County of Aurea
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
August 5th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
Bjarni Eriksson, King in Norrheim and often called Ironrede by his people, laughed with delight as he put his new horse through its paces in the warm late-afternoon sunlight. It was dry in this part of Montival, in the rain-shadow of the Cascades, and dust puffed up around its high-stepping feet with a peppery scent that mingled with horse and man-sweat. The mount was a six-year-old stallion, seventeen hands high and glossy black, long-legged, deep-chested, arched of neck, with nostrils like red-rimmed pits. He almost expected it to breathe fire.
Bjarni had ridden as far back as his memories stretched, and he'd been six at the Change. He could just barely recall bits and pieces of his father's trek with his followers from Springfield to Aroostook in northern Maine, and the founding of Norrheim, and sitting before his father in the saddle with one powerful arm around him. After that he'd been the son of a great chieftain with a big farm and scot paid by his followers besides, and able to keep a number of horses. He had thought he knew what there was to know, apart from a few specialist tricks.
He'd never in all his life put foot to stirrup on anything like this, though. Riding the superbly trained animal was as much like dancing as anything he'd experienced before.
He leaned his weight slightly to the front and clamped his thighs tighter, and the horse started forward as if sensing his very thought. Then there was a rushing speed, and it seemed to float upward over the white board fence. The landing was without breaking stride, and it was scarcely necessary to touch the reins to bring a halt once more.
It made nothing of his weight, though he was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, thick-armed man of medium height, near two hundred pounds of tough muscle and heavy bones, with the large strong hands of a swordsman and woodsman and farmer. The brick-colored hair bound back from his face with a headband stuck to the sweat on his neck, and more ran into his short beard; his skin was reddened too, by long exposure to wind and weather and now by the fierce sun of cloudless summer in this part of Montival. The little blue eyes in his snub-nosed, high-cheeked face were calm and steady, a net of wrinkles at their corners even though he had just thirty-one years.
He looked at the beast's ears and grinned. It was sweating freely, but an hour spent at everything from galloping to jumping had barely scratched the surface of its energy.
"You want to run, don't you, boy?" he said. "Ayuh, you do! Soon, soon."
He swung down from the saddle, and ran a hand down its neck; then he reached into a pocket of his breeks and pulled out an apple. The horse plucked it from his palm and crunched it with slobbering pleasure. One of his followers who was horse-wise came to remove the tooled, silver-studded saddle and lead it away for grooming and watering.
Bjarni was shaking his head as he turned away to the waiting knot of folk at the gate of the paddock. A rolling plain stretched away in all directions. Reaped grain was straw-blond, alfalfa a dusty green, with here and there the darker shade trees and orchards and vineyards around a village, the church steeples and whirling wind-pumps rising above. The fields still under harvest were bright burnished gold that shone with an almost metallic luster as horses or mules hauled the turning creels of the reaping machines through, laying the cut grain in bands lighter-colored than the stubble. Workers followed binding the sheaves and stooking them into pyramids.
It is a golden land hereabout this time of the year, he thought. Perhaps that's why they named this shire so.
Looking at it in August you wouldn't think there was enough rain to produce a crop, but the ears were heavy in the fields of wheat and barley; for a moment he simply smiled at the comforting beauty of the sight. It made him itch a little too; it seemed unnatural not to pitch in. Many of his men had, from the same feeling and because it was a chance to meet the local women, but he was too busy with the mustering.
There were pine-clad hills to the north, just visible beyond the walls and towers of Goldendale town and castle. To the north and west a great white peak floated in the distance. Mount Adams, they called it; another like it lay south and west, Mt. Hood, the two framing that side of the world. Even after the long journey from Norrheim in what the old world had called northern Maine he still found his breath taken away sometimes by the scale of the landscapes here in the High West. You'd hardly credit that many days' travel separated this spot from those high snowfields, or that Hood was on the other shore of the great Columbia itself, in green rainy forest country. Behind Adams was another, even greater.
The world is wider and more full of wonders than I knew before Artos Mikesson and his questers rode into my garth last Yule, he thought. More dangerous, much stranger, and more beautiful. Yet I would give it all to sit by my own fire again, with Hallberga beside me and our son in my lap while we watched our daughter play.
He picked a towel off the fence and wiped his face and neck; it was also hot here, though the dryness made it easier to tolerate than a like day back home.
Not that we have many days like this! And we could use some, come harvest-time.
"That horse puts my horsemanship to shame. What shall I do with him, Lady Signe?" he asked the woman who'd given it to him. "We Norrheimers aren't fighters on horseback, like you Bearkillers. We plant our feet with Earth, Thor's mother, when we make the shield-wall."
"Take him home with you after the war, and put him to your mares, Bjarni King," she said. "And when you see the foals he gets, remember us here. Your folk may need war-horses, some day."
She was a tall fair woman a little more than a decade older than him, with the valknut of Odin around her neck and a set of rough dark clothing; man's boots and breeches and jacket, though there was certainly a good-looking woman beneath them, and her face was still handsome. He judged that she could use the long single-edged, basket-hilted sword at her belt with some skill.
This one is a she-wolf, he thought. Shrewd, brave, loyal to her own, but very hard and used to rule, I would say; her man fell and she has striven to take his place while her sons grew. Still, she's guested and gifted us well, and her people... or some of them... are true folk who follow the Aesir as we do. Well, not exactly as we do, but close enough. And they have many arts I want for Norrheim, and they're fell fighters, as dangerous as any I've seen.
"I shall name him Vakr," he said.
She smiled. "Ah, Hawk, for the horse of Morn who rides out to bring the dawn," she said. "A good choice."
He inclined his head. "You know the ancient tales well, gythja," he said, giving her the title of Godwoman.
That could mean either chieftainess or priestess, since either made sacrifice to the Mighty Ones. He had been a godhi himself, when he was merely chief of the Bjornings, his own tribe, and before he became the first king of Norrheim. A chief made offerings; just as he led his folk in war and presided over the folk-moot, the thing, so he stood before the Mighty Ones for them. A king most of all, who must be father to all the land.
"I'll breed Vakr to my mares and the colts will be the envy of Norrheim. And others will think it a favor indeed if I let them do likewise."
Her nod told him she'd thought of that too; the network of favor and obligation was one a leader had to know how to weave and tug on at need.
"Those of my folk who are true to the aesir will hold a blót soon," she said. "We will give cattle to the Gods for luck and victory in this war, and feast, and drink sumbel to hail the Gods, remember the dead and make boast and oath. You and yours are welcome to share the rite. And the beef!"
"Many thanks, if you will let me send cattle we find ourselves to be given with yours. It is fitting that you Bearkillers should lead the rite; this is your land, and you know the holy wights who ward it under the high Gods."
She smiled, looking much younger for a moment. "This here—" she tapped a boot on the sparse grass beneath them, and a little dust puffed up "—is not ours, exactly. For various values of us and ours."
"Ah, yes," Bjarni said. "Your pardon if this hard head of mine hasn't gotten all the details of this realm hammered into it yet."
Signe's smile grew into a grin, a remarkably predatory expression. "The details of who owned what resulted in a lot of skulls getting hammered in my youth, the years after the Change," she said. "And we've yet to pound home the lesson these boundaries are not for our enemies to rearrange now, either."
Bjarni gave her the same wolf-grin back, and so did several of his countrymen. The play on words appealed to their sense of humor and his. The world was a place of strife; no less than a wolf-pack, a tribe or kingdom had to be ready to fight for its hunting-grounds, or to take what its people needed from others, though no man could guarantee triumph in every fight.
Though my old friend Thor has lent me his might. And the All-Father can give victory where he pleases.
But even the Gods would go down in wreck at the end, when the horn of Heimdalr blew for the final battle. Then Asa-Loki and the Jotun lords would ride against them to Vigrid plain, on the last morning of the world, when the stars fell from the sky and sea overwhelmed the land. It was for that fight that the High One gathered the spirits of fallen heroes in his hall. A man could strive with all the craft and might and main that was in him, though, and face death undaunted. And so could a woman.
Signe's son Mike Mikesson—Mike Havel, using the old system that was still popular here—touched his own backsword.
"We've made a start on showing Boise and the CUT the point of our arguments in this lawsuit," he said solemnly, though with a twinkle in his sky-colored eyes. "But we'll still need some cutting remarks to finally convince them our case is stronger."
Bjarni laughed aloud. "This cub's grown fangs, by almighty Thor!"
Mike Jr. was just on the cusp of young manhood, perhaps a little short of eighteen years; already tall and broad-shouldered, with a shock of corn-colored hair, and already with a few scars on hands and face to show his words weren't just an untried youngster's air and wind. He'd be stronger when he got his full growth, there was still a bit of adolescent lankiness to him, but he was more than strong enough to be dangerous already, and Bjarni judged by the way he moved that he'd been very well-taught. Between his brows was a small round mark made by a hot iron; his mother had the same. That was a mark the Bearkillers reserved for their best, what they called the A-list, and it was never granted for anything but proved courage and skill in the arts of war.
Bjarni turned to his mother again. "I was near the Bearkiller land, but pressed for time, when I visited Artos Mikesson's garth at Dun Juniper. When the war is over, I will come guest you a while at your Larsdalen, if you wish it."
Her lips thinned a little, but she answered in friendly wise: "Yes, that would be good. Ours is much like the Mackenzie land, but on the other side of the Willamette. Save that the mountains to our west between us and the sea are not as grand as the High Cascades to the east of theirs. My father's family, the Larssons, held a farm there for long and long, generations before the Change. They did more, but that was the first they took, long ago, when they came west-over-sea from the ancient homelands."
"Fine fat soil, then, good pasture and plenty of forest and the Gods of weather are kind to you," he said. "You are lucky. The valley of the Willamette is some of the best farming land I've seen, and I've traveled far. Better than Norrheim, and especially better weather."
Though not much better than some of the land I saw lying near empty as we journeyed, some corner of his mind thought. In what the old world called Quebec and Ontario. With Artos Mikesson's help we beat the Bekwa. Not just beat them but wrecked and crushed them, at the Seven Hills fight. Which opens the way there; Norrheim is a small kingdom now, but it needn't always be so. Our numbers grow, and there's room there to make safe our folk and feed our children's children's children.
She nodded. "All that my husband Mike, the first Bear Lord, won for us with his craft and drighten might, and died defending."
Bjarni's eyes went to the white peaks again, and he thought of the canyons of the Columbia he'd passed, towering above like the walls of Valhöll above a river to rival the Mississippi itself, with the waterfalls cataracting down the cliffs.
"Yet all this land of Montival is a fit home for our Gods," he said. "A giant's country, made to breed heroes! I have my own land, but I honor yours."
"For the which I thank you," another voice said, in a musical lilt. "And it breeds fine horses, of which it seems you have acquired one of the best."
Bjarni started a little. Artos Mikesson was a big man, but so graceful and light of step that it was eerie sometimes. And any man who carried the Sword forged by Weyland the Smith beyond the bounds of Midgard had something of that about him anyway. Bjarni had heard the High One confer kingship on Artos himself, through the seeress his spirit possessed.
"Your Majesty," Signe said, bowing.
"Lady Signe," Rudi said in turn, returning the bow and hiding his slight amusement. "I've just come from reviewing your Bearkiller encampment. May the Dagda club me dead if I could find anything not in perfect order. And you were prompt. Mike Havel would be proud. Corvallis, on the other hand..."
The big fair man beside him snorted. "We're all here, ten thousand of us. Fourteen hundred A-listers, eight thousand pikemen and crossbowmen, fifty field catapults. Plus the garrisons we've got over in the Cascade forts backing up the Clan's troops. Corvallis was always a day late and a dollar short in the wars against the Association and they're keeping up the batting average."
The war-leader of the Bearkillers had the snarling red bear's-head of the Outfit Mike Havel had founded on the shoulder of his brown cord jacket; in that as in other ways Eric Larsson looked very much like a male version of Signe, which wasn't surprising, since they were fraternal twins. The sign on a silver chain around his neck was a cross, though. His left arm ended at the wrist, to continue in an artificial hand of metal, which accounted—partly—for his nickname: Steel-fist.
"That's not diplomatic," Rudi said, slightly chiding. "And I have good friends in Corvallis. They're just... a little slow, taken as a whole."
"Not diplomatic, but it's true though," another voice said. "They surprised us in the Association unpleasantly a few times during the old wars. Turning up late can be effective if you're so late you're not expected to turn up at all."
Rudi could see Bjarni blinking at that cool soprano, with its sound like water running over polished stones in some mountain stream. Then his eyes narrowed.
Yes, he's a shrewd one, Rudi thought. Enough to take in something unfamiliar and not just stick to his first thought.
"Bjarni Eriksson, called Bjarni Iron Counsel, King in Norrheim," he said in introduction. "Lady Tiphaine, Baroness d'Ath and Grand Constable of the Portland Protective Association. Which is to say, war-leader of their host."
Tiphaine d'Ath was in full plate, from steel sabatons on her feet bearing the golden spurs of knighthood to the bevoir that protected neck and chin; a mounted squire carried her helmet and gauntlets, and another her lance and her shield with its arms of sable, a delta or over a V argent. Her eyes were the color of glacier ice, level and almost expressionless, and there was a white ridged scar across the back of her right hand.
"Your Majesty," she said to Bjarni, with a thump of right fist on the lames of her articulated breastplate, and a bow; as a noble to a sovereign, but not her own ruler.
Bjarni extended his hand. They exchanged the Norrheimer wrist-to-wrist grip; his eyes widened a little as he did.
Then she turned back to Rudi. He went on with the orders:
"I'm sending you and fifteen thousand troops to Walla Walla, to take overall command in the County Palatine of the Eastermark. A thousand of the light horse will be refugees from the Bend country south of the Columbia, CORA ranchers and their retainers, horse-archers. Also the Lakota contingent, and Colonel Ingolf Vogeler's Richlanders, another eight hundred together."
She nodded. "The CORA-boys will be useful and they're certainly well-motivated. The Sioux and the Richlanders are to demonstrate the support we... Montival... have from the east, I suppose?"
"Yes. The Richlanders are good horse-soldiers, and highly disciplined."
"The Sioux aren't well disciplined, I take it, Your Majesty?"
"Not disciplined either well or badly; they're splendid warriors, but not soldiers in our sense of the word at all, at all. And treating them with a heavy hand is as futile as pushing on a rope. Only ropes don't bite when pushed, and they do... so perhaps pushing on a rattlesnake would be a better metaphor? Also they have a rooted conviction that all the horses in the world belong to them alone. I suggest you deal with them through Ingolf, as much as possible."
"They'll take his orders?"
"No. They may well listen to him, though. And he knows the Lakota well."
"He should," Eric said with grim amusement. "From what he's said, he learned his trade fighting them back east."
"He did. And he and intancan Rick Mat'o Yamni, Rick Three Bears, their war-chief, are friends. All of us on the Sword-Quest spent some time with the Seven Council Fires last year, and fought by their sides. You'll find that Ingolf is a very good light cavalry commander; competent in other things as well, some of which will be relevant and some not. A steady man and sure of himself, but adaptable, and vastly experienced; there's few tricks of that sort of fighting he does not know. And my half-sister Mary... Mary Vogeler, now... will be with him, along with two dozen Dúnedain Rangers."
"Your Majesty," Tiphaine said, nodding in the manner of someone thinking hard. "Yes, I can work with the Sioux. Or around them, needs must."
"And I'm giving you two thousand PPA men-at-arms, including the bulk of the Protector's Guard, the rest bicycle-born foot troops and field artillery," Rudi went on. "Among them seven regiments of pike and crossbow infantry from the Yakima. They'll have their own field batteries in support."
Tiphaine's pale brows rose slightly, the more visible against her tanned skin.
"The Free Cities of the Yakima League and the Association have an, ah, unfortunate mutual history," she said.
Rudi grinned. "Meaning, you and they fought hammer and tongs for years, to be sure, when the Association tried to overrun them and divide their land into fiefs," he said. "You did exactly that with the Tri-Cities, which they thought of as theirs. Yet we're all part of the High Kingdom now, and must learn to work together. Also the Yakima Valley will be at your back, hence their homes, hence excellent motivation. Forbye they'll see Associates fighting to help defend their homes, the satisfaction and wonderment of the world it will be to them, see you."
"Politically astute, my liege," she said.
"Hopefully; and more of the same will be required in the Eastermark, dealing with the local lords."
"That," she said, with a small, chilling smile, "I think I can do."
He nodded, not altogether in agreement. "Not just putting them in fear. We won't be able to hold the enemy in that area. Your job is to slow them, sure, and bloody them, and keep them pinned until they've exhausted their supplies, and lead them by the nose to where I want them; but don't get caught in any action you can't withdraw from. I leave that to your judgment; just let you bear in mind that you can use the army I've given you, but you cannot lose it."
A faraway looked came into her eyes; the look of someone considering a difficult but interesting challenge.
He nodded. "But that's not enough. The castles and especially Walla Walla must hold, and hold strongly even when the enemy occupy the open plains. The nobles there must do their best, not every man for himself and fighting just enough to satisfy honor. Starting with the Count Palatine himself they must be resolved to tie down every enemy soldier they can and do the foe every harm they're able, despite the risks. I rely on you to see to that, as well; I've more than enough to do here."
"Let the flies conquer the flypaper," she said, with what he thought was a very faint hint of amusement. "We were on the other side of that often enough. I've seen your plans, Your Majesty. Persuading the County's nobility to go along with them may take a little work. The equipment we're bringing ought to make a start on that."
"Which shrewdness is why I'm sending you, my lady Grand Constable. This is a task both political and military, and it will take nice judgment and hard fighting both."
She nodded, briskly this time. "The Yakima regiments can bicycle down their valley and then barge down from the Three Cities to the Wallula Gap and meet me at Castle Dorion; we can draw on the supply magazines there. The main force from here can travel up the Columbia to the Gap, and then we'll put our supplies and the heavy gear on the rail line to Walla Walla and march. I'll have the movement orders drafted by tomorrow morning and the lead elements moving by dawn of the day after."
She frowned and looked southward. "I'd like to send the Richlanders and the Sioux on ahead. They can use rail-cars along the river gorge and move a lot faster, then push on and join the screening force that's covering the enemy garrison in Castle Campscapell."
The Montivalans winced slightly; something flickered even in the Grand Constable's pale eyes. Campscapell had fallen last year, and in mysterious circumstances. Losing it had been a strategic disaster for which they'd paid heavily since.
"It'll improve morale in County Palatine, to see our allies passing through towards the enemy," she continued. "That will whet their appetite for hope, and the main field force will give them something more substantial. Also it will get the Sioux out in the boondocks. With an enemy force they can expend their energy on killing and robbing, and accompanied by someone they trust."
"The screening force is under Lord Forest Grove?" Rudi said.
He'd have remembered that himself, he thought; but with his palm on the hilt of the Sword there was no need to struggle with memory or call for files from his staff. It flowed in currents like the deep strong movements of the ocean, any knowledge he'd ever so much as glimpsed just there in any form he wanted it. He no longer feared the sensation.
I'm... resigned, he thought. It's even coming to seem natural. And sure, it's as convenient as an ever-filled stock of firewood in winter. I'll have to watch that I don't make the Kingdom too dependent on it in the long run, to be sure.
"Lord Rigobert de Stafford, Baron of Forest Grove, yes, Your Majesty," the Grand Constable said. "With local forces of the County called out under the arrière-ban, mostly, besides his own menie, and a thousand or so from County Chehalis who he's been hammering into shape for eight months now. A very capable man; aggressive, but not reckless."
Unexpectedly Signe spoke, with her brother nodding agreement: "He's the PPA Marchwarden of the South, so we Bearkillers have a border with his bailiwick. I've dealt with him myself. A hard bargainer but honorable."
"Very well, I defer to your wishes, Grand Constable; send those units immediately."
She bowed again. "I'll get things moving then, Your Majesty."
A polite nod to the others, and one of her squires led her courser forward. She put one hand on the cantle of the high knight's saddle and made a skipping leap. Her left foot caught the stirrup, and she swung onto the horse with a light clatter of gray steel. The party of Associates reined around and cantered off. Bjarni watched consideringly.
"How effective is that armor?" he asked; his own folk used knee-length tunics of mail or scale, and simple conical helms with a strip riveted to the front as a nose-guard.
"Very," Rudi said; then he touched the Sword that hung at his right hip. "This could cut it, but an ordinary slash with an ordinary sword, no, it's about like trying to chop through an anvil. Even if you're very strong, the most you could do would be to dent it quite a bit, knock the wearer down and bruise him badly. You have to thrust, so—"
He indicated face, armpits, groin, the backs of the knees.
"—and even then you'd best be lucky. You need a two-handed weapon like a long ax or a greatsword to pierce plate. Or something that concentrates impact, like a war-pick, or a war-hammer. Or a lance with a charging horse behind it, or a hard-driven bodkin-tipped arrow or bolt hitting just right."
"It doesn't seem too heavy," the Norrheimer said meditatively.
His concern was more or less abstract, a warrior's curiosity about his craft. All the people who wore plate in this war were on his side.
"Fifty pounds or a bit less for a suit in her size," Rudi agreed. "More than mail, but not so very much more. And it's nearly as flexible as one of your hauberks. The weight's well distributed by tying and buckling it to the pointstrings on the arming doublet and breeches instead of hanging everything from the shoulders. And it's much better protection from arrows and bolts than mail. The way it traps heat is the worst drawback; you get tired faster, and you can sweat yourself into a faint if you're not careful. That's why she was wearing it, probably. You have to keep yourself accustomed to the heat and constriction. Forbye it's good exercise."
"Still, wearing it and moving quickly needs strength. You have many strong shield-maids here."
Bjarni looked surprised when the others chuckled.
"Everyone else here does, except the PPA," Rudi explained. "Tiphaine and... perhaps fifty or sixty others all told. Including my Matti! Their custom doesn't hold with it. Nor their God, or at least so say many of their priests; it takes great skill and even more strength of will to break those barriers. She's an exception. I told you how we Mackenzies captured Mathilda on a raid during the War of the Eye, when we were both around ten?"
Bjarni nodded, and Rudi continued: "Well, Tiphaine—she was knighted and ennobled for it and granted the fief of Ath—snatched her back that spring, with a small picked band. And myself, the both of us being not twice bowshot from the gates of Dun Juniper when she struck, the which was ingenious and bold. She got us back out of the Mackenzie dùthchas to Castle Todenangst with clothyard arrows raining about her ears, too, which was not merely bold but skill of a miraculous degree—even on foot the Clan's warriors can push a pursuit like wolves on the track of an elk and run horses to death. Lady Sandra stashed the both of us at Castle Ath for some time... which is where I began learning sword-play from her."
"She's good with a blade?" Bjarni said, his own hand dropping unconsciously to the hilt of his broadsword. "I thought she might be, from the grip she gave and the pattern of calluses on her hand."
"I first beat her sparring when I was twenty-one, and didn't again for some time," he said soberly. "I've never crossed blades with anyone faster in all my travels. As swift as I, and more nimble. I have more reach and I'm much stronger, of course, but her blade-art is complete."
The others all nodded, Signe a little unwillingly. A speculative look came into Bjarni's blue gaze; to a warrior, everything that wasn't a prize to be seized was a potential challenge to be overcome.
"Don't even think it," Rudi said, and Eric nodded vigorously.
Signe smiled grimly. "Did you see the hilt of her sword, my friend?"
Bjarni nodded, obviously puzzled. "A very good weapon, if narrower than we like in Norrheim, I suppose for thrusting strokes against the joints in plate. And well-adorned, the silver setting off the back horn."
"Those seventeen silver bands aren't adornment, Bjarni King. They're a death-tally and public warning," she said.
"Holmgangs?" Bjarni said, using his folk's word for a duel.
"Technically," Eric laughed, but this time it was utterly without humor. "I saw a few of those... you couldn't really call them fights, though the victims were experienced swordsmen. They were executions. Slow executions. It was more like a cat playing with a mouse than combat. And one of the few occasions I've seen her really smile."
"Brrr!" Bjarni said. Then, with blunt practicality: "And what's my part in this plan you make, my blood-brother?"
"Never fear, you'll hear it soon." He turned to Eric and Signe. "I brought two thousand Drumheller cavalry with me when we crossed the Rockies at Castle Corbec," he said. "Medium horse, lance and saber and bow, mail hauberks and plate for the arms and legs."
"About what we Bearkillers were using ten, fifteen years ago," Eric said thoughtfully. "I liked what I saw of them there. Trained in cataphract tactics like ours, too?"
"Precisely; well trained and drilled. Also Drumheller is not part of Montival and will not be, and they did fight the Association, when they tried to take back that western part of the Peace River country the Lord Protector grabbed off in their despite, the spalpeen. County Dawson, it is now; about which they are still bitter, so. So I'll be brigading them with your Bearkiller A-listers, giving out it's the best tactical fit—the which is true—and to avoid unnecessary memories of a painful and awkward sort."
"That ought to work," Eric said thoughtfully. "We're more mobile than the Association knights, we don't need a light cavalry screen as badly, and we have a lot more punch in a charge with the lance than pure horse-archers."
"It's fair pleased I'll be if it does work," Rudi said frankly. "Fitting this collection of puzzle pieces, not to mention the odds and sods trickling in from everywhere between Dawson and Ashland, into an army I can use without it coming to pieces on a battlefield like a soggy biscuit in hot tea is a nightmare of purest black, and we've little time."
Sober nods, and he continued: "Well, you'll be receiving them in the next day or two. And I'm off. This High King position needs about six men to fill it."
"You won't be disappointed in us Bearkillers, Your Majesty," Mike Jr. blurted. Then he quoted: "Always faithful."
That was the motto of a band of warriors their common father had fought with, before the Change.
"Mike, mo bhràthair, you were at my wedding!" Rudi said. "And saw me pale and wan with terror until your uncle slipped me some brandy. It's a little too formal that was, brother, for an everyday occasion like this."
"My liege, then," Mike said.
"That will do. Feel free to add embellishments when you're convinced I've gone lunatic; I've yet to see a battlefield where men didn't feel that way about the high command, at times."
The tall young man's face split in an answering grin, and the High King went on:
"Every time we meet you favor our father more; you've more of his cast of face than I do, I'm thinking. Perhaps by the end of this war you'll be wearing the Bear Helm, eh?"
Mike's face flushed; he met Rudi's eyes for a long moment, then gave a slight nod. Eric's brows went up. Signe went pale.
After a long moment she bowed to Rudi. "Hail, Artos King," she said; there was a slight choking in her voice. "I wished that. I hadn't thought you'd aid me in it."
Rudi smiled. I know it's a charming smile, some corner of him thought. Matti's told me it is often enough, and sometimes with a deal of exasperation in her voice. Still, if the Gods gave it me, I should use it, and I'm not putting it on, either. I've always liked Signe better than she did me, Eric is a man you're glad to have at your back, and of young Mike I'm fond in truth.
"The Bearkillers will be a stout pillar of the High Kingdom," Rudi said. "The more so with the bond of blood between my House and the line of the Bear Lords."
"We will be your sword and shield!" Mike blurted, then blushed as his mother and aunt shot him quelling looks. "Well, we will."
Rudi made his farewells and turned to Bjarni. "Walk with me, blood brother."
The Norrheimer did, squinting westward for a moment past his own people's encampment; the lines of tall slim poplars on the plain were casting long shadows. They were alone. Except for Edain and the score of the High King's Archers behind them, of course, and a half-dozen of Bjarni's hirdmen, walking with mail byrnie clinking and conical nose-guarded helmets on their heads, round shields on their left arms and spears or great long-hafted axes over their right shoulders. All of the guardsmen were out of earshot, if they spoke quietly.
"Bad blood there, eh?" Bjarni said shrewdly, inclining his head slightly back towards the Bearkillers. "Or there was."
Rudi shrugged. "My blood-father rescued my mother from some Eaters—mad cannibals—"
"What we called troll-men," Bjarni nodded.
Such bands had been common throughout the more heavily peopled places in the year after the Change, as the desperate millions ate the storehouses bare to the last hidden scrap and then turned on each other amid chaos, fire and plague. Where the cities had been most dense, their savage descendants were the only human thing left, save scorched bones split for the marrow.
"—not long after the Change. They were both of them on scouting missions, you see. And... well, that night was when I was begotten. Mike Havel wasn't handfasted to Lady Signe then; they weren't even betrothed, really, though they were thinking of it from what I've heard."
"Ah," Bjarni said. "And there's the rub, eh?"
Rudi nodded: "She always held it against mother, and me. Less so as the years have gone by, but it's also a bitterness to her that her son will be a chief in my kingdom, and not the other way about, you see. Mike himself doesn't mind; we've always gotten along well and he's a likely and good-natured lad. Also just the now he's at the age when he needs a hero to worship, or an elder brother. Whether he'll still feel that way ten or fifteen years from now... we'll see."
"I do see," Bjarni said. "My folk have their own rivalries. It's the nature of the sons and daughters of Ash and Embla. So that's why you said your half-brother has more of a look of your father."
"Sure, and it's the truth... though not by much, we're both his image in body and face, though we're taller than he was by a few inches. And the neither of us have his coloring; he was black-haired, perhaps because he had an Anishinabe grandmother, one of the First People, though for the rest he was mostly Suomi with a dash of Svenska and Norski. But young Mike does have a bit more of his face, I'd be saying. He was a handsome fellow, my father, among much else."
"He must have been a man of strong main—" which meant soul-strength, in the Norrheimer dialect "—and a fighting-man of note and able to steer matters wisely," Bjarni said thoughtfully. "From what I've heard, Gods aside, he puts me in mind of my father, Erik the Strong."
"A fair comparison. I remember him only a little, but he left a great mark on the world passing through it, and from that you can see the shape of the man who made it."
The land wrinkled up before them a little, scored and gashed and littered with rocks ranging from loaf-sized to real boulders; as you went south here you met spots that had been cut by water into gullies long ago. Three sentries rose out of nowhere, with arrows on the half-drawn strings of their longbows, Mackenzies in ghillie cloaks; those were hooded lengths of camouflaged cloth sewn all over with loops. The loops were thrust through with bits of grass and sagebrush or whatever else fit the landscape, and if the wearers knew what they were doing they could be nearly invisible even in open ground. Rudi had spotted them, but Bjarni gave a slight start.
The leader of the trio tossed back his gauze-masked hood as he took the draw off his string. He was painted for war in the Clan's style, patterns of scarlet and black swirling over his face to give it the look of his sept totem, a fox-mask in this case. The moon-and-antlers of the Mackenzies was blazoned on the green leather surface of his brigantine, and there was a tuft of the reddish fur dangling from a silver ring he wore in one ear.
There was something a little foxlike about his eyes too, despite his dark hair and olive skin, darting and quick and cunning. Doubtless that kinship of spirit was why he'd dreamed of Fox on his vision journey as a youngster; that was part of the Clan's coming-of-age ceremonies.
"Chomh gilc ie sionnach," Rudi said gravely; clever as a fox in the old tongue, and the motto of the man's sept.
"That we are, High King. Pass you may, lord, and those with you," he said, tapping his bowstave against the brow of his open-faced sallet helm in salute.
Then he turned, waved to someone further down the slope, and made a slight chittering sound with tongue and teeth. It might have passed unnoticed anywhere insects formed the background of life. The sentries took different positions, sank down... and were once more nearly invisible, even if you'd seen them do it.
Bjarni looked behind him as they walked on. "Your folk take war seriously," he said approvingly.
"That we do, or we'd be long dead," Rudi said, hiding a grin. "We have no Fluffy Bunny sept... sorry, an old joke among us, I'll explain another time if you wish."
And you Norrheimers find us deplorably flighty and light-minded and longwinded and fanciful about all else, he thought but did not say. While the most of my clansfolk who meet them find your people a staid and stark and solemn-dull lot who find little mirth in anything but hitting folk with axes. It would be a drabber and less interesting world if everyone were the same, would it not?
The Norrheimer gave a slight grunt of surprise when they came over the slope and saw the Mackenzie camp below. The plain around Goldendale was really a plateau at the foot of the hills behind the town, and its southern edge was valleys where water had cut back long ago; the ground became rougher as you went south to the Columbia at Maryhill and less of it was farmed. This was a broad open swale, the bottom perhaps twenty or thirty feet lower than the higher plowed fields. The bulk of it was in grass turning gold in the sunset light, with thick-scattered clumps of oak and pine in the lower parts. In time of peace it was a preserve for the hunting and hawking of the Associate lord who held these lands, and in war a fine campground that didn't interfere with what remained of workaday life.
Scattered almost as thickly through it were the small tents of the Mackenzie host, grouped in threes and those in circles for each Dun; Sutterdown's contingent had four circles, they being the Clan's only approach to a city, grouped around their banner of sea-blue and sky-blue blazoned with a scalloped shell and lyre and bow. Little efficient cookfires cast a trickle of smoke into the air, just enough to let you get a whiff of the wood burning and a bit of the food. The other camp odors weren't too bad; Mackenzies were as cleanly a people as they could be, and this group hadn't been here long yet. Rudi walked down the track at an easy swing, taking off his flat Scots bonnet now and then to wave back greetings.
A different set of tents caught his eye as well, about a score and in rigidly regular lines; the flag that flew over them was the ancient Stars and Stripes.
"Ah, Fred Thurston's here," Rudi said. "And by the looks of it, his little force has grown. More prisoners going over to him, and we've had a few deserters as well."
Bjarni made a skeptical sound. "Fred Lawrencesson I know and like," he said. "He's a good fighter and no fool, and the High One did claim him in my own hall—a great honor, though it's a dangerous one. He's one of the true folk. Yet I'm not altogether sure of his followers, men who'd turn on their lord."
"Martin Thurston isn't their rightful lord," Rudi pointed out, then thought a moment to put it into terms his friend would grasp at once and with his gut as well as his head. "He killed their father by stealth and treachery."
"And then he lied about it, got his men's oaths under false pretence. His oath was false, and he made theirs false too."
"Also true. The Gods hate an oath-breaking man, they send him bad luck and bad luck is catching, like a flu. But... well, it's all a tangle as bad as Sigurd and the Rhinegold."
"That it is. We'll cut that knot, though."
The Mackenzies were mostly readying their dinners, practicing archery at targets of rolled straw matting or working on gear or just lolling about passing the time at games or songs or storytelling or lively arguments. War was mostly boredom, when it wasn't terror. The Boise men were drilling, moving with a smooth machine-discipline that was almost eerie to watch as they cast their heavy javelins, formed and re-formed and changed front, then suddenly clumped together into a walking fortress that had shields on all sides and overhead as well.
"Pretty," Bjarni admitted. "We do something like that, but not as smooth."
He looked around at the clansfolk. "Those thin gold collars mean the handfasted, don't they?" he said after a moment.
When Rudi nodded, and touched the torc around his own neck, the Norrheimer continued: "You're putting everything you have into this, aren't you?"
"Yes," Rudi said. "As you did with your folk at the Seven Hills battle, Bjarni King. You couldn't hedge your bet and neither can I. We have to win the campaign coming up or be ruined, and to win it we have to load a rock in our fist before we hit them, so to say."
This wasn't just a group of wild youngsters. Many of these folk were solid householders with crofts and worksteads and children back at their Duns. And there were stacks of boxes and sacks, wagons parked in ranks, even larger ones of bicycles, horses grazing under watchful eyes. And great man-high banks of stacked wicker cylinders full of bundled arrows, more than all the other supplies together.
They came to his goal, a series of larger tents where a brace of guards stood, tall men leaning on Lochaber axes—gruesome weapons with hafts five feet long and a yard of chopping blade that tapered to a wicked point, with a hook behind. The Clan Mackenzie's standard flew above, a silver crescent moon cradled between black antlers on a green field. The sides of the tents were brailed up to let the breeze in, and he could see folding tables and chairs, racks for records and account-books and maps, and men and women busy at the paperwork that any army seemed to accumulate. They were winding it up, though, as the light died. That came earlier down here, with the higher ground to cut off the sunlight.
As the red sun dropped the clansfolk put aside any work or play that could be halted—he saw cards, dice, baseball and a whooping impromptu Iománaíoch game with the ball flying up amid a waving of ax-shaped hurly sticks—and turned to face the fiery glow that turned the western horizon crimson and light the sky above pale green. Voices took up a long wordless note, more and more until you realized that there were many thousands scattered down the valley. Singing well was as much a part of being a Mackenzie as shooting with the bow. Rudi turned westward with the rest and raised his voice, his arms spread above his head, palm-upward in the Old Religion's gesture of prayer. Then the song began:
We know the Sun was Her lover
As They danced the worlds awake;
And She lay with His brilliance
For all Their childrens' sake.
Where Her fingers touched the sky
Silver starfire sprang from nothing!
And She held Her children fast in Her dreams.
Bjarni and the Norrheimers stood aside, inclining their heads to show a guest's respect for customs and Gods not their own. The massed voices rolled on, bidding farewell to the day in a hymn that Rudi's own mother had composed:
There was a glory in that forest
As the moonlight glittered down;
And stars shone in the wildwood
When the dew fell to the ground—
Every branch and every blossom;
Every root and every leaf
Drank the tears of the Goddess in the gloaming!
There came steel, there came cities
Wonders terrible and strange,
But the light from the first-wood
Flickered down until the Change.
And every field, every farmhouse,
Every quiet village street
Knew the tears of the Goddess in the gloaming!
Now the Sun comes to kiss Her
And She rises from Her bed
They are young—and old—and ageless
Joy that paints the mountains red.
We shall dance in Their twilight
As the forests fall to sleep,
And She whispers in our ears the word remember!
The silence held for a long moment afterwards, as the sunlight faded. Rudi dropped his hands, still feeling the peace of it plucking at his heart, like a bard's hands on the strings. Then he shook his head slightly. There was little enough peace he'd have in the next few years.
Well, the more reason to grab what moments I can, he thought.
He strode forward towards the area in front of the command tent. There was a fair-sized fire there, down to red-and-yellow coals now, and a bustle of cooking. A big man dressed only in a kilt was crouched over a young sheep, no longer quite a lamb—a yearling wether, he thought—holding its shoulders pressed between his knees and its head in his hands.
"So, little brother, we are sorry," he said, in a soothing, crooning voice as he stroked its head until it quieted. "But we are hungry and must eat. We thank you for your gift of life. To us also the hour of the Hunter will come, for Earth must be fed. Go swiftly and without pain to the green clover-meads of the Land of Summer where no evil comes, and be reborn through Her who is Mother-of-All."
The big hands clamped and he twisted with a sudden violent swiftness. Muscle moved and then stood out on his bare shoulders and arms like a swelling wave. There was a crackling snap like a green branch breaking, and the animal gave one single kick and died before it had time to bleat. A boy and girl in their mid-teens stepped forward, took the carcass away and began bleeding and butchering it efficiently, the sort of task helpers of their age did in any Mackenzie force, learning the routine of war before they were old enough to stand in the bow-line. A collection of big shaggy dogs gathered to watch intently, tails wagging as they waited for their treat of blood and offal but too disciplined to do more than whine softly and lick their chops.
"Merry met, Oak," Rudi said to the man as he straightened.
Oak Barstow Mackenzie nodded back; they clasped hands for a brisk shake. The First Armsman of Clan Mackenzie was about Rudi's height and not unlike in build, though eight years older and a trifle heavier; his long queue of hair was the color of summer-faded meadow grass, and so were his long mustaches. He'd been an orphan of the Change, one of a busload of schoolchildren on tour left stranded by the roadside and lucky enough to meet the bulk of the Singing Moon coven on its flight from Eugene to what eventually became Dun Juniper. The fledgling Clan had continued the practice as often as they could without actually starving all through those early years, and it had paid in a manner which showed the truth of the Law of Threefold Return.
"Merry met, Ard Rí," Oak said, using the old tongue's term for a High King. "And to you too, Bjarni Ironrede. Join us; there's plenty for all. And mother sent along some of her BBQ sauce."
"That's an offer I'll accept gladly," Rudi said. "Aunt Judy's herblore is of the best, for healing and cooking both. And Merry Met to you as well, Fred, Virginia. How are your men shaping? More in?"
"Two hundred thirty altogether, sir," Fred said. "And they're shaping very well indeed. A lot of squads decided to come over together and they're glad to be in the field instead of in a camp."
Ruid sat on one of the rocks that had been rolled around the fire. Absently, he noticed Edain detailing units of the Archers to eat by turns while the others stood watch; Bjarni's guard-chief was doing something similar.
I'll just be learning to live with that unsleeping vigilance, for I think it's my fate, he thought.
Darkness was falling now, as the long summer twilight faded; the coals underlit the faces around him, giving them an odd boney look with the lanterns in the tents throwing contrasting shadows. The meat had gone on the fire, mostly on wooden skewers, sending up fragrant smoke and making the coals flare where drops of fat landed. There was a bubbling pot of beans stewed with onions and dried tomatoes and chunks of bacon, another of greens, and one of the helpers was frying sliced potatoes in a pan.
"This is more like a hunting trip than a war, so far," Oak said as plates were handed around.
Grudgingly, as he took a loaf of rough maslin bread from a basket and tore off a piece: "The PPA has done all they promised in the way of supplies. We're even getting these from the city bakeries by the wagonload every day. And they've assigned us enough wells, though only just."
Rudi understood the scowl. Oak's sister Aoife and his foster-brother Sanjay had all died in the wars against the Association. But his foster-father had been killed by the CUT in the battle at Pendleton last year. Chuck had been First Armsman after Sam Aylward resigned the position, but Oak hadn't inherited it because of anything but proved ability. He'd been his father's right hand for years anyway, as Chuck had been Sam Aylward's before him. The Clan had an informal approach to such matters.
"It'll be dog-biscuit and jerky soon enough," Rudi said.
He pulled the eating tool out of the little sheath on his dirk scabbard, with a spoon on one end and a fork on the other.
"You're ready?" he went on, catching the chunk of bread Oak tossed him out of the air and sticking the fork-end in it.
"The last three thousand from the southernmost Duns are just here the now," Oak said. "All together, twelve thousand one hundred fifty-two archers fit to stand in the bow-line. Not counting healers, pipers and eòghann."
Seeing Bjarni's puzzlement, Rudi spoke aside to him, nodding to indicate the teenagers:
"Eòghann. Youths and maidens not yet old enough to fight, to ‘take valor', as we say. In a stand-up battle they mainly carry arrows forward to the bow-line from the reserve stocks. It's important work."
Someone handed him a plate loaded with fried potatoes, boiled kale and skewers of grilled mutton. He made the Invoking pentagram over it and murmured a quick thanks to the Mother, and Her Consort who died to give the grain life and rose again each year. The Norrheimers and Fred Thurston hammer-signed theirs, and spoke their own blessing: Hail, all-giving Earth.
Oak nodded as he ladled out beans: "The test for the First Levy is shooting twelve arrows to the measured minute and keeping it up for ten minutes, from a bow of eighty pounds pull or better, and putting nine of each twelve into a man-sized target a hundred yards away. That's the minimum, you understand, not the average. Against massed targets we usually start shooting at about three hundred long paces distance."
Bjarni's brows went up. "Twelve thousand archers... twelve arrows a minute..."
"That's twenty-four hundred a second," Rudi said, touching the Sword. "Or just under a hundred and fifty thousand in one minute. It is," he added gently "a great whacking lot of arrows, the which is why we call it an arrowstorm. Nor are most battles only a minute long. Hence the eòghann scurry about a good deal, the darlings."
Bjarni pursed his lips. Behind him Edain chuckled very quietly; he'd been the first to show the Norrheimers what the Mackenzie yew longbow could do, in their own distant homeland. Now their king was contemplating what twelve thousand such bows could do to a force trying to close with them. Rudi knew that wasn't entirely fair; Edain was known as Aylward the Archer for a reason. Nor was the great armor-smashing stave he carried typical. That bow drew over half again the minimum allowed.
But it's mostly fair if not entirely, Rudi thought. A fifty-pound draw on a hunting bow will put a broadhead through a bull elk's body, breaking ribs going in and coming out; I've seen it done. Eighty pounds on a warbow will do for a man, sure, often enough even if he's wearing a tin shirt.
"That is a great whacking lot of arrows," Bjarni said. "How many do you lug about with you?"
Oak grinned. "You ask the right questions, Bjarni King," he said. "And the answer is as many as we can. Also the eòghann run out to scavenge as many spent ones as they can from the field, when it's safe. Food can be foraged at a pinch and you can fight barefoot or even bare-arsed if you must, but a clothyard arrow needs well-seasoned straight-grained wood for the shaft, good flight feathers from a goose and glue and thread for fletching, horn for the nock and fine hard steel for the bodkin, and all put together with skill in the making. Fashioning arrows is one of the tasks we do in the Black Months, when the farm work is less. It's part of the Chief's Portion."
"The scot, you'd say," Rudi amplified. "The tax."
"And nobody skimps the work, when their lives and families might rest on it," Oak said. He turned his face to Rudi:
"And another four thousand archers in the forts in the Cascades, the ones who can fight but aren't up to much hard marching for one reason or another. The enemy's withdrawn some men from overmountain and the Bend country, but not all of them."
Soberly, he met Rudi's eyes. "This is all we have, High King. If we lose it the Clan dies."
Rudi nodded, equally grave; all that was a fifth of the Clan's total population, and a much higher share of its adults.
"I know. It's still our best chance. Our archers and the Association's knights are the biggest edges that we have, and sure, I intend to wring every scrap of advantage from both that I can."
Then he took up a skewer of the wether's flesh, biting off a chunk. The tender meat was juicy-pink in the center and Judy Barstow's sauce, tangy with garlic and sage and peppers, was crusted on the seared outer surface. It would have been finer still for marinating a while, but it was better than ample for a war-camp.
"See you, Oak," he said, gesturing with the remainder of the kebab, "I've read your reports on the fighting you did in the mountains west of Bend while I was gone on the quest. You beat them handily, but don't judge all that they can do by what happened when they had no choice but to charge you on your own ground in the passes. Or by the poor and pitiful performance of hungry frightened plainsmen clumping in high-heeled rawhide boots through a strange snowbound forest."
Oak nodded. "From first to last the CUT's horse-archers were a pain in the arse at Pendleton," he said. "Much more so when we were forced to retreat, and they had room to maneuver fast. They're hard trouble in any sort of open country, and that is a fact. That's how my father died."
And you took a spectacular vow of vengeance at Chuck's passing ceremony, Rudi thought. Will it cloud your judgment?
He didn't think so, and he wasn't sure whether that was the long knowledge of growing up in the same Dun as this man, or something the Sword of the Lady gave him. He'd always been fair to excellent at reading folk, but with the Sword at his side no man could lie to him, even if the words deceived the speaker himself. He found himself fighting to keep that from souring his view of human kind, sometimes.
"We had a lot of trouble with them in the battle at Wendell," Fred observed. "And that's how they beat Deseret—more cavalry and moving faster. You can fight them with infantry but you need some horse-archers yourself, and a shitload of field artillery really helps, since it outranges their bows. Then if they thin out their formations to cut down their casualties they drop the intensity of their firepower a lot."
"We needed the cavalry and catapults badly to hold them off so that we could break contact," Oak agreed. "We'd have been surrounded and whittled down to nothing, else, instead of just hurt."
"Just so, and Lugh of the Many Skills knows the Boise infantry are a bad lot in a fight too. Very disciplined, very well drilled in their maneuvers and it's an annoyingly persistent set of omadhauns they are to boot."
Fred grinned. "Yup. If they try charging us, well, we'll give them as much trouble as they want."
"Exactly. It's uncomfortably good at combined-arms work Boise's army is, and they have no religious scruples about making catapults of their own, unlike the CUT. I'm doing what I can about that stubbornness, breaking their heads from the inside, you might say, and Fred's been a help. But in the meantime I think you're going to need a reaction squad of head-bashers in the more usual sense of the word, more than Fred's band can provide, and I've just the men for the core of that."
Bjarni was mopping up beans with a chunk of the bread. He nodded, still chewing, drank from the mug of watered wine beside him, and spoke:
"That we can do. We're not wizards with the bow like you Mackenzies, but handstrokes are our sport and our delight. And my five hundred are picked men, the best fighters of all the tribes of Norrheim. Well-used to fighting side by side by now too."
Rudi slapped him on the shoulder. "That they are, Oak. For planting their feet in the dirt and locking shields to conquer or die where they stand, I've seen that there's none like them. Pitiless fighters, fell and grim. Also they're the truest of men to their oaths, and fear does not enter into their actions."
There was a slight happy growl from the armored hirdmen behind their king; he couldn't have picked a complement from all the world's tongues that would have pleased them more, as long as it came from someone they respected.
The which they do, after the Seven Hills fight, at which all these men shed sweat and many let their blood on the ground from their wounds. And for their pledged oaths many of them will die very far from home, meeting their end on foreign ground with their last sight the faces of angry strangers. I will do what I must, for the kingdom's sake and the world's. And for my children yet unborn. The praise will also go a way to reconciling them to being brigaded with Fred's not-really-turncoats. It's an acrobat a High King must be!
"Now, when is this battle where we Norrheimers will do our head-bashing to be?" Bjarni said, belching contentedly and handing his plate to the youth. "And where?"
More of the watered wine went around, and a small sack filled with dried fruit and nuts. Oak leaned forward eagerly as well, and Fred's face had a wolf's keenness.
"It'll be as late as I can manage," Rudi said. "Around Samhain, if I can harry and delay until then. Yule would be too much to hope for."
He turned aside to Bjarni for a moment: "Samhain's our festival of the dead and the Otherworld, that ends the sacred Wheel of the Year. The Quarter Day at the end of October. Lughnasadh is the summer festival, just past."
Oak hissed between his teeth. "Samhain? That long?" he said, obviously thinking of the autumn planting and a hungry year to follow if it was skimped.
"Everyone planted more last fall than normal, I hear, and we can put in more spring grain next year needs must. Time fights for us, remember; time, and the land itself," Rudi said. "The enemy outnumber us three to two; or they will at the beginning of things."
"It would have been two to one, if you hadn't gotten us allies," Oak acknowledged.
Rudi nodded; it was true. "I'll make them leave their base of supply far behind, draw them in, with each step making them weaker as they must detach forces to guard their lines of supply and invest the strongholds. Then I'll bring them to battle at the time and place I choose."
"Where?" Oak said.
"The Horse Heaven Hills," he said, nodding eastward.
Bjarni frowned, and Rudi drew in the dirt with a twig, showing how those lay between the valley of the Yakima river and the Columbia, a little east of where they were now.
"Or at least Horse Heaven is my choice," Rudi said, seeing the lay of those long swells in his mind. "The enemy, the dirty dogs, will have a plan of their own, the which is a reason why we call them the enemy. It's nicely varied terrain, not too closed in to maneuver freely or use our heavy cavalry, and not so open there's no element of surprise or choice of ground. They might try to go north of there, up the Yakima, but that would trap them in a cul-de-sac and the Free Cities are too strong to storm with an army still on their flank."
"It's rich land, if they're hungry," Oak said. To Bjarni: "A great valley, closely tilled—watered by channels from the river, one fortified village and walled town after another, field after field. Densely peopled with strong yeomen, and they good farmers and stubborn fighters both."
"Rich land but with all that's edible behind walls," Rudi said. "Or it will be after my orders are carried out. Taking the Yakima would only make sense in a slow campaign aimed at steady conquest of one bit at a time, but now that the League of Des Moines and the Dominions are marching up their backsides they don't have that luxury."
"You think that will make them give you a fight where and when you want it?" Bjarni said. "Letting your enemy set the terms of battle is halfway to a battle lost. If they have good war-captains, they'll know that."
Rudi nodded. "They'll go for our main field army, the beating of which is their only hope of any real victory now. Castles and walled cities can slow and frustrate an invader, but it's only in concert with an army that they can defeat him. That's the bait I'll dangle before them, snatching it away again and again by taking positions too strong to attack as I fall back."
He smiled. There was something he'd read once... and the Sword prompted him. He said something in another language. When the two men looked at him questioningly, he went on:
"In our tongue... Those skilled at making the enemy move do so by creating a situation to which he must conform; they entice him with something he is certain to take, and with lures of ostensible profit they await him in strength."
"That's sensible," Bjarni said.
"Sun Tzu generally is, the wit and keen insight of the man."
"I've read him, Dad was big on his Art of War," Fred noted soberly. "The thing is, Martin read him too. He's an evil treacherous shit but he's not stupid."
"You're thinking of the man as you knew him," Rudi said. "I have grounds to suspect he's much changed. Also knowing what you should do and overriding impulse are two quite different things; and he'll be much concerned with things at home, and even the most absolute ruler must take the opinions and feelings of his war-captains into account. By Samhain they'll be mad with rage and fear and hunger and want nothing so much in all the world as to finish it. Then I'll offer battle in a position that looks just a little more doable from their side than it really is, and—"
Bjarni drew a thumb across his throat below the dark-red beard and made a horribly realistic gurgling sound, like a man drowning in his own blood, rolling his eyes upward; the coal-glow from the fire added an unpleasant touch to the pantomime. He and Oak barked laughter together. Fred looked grim; any victory would mean the death of a good many of his people.
"Or so we hope," Rudi nodded.
They discussed options and details, munching on the raisins and slices of dried peach and apricot and apple, the walnuts and hazelnuts in the bag and calling over a couple of those with clerk's skills to take notes. After an hour or so a stir came from the northward.
"Ah, and yet another detail to squeeze into the capacious folds of the dying day," Rudi said. His head turned to look down the valley. "Twelve thousand... not a quorum by itself."
Oak nodded. "Counting proxies, yes, though. They're all duly registered, so we have the Óenach Mór here with us, that we do."
A helper brought round water and a well-used cloth, and they washed their hands.
"Óenach... Mór?" Bjarni asked.
"A... folkmoot," Rudi said. "Each Dun in the Mackenzie dùthchas has its óenach, its assembly of adult members. And Mór means Great in the old tongue of our ancestors. The Great Moot, you might say, where the Chief presides and decisions are made for the Clan as a whole. The votes must represent the majority for the decision to be lawful, by pledged proxy if they can't be there themselves. In ordinary times it's a great holiday, with games and contests and plays and such, held yearly after the harvest festival. Lughnasadh, about this time, in fact."
Bjarni's eyes lit. "Why, that's like the things for our tribes, and the all-thing for Norrheim!" he said. "The town meetings, as the old folk called them."
"Mmmm, ours are more noisy than yours, I'm thinking," Rudi said judiciously. "They certainly last longer, as a general rule; though I'd say this one may be mercifully brief. You're welcome to watch."
"I'll bring my men and they'll sit on the edge," Fred said, nodding. "It'll impress them. In more ways than one."
A stirring came through the darkness, and then the keening, droning wail of the pipes with a thuttering roar of drums beneath it. Rudi grinned to himself; his mother had composed that tune, too, when someone insisted. He thought it had been Dennie, a friend of hers who'd had a big role in establishing Clan customs in the early days.
Officially the title was It's a Clan We Must Be, from the first speech she'd given to the little band of fugitives meeting at the old hunting lodge that had become the core of Dun Juniper. She herself had been known to refer to it as Hail to the Chief, which oldsters considered a great joke; some obscure reference to the ancient world.
His eyes sought her eagerly. After Matti, the one I love most in all the world, he thought. And Sir Nigel. I need their wisdom. And Maude and Fiorbhinn, so grown while I was away!
Juniper Mackenzie listened to the pipers and the hammering rattle of the Lambegs and the dunting snarl of war-horns calling the assembly and smiled to herself. Beside her Nigel Loring, her man, leaned his head towards her.
"That's your ironic smile, my dear," he said.
The smooth cultured drawl of the grandmother who'd raised him was still strong in his voice. His parents had both died within a few years of his birth, and his grandfather Eustace had stood too close to a German howitzer shell during the retreat from Mons in 1914, leaving a young widow and a posthumous son. He'd been in middle age when he arrived a fugitive from Mad King Charles in England, fifteen years ago, during the War of the Eye. Now he was unambiguously old, his head egg-bald, the last yellow gone from the clipped white mustache. He was still slim and erect in the Clan's formal garb of tight green jacket with lace at throat and cuffs and double row of silver buttons, badger-skin sporran, kilt and plaid, flat Scots bonnet with silver clasp.
"I was thinking that I should never have let Dennis at my Gaelic dictionary and Myths and Customs of the Ancient Celts; the illustrated one, at that. The glee the man had in him when he persuaded people to take up some bit of Victorian-fantasy folderol that drove me wild, back in the early years! In the end the only way to stop him tormenting me with it was to go along, so... and I couldn't bear to quash folk when they needed something to catch their fancy when all else was so bleak. And he thought it the cream of the jest that he was nine-tenths English by blood himself, and the rest everything under the sun but Irish, or even Scots. Whereas I had my mother speaking the Gaelic to me in my cradle."
"Ah, well, old girl, remember the definition of an Anglo-Saxon: a German who's forgotten his grandmother was Welsh. Back in the old days I did always note that it wasn't the people from the Gaeltacht who went barking mad for the Celtic-Twilight, Deirdre-of-the-Sorrows bit."
"No," Juniper said shortly. "They were too poor and too sensible, both. What my mother would think of this festival of deranged romanticism run amuck I shudder to imagine. It was hard enough on her when I went over to the Old Religion."
"She might note that it was an Englishman by the name of Rawlinson who invented the kilt."
"He probably just stole the credit for it," she said loftily, and saw the glint of amusement in his rather watery blue eyes—they'd been injured in some distant land in battle before the Change.
Oman, it was called, she recalled. Odd, to remember a time when places halfway around the world were more than distant rumor, when it really mattered what happened there. Nigel isn't the only one who's old. I'm spending more and more time remembering, and less than I should focusing on the future. It's well that Rudi is High King now, a Changeling King for the Changeling world. Time for we oldsters to take another step back.
They'd had practice talking quietly for each other's ears only, but Juniper thought that Fiorbhinn caught a little of it. The girl had inherited the music from her side of the family along with a very keen set of ears, and her mother's bright leaf-green eyes, though her hair was white-blond with summer. The eyes sparkled now, and she carried the case with her small harp proudly, with the gravity only eleven years was capable of.
Maude was fifteen, coltish and slim and slightly awkward with it, brown-haired and grave. She was also swallowing a little now and then behind her calm face. Maude had always been the good one, steady and sensible and clever and kind-hearted but not foolishly so, without the tang of wildwood magic that rang in Fiorbhinn's blood and out through her music. This wasn't something she had anticipated.
Which just goes to show the limits of being sensible, my girl, Juniper thought sympathetically. For this is a matter of the Chieftainship, and truly that has something beyond the schemes and thoughts and reasons of human-kind. There is a true magic to it, a thing that lifts us beyond the veils of the everyday. There always was.
Rudi stood waiting for her; he removed his bonnet and bowed, smiling. Their eyes met as if in complicity, sharers in some solemn game, and her heart twisted with love and the sorrow that was its shadow.
I loved him so as a baby, and a child, and now a man. I protected him from all I could, but in the end love means letting them go.
The procession led to the edge of a slight rise; the valley fell away downslope and southward from there. It was packed now, a sea of upturned painted faces that stretched into a firelit darkness where clumps of leaves glittered amid the rising sparks of the torches. A rolling cheer started as she stopped and raised her hands; it built rapidly into a war-yell, the racking banshee shriek surging back and forth as blades and bows were thrust into the air. Juniper shivered a little. Mackenzies weren't exactly warlike; at least, they didn't go out and start wars as a group. On the other hand, when someone provoked them...
Oh Powers, she thought, not for the first time. What have we brought back, to run wild once more upon the ridge of the world?
Quiet fell as she brought her staff up to make the Invocation, the silver Triple Moon on its top glittering. The throng raised their hands as she spoke, her strong trained voice ringing out:
"I am Juniper, the Mackenzie of the Clan Mackenzie, Chief and Bard and Ollam, trained and consecrated to this my task. I am called here, by you and the Gods to hear, to judge, and to speak. Does any deny my right or my calling? Speak now or hold your tongue thereafter, for this place and time is consecrated by our gathering. All we do here is holy."
A long silence and she continued, face raised:
"Let us be blessed!"
"Let us be blessed!" the great crowd murmured, following her line by line:
"Manawyddan—Restless Sea, wash over me."
A green branch sprinkled seawater, and she tasted the salt on her lips like tears.
"Manawyddan—Restless Sea, wash over me."
"Cleanse and purify me! That I may make of myself a vessel; to listen and to hear."
"Cleans and purify me! That I may make of myself a vessel; to listen and to hear."
"Rhiannon—White Mare, stand by me, run with me, carry me that the land and I can be one, with Earth's wisdom."
She bent and took a clod of the dry friable earth, touching it to her lips. There was a long ripple as the Mackenzies did the same.
"Rhiannon—White Mare, stand by me, run with me, carry me that the land and I can be one, with Earth's wisdom."
"Arianrhod—Star-tressed Lady; as you light the firmament above us, dance in the light of this world of ours, dance through our hearts and through our eyes, bring Your light to our minds."
She took a torch from her daughter Maud and lit it; the resinous wood flared up, and more lit all across the valley as her people called the response. The chanting rolled on:
"Sea and Land and Sky, I call on you:
Hear and hold and witness thus,
All that we say
All that we agree
All that we together do.
Honor to our Gods! May they hold
Then she spoke formally: "Let all here act with truth, with honor and with duty, that justice, safety and protection all be served for this our Clan, and may Ogma of the Honey Tongue lend us His eloquence in pursuit of Truth," she said. "This Óenach Mór is begun! By what we decide, we are bound, each soul and our people together."
A tension went out of the air in a long sigh. She put aside something of the ritual voice and went on:
"I yield to my son, Rudi Mackenzie, called Artos in the craft, and tanist of this Clan."
She stepped back. Rudi stood tall for a moment, his arms crossed over his plaid and the tall raven-feathers in the clasp of his bonnet flickering slightly, like a wing of shadow. When he spoke it seemed almost quiet, yet rolled out through the sough of night wind and the slight tearing ripple of flame:
"My people, what were the worlds spoken by my mother over the altar at my Wiccaning? That day in the first year of the Change, in the depths of the winter when the Sun turned towards the light once more?"
A long moment of rustling silence, and then many thousand voices took it up, Juniper's among them. It was almost as if that voice spoke through her again, as the babe stirred in her arms and reached out one chubby hand to grasp the ritual sword in the nemed, the sacred wood above her home. But this time it was not through her alone; through many and many, as if some great rough beast spoke as its moment came at last:
"Sad Winter's child in this leafless shaw—
Yet be Son, and Lover, and Hornéd Lord!
Guardian of My sacred Wood, and Law—
His people's strength—and the Lady's sword!"
Rudi was silent again when the voices died away. Then he put his left hand to the hilt of the Sword and drew it slowly, raising it above his head.
There was a gasp. Juniper felt the same slight involuntary huh! escape her own lips. She wasn't sure that she saw anything at all, save a gleam of starlight and moonlight and firelight, but it seemed to blaze until all her eyes were filled with it.
"Artos!" someone called; and that name had been given him by her on the same day.
Then the name over and over again, until he suddenly sheathed the Sword. That cut it off, as he had swung that supernal edge against the sound.
"My people," he said into the silence. "A Mackenzie I was born, and among the very first begotten and born in this new time after the Change. A Mackenzie I shall be until I die. But Chief of the Clan, the Mackenzie Himself, I can never be."
Another roar, this one of protest. Rudi waited it out.
"I am the Lady's sword!"
That brought ringing silence, and he went on: "I am called by the Powers to be Ard Rí in Montival. The High King must be King of all his peoples and give good lordship and fair judgment to all; yes, and be seen to do that. I see men and women of our Clan from Sutterdown here, which is under the patronage of Apollo, the God who loves above all justice and due proportion in men and realms. Nor, by the Mare and the Raven and the Moon, does Rhiannon love it less."
He shook his head. "Your Chief I cannot be. And therefore I cannot be tanist, the successor. You must chose another, while my mother can yet train them."
He stepped back, and ostentatiously crossed his arms again. Juniper quirked a smile as she took up the words:
"Long ago, at our first Óenach Mór—and it's considerably smaller that was!—"
That produced a startled laugh.
"I swore that I would be Chief only of a free folk. You may choose the Chief you will, and you may chose the Chief's tanist."
A low murmuring went through the throng, and then Oak Barstow stepped forward into the semicircle of firelight before the natural dais. His voice was more of a battle-shout than a bard's, but it carried well enough:
"I say that we should have none but the blood of Lady Juniper to be Chief of the Clan; this by our free choice. Who says aye?"
A roar, one loud enough to make her almost take a step backward; it took a moment for quiet to fall again, and she felt a prickle of tears. Partly of joy—that love and offered devotion made all the years of work and worry seem less hard. And partly a mother's love of her children, for they would bear that burden after her.
"Lady Eilir has pledges to the Dúnedain," Oak went on, in a fine carrying roar; bards with the outer Duns relayed his words. "The Rangers are our friends and kindred, but they are another folk with their own laws and ways. Lady Fiorbhinn is too young—"
"And would be better suited to run crowing through the treetops and fly to the Moon, than to be Chief of three children in a bathtub, let alone a great roynish Clan!"
Her clear young voice cut through effortlessly. There was a swelling ripple of laughter out to the edges of the great assembly. Oak's booming laugh was loudest of all. The smile was still in his voice as he went on:
"That leaves only one of Lady Juniper's children; and well she is suited to the task, as we all know. I call on the Óenach Mor to hail Maude Loring Mackenzie as Tanist of the Clan, to follow the Chief and learn from her and to be the Mackenzie in her turn. All for?"
Juniper could see her daughter blink, as the force of the giant shout hit like a huge padded club at her chest.
There was a long silence; a few individuals stirred, began to rise, looked around the circle of those from their own Duns and sank down again. Oak's laughter was loud again:
"Well, that's a first, just as this is the first Great Assembly not in the dùthchas of the Clan! But we should start the counting now, or it's very tired we'll be by tomorrow!"
Copyright © 2011 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>