Provisional Capital, United States of America
(Formerly Boise, Idaho)
August 8th, CY 25/2023 A.D.
General-President Martin Thurston looked down from the gatehouse. His aides glanced at each other; one was annoyed, the other sweating in a terror he could not have named even to himself. Martin knew it.
I know everything, some corner of his mind thought. The joy was unbearable yet detached. I am knowing. I need not do, only be. The detachment was the joy.
Existence spiraled downward. Beyond matter, beyond the decay of the last particle, there was only information. All that had ever known, all that had ever been, all that had ever thought. Falling inward towards nothing. It was gross material things no more; in some unimaginable future of cycle upon cycle it would never have been made of mere things. Only thought, from the flash as the high-dimensional membranes met at the beginning of a universe to the cold death of proton decay at its end and the cycle commenced again, a universe not merely permeated by mind but one that was Mind. Thought that was thought about thought, endless repetitions spiraling into—
The vision crashed away in a stab of unbearable sorrow. Thurston turned with a snarl, his eyes locking with the officer's. The man stumbled backward with a scream, the reek of his sweat harshly, hideously material in a way that made the ruler's stomach knot; yet even vomiting was itself foul, contaminating. How could you vomit away the gross stuff of your self? One of the guards jumped forward in a clatter of armor and put his big curved shield between the man's back and the top of the stone stairs at his heel, grunting as the officer's weight came on the semi-cylinder of plywood and sheet metal and leather.
He staggered. A hand gripped his arm, and he shook his head, suddenly conscious of the looks of the others.
"What's the problem, gentlemen?" he asked.
"Sir, you looked, ah, odd."
He waved it away, slapping the vinestock swagger-stick in his right hand into the palm of his left. "We were discussing the logistics," he said.
"Sir, with forty battalions that's going to be very tight."
We must move quickly. But we cannot see. The enemy fogs our vision, and above fly hungry birds, ready to eat the seeds we plant.
"Nevertheless, it has to be done. The enemy isn't idle and we have to hit them before—"
You will not die, birds. You will never have been; yes, you and Those who sent you!
Hasty Creek Ranch
Camas Military District
(formerly North-central Idaho)
June 28th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
The Sheriff's property was not far south of the little town of Craigswood; Ritva thought the core of it had been an inn—what the old world had called a motel—and probably picked because there was good water and a place for a mill at a nearby stream that ran down from high wooded hills to the open prairie. That part was far from the center now, used as housing for bachelor ranch-hands. The rest was buildings of rammed earth or notched logs squared on top and bottom or mortared fieldstone, or combinations. Law in the United States of Boise had always frowned on private fortifications, but the layout of the ranch had a foursquare strength and the lower windows could all be quickly closed with loopholed steel shutters.
The Dúnedain party arrived just as the purple faded in the west and the warm butter-yellow of lamps started to make stars of windows where the homeplace lay scattered below them. They rode down a gully through pine-forest, out of the strong sappy smell and into the open; a wind from the east brought the homey odors of cooking and woodsmoke and manure. The grim-faced and silent older men and younger women who took their horses away and showed them to the quarters where they could stow their packs and wash before walking over to the main house asked no questions.
Sheriff Robert Woburn greeted them in the vestibule where they swapped their boots for slippers and hung up their weapons; no doubt in wintertime it also served to keep too much warm air from escaping. He was a lean man in his sixties, his white hair still thick, eyes a snapping blue and face craggy and seamed. His hand was strong but knobby, and rough as raw horsehide.
"I hope we're unobserved," Alleyne said.
"Less traffic here than at St. Hilda's," he said. "The Reverend Mother got me the message and I've arranged to get everyone I'm doubtful of off the place."
"It will still leak," Astrid said. "Just more slowly, hopefully."
"No help for that. And this here is Major Hanks."
"The man with the airship!" Ritva blurted; she remembered it vividly.
Not least because it saved all our lives. Though it's a haywired sort of thing.
"The sort-of airship," the soldier said; he was in plain civilian denim and linen, with a bristle-cut of graying brown hair. "I see you remember our little meeting in Boise and points east."
"Considering how you saved us all, yes, I do," she said, shaking his hand enthusiastically.
"How's Father Ignatius? There was a man who appreciated good engineering!"
"He's helping build a kingdom now, sir," Ritva said. "Artos, the High King, he was Rudi Mackenzie when you met him, has appointed him Chancellor of the Realm."
"Dang, a politician who does sensible things. I may die of shock," he replied, with bitterness behind the smile.
The main hall of the ranch-house reminded Ritva a little of Stardell in Mithrilwood. The decoration was entirely different, but the tight-fitting logs squared on top and bottom on a fieldstone base were similar, and so were the exposed rafters above. There was a big stone fireplace in one wall, empty and swept on this warm summer's night, and a trio of tile stoves in corners that probably did more in blizzards even if they lacked the cheery crackle. The walls held hunting tropies, elk and bear, cougar and wolf and tiger. And against the far wall was a skeleton, with the door to the kitchen beneath the place where its belly would have been...
"Valar bless!" she blurted. "What's that?"
Woburn laughed, and his soldier guest from Boise chuckled. That was the bones of an animal that must have been twelve feet at the shoulder, with a massive skull and two long curling tusks.
"An Oliphant!" Astrid said in fascination.
"Mammoth, actually," Woburn said, grinning.
"Same thing," she said with conviction. "Third Age, you see. Where did you get it! It's magnificent!"
"Someone found it over at Tolo Lake not far from here a few years before the Change. Nobody wanted it any more, so I set a few wagons over to Craigswood when we built this place and brought it back."
"It takes up a lot of room," a daughter-in-law said; she was evidently the lady of the household, black-haired and much younger, only a little older than Ritva herself. "Please sit."
They all did; the Dúnedain, Ian, Woburn and his daughter-in-law, Hanks and a taciturn leathery man in his fifties who was evidently the ranch's top hand. A trio of middle-aged women in housedresses brought out food; platters of grilled pork chops crusted with chili-flavored breading, mashed potatoes with chives and butter, green salads of lettuce and spinach, celery and tomatoes and onions, glazed carrots, orecchiette pasta and broccoli baked with pine nuts and cheese, onion-and-cabbage pancakes with sour cream, hot biscuits and fresh bread, pitchers of cold spring water and several bottles of red wine from down around the Boise area.
"You folks enjoy," one of them said as the rancher nodded thanks.
Despite his friendship with St. Hilda's, Woburn said grace in some different Christian fashion. Ian used the Catholic form, which would be convenient if things went well; after all, the Historian had been a Catholic, and a minority of Dúnedain were too. Ritva tried to imagine one of the more austere varieties of Protestant living as a Ranger, boggled instead and abandoned the effort. Instead she signed her plate, invoked the Valar, and fell to with a will. They'd been on trail food for quite a while, not pausing to hunt or caring to risk a fire; St. Hilda's had been rather Spartan as well.
Nobody's more than three days from being very hungry indeed, she thought. Which means no lord or ruler is more than three days from very bad trouble.
She took another chop; the fat at the edge was just as she liked it, slightly crisp.
Dad said that was something rulers should keep in mind, I was young but I do remember that. People get really cranky when they don't have enough to eat.
At last Astrid leaned back in her chair, turning a glass of wine in her long-fingered hands. "You're prepared to take the risk?" she said.
"I'm not taking a risk, I'm trying to avoid it," Woburn said. "I've got two sons with the Army. I want this damned war stopped before too many mother's sons die in it. And Martin Thurston... Yeah, I was angry with his father for taking land from us ranchers, but at least he had a real reason. Not just to keep his supporters happy. He's not fit to rule."
"No, he isn't," Hanks said. "He killed his father."
A mirthless smile. "That's why I'm in hiding. Eventually it got back to the National Police that I was one of the ones telling the truth. Sorry, spreading subversive slanders and libels."
Alleyne leaned forward, his hunter's face keenly interested: "How would you estimate the numbers who believe each version?"
"Hard to say. Nobody's conducting public opinion polls these days."
What— Ritva thought. Then: Oh, going around asking people what they think. I wonder how they did that without getting chopped up or shot?
Hanks went on: "Assuming I'm controlling my confirmation bias in Boise city it's maybe half and half. Outside it, patchy. But nobody's talking about it much, either. There's no proof either way and Martin still has a lot of supporters who aren't shy about suppressing slanders, as they put it."
The Dúnedain leaders looked at each other. "So it's evenly balanced," Astrid said. "The High King was right."
"What is it exactly that you want to do?" Woburn asked.
"We want to rescue the captive and tell the world the truth," Astrid said.
"Well," Woburn drawled, "To do that you'll have to pull the wool over their eyes first."
A week later, Ritva Havel restrained an impulse to rub at her buttocks. When you'd been riding as hard and as long as they had, your tailbone kept trying to burst into sight and wave itself.
"Christ, I'm sore," Ian said, and stood in the stirrups and rubbed himself vigorously.
So much for self-restraint, she thought sourly.
They were by themselves, unless you counted two remount-packhorses each and a pair of collies and a flock. The horses were well trained, though they had them on leading reins here on this crowded road near the city. The dogs were extremely well trained, enough to make her feel awkward; she could swear they gave her disgusted looks sometimes. The worst of it was the sheep. Two hundred and sixty of Rancher Woburn's animals, driven all the way from the Camas Prairie.
Two hundred and fifteen now, as they approached the capital city. The rest had died in ways that often displayed a certain strain of idiot genius; eaten by wolves or coyotes or cougar was the simplest, ranging up from there to one that had managed to crawl into a culvert just before some rain, get stuck, and drown. Though the runner-up had strangled itself reaching for a leaf by sticking its head into the fork of a young aspen and struggling until it choked.
The grilled ribs and chops had been some compensation. Now they had to keep them from spilling off the road; the suburbs and buildings on the west side of the Boise river had been torn down, like many such around still-inhabited cities and towns, but they had been torn down much more thoroughly, including tearing up foundations. Right now they were a dense network of tidy little truck-garden patches, irrigated by canals and wind-pumps and green with a dozen varieties of fruit and vegetables and small pastures for milch cattle. She didn't want to think of the legal complications of letting the sheep stray, in this rule-obsessed land.
"How on Ambar do sheep ever live long enough to breed?" she said rhetorically, after they had headed off a mass break towards rows of carrots whose tops showed green against the dark soil. "Why doesn't someone kill them, for that matter? Not to eat, just because they're so stupid and annoying?"
They were moving very slowly behind a convoy of wagons, big ones drawn by oxen and loaded with—ironically enough—bales of raw wool. The greasy lanolin-rich smell was unpleasant, but not impossibly so. The road was mostly pre-Change, with holes in the pale aged asphalt neatly patched or filled with pounded crushed rock; they kept up the old custom of traffic taking the right here, and the left was fairly densely packed, which meant they couldn't take the flock around the great vehicles and their crawl.
"I don't know how sheep do live long enough to make little sheep," Ian Kovalevsky said. "My family didn't raise 'em. Cattle, yes; beefalo, yes; horses, yes. Even some pigs. But not sheep. It's too cold for them in the Peace River country, and a bit too wet; we trade south for our wool, they have big flocks down around where we met in the Triangle country, the dry prairie. And I thought cattle were dumb!"
"Why couldn't he have sent us with a herd of cattle? You're used to them and I've done a little droving now and then."
Ian shook his head. "Not if we wanted to travel in pairs. You need at least four, maybe six people to push even a small herd of cattle any real distance, and a wagon. To tell you the truth, Ritva, apart from horses... well, it's not an accident I left the farm!"
Just then a cry came from up ahead, from someone on the stretch of roadway just this side of the bridge over the Boise river.
"Way! Make way! Clear that lane for westbound military traffic!"
The harsh shout was backed up by a bray of trumpets, the deep-toned tubae, along with a dunting snarl she recognized as an ox-horn. Her brows went up; Boiseans didn't use those, although many other peoples did.
"Now, do it now or get ridden down! Make way!"
Everyone on the left crowded over. The two sheepdogs were nearly as hysterical as their charges, as the influx squeezed them into a solid bleating block of rolling eyes and exposed tongues. They did their duty, though, squeezing the sheep together with nips and barks, sometimes running over their heaving backs to do it.
Ritva's stomach clenched when the column rode out. Horsemen in three-quarter armor of lacquered leather plates edged in steel, its liquid sheen a dull red the color of dried blood, armed with bow and shete and nine-foot lances. Every breastplate bore the golden rayed sun of the Church Universal and Triumphant, and so did the round shields slung over their backs.
Their spiked helmets were slung to their saddlebows; the heads were cropped close enough to be like plush fur, even shorter than Boise regulars, or shaved altogether, in odd contrast to tufts of chin-beard. Their faces were things of slabs and angles, all with a slightly starved look. She'd met men like that before, more often than not over a blade or in a shower of arrows, though once at closer range.
Not just Cutters. Not rancher levies. That's the Sword of the Prophet.
The savage training of the House of the Prophet in Corwin bit deep, and it marked a man more than the scars of fire. She let herself look alarmed and curious, with a bit of a gape; it was a mark of the discipline of the riders that not one of them turned his head aside to glance at a good-looking young woman. When the last of them rode by and the short train of two-wheel carts that carried their minimal bagged had passed she blew out her cheeks
"Those guys look serious," Ian said quietly.
"Tell me. We had a bunch of them chase us from not far east of here all the way to Nantucket. Nothing stopped them except killing."
"That frightened off the others?"
"No, I mean nothing stopped them except killing them all. All except the last five."
"Ai, you have no idea. There were over five hundred to begin with."
"Very determined. So five gave up?"
"That was after my big brother had the Sword of the Lady. That can... do things... even to them."
"Note that the Sword of the Lady is a long way away from us, right now. But the Sword of the Prophet is right here, and so are some of the Seekers."
"Yeah, that had occurred to me now and then."
Traffic took a while to unsnarl, but eventually it started moving again and they crossed, over the tree-lined river and to the high steel portals of the gate-complex, then through its tunnel darkness and into the city. The city wall was high, about the same as Portland's, but they hadn't bothered coating it in stucco—old Lawrence Thurston had been an inhumanly businesslike man. She didn't know if Boise really smelled a little worse than it had last time, or that was her imagination; it certainly wasn't bad compared to some she'd sniffed, and positively fragrant next to the coal-smoke reek of giant Des Moines. There was no way to cram tens of thousands of human beings and their fires and forges and animals inside a wall and not have it smell bad to country-bred noses.
"Ah, the smell of civilization," Ritva said.
Ian snorted, then said: "I think we drop off the sheep here inside the gate. Isn't that the sign Woburn told us about? And I'd better become mute, it's what it says on my draft exemption papers."
A broad avenue led eastward from the river gate to a golden-domed building that had been the State capital; the walled citadel that held the General-President's residence was south of it.
Last time here I was an honored guest, when we were heading east to the Sunrise Lands. Now I'm a spy and I'll be tortured and killed if they catch me. It's an up-and-down life in the Dúnedain Rangers!
Like most walled cities there had been a lot of infilling since the Change, second stories added to houses and new workshops built. Like the more closely regulated cities, Boise also had a stretch of cleared land just inside the fortifications, letting troops move quickly in an emergency. It also served as holding pens for livestock; each dealer had a sign with his name and license number. It was all very orderly, as far as anything concerned with sheep and other beasts with wills of their own could be. They turned the flock in between the wattle hurdles and into the corral. They quieted quickly; sheep weren't intelligent enough to figure out what humans had in mind for them. Unlike pigs. Pigs were dangerous in large numbers, for exactly that reason.
The contractor who'd bought Woburn's sheep was a weathered middle-aged man; he took a look at the flock with an experienced flick of the eyes, scanning for sickness or scrawny individuals. Then he went through and checked a few at random to make sure they were what they appeared. The sheep were mostly overage ewes, sold off when their best wool and lambing days were done. The hides would bring nearly as much as their tough stringy meat, with leather in such demand for the war, but soldiers weren't picky eaters either.
He had an assistant, a youngster in his late teens with stained working clothes and a shepherd's crook. He was staring at Ritva, which wasn't unusual, but there was as much hostility as jittery adolescent lust in it. He was silent until she handed over the invoice with Woburn's signature.
"What are you doing with that?" he said. "Why isn't the man handling it?"
"I'm giving it to your boss, stranger," she said mildly. "And you should mind your own business."
"You've no business handling that, girl," he said. "You should be home, and dressed decent. Let men do men's business. The day is coming—"
Ritva stuck a finger in the young man's face, the point almost touching his nose, and he jarred to a halt in astonishment.
"Who is this asshole?" she asked the dealer.
"He badgers the flocks for me around the town pens," the man said. "And he's my cousin's kid, for my sins. That side of the family has been listening to the new preachers."
"He pisses off the people you do business with," she said; Ian was keeping quiet, in case anyone was struck by his accent. "And my brother here is mute, or he'd be pissed off."
Which accounts for why he isn't in the Army, she thought.
"The little dick ain't me," the dealer pointed out. "And the sheep don't mind his disposition."
He signed the spare copy, and took out a checkbook with the grizzly-bear logo of the First National Bank of Boise on its cover. Ritva had just turned to untie her horse-string when the sheep-badger spat on her foot.
"Sorry," he said with a sneer. "Aiming for the dirt."
Very slowly, she turned around again and smiled at him. The grab and twist that followed were almost too swift to see; the young man had just enough time to clutch himself and screech before he folded up and fell to the ground, with his tongue waving in his speechless mouth like an undersea weed.
Rivta waited for an instant, then kicked the fallen man twice with cold deliberation, hard enough that the steel-reinforced toe of her boot made thudding sounds with a very satisfying undertone of crunch but not hard enough to kill. He began to wimper, and then vomit in helpless choking, gasping heaves. Blood and bits of tooth came along with the contents of his stomach, a sour bite under the warmer musky smells of sheep and sheep-dung and straw.
"Any problems?" she said to the contractor, using the fallen man's hat to wipe her boot and then throwing it into the puddle of puke.
He grinned. "Wanted to do that all this year myself, but he is family. Let's get you gone before the Natpols—"
He meant the National Police, who were Boise's constabulary.
"—show up. Here's the check and give my regards to Rancher Woburn."
She folded it and tucked it into a pocket; she'd cash it if possible. Woburn's cover story was that she and Ian were bandits who'd jumped the legitimate drovers and run off the flock and stolen the documentation, and he had cowboys of his own ready to swear to it. Whether that would help if the current regime in Boise decided he was guilty was another matter, but he was ready to take the chance. When they were far enough away not to cause any curiosity about a mute speaking, Ian muttered:
"Wasn't that a bit conspicuous?"
"Only in the right way. Judging from the people we met on our way here, that was a perfectly credible reaction. People in Boise the city think of cowboys... and cowgirls... as the type who take offense. And he did spit on my foot, sweetie."
"Remind me never to spit on you. Of course, I doubt I'd be inclined to. You play rough, don't you?"
Ritva shrugged and made a slight moue of distaste. "The little orch was a Cutter. I've hardly ever met a Cutter I didn't want to kick to death, and I've met quite a few. And my father had a saying... I'm not old enough to remember him saying it but Aunt Astrid is... that you should always kick a man when he's down. It's much easier then."
"You don't think he'll come after you?"
"Probably not. He might have if I'd left it at the playful little tweak to the crotch. But as Dad said, if you leave the mark of your boot-leather on a man's face, he's going to remember who won the fight every single day."
She added parenthetically: "Men are sort of silly that way. You have to... to... be firm with them sometimes. Not sensible ones like you, of course."
Ian nodded, giving her an odd look. Then he said: "Should we be looking around ourselves so much? I mean, it's a big city but we're supposed to be natives."
"No, we're supposed to be hicks from the backlands," Ritva said. "Believe me, we'd stand out if we didn't gawk."
"It is big, bigger than Lethbridge. I've never seen anything this size. Amazing! It reminds me of my parents' stories about Edmonton. They lived there before the Change, then they got out early and went to join my uncle on the farm up in the Peace River country. Is Portland this big?"
"Boise's even bigger than Portland. By about a quarter, say seventy thousand people. Only half the size of Des Moines, but that's just ridiculously big, like everything there. Iowa gave me hives."
It had been only two years since the quest passed through Boise, and much remained the same; people still moved with a brisk purposefulness, there was less noise that you'd object, and squads swept up even the horsedung almost as soon as it fell.
But some things have changed, oh, yes.
The big, vividly tinted posters on four-sided hoardings still marked every crossroads within, color lithographs of the type you might see advertising a merchant venturer's ship fitting out in Newport or an upcoming tournament or guild festival in Portland. But the emphasis was very different. Before, they'd been mostly been of implausibly square-jawed men and women doing various tasks; soldiers, of course, but also nurses, farmers, smiths, weavers, potters, scholars, mothers, all looking forward with set purpose and some patriotic slogan below to complement the industriously patriotic things they were doing above.
Now they came in only two varieties. One showed the faces of President-General Martin Thurston and the starved-wolf, shaven-headed countenance of the Prophet Sethaz, both looking off into a distance of blue sky and white clouds and glowing sunlight. Beneath the picture was printed:
TOGETHER WE ASCEND in great block capitals.
The rest were of a soldier in Boise's hoop-armor and big shield, advancing forward with only his eyes showing over the rim and his sword held down for the thrusting stroke; behind him were a stolid-looking farmer or laborer hoeing, and a woman carrying a child and wearing an ankle-length skirt with her eyes cast down beneath a kerchief. The words read:
FIGHT! WORK! BELIEVE! OBEY!
"Now, tell me. Is this the viewpoint of the good side or the bad side?" Ritva murmured very quietly.
"Well, it's not so different from what the PPA puts out, sometimes."
"Oh... well, they're not that bad. Not anymore."
They turned into a side-street, past a mouth-watering display of fruit and vegetable shops that extended back into the low buildings like Aladdin's cave of treasures; baskets of blackberries glistening like dark jewels, raspberries red as blood with cherries a darker color, golden apricots and orange pumpkins and red-yellow blushing peaches and nectarines, vividly colored peppers and aubergines, lettuces and eggplants and radishes and more. Boise ate well from the intensively worked small farms in the rich irrigated country round about. That gave way to a stretch of leatherworkers specializing in saddles—everyone there seemed grimly busy on government contracts—and then a series of two-, three-, and four-story buildings that had been linked together and reworked with more chimneys and other modern improvements including automatic-valve watering troughs along the pavement outside. A new-built wall surrounded what had been a big parking lot, now courtyard and stables, and wrought-iron letters above the gate proclaimed:
DROVER'S DELIGHT INN.
FIGHTS ARE NOT
CLEAN FACILITIES FOR ALL BUDGETS
HOT WATER FREE.
"This is where we stay. Or get arrested for torture and death, if anyone blabbed," Ritva said cheerfully.
Privately she was prickly-aware of all her weapons; she didn't intend to be taken alive.
Am I getting more nervous as I get older? Or is it just getting more real to me. I remember how Mary and I used to go whooping in having a high old time and being excited and everything... says the crone of twenty-two. Oh, well.
Everything looked normal enough. In particular there was no ominous quietness; in fact everyone was dashing around with the normal quotient of quarreling and laughing and the odd drunk snoozing in corners. As they watched an active one was ejected by three of the staff, one on each arm and one holding his legs. They gave a concerted heave-ho, and he landed in a trough with a tremendous splash and a volley of screamed curses. A nearby Natpol trooper in leather armor and green uniform laughed and strolled over. His crossbow was slung over one shoulder, and his dagger and shortsword at his waist, but he had a yard of nightstick in his hand, made from dark heavy iron-hard mountain mahogany. He twirled it around by the thong above the handle, then stood tapping the business end into his left palm as the inn's staff led out a saddled horse and followed it with a hide sack that probably contained the drunk's worldly goods.
The drunk sobered rapidly, between the cold water and the grinning policeman; he swung into the saddle with a wet slap of soaked denim against leather and walked his horse into the traffic.
"You save me a lot of trouble, Charlie," the Natpol said to the man who'd been on the legs. "Sometimes I think I should split my pay with you, damned if I don't."
"Damn cowpokes get sand in their throats and think they can wash it out with whiskey," Charlie grumbled. Then he nodded to Ritva and Ian: "Help you?"
"We just got in and dropped off a flock from Hasty Creek ranch up in the Camas prairie country, with an army contractor name of Wadley," Ritva said. "My brother and I need the usual for a couple of days. Got some business to do before we head back."
"Hasty Creek?" Charlie said; he was in his late thirties, a heavyset man with glossy brown muttonchop whiskers, light eyes and muscle under fat, and a white apron over his clothes. "Your credit's good, then. Settle up the day before you leave, but just to be sure you pay for a full day if you're not out by noon that day."
The Natpol was about Charlie's age, but trimmer; he walked with a slight limp, probably from his Army service. She remembered from her last time here that the police were a reserved occupation for veterans, with those who had non-disabling injuries getting special preference. Lawrence Thurston had always taken good care of his followers, though Ritva disliked the whole concept of a single police force.
Well, you could call the Dúnedain a police force in peacetime, I suppose, but nobody has to use us and we don't patrol streets and look for petty thieves, we chase real bandits and things like that. And Ian's people, the Force, the redcoats, got their start about the same way. This National Police thing with one of them in every village still seems unnatural and I don't like it.
"Your papers, Miss, sir?" the policeman said courteously. "Just in?"
"Just in this morning," Ritva said; it was around noon. "My brother can't talk. Never could, nobody can tell why."
She handed over the passport-like folders. The trooper checked through them rapidly, looking up to confirm the photographs; duplicating those quickly without attracting attention had been the most difficult part of the help Woburn and St. Hilda's had given them. Luckily Woburn was a district magistrate, and the monastery had a photographic section as part of its high school. There was a central record, and...
We're fucked if he goes to the trouble of checking it, but that would take a while anyway, she thought, as she smiled sweetly at the man.
He read them conscientiously. They stated that Jane and Jacob Conway had been adopted by a couple of Woburn's retainers after being found wandering emaciated and alone in the winter of the second Change Year. That was towards the tail-end of the utter chaos, when such things were still common even in areas of high survival like Iowa. It would account for Ian's muteness too. People scarred by their experiences in the terrible years were common enough, and would be for another generation.
"This is all in order. Please remember that the rules have to be tighter in a city with so many people living together."
"See you, Charlie," he added to the innkeeper.
"See you, Johnny," the man replied.
Ian and Ritva dismounted, and Charlie casually went on: "Impressive, those bones, aren't they?"
"Mammoth, Mr. Gleam," Ritva said.
That was the primitive sign-countersign they'd arranged; besides being a business partner of Woburn's, Charlie Gleam had a sister who was a member of St. Hilda's, and Woburn had foreseen the need for a quiet channel into the capital years ago.
Gleam bustled them into the courtyard, with just enough care for the retainers of an important man but not enough to make anyone wonder why two nondescript—
Well, unusually and strikingly good-looking but otherwise nondescript.
—drovers were getting special treatment. The staff hurried off with their horses, Gleam handed over a key and told them their room number, and they both made a beeline for the bathhouse. That was pointedly encouraged by several signs and heavy hints from the staff, too. If an inn wanted to keep the bedding free of miniature freeloaders that was essential. From what she'd heard people in the business say, the Brannigans in Sutterdown for instance, it was a never-ending struggle anyway, an insectile version of the way the Rangers had to keep whacking down bandits in the outlands with strong soap and hot water the equivalents of blade, bow and noose.
The facilities were segregated by gender, as was the common almost everywhere in traveler's inns, even among those like Mackenzies or Dunedain who didn't bother among themselves. She grinned at the attendant, grinned even more at the sight of the boiler and buckets, and turned her clothes and the replacements in the saddlebags over to be washed. The locked trunk on one of the packhorses would be deposited in their room safely enough; the worst possible thing she could do would be to hover over it like a mother hen.
It's even good luck that that detachment of the Sword of the Prophet was leaving when we came in. It made it less likely the gate-guards would search everything. That might have been awkward.
Instead she stood naked on the concrete floor and poured the first, the most delicious bucket of the hot water over her head. Even in summer, washing with a cloth and basin, or even diving into a stream, just wasn't the same. As she cleaned herself she chatted with half a dozen other women who were using the same big brick-walled room with its small high windows and drifting wisps of vapor, and smell of soap and steam and hot metal and rock. Outside the palaces of rulers and manors of great nobles she'd never been in a place where there were bathing facilities meant for individual use; it was simply too costly in terms of fuel and laid-on water and labor. The better class of inns had places like this, and analogues were common in villages and steadings and estates.
Then she lathered up with the strong soap, suds all over and working it into her itchy scalp with vigorous fingertips, then another bucket and a scrub with a woven equivalent of a loofa and a rough washcloth, and more soap and water and then a blissful soak in one of a row of tubs under a sign that read clean out your own bath or pay fifty cents extra. Money wasn't a problem, but staying in her role was, and she dutifully applied the brush and turned the tin tub over to drain and dry.
When had toweled herself she felt that a good part of the long hard drive down from Drumheller had gone down the wastewater drain too, flowing out to water and irrigate the city's surroundings.
I'll bet the oldsters will feel even better, she thought with a slight smile.
They and the rest of the Dúnedain commando would all be arriving at intervals, by twos and threes—lone travelers were rare enough to attract attention, if they came from any distance, even more than large groups. You had to let any suspicion that was aroused die down between parties, too. Infiltration was like hunting; patience was the first necessity.
In the meantime...
She pulled on the plain linen robe provided for five cents, pushed her feet into the cord sandals, left a few other orders with the attendant who promised to pass them on. Then she asked directions, which ended with the dread phrase you can't miss it, and got thoroughly lost.
The set of buildings was a maze, and many of the corridors had no windows and hadn't been modernized with skylights, which left them very dim indeed. She would have been much more at home in an unfamiliar benighted forest or mountain canyon, since she'd been a countrydweller all her life and a rover of the wilderness nearly as long; in the end she used her nose, moving away from the distinctive slightly musty-dusty scent that marked areas kept weathertight but not much used, and heading back into the occupied portions.
"Four-thirty-two?" a woman carrying two baskets said. "Hey, I'm headed that way. Follow me."
Ritva thought that the part of the complex they ended up in had probably been an office building before the Change; it had a dropped ceiling with acoustic tiles, some of which had been replaced over the years with neat squares of polished wood. She noted the fact absently, with the part of her mind that was always concerned with potential escape routes and avenues of attack, and made a not to check the old ducting. There were times it was big enough for people to crawl through, though fortunately or deplorably noisy.
"Hi!" she said, as she opened the door.
Ian looked up, but kept to his disguise of being mute and just nodded. Ritva felt a glow of approval; he'd picked up tradecraft very quickly indeed. The Force—it had Royal in its formal title, oddly since none of the Dominions were monarchies—was like the Rangers in that it patrolled against bandits, protected trade routes and put down the messier sorts of crime. Its military role in time of war was more conventional, though, probably because the Dominions had taken less of a beating after the Change than her part of the world. Drumheller and Moose Jaw and Minnedosa were all big, the same order of size as the PPA, they all had strong central governments, and they'd had less in the way of conflict and internal squabbling than the lands of Montival-to-be. The Dunedain did a lot more in the way of clandestine operations.
Which means we're a lot better at sneaking.
When the inn servant had put the baskets on the table, told them where the jakes were (without telling them they couldn't miss it) and left, he did speak.
"You must be clean," he said, a little teasing. "I know that it takes women longer to wash than men—"
"That's because we actually wash, and have a better sense of smell," Ritva said loftily.
"But forty-five minutes?"
"I went... exploring."
"Ah, you got lost too!"
They both laughed. Ritva admired the way he did it, whole-heartedly but gracefully, with a hint of shyness.
Maybe I'm getting over my Big Bad Boys fixation, she thought. By Ever-Young Vána of the Blossoms, I hope so. The bad boys can be a lot of fun, but they wear. Oh, how they wear! I grant Ingolf was big and bad but not a bad boy, but Mary won him. I will never, never let her use her own dice for something important again.
Meanwhile Ian was unloading the baskets. "Nice picnic, eh?" he said.
There was crusty bread, half a dozen types of cured meat, several of cheese, a double-walled crock that kept a savory-smelling ham and bean soup warm, a salad, and a bowl of fruit, along with various accompaniments, a jug of apple juice, and two bottles of a very decent red wine she remembered from her previous trip through.
"But why not go down... oh, ah?"
"This is the first time we've had any privacy in weeks, and not been exhausted and smelly to boot, right? I thought we should... use it to get better acquainted. The others could start getting in as early as tonight."
"Right. Absolutely right. Who wants a crowded common hall anyway?"
Ritva gave a long slow smile. "And you've never done it until you've done it in Elvish, believe me."
Copyright © 2011 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>