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THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Des Moines

Capital, Provisional Republic of Iowa

September 6th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

A vision of the Blessed Virgin?

Father Ignatius, priest and knight-brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict, bowed his tonsured head to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Des Moines as the older man looked up from his written report, and put his hands inside the wide sleeves of his coarse monastic robe. The cleric had read it twice before the comment.

“I was honored beyond my worth, Your Eminence,” he said, with humility in his voice.

Suddenly his serious young face was lit up from within by a joy that he could feel filling him as candlelight did a glass globe. No detail of the meeting in the cold December mountains above Chenrezi Monastery had left him in the long months since, and neither had the happiness that plucked at his soul like a harpist’s fingers at a string.

“What can I do but strive all my life to be worthy of it?” he said, and only stern control kept the tears from his eyes.

The Prince of the Church leaned back in his chair, his crimson-sashed cassock rustling; his short-cropped beard and the little left of his hair were white, and his face lined and seamed beneath the red skullcap. The office was plain, as befitted a man of austerity, but it was large and paneled in smooth dark woods; this was the headquarters of the Church in the whole of the upper Mississippi valley. The view gave on gardens, and not far away the searchlights of the perimeter wall around the old State Capitol where the Heasleroads now ruled.

“I must either pity your madness, or struggle against the sin of envy,” the Cardinal said.

Ignatius felt a flash of resentment at the skepticism he saw in the probing gaze; who was this hesitant old man to doubt him? There was no time for delay!

The Princess I am commanded to guard and serve by the Queen of Angels is in need of his help, and he dares to question me?

Ignatius had learned discipline in hard schools; as a smallholder’s son, and as novice, brother and ordinand at Mt. Angel. Not least he had learned the discipline of the self. He bowed his head a little further; when he raised face again it was calm, whatever turmoil clenched his soul within. He catalogued the objects within sight, as an aid to self-control. A prie-dieu stood in one corner, and a fine crucifix on the wall behind the desk between two tall open windows, and a photograph—post-Change—of the late Pope on the mahogany surface.

Ignatius met those eyes for an instant, the haunted indomitable gaze of a survivor who had seen a world die and flinched from nothing as he worked to build anew from the rubble. Then he raised his own eyes for a long moment to the Man upon the Cross, and felt a flush of shame.

Forgive me, Lord, and help me put down pride. Always we crucify You, over and over again. Help me find the courage to follow where You lead, to take up my cross and make of all suffering an offering to You.

The older man sighed and touched strong stubby fingers to his brow. Then he looked at the documents Ignatius had presented with their seals and ribbons; he flicked one of them aside slightly, with a rustle of stiff official paper.

“You bring glowing recommendations from the head of your Order, and favorable ones from Cardinal-Archbishop Maxwell in Portland. As it happens I knew the Cardinal-Archbishop before the Change; we were young men together in Rome for a time. And of course Badia has kept me informed of the founding and growth of your Order. Nor is the vision without precedent even in recent times; there is St. Maximillian Kolbe...”

Ignatius nodded gravely; he’d studied that when he was a novice. The Virgin had appeared to Kolbe when he was a boy in Poland about a hundred years ago now, offering him a choice between the red crown of martyrdom and the white of purity. He’d chosen both... and been sent to Auschwitz for sheltering Jews in his monastery during the great war of the previous century. And died there when he volunteered his own life in place of a younger man with a family.

The tale was daunting, but strengthening as well. Kolbe had died of thirst and starvation and poison in that mortal-made antechamber of Hell. And died blessing the men who killed him so slowly and so cruelly, begging them to seek God’s forgiveness for their souls before it was too late. That was what the Faith could make of a man, or a man make of the Faith.

Can I reach such heights? he asked himself. Then he looked up once more to the Man of Sorrows. Dare I do less? Be ye perfect, He commanded.

The Cardinal went on: “And I do not think you are mad, my son. But I am not altogether sure that you are to be envied. You have received a stupendous honor; but from such men much is demanded.”

“Thank you for your trust in me, Father,” Ignatius said; his gaze flicked back to the great carved Rood.

The elderly man suddenly smiled. “Yes, yes, there is always that. How dare we decline a burden, when we are called to imitate Him? But are you aware of the honor done you? She herself called upon you to be her champion?”

You shall be my knight, Karl Bergfried,” Ignatius said quietly, wonder in his tone. “And...”

The worn wise Jewish face, a smile as tender as motherhood itself, and the glimpse of a soul that blazed with a fire of majesty and power like the jeweled radiance at the heart of suns. His hand went to his forehead, remembering the touch of that finger, and the world dissolving in joy.

“... it is impossible to describe, Father; though I had the tongues of men and of angels.”

The Cardinal crossed himself. “This report must be dispatched to the Curia and the Holy Father in Badia as quickly as possible,” he mused. “Both the vision, and the knowledge you have won of the Cutter cult, will be of the greatest value to Holy Mother Church.”

Ignatius nodded grimly and signed himself in turn; the skin over his spine and groin crawled at the memory of what he’d seen. Of the red-robed Seeker pulling himself up Rudi Mackenzie’s sword, laughing between teeth bright with arterial blood and reaching for the living man’s throat with dead hands.

“That is not simply heresy and lust for power,” he said. “Diabolism is at work. The power of the Enemy is made manifest through Corwin.”

“Those who would sell their souls usually find a buyer, to their eternal regret,” the Cardinal said; his fingers traced the cross again. “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. And we must certainly give you every aid in the Church’s gift here.”

He sighed. “My only fear is that that may not be as much as you need. We have little secular influence in Iowa, and while God has favored this state in many ways, it is...”

The ecclesiastic hesitated slightly. Ignatius recognized the tone: it was the one used when tactful words were used to convey a blunt truth.

“... not well-governed at present. The factions around Anthony Heasleroad are like a knot of rattlesnakes beneath a rock. We need not obey unjust laws for their own sake, but prudence is also enjoined on us. As gentle as doves, as wise as serpents, remember.”

“Still, there are many of our flock here who have positions of wealth, power and influence,” Ignatius said. “The Heuisinks, for example. We were guests at their estate before we came on to Des Moines, and Ingolf Vogeler is a close friend of the Heuisink heir.”

The Cardinal nodded. “But they are not much in favor at court.” He shook his head, looking a little bemused for an instant. “How natural that sounds now!”

Ignatius frowned. Why shouldn’t it sound... ah, the Cardinal is an elderly man. One must make allowances for those raised before the Change.

“In any case, I had no intention of calling on you for physical force, Your Eminence,” Ignatius said. “My Order is a militant one, but we are strictly enjoined not to seek secular power or to defy the authorities of any realm except at greatest need. What I principally beg of you is first, information, and then—“

 

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ú-Maer, ú-Maer,” Ritva Havel murmured fretfully in Sindarin, the special language of the Dúnedain Rangers her Aunt Astrid had founded a few years before she was born. “Not good, not good.”

“That place is as bad as the dungeons of Dol Guldur,” Mary Havel agreed softly, staring northward from the balcony towards the harsh metallic gleam of Iowa’s citadel.

Then beneath her breath: “Olthon o le, Ingolf.

Somewhere in there was Ingolf Vogeler, Mary’s friend, her companion on the trail since they left the Willamette Valley to cross the Cascades, and for the last six months her lover. Ritva’s twin touched one finger lightly to the black patch that covered her left eyesocket, a habit she’d acquired since a Cutter sorcerer-priest slashed the eye out of her head in the mountains of eastern Idaho late last year.

They’d been identicals, before Mary lost the eye. It still gave Ritva an absurd pang now and then to realize they couldn’t play games with people’s heads by switching identities any more. They’d been doing that since about the time they learned to walk. It had been useful in more serious business now and then too. Mary’s face showed only a cool intentness, but when Ritva put her hand on her shoulder it was quivering-tense.

We’ve always been able to read each other’s souls, Ritva thought. I’ve been envying you all this time for winning that game of papers-scissors-rock we had over who’d get a try at Ingolf. Now I don’t, sis. At least, I don’t if I’d have come to really love him—and we’re alike enough I think I would have. It’s bad enough knowing he’s in there when I just like him as a friend.

“We will rescue you, my beloved.”

“You said it, sis,” Ritva replied stoutly.

She raised the monocular to her eye and lowered it again. Staring at those smooth granite-sheathed concrete battlements and towers, the multiple welded-beam steel gates, the ranked firing ports for murder-machines and flame-throwers, was just too depressing. Even the golden dome of the old State Capitol behind it seemed like a taunt.

Impressive, she thought grudgingly; and she’d seen Castle Todenangst, and the walls of Boise.

Not so much the height, but the circumference. And that’s just the ruler’s citadel! The ones around the city aren’t as high... quite... but the quantity!

She’d never seen anything on this scale, and the Rangers traveled widely—that was a major reason she and Mary had left Larsdalen and moved in with Aunt Astrid.

Besides the fact that we Dúnedain are just so cool, of course.

“Well, we weren’t planning on bashing our way in, anyway,” Mary said. “As Aunt Astrid says, bashing is crude.

“Uncle John says there’s always a place for it.”

“John Hordle is six-foot-seven and weighs three hundred and twenty pounds,” Mary pointed out. “He carries a sword with a four-foot blade. Of course he likes to bash. We’re sneaks. That’s what bothering me. I can’t think of any way to do that, either.”

“They’ve probably paid a lot of attention to security, too,” Ritva said, with reluctant thoughtfulness. “These tyrant types generally worry a lot.”

And the Heasleroads have been busy as beavers on their citadel for longer than I’ve been alive, and with all of Iowa to draw on.

There were millions of people in the Provisional Republic, nearly as many as there had been in the state before the Change; Ignatius said they had somewhere between a tenth and a fifth of all the human beings left in North America, and on some of its richest land. Usually the places where the Change killed the least had been those which had the fewest to begin with, remote ranching and farming country. More people meant more cities, and above a certain size cities had meant death for themselves and the land around them when the machines stopped.

Portland was a partial exception, but from what she’d heard that was because Norman Arminger and his dreadful consort had managed to get most of the inhabitants to leave, one way or another. Sandra had spread rumors that the State government had answers, or huge stocks of food and medicine, and had her Judas-goat organizers lead scores of thousands southward to die in the plague-ridden refugee camps around Salem. Norman himself had just burned great swaths of the city down, turned off the gravity-flow water system, or had his goon-squads prod people out to die at the point of improvised spears.

He’d also hung the former mayor and chief of police from meathooks outside the building he’d taken for a palace, just to make a point about who was in charge.

Heasleroad Sr. must have been a lot like the Lord Protector Arminger, she thought. Except that there was so much food here he could keep a lot more population alive to work for him, and fewer people fought him.

Then she sneezed, not liking the coal-smoke that made your eyes water here... not that any of them did, being country-bred. Des Moines had a great many factories and foundries and furnaces worked by water power or even the low-pressure steam engines that still functioned in the Changed world, and coal came in piled in barges on the river and cars on the horse-drawn railways.

“We could cross the Mississippi and join up with Rudi and Edain,” she said carefully, when the silence had grown a little uncomfortable.

Usually I know you’re not going to do anything stupid and reckless. Smart and reckless, yes... but is your judgment still good, sis?

Aloud she went on judiciously: “Get the wagons, get them back to the river, and the Bossman promised Ingolf and Matti and Odard would go free.”

Mary Havel sniffed, and tossed her head; the wheat-blond fighting braid bobbed behind her long shapely face.

“And how are we supposed to find Rudi there? His trail will be cold, and the Bossman’s men are watching all the city gates. Besides which, that assumes the Bossman will keep his bargain. Would you care to bet on that?”

“No,” Ritva sighed. “We’ll have to do something ourselves.”

So we have me and Mary, who are the sneakiest of all Rangers, Ritva thought. There’s Father Ignatius... well, yes, a man of many skills. There’s Virginia Kane, who’s... oh, well, she’s a good enough woman of her hands and she grew up on a ranch, so she’s a good rider and shot, but even more out of place in a city than we are. Middling with a blade, even those meatchopper shetes these easterners use. And there’s Fred Thurston, who’s eighteen and a likely lad, and has connections... which would be useful back in Boise, where his father was President-General, if it weren’t for his brother Martin wanting to kill him because he knows who assassinated their father. Not much of a storming-party to take a fortress in a foreign land!

She turned back into the room. They had the top floor of this... place... to themselves, which meant four chambers and a narrow hallway, since it was a tall pre-Change brick house; they used this one as common, she and Ritva shared another, Ignatius had the third, and Virginia and Fred had set up together in the last. They were sitting at the table when the twins turned away from the balcony, holding hands and smiling at each other, their meal forgotten, a brown-haired young woman and a man of eighteen years with skin the color of old oiled wood and tight-curled black hair.

Ritva could feel something halfway between grief and pure pain shoot through Mary. The other Havel sister closed her eye for an instant, and murmured a prayer of those Dúnedain who followed the Old Religion:

“Oh, Lady, You descended through the Dark Gate for Your lover, and where You danced even evil’s self was pierced to the heart. All life and love is in Your gift. Bring my man back to me! Lord of the shining mountain, who loves the warrior’s courage and craft, bless my sword that fights for him!”

“So mote it be, sis,” Ritva said. “Now come on and eat something. We’re going to need our strength.”

Fred looked up. “No ideas?”

“Not beyond walking up to the gate and asking them to put us in the next cell,” Ritva admitted as she sat and reached for the bread-knife.

“Anthony Heasleroad is a walking argument against hereditary monarchy,” Mary growled.

The two Rangers signed their plates and murmured the Invocation and blessing. Ritva’s mouth twisted a little. In a bard’s tale fear for your beloved drove out everything else, but she could hear her sister’s stomach growling, now that she’d dragged her in and made her notice the body’s needs, and she was ravenous.

About to drool down my jerkin, in fact. Well, the Histories agree that a good dinner now and then is an important part of Questing.

“Well, Fred here’s a good argument for it,” Virginia said, in her Wyoming rasp.

Fred Thurston winced; he’d ended up on the run because his elder brother did believe in sons following fathers... and had killed their sire to avoid inconvenient elections in Boise.

“Dad always said you couldn’t hand a country down like a farm,” he said.

“Why not?” Ritva said. “It seems to be the way most people have always done it, if you listen to the stories.”

“It does seem natural,” Mary agreed. “After all... most people do what their parents did, don’t they? You learn how as you grow up. I mean, we’re fighters—so was our father, and our mother. And they were both rulers.”

“I just can’t see myself as the picture of a Crown Prince,” Fred said.

“Sorry, sweetie,” Virginia said. “But you are, whatever your brother Martin’s like. Hell, so are Rudi and Mathilda. Seems to be pretty much a crapshoot, whether you go on who your daddy was or on a show of hands. Or those things they had before the Change, bullets.”

“Ballots,” Fred said.

“Oh, way I heard it, sometimes it was bullets,” Virginia said, and grinned.

She and Fred were both just short of twenty, but her plain strong face looked a little older than her real years to folk raised in the gentle lands west of the Cascades. The winter blizzards and wind-born dust of summer on the High Plains had taken a little of the life out of her dark brown hair, and started little lines beside her dark-blue eyes already.

Remember to use that lanolin stuff, Ritva reminded herself.

The lines showed a little more as the rancher’s daughter smiled and went on:

“I won’t say anything about me bein’ a princess.”

What a sappy smile, Ritva thought, as Fred grinned at her and put his hand over hers again. Virginia’s father had been a prominent rancher in the Powder River country, until the Church Universal and Triumphant killed him.

And princess just means your father was a king, like Mathilda’s, or Rudi’s and ours, not that you’re anything special in and of yourself. Or your father some sort of a sovereign, at least, Ritva thought. Which Virginia’s was, pretty well.

“In the Histories, it says the Numenoreans handed down the throne to the eldest child—man or woman,” she said.

“Well, dip me in dung and fry me crisp, that sounds good to me!” Virginia said.

Fred opened his mouth, looked at the three women, and closed it again.

“We’ll probably get some sort of job running a Ranger steading, or something, eventually,” Mary added. “Not that Aunt Astrid and Uncle Alleyne would give it to us if we were stupid or anything.”

“If you’re going to have a monarchy at all that’s the big problem,” Fred said. “I’m still not sure about that. And Kings... get flattered all the time.”

“Yes, but they expect it,” Mary said. “Look at Mathilda—can you imagine anyone putting anything over on her?”

“Not easily,” he admitted.

“But ordinary people like flattery just as much as kings, if anyone will give it to them,” Ritva said. “I mean, look at all those dreadful people the Corvallans keep electing, who promise them ridiculous things and tell them how smart and superior they are. Well, you’ve never been to Corvallis, but take my word for it. It’s no better when one man is flattering thousands than when thousands are flattering one man.”

“Never came at it that way,” Fred said thoughtfully. “But you’ve got a point.”

“You Rangers are Numenoreans, then?” Virginia added. “I never got that part straight. I’ve heard of those stories... Histories... but never read ‘em.”

“Well, we’re descended from Numenoreans,” Ritva said. “That’s what Dúnedain means—‘folk of the west’. And Numenor was in the West. Well, west of Eriador, which was where Europe is now. Of course, things were different then. The Earth was flat, to start with.”

Mary’s mouth quirked, and she fell back into their habit of finishing sentences for each other: “But that was two Ages of the World ago—at least. So probably everyone is descended from them by now.”

“Aunt Astrid thinks we’re more descended from them than most people,” Ritva said. “Because the Histories speak to our hearts, you see.”

“That’s logical. She’s very smart and learned,” Mary continued.

Ritva nodded. “Of course, some people think she’s also crazy.”

“Inspired.”

“Same thing.”

Ritva’s heart lifted a little at her sister’s smile; it was still a bit bleak, but better than nothing. They began to pass plates around; there was a joint of cold roast pork, potato salad, a dish of eggplant cooked with cheese and onions, a loaf of brown bread still faintly warm, butter and pickles and an apple pie, with little pots of ketchup, mustard and hot sauce; their host wasn’t stinting them. The jug of beer was even cold. Des Moines had hydraulic ice-machines, so the milk was fresh too; what passed for wine in Iowa was coarse musky stuff not worth the effort of drinking. She cut a slab of the bread and spread the butter; it was soft with the summer night, and almost melted as it sank in.

Mary brooded again as she ate, hardly even noticing the second slice of the really excellent pie, lost enough that Ritva’s head came up a full half-second before she noticed the light tread on the stairs below.

“Our host,” Mary said sourly. “Orch.

Ritva sighed and shrugged. Nobody could really object to the term. The there weren’t any bugs in the mattresses in their rooms, but they were stained, and there was a slight smell, and you could hear what went on below; she was fairly sure that a lot of the girls weren’t here voluntarily, or at least they cried and drank a lot when they weren’t working. Technically the two of them should be burning the place down and setting everyone free; that was a Ranger’s oath, to help the helpless and defend the weak, even if what they mostly did for a living was hunt and guard caravans and track down bandits.

But we have to get the Sword. Key to the Dark Lord and all that. I judge this host of ours to be a bad man, but one with some scruples about debt and obligation.

“Hi,” Tancredo said, through the open door, blinking a little at the uniform stare he got.

He was about the same color as Fred Thurston but otherwise unalike, a slight wiry man in his thirties with a ready smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Ingolf had done business with him years before when he ran a salvage outfit; they both disclaimed friendship.

“OK, he said, leaning against the doorway. “Look, I owe Ingolf. I owe him money and favors. So I’ve got that ship he wanted waiting at the docks in Dubuque. I don’t owe him my life, or my wife and kids’ lives, which is what tangling with Captain Denson of the State Police would mean. So you’re not going to do any crazy stunts from here, or from anyplace I own. Understand? Do you folks want to get on your way, or not? That’s up to you.”

There were vague hulking shapes on the stairway behind him, probably hired muscle. That didn’t bother Ritva; she had a high opinion of her companions, and an even higher one of herself. The problem was that Tancredo was their only defense against the State Police. None of them knew their way around Des Moines’ enormous dirty warren—and a walled city was a hard place to get out of.

“Excuse me, my son,” a quiet voice said on the stairs. Father Ignatius beamed at them as he came into view. “I fear we must move, my children, and quickly. Collect your gear.”

Usually Ritva felt a slight irritation when the Christian priest called them that, although she liked him well enough. He was only a few years older himself. And the more so when he assumed an authority only Rudi and Ingolf had in this band, since she was no part of his flock.

This time she beamed back at him.

 

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Copyright © 2008-2009 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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