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THE TEARS OF THE SUN

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


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Sutterdown
Dùthchas of the Clan Mackenzie
(Formerly the east-central Willamette Valley, Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
August 1st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Frederick Thurston was the second son of the founding General-President of the new United States—the country everyone else called the United States of Boise. He wasn't in its green uniform, though. He'd insisted on that, wearing a nondescript outfit of coarse-cloth shirt and trousers and brown boots instead, and he was unarmed except for the belt-knife that virtually everyone carried as an all-purpose tool. He took a deep breath, and drew calmness on himself like a cloak; this wasn't going to be any easier if he waited.

I've made my decision. Now I've got to do it.

"You should be fancied up a bit," his wife said. "Your uniform, or somethin' to show you're someone."

There was a Powder River rasp in her voice; Virginia Thurston (nee Kane) had been born and raised there in the grassland country of what had once been eastern Wyoming, until the Church Universal and Triumphant and its local allies killed her father and seized her family's Sweetwater Ranch and she'd stumbled into Rudi Mackenzie's camp on the edge of the Sioux country on a blown horse. The two of them were nearly of an age, not quite twenty-one, but their looks were very different. Virginia was middling-tall for a woman, slender but whipcord-tough and tanned, with long brown hair worn in a braid, a narrow straight-nosed face and blue eyes.

Fred was a lithe, long-limbed broad-shouldered young man a little over six feet, with bluntly handsome features; his skin was a light toast-brown color, and his short black hair curled naturally. He grinned at his wife; they'd been together just over a year, and married for less than half of that—a handfasting ceremony in Norrheim, on the borders of the Atlantic.

"You look good enough for both of us, honey," he said.

She snorted. Her costume was full-fig formal for a prosperous Powder River rancher's daughter in this twenty-fifth year of the Change, acquired here since they got back to Montival and at some trouble and expense. Linen bluejeans with copper rivets, high-heeled boots of tooled and colored leather, a buckskin jacket worked with colored quillwork and fringed along the seams, a colorful bandana about her neck and a broad-brimmed black Stetson on her head. Her belt was covered in worked silver conchos, and a smaller strip of the same went around her hat; the hilts of her shete and bowie-knife were jeweled, if also perfectly functional. More silver and tooling made the saddle and bowcase and tack on her gray Arab match the arch-necked mettlesome horse itself, with ribbons woven into its mane. He'd noticed that when it came to horseflesh she was cheerfully rapacious in a way that was probably influenced by the close contact her family had had with the Sioux to the east of them. Or possibly just the obsessive focus on horses natural in a place where they were the difference between life and death.

"You made me drop the chaps, honey," she pointed out. "Those were good chaps."

"You look like there's a sheep in your family tree with those things on. And anyway, this is the best way to approach them, believe me. They're going to be sensitive as a singed wildcat, seeing me on the other side."

"OK, darlin', you know your own folks best."

They mounted outside the front gate of Brannigan's Inn, where they were staying like most visitors to the Clan's only large town, and rode through the crowded streets and out from Sutterdown's west-facing gate. Fred looked up at the walls; Sutterdown wasn't very large, no more than five or six thousand people, but the defenses were strong. There were still scars beneath the stucco, where cast-iron shot and steel darts had struck in sieges long ago, in the wars against the Association.

Beside the gate on either side were two great statues twice man-height, wrought from the trunks of whole black walnut trees and cunningly carved in the likeness of a woman with long golden hair standing on a seashell on the left, and a naked man holding a bow and crowned with the sun on the right.

He'd been with Rudi and Edain on the quest all the way from Idaho to Norrheim on the Atlantic and back; he understood something of the theology of the Old Religion, the faith nearly all Mackenzies followed. Sutterdown worshiped the Lord and Lady in the form of Apollo and Aphrodite; that didn't stop them from being just as obsessed with Celtic paraphernalia as the rest, but then the Clan regarded consistency of that sort as small-minded. The smile died on his lips as he looked up at those forms.

Even in the bright warm sunlight of a summer morning here was something disquieting about the face of the Lady of the Doves. At first glance a welcoming beauty as of a woman grown, a mother and lover, but underneath it a childlike wonder, and behind them all a sternness—something not evil or wicked, but as implacable as a winter storm or a glacier grinding its way down a mountaintop. And the face of the God was clear and bright as the sun-rays above it, but in the eyes was a darkness and a mystery, something that you cold meet alone in a nighted wood.

"Man, but the fellah who carved that knew somethin' about his business," Virginia said soberly. "I like the Mackenzies well enough, but they're sorta spooky sometimes. You think you've got 'em pegged... and then you don't."

"I know what you mean," Fred said, touching the Valknut around his neck.

"Now, that was spooky, too," Virginia said. "OK, the Old Man likes you. But him showin' up and saying so, that was just a mite scary, you ask me. Methodists don't have that problem and I like it that way."

Fred nodded. He'd acquired the sign of Odin in Norrheim, when the seidhkona sat on the Chair of Magic in the hall of Bjarni Eriksson and the spirit of the High One had possessed her.

Before then, I was looking for a faith. That's when I really found it. Not the most reassuring one, but...

Then he grinned. "Remember what Father Ignatius went through? So Methodists don't have that problem... not yet."

Virginia laughed too, and then suddenly her face went serious. "Well, dang, that would be funnier if it was funny, you know?"

They crossed the bridge beyond the gate, where the Sutter river curled around two-thirds of the town named for it, in a natural moat. Rudi Mackenzie and his guard were waiting for him at the edge of the tented encampment east of town; a dozen had sprung up around the little city as the Clan's levies mustered and moved northward, amid the orchards and reaped fields. Most of the High King's Archers were with him, their racked bicycles behind them, leaning on their unstrung bows or against the trunks of the cherry-trees.

Their commander Edain was playing a long side-blown wooden flute bound with silver bands, what the Mackenzies called a Patten, a slow wild smoky sound. His wife Asgerd and Mathilda were standing as Rudi sang to the tune, looking halfway between abashed and laughing-happy:

 

From far away I'm coveting
Your white violet skin 
And missing the fall of your hair 
Worlds away I'm courting your everything 
And giving you all that I dare 
The wild foxes danced
When you laughed in your cradle
The magpies fell silent
When you learned to sing
Imagine my luck
To be part of your fable
Where you hold my heart
Like the fruit in your hand...

 

Fred wasn't much surprised. Most people sang or played; it was the only way to have music, unless you were able to hire specialists or acquire the fabulous rarity of a wind-up phonograph. Mackenzies made more music, and better, than any group he'd run across in very extensive travels; they'd been founded by a musician, after all, and they associated it with both holiness and leadership.

The song ended, and Edain wiped down the flute and tucked it away in a boiled leather tube.

"Merry met, Fred, Virginia," Rudi said, seriousness dropping over him like a veil.

He was in plain Mackenzie gear, kilt, plaid over one shoulder, knee-hose and green-dyed shirt and flat bonnet with a spray of raven-feathers in its silver clasp. And at his right hip, the Sword of the Lady. Fred found his eyes skipping aside from that, and made them steady. After all, if there was one phrase which summed up his faith, it was ‘don't flinch'.

"Let's be going, then. Do I need guards for this?"

"No," Fred said.

"Yes," Edain said, simultaneously.

They looked at each other, Fred glaring in frustration; Edain folded his arms over his barrel chest and the green-leather surface of his brigantine armor.

Rudi looked at his follower. "I need to persuade them, Edain," he said mildly. "They're fighting men, and you know how such react if you point an arrow at them."

"That's your job, Ard Rí. My job's to be in a position to kill any evil bastard who might take it into his head to win the war at a stroke by killing you. And that, by the Dagda, I will do if I have to knock it into your head with His club."

"All right. A score, no more; there are the camp guards, and the prisoners aren't armed."

"No, they're not supposed to be armed. And by your own word, they're fighting men. The only time such aren't armed is when they're dead."

Edain turned and barked an order; twenty archers fell in, and strung their bows with the left tip against one boot and the leg over the risers to bend the heavy staves. The High King's Archers were the hundred-odd best in the Clan and the pick of the followers the quest had acquired along the way, and Fred doubted that the fabled weapons of the old world could have done much better than their bows at a pinch.

"I'd better not come at all," Mathilda said thoughtfully. "There was a lot of tension between the Association and Boise, even if we never fought, and Fred's father used us as a boogieman. Feudal isn't a word with, mmmm, positive connotations over there."

Fred shot her a look. Before he could speak Rudi did, grinning: "Mo bòidheach, back then you... collectively speaking... really were the boogieman."

"Hmmmf. Well, anyway, they don't have any history with Mackenzies, except recently. And you and Edain saved Fred's father's life during that bush with the Cutters, right after we met them out east over the mountains."

"Right you are, acushla. It's not as if you had nothing to do, sure!

Fred blinked and took a deep breath. His father's death still hit him, occasionally. He remembered that occasion just after Rudi and the others had showed up in Boise territory vividly; it was barely two years ago. The last time the world was right, before what he thought had been solid dissolved beneath him into a morass of treachery. The desert road in the bright sunlight, the taste of dust, the steady tramp of the troops, his father a grimly competent tower of strength, and still the man who'd been there all his life, the private man the iron reputation didn't know. Then the sudden paralyzing horror as he realized there were assassins hiding in the guard detail itself, and the clothyard shafts going by with a whippt and driving into armor with hard ringing impacts...

Before Martin was a traitor. But he was, even then: I just didn't know it. Rudi and Edain killed those Cutter infiltrators, but his own son killed Dad later at Wendell. I didn't think I could hate anyone in all the Nine Worlds as much as I hate Martin now, but he's still my big brother. Even when he was an asshole I loved him, but now... I guess you hate someone who's turned on you worse than someone who's just an enemy.

He took a deep breath. Duty first. That was something his father's training and that of his new faith agreed on utterly.

"Let's go, Your Majesty," he said formally.

A little to the north was the canal that supplied the town's water and powered its mills; they could hear a grumbling sound through the screen of trees, as grain was ground and wood sawn and flax pounded. Then they turned south and crossed the Sutter river itself and its band of oaks and firs, willows and shaggy meadows; that was Clan land, sacred to Cernunnos and Flidais, barred to heavy use by human kind and the tame animals that lived with men. Its edges were marked at intervals by tall stakes carved with a stag-headed man or a white deer, and the Mackenzies made a reverence as they passed. Several had small offerings of flowers at their feet.

Or it's a State park, he thought dryly. And protecting streambanks from trampling and erosion makes excellent sense. Though... I do remember Dad complaining about how hard it was to enforce regulations like that. Maybe it's easier for people to defer to a Lady who drives a chariot pulled by snow-white deer through their dreams than to bend their necks to a rule in a book written by a bureaucrat far away.

Of course, you can just kill anyone who breaks your rules. I know someone who thinks like that...

"Somethin' on your mind, Fred?" Virginia said softly, under the clop of hooves and creak of saddle leather.

"I was thinking about home, honey," he said. "My mother and sisters, trapped there with... him."

"We'll see to that," she said stoutly.

He took a deep breath. Don't flinch, he told himself. And in the meantime it was a fair day in pretty country, riding a good horse past orchards and fields, with the fir-sap smell of the mountains that reared westward coming on the warm breeze. And he was young, and the woman he loved rode at his side, and he was going to set his people free.

The prisoner-of-war camp was a mile south across flat open land; close enough to the town to be convenient, but beyond the ring of crofts worked by people living within the walls and equally far from the nearest farming dun. It was shaggy rough pasture and clumps of burgeoning young forest in normal times, with low wooded hills beyond. The camp was rows of tents, or rough barracks built of poles, wattle-and-daub, and salvage goods from nearby ruins. A board trestle brought in water from a spring, and a few more substantial buildings had been run up to serve as an infirmary, cookhouse and bathhouse; there were piles of boards from the sawmills near Sutterdown, ready to be turned into weathertight winter quarters. Neatly tilled vegetable gardens surrounded it all, and he could smell that it was well-policed, just turned earth and woodsmoke and the warm scents of vegetation with no reek of unwashed bodies or overfull latrines.

Rudi reined in, and gave a slight sideways inclination of the head to indicate that Fred and Virginia should ride in first. There was a fence around the camp, but no wall; it was a marker rather than a barrier, and the two-score of Clan warriors with spear and bow looked relaxed enough, like the pack of big shaggy hunting dogs at their feet. A parade ground was already crowded; most of the seven hundred men here had been taken near Dayton, back in March.

Frederick shivered a little. He'd heard about that. A CUT Seeker had been with them. And Juniper Mackenzie had been there too...

"Ten-hut!" a sergeant barked as they rode up.

The High King's guardsmen put their bicycles on their kickstands and stood at parade rest behind Rudi Mackenzie—or behind High King Artos, probably. They didn't have shafts nocked, but that could be changed very quickly indeed with the bows strung. Fred dismounted and walked forward. The men were braced at attention, but quite properly they were looking at Rudi. A quick glance showed him they were mostly in good health. Well-fed, certainly, and only a few showed healing wounds. Their olive-green uniforms were the field model, meant to be worn under armor and optimized for endurance and protection rather than comfort. The rough cloth was clean but worn and patched, and a few had been eked out with civilian gear.

The High King leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle and waved a hand towards Fred.

"I'm not the center of this occasion, to be sure," he said in a clear carrying voice. "Stand your men at ease, if you would."

Fred took a long breath and stepped forward. A rising murmur started to turn into shouts as dozens recognized him. One of the officers drawn up to the right of the block of enlisted men shouted:

"Sir!"

That was aimed at Artos, not at him; the man was ostentatiously ignoring Frederick Thurston. He was in his thirties and gaunt-looking, with an empty left sleeve pinned to his olive-green jacket. The other hand pointed at Fred, who recognized him; he'd been tight with Martin.

"Sir, this is... is unacceptable."

Rudi smiled. "Captain Hargood, isn't it?"

"Ah... yes, sir. Centurion Hargood, under the new regulations, technically."

"Well, Captain Hargood, there's naught in the rules or customs of honorable war, from before the Change or since, which says prisoners can't be talked at. I can't make you pay attention and I certainly can't make you believe what you hear—wouldn't if I could, unlike some people I could name—but I can and do insist that you stand quietly. Now go do it, man, and stop wasting our time."

A pause, then his voice went hard and cracked out: "Back in ranks!"

Hargood blinked and recoiled half a pace, then obeyed. Fred took one more step forward and flung up a hand.

"Nobody has to listen to me," he said, pitching his voice to carry as he'd been trained. "Anyone who doesn't can leave right now. No names, no punishments."

The buzz rose and then fell, as the ranks rippled. A good many left; he estimated that it was more than a tenth but less than a fifth. Hargood hesitated, since he was more than smart enough to realize that the exodus was lowering the hostility quotient Fred had to face, but then decided he had to join it for form's sake.

I do like putting an enemy where all his choices are bad, Fred thought grimly.

Not all the looks he got from the rest were friendly, but they seemed willing to listen, at least.

"You're mainly the Third Battalion, right?" Fred said. "That correct, Sergeant Saunders?"

He was looking at a platoon sergeant he'd met on maneuvers when he was in the ROTC. The man licked his lips, looked to either side and then cleared his throat and spoke:

"Yes... sir. We got... captured in March, up north and east of here."

"That would be near Dayton? Castle Campscapell? Stand easy all, by the way."

"Yessir, big concrete fort, castle, whatever." He paused to lick his lips. "We took it last year, after this CUT guy opened the door, is how I heard it. You know what happened there when we were taken, sir?"

"I hear about that when we got back, yes. I've talked to Lady Juniper about it. She tried to explain and she was using English, mostly, but it didn't mean Thing One to me. Something about casting trouble in your dreams. And she said that she could only do it... do it without some sort of heavy blowback... because the CUT had one of their Seekers there and he was doing things."

The sergeant nodded vigorously. "He... he'd talk to you and it was like flies buzzing inside your head, I'm not shitting you sir. Like the world was twisting, and maybe if it went on long enough you wouldn't wake up. And we're still trying to figure out what the hell happened that night; we just... had some real strange dreams and then woke up and there were a bunch of Mackenzies standing over us And that Seeker dude was lying with his body in one place and his head about a yard away and the biggest badass I've ever seen with the biggest Godammed sword was standing over him grinning like a cat."

"Little John Hordle. He is sort of impressive."

"That was how the Third got here. Some of the rest came in just lately, from the Tenth and Fifth and some cavalry pukes, but a lot of those were wounded, and they were all captured in the usual way."

Fred nodded. "Have you men been treated all right?" he asked.

The noncom shrugged, looking a little less nervous; he was a snub-nosed young man about Fred's own age, with close-cropped blond hair and a healing scar across the side of his face.

"Yessir," he said. "It's not a beer-bash being a prisoner, but we got good medical care and plenty of plain food. Better than field rations, a bit. Work details for the enlisted men but nothing too hard and no direct help to the enemy war effort, farm work and lumberjacking mainly, just about enough to earn our keep."

There were nods from many at that. The majority were from farm families themselves, doing their compulsory three years of military service, which became for the duration in time of war. They knew that food might grow on trees, but that it didn't prune or water or pick or pack itself, and they'd all been doing hard work since they were old enough to scare birds out of a grainfield or carry water to their parents during harvest.

"The guards haven't been rough on anyone who didn't try to escape, either; some've made breaks for it and they got shot or mauled by those fucking dogs when they were chased down and recaptured, but that's by the book if you take a chance on it. Mostly it's just sort of boring. We play a lot of baseball and football and that thing the Mackenzies play, hurley they call it in English, sometimes our team against the guards. They'll even let parties go hunting, if we give our word to come back by sundown, and we get to keep the meat."

"Nobody did that and then ran?"

"Nossir. We, ummm, sort of made sure of that. A promise is a promise and anyway it would screw things up for everybody. Someone wants to try and escape, fine, but no breaking the rules."

"Good to hear it," Fred said sincerely, and asked no more; there were times when an officer was well-advised not to pry. "OK, you're off the hot-spot, sergeant."

Rudi had told him that his mother had strongly suggested that the Boise prisoners be kept in the Clan's territories. There were fewer grudges, and Mackenzies were simply less likely to do harm than some of the rougher barons up in the PPA lands. His eyes went along the line of faces, some angry, a few smiling, more wary and neutral. They all knew who he was; most of the ones who hadn't met him would have seen him at a distance at one time or another. The US of Boise was a very big country, over a million people and that outnumbered even the PPA, but he'd still gotten around. For that matter, he took after his father though he wasn't as dark, and people who were visibly of part-African descent weren't all that common in what had once been Idaho. He stood at what wasn't quite parade rest and went on:

"All right, I'm not a damned fool. There's only one real question: that's who killed my father. Killed the President. My brother Martin says it was me. I say it's him; and I saw it. OK, what about proof? I can't give you any. The nitty-gritty is that you're going to have to decide who you believe. But here's a couple of things to think over."

He squared his shoulders. "Martin wanted to be President. That was something everyone knew. And now he's running things back home. Dad was getting ready to call elections, and since then... well, Martin says he may regularize things when the emergency's over. Want to bet that's going to be about the Fourth of Never?"

There were some nods at that, but it wasn't all that important to these men. They were all Changelings. They could read and write, his father had been insistent on keeping the schools going even in the terrible early years, but the old world wasn't really real to them. Few of them had the visceral commitment to the old ways his father had had; he didn't himself, though he was closer to it. They'd grown up in a benevolent despotism, thinking of General Thurston as the one who'd saved their families' lives, the stern wise father-figure who brought order out of chaos and let every man reap what he sowed. And not least, the one who'd put down the pretensions of budding land-rich would-be patricians.

Not that Dad wanted to be a despot. But at first it was just a struggle for survival and doing what he had to do day by day, and then he thought he could put enough of the country back together first so he could have real elections that would give him legitimacy as something more than a local warlord, and it turned out to be a lot tougher proposition than he thought. By the time he admitted that, a lot of water had gone under the bridge; Dad was stubborn as a granite butte. Martin could probably have won real elections if he'd been old enough to be a candidate under the old system, but he didn't want that anyway. He wanted to be Emperor or something like it, and hand it down to his son. And that was before he started getting involved with the CUT.

"OK, Martin's behind this alliance with the Church Universal and Triumphant. Does anyone here like the idea of that? Those people have slaves, and they don't even bother calling them Registered and assigned Refugees like Pendleton... which Martin also allied us with. Dad declared war on the CUT when they trashed New Deseret and he fought his last battle against them at Wendel. Fought them and beat them, I was there. Now they're supposed to be allies working for national reunification alongside the United States. Does anyone here really believe that? Is there one single man here who'll get up and say it with a straight face?"

This time the silence was deeper. Fred went on:

"Dad broke up some of the big ranches so guys like you could have their own farms after the Change."

A youngish ranker spoke: "Seems like the Mackenzies did that too."

Fred nodded. I wish I'd thought of making that comparison, but these men have been around the Clan longer than I have. The Clan at home earning a living, that is, and not just Rudi and Edain traveling through the wilds.

"Yes, they did."

"They're pretty good folks," another said judiciously. "They remind me of my neighbors back home—except they're so fucking weird, sorry sir, but they are, and I don't mean just that Juniper Lady who is deeply scary weird. They're all weird, putting out milk for the fairies at the bottom of the garden and stuff and talking to trees and animals and going dancing through the woods buck-naked with antlers on their heads and I don't know what else. But pretty damn friendly to us, considering everything, though."

"Some of the girls are real friendly sometimes," a man said dreamily, and that brought a general laugh.

"Right," Fred agreed. "But back home, instead of keeping public land in reserve for new farms, Martin is handing out vacant tracts in great big chunks to his cronies and supporters. Not just grazing land like Dad let the ranchers keep, but good land that could support dozens of families. Your families, someday, if you're not in line to inherit a farm from your parents."

"Cronies and supporters like Hardass Hargood's family," someone muttered. "I actually heard the son of a bitch say they deserved it because of all they sacrificed to serve the Republic, like I'm here ‘cause it's so much fun? What the fuck are we, leftover mutton hash?"

He subsided at an elbow in his ribs, but there were nods at that too. Fred struck the argument home:

"And he's assigning the Deseret refugees to work it for them. Temporarily... until the Fifth of Never, right? And there are these new laws about what women can do—that's CUT stuff, and no mistake. He's not using them, they're using him. Right, now put all that together, and who is it who's really likely to have killed Dad... the General?"

Another silence, deep and prolonged; men were exchanging looks, squads unconsciously drawing together. Squad deep was Boise slang for people you can trust. Another man spoke:

"Right, sir, what do you want?"

"I think I'd make a good President," Fred said.

I really think I would. And I know for a fact that Virginia would dance on my face in her cowboy boots if I said otherwise. But I think I would... Dad was a great man but his head was stuck in the old world. This one's a different place. Without the machinery, the people are different, and that's not counting stuff like the CUT and the Sword of the Lady.

"But I'm not going to just take it. If we—Montival—win this war, I promise here and now, and I'll repeat it whenever anyone asks, that there will be real elections within six months. Not 'if circumstances permit' or 'when the emergency is over' because circumstances are never right and life is one fucking emergency after another. Six months, come flood, war or forest fire. And everyone can pick whoever the hell they please, every four or six years or whatever we decide. If it's me, fine. And we can work out a real constitution, because the old one wasn't made with this world in mind and most of the old States don't exist anymore. Folks changed when the world Changed, too."

"And if they tell you and your new friends to take a hike?"

Fred smiled grimly. "If the people—which includes women and refugees—want someone else, well, Hell, I can live with it. I won't starve and I'm not afraid of working for a living, and neither is my wife... this is her, Virginia Thurston, by the way. She comes from southeast of us, east of the Rockies on the High Plains. The CUT ran her out of her home, they're doing their job there too, and their job is being evil sons of bitches."

Rudi cut in: "And sure, I'll give Fred a job like that if you don't want him." He snapped his fingers. "There aren't so many good men who are true to their word about that I'd want to waste one. Carry on; just making that clear."

The speaker nodded at him and turned back to Fred: "But you want us to be part of a kingdom?"

Fred nodded crisply in turn. "Yes. The High Kingdom of Montival. My Dad wanted to put America back together. He was a great man, he made a country out of chaos and plague and people terrified they were going to die. A lot of you wouldn't be here today if he hadn't been that sort of man. Hell, I wouldn't. He went back into Seattle to get my Mom out when he came back from the scouting mission to Idaho and found things had gone to shit. But by the end of his life, he hadn't even put all of Idaho back together. Part of Idaho, and a few chunks of what used to be Washington State and Nevada. He didn't want to make war on ordinary people to do it, either. I know Rudi Mackenzie... High King Artos, the redhead on the horse over there. We went all the way to the Atlantic together. Some real strange shit came down."

"Tell us!" someone said. "The way that witch... she's his mom, right? The way she put us all to sleep... and held off that Seeker asshole..."

"It's a new world. The rules changed at the Change. But the High King can do some of what Dad wanted done—put a big chunk of the country back together. In a different way, sure. But it's one that a whole lot of people have already agreed to. So the names are different, big fat fucking hairy deal. It'll mean no more wars among ourselves, no more marching around and burning farms and getting your head knocked in because... someone... wants to be first in line at the Parade of the Assholes. He's promised, and I believe it, that we'll be able to run our own affairs the way we please. We'll have our own laws, and our own army to back it up. All we have to do is admit that everyone else gets the same privilege, and if they want to dance naked in the woods with antlers on their heads—

There was a general laugh at that.

"—that's between them and the mosquitoes. We'll put joining the High Kingdom to a vote too. I'm for it."

"I'm for getting back home, Goddammit," someone called. "I want to get back to my girl and the farm and anyone else can call themselves kings or barons or Chiefs or bossmen or the fucking Wizard of Oz as far as I'm concerned. They leave me alone, I'll leave them alone."

"Right," Fred said, nodding vigorously at the roar of assent. "Are there any crazy bastards here who want a war? We're all soldiers. We know what fighting really means. Sometimes you have to do it, but that doesn't mean anyone who doesn't have his head up his ass goes looking for one. Not just because it sucks for us, but because of the risks to everyone else back home too. Martin's not only got us into a war here, he's got the Dominions and the Midwesterners into the fight. The Canuks and the Iowans and their friends are marching right now. Marching towards our homes while we're dicking around on other people's ground."

"Is that really true? And do they mean it?" a soldier asked anxiously.

"People, believe it. Do you think all these Mackenzies could get together and put a story over on you?"

"Hell, no," the sergeant said thoughtfully. "A lot of the time they can't agree on the time of day. They argue for the fun of it, like it was a poker game. Sometimes they argue and then switch sides and argue the other way ‘round just for something to do. Someone would have talked to us. It's true, or at least they all believe it is, and they're not stupid."

"Right. I saw the Midwesterners forming up outside Des Moines with my own eyes, and people, there are a hell of a lot of them and they're not stopping for shit. The CUT killed their bossman and tried to kill his whole family; his widow's running the show there now and she's out for blood, and the rest of them are baying on that track like hounds after a cougar."

"We didn't kill her man," someone pointed out.

"Sure, the Prophet's boys are first on the menu... but they and Martin are joined at the hip. He's already pulled troops out of this theatre to go east, you must have heard about that before you got captured. Are you all that hot and bothered to go get killed to defend Corwin? Or seeing your neighbors and cousins marched off to do it?"

A brabble started to break out, and Fred held up a hand. "I'm not telling you to make up your minds right away. Go think it over. Anyone who wants to come with me... that'll be a hard row to hoe. It'll be dangerous and in more ways than one. You can stay here and be safe and get three squares and a place to flop whatever happens and whoever wins, if that's what you want to do. Like I said, think it over. You're free men; make your own decision."

He stood, looking at them steadily. The gathering had turned from a drill-parade formation to a circle of interested men. Now it began to break up into groups arguing or talking, softly at first and then more loudly as they walked away. And some weren't leaving, around a hundred.

Fred waited impassively until it was plain who was doing what. Sergeant Saunders, the man he'd talked to first, was the highest-ranking.

I'm not surprised. Martin's made all the officers from company-grade up swear an oath to him personally. It'll take something heavy to shift them. They've got more to lose, too; it would be easier to retaliate against their families than against a lot of anonymous rankers.

He looked at the sergeant and raised an eyebrow; that was a habit of his father's he'd picked up.

"Sir, I don't know about anyone else here, but I'm volunteering to follow you. I believe you and that makes Martin a murderer and a traitor who's sold us to the CUT. Word about that's been going round... and I don't like the way a couple of people who got too loud about it disappeared, either. Shit, that's a big fat fucking load of proof that it's true right there. I want to be able to speak my mind without looking over my shoulder and wondering who I can trust! That's no way for free men to live."

"Good man," Fred said, keeping the smile off his face; the last thing he needed was to look like a grinning kid.

Then he raised his voice a little more. "That what the rest of you think?"

Murmurs, and then a chorus of Yessirs.

"OK, think about this a little more, people. If Martin gets his hands on you, he'll have you executed as traitors to him, sure as God, sure as fate. It's win or die if you enlist with me. And I have the High King's word he'll try to avoid having us fighting our own people, use us against the CUT's men... but there's no guarantee there."

Heads turned to Rudi; he shrugged and turned both hands up. "I do promise I'll try. I don't give oath I'll always succeed because I don't promise what I know I can't do. That comes back to bite you on the arse, sure and it does, and you end up paying when you can least afford it. As your commander here said, there are no guarantees in war. If you enlist with him, you enlist with me, and soldiers under my command do what they're told whether they like it or not, and it will be not quite a lot of the time."

Saunders laughed. "That sounds familiar, sir. I'm in. This needs doing. I don't expect to like it. I don't expect an egg in my beer."

A few edged out from the back, but that left over ninety; about as many as had refused to even listen to him.

"Get the men organized by squads, Sergeant," Fred said.

"They mostly are already, sir. I can shift the others ‘round."

"Do it. And collect any personal possessions from barracks right away. I don't want a battle here. Oh, and one last thing. All of you remember, if you sign up, you don't get to change your mind while this war's on. Anyone who tries is a deserter and gets what deserters usually do. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

"He can't hear you!" Sergeant Sauders said.

"Sir, Yes, sir!"

"Get them moving, Sergeant."

 

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Several hours later the tents were going up much nearer Sutterdown. They were standard US (of Boise) issue; so was the hoop armor and curved oval shields with the thunderbolt and eagle, the shortswords and daggers, the heavy throwing spears stacked while the men worked. It had all been captured with them, and there was more than enough. They'd even been able to match individuals to their own gear for the most part, though Boise soldiers were taught how to modify equipment to fit. Fred smiled as one of them patted the worn, sweat-stained bone hilt of a short stabbing sword in passing, like someone greeting a favorite hound. They hadn't looked beaten-down in the POW camp, but they were walking noticeably taller now, with no fence around them and weapons to hand.

"One thing," he said to Rudi.

The High King of Montival looked up; a messenger was handing him sheaves of papers, and he was flipping through them in a way that looked casual but wasn't. Every so often he'd drop his hand to the Sword and close his eyes for an instant.

"Fred?" Rudi said without looking up.

"You said you couldn't make them believe anything... but you could, couldn't you?"

"Ah," Rudi said, handing over the sheaf of reports.

His right hand went to the crystal pommel of the Sword, moving his palm on it with a caressing motion. The blue-gray eyes went blank for a moment, as if he was looking at something within and taking the weight and heft of it.

"Now that, my friend, is an interesting question. Perhaps not, with so many. Perhaps yes, because what you said is the truth, and the Sword of the Lady reveals truth as surely as it cuts bone. But I will not use the Sword so. That is my choice, and let that be my responsibility, for good or ill."

Fred was conscious of a feeling of relief; when Virginia blew out her cheeks it was an audible mark of the same emotion.

Rudi laughed. "It's exactly that way I feel about the matter, do you see? For it shows that I am still... myself."

"I doubt you're as reassured as the rest of us, Rudi. Oh, and I think it would be a good idea, once I get the men in order, to let them go back and talk to their friends in the POW camp, individually or in small groups. Walking ambassadors, right?"

"And to be sure, you're more than a pretty face, Fred."

Fred frowned. "It's not enough, though. I need something to convince the waverers, the ones in the middle who're of two minds and who just don't want to believe something so skanky could have put Martin in charge. And more officers would help. We need a lot of defections to even the odds."

Rudi grinned at him. "Air mo chùram. Which is to say, it's on my mind, Fred. Now as to where to use these men of yours when they're ready... I was thinking of adding them to my Royal Guard, so I was."

Fred nodded slowly. "They'll appreciate the gesture, Rudi."

"Not that it means following at my arse all the time, mind you. More a matter of stiffening the battle-line at crucial points and being the ones who rush around to the hottest fires."

"Sounds like... useful work."

"Sure and if you'd said fun I'd have called for the healers of souls."

As he turned away, Virginia slapped her husband on the shoulder. "Turns out you were right about how to handle your folks," she said. "Just don't let it go to your head, you hear?"

Fred laughed shortly. "One platoon? I don't think that's too likely."

 

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