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THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

The Wild Lands (formerly Illinois)

Near East Dubuque

September 12th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

Sunlight blinked off metal far ahead as the road wound downward. His warrior’s eye recognized that rippling sparkle; polished mail, perhaps, or lanceheads, or helmets. Someone was coming who didn’t much care whether anyone spotted him, which meant it was not any native dweller in these lands. Hiding was ground into their souls by now, hiding and skulking and the game of stalk and ambush.

By what the oldsters say, soldiers all fought like that in the days before the Change, Rudi Mackenzie thought. Not just bandits and savages, scouts and Rangers. No wonder, when they all had weapons that could kill at a thousand paces like a catapult, and shoot so fast, too! Anyone who could see you could kill you.

It wasn’t like that now. Men who fought with discipline, shoulder to armored shoulder, could plow through those who scattered. Most scorned to conceal themselves, thinking it a fighting-man’s pride to stand and meet the battle-rush. The Clan were less prickly, but even Mackenzie longbowmen had to pack pretty tightly together to brew an arrowstorm dense enough to stop a charge.

“Woah!” he said aloud, shifting his balance back, and then reminded himself to pull firmly on the reins; he wasn’t on Epona now.

Over his shoulder he called to the woman sitting on the wagon’s board:

“Brake!”

The slug of a horse he was riding was both stupid and malicious—either that, or it missed its former Knifer master so much it was grieving-mad.

Which I doubt, he thought with exasperation, while worrying whether the other vehicles would notice in time.

The brake lever locked padded drums against the axles; it was that more than his efforts that made the improvised team stop. He used the slack of the long rein to give the horse a sharp pop on the nose as it responded to the halt with its usual attempt to turn its head and bite him on the knee. It took the rebuke as a signal to try and buck, bolt and kick sideways at its team-mate in the traces beside it, and it took a few more moments to convince it that was a bad idea. The fact that it would break its legs and die if the eight beasts hauling the first wagon were to be thrown into a struggling heap didn’t seem to matter to it—probably it was too dim-witted even to fear for its legs, which...

“Puts it about on a level with a sheep,” he said with disgust. “Except that sheep are usually better-natured.”

And to be sure, he had to make certain Epona wasn’t in view while he rode with the team here. She didn’t like it when he rode another horse, even her own get. She definitely wouldn’t like him riding this crow-bait. Horses could be as difficult as people, sometimes. And the thought of trying to put her in harness made him shudder. She might or might not be the actual get of the Horse-Goddess for which he’d named her, but she certainly acted as if she was, in her pride not least.

He grinned, tired but reasonably contented. Horses and their crotchets he’d have to worry about the rest of his life, he supposed, but this part of the journey was about over and with any luck at all he could get back to the real quest. The road stretched ahead; he could see the screen of Southsider scouts appearing and disappearing ahead as they fell back towards him.

To his left was about a mile of floodplain, densely wooded but mostly with new growth, here and there a pre-Change tree towering with the height that abundant water and the rich silty soil would endow. Others were dead and gaunt and bleached bone-white, killed out when their roots were smothered by the spreading water of renascent swamp. Parts of it were full marsh now; he could smell it, the sweetish-rank scents of black muck and vegetable decay, and see the glints of water where the old levees along the Mississippi had broken. It had probably been cropland before the Change, and very good land at that.

The reeds were brown with the late season, and the velvet sausage-shapes of the cat-tails were beginning to shed white fluff. The leaves of the maples hadn’t started to turn, but their green had a faint, almost subliminal hint of yellow to them, and all the trees had a bit of tatter, like a shirt worn until the cuff and tails started to unravel. A string of geese took off as he watched, gusting upward like a spray of black dots before they formed into a V and headed southward. The long slanting rays of afternoon made the great river painful to look at, light breaking and blinking off its rippled surface; despite that the Southsiders trudging along on foot were pointing and peering and exclaiming in delighted wonder, with parents putting their infants up on their shoulders to see. They were nomads, but like most such they’d traveled on a fixed seasonal round in a narrow compass, one that didn’t include the Mississippi.

Off to his right was hilly land, the bluffs that edged the floodplain. The rumpled surface had a pelt of old forest, with here and there brick snags through tangled vines and saplings marking where buildings had stood, and brush growing over stands of thick short bluish grass interrupted by sandy spots.

The underbrush had been cleared back about half bowshot on either side of the road, and the rust-rotted hulks of automobiles and trucks were missing. That meant that they were within the area regularly patrolled by Iowan troops from their beachhead in East Dubuque. Edain came trotting up from further south, with Garbh at the heel of his horse. He was riding the quarterhorse he’d picked up in the Valley of the Sun, in what had once been Wyoming, a decent and civilized beast who didn’t even object when the great dog leapt up to sit behind her master.

“Those bearings on the third wagon’s rear axle aren’t going to last much longer, no matter how much lard we bless ‘em with, Chief,” he said. “Then we’ll be worse off than with an ordinary iron collar and no fancy salvage. But I’m thinking we could—“

His square face had the bullock-stubborn look of a man who was pacing himself by the task, and giving it everything he had.

“Boyo, they have to keep going for another four miles, or an hour and a bit, so. After that it’s Bossman Heasleroad’s problem, and none of ours.”

Edain blinked and shook his head like a man coming out of deep sleep. Then he grinned at the Mackenzie chieftain, and Rudi grinned back.

“Sure, and it seemed like we’d be traveling forever, didn’t it?” he said, and leaned over to clap the younger man on the shoulder.

“That it did. And not a nice pleasant pilgrimage for Beltane, either. Fighting, which I do not like, or running, the which I like even less.”

Is fear rith maith ná drochsheasmh,” Rudi laughed. “A good run is better than a bad stand.”

Edain nodded, then raised a warning fist as Rudi’s mount turned a considering head towards him:

Keep your teeth to yourself, y’ evil-eyed keffle!”

A shout came from ahead. Rudi nodded; he’d expected that about now. Jake and his Southsiders jogged back towards the wagon train and the rest of their tribe in no particular order, on either side of a squadron of Iowa cavalry.

The Iowans were in a neat column of twos, with an officer in a plumed helmet at the front and a bannerman with the State flag flying just behind him. They were well-mounted on big glossy geldings, and despite the formal stiffness of their formation they also looked tough and alert, unlike some of their comrades he’d seen elsewhere. They all wore coalscuttle helmets and short-sleeved mail shirts, with heavy curved shetes at their sides and round shields slung over their backs; their short horn-and-sinew recurve bows were out of the scabbards, they all had arrows on the string.

And they’re notably good horsemen, Rudi thought. With well-trained mounts. Elite troops.

The thought was confirmed when the column came to a halt in rippling unison not far away. You needed to use both hands for a saddle-bow, which meant you had to control your horse exclusively with legs and balance. Rudi could do it—

On a real horse, not this ambling pot of glue-makings!

—but mostly people with that knack were ranchers or cowboys or Rovers or from the Plains tribes, folk who lived in the saddle from childhood. Iowans were tillers of the earth as a rule, but these had a different trade.

He slid to the ground and walked forward on the cracked slabs of the roadway, split into uneven segments like the back of a tortoise by a generation’s frost-heave, glad to be out of the beast’s kicking and biting range. His blue-green eyes narrowed as he took in the commander’s face beneath the brim of his helmet, and then went wide as he saw that of the big man beside him, the one wearing a kettle helm with a broad brim like a hat’s.

“Ingolf!” he shouted. “Ingolf the Wanderer!”

And alive, free and armed, he added to himself, feeling a grin of delight split his face.

“Rudi, you miserable slippery son of a bitch!” the other man called. “Christ, you could fall into a heap of horseshit and come out smelling like a rose with a gold brick in your teeth!”

He slid from his mount as well, and they grasped each other’s shoulders, laughing with pleasure; that grip was easier because they were almost of a height, though Ingolf was a bit thicker-built, bear to Rudi’s tiger. The other man’s weathered face was a little grey under the short-clipped beard, but that was to be expected after weeks of confinement. He fisted the Mackenzie on the arm and stepped back, looking at the wagons with his thumbs hooked into his sword-belt.

“By Jesus, I never thought I’d see these again. All the way to Boston and back...”

His face went cold for an instant, obviously remembering the friends and followers of his who’d died on that trip. Then he shook it off.

“Good work... Chief.”

“I had help,” Rudi shrugged.

“I can see that,” Ingolf said, nodding to the Southsiders and shaking hands with Edain. “But you got the help.”

It was a different tune you were singing when we started out, Rudi thought; there had been a bit of friction when the more experienced man realized the Mackenzie was to be in charge of their group. But you’re an adaptable one, Ingolf Vogeler. And it’s glad I am to see you.

The Iowan commander had dismounted as well. “Charmed the cannibals, I see,” he said to Rudi. “No accounting for tastes, either way.”

Jake sunna Jake sat his horse to one side, scowling and working his fingers on the shaft of the spear whose butt rested on the toes of his right foot. Rudi had rarely seen a man more ready to kill who wasn’t trying to actually do it.

“Ah, Captain Denson, still as much a charmer of a man as ever you were before,” Rudi said.

He smiled, and the State Police officer blinked a little; the last time they’d met he’d been seeing Rudi over the bridge into the Wild Lands on a mission meant to fail, and the time before that he’d arrested the Mackenzie, tried to arrest his friends, succeeded in taking Odard and Matti prisoner, and dragged the three of them before Anthony Heasleroad’s throne. Rudi’s sharp-cut features usually had a half-smile about them. It made the expression they wore now more noticeable.

“And it’s glad I am to see you again,” Rudi said, something cat-playful in his tone. “Very glad to see you again like this.”

This being armed, with armed friends at hand, and the Iowan himself within arm’s reach. Denson was no fool; he’d seen Rudi before, and refreshed his memory with an expert’s quick appraisal of the other man—hands, shoulders, the way he stood and moved.

“Now, Captain Denson, would you be after tellin’ me something: you Christians have a proverb, do you not, Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord?

The State Policeman nodded warily. “Yes.”

“And you’ve another to the effect that if a man hits you on one cheek you should turn and let him hit the other, no?”

“Yeah. Your point is?”

Rudi’s smile grew a little broader, and his thumb caressed the cross-guard of his longsword:

“Well, I’m not a Christian, you see. And we of the Old Religion believe that a man’s deeds come back upon him in kind... magnified threefold.”

“Sorry if I offended,” Denson said tightly. “Just doing my job.”

“It’s to my friend Jake here that you should apologize, Captain Denson,” Rudi said. “Because the Southside Freedom Fighters are not cannibals, nor were their ancestors, and because they’ve helped me regain your Bossman’s property. And for the sake of good manners to guests, the which is pleasing to the land-wights while rudeness brings ill-luck.”

“Apologize to a wild-man?”

There was a genuinely scandalized tone in Denson’s voice; that prejudice was no older than Rudi, but it ran deep. The shock of it was enough to knock the man onto his back heel for a moment, mentally.

“When a man’s got himself into a pit, the first order of business is to stop digging,” Rudi said. “Whether with a shovel or with his tongue. And there’s a third reason you should apologize; because you’re wearing a sword.”

Denson’s hand went unconsciously to the hilt of his shete. “What’s that got to do with it?”

Rudi smiled. Jake sunna Jake cocked his head to one side, considered the expression, and gave a gap-toothed grin of his own. Ingolf seemed to be wavering between sharing the amusement and looking alarmed, but he also shifted his shoulders a little and casually rested a hand on the strap that held his shield across his back. That might be an idle gesture... but it also put him in position to pull it down and slide his arm into the loops quickly. Rudi went on.

“If a man insults another and has no weapon, then he’s a coward and beneath contempt, hiding behind his own weakness and the other’s honor. But if he does it with steel by his side, it’s presumed that he will...

Rudi ran an ostentatious eye over the gray threads in the Iowan’s hair.

“How did you ancients put it in the old world... walk the walk, as well as talkin’ the talk?”

He didn’t draw his sword, or even put his sword-hand to the hilt. He did let the thumb of the other press on the guard, enough to start it free of the slight tension of the greased battens lining the scabbard, and let a single thread’s-width of the patterned layer-forged blade show.

Denson stared at him for an instant, opened his mouth, then followed Rudi’s flick of the eyes and turned to Jake.

“Sorry,” he said to the Southsider coolly enough, with a little bow. “No offense meant.”

Jake grunted, probably slightly disappointed. Rudi smiled, this time without the edge of menace.

“Graciously said,” he said. “Now, let’s get your ruler’s property to him, eh?”

“I’ll meet you at the fort,” Denson said, swinging into the saddle and turning his mount; his men followed him, and rocked up to a gallop.

Ingolf let a breath puff out. “We do need him,” he pointed out. “At least for a while.”

Rudi nodded. “But he needs us, or you wouldn’t be here, my friend. And he’s not the sort of man who sees a friendly approach as anything but weakness.”

“Yah, he’s the type you have to push back at or get walked on, all right.” Suddenly Ingolf chuckled. “And Christ... or Manw and Varda... it was good to see him backing down. Spending time in his jail warped my perspective a bit, I think.”

He swallowed and looked at the wagons. “Thanks, by the way.”

“You’re heartily welcome, but...”

“Yah, Matti and Odard. From what Denson told me they’re as safe as anyone could be around Tony Heasleroad.”

“Which is not a great and exceeding safeness, so?”

“There’s that. Matti seems to have charmed everyone around, though; she and Kate Heasleroad are thick as thieves. And Odard’s popular too.”

“Neither is a surprise,” Rudi said. Though with Odard, it’s more of a mask, I think. “Matti has a gift for being liked; it starts with being likeable, and also with her liking folk who deserve it.”

Edain had been leaning on his longbow. Now he nodded after Denson, a considering look in his eye.

“The man’s fey,” he said. “The shadow of the Hunter’s wings is on his face.”

There was a moment of confusion—Ingolf seemed to think the word fey meant something entirely different from the Clan’s use of the word—and then Rudi spoke:

“I hadn’t noticed... but strong passion blinds the inner eye, and I confess Edgar Denson makes me regret that the Gael gave up taking heads to nail over the door, the sorrow and the sadness, that he does.”

“You hadn’t given up chopping them off, that I noticed,” Ingolf said dryly.

The two clansmen laughed. “But his deeds are coming back to him, threefold,” Edain said. “I could feel it, and I’m not one to see the Dread Lord’s mark on a face just because breakfast didn’t agree with me.”

“That you are not,” Rudi agreed. “From your lips to the ears of the Fair Folk, though, that they may send him the ill-luck and black misfortune that he’s earned. The man is a waste of living space.”

Ingolf looked at the wagons. “You got them moving, all right,” he said. “But where did you find this collection of crowbait you’ve got pulling them?”

Rudi laughed. “Thereby hangs a tale. And it was a tale of the Lakota that gave me the idea.”

Care seemed to slide from Ingolf’s shoulders as well; he was a few years older than Rudi, but not thirty yet.

“During the Sioux War we used to say they could steal your horse and you’d ride on half a mile before you noticed. Guess it’s catching, Strong Raven.”

“That it is, Iron Bear.”

Edain joined the chuckle. “How Dad will grin when he hears about how we got the horses. He’s always on about what great raiders the SAS were, before the Change.”

“He taught you,” Rudi pointed out. “So it’s only natural he’ll take a bit of the credit.”

 

@@@

 

Near Dun Laurel

Clan Mackenzie Territories

Willamette Valley, Oregon

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

 

“Advance in skirmish order with fire and movement!”

That bellowed order was faint with distance, but the dunting huu-huu-hadd-hurrr bray of the cowhorn trumpet carried more clearly.

The old man leaned silently on his unstrung bow-stave and watched the warriors deploy, popping a few blue-black serviceberries from the shrub next to him into his mouth from time to time. Sam Aylward was in his sixties, and had never been more than middle height, though deep-chested and broad in the shoulders; now he stooped a little, and the square tanned Saxon face was gaunt and furrowed, the once earth-brown hair turned gray and white. There was strength yet in the scarred gnarled hands on the yellow yew-wood but they were starting to twist with age, and they were battered with a lifetime of working with animals and weapons and tools, heavy weights of flesh and wood and metal and urgent speed.

He was grateful for the heat of the summer sun sinking into flesh and bone, even as it brought sweat out on his face and flanks; somehow he was cold a lot of the time these days. A deep breath brought a scent of rank greenery and silty mud, windfalls rotting beneath apple orchards gone feral, crushed grass, a few blue lupins still blossoming. Grass-heads scratched at his legs beneath the pleated kilt. This was the time to practice the arts of war, after the grain was in and the stacks thatched and waiting for the threshing, when strong young hands and backs could be spared.

Time to read Edain’s letter, too, he thought; he could almost feel the weight of it in his sporran. The boy’s had a bad time. That were cruel hard, not being able to save that girl he met. There’s a lesson you have to learn: sometimes you give it everything and nothing works... But he’s all right, and he’s been doing a man’s work and no mistake. And tonight I can show it to Melissa.

A slight smile moved his lips; at the thought of his son, and the prospect of his wife’s face. She’d been worried badly, which was natural enough, and spending a lot of time spell-casting and trying auguries.

I’ve been worried about the boy too. Boy? He snorted. I’ve bred and raised me an Aylward fighting-man to reckon with! Now stop woolgathering and get back to work, Samkin. They’re shaping nicely—and Oak Barstow has them well in hand. He’ll be better than his dad at it. More fire in the belly.

The ground the warriors were using was part of the empty zone that separated Dun Laurel from Dun Carson, far enough out in the flats of the Willamette Valley that the Cascades were a line of blue topped with white in the eastern distance; his own hobbled horse grazed behind him, and John Hordle’s thick-bodied warmblood, and his younger son Richard’s elderly little cob. The boy—he was fifteen and a bit, still a few years too young for the First Levy—was aggressively red-haired, freckled, and looking at the exercise with naked envy, unconsciously edging forward bit by bit and reaching over his shoulder to finger the arrows in his quiver.

“Dickie,” the elder Aylward said mildly, without looking around, and keeping the inward grin out of his voice. “If you don’t want to mind the ‘orses, you could always be to ‘ome helping your mother set up that new loom. Or there’s them hurdles that need replacing in the ‘ill pen...”

A hundred clansfolk were advancing through the burgeoning wilderness. They moved by threes and nines, dodging swiftly from bush to tree to clump of tall grass that nodded like hair blowing in the slow warm wind. The kilts and plaids of the Mackenzie tartan—which here in Oregon was mostly green and dark-brown, due to a salvaged load of blankets that first year—made them hard to see; so did the green leather covering their brigandines, and the matt surface of the same color on their open-faced sallet helms. They shot as they came, stopping briefly to bend the long yellow bows and send a gray-fletched arrow whirring downrange before the next dash; shafts thumped home in the man-shaped targets of straw matting bound round posts, or now and then vanished near them.

“Nossir! Sorry, Dad!” Richard Aylward Mackenzie said.

The boy wrenched his eyes from the dance of war, straightened up and chivvied the mounts a little closer together; they responded with lazy good manners.

“Nice to have room for this bit so close to the settlements,” John Hordle said, lowering a set of binoculars that looked like toys in his great fist. “Even here in farming country.”

His rumbling bass held the same slow yokel burr as Sam’s, deep-English of a south-country village sort. Usually his wasn’t as ripe—he was a generation younger, around forty—but he unconsciously fell back into the speech of their shared birthplace as they spoke.

“Mind, with bows you don’t have to worry about some git a mile downrange catching one. Still, nice not to be crowded,” Sam replied.

The Mackenzies numbered over sixty thousand now, more than half of them born since the Change and more too young to remember much before it, but they weren’t short of land—even good land like this, not counting the vast mountain forests to the east on the slopes of the Cascades. There were probably more people about in the rural areas of the Willamette Valley than there had been before the engines died, but they used a lot less of the landscape, now that it wasn’t machine-cultivated to feed some distant metropolis. Most of the Clan’s territory down in the valley flats was like this, kept as a reserve against future growth, and the same was true in the other realms.

“Not much loik the land east of the Cascades, though,” Hordle said. “Less cover out there, mostly.”

Grazing livestock and dry-season wildfire, deer and elk and sounders of feral swine had kept the scrub and saplings from covering everything here, but the golden summer grass was shaggy and nearly waist-high, studded with rosebush and hawthorns gone wild here and there. Scarlet English poppies starred the fields with swatches and dots of crimson.

My doing, that, Sam thought, with an inward grin.

He’d helped it along, at least; quietly dumped several score pounds of seed salvaged from garden-supply stores here and there in the first years, and they’d spread far in this agreeable climate and fertile soil. Not that he’d ever admit it, and he cursed the weeds with the best.

Bit of old Blighty, and sod the nuisance they are in the corn. We don’t have to squeeze every acre until it squeaks.

There was a stretch of wetland over westward to his right, thick with green cattails and reeds where a field-drain had been blocked; most of the birds had fled the noisy humans. Elsewhere the trees that had lined tilled fields or roads before the Change had sent out waves of saplings, poplar and Douglas fir, bigleaf maple and garry oak, the oldest of them of respectable size by now. Another patch of forest marked the site of a farmhouse, snags of tumbled brick showing where the roots gripped and ground away at the old world’s works with slow vegetable patience.

More arrows flew; the levies were retreating now, the same stop-shoot-and-dash maneuver. This wasn’t the massed volleying by ranks that could darken the sky and smash armies, but a very respectable number of shafts were flicking in their long shallow arcs, blurring through the air.

“Not bad at all,” Sam said; in fact he was proud and happy with the performance. “Easier to make summat of ‘em than it was in England before the Change. Christ, it’d make you cry, to see some of the things that came into the recruiting offices back then. More like garden slugs on legs than human beings they were, sometimes. Present company excepted.”

The bigger man grunted agreement. “Well, this lot ‘aven’t spent their lives laying about watching the telly and scarfing crisps.”

He smiled reminiscently and went on: “Remember those types they said were cheese and onion flavor? Made from rendered cow ‘ooves, I read once.”

He leaned on the brass pommel of his sheathed sword as he said it; the weapon was four feet in the blade, with a long double-lobed hilt and a cross-guard. It wasn’t outsized beside John Hordle, who was six-foot-seven and broad enough to seem a little squat. In armor he could look overweight, something his great boiled ham of a face might suggest.

“No, it’s shoveling muck and hoeing spuds and chopping trees for these, murr loik,” Aylward said with satisfaction. “And practicing with the bow fraam the toime they’re six, naat to mention ‘unting.”

Today Hordle wore a sleeveless linsey-woolsey shirt in the warmth, besides trousers and boots and broad belt and the baldric for slinging the weapon over his back, and you could see that the three-hundred-odd pounds of him had scarcely an ounce of spare flesh. Massive muscle ran and flexed across thick heavy bone on a body the same width from shoulders to waist, with dense auburn furze on the backs of his hands and his arms and great barrel chest. The baldric had a device picked out on it in silver, of a bare tree surrounded by seven stars and topped by a crown.

“Gives a good start,” he agreed. “It’s the same with most we get for the Dúnedain Rangers. All you ‘ave to teach ‘em is how to fight.”

One archer got a little too enthusiastic, shooting as he ran without taking time to aim. A bow-captain came up behind him and administered a tremendous kick to the man’s backside, hard enough to send him forward onto his face with the surprise and shock.

“You’ve got a fine old English discipline going ‘ere,” Hordle said approvingly. “Sir Nigel must approve.”

“No, ‘e says there are toimes an officer ‘as ter be blind,” Aylward said. “Take a walk, loik, while the sergeant deals with things. No names, no pack drill.”

Hordle nodded. “Funny being one myself—an off’cer, that is. And you, Sammy, for all you swore you’d die a sergeant.”

Aylward grinned. “Some folk ‘ave ancestors. The Lorings go all the way back to Bastard Willie’s time—”

“Live up to it, they do,” Hordle observed.

“That’s so, bless ‘em. But you and me, John, we don’t ‘ave ancestors. We are ancestors, and the kiddies will ‘ave to live up to us.”

“Poor little buggers!” Hordle laughed. “Better them than me.”

“But you’re king o’ the woods, too, eh?” Aylward observed dryly.

Hordle shook his head. “King’s roit ‘and, p’raps,” he said. “Or Prince Consort’s. Alleyne allus was better at the strategy side of it. Well, ‘e’s Sir Nigel’s son, and ‘e went to Sandhurst, so it stands to reason, eh? Still, I’m surprised how you’ve tamed these wild Irish.”

“Wild Irish?” Aylward asked, with a derisive snort. “These synthetic Scots and plastic Paddies? Stage Oirish, more loik, John. I swear if Lady Juniper’s last name had been von Hoffenburg they’d have taken to spiked helmets and jackboots that first year; they’d prob’ly have worn lederhosen wi’ ‘em, too. They’re no more Celts than you or me.”

Hordle grinned, a slightly alarming expression, and flicked at a lock of his dark-red hair for an instant with one sausage-like finger; the first gray threads showed there this year.

“Speak for yourself, Sam. I don’t reckon the Saxons in our stamping grounds scragged all the Early Welsh girls they found when they landed at Gosport Hard and started gettin’ antisocial wi’ fire and sword. That’ud be proper wasteful.”

“It’s the way they talk I was thinking of,” Sam said. “Saw—heard—it happen, these twenty years and some. I was here right from the beginning, not like you three late arrivals. Drove Lady Juniper fair mad, it did, but they wouldn’t stop. I give you the youngsters... they just grew up with it, so to say.”

“Could have been worse, Samkin. They could have imitated you instead of the way ‘er Ladyship sounds—“

“—what they thought she sounded like, y’ rammucky lurden—“

“—I’d ‘ave landed here ten years later and found thousands of ‘ampshire ‘ogs, only talking through their noses loik this.”

Hordle finished with an alarmingly accurate impression of someone who’d grown up on General American trying to speak with the accents of a Tillbury villager.

“Says the man who talks sodding Elvish most of the time, y’ great gallybagger.”

The big man winced slightly. “That’s Lady Astrid’s fault. She were always mad for those tales. Not that I don’t like them myself—and Alleyne liked them even better. Allus did, even when we were lads in Tillbury, back before the Change, and you were drinking my Dad’s beer at the Pied Merlin and telling us lies about the sojer’s life.”

“Which is why he ended up married to her,” Sam said. “But your missus is near as bad.”

“Oh, no, no, now there you’re wrong. She just loiked them stories. It’s Astrid who took it all for Gospel; Eilir went along with it, and now the youngsters all believe it, God ‘elp us. Anyway, they were already living in the woods and doing the whole bit when Sir Nigel and Alleyne and I arrived. Doesn’t hurt, does it? It’s useful, having a language nobody else speaks, like using Sign. Sort of like a regimental badge for us Rangers, too. And we’re the next thing to the SAS about these days.”

“And you sound a complete pillock when it comes out of your mouth, John.”

He sighed and nodded agreement. “You know the worst of it? When I start thinking in soddin’ Sindarin. Going on sixteen years now I’ve been in those woods, and everyone reciting and singing at me about every bloody thing.”

His rumbling bass sounded a sweetly melodic tune:

 

Alack, Lord Hordle!

Woe to the Men of the West

Who get no rest

For there is no bum-wad

In the Silvan crapper!

Nor any yet

In my Flet

No knotted grass

For my ass

In Stardell Hall

Is’t there none at all?

Of any stripe?

That we may wipe?

 

Sam chuckled like gravel in a bucket. “Still, they’re clever as foxes and they fight ‘ard as badgers, so let ‘em sing, Oi say.”

The big man went on in more normal tones: “You don’t have to live with it. It’s a good thing the missus is deaf and gives me some peace; I’d have done someone an injury, else.”

“How’s the ear coming?”

“She’s fine; the wound’s healed up proper. Weren’t serious, and she says she never used the ear anyway. Still more of a looker than I deserve!”

“How’s the other?”

That could only mean Astrid Havel, the Hiril Dúnedain, the Lady of the Rangers.

“Lady Astrid? Fine, and lucky with it. The ‘eadaches tapered off... you know how it is after you get a bad thump on the noggin.”

They both knew; you didn’t get up from being knocked unconscious and walk away as if from a nap. Blinding headaches for months were a small price to pay. Hordle’s fingers played with the hilt of his great blade for a moment; Sam turned his head for an instant and raised one shaggy white eyebrow at Dick, who was leaning forward towards the conversation with his ears almost visibly stretched. The boy went over and began fiddling with his mount’s tack.

Hordle lowered his voice a little: “It gave me a fair turn, Sam. That burke in the red robe caught Astrid’s sword right in the middle of a lunge, caught the flat between his ‘ands.”

He slapped his palms together to illustrate how.

“Caught it and punched it back into her ‘ead. If it hadn’t been slippery with some blood on it ‘ee’d have knocked her brains out. Gospel, Sam; I’m not ‘avin’ you on.”

Sam Aylward whistled through his teeth. He’d seen the Hiril fight.

You couldn’t catch her sword like that. John’s roit; it’s not natural.

“And the skinny little git who did it had already knocked me for a Burton,” Hordle said. “One punch under the short ribs and I couldn’t move until I got my wind back. One punch through a mail shirt and padding! And I had to chop ‘is head off to put him down; he was about to twist Astrid’s off like a cook with a chicken. So she’s talking about a real Dark Lord this time.”

“Daft,” Sam replied. “But you got out and you took Peters with you, right from his own house. Astrid’s daft, sure enough, but she’s roit fly too, and she does mad things and gets away with them. Of course, you and Alleyne ‘elp.”

Carl Peters was—had been—Bossman of Pendleton; he was now a ‘guest’ in Castle Todenangst, up in Association territory. Unfortunately his wife had always been the real brains of that partnership, and she’d escaped the Dúnedain commando raid with her two sons and was now ruling Pendleton in cooperation with the Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant and the President-General of the United States of Boise... and playing those uneasy allies off against each other to maintain her own family’s power.

“Keep ‘er feet on the ground, as it were.”

“Samkin...” Hordle said unwillingly. “I’m not sure she is daft, not about this. The Prophet was in that room, and I saw the bugger, and my bollocks crawled up so high I ‘ad lumps on me neck and had to massage them down again with warm oil and cloths later. ‘Alf the time I think Astrid’s barking mad... but the other half I think she may know summat I don’t, like this.”

“He’s certainly a nasty piece of work, our lad Sethaz,” Sam acknowledged. “I’ve talked to a few refugees from out east, and Lady Juniper to more.”

“No, Norman Arminger was a nasty piece of work. Sethaz is all that and a bit more, believe me.”

“Well, I’ll let Lady Juniper deal with that side of things, eh? It’s her job, so to speak. Meanwhile we’ve got to fight ‘im.”

John Hordle shook off his mood and grinned again. “We? I thought you were retired, Samkin?”

Sam Aylward snorted. “I’m too old to do much shooting or bashing,” he said. “That doesn’t mean me brain’s gone soft, not yet. Since we lost Chuck at Pendleton I’m advising his boy Oak.”

“Good man, Chuck. Good sojer, for all that he came late to it. He’ll be missed.”

Aylward nodded. He’d been First Armsman—in charge of training and leading the war-levy—for the Clan from the beginning, when it was just a few dozen people; Juniper Mackenzie had found him trapped and dying of thirst near her cabin when the first Change Year was young, fruit of an early retirement and unlucky hunting trip financed by an unexpected legacy. Chuck Barstow had been his second for most of that time, a man ten years younger who’d been one of her coven before the Change and a Society fighter. He’d taken the top job after the Englishman got too stiff and slow for field command, in this age when a general had to match the stamina of twenty-year-olds on the march, and fight with his own hands now and then too.

“Good farmer as well, for all ‘e came late to that, too,” Aylward said.

Chuck had been a municipal gardener in Eugene by trade. Sam Aylward had been brought up on the poorest and most backward little farm in Hampshire himself, a joke and scandal to the neighborhood. They’d been organic when it just meant you couldn’t afford anything better, not that you got premium prices from fancy restaurants and a pat on the head from the Prince of Wales. Until the land was sold out from under his father’s feet to be a stockbroker’s toy and the younger Aylward took the Queen’s Shilling just in time for the Falklands War.

A thousand years of farming Aylwards, and I thought Dad would be the last. But what he taught me turned out to be as useful after the Change as fifteen years in the SAS, or even making bows as a hobby. All the more so as we couldn’t afford the latest gear.

The exercise had ended; the Mackenzie warriors were collecting arrows or sitting crouched on their hams or leaning on their longbows or sparring with shortsword and buckler. The bow-captains and commanders grouped around the standard of the antlers and crescent Moon; a discussion was going on there—Mackenzie-style, which involved a lot of arm-waving and raised voices. A tall fair man ended it by listing things that hadn’t satisfied him.

“And by the Powers, you’ll do it all over again, or my name isn’t Oak Barstow Mackenzie and my totem isn’t Wolf!” he finished.

“Oak did well getting the Mackenzies out at Pendleton, after Chuck died. I talked it over with Eric Larsson. But it’s still bloody silly to name yourself after a tree,” Hordle grumbled.

“Says the man whose kiddies are called Beregond and Iorlas,” Sam commented dryly.

“Well, they’d have felt left out in Mithrilwood, loik, if we’d called them Tom and Bert,” Hordle said defensively.

“We’ll be sending a thousand archers east next week,” Aylward said soberly. “They’re about ready, I think.”

“They’ll be welcome,” Hordle said. His thumb ran along the guard of his sword again. “Welcome and no mistake. We’re stretched thin.”

“Not as thin as Rudi and my Edain and their lot, wherever they are by now,” Sam said quietly.

“Roit, Samkin. But thin enough. Thin enough.”

 

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