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This is the last sample chapter.

 

THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER TEN:

 

Emergency Coordinator’s Residence

Chartered City of Dubuque

Provisional Republic of Iowa

September 14th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

“He’s... dead,” Kate Heasleroad said numbly.

“Yes, he is, Kate. You can grieve later. You have to do things! Now!”

Mathilda Arminger spoke firmly. The pain in her arm and ribs was like white ice playing up into her shoulder, but she kept the bandaged arm hugged against her aching side. The bandages were wet—the doctor said she needed stitches—but she could attend to that later; there weren’t any bone-spikes prodding into her lungs, for all that each movement of her chest was like breathing in molten lead.

The younger woman’s eyes were blank as she repeated: “He’s... dead. Tony’s dead.

She began to rock back and forth, moaning. Mathilda suppressed an impulse to bury her hands in her hair and shriek in frustration. The urge to slap the other woman across the face was even stronger but she repressed it, even when Rudi raised one palm and mimed the action.

“That only works in stories,” she said decisively.

“Well, we’d better do something, anamchara mine. The wheels are going to come off the wagon here, and soon. The Bossman dead, Denson dead... If we don’t just run for the docks they’ll be looking for someone to blame...”

“I know what to do, and I’m not going to leave Kate without help now of all times. I owe her. Get this place in order, would you, Rudi? I’ll be right back.”

The nursery was down a corridor and through a pair of light swinging doors; she put one foot ahead of the other, with a determination that brought beads of sweat to her face. It had room for more than one infant, and the walls had an attractive modern mural of animals and flowers. That showed clearly, for the wall-mounted gaslights had been turned up. The boy rested on his back in a padded crib, dressed in a pink jumpsuit and looking up at a mobile of cutout cats and dogs and birds, taking an occasional dab at it with one chubby paw. The noise had woken him, but he wasn’t frightened yet. Kate had said that he was a good baby.

The children of the Coordinator of Dubuque were elsewhere tonight, probably to their parent’s eventual intense relief, but there was a sadness to the scattered toys—wooden blocks, a beautiful pre-Change doll with blond hair, a rocking-horse with a carefully repaired stirrup. The nurse was a middle-aged woman in a print dress; she stood before Tommie Heasleroad’s crib with an aluminum baseball bat clenched in her hands and an expression of wild determination on her rather horsy face.

That grew greater as she took in the newcomer’s alien—and blood-spattered—clothes and disheveled hair. Mathilda paused for an instant to take a necessary deep breath and pitch absolute confidence into her voice. The nursemaid deserved it if possible, rather than having the boy taken from her—she was obviously ready to sell her life for his.

And it wouldn’t do to bleed all over him, Mathilda thought for an instant of half-crazed humor before she spoke:

“Your mistress needs her son with her. It’s quite safe now, but you must bring him to her.”

She turned, and the nurse scooped up the child and followed.

Mother was right. Just act as if there’s absolutely no doubt you’ll be obeyed, and chances are you will be. The more so when people are frightened.

It had been only moments, but the room was in order when she returned, if you didn’t count the bloodstains. The bodies of the dead Cutters and guardsmen had been carried away; Anthony Heasleroad had been laid out, his body covered with a cloth that had probably started as an embroidered tablecloth, and his eyes closed. Mary and Ritva were there too, looking the worse for wear—Ritva had a bruise that would cover a full half of her face and was talking in Sign, leaning against Ingolf as she did:

They had a ship waiting. Left a small rearguard and got away—heading south. It’s Chaos and Old Night out there now, Rudi.

Rudi stood at the top of the stairs, and Father Ignatius at the base; between them they limited the men allowed up to a few of the most important, the ones who came with armed retinues at their backs, and a doctor with her black leather case. The doctor set to work, but the potentates milled around, taking in the dead Bossman with exclamations of horror or in more than one case with blank, calculating expressions that turned to look at each other. A few seemed nauseous; well, the stink was bad, particularly if you hadn’t seen many battlefields.

Kate looked up from her fuge when the nursemaid offered her her son. She snatched the boy; he whimpered, but then she controlled herself and turned her clutch into a firm comforting grip.

Seize the moment, Mathilda thought, and bent to put her good hand on Kate’s shoulder, willing strength down it.

“Kate!” she said. “Your husband’s dead but your son lives. You must act for him, and act now.”

“What... what should I do?”

The edge of hysteria drained out of her voice in the course of the sentence, and she straightened.

“You must summon your affinity...” Mathilda said, and saw blank incomprehension. “Your vassals and liegemen... oh, Mother of God, your supporters, Kate. The ones who’ll rally to your son and have fighting-men behind them. The ones who owe land and office to your family!”

“But I’m not... I’m just...”

“You’re the mother of the heir, unless you let him be dispossessed,” she said. “Think of him and you can do it.”

“I don’t know what I’d say!”

“I’ll help. I remember what Mother did, after my father was killed in the Protector’s War. Just for starters—“

 

@@@

 

St. Raphael’s Cathedral

Chartered City of Dubuque

Provisional Republic of Iowa

September 25th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

“Christ on a crutch,” Abel Heuisink said, his voice pawky-dry as the gathering before the cathedral doors massed. “Thanks so very much. Because of you, Kate’s going to pull it off. So we get more Heaselroads.”

Rudi grinned at the look of grudging respect the elder Heuisink shot towards Mathilda, where she stood three steps down from the hastily-erected dais, bright in the court dress of an Association princess. He took a deep breath of the crisp autumn air, enjoying even the pull and itch of his wounds as they began their healing. None was serious... and the feeling meant he was alive, alive on a bright fall day with years yet before him. The best part about a fight was surviving it... until you didn’t, of course.

Doesn’t miss a trick, my Matti! he thought. And Kate’s a more apt pupil than I’d have thought.

“Don’t blame me,” Rudi said. “Sure, and it’s Mathilda who managed the politics, for the most part, with Odard next. They both learned it in the Lady Regent’s school.”

“Lady Regent?”

“Mathilda’s mother, Lady Sandra, Regent of the Portland Protective Association.”

“Yeah, you mentioned her. She’s good at politics, this Lady Sandra?”

“Oh, you have no idea, my friend. At the game of thrones, there’s none like her in all the world.”

You couldn’t quite call the chair that had been set out on the dais a throne; but with its massive size and glowing inlays of jewels and rare woods and semiprecious stones, you couldn’t quite say it wasn’t, either. The morning sun made it blaze and sparkle; careful hands had buffed and polished away the patina of age that it had kept all the way to the museum in Boston, and from there westward in Ingolf Vogeler’s caravan.

“Tell me, sir,” he said to the Iowan. “Do you and your friends... your faction... this Progressive Party... have enough troops to put down all the other factions here without civil war, and the black shame and grief of it?”

“No, dammit,” Abel said; this time the frustration in his voice was bleak and bitter. “And if it starts it would be a civil war with about five sides, some of whom would make old Tony look like the second coming of Thomas Jefferson.”

Who... ah, Rudi thought.

He’d learned some of the history of the old Americans, though he’d preferred George Washington, himself—more of a man of deeds and less a creature of words.

The Iowan went on: “And it would go on until every county in the State was a country, and fighting all the others. Tony’s father knew about divide and rule, you betcha. That’s why Tony lasted as long as he did—even with old Tom gone, and even when most people knew how useless Tony was, nobody could agree on who’d take over, and how.”

A slight smell of incense from the funeral mass lingered, under the autumnal smells of burning leaves and cut grass and the wild silty smell of the river not far distant; the Cardinal-Archbishop of Des Moines was here, and he wasn’t quite adding his blessing to the proceedings... but then again, you couldn’t say he wasn’t either, and he was in full fig of vestments and mitre and croisier. Father Ignatius stood just behind his right shoulder, in plain Benedictine robes, but leaning forward occasionally to murmur a word in his ear, to the evident frustration of his own entourage.

“Then isn’t a compromise that spares this rich land from death and burning a good thing?” Rudi asked. “You’ve been long at peace, and I’ve seen war; an ugly thing, and a war of brothers is uglier yet. Not the ugliest of all things, true, but to be avoided if you can do so with honor.”

Troops stood in double columns, down on either side of the strip of red carpet that led to the Cathedral’s doors. Half were State Police, looking professional and tough in their polished mail but rather subdued beneath the stiff discipline; the ruler they’d upheld and the commander they’d hated and feared and adored both gone at once.

The other half were Farmer’s and Sheriff’s retainers, more motley in their gear but solemn with the occasion, and with Jack Heuisink and Ingolf Vogeler at either end to bully-damn them into order.

Behind the dais stood Jake sunna Jake and his followers. Rudi suppressed a chuckle at the sight; Edain had managed to get them into kilts of something quite similar to the Mackenzie tartan, at which they’d been wildly enthusiastic, and reasonable body-armor, which they liked even better, and civilized barbers to shave faces and trim hair, which they’d liked very little. He’d even found flat Scots-style bonnets. They leaned on their hickory longbows, grinning like so many timber-wolves contemplating a flock of sheep. Their pose wasn’t even the rough Clan approximation of standing to attention, but they were quiet enough—they were hunters, after all.

Abel sighed. “I’ve been compromising since the Change for just that reason. Because I had to do it. It would be nice to get my own way for once—and I’m right, God-Dammit. We should be a democracy again, before people forget that there was such a thing.”

A roll of drums and a blare of trumpets sounded. Kate Heasleroad came through the doors of the cathedral, from where she had stood vigil before her husband’s coffin. With her was the nursemaid, and in her arms young Tommie, quiet but with his face wet with uncomprehending tears.

And he’ll never know his father, Rudi thought with a pang.

He’d met his own blood-sire quite a few times, but not enough to know him; there had always been the matter of Signe Havel, Mike’s wife, and he hadn’t been officially acknowledged as the Bear Lord’s son until after the man’s death.

Still, all things considered, little Tommie’s orphaning may be for the best; even love can ruin you, if it’s done wrongly, a difficult feat but one his father would certainly have pulled off. I was lucky. A boy could do far worse than have the legend of Mike Havel to pattern himself on, and the living Nigel Loring to show him daily what it is to be a man. Not to mention the likes of Chuck Barstow and Sam Aylward.

“Legends change, Colonel Heuisink,” Rudi said to his companion. “One will do as well as another, as long as people—the lords and the folk both—hold to them truly, love the story they tell and try to live rightly by them. It’s when people betray the dreams they have together that they bring real sorrow upon a land.”

Kate wasn’t quite dressed in a cotte-hardi either, or wearing a crown, though she’d wanted to. Mathilda had talked her out of that; both would be too alien here, for now. But her long gown and the tiara in her hair were stately enough, and the expression on her face was stern and remote as she looked out over the crowd.

And the half of being a Queen is to look like a Queen. For what is rank, but people’s belief that you hold it?

The arc of open garden before the great church held several hundred prominent Sheriffs and wealthy or influential Farmers, mayors and National Guard commanders; men of consequence from all over the Provisional Republic, summoned by the semaphore-telegraph net, and brought here as fast as light railcars could travel—which was forty miles an hour or even better, with relays working the pedals. Beyond the fence and a line of spearmen the hill and the streets beyond were crowded with the burghers and commons of Dubuque—sleek traders and brokers and ship-owners, solid shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen, ragged day-laborers who had nothing to sell but the strength of their arms.

Kate waited for a long second, just long enough for quiet to fall, and not quite long enough for the murmurs to grow again. Then she raised a hand; the bugles blew once more, and the warriors beat blades on their shields, or stamped the steel-shod butts of their weapons down on the pavement, or flourished their bows. When the harsh martial noise stopped the silence could have been cut with a knife.

“Sheriffs, Farmers and people of the Provisional Republic of Iowa,” she said into it. “Anthony Heaselroad, my husband, your Bossman, is dead. Murdered by foreigners who he gave hospitality as his guests, murdered on Iowan land by agents of the cultist madman of Corwin. Will you let this stand? Will we let our leader be murdered by savages from Montana? Will Iowa, proud Iowa, our home, the last home of American civilization, let this stand? Can they do this to us?

“Oh, now that’s clever,” Rudi murmured softly. “You are your mother’s daughter, Matti; I wouldn’t have thought of it so quickly, perhaps. Us is a powerful word, and it’s a sorry excuse for a man who isn’t moved by the pull of shared blood. It’s no accident we of human kind took wolves to share our hearths and work and to guard our children, for we too are creatures of the pack.”

The surprised grumble from the audience turned into a sudden roar:

No! No! No!

Abel Heuisink’s generation-long feud with the Bossman’s family was forgotten for a moment as he shouted with the others. Fists rammed into the air, and the soldiers shouted with the rest, landholders’ retainers and State Police together, until their officers cursed and cuffed them into quiet. The men of note took longer to subside, and the vast crowd of ordinary folk beyond longer still; their voices were like a great beast’s snarl in a nighted forest.

Rudi felt a little prickle up his spine at the sound. He kept a tactful silence himself; he was a foreigner here too, and he judged the temper of the time not overly friendly to outsiders.

“What do we say to these murderers? What is out answer?” Kate called.

War!” a voice called, and others joined it: “War! War!

Abel Heuisink started and half-turned. A little way beyond amid the notables was a knot of younger men, the sons and in a few instances the grandsons of the oldsters around them—Odard Liu in the midst of them, and the closest to him all the men he’d made his cronies. They had started the call, but others took it up.

“War! War! War!” The chant spread, and then the commons joined in, like a thousandfold echo of Pacific surf upon basalt cliffs:

WAR! WAR! WAR!

Rudi blinked a little in surprise when the hoarse bellow cut off at Kate’s gesture, quiet rippling out from the dais to the edge of sight. She turned and held out her arms, and the nursemaid set her son in them.

“My boy’s father is dead,” she said. “And all the promise of a new generation that went with him, a generation born since the Change and tempered in these times of trial.”

Rudi grinned to himself. Only a few of the notables were past sixty, like Abel Heuisink; most were at least a generation younger. Many were in their twenties, or were accompanied by children who were, learning the family business of ruling at first-hand by example and observation the way most trades were passed on now. He hadn’t come across a single land in his travels days where the younger generation weren’t itching to take over from their elders, the more so because they were impatient with habits of mind born before the Change.

The crowd of townsfolk beyond were mostly those who’d been born since the old world died, or at least didn’t remember it well.

Kate went on: “But his son lives—named for the man who saved us all when the Change came. Gentlemen, Sheriffs, Farmers and people of our great Provisional Republic, I cannot protect my son alone.”

She held the boy over her head in a sudden gesture.

“I need your help. Will you promise that help? Can I depend on you? Will you give me the wisdom of your counsel, the strength of your arms, the courage of your loyal hearts?”

The bellow that answered her was enough to make the glass in the cathedral’s great windows rattle audibly. Glancing aside Rudi could see doubt on many faces, but others shone, exalted... and even the doubters were looking around them and reckoning odds, and then mostly joining in. A corner of his mouth twisted up.

Matti’s mother had used that tactic shamelessly among the Associates in the months that followed Norman Arminger’s death at the end of the War of the Eye, trotting her daughter around like an icon. She hadn’t been the only one to use the tactic in those days, either. Sandra had used more vivid words, but even then the Associates had been used to the concept of dynastic loyalty. These Iowans had to be led gently, into things they felt already but had no set form of words to express.

“Farmers, Sheriffs, and people; I will do nothing unconstitutional. The Assembly and the State Senate must be consulted. But will you swear, here and now, to uphold my son’s rights against this enemy from beyond our borders?”

Which makes no sense if you think about it—the only threat to young Tommie’s position right now is from his fellow-countrymen—but few of these folk are thinking much right now, Rudi knew. And by the time they might, they’ll be committed. She’s made her son, vengeance for his father, and the insulted dignity and honor of Iowa one and the same thing. And that honor their own.

The people bellowed, along with some of the notables, particularly the younger ones. The rest took it up with a half-second’s lag.

 

@@@

 

Kate Heasleroad glared at Abel Heuisink as he pushed his son’s wheelchair through the door. The conference room was large; the long oval of the mahogany table was enough for a score of seats, but it stretched beyond that to tall windows that showed the hilly streets of Dubuque and a glimpse of the Mississippi beyond that. A pot on a sideboard gave off the rich smell of real coffee, only slightly cut with chicory, and a tray of pastries rested beside it; the scent mingled with city-smoke and the cut grass of the lawn outside. Nobody had bothered with the amenities yet. The former Bossman’s wife hadn’t even sat down, and her guards bristled behind her.

“You’re not taking what belongs to my son, Colonel!” she snapped.

The elder Heuisink shrugged. “I can’t take what you think belongs to your son, Kate,” he said. “You just fixed it that way, you and your friends.”

Rudi kept his face calm, but there was a grin behind it at the expression on the face of the Bossman’s widow. Then it turned shrewd; she stared at the spare seamed face of the older man, and she nodded slowly. The armed men behind her relaxed infinitesimally, sensing that it wouldn’t come to blades and blood on the parquet floor, not just yet. Some of the politicians did too, and others looked at each other in puzzlement.

“Thank him for pointing it out,” he went on, and nodded to Rudi. “Though I like to think I’d have thought of it. But that might have taken too long, and a day’s a long time in politics. Especially politics conducted with sharp pointed things.”

“You’re serious,” she said. “But you’ve been an enemy of ours forever. Matti said you would be reasonable, but—“

“I was an opponent, not an enemy, but leave that aside. Iowa has an enemy now, and we can’t afford to fight among ourselves. I didn’t kill your husband, Kate. I tried as hard as I could to stop it. Hell, Jack here got himself busted up fighting for you, remember.”

The younger Heuisink nodded, then winced and touched his ribs; the splinted leg was outstretched on a support rigged to the pre-Change wheelchair. Kate looked at Mathilda, who stood cradling her bandaged arm and tight-strapped ribs. The very slight nod she got seemed to relax her a little further.

“That’s true, Colonel... Abel,” she said. “What do you have to propose?”

“A coalition, and you as...”

This time the elder Heuisink looked at Mathilda himself.

“Regent,” Mathilda Arminger said. “I’m familiar with arrangements like that. “A Regency with you, Colonel Heuisink as... well, might as well call it Chancellor. And offices and honors divided between your factions... parties, you call them... according to a mutually satisfactory plan. Or equally unsatisfactory plan; there isn’t enough land and offices to satisfy all the claimants, and never will be. With a war coming, you’re going to need your unity.”

Young Tom Jr. murmured and turned in his mother’s arms. She stood and handed him to his nursemaid. “Take him away, Annette,” she said. “We have business to discuss.”

 

@@@

 

“So we’ve got a war on our hands,” the elder Heuisink said, several hours later.

Mellow evening light came through tall windows. He passed a cup of the coffee to Rudi; they were alone in the room now.

Rudi shrugged, sipping at it and nibbling a cookie rich with walnuts. Sitting in a room full of politicians and helping keep their mutual fears, hatreds and spiteful greeds from boiling over was work, just as sure as skinning a cow or pitching sheaves onto a wagon.

Unfortunately it didn’t give you the honest weariness that real labor did. His stomach felt sour, and the muscles of his neck stiff and tense, in addition to the fading but still sharp pain of bruises and cuts.

“Not this year, I think,” he said. “It’s too close to winter.”

The Iowan landholder nodded; the season of mud was coming, and the blizzards after that. Iowa’s railroads and roads were much better than most, but that could do only so much for moving and supplying armies inside the Provisional Republic’s boundaries, and nothing outside them.

And besides which, the preparations to build an army will take time. He went on aloud:

“And Corwin’s domains are far away, though they may move local allies against you. But next year, almost certainly, in my judgment. Fortunately it’ll be a war against a foreign foe, not amongst yourselves, and Iowa is very strong.”

“Not as strong as you might think,” Heuisink said grimly. “Tom Heasleroad was always more concerned with a possible coup than he was with making the National Guard... the army... effective. The units are understrength and scattered, and a lot of the officers are more concerned with lining their pockets than anything else. Plus the National Guard Reserve—the farm militia—is a joke and a bad joke at that, on most of the Farms. Barely even police, much less soldiers.”

Rudi blinked. “That’s, ummm, less clever than I’d have expected, from the man’s reputation, which was that he was no fool, whatever else his failings. Ni neart go cur le chéile.

At the older man’s puzzled look he rendered the Gaelic into English:

“No unity, no strength.”

“No, it was very clever indeed,” Abel Heuisink said. “From Tom’s point of view, if not the whole State’s. He was always most worried that someone would do to him what he... and I, I was in on it too, let’s be honest... did to the Governor right after the Change. Killed him and took over, no point in weasling about it.”

Rudi looked at him. “But that was necessary, wasn’t it?”

“I thought so. Tom too, but he wanted to do it and I was reluctant. But do it once, and get away with it, and there’s always the chance someone else will give it a try. For reasons they think are good. Possibly just a little worse than the ones you had. And after that another, and another, until it’s just for whatever they can grab, for no better reason than they think they can do it. We did what we had to do, but we broke things doing it. Broke barriers.”

Rudi nodded. “And that’s another reason you should keep your promise to Kate... to the Regent,” he said. “Not that I doubt your honor, Colonel. But for the good of your land, too. Iowa is strong... if it can learn to use that strength, the which requires years of good lordship. And while I wouldn’t wish a war for the purpose, still fighting one together against outsiders who deserve it can be a powerful bond.”

Heuisink looked a little surprised, and the Mackenzie went on:

“Men will bow to a naked sword; but that makes your back feel very naked too, and everyone has to sleep sometime. They need a story as well, a story that tells them the ruler has a right to rule, if men are to live together as men, not like crabs in a bucket devouring each other. The which is not a good thing! You may not like the House of Heaselroad, sir, but here they are. They did bring Iowa through the Change. And this Heaselroad heir is very young indeed, and need have no feud with you, you and yours being guiltless of his father’s death. If you’re Chancellor, and his mother the Regent is your friend, you’ll have a hand in the shaping of him. And of this land.”

The blue eyes were shrewd as they regarded him. “You’re young but no young fool, are you, Mr. Mackenzie?”

Rudi grinned. “No, that I am not. I’m young, but I’m learning, so! Modesty’s a vice I leave to Christians.”

“And if I’m prime minister, Chancellor, whatever... I can make some changes. There are too many of Tony’s men in power to get rid of them without a civil war—I told Kate the truth about that—but with a real war in prospect, we’ll need reforms whether they like it or not. We’ll have to have the common people on side, not just following orders.”

“We... all of the Prophet’s enemies... will need that strength,” Rudi said. “Iowa’s neighbors will listen to you, Colonel Heuisink; you have the reputation of an honorable man. And the Seven Council Fires of the Sioux will, as well.”

“They will with you vouching for me,” Heuisink said. “You’re the one who got adopted by them... Strong Raven! I wish you weren’t leaving us; it’d go better with you in person than in a letter.”

“The which is also my wish,” Rudi said. “That I was staying just long enough to then go west again with an army at my back to help my folk! But the Sword of the Lady is still waiting for me on Nantucket; nor am I truly the Lady’s Sword until I hold it. We have more than armies to fight, sir. We have to deal with—”

“Principalities and powers,” Heuisink said, and shivered very slightly.

He crossed himself, and Rudi drew the Pentagram.

 

@@@

 

Mississippi River

Schooner Hammerdown

North of Dubuque

September 28th, CY24/2022 AD

 

Mathilda waved wistfully as the spires and towers and curtain-wall of the Iowan city fell out of sight around a bend of the river. Their shadows fell long across the deck, with the morning sun at their backs. A propeller ship went by in the other direction, the windmill above its deck whirring and gears grinding below deck, and fishing boats were out like a flock of gulls. Rudi stood with his hand on the cool metal frame of the schooner’s bow catapult, his legs flexing as the ship nosed across the swell, content with the slap of water on the hull, the manifold thrum of wind through the rigging and the groan and creak and squeal of the wooden fabric beneath them.

“I’ll miss Kate,” she said after a while. “Her husband was a complete bastard, but she was... is... a good friend. A good woman. I don’t know how she could have loved him, but she did.”

“Aschula, if women didn’t have bad taste in men and weren’t prone to fall in love with right bastards now and then, it’s certain, sure and completely beyond question that human kind would have died out long ago.”

Mathilda snorted. “Things would have been a lot harder for us without her. She’s really getting a grip on things there, too.”

Rudi nodded; he’d had the same impression. “And now that she’s hatching from her egg, the which you had a hand in, I suspect she’ll be a very bad enemy to her foes, as well as a good friend to us.”

She leaned against him with a sigh, and he put his arm around her shoulders—carefully of her wounds—and his chin on her hair, enjoying the clean summery smell of it.

The sun was fairly warm as the morning went on, just comfortable despite the stiff breeze that fluttered the edges of his kilt and plaid, and snatched at his bonnet and shoulder-length hair. The ship heeled as the two triangular sails behind them thuttered and then cracked taunt, smooth lovely geometric curves up the white-pine masts. The craft was rigged fore-and-aft, handy for the confined waters of even a giant river, and ninety feet at the waterline. A little spray came over the bowsprit and touched his face where they stood on the foredeck.

The use of the ship was a gift from the new Regent and Chancellor of the Provisional Republic. She was big enough to take the party, their best horses, and all the Southsiders.

The whole tribe of which are now a pain in the arse of cosmic dimensions, he thought. But we couldn’t leave them there, not even at someplace friendly like the Heuisink’s estate. Too many old angers, and they’d be too afraid and bewildered and cramped, too likely for it to end in blood if they felt deserted. At least they’re hardy sorts, and not settled folk. They’re all used to moving about in dangerous country in all seasons.

It wasn’t something he could get too irritated about now. They were finally moving, and quickly—as much north as east, right now, granted, but on their way again, and soon they’d turn eastward up the Wisconsin River.

I can’t say our stay in Iowa was wasted time, either. We’ve made a strong friend, and Corwin and its Prophet an enemy.

And Mathilda was a pleasant warm solidity against his side, as well, the dearer for their separation. The blue-gray surface of the Mississippi slid by, the wooded bluffs on both sides streaked with gold and red and brown as the trees turned, above marshes clamorous with duck and goose and teal, where reeds had gone brown and spilled their white floating seed onto the air. That air smelled of wet and silt, tar and canvas and warm wood, and, faint and exciting, a hint of wildwood.

Mathilda grinned up at him. “No more prairies!” she said. “No more bug on a plate. No more walking and walking and riding and riding and nothing changes.”

He laughed. “You took the thought from my mind, darlin’,” he said. “Now, just put some high mountains on that eastern horizon, turn this river westward, sow the forest with some Douglas fir, and it would be downright homelike, eh?”

“Just like Montival?” she said.

Rudi’s answering grin was wry. There was a yearning in the tone beneath the joke, and he knew his heart as well would leap when he saw the cone of Mt. Hood again, or sailed down the Columbia past waterfalls veining the cliffs in silver, or felt the soft autumn rains dimpling the Willamette between willow-clad banks.

“That name... I think a kindly Power whispered it to me. It has a ring to it, does it not? For our home is all mountain and valley, and it’s beautiful... which the name is too, you see? Though Edain liked it even more than I.”

“I think it does have a ring to it,” she said. “We’ve all been talking about it and we all like it. It’s... it’s true. The name the land was waiting for.”

There was something in her voice... He looked down sharply, and her bold-featured face was smiling in a way that had a disconcerting hint of her mother’s expression when she’d just maneuvered someone exactly where she wanted them—or was about to castle in a game of chess. The more so as she stepped out from beneath his arm.

He turned, and all the companions of his journey were there, with Jake sunna Jake as well. Edain was grinning like Garbh; most of the others were solemn; Mathilda’s face had turned serious as well.

“You’ve been conspiring behind my back!” he said, half-angry, half-amused.

Mathilda wasn’t in court dress today, of course, but the badge of the Eye was on the shoulder of her sheepskin jacket. She touched it, and grew less grave for an instant.

“Conspiring? Hello! House Arminger, Rudi!”

Then she drew her sword; with her good arm, and carefully so as not to stress her healing ribs beneath the bandages. They all did, and raised the blades; Rudi felt himself struck speechless as the ship’s crew looked on curiously.

“Hail!” Mathilda cried, her voice proud as an ocean of lions. “Hail... Artos! Hail, Artos the First, High King of Montival!”

The others shouted it with her—some of them a little awkwardly, but just as loud; a red-tailed hawk that had been circling low took flight and soared upward into the blue dome of the sky.

He waited until the sound died, and set his hands on his sword-belt.

“Is it that you’ve all gone barking mad the now?” he said sharply. “Here we are a thousand miles and more from home—yes, from Montival—and it’s a king you would make of me?”

“I think God wants you to be a king, R—Artos, not just us,” Mathilda said calmly. “And that’s why the Sword is waiting for you to bring it back.”

“You’re many of you heirs to rulers, but none of you rulers—well, Jake is, and Odard’s of age but he’s a vassal, not a sovereign himself. It’s our parents that should make any such choice, not us!”

“Or the head of my Order, for me, technically,” Ignatius said. “Particularly since he’s my temporal ruler as well as my Father in God. But I have prayed for guidance, and... I think that this is right; even righteous. Against the dark Power that possesses Corwin, God would raise a bulwark of the Light.”

“I don’t even believe in your version of the divine!” Rudi protested.

Ignatius smiled with polite, invincible certainty. “That is a great pity. But nevertheless, He believes in you... your Majesty. And He is thrifty, and uses what comes to hand. I have that on the best authority.”

Ingolf shrugged. “I’m not even an heir, just a younger son,” he said. “But yah, who cares what the old geezers think? We’re all Changelings, or close enough—and this world’s going to be ours soon. If it isn’t going to end up belonging to the Cutters,” he added. “Which is what this crazy trip is all about, you betcha.”

“Aunt Astrid will love it,” Mary said with conviction, and Ritva nodded vigorously. “And mom... well, Signe’s reasonable. When she has to be. When it’s official Bearkiller business. Sorta reasonable, mostly.”

I’m for it,” Frederick said, his brown young face grave. “Dad wanted the country united again, and tried all his life, but the bits and pieces went their own way in spite of everything he could do. Martin... he just wants to take it all, hammer it flat, and kill anyone who gets in his way. It’s time to try something else, something that lets them all be different but puts them together as well. I know you, Rudi, and if anyone can do it, you can.”

Virginia Kane grinned and took his arm. “Rudi, I think you’re the boy to put a branding iron on the Cutters’ ass, your exalted majesticalness,” she said cheerfully. “And serve up their Rocky Mountain Oysters on a plate. They killed my father and ran me off my family’s ranch; I want ‘em dead bad. Plus it just needs doing and they just need killing. Besides, Fred’s my man. I go where he does, and his fights are mine too.”

“You’d have made a great Chief for the Clan,” Edain said. “You’ll do even better as High King, with Maude or Fiorbhinn to manage at home, they’re likely lasses. It’d be rank foolishness to deny it.”

Mathilda nodded vigorously. “We can do the formalities at home, later, when you’ve got the Sword. But we are the future. Nearly everyone our age back home will want it; they already know about you, and the prophecy. And you’re our King, our Changeling King. Artos.”

“Don’t—“ he began, then choked off: Don’t call me that!

It is my name, he thought. Granted it’s my Craft name, but it was my own mother that gave it to me in the nemed, and her inspired and making prophecy the while. That’s when I was called the Lady’s Sword, too.

A prickling ran down his spine, and a feeling as if a wind were tickling his neck... the wind of hovering wings. If it were to be done, he supposed this was the sort of place it would be done; far from home, and on his way into deadly peril. The Powers would have their jokes... and he had promised more than once to walk the path They set, though it led through the hard and stony places. Images flashed through his mind; Raven’s eyes looking into his, this moment... and a stricken field of battle where men roared his name as he bore a sword like a wind of flame...

“I...” he began, and then fell silent again.

I have been walking that path perhaps... since my birth... since the day Mother held me over the altar in the Sacred Wood... perhaps only since I was old enough to know it, he thought. I am the sacrifice that goes consenting.

Mathilda’s shining eyes twisted at his heart. All she saw at this moment was him returning in glory and victory, and herself at his side, to rule together. She was her mother’s daughter, and her father’s for that matter; kingcraft was in her blood. Not to mention that if he was High King, many of the religious obstacles to a marriage could be set aside—there were ample precedents for that in the history of her faith.

And yet if that comes to pass, and all you wish for is granted us... even then, anamchara mine, still the day will come when I know that the King must die so his folk may live, and on that day I will leave you, be the parting never so bitter. I have it on the best of authority—from a God, if not your God—that it will be before I grow old. Mine is the blood that renews the land. Well, let us hope that day’s not today, or soon; and let us see that it is not shed in vain. In the meantime we have time, which can be lived in every moment.

“Is this truly what you want?” he asked softly—his eyes were locked on Mathilda’s warm brown gaze, but his voice included the others.

For answer they thrust their blades into the air again; the young sun broke in a blinding glitter from the honed edges.

Hail, Artos!” And from Mathilda and Odard and Ignatius: “Vivat Artos Rex! Vivat Artos Rex!

The shout woke something in him—something he wasn’t sure of, stronger than a jolt of brandy or the battle-fury of ríastrad. He wasn’t a man hungry for power, but there was so much that needed to be done and which only a King could do.

Power for it’s own sake I do not desire. But a craftsman’s urge to set things right... that is in me, and there’s no doubt of it.

“I ask you again,” he said, and now he looked from face to face. “Don’t do this unless you are sure. For there’s no going back. And keep this in mind. If I am to be a King, then by Earth, by Sky, I will be King indeed. For such is our land’s need, that’s beyond disputing. I won’t spare myself in serving that need. I won’t spare you, either, my friends.”

Hail, Artos! Hail, High King of Montival!

“So mote it be,” he said quietly, and the words fell into the world with a weight like bells.

Silence fell again, broken only by the sounds of ship and river and wind, and the long sssshs-click! of swords being sheathed. Then Mathilda came forward and went carefully to her knees before him, her hands laid palm-to-palm before her.

Rudi took them between his; they were warm and strong but almost vanished in his long-fingered clasp. She spoke proudly, looking him full in the face. The words were half-familiar, but not exactly the formula her folk used, or his, or the Dúnedain, or the Bearkillers. They must have talked it over between themselves...

There go my people, he thought, remembering a saying his mother was fond of. I must hurry to catch up with them, for I am their leader.

Mathilda’s voice rang proudly:

“Here in the sight of God and all men I, Mathilda, daughter of Norman, daughter of Sandra, of the House of Arminger and in my person heir of Portland by right of blood, do swear fealty and service as vassal to the High King of Montival and take him as my overlord; in peace to serve with aid and counsel, in war with sword and goods and life, in my waking and my sleeping, in my living and my dying, with heart and hand and all Earthly worship; until death release me, or the world end. So witness God the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Blessed Virgin who is Portland’s patroness and mine.”

Rudi swallowed, but his voice was firm as he answered:

“And this oath do I hear—“ the slightest hesitation “—and swear in turn: I, Rudi Mackenzie, also called Artos, son of Michael, son of Juniper; son of Bear, son of Raven, and High King of Montival to be. I will not forget your oath, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, loyalty with good lordship, oath-breaking with vengeance. This I swear by the Earth below me, by the Sky above, by the Water that is my blood, and by the Fire that is my life, and by the Lord and Lady and all the Gods of my people. May they witness it.”

Mathilda offered her sword; he touched hilt and steel and sheathed it again for her. Then she stood, and they put their hands on each others’ shoulders and exchanged the kiss of peace on both cheeks. She came to stand at his right, erect, with her eyes bright and glad. Mary stepped forward and knelt in turn and offered her hands, and the others lined up behind her. Rudi took his half-sister’s palms between his; her single blue eye seemed to wink at him for an instant—but that might just be that it was the only one she had left to blink with.

When she spoke it was entirely solemn:

“In the sight of Manw Súlimo and Varda Elentári and all of human kind, I, Mary daughter of Michael, daughter of Signe, of the House of the Bear and the fellowship of the Dúnedain Rangers, do swear fealty and service as vassal to the High King of Montival—“

 

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“That delay in Iowa means we can either hole up for the winter, or keep going despite it,” Rudi said two days later. “We’re far north and going further, and the winter here will have all the wrath the Crone can muster.”

“Well, I’ve lived through a fair number of those winters. Snow’s easier to travel through than mud,” Ingolf said. “Or to travel over.”

The Hammerdown was tied up for the evening, with a hawser stretched to the stump of something made of concrete and steel on the eastern shore, eroded and rusted but still strong. The travelers had set up tents ashore there—a little elbow-room was very welcome—and Rudi could see the glow of their fires on the trunks and branches of the great trees that overhung the campsite through the slanting windows of the stern cabin. It was chilly enough that his jacket and plaid were welcome even in the rather stuffy cabin.

He spooned up another mouthful of an entirely forgettable catfish stew and took a bite from a lump of equally uninteresting cornbread laced with soy-meal, his attention focused on the map, a topographic one from a journal of the ancient world called National Geographic. Ignatius and Mathilda were there too; the priest paused to turn up one of the lanterns and the blue flame brightened across the aging, fragile paper glued to a backing of new linen cloth.

“The roads are pretty rough, especially past about here,” Ingolf went on.

The Readstowner’s thick finger came down near his birth-home, on the Kickapoo River.

“They already were when I left... and hell, that was back in CY 12, and there’s been plenty of frost and heave and floods since. Richland isn’t Iowa, and they weren’t kept up the same, or the railroads. But once the snow’s down hard, you can use sleighs, and skis. A man can go twice, three times as far in a day on skis as he can walking, and carry more of a pack, too, or pull a small sled. We’d make up the time. Stick to the rivers and lakes as much as we could.”

Rudi used his spoon as a pointer. “Right east, then?”

“As far as the Great Lakes. Big chunks of ‘em freeze hard, especially around the edges, and from what I hear the St. Lawrence freezes solid all the way down to the ocean. We could go that way—less chance of running into hostiles if we stay away from land as much as possible. It’s risky, yah, but so is waiting for spring.”

“We’d have to wait for freeze-up,” Rudi said. “But we do need some time, not least for our wounded to heal fully. Matti and Odard need some rest before they do hard travel again.”

Ignatius traced the line of the Mississippi southwards from Dubuque.

“And somewhere southward here are what is left of the Cutters, waiting.”

“Well south, Father,” Mathilda said. “Kate told me that the Iowan river-navy patrols well beyond their border, either way, and she and Abel Heuisink will have them looking hard. The Cutters will have to hide and run; probably they’ll have to run their ship up a tributary and abandon it, unless they go so far south they’re out of the picture.”

“Probably they’ll go at least this far,” Rudi said, tapping the place where the Ohio joined the Father of Waters. “They’d know that we were thinking of taking the Ohio route.”

Everyone nodded. Ingolf shrugged.

“Yah hey, they’d have heard. Tancredo owes me favors and he hid Mary and Ritva and Fred and Victoria. On the other hand, he is a pimp. A man who can’t be bought doesn’t go into that line of work, in my experience.”

“They lost about thirty men in Dubuque,” Rudi said thoughtfully. “They’d have eighty left—and a few of their local followers fled with them, to be sure. More than I’d care to meet, if it can be avoided. We were lucky once, but Nike is a fickle Goddess.”

“And there is their High Seeker, their adept,” Ignatius said. “He has... resources. I would not care to meet him again either, except at great need.”

Silence fell for a moment. Then Ingolf stretched his thick arms, rubbed one hand across his short-cropped brown beard and spoke:

“The Ohio route’s got its problems anyway. Lots of dams and bridges. And then the Appalachians.”

Ignatius raised a brow. “I had heard that more survived there than anywhere else in the east.”

“Yah, that’s the problem, Father. Mostly in the lowlands near the dead cities they’re barely human. But there aren’t very many of them either. Eaters who got through the first year, well, a lot still died before they could learn how to catch rabbits when people got scarce. Not a lot of their kids lived, either, between starving and the way most of their parents were insane by then. Mind you, with a winnowing like that the ones who did live to grow up are as dangerous as rats—man-sized, really smart rats.”

Rudi tapped a thumb on his lips. “Living in the wilds is a thing which requires much skill,” he said. “Look at our poor Southsiders and how pig-ignorant they were... and they were further west, and they were clean, as they put it.”

Ingolf’s hand covered what had been West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

“Up in the hollers, the back hills where they could hide out from the refugees or fight them off...

“They kept more knowledge?” Ignatius asked. “That accords with what the Church has heard.”

Ingolf nodded: “I’ve talked to a few salvagers who went that way. They grow some corn and truck, raise a little stock, and they were hunters even before the Change. A few even know how to make cloth or do smithing. Some of them are decent enough, even if they’re mighty standoffish. But then right in the next holler there’s a little clot of families that got through the dying time by eating outsiders if not each other, and still like a little BBQ stranger with their grits when they can get it. Or they may kill you for your gear, which leaves you just as dead, even if they leave the bodies alone.”

“There would be far more of them than there are close to the dead cities, too,” Rudi said thoughtfully.

How much food a land produced was always of concern to a warrior; food supplies set the limit on the number of people, hence of fighters.

“A lot more, and they’ve got better weapons and tools, and from what I hear they’re... not as crazy. Parts of northern Wisconsin are pretty much like that too, I’m afraid.”

“A choice between evils, so,” Rudi said, as his mouth quirked. “It’s a wonder and a bemusement to me, so it is, that you find so many who want power. If you get it what goes with it? Late nights peering at maps and listening to reports, hard work and harder decisions.”

Father Ignatius smiled. “My son, that you feel so makes it much more likely you will use power well.”

“And if you don’t get the power, other people make the decisions and you just have to put up with them,” Mathilda pointed out.

“To be sure,” Rudi said. “And now, my friend, how will we be received at your brother’s steading? For it would be the most convenient place to prepare for the next stage if we take that way. And if we’re welcome.”

Ingolf scowled, and his strong worn hands knotted together.

“I’m not sure,” he said bluntly. “At worst... well, Ed always liked money. Not that he’d lie or cheat for it, but he’s... tight, and loves a bargain. He’d sell us what we need even if he can’t stand the sight of me. Or someone in the neighborhood would. Beyond that I can’t say. We were barely speaking to each other when I left, and he’d have stayed up to check that the sun rose in the East if I said it did, but that’s a long time ago.”

Rudi propped his elbows on either side of the empty bowl, his chin on his thumbs and his lips on his knuckles; red-gold hair fell across his eyes, but he’d memorized the map anyway. Decision jelled.

“We’ll go up the Wisconsin, and then the Kickapoo,” he said firmly. “We need a base to prepare for the next leg. If your brother’s holding is open to us, good; if not him, then another. We’ve gold enough, but there are preparations we must make. Not least, the Southsiders need every sort of instruction, useful as they are.”

 

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Ritva Havel looked over to where Victoria Kane was cold-shoeing a horse, with half a dozen Southsiders looking on, and Edain holding the beast’s head and soothing it.

“I wish we were on the ship,” she said, beneath the tap... tap... tap... of the hammer.

Mary shrugged. “We hailed Rudi as King,” she pointed out. “A King consults who he wants to. Besides, you get a meeting much bigger than four and a leader and you waste too much time talking. Ingolf’s smart and so are the others.”

Ritva grinned, as the Southsider women drifted in and squatted in front of her, the light of the fire turning their faces ruddy and lying warm on her own back. A few were holding toddlers or nursing babies, which would make her next talk a bit easier. She’d done similar ones with young Rangers... but at least they didn’t have to be introduced to the concept of soap. Not most of them, at least—you got some very odd recruits from little hole-and-cranny parts of the Willamette and the mountains southward towards Ashland and the old California border.

“Now,” she said, when they had gathered. “Remember how I told you the Lady’s Cauldron is the source of everything?”

At the blank looks, she went on: “The belly of the Big Strong Bitch? It’s, ah, like a pot. Things come out of it. The whole world, all the people and animals and things.”

That brought more nods; they’d gotten that much from the talks on the Old Religion, and they were pathetically grateful for a story that made sense of the world as something but malevolence and chaos.

“Well, we’re women, you see. So we have a special link to Her. We’re Her made manifest in the world. And like her, we can give or withhold the fertility of our, ummm, pots.”

Frowns of puzzlement. “You mean, tell the studs they can’t fuck? They wouldn’t like that,” one said; she thought it was Jake’s woman.

A pause, and the Southsider went on: “I wouldn’t like that.”

Ritva had enough exposure to the tribe’s dialect now that she could follow it; her mind translated it into more-or-less standard English. And they’d already modified their way of speech a little in return, though it was complicated by the way they did their best to imitate Rudi and Edain.

“Ah... yes, but not just that. We can give or withhold the gift of children because we’re sovereign... because we have... ah, because we can do magic like the Big Strong Bitch.”

“You mean spook-stuff so you can fuck and not get babies unless we want?”

“Yes! Exactly!”

That brought an eager brabble. The Southsiders lost so many of their children, especially the ones born in the winter, that the thought of spacing them to match the seasons was alluring. From books she’d read in Larsdalen and Stardell Hall, wandering hunters had always done that, as opposed to farmers. A woman couldn’t deal with more than one infant who had to be carried at a time. In this as so much else the Southsiders were worse-off than the most primitive human tribes of ancient times.

Eyes went wide as she held up a small copper loop on the end of a thread.

“Now, you see how this looks like the ankh, the sacred symbol I showed you? What you do is put this—“

 

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The Wild Lands (formerly Illinois)

Near the ruins of Cairo

October 1st, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

Like a golden chain, girdling the Earth,

Is the Unseen Hierarchy of the Ascended Lords...

 

“High Seeker? Master Dalan?” Major Peter Graber said, as the chanting faded.

He was glad he’d waited until after the evening prayer to talk to the priest; the sun was down beyond the trees in the west, and it would make their conversation more private. The morale of the Sword of the Prophet was like iron, the men were ready to die as they were commanded... but even iron had flaws.

And I always liked this time of day, he thought inconsequentially.

The magic blue and green of it, and the slight hush that fell as the breeze died and the birds sang their last, and then the first stars blossoming in the east. Today there was a moon as well, ghost-pale northward. It was a moment when the spirit could fly free. He sighed and returned to the business of the Church... which was also the business of the spirit, after all.

The man who called himself High Seeker Dalan had always been a little more solid-seeming than the most of his kind, who usually looked gaunt and scrawny. Right after the fight in Dubuque this one had been like a ghost for days, eating and drinking if you put food in his hands, but otherwise motionless.

Now he just looks like he’s dying, instead of already dead, Graber thought.

He fought down resentment at how many of his men had died on this trip; he’d crossed the border into the Sioux territories with two hundred effectives. Currently he had eighty-four... and that included two men who probably wouldn’t recover.

The burden he bears for the Ascended Masters is far higher than mine.

“We must consult,” he went on.

A jerky nod. “Yes. Come.”

The bitter smoke of the burnt ship drifted this far, but he didn’t think the crews of the Iowan warships would pursue; the ruins of Cairo weren’t far away, and they’d already had a brush with an Eater band. They’d also shot several deer, fat with autumn, and a wild pig, and the carcasses of the beasts were roasting and stewing with foraged herbs and roots as the leaders talked. He judged the men were cheerful enough, except for the handful of Iowan converts; the Sword of the Prophet was always tasked with the most difficult missions, including the ones where death was almost certain. They knew as well as he that their lifestreams would be bright among the Ascending Hierarchy if they fell in the Church’s service.

His stomach rumbled at the smell of the meat, and the scent of wheatcakes cooking on the griddles, but he ignored it; a man of the C.U.T. learned to command the flesh by the power of the atman, though only the adepts had the ultimate mastery. The soulless were the slaves of their Sthula-Sarira, the gross and merely material body, walking corpses. One more sign that their only reason for existence was to serve the True Spirit.

“Hail Maitreya!” he began, when they’d walked a little way from the fires—but well within his perimeter of hidden scouts.

The blessing was always a safe opening gambit with the clergy.

“Master Dalan?” he went on.

“Hail... to the Youth of Sixteen Summers.”

The priest made the proper reply, his voice starting out rusty, as if he was remembering how to speak.

“We have to decide what to do, High Seeker,” Graber said carefully. “Should we try to push through to this Nantucket place and wait for the soulless misbelieving sons of the Nephilim? Or should we try to intercept the enemy again?”

They’d tried that and failed repeatedly, though by narrow margins. Graber wasn’t particularly disturbed; if you kept trying, eventually you either succeeded or died. He hadn’t died yet. The High Seeker’s head turned to the north, as if his bruised-looking eyes were probing through the substance of the densely-wooded hills.

“They may try to take the northern route,” he said. “They will not come up the Ohio, not when we might be waiting for them.”

Graber waited. That was a military judgment, and as such it was his to make. As it happened, he agreed. Catching Artos has been like trying to grab an oiled rattlesnake with his bare hands; nearly impossible, and deadly dangerous when you finally did it. And the others with him were nearly as bad.

“Bring me a prisoner,” Dalan said.

The officer turned his head and barked a command. Soon two of his troopers frogmarched one of the Eater captives between them. He had his hands tied before him, and a sheathed shete thrust through between his elbows and back; they steered him with it. Graber’s nose wrinkled; everyone smelled after a while in the field—this was the first opportunity they’d had to boil water in some time—but the savage was rank even by the standards a soldier learned.

A crude loincloth and the leggings held to it by thongs were his only clothing. For the rest he was an unexceptional man, perhaps in his twenties though looking older with his shaggy hairiness and ground-in dirt; the hair and beard were brown, the eyes a hazel green. Scrawny and not very tall, but that was to be expected.

The High Seeker held up his personal amulet, worn on his left wrist and studded with amythest, symbol of the Seventh Ray. He murmured something: Graber caught the name of Djwal Khul, a great lord of the Ascending Hierarchy who dealt with communication and knowledge.

“Possibilities increase exponentially,” the High Seeker said... in a normal conversational tone, but as if to himself. “Capacity to affect foam linkages and tap base energy is greater but so is need.”

Good that he is not talking to me, Graber thought. I do not understand and do not wish to. Hail Serapis Bey! I serve the Fourth Ray. The Church also needs those who can deal with the material.

“But amplification and modulation are necessary. Interaction requires perception. Contaminated. So many possibilities.”

He smiled at the prisoner, and the man screeched like some small animal caught in by a trapper’s toothed steel. His hands went out to grip either side of the captive’s face, forcing him to meet his eyes, and the troopers stepped away.

I... see... you... forever,” he said.

The prisoner screamed again, and the guards stepped back further in involuntary recoil, like men who find themselves clutching something in the dark and feel the wriggling of too many legs. After a moment Dalan screamed back at his victim, in the same pitch of hopeless pain. Graber swallowed as trails of blood started from the corners of the Eater’s eyes, trickling like red tears into the scabrous beard, glittering in the firelight. After a time that seemed to last forever Dalan’s sound became words:

“Bitch! Bitch! Deva, die without dying! You and your he-whore! And the One who sent you!”

He released the prisoner and staggered away, moaning, clenched fists slapping at the sides of his head; yet he was grinning, licking his lips. When the shuddering ceased he straightened.

“They are traveling north. Water. Intention is to the east. I see forests, ice, wolves. Beasts. Beasts. We will pursue. Now it must rest. There is no replacement and it must not be stressed beyond bearing.”

The High Seeker turned and lay down on his bedroll, and closed his eyes. What followed did not look like sleep; it was more as if the adept had been suspended, somehow. The troopers remained shock-still, because the captive was moving now. Not trying to escape; instead he knelt by a stretch of frost-heaved concrete and began to beat his head against it. The tock... tock... tock sound was like a hammer on hard wood, as regular as a carpenter’s. Graber made a gesture with one hand; the man who’d used his shete to control the prisoner stepped forward, set his hand to the hilt and stripped the steel free of the leather. It swung in a brief glinting arc, and there was a final sound—heavier and wetter than bone on stone.

“Get rid of this carrion,” Graber snapped. “Vender, Roberts,” he went on to his two chief surviving lieutenants. “The maps.”

They joined him where he sat on a log; a trooper brought them plates of stew and wheatcakes as they discussed distances and times.

“We’ll need horses,” Roberts said, tracing the length of what had once been Illinois from south to north. “It’s an impossible distance to cover on foot in any useful time.”

“It could be done,” Graber said; though few men from the High West would think so. “But the tribes around here have some mounts and those in the prairies to the north have more. Say a week to accumulate what we need to start with...”

He paused. “What is the date?”

“October 1st, sir.”

“Ah,” he smiled, an expression that softened the iron slab-and-angle of his face for an instant.

The other two men looked at him, puzzled. He explained briefly:

“My eldest son’s birthday. He will be ten today, in Corwin.”

They nodded. “Old enough to begin training in the House of the Prophetic Guard, as well all did, if he’s found worthy,” Roberts said.

His voice was a little wistful. He had nothing but daughters, and all those were very young.

“He will be. My wives are women of excellent character, and Peter studies hard,” Graber said firmly. “Now, if we can acquire two remounts per man, we can begin. The horses will be of low quality—“

 

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