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THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

The Wild Lands (formerly Illinois)

Central Prairie

September 1st, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

A horse whickered. Rudi Mackenzie grinned to himself in the hot prickly darkness. He lay in the big-bluestem grass that blocked vision everywhere beyond arm’s reach; it was five feet tall hereabouts on this dry-soiled stretch of upland prairie, with dense-packed stems as thick as his little finger ending in a three-lobed end that looked a little like a turkey’s foot. The huge mass of dried grass smelled like the hayloft of the Gods, a dusty-sweet mellow odor that only cured grass had, but magnified by the sun-cured expanses that stretched to the horizon on every hand.

He grinned a little wider; about eleven years ago he’d had a very pleasant encounter with a girl named Caitlin in a Dun Mellin stack that smelled a lot like this, while he was there helping with the threshing. She’d been three years older than he, and you never forgot the first time.

And herself as sweet and bouncy as the clover that fine night, the Foam-Born Cyprian’s blessings on her for being patient with my boy’s clumsiness, he thought.

He’d danced at her handfasting to Bram the Smith four years later, too; pranced and tumbled and leapt and spun with goat-horns strapped to his feet amid the other youths, to lead her and her flower-garlanded maidens to the dun’s nemed. Nowadays she was a hearth-mistress and High Priestess and a potter growing famous for her slip-glazed ware, and had a pair of little girls as pretty as two young jays and a baby boy at the breast.

And so to business. I’m seeing to their safety, and that of all the Clan’s hearth-homes, and more. Besides which, this should be fun. The stealing part, at least. My totem is Raven, after all... and doesn’t that One love to carry things off? More, I’m doing it for Matti and my friends, and it is a relief beyond words to be moving, not just persuading and cajoling, the which is needful but drives a man mad!

The horse nickered again, more urgently, but he wasn’t particularly worried that the sleepy guard-riders would be alarmed.

If there’s one thing that a herd of any size will always produce, it’s that sound; the which is why it’s easier to steal forty horses than one. And it tells me everyone’s in position.

The night was dense-dark anyway with the setting of the moon. Patches of high cloud ghosted across the sky, hiding the bright Belt of the Goddess, and denser black masses piled to the west with a flicker of distant lightning now and then, too far for even the faintest rumble of thunder. It was three hours past midnight, the time when old men died and sleep was deepest. But it wasn’t still. The cicadas were loud here, as loud as he’d ever heard them, and the tall prairie grasses made a peculiar sound not quite like anything he knew, a long hsssssss that swelled and died away as the ripples passed him by.

It’s like the sea, he thought.

He’d heard something a bit like this once while he singlehanded a ketch off Newport, the Corvallis sea-town, on a day when the Pacific whitecaps marched from the furthest horizon to his boat’s bow. A seal had swum alongside for a while, and sometimes heaved itself up for an instant to peer over the gunwale at him with great brown eyes. He’d bowed back gravely, and laughed as it dove away with a flick of the tail that shot cold salt water into his face and made him nearly luff as he came about on that tack.

Yes, it sounds like waves. And the breeze is picking up.

“I don’t like having to rely on the Southsiders, Chief,” Edain said quietly—whispering’s sibilants carried further than the tones of ordinary speech. “Sure, and they’re good-hearted and brave, but Tamar’s favorite team—” his elder half-sister was well-known as a trainer of oxen “—knows more about the which of the where.”

“At sneaking through the dark, they’re skilled enough,” he replied. “They’d have been dead long ago else.”

A glance at the stars to confirm his inner time-sense, and then:

“Now.”

They both rolled to their feet, their longbows in their hands. The arrows they needed were stuck point-down in the sod, and Rudi flicked open the improvised beechwood fire-box with the tip of his bow. Air struck the banked embers within, and they glowed for an instant beneath the covering of white ash with a hot dry smell. He set one of the arrows to the string, and dipped the head into the coals; the ball of frayed wild flax soaked in oil flared up immediately. Then Rudi turned and shot, the fire-arrow’s point up at a forty-five degree angle as he sank into the draw inside the bow, using the backside-down posture best for distance work. The ball of flame traced a red line through the night; three more were in the air before it struck.

“And there’s a sign that’s sayin’: Hurrah, we’re here! Tasty and fookin’ edible and doing ye the great favor of cookin’ ourselves!” Edain grumbled beneath his rhythmic grunts of effort as he shot.

“Last one!” Rudi said.

Between them they’d sent sixteen flaming missiles westward into a tinderbox fanned by the dry warm wind. The arrows traveled a little less than three hundred yards each to make an arc—they were lighter than a battle shaft, but the bundle of burning matter made them less well balanced and too thick to cut the air efficiently. Now they turned and trotted eastward with the wind at their backs, stooping a little—more than a little, in Rudi’s case—to keep the tops of their helms below the level of the grass.

It was surprisingly hard to push through, especially in the dark; the grass itself was thick, and there was a dense understory of knee-high forbes and thistles. Once an ancient tangle of barbed wire caught at his foot, but it was rusted through and crumbled when he tugged. Garbh seemed to have an easier time of it, bounding silently at Edain’s side. It was her check and quiet growl that alerted them, an instant before the thud of hooves.

“Ssst!” Edain said; that brought her quivering-silent.

They split to either side and froze, kneeling and laying down their bows. The rider was coming at a trot; he had a short spear ready to throw in his hand, and he was standing in the stirrups and peering at the growing red glow to the westward, blinding his own night-vision. The two Mackenzies moved like the twin jaws of a spring-steel trap; Edain grabbed the man’s foot with both hands and flung it upwards. Taken by surprise, the Knifer catapulted to his right as if jerked by elastic cords.

His startled yell broke off at its beginning in a croak; waiting, Rudi grabbed the back of the man’s greasy leather tunic, slammed him to the ground with stunning force and struck behind his ear with the blade of his other hand. Then he stepped back with a grimace and picked up his bow again; for one thing he didn’t want the man’s lice to be able to jump ship. And while it would be easy enough to finish him, perhaps wise...

Perhaps he wasn’t a bad man, by his own lights; and like as not a woman and her children would mourn him. Now let him live or die as the Powers and his own fate decree.

“Earth must be fed,” he murmured.

Edain gentled the horse. He’d been a competent rider when they set out, since the Aylwards had a pair of mounts—unusual affluence for Mackenzies, who usually kept their working stock for plows and wagons and walked or rode bicycles themselves. More than a year of constant travel on horseback and caring for a series of local remounts had made him an expert; he had his plaid wrapped around its head, and was stroking it with one hand and keeping a firm grip on the bridle with the other. Rudi took that over immediately—he wanted the best archer with his bow-hand free. He did take an instant to undo the girths and let the pad saddle and its blanket slide off, and he snorted in silent disgust at the sores and saddle-galls beneath.

Sure, and I stand corrected. He was a bad man, and bad cess to him as he makes accounting to the Guardians of the horse-kind!

That was illogical; the Southsiders weren’t much better. These wild-man tribes didn’t really raise horses; they caught mustangs, broke them crudely, and used them until they died. Which wasn’t all that long given the general fragility of equines.

An animal that can die because it can’t puke needs human-kind to look after it. But the Horse Goddess gives Her sons and daughters to be our helpers and our friends, not machinery.

It made him feel a bit better about clouting the Knifer and leaving him the path of the fire, the more so since he’d given his Freedom Fighter hosts a few pointers on the care and feeding of the beasts.

The horse was getting upset again; the smell of fire was starting to grow. So was the light. He could see a little better now, with red flame licking up like a new sunset. Bits and pieces twisted into the air, drifting up and then followed by others moving faster even as he glanced. Then he could see the tips of flames, redder than his mother’s hair, as he first remembered it when she bent over his crib with the sun behind her turning it to floating copper. Tips of flame, and others skipping ahead where the wind blew it. A crackling roar began to build, not the deep sound wood made burning, but lighter—almost a hissing, like a serpent of fire.

“Like the snakes of Surtr,” he said. “Now, this calls for careful judgment; we want the fire to be on our very heels. A moment... and another... and let’s go!”

He tossed Edain’s plaid back to him and let the horse run—bolt, rather, neighing in panic, which was entirely understandable now that the fire was visible. With any luck at all the guards would just assume that it had thrown its rider. According to the Southsiders, nobody hereabouts used fire arrows—they’d had to have the concept explained to them.

Rudi whistled, two rising notes and one sustained. Epona trotted up like part of the darkness with Edain’s roan gelding following, its reins secured to a loop on the big mare’s war-saddle. She didn’t like coming closer to a fire—she was a horse, however unusual—but she did it. The roan followed perforce, despite the way its ears were laid back and its eyes rolling and its body covered in fear-sweat. The reins were strong solid leather, but Epona’s dominance over the other beast’s dim instinct-driven mind was stronger still.

She was the herd mare, and it would take a much closer brush with the fire to generate enough squealing panic to cancel that. His advisors on the gentle art of reaving horses had always used a mounted man to hold the raiders’ mounts and bring them up at this point, but Epona could do the job just as well.

“Working just like Red Leaf said it would,” Edain grinned, as he unlooped the reins.

Neither man mounted; they turned the horses and loped beside them, holding on to a stirrup-leather to smooth their pace. It made running through the thick grass much easier. Epona’s breast parted the tall whippy stems, and with a hand linked to her solid weight he could lift himself past obstacles that caught at his boots, bounding along as if each step was off a trampoline.

“Horse-stealing being their national sport, so to say,” Rudi replied as his long legs swung along. “The Sioux would be doing this hanging under the horse’s belly.”

“And that would be showing off, if you ask me, fine folk though they are.”

This June past they’d spent some time in a hocoka of the Lakotas, as guests of itancan-Chief John Red Leaf. It had been a brief period, if eventful—fights with pursuing troops of the Sword of the Prophet, hunts that included an unexpected little brush with some ex-Texan lions, buffalo stampedes, a sweat-lodge ceremony, and another which ended with them being adopted as Strong Raven and Swift Arrow.

But they’d also gotten quite a few stories on the theory and practice of horse-theft as the lords of the High Plains managed it these days, it being their pastime and delight. He’d adapted one technique of theirs for this night’s work, but a look over his shoulder made him hiss between his teeth. The fire was a lot higher than anything you could get up in the short-grass country, and a lot hotter, and it was coming along faster. Faster than they were moving. Unfortunately their Sioux friends had been quite clear that you didn’t mount up and silhouette yourself against the fire until you absolutely had to.

“That moment being at hand,” he muttered to himself, inaudible under the Epona’s hoof-falls and panting, and the crackling white-noise roar of the flames.

Then shapes moved in the middle distance ahead, horses amid an area of grass trampled down where they’d fed and rolled. The herd was up now, awake and beginning to be frightened from their sounds. The Knifer guards were running from one beast to another, frantically yanking the slip-knots on their hobbles free; others already mounted snapped crude whips in their faces to keep them from bolting as soon as they were freed.

They were utterly focused on their work; the forty-five mounts here represented years of work, and to lose the herd would be a catastrophe for all their tribe.

The which they deserve, for not leaving the Southsiders in peace. It’s not as if they were so crowded here that they need to fight each other for land, like two wolf-packs in the same valley. Still, I’m glad I’ll be free of them after this night. I have no wish to be the ogre their mothers frighten children with.

The last of the restraints came free as Rudi watched, and the three men who’d been removing them raced for their own horses, looking over their shoulders with their eyes wide in terror. One checked as he ran and opened his mouth to yell warning as he finally picked out the two Mackenzies beside their horses.

“Now!” Rudi said.

He grabbed for the bridle of Edain’s horse with his free hand. There was no possibility of sparing these men.

The other Mackenzie had four arrows out and gripped between his forefinger and the riser of his bow, and another between his teeth, with most of its length off to his left. He brought his bow up and shot that one first, almost spitting it onto the string, and then the others in a ripple of effort so swift and sure that the second had just struck when the last flew free. The flickering light behind them was tricky; only three of them hit. One slammed into the chest of the man who’d seen them; the other two punched the riders out of their saddles. Then Edain leapt and scrabbled aboard his mount, cursing as the beast crabbed sideways between his hand on the reins and its impulse to run free.

Epona had already started moving. Rudi bent his knees between one stride and the next and vaulted as he ran, dropping into the saddle in a way that would have been painful if his thighs hadn’t caught the weight of his body before his crutch slammed into the leather. His sword came out, but shadowy figures were already in among the horses; the last of the Knifer herd-guards were down or fled. Jake’s gap-toothed grin shone a little in the light of the fire.

“Got ‘em, Rudi-man!”

“And let’s go!

The half-dozen best riders of the Southsiders were on either side of the two-score horses, whooping and swinging lengths of braided cord. The snapping and the noise kept the panicked horses bunched; Garbh ran at their heels, snapping now and then to keep them focused. They were letting them run southward—exactly what the Knifers’ own herdsmen would have done, with a grassfire coming. After a few moments they angled westward as much as they dared; the main camp of their foemen was to the east. And probably dissolving in chaos right now, as everyone scrambled to get out of the fire’s way, though they were by a slough with open water even in late summer.

Probably they’d all wade out into it, carrying what they could. The flames were twenty feet high now, dreadfully bright. They raced forward in a flickering wave, a dancing front of red and gold that towered further yet into the air in a wall of sparks. The roar was like all the hearthfires on the ridge of the world added together, with the forges of the smiths thrown in; he eyed the end of the line of fire to his right, judging just where it would pass.

He also thought he heard screams of rage from the savages behind; it was possible that they’d seen their horses disappearing, not in a scattered spray but in a solid mass of plunging heads and tossing manes. Or they might have heard the whoops of the Southsiders, who were calling pleasantries of their choice; they all had their new bows slung over their backs, worn through loops beside the equally new quivers in the Mackenzie fashion. Rudi grinned and added the keening ululation of the Clan to the chorus.

And just to be polite to the folk who’d taken him in and taught him this plainsman’s trick—

Kye-eee-kye!” he screamed. “Hoo’hay, hoo’hay! The sun shines on the hawk and on the quarry!”

“Hand and hand four!” Jake called to Rudy, pumping a clenched fist with one finger extended towards the Knifer camp.

“Forty,” Rudi replied, and the Big Man of Southside repeated the word several times to lock it in his memory.

“Four tens and three,” Rudi amplified. “Forty-three horses!”

He’ll know each one of his new herd by its looks and maybe by a name within a few days, the Mackenzie thought. But he couldn’t say the number until I told him. They have forgotten a good deal, his folk!

The horses ran reckless through the dark until they were out of the fire’s path, and some miles to the west of it. Then they slowed, freed to fear for their legs once more. The whole horizon behind them was turning ruddy where the fire spread out into a front miles long, as if the dawn was coming hours early, and the hot dry smell of it was slow to fade. Then the animals began to slow, down from a gallop to a canter and then to a walk as the night drew its cloak about them once more. The riders touched them up again, half a mile at a trot and half at a walk; that was harder as the horses grew calmer and started to resent this interference with their rest, or to notice that there were strange individuals of their own kind among them without a recognized place in their hierarchy.

Prairie fires were dreadful, and they could travel faster than a horse and scorch your lungs out when the flame-front passed you, but they were also routine—from what the Southsiders told him they happened every year as soon as the tall grass went dry, started deliberately to spur fresh growth, or by friction or lightning-strikes. Beasts and humans both were used to them.

Which is one reason why there’s so little mark of man left in this land, he thought. With fires like that every year, all that could burn has, of that you may be sure.

As if to illustrate the point a silo loomed out of the darkness ahead; tall as many a castle tower, and as broad, but canted to one side, and the lower part was cracked open where years of fires past had buckled the sheet metal plates away from the frames. Someday soon a strong wind would catch it and send it to the ground; in the end it would be a stain on the soil.

It’s a pity we have no metalworker’s tools, and no great fund of time, he thought. We could teach the Southsiders to make proper brigandines. Or at least scale shirts...

Then he snorted quietly to himself. He’d never thought he would catch the teacher’s passion—learning had always been his pleasure—but the situation made it tempting. Rudi Mackenzie had known such people all his life; his mother sitting endlessly patient, coaxing out the music within a novice bard’s fumbling eagerness; Sam Aylward’s callused hand giving him a genial ear-ringing slap on the back of the head when he let his attention wander at the archery butts; Aunt Judy listing the use of a plant’s roots and leaves in a way that made it more a game than a lesson and then holding the blossom up as she said:

And this... this the Mother gives us this for pretty, so She can laugh when She sees us smile.

Or even Mathilda passing on her mother’s ideas of what it meant to be a King to Fred Thurston, as they rode east.

“But I’m not the best of teachers, even for blade and bow,” he murmured to himself. “Too hasty, I’d have said. Well, to travel is to learn, eh?”

The rest of their party was waiting for them there by the ruin. There were younger men—the Southside Freedom Fighters seemed to account a male ready to fight at about fifteen—and a few bold women, and the youngster with the limp and the strong voice who was the closest thing they had to a bard.

“I’ll make this a telling word for you, Jake,” he said. “All these horses! Even Old Jake the sailor-man never got so many. Jake sunna Jake, big man who hands out bows n’ horses!”

Jake made a gesture of dismissal, but Rudi could see he was pleased at the thought of the praise-song. The rest mounted up silently and kept the stolen horses moving; Epona snorted a little. She wasn’t as young as she had been, but she could keep this pace a lot longer than these scrubby beasts.

“There!” Jake said.

It was nearly dawn now; the hour between dog and wolf, as the saying went, when you could first tell the difference between a black thread and a white. The air wasn’t exactly cold, but there was a hint of cool in it as it dried the sweat on Rudi’s face and arms, a token that autumn wasn’t impossibly far off. The road was a long stretch of open ground in the ocean of the grass; there were trees along it, short scrubby fire-scarred oaks and cottonwoods and sycamores, growing up through cracks in the pale faded asphalt that protected them. The rest of the Southsiders ran shrieking and dancing with glee to meet the warriors, until Jake cursed them imaginatively for nearly spooking the new horses. That made them a little quieter, except for the children and—until thumped—the dogs.

Rudi confined his attention to the wagons. A long breath of relief at the lack of serious damage escaped him as they walked about; only the last one had been thoroughly looted, and that was the one that had carried the expedition’s stores. They were all big, even for road vehicles carrying five or six tons each, the six steel wheels nearly as tall as Edain, and the hoops of the blackened canvas covered-tilts were nearly twice his height above the roadway. The outsides showed scorch marks—from that fire Ingolf had described, when the Cutters ambushed his men here, and from later ones, but the pavement acted as a firebreak until the swift flame-front passed. Someone had cut slits in the canvas on each and pulled out a few of the rectangular steel boxes. The locks had been sledged off; he opened one of them.

“Ah,” Edain said behind him, as he pulled out the picture within and propped it against one wheel. “Now that’s... something, by Brigid of the Bright Mind and Lugh of the Many Skills.”

It was a painting, near man-high, and undamaged save for splintering around the frame where it had been tossed roughly back into the box by some wild-man disappointed it wasn’t anything useful.

“Now, I wonder who he was?” Rudi murmured after a moment.

A young man, in black clothing a little like what Associates wore, but different in detail; a white ruff stood all around his neck, and the sword he rested one hand on was a rapier with an intricate hilt. The more Rudi looked the more were the intricacies he saw—yet the more it was also a whole, a thing in itself. You could see the haughtiness in the heavy-lipped, strong-nosed face, and the way the columns and domes behind focused attention on the figure in the foreground. The glow of rich fabrics brought out the olive of the man’s complexion, and the glint off a ruby in his ear...

Edain gave a wordless sigh, and Rudi nodded. They came of a folk who respected a skilled maker above all things save courage and loyalty.

“That’s something which makes me feel better about doing this,” the older Mackenzie said. “I’ll never be a friend of Iowa’s Bossman, and it may be that he sent Ingolf to fetch this out of nothing but vanity... but he’ll keep it safe, sure and he will. And his great-grandchildren’s subjects will thank him for it.”

Edain nodded. “What’s that number down there?” he said, indicating the bottom of the frame with the end of his bow.

“A date, in the Christian fashion, from the year their God was born,” Rudi said. “The year it was painted, I’d say.”

The stocky archer whistled softly; he recognized the system, though Mackenzies of their generation mostly reckoned from the time of the Change.

“More than four centuries ago!” he said.

Jake stood silent, then stooped to peer more closely at the painting as the sun brightened.

“Bitchin’ tough stud,” he said after a moment. “Some Bossman, right?”

“Right you are,” Rudi said, reflecting—not for the first time—that ignorant wasn’t the same thing as stupid.

“The Iowa-man, he wants this just ‘cause it’s looks good?”

Doubt was in his tone. Rudi replied:

“No. Because having such things of beauty will make others respect him more.”

“Yeah. Tha’ big-man thinkin’,” Jake said with satisfaction. “They rich, in Iowa. Do things for looks good.”

“That’s one of the better things about being rich,” Rudi said.

And Matti’s mother has scoured the museums and mansions of the west coast for a generation now, he mused. And Corvallis has too. We Mackenzies and the Bearkillers perhaps a little less, but we’ve found our share.

It was still only a fraction of what had been lost; for a moment his soul ached with the thought of it. Then:

“Life is for the living, though. There’s never an end to what beauty a maker can summon, and we and our descendants just as well as the ancestors. Let’s to work!”

He stowed the painting reverently in the box, and he and Edain heaved it back into place. Then he dismissed it from his mind.

The wagons had been gifted from the Bossman’s store, probably from his arsenals, when Anthony Heasleroad hired Ingolf and his company—Voegler’s Villains, they’d been called—for the trip to the east coast, and virtually everything in them was cunningly made of stout fireproof metal. Their beds curved up gently at front and rear, and the bottoms and sides were riveted and caulked sheet steel, able to float like a boat when crossing a ford. Frames within held the crates and boxes with the salvage; the wheels were forged and welded steel, with rims as broad as two palms. A tongue twelve feet long protruded from the front axle of each for the first pair of horses; it ended in a crossbar on which was mounted the chains that ran to the rest of the team.

The horse-harness was missing, of course—from what Ingolf said, the Cutters had set a fire to force the Villains to abandon the train; they’d unfastened the horses at the last minute and galloped them clear. Luckily the wagons were built to be controlled by someone riding the front left horse, not by complex arrangements of reins. Unluckily, they needed at least eight pair each; and the horses he had available hadn’t been trained for it. Some of them might be harness-broke; the wild-men tribes around here did use light two-wheeled carts sometimes, or travois. Most were only trained to the saddle.

And that badly, he thought.

“This is going to be a riding by the night-mare,” Edain said cheerfully, looking at the stack of wood and leather the Southsiders had brought along and rubbing his hands. “What I wouldn’t give for a proper saddler’s workshop now. Or a carpenter’s. Or even some drills and spokeshaves, I’m thinkin’.”

Badly cured leather, often little more than rawhide; logs and baulks of ash and hickory, and that was the sum of their materials. They’d both helped with harness-maker’s work and done their own minor repairs in the business of farm and field, but neither of them was what a Mackenzie would call expert at it.

“Well, we’ll need... call it thirty-two horse collars,” Rudi said. “Thank Goibniu Lord of Iron that the trace chains are still sound! We’ll make the collars of ash and pad them.”

“Another bit to entertain the folk at home, when we can find time to write,” Edain said, grinning.

Rudi laughed. “We’ll be in Nantucket by the time that tale arrives,” he said. “They’ll be reading what we wrote from Chenrezi Monastery, in the Valley of the Sun, about now. The Luck of the Clan willing, considering how many hands the letters must go through, so.”

Edain made an invoking sign with his right hand, then clenched both and worked his arms in an unconscious gesture to loosen the muscles before a heavy task.

“Best we measure the horses, first. Then—“

 

@@@

 

Dun Juniper

Cascade foothills, Western Oregon

September 6th, Change Year 24/2022 A.D.

 

The packet of letters was thick; the messenger from Bend had come over the old Santiam Pass, and down to Dun Juniper in the western foothills as fast as relays of horses would carry him. Sutterdown was the logical first stop... but the man was not just a messenger of the Central Oregon Rancher’s Association; he was a retainer of Rancher Brown, an old friend of Juniper Mackenzie’s. He’d cut across to Dun Juniper, staggered in to lay the saddlebags before her, and then been half-carried away to the baths and the guesthouse.

Some of the letters she set aside for forwarding; those from Mary and Ritva Havel, to their mother Signe at the Bearkiller headquarters of Larsdalen, and to the Hiril Dúnedain, their commander as Rangers and not so incidentally their aunt Astrid. And of course the sealed report from Father Ignatius to Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski, and Odard Liu’s to his mother and to Sandra Arminger up in Portland. She sighed at that.

“Probably a plea for clemency, poor boy,” she said; the sympathy in her voice was entirely for the young man.

And if ever anyone deserved an axe across their neck, Mary Liu is the one. A spell in the Summerlands, a talking-to from the Mother, better luck next time... She’s never forgotten Eddie Liu’s death, well-deserved as it was. Nor will she give over seeking vengeance while she lives, or pouring poison into poor Odard’s ear. He might be something considerable of a man, if he could be kept away from her long enough!

“I doubt Lady Sandra will send Mary Liu to the headsman. Not until Mathilda is safely back in Association territory, and doesn’t need Odard’s help,” her handfasted man Nigel Loring said, in an English accent to the manor born.

“House arrest does seem unusually... indecisive... for Sandra,” Juniper agreed.

Mathilda had done two letters, one to Sandra and one to her, but she laid hers aside to wait until she’d read the missive from her son.

Rudi’s was in two parts. One an armsman’s report to his Clan Chief, succinct and terse. Even in that there were things that raised her brows: someone else might have discounted the dream-vision as a delusion born of the wound-fever he’d been suffering while they sheltered in that cave against blizzards and foemen. She did not.

So old One-Eye is taking a hand in this as well, eh? Well, my boy is a hero, right enough, and he a collector of such. But he’s not yours yet, Terrible One!

Nor was she surprised to read of the encounters with the Seekers sent from Corwin. Juniper already knew of the Prophet’s reckless abuse of the hidden Powers.

Although, knowing, my skin crawls, that it does. Fools! To meddle so with such things! The Threefold Return will be upon them soon or late with a weight like falling mountains... but how many will be caught in their web of malevolence first?

The other was a son’s to his mother, and it was rambling and warm, and interspersed with tales that brought a smile to her lips, and sketches of places and people done by his anamchara Mathilda and his half-sisters—Rudi could draw a map that looked like a professional’s, but that was the limit of his draughtsmanship.

So that’s this Abbot Dorje, she thought.

An ageless face, wrinkled and grave, but somehow with a boy’s merriment in the eyes, and a finger raised in half-serious admonishment at the unseen artist.

“I’d like to meet him, sure an’ I would,” she said aloud.

Her mother’s West-Irish Gaeltacht lilt was strong in her voice. She’d long since given it full rein; if her folk were determined to imitate it at least they should have a real model from Achill Island rather than the older generation’s vague memories of Hollywood’s idea of how an Irishman sounded. Though to the youngsters, what had started as half a jest among their parents or grandparents was simply the way they spoke.

“And he thinks well of Rudi, which is a mark in his favor.”

“So does this Master Hao,” Nigel said.

That sketch was of a face ageless in a different way, hard and square atop a sinewy neck. “Hmmm. That girl does have a talent for the pencil. There’s a man of his hands, and no mistake, as Sam would say.”

Then with a little wonder, and a finger stroking meditatively across the white of his neat mustache:

“Who’d have thought that a Buddhist monastery would end up ruling a lost valley in the wilds of Wyoming? Even if they were having a conference in a hotel there when the Change struck.”

Juniper grinned a little impishly; it made the laughter-lines beside her leaf-green eyes suddenly stand out. There were many; she was his junior by more than a decade, but still fifty-four herself this year, and there was nearly as much gray as fox-red now in the hair that fell to her shoulders. There had still been a little yellow in his white mustache when they met, and for that matter some hair on a head now egg-bald.

“And who’d have thought that a clan of Celts such as ours—“ she began.

“Pseudo-Celts, darling, inspired by your charisma.”

“—would spring up in Oregon? And the most of it was their idea, not mine, the spalpeens!”

“I understand you did say they’d have to live like a Clan, as it was in the old days,” Nigel observed; that had been nearly a decade before he arrived.

“I just meant we’d have to pull together! The trappings...”

She shrugged helplessly. “In any case, stranger things have happened.”

“You converting me, for example,” Nigel pointed out.

She snorted. “You’re as polite to the Lord and Lady as you were to the Church of England—and not one bit more!”

He smiled and spread hands a little spotted with age. “Whatever you say, my dear.”

“And it was whatever you say, Padre to the parson, too, eh?”

“Whatever you say, my dear,” he replied. “But I assure you my courtesy to the regimental chaplain did not extend quite so far as it does with you.”

They both chuckled. Then her face grew grave again.

“It’s the longest we’ve ever been apart, my boy and I,” Juniper Mackenzie said. “Rudi left April sixteenth of last year. Sixteen months almost to the day.”

“And now we know where he’s been, old girl,” Sir Nigel Loring said, putting his hand over hers.

“And that he was wounded near to death! And the arrows were cursed, from the description.”

And that he’s recovered and well,” he went on relentlessly.

She turned her hand and they linked fingers. The midday meal was just cleared away, and the two of them were sitting on the dais at the head of the long trestles while those on kitchen duty cleared away the last of it and took up the tables themselves. A lingering smell of it—cold minced mutton pie, salads, steamed cauliflower, cheese and breads and biscuits—remained, and the acrid scent of her rosehip tea. From the outside came the clatter of looms, the rising-falling hum of spinning wheels, the whirr of treadle-driven sewing machines and the rattling clang of a smith’s hammer, the neigh of a horse. All the sounds of a working day mixed with talk and laughter and snatches of song, or now and then voices raised in argument.

Though they were at war still the land must be tilled, meals cooked, animals cared for, and tools made.

And weapons, she sighed to herself, remembering Rudi dancing with the blade on the practice field, terrible and beautiful as Lugh come again in splendor and in wrath. To be sure. That we can’t avoid.

Afternoon sunlight poured in through the windows along the verandah, shafts of it picking out the bright painted carving that ran riot over the smoothed log walls of the Great Hall’s interior, vines and leaves and faces from myth and story; the signs of the Quarters were higher, under the rafters near fifteen feet above.

The altar over the hearth on the northern wall held her household’s images of the Lord and Lady as Brigid with her flame and sheaf, and Lugh with his spear and sun-disk; Nigel had made those himself when he was courting her, back during the Protector’s War. When he was fresh from England he’d surprised her by how handy he was at all a countryman’s tasks and trades, not just the deadly skills he’d mastered in the SAS and the Blues and Royals and after the Change.

Now she looked into the blue eyes in the weathered face that loved hers line for line, and smiled back.

“I’ll grant that it’s a mercy to learn my son has been wounded after he’s recovered. This Chenrezi place seems a good one to heal, and to learn.”

Her mouth quirked in a smile as she looked at that letter. It was signed Rimpoche Tsewang Dorje, and she murmured some of it aloud:

I have spoken often with your son in these months of winter, Juniper Lady, and found in him much strength of mind and body, some wisdom and astonishingly little vanity. We have become friends, he and I. Therefore I say that he shall be the better for the trials he has met and shall meet and I would spare him none of them; for unless a man be tested to the utmost, none may know what hidden weakness lies in him; nor may he know his own strength. On his testing and his strength much will turn. Devils seek to rule men; the Gods give us opportunities to rule ourselves, which is infinitely more difficult, and to assist each other upward through the cycles, which is harder still. I think your son may be equal to this task, when his testing is complete.”

“Cryptic,” Nigel said.

“No, my love. Some things have to be said in such fashion. I like the man’s style, sure. And he’s shrewd. We owe him a debt, for the rescue and the care of our folk and the help they gave.”

“He wasn’t entirely disinterested, old girl,” Nigel said dryly. “His people are having their problems with the Prophet and the C.U.T. as well.”

Their daughters came in—Maude, calm and quiet at fourteen, with hair halfway between brown and dark auburn, and yellow-locked Fiorbhinn half her age and carrying the miniature but quite functional harp that seldom left her; they’d eaten the midday meal with their schoolmates. Even Maud’s preternatural gravity dissolved at the sight of Rudi’s letter, and Fiorbhinn squealed openly. They read it over her shoulder, agog.

“Rudi will find the Sword of the Lady and put a stop to the black wickedness of those Cutter folk,” Fiorbhinn said decisively.

“He is the Lady’s Sword,” Maude pointed out. “It was Herself who said so, at his Wiccaning!”

Juniper’s fingers moved unconsciously as if on strings, while she wove the girl’s words into a song she’d been making. How much of the letter to put into it? The earlier ones she’d made of Rudi’s journey had already traveled from here to the Protectorate and back, sometimes with changes that surprised her. Then she’d weave them anew...

Fiorbhinn’s turquoise gaze met hers, and the girl smiled and nodded, knowing what she was about. Maude was solid and good and clever, but fey little True-sweet was the one who’d inherited the music, running like a tang of wildwood magic in the blood.

Nigel knew as well. “Have you considered what you’re doing, Juniper?” he said quietly.

The girls huddled together over the pages she’d allowed them—there were a few things in the letter she didn’t want anyone else seeing, just yet, and a few others not for a child’s eyes. They whispered excitedly to each other, reading out the choice bits, gasping when their elder half-brother was in peril, Fiorbhinn jumping up and down with excitement at each escape or wonder.

“I’m making him a hero, poor boy!” she said, trying for lightness and failing.

Nigel shook his head. “You’re putting his name on everyone’s lips from woods-runner cabins south of Ashland to the Okanogan baronies, but that isn’t the same thing—he was born to be a hero, I’m afraid, and famous already. What you’re doing, my love, is making him everyone’s hope in a time of fear—which is to say, you’re setting out to sing him onto a throne, if he lives. It’s a cruel thing, for a musician to sit and shape a man into a King, like a reed cut and hollowed out to make a flute.”

His gaze turned inward for a moment, and then he quoted from a poet they both loved:

 

“And yet half a beast is the great God Pan

To laugh as he sits by the river;

Making a legend out of a man.

The true Gods weep for the loss and the pain

For the reed that will never grow again

As a reed, with the reeds, by the river.”

 

Juniper sighed and closed her eyes for a second. “I know,” she said softly. “And it’s a bitter thing to do to a child you love.”

“If it’s any consolation, my darling, Rudi would do the job very well indeed.”

Unwilling, she laughed. “No consolation at all... well, not much. But there’s no choice in the matter, none at all. I’m a musician, and before that a mother... but at seventh and last, I am Her priestess, though that road lead through the hard and stony places.”

Nigel picked up a letter that bore Edain Aylward’s laborious scrawl on its envelope of coarse hand-made paper. “I’ll send this along to Sam; he’s out observing the maneuvers. He’ll be pleased at how young Edain’s done.”

“Proud as punch,” Juniper said, grateful for the distraction. “As proud as I am of Rudi, and with near as much reason.”

“Proud as punch, but in a very understated way.”

“He’s English, poor man.”

 

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When she was alone in the upper room, Juniper read Mathilda’s letter and smiled, as much at the things not said as the words themselves. She murmured those aloud to herself:

“Rudi and I keep thinking how nice it would be if we could just go off together and start a farm, or run an inn, or wrangle caravans. Sometimes I look into his eyes in the evening, watching him watching the fire and thinking, and he’ll look up at me and smile and it’s like taking a long soak in hot rosewater after a hard day. Does that make any sense? And we’re far from home, and lonely, but I really didn’t feel alone until he was so sick, and we thought he might die. It’s not just that we’re friends. All the others here are good friends now, even the ones like Fred we’ve met along the way. It’s as if Rudi and I have only now gotten to really know each other—which is funny, since we’ve been anamchara since we were kids, more than half our lives.”

Juniper chuckled to herself: “Since we were kids! Says the withered crone of twenty-three!”

Then she continued reading: “Maybe it’s that we’re so far away from home, and duties, and rank—so that it’s just us now.”

She sat in thought on the bench before the big loom where the brightest lantern hung, turning the paper between her fingers and thinking. Thinking long enough that the flame died down, and she needed to stand and adjust the wick in a smell of scorched linen and oil.

She had loved Sandra Arminger’s child as if she were her own—perhaps not more than that strange weaver of secrets and hidden plans did, but more warmly, and she believed she’d had some hand in the shaping of a young woman they could both be proud of.

Foster-daughter, you were never just a pawn in the game of thrones. How I would delight to see my grandchild in your arms! Friendship, love... it’s odd how they can tip the one into the other. And Love is a tricksey God, wearing more faces than the stars or the leaves of autumn or the snowflakes in winter, terrible and beautiful, sweet or deadly. Even your evil tuilli of a father truly loved you, I think; the one wholly good thing he did in all his monstrous, wicked life. What one of Their gifts brings us more joy, or more suffering, than love? Love between you and my son there has always been, since first you came here captive, proud little spitfire that you were! So brave and so lonely, and Rudi was your only friend. But not passion of that sort, not until now... though thrown together in desperate peril as you’ve been...

She stood and went to face the northern wall, where her Book of Shadows stood on its lectern, and her private altar with the blue-mantled figure of the Ever-Changing One crowned with the Triple Moon, and the Horned God dancing in ecstasy amid skyclad worshippers with the panpipes to his lips. She unpinned her plaid and draped it over her hair like a hood; then she made certain signs and murmured invocations and held up her arms with head bowed and palms to the sky.

“You powerful God, You Goddess gentle and strong! You have demanded much of my son and he has never refused You, Lady and Lord. A warrior he is in Your service, and a strong man to ward Your world and folk and law; but he’s still the child I bore beneath my heart.”

A questioning, like a pressure on her soul. She drew a breath and went on:

“Give him this, at least, on the road You have chosen, the one he has chosen to walk willingly with open eyes, consenting to his fate. Let him know the sweet before the bitter. Let him know the arms of a lover who loves him heart-deep, with mind and soul and body. Let him know the gladdest and deepest Mystery; let him see the child of his love born and raised up before Your altar for the naming. So mote it be.

The words were quiet, but they dropped into a silence that echoed; she felt as if a hand had brushed her eyes, and a faint scented warmth elusive as the memory of dream.

 

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