The Wild Lands (formerly Illinois)
August 22nd, Change Year 24/2022 AD
“A woman had a babby boy
She loved him much and he gave her joy
The Good Folk came and on a whim
They took the boy away with them—
Edain sang as he worked, loud but tuneful; his voice echoing oddly off the cracked, crumbling concrete of the highway overpass where the Southsiders were camped and over the quiet murmur of voices and clatter of tools. The wild-men had put up screens of woven branches, so not much of the hissing rain outside blew sideways into the sheltered spot. Acrid smoke from their campfires curled upward and hung beneath the arched surface, joining the soot that blackened it—this was one of their regular stops. The goaty smell of wet-but-not-washed humanity, wet dog, half-cured hides and cooking food was strong, under a stronger scent of damp earth and greenery and the silty water of the nearby creek.
“Eggs and crumbs and milk and grain
Bring my baby back again—“
Rudi didn’t sing as his hands moved sharp steel across the six-foot length of wood clamped between his booted feet and bare knees. He was a competent journeyman bowyer, as many of the folk of Clan Mackenzie were, but no more than passable compared to Edain. That meant he had to concentrate to get any sort of results, particularly when he didn’t have any tools besides knives and a hatchet. Edain’s father was a master at the trade—it was one of the reasons he was called Aylward the Archer—and the younger Aylward had grown up as familiar with it as he was with plowing a field or shearing sheep or skinning out a pig or deer.
And to be sure, concentrating makes me worry less. I must get those wagons back to Iowa! But I cannot do it alone, and so I must win the trust of these folk. That takes more than a strong sword-arm!
“There,” Rudi said, setting down the blade he’d been using as a drawknife and unlocking his ankles from about the other end of the workpiece.
He took the stave and ran it through his hands. Mountain-grown yew from the Cascades was the finest of all woods for a stick-bow, because the sapwood and heartwood were a natural laminate—strong in tension and compression respectively. This was tough springy hickory, which was a fair second-best and abundant here in the east.
“What do you think?” he asked his companion.
Edain laid his piece aside and glanced down the length of trimmed wood; he’d finished two bows and half-done another to Rudi’s one, as well. His face was wholly intent, lost in the task; Rudi envied him that.
A few of the Southsiders grouped around sighed unhappily when he stopped singing—they were mad for new tunes. The warrior-hunters in the front rank stayed silent, focused as sharp as augers on the making.
“Dad would laugh,” Edain said. “Or cry. Cernnunos dancing drunk on Beltane Eve, maybe he’d laugh and then he’d cry.”
“He’d curse, sure and he would,” Rudi said, grinning. “But it’ll work, eh?”
“Eh. More or less, more or less, the Huntress willin’.”
Rudi had been in and out of the Aylward household down in Dun Fairfax all his life; it was only a half-hour’s walk from Dun Juniper by the short forest path, and the two young men had been friends ever since a difference of a few years in their ages stopped seeming a chasm. Sam Aylward had been one of Lady Juniper’s right-hand men from before Rudi’s birth, as well. His son braced the central grip across one knee and slowly bent the stave with his hands braced wide apart on it; muscle bunched on his thick bare arms.
“Sixty-five pounds weight at a thirty-inch draw, near as I can tell without a proper tillering frame. Between sixty and seventy, at least.”
That was only a little more than half the draw of their own longbows, but those were designed to punch through plate armor at need, or send a stout bodkin-head shaft three hundred paces and hit hard when it got there. Sixty pounds draw-weight was plenty for even heavy game, boar or bear or tiger, and it would deal with light armor well enough if the range wasn’t too great. It was certainly ten times better than anything the Southsiders had had before they came.
“Without proper vises and clamps and drawknives and gouges and... and proper bloody everything,” Edain grumbled. “Hmmm... by Lugh of the Many Skills, I think it needs—“
He braced it as Rudi had and took up the knife, holding the blade by the thick back and carefully shaving off a few long dark curls of seasoned wood. Then he repeated the flexing process.
“There!” he said. “Nice balanced draw. Not a bad job, Chief, considering what we’ve got for the workin’ of it.”
The wood itself wasn’t bad at all; thoroughly dry, at least and from fair-sized timber that he and Edain had split into proper triangular-section rough blanks along the grain. The Southsiders left billets in sheltered places to season on their rounds; hickory was a fine wood for spearshafts and tool-handles as well. Unfortunately that seasoning and hacking some vaguely bow-shaped object out of the results was about the limit of their bowyer-skills, and the product was barely worth that degree of effort. They didn’t even know enough to unstring them when they weren’t in use, and so they became worthless in a few months, though they’d grasped the fact fast enough when the clansmen told them.
The simple tapered sticks he and Edain were making had none of the walnut-root risers and polished antler-horn nocks and subtle reflex-deflex curve of Sam Aylward’s masterworks, or those of his many pupils. They might have made him laugh or frown, but they did have the true taper and D-shaped cross-section, and an arrow-rest of sorts at the right point; they’d boiled a little glue from the hooves of a deer and attached tufts of rabbit fur for the shaft to rest upon, and to fasten the fletching-feathers of the arrows.
And all the folk in Jake’s band exclaimed in wonder, Rudi thought. No glue, for the love of the Mother-of-all! The good part of these being so crude is that it only takes about half a day to finish the job, even without proper tools. And anyone handy with a knife and used to working wood can learn to do it. Well enough for rule of thumb, at least, if not to equal a true craftsman. A thousand times better than no bow at all. And it’s just the sort of gift they will value the most. It helps them in the long run, not just their present trouble. Help for help...
A young woman came in with a cracked rain-poncho of dull yellow plastic over her shoulders, and a lopsided sort-of-woven-basket full of greens and roots. She dumped it into one of the big pots that were kept going as long as the camp stayed put, and an older female—all of twenty-five or so, and looking easily forty—stirred them in with a long paddle. Which was fortunate, because it was hard to survive on an all-meat diet and stay healthy, unless you were careful and ate the whole beast.
My hosts know some of the wholesome plants, he thought.
But even this far from home and the woods they knew the two clansmen been able to show them some new ones, though neither of them had anything like the knowledge of a loremistress such as his Aunt Judy. The Southsiders had no inkling whatsoever of which mushrooms were deadly and which were safe, for example, so they shunned them all. Or that you could make acorns edible by grinding the nuts to flour and then leaching out the tannins, which meant that they had no starch that would keep any length of time. Or that—
And to be sure, they aren’t very healthy.
From the state of their teeth he suspected scurvy was a regular visitor to the Southside Freedom Fighters, come winter; they certainly weren’t rotting them out with too much sugar, and there were cases of goiter and terrible scarring from infected cuts. Their carnivore diet would have made them taller and more muscular and less scrawny-tough, too, if they didn’t have times of dearth fairly often.
They can make fire with a drill. They can cook what they eat, more or less, which is to say they hold it over the fire or boil it in a pot. And that’s all that can be said for their food. They can’t make good leather, or any cloth at all, or even the simplest metal tools—what will they do when the last of the salvaged gear is gone? They don’t even know how to make salt from a lick! This is no way for human beings to live.
Impatient as he was, he wished he did have more time; a month here... He was wearing only his kilt, to keep respect—the Southsiders might be primitive, but they were certainly hardy men—and also to show his scars, for the same reason. Jake sunna Jake handed him the string of hand-twisted sinew, and Rudi whipped the lower end to the bottom notch of the longbow. Then he slipped the other loop upward, and strung the stave Mackenzie-style—bottom tip over his left boot, right thigh over the center. He pressed down with his leg and pushed up with his right hand at the same instant, smooth and steady. Muscle stood out in long swells under the pale skin of his chest and arms like a slow wave of the sea, and the loop at the end of the cord slid into the upper nock.
“There,” he said, running a finger down the back to make sure no splinters stood proud in sign of a fault that would snap the wood under strain.
I wish I could glue a strip of rawhide here... but if wishes were horses we’d have enough to move those wagons... it will do, so.
“It needs to be well-greased against the wet, but it will serve you well enough against anything but a knight in full harness on a barded destrier, and it might do for him as well if you were lucky.”
“Cool!” Jake said.
Odd, Rudi thought. I’ve heard folk in Corvallis use the word that way, or Bearkillers now and then.
They’d ceremoniously given Jake all the bows, and he’d handed them out in turn to his favored followers—there had been cursing and jostling in plenty too. They’d all seen what the Mackenzie weapons could do, in the fight with the Knifers and in hunting since and they were panting-eager to have something like it themselves.
He handed Jake three arrows he’d also made; the little tribe’s notion of fletching was even more sad than their attempts at bowmaking. The heads were ground and crudely hammered from old spoons, but they would do; it had been straight shafts and the delicate, skilled work of fastening the flight-feathers that they hadn’t mastered. Jake slipped on his bracer and looked around and spotted a dead chestnut fifty yards away, across the thinner grass growing in drifted soil over the old roadway’s pavement. He drew with an odd motion, pushing the bow away with his left arm as much as drawing with the right.
The shaft stood in the hard wood, buzzing like a malignant bee; the sound was distinct even through the quiet white noise of the rainfall.
Ah, well, the bow’s good enough for journeyman work, I’m thinking. There will be more hand shock than I like, a bit of vibration, and quite a surge.
The Southsiders had half a dozen of the pre-Change bows, fiberglass wonders that they couldn’t even dream of replacing, and they handed them around often enough that they were mostly reasonable instinctive shots by the time they were full-grown. But the weapons had been made in all truth as what Edain had called them in scorn: children’s toys. Their draws were light, just enough to be useful for hunting rabbits or birds but nearly worthless for war or bigger game. Good pre-Change arrows were so scarce among them that no man carried more than one or two, with even the enduring plastic feathers growing more and more tattered.
Most of the time they relied on javelins for anything beyond arm’s reach. With those they were quite skilled.
“Can you teach us how to make bows like these?” Jake asked. “And arrers?
Arrows, Rudi thought. I’m getting the hang of the way they shift the sounds about, so I am.
“Southsiders need it, Rudi-man. Need it bad.”
“That we can, my friend. It’s a help to your people it will be.”
Though I can’t know how much of a help.
Jake grinned at him, showing gaps in his teeth. Suddenly for an instant Rudi was elsewhere, a dizziness that left him no time to even stagger. Jake screamed as he pulled against the bonds that held him to an ancient streetlamp. Wood around his feet smoldered, and ragged figures danced triumph—
Rudi blinked again and shuddered; the Southsider chief was still smiling, so it hadn’t been long. Cold sweat lay dank along his sides and under his chin. He’d been raised by Juniper Mackenzie, a High Priestess who walked with the Otherworld, and he’d been touched by it himself more often than most. More, the Old Religion made fewer distinctions between magic and the works of the gods and the stuff of common day than other faiths.
And still visions like that weren’t easy to bear, and they’d been getting uncomfortably common on this journey. Not to mention the Powers who’d walked the pathways of his dreams.
I think that was a sight of what would happen if I didn’t help these folk, he thought. The which makes me grateful to Whoever guided my steps here. But it gives my skin the crawls too, so. If a man knew every possible twist and turn his actions might bring to the world, would he dare to act at all? Yet it’s also a comfort; I’m not merely using these people for my own needs, urgent as those are.
Edain sang again as he went back to work on his own piece:
“The elfling shrieked and howled and cried
And naught she did would make it bide!
She formed a plan to prove
This elfling child was not her love—
Several of the Southsider babies were howling and crying now and then, which wasn’t surprising. If Rudi had had to endure this damp chill with nothing but a rough rabbitskin diaper stuffed with moss or leaves he’d have cried, even in his mother’s arms. When some of the tribe’s women began casting thoughtful glances at their infants, Rudi grew a little worried himself.
Surely they couldn’t take it literally? The fey don’t really do that. Not often, at least.
He wasn’t altogether sure about how the Southsiders would take it, though. If you had an empty place in your soul where such things should be, something would fill it.
We need tales to make sense of the world.
“Tell’s another story, Rudi!” one of the children said, as he took up the next billet of the hickory, spat on a smooth hand-sized rock and began to hone hatchet and knife before he began his work.
The hunters and warriors and women gathered around to watch him fashion the longbow murmured agreement. Jake unstrung his new weapon and scooped a little congealed fat out of a dish and began to rub the wood, squatting and looking eager for the tale himself. The Mackenzie had never met folk so poor in story and song and legends, and it moved him to a pity that prickled at his eyes. Without that tapestry of color and words and ritual, what was life but eating and mating, sleeping and moving your bowels? All of them good and necessary things, but not enough; and they themselves needed that framework too, to give them meaning.
It surprised him as well as saddened him. Granted their pawmaws had been young, any random group of Mackenzie children today would have known more and handed it down.
Though the Clan’s youngsters have had two generations of loremasters by now, he reminded himself.
He remembered long evenings sitting at his mother’s feet with the others in the great hall at Dun Juniper, listening to her storyteller’s voice weaving music and magic as strong as any she made in the nemed, the Sacred Wood. Her hands shaping images and the light of the fires on the god-faces carved amid the rampant vines on the log walls; flame-crowned Brigid and Lugh Longspear of the clever hands, elk-horned Cernnunos, the triple Morrigan and the Dagda with his club, red-bearded Thor and Sif of the golden locks...
And the most of our clansfolk’s parents and grandparents were probably no better off than these before they became Mackenzies. Before the Change.
First he demonstrated how to measure the proper taper from grip to tip of the bow by the joints of your forefinger, and the length of the stave by multiples of your drawing reach, and how to calculate the proper fistmele between the belly and the string. A little to his surprise he was better at teaching the bowyer’s craft than Edain; the younger clansman knew so much he was impatient with their ignorance.
“Well, then,” Rudi said, when he’d reached the demonstration stage. “It’s a tale you want, is it now?”
“No shit, dude!”
Ah, he thought, sorting through scores he knew. Yes, this will speak to them. And there’s nothing like telling one of the old stories to put away your own worry and care and fear!
“Then you work on this one as I showed you, friend Tuk, and I will tell the tale—and correct your work if your hands go wrong. Now, the story! This happened very long ago, you understand, and far away, in a land across the oceans, among my ancestors and yours.”
Most of mine, and a lot of yours.
“There was a man named Niall who was born to be King... to be the big boss... who later came to be called Niall of the Nine Hostages. And once in his youth he was traveling alone through the woods at night as he journeyed back to the hunting-lands of his people.”
They all shuddered and leaned forward; to be benighted alone was a thing of fear to them.
“He came across a hut, and in the hut was a withered and ancient crone... ummmm... an ugly old bitch... of an ugliness which hurt the eyes to see—but unknown to him she was not just the poor old woman he thought her; she was the Sovereignty of Midhe, the eldest of the Threefold Morrigú, and herself the patron Goddess of that earth.”
“I thought you said there was this Lady and her stud who made everything?” someone asked.
“That there is,” Rudi said.
His voice was casually confident; he was as sure of that as he was of his own breath and heartbeat.
“One of her, or a lot of her?”
“Both! Her forms are more numerous than the stars! How not, when the stars themselves are but the dust scattered by Her feet as She and the God danced all that is into being?”
Many of them nodded. Nobody had ever told them to prefer either/or to yes/and, nor that it was impossible for something to be one and many at the same time. Which meant it didn’t drive them wild.
The way it would say a scholar from Corvallis. Or Father Ignatius.
“Each form She takes, or the Lord, is true; yet each a part of a greater whole. As we put it—“
He paused, then filled his lungs and sang, a hymn his mother had made, the Farewell to the Sun. As might be expected of his parentage and rearing, at song he was better-than-fair even by the reckoning of Dun Juniper, where all the Clan’s best bards were trained and many outlanders as well. Here Edain was the journeyman to his master-craftsman, and his deep baritone filled the cave-like space effortlessly:
“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.
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!
When he looked back, the Southsiders were rapt; there were tears in some eyes, and some of those were scarred warriors. Back in the Willamette country there was a saying that Mackenzies were a clan, divided into septs, duns, choirs, choruses and soloists. The Southsiders all listened and nodded.
And sure, you can strike home in a man’s soul—or a woman’s—more easily by telling them stories that speak to their heart than by making arguments to convince their minds. Listening to stories comes naturally to us. Argument you have to study, like sword-work or archery, however much it seems a part of you once you have it learned. Striking home in their souls is what I need to do the now.
He went on, his voice falling into the storyteller’s cadence:
“Now Niall was a great warrior... fighter... bitchin’ tough stud... but he had been fostered far from home because of the hatred of his father’s second wife, and he was almost a stranger to the land of his birth. Yet the King must be as a husband to the Lady of the land, for he stands in the God’s place; as She is the Earth, so also Lugh of the Sun—so that folk and mine call Him—is the rain that brings the soil to life in springtime, and the warmth that ripens the harvest. This crone invited Niall to share her fire and her food, which were poor enough, but he being a man well-trained in seemly ways did not refuse the hospitality—“
He told most of it and sang parts—the Southsiders had a few simple catches, as much chanted as sung to nothing more complex than the beat of palms on thighs or sticks on rocks, but they’d never heard trained singers before and they hung on every note, often weeping openly or looking half-tranced.
Well, mother made us a people, and her a bard from her youth. And little enough else they had to do on the long evenings of the Black Months but make music, in the early days. Though we aren’t as... constant... about it as the Rangers, to be sure.
By the time the light faded Rudi and Edain had roughed out three more bows, and guided the best of the Southsider makers through the beginnings of enough more to give all the adult warriors one suited to their strength and their length of arm. He noticed one young fellow with a slight limp sitting by himself, hugging his knees. His eyes stared at nothing and lips moved a little as he repeated the tale of how Niall of the Nine Hostages met the Goddess of Midhe and won Her blessing on his kingship, not by his hero’s strength, but by his kindness and pity to one he thought the least and worst of his people.
Driving it into his memory; none of them have their letters here.
A woman was crooning to her own baby Edain’s song about the mother and how she tricked the child of the faerie folk into revealing his imposture.
Well, and we’ve given them that wealth, too, the which nobody can take, Rudi thought.
Few stayed up much past dark here, when a burning stick was the best light they had—and that used sparingly, lest it draw enemies. Edain yawned and stretched when he’d emptied his plate the second time, smiling.
“It’s cheerful you are,” Rudi said.
“Sure, and I’m glad to do some work,” Edain replied. “Traveling and adventuring are well enough—the things we’ve seen and done, Chief!—and fighting, well, you fight when you have to, not when you wish. Hunting’s work and play at once. But I miss the dun and the fields.”
His eyes grew distant. “Wheat-harvest will be over, but there’s the soft fruit and the apples and the rest of the orchards, and haying, and soon it’ll be time to raise the spuds and get the turnips into the clenches, and put all right for the fall plowing, and there’s always the stock. Or going over to Sutterdown and helping with the grapes there. It makes me fair itch a bit to miss it all, not to mention the Sabbats and Esbats and the Wheel of the Year. I’d be glad even to muck out the dairy, and that on a cold wet day in the Black Months, so.”
“Now, boyo, that’s going far and far!” Rudi laughed.
He was a warrior by trade, though of course he’d done his share of field-work and put his hand to this and that. Shoveling compacted manure out onto a cart was one particular chore he didn’t remember fondly; it made getting in the sheaves or even pig-butchering pleasant by comparison. He spoke lightly:
“Dun Fairfax has a fine dairy barn, but I miss sitting in your mother’s kitchen more, watching her taking an apple pie out of the oven, and the outrageous fine smell of it, and the taste of it too with a piece of her cheese and a big glass of cold fresh milk.”
When he said it he wished the words back; Edain smiled at the half-jest, but Rudi could tell he was wishing himself back there, at table with his parents and brother and sisters and the rest of the Aylward household.
“But there’s some here glad enough of your presence,” he said teasingly, to break the moment.
It was true, too. Two Southsider girls were standing behind the barrel-chested bowman, one of them winding a lock of her black hair about her finger and both smiling and giggling when he turned to look. They were considerably cleaner than most of their tribe. Edain had whittled them combs and toothbrushes and shown them the use of the Sweet William that bloomed by the creek a little way from here; you could get a good lather out of the roots, which was why it was also known as soapwort.
And the washing of them was a piece of instruction he probably enjoyed more than trying to turn their menfolk into bowyers, Rudi thought.
Between constant toil and weather and one child after another—so many died, and they didn’t seem to have any idea how to prevent conception anyway—the Southsider women aged even faster than their men, but these were a few years younger than Edain.
“Ripe as summer strawberries, they are,” Rudi said; one of them looked at him, and pouted when he shook his head smiling.
“Ah, I’ll be off to my blankets, then, Chief,” Edain said, brightening considerably as he let himself be led into the shadows with one girl tugging at each hand.
“And to sleep, eventually, eh?” Rudi called with a grin, and Edain threw a laugh over one shoulder.
Theirs were not a bashful folk. Didn’t the Charge of the Goddess Herself say ‘All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals’? Rudi remained by the embers of the fire himself; there had been plenty of those lingering glances cast in his direction, but there weren’t so many unattached women here he could be sure of avoiding trouble over it. And he hadn’t had the heart for dalliance right now anyway.
What with worry, toil and care. Ah, the merry life of a hero! And it’s pure joy to be the Chief, too; well, I’ve seen that wear on Mother over the years, that I have.
The rest of the little tribe rolled themselves into scraps and tatters of pre-Change cloth or crawled between stiff hides; Jake had a nearly-intact sleeping bag which he drew across the sleeping form of his woman and their two living children. Others huddled together, with leaves as extra insulation and protection from the mosquitoes.
At least they don’t have lice, Rudi thought; probably none of their founders had, and they’d been too isolated to pick them up since.
The sentries ghosted out to take up their positions; the rain had faded away into a close damp night, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with the skill which the lookouts vanished into the rustling, buzzing darkness. They’d had to learn that well, or die horribly. Jake fished a drumstick out of the remnants of the perpetual stew in the communal pot, originally an aluminum trash-can roughly cut down with the jagged edges hammered over, and took a meditative bite.
“And now my friend, you and your folk were to help me with my task?” Rudi said softly. “I wouldn’t ask it save that need drives me; we must have those wagons at the bridge, and soon. The lives of oath-brothers and kin and one very dear to me rest upon it.”
Jake frowned and looked around at his sleeping people. “You helped us plenty,” he said. A hesitation. “You could be the big man here, if you stayed. Plenty of the bitches would like you, even more than the Archer. You could show us lots and lots, make us strong. Strong like your Clan, that you talked about. Show us how to get right with the spooks, too.”
Rudi smiled, but there was real respect in his nod as well as pity.
This man may be a savage and pig-ignorant of a thousand things, but he knows that to be a true Chief is to serve his people’s need, he thought. And he’s realizing how great their need is, now that he’s seen a glimpse of the world outside. He’ll give anything he has to aid them, even his own position.
“My friend, it’s honored I am by your words,” he said, which he found was true. “But I have my own kin and friends to think of. Also I could not help you as much as you think. Your people’s problem is not only that you lack skills, but that you are too few, and your enemies too many.”
“Yeah.” Jake’s fist hit the ground. “There’s lots a’ things we could do, if we could settle down an’ not run an’ hide all the time. Mebbe plant corn, even, like the Iowa men, n’ raise cows instead of just killing them. Fix up houses so’s not so many of our littles die in the cold time, learn the making of stuff... Can’t do that if the Knifers and the Bone Breakers and the Skull Cookers are always up your ass.”
Rudi nodded; you couldn’t plow and plant if the horizons were always apt to spew out armed men without warning.
“I’ll stay until you’ve men who can make bows,” he said gently. “But I must be getting back, you see.”
“Yeah,” Jake said dully, and crawled under the opened sleeping-bag.
Rudi sat for a while watching the fire, his long hands around the scabbard of his sword and his chin resting on one of the crossguards. As he looked into the red-gold glow that wavered over the embers he thought he could see the shape of a sword indeed; the one he and his mother had seen in the nemed when Raven came for him, fourteen years ago, after the War of the Eye. The one Ingolf had seen on Nantucket—a great longsword, with a guard like the crescent moon, and a pommel of moon-opal held by branching antlers.
Why must it be there? he wondered. It’s hints and visions and parables I’ve had when I asked why, and the Cutters make war on our people back home with me not there to aid... but they also pursue us across mountain and plain and river. Their leaders think this journey is a danger to them.
“A penny for your thoughts, Chief,” Edain asked quietly.
Rudi looked over. Edain yawned, but he obviously wasn’t going to sleep with local company—he was too wolf-wary for that, in the wild lands. Instead he was setting his blanket-roll in the usual place, not far from Rudi’s, with Garbh curled up close by. She’d burrowed down into the dry duff that made up the floor of the overhang, and only tufts of her shaggy hair showed, and an ear that flopped over at the top. Though even asleep she was a better sentry than half a dozen men.
“Of home,” Rudi said.
“Ah, that’s a thought that steals over a man just before sleep, when he’s far away, eh? I can see Dun Fairfax now, and the houses garlanded when we brought in the Queen Sheaf, and my mother standing there to break the first loaf before the altar—“
He stopped. Then with forced cheerfulness: “But it would be Dun Juniper for you, sure, and the gates swinging wide, and a fine set of cheers, and the Chief Herself Herself there to bless you home.”
Rudi opened his mouth to say Dun Juniper, of course. But it wasn’t his mother’s steading that was really in his thoughts, dear though it was, nestled amid the forest edge beneath the Low Cascades. Nor even all the lands of the Clan, the forests and the little villages and their checkerboard fields along the eastern edge of the Willamette...
“That too. But there was more to my thoughts, my friend.”
Edain’s square face looked puzzled, and he scratched at his curly mop of hair. Rudi went on:
“Say we gain this sword on Nantucket, the one Ingolf saw and was told was for me—the Sword of the Lady for the Lady’s Sword.”
“Ah!” Edain said. “By Ogma the Honey-Tongued, you know, that never occurred to me! They are different words.”
Rudi nodded and murmured the words of the prophecy his mother had spoken when she held him over the altar in the nemed at his Wiccanning at the end of the first Change Year:
“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!”
They weren’t a secret. Wiccaning was a public rite, not even limited to Initiates, and rumors had been spreading up and down the Willamette ever since, and through the whole Columbia valley. For all he knew, they’d reached south of Ashland and up to the Okanogan.
“But who are the people I’m to be the strong right arm of?” he went on.
“The Clan Mackenzie of course, and who else might it be?” Edain said, sounding a little indignant but throttling it down in respect for the sleepers.
“Them to be sure. But them alone? My father, my blood-father, was Mike Havel, the Bearkiller lord. Many of my blood kin are there in Larsdalen; Mary and Ritva are my half-sisters, which makes Aunt Signe really my aunt, in a sense. And Lady Astrid too, the Hiril Dúnedain. And Mathilda is my anamchara, my soul-sister, and I’ve spent months every year these last fourteen in the Association lands. You and I fought those Haida raiders there and shed our blood for the folk of County Tillamook. I’ve studied at Mount Angel and in Corvallis, and Rancher Brown of the CORA is my mother’s guest-friend and mine, and I’ve shared tobacco with the Three Tribes. You see what I’m after saying?”
Edain’s brows knotted. “That’s a substantial herd of people you’re after being the strength of, Chief. Peoples, you might say, and each of them a different folk with different ways and names for the Gods.”
Rudi chuckled a little. His eyes were halfway between turquoise and emerald as he stared into the bed of coals that almost matched the color of his hair. The hot clean scent of burning oak drifted through the dampness of the night air. The shoulder-length mane fell forward, framing the chiseled lines of his face.
“A mix-up it is, and no mistake; a mispocha as Aunt Judy would call it. So many peoples and so large a land we don’t even have a name for them all. The lands or the peoples-together either one.”
“Oregon... well, Oregon and Washington and Idaho, I suppose...”
Rudi shook his head. “Those are the names of the old world. They’ve lost their magic, even for our parents, and they never meant much to us; they don’t stir men’s souls or make music in their hearts anymore, they’re not ours. It strikes me that we need a new name for the whole of it, a footing that we can build the walls of our dreams upon.”
“You could say the lands of the Corvallis Meeting,” Edain replied. “But that would be just a wee bit cumbersome.”
Rudi nodded. Images tumbled through his head. Masked dancers in the streets of Sutterdown on Samhain Eve; the perfect snowpeak of Mt. Hood; the towers of Castle Todenangst rising over green vineyards and wheatfields gold to the harvest; the Columbia flowing like molten silver between high cliffs with hang-gliders dancing in the air above; waterfalls like threads tumbling down from green heights in the mountains; the bells of Mt. Angel calling the monks to prayer on their hilltop aerie; trumpets and splintered lances in a tournament beneath the ruins of Portland; a student hangout in Corvallis and the smell of beer and hamburgers and the sound of sharp young voices arguing the whichness of the wherefore; tall ships spreading their white canvas wings off Astoria amid a storm of gulls, and whales sporting in the gray Pacific waters...
“Montival,” he whispered, and the sound had a... rightness, like an echo of music heard over the hills by moonlight. “It’s called Montival. Though the folk there don’t know it yet.”
He looked up and saw Edain shape the word silently a few times, then nod and look up with a light kindling in his direct gray gaze.
“Now, that’s a name with the blessing of the Powers upon it, Chief! Montival. It takes all the names—the Clan and Portland and the Yakima and Corvallis and Bend and the others and puts them together, without making them any the less each by themselves. And it’s ours, a Changeling name, not handed down.”
Rudi tapped his fingers on the black tooled leather of his sword-scabbard. “It does have that sound, eh? And this Sword we’re after... that could be the symbol for it, do you see? For we go to fetch it through great trials, clansman and Princess and baron, monk and Ranger, and we bring it back through fire and peril to its new home, there to guard the land.”
Edain nodded slowly. “The sword of the High King,” he said, as if testing the sound.
His words dropped into the noises of the night like a distant horn-call that makes men stop and listen amid the work of field and street.
“The High King of Montival.”
Rudi’s head came up. A complex shudder went through him; he closed his eyes and shook his head.
“I’ve no desire for that,” he said with quiet vehemence. “Tanist of the Mackenzies and Chief in my turn... that would be more than enough.”
Edain grinned. “Sure, and if you did want it, you’d not be the man for the job, now would you? But I’ve heard you say to others that the King is the sacrifice that goes consenting.”
“If... if we needed it,” Rudi said reluctantly.
“And do we not? But better you than me, Chief. All I want is to have my own croft and roof-tree someday, and a hearth to sit beside on winter evenings.”
He lay back and gathered his blanket-roll about him. Rudi shook his head again, then sighed and did likewise. There was much to do; tomorrow they’d get to work.
Though getting people to do what’s needful is part of a Chief’s work, he thought. And bashing their heads not the best way of doing so, when another’s to be had.
His thoughts quieted, and he drifted down into the soft darkness. But the Sword glowed against that velvet, turning as if it fell through stars and shadows, falling out of memory and time towards the hand he stretched up to grasp it.
As if he remembered wielding it on a stricken field.
Copyright © 2008-2009 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>