full-time a decade ago. Now he snorted and rose with a slight grunt and clank, tucking his helmet upside-down under his left arm with the gauntlets thrown in the bowl; the bevoir hid his chin and neck, giving his cannonball head an oddly detached look.
"I'm still stronger than a lot of the men I'll meet," he said, slapping the hilt of his rather old-fashioned, Norman-style chopping broadsword. "And age and treachery beat youth and gallantry most times."
Tiphaine d'Ath raised both eyebrows. "Still stronger, yes, Conrad," she said. "Also stiffer, fatter and slower these days. I'd hate to lose the man who helped shape me into the murderous, evil bitch I am."
"Blame Sandra for that," he laughed.
And he's looking positively carefree, Sandra thought. Men and their games!
"Besides, I'm planning on directing the levy of County Odell, not fighting with my own hands," he pointed out. "Not unless I have to. Worry about Érard and Thierry more, they'll be at the head of their men-at-arms. And Ogier is at the reckless age."
From the haunted look in her eyes, Lady Valentinne had been thinking along the same lines. Conrad paused to glance out the west-facing windows in their Gothic tracery; he'd be looking down on the rolling orchards and fields of the Hood River Valley, off to Mt. Hood's snowpeak towering dreamlike and huge and distant.
What's he thinking? Sandra mused. Of how we fought and worked to build this new world? Of what we were, and are, and what we might have been if the Change hadn't come? Or just that it's a beautiful day?
Then he bowed them out into the other room, and extended a hand; his wife rested her fingers on the back of his, and they followed. He smiled at his children, as they gravely bowed or curtseyed.
"Kiss your sisters and make your devoir to your lady mother, boys," he said, thumping their shoulders as they straightened and grinned back at him. "We have a war to fight. And you girls give me a kiss as well, eh?"
They did, and then the whole assemblage trooped down to the courtyard. The Castellan was there, with an older nobleman—
Lord Akers, Baron de Parkdale, Sandra's mind supplied. Lamed in the Count's service back when we were doing the first salvage run on Seattle. Son down with the Three Tribes, helping patrol against the enemy occupation forces in the CORA territories. I should mention that.
There was some ceremony; Lord Ramón passed over the white baton of his office to Lord Akers, who would command the skeleton garrison of oldsters, the halt, the lame and those really too young to take the field; the castle chaplain blessed everyone, though doubtless they'd already had morning Mass; and Lady Valentinne bound a favor on her husband's arm, a ribbon she'd woven from flax grown in her herb garden, prepared with her own hands. Her daughters did the same, and for their brothers as well, except for young Melisant, who shyly showed them a book-sized triptych of St. Michael she'd painted in a stiff, glowingly sincere style. She'd dedicate that for them in the Cathedral and burn candles before it until they returned.
At last Conrad stood pulling on his gauntlets, ready to hand her up into the carriage and swing into the saddle of his own traveling rouncey. He chuckled as he slapped fist into opposite hand on each side to settle the leather-palmed metal gloves.
"What's the joke?" she asked.
"That even if... that whatever happens now, I'm a lucky man. Lucky in my wife, my children... lucky in my whole life. Thanks, Sandra."
"Thank you, old friend, and take care of yourself. I need you still, your loyalty and your wits and the fact that you were never afraid to tell us when we'd made a mistake. Mathilda will need you, too."
"I'll do my best. I haven't seen my grandchildren yet, though Érard's little Alaiz is expecting! To tell you the truth, I don't know how much the kids need any of us fogies any more, Sandra. It's their world now, and they're more at home in it than we can ever be. Let's give it to them in good condition."
Copyright © 2011 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>