Cover Map 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

St. Raphael’s Cathedral

Chartered City of Dubuque

Provisional Republic of Iowa

September 14th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

“It was so good to receive the Sacraments again,” Mathilda said. “It always makes me feel less... less muddled. Like looking from the top of a castle tower, after you’ve been in a crowded street.”

“I agree,” Odard replied; sincerely, she thought.

Though I was never really sure, before.

After all, an Association nobleman more or less had to be respectably pious in public at least, or face serious political problems; so did most at court who wanted the Princess Mathilda’s favor, as opposed to her mother’s.

But I think this trip has been good for Odard. A sigh. I wish mother would take more care for her soul... and I like Lady Delia, but... no, think about that later.

“And it was homelike, in a way, even if they don’t use as much Latin here,” he said musingly. “I never thought I could be so homesick. I’ll never call Castle Gervais dull again, if you know what I mean, your Highness.”

“I do, Odard.” She put a hand on his shoulder for a moment. “I asked Lady Sandra to be merciful, for my sake.”

“Thank you,” he said, and wretchedness broke through his composure. “I told Mother... but she’s actually guilty. And intriguing with the CUT isn’t just politics, even treasonous politics. I know that now.”

She gave the shoulder a squeeze and then turned her attention aside for a moment to let him gather himself; Odard would be bitterly ashamed of losing self-control.

They walked together through the drowsy evening warmth of the grounds, amid a sweet smell of cut grass and roses and a faint trace of incense that was still stronger than the city-scents from beyond the low perimeter wall. The air lacked much of the heavy coal-smoke stink of Des Moines, at least; they burned the stuff here, but there were far fewer factories and foundries.

The State Police were discreetly spaced around the outer edge of the cathedral grounds; beyond them were the low hills of the city proper, with few buildings of any height—there evidently hadn’t been many high-rises, and those few had long since been torn down for their metal. The low buildings of honest brick gave Dubuque an oddly modern look, like a post-Change settlement.

The Cathedral itself reminded her of some back home; not the flamboyant Cypriot Gothic traceries that were so fashionable now that there were resources to spare for such work, but pre-Change types. It was a solid red-brick cruciform structure with a white stone front and square tower and plain windows. And the seat of an archbishopric, but the service had been modest, with only two parish priests officiating.

She felt a little guilty at effectively commandeering the place, but not much; she did have an extraordinary need. Confessing to a stranger who didn’t know the context of her life had been a bit of a trial after having her own chaplain for so long, and then Father Ignatius, but...

Helpful, in a way. I had to organize my thoughts. And He is no respecter of persons; it’s probably good for me. And it was a relief to light a candle in thanks. Rudi made it! And Edain too, of course.

Sometimes, not very often but sometimes, receiving the Host was like opening herself to all creation in a blaze of fire that consumed and warmed at the same time. At others, she had to make herself properly reverent by an act of will. Today had been neither.

It was more like being a soldier in the garrison of a besieged castle, and getting a clap on the shoulder from his liege-lord as he walked the battlements. She struggled to control a smile. And I’ll be seeing Rudi again soon, soon!

A white-marble statue of the Virgin stood nearby, beneath a willow-tree. A Benedictine in the simple belted black robe and scapular of that Order was there, kneeling; he rose and turned his hooded head towards them.

“I’m sorry, brother, we didn’t mean to interrupt your—“

She stopped abruptly. A jolt ran through her, and she forced back an exclamation of joy as she recognized the dark face and slightly tilted eyes.

“Softly, my children,” Father Ignatius said; his smile was warm beneath the shadow of the cloth, but brief. “Walk with me.”

The two Associates were in local costume, bib overalls for Odard and a simple dress for her; there was nothing strange about two gentlefolk talking with a religious. The Church was very strong in this city, apparently an old tradition reinforced since the Change. Ignatius told his rosary with his left hand as they walked... possibly because he didn’t have a sword-hilt there right now, though he did have a dagger; that was formally part of the ordinary Benedictine habit anyway.

“You and the others can come out of hiding now, Father,” Mathilda said happily. “Rudi has the wagons! They’re almost here—just across the river. He found some tribe of wild-men and convinced them to help him. God and His mother witness, nobody else could have done it!”

“Certainly I couldn’t,” Odard said ruefully. “You know, he makes one feel... inadequate, sometimes. If he wasn’t so damned likeable I’d dislike him.”

Ignatius chuckled dryly. “My daughter, lord Gervais, Rudi Mackenzie is indeed a very able young man, as I understand you informed your... host. But what is your impression of the Bossman himself? You have seen a good deal of him; I know him only by reputation.”

“Oh,” she said. “I thought it would all be over now...”

Wishful thinking always lies in wait! she reminded herself; that was one of her mother’s sayings. After a moment’s careful thought she went on:

“He reminds me of my lord the Count of Chehalis,” she said.

“Oh, that is so true,” Odard said. “An excellent comparison. And I know Piotr a lot better than you do, your Highness. We’re friends, sort of.”

“No accounting for tastes,” Mathilda said dryly.

“Politics,” the young noble shrugged. “As much of a friend as a mere baron can be with the son of a Count. The man’s a damnable snob, among other things. Passable swordsman, useful with a boar spear and good with horses, and a lousy poet. He’s no fool, either, not really, except that he’s lazy—lazy between the ears, in which he does resemble Lord... Bossman Anthony. But by God, can Piotr drink!

Mathilda nodded; she’d had only the formal minimum of contact with the younger generation of House Stavarov. For one thing the family were traditionally restive under the Crown’s restraints, despite old Alexi backing her father’s original seizure of power; for another County Chehalis was a fair ways from Portland and not very rich apart from the salvage trade to the ruins of Seattle; for another...

Lord Piotr Stavarov’s interest in a woman starts at the eyebrows and stops above the knees, she thought, remembering a polite discussion of the latest ballad of courtly love that had turned into a brief wrestling match in an alcove.

I didn’t enjoy convincing him he wasn’t as irresistibly attractive as the fifth brandy told him he was—

Which she’d done via a ringing slap across the chops that left him bleeding from lips cut against his own teeth, no maidenly restraint there. She wasn’t as strong as the burly blond noble, but she’d trained to the sword all her life and there had been plenty of power behind the blow. He’d taken it in silence, bowed, turned and left, not being suicidal enough to draw on her or strike back even when drunk—that had been in Castle Todenangst, the heart of House Arminger’s power.

And besides the Protector’s Guard ready to come at the first call, Tiphaine d’Ath had been in the next room. The Grand Constable would have cut him to pleading, sobbing ribbons on the dueling field and then stood watching him bleed to death by inches, her head cocked a little to one side and that chilly little smile on her lips. The thought made Mathilda shiver a little even now. Even with nothing said those iceberg-colored eyes had narrowed a little and followed Piotr as he stalked out. Pursing her lips while her left hand’s fingers moved like graceful cables of living steel on the long hilt of her sword, and her right turned a hothouse rose beneath her nose.

Tiphaine liked killing people who annoyed her, men particularly; and she’d been as protective of Mathilda as a mother cat with a kitten as far back as the heir to the throne of Portland could remember. It was rather like having a tiger running tame in the house; you could forget the nature of the beast except that every now and then the claws slid free for a moment.

Piotr never spoke to me again except formally, which pleased me well enough. And it would be very, very reassuring to have Baroness d’Ath here now. Or to be back in Todenangst.

Aloud she went on: “Only Lord... Bossman... Anthony is even worse than Piotr, because he’s had nobody to tell him he can’t have whatever he wants. I think... I think he was too much indulged as a child. His mother died when he was young, too, and evidently his father had a succession of lemans who flattered him when they didn’t ignore him altogether, and none of them bore children.”

Ignatius nodded. “That is what my superiors here have informed me as well. That makes it... uncertain... that he will carry out his undertaking to release us all It was originally meant as a mocking joke. Accordingly it would not be safe to reveal ourselves yet, even leaving the minions of the Corwinite cult out of consideration.”

“Yes,” Mathilda said. “Looking at it objectively.”

“In fact, we have some information concerning the Cutters’ plans,” Ignatius said. “From Edgar Denson, of all people.”

Odard’s brow went up. “And he revealed it?”

“To Ingolf.”

“For his own purposes,” Mathilda guessed; there were plenty of men like Denson around court at home.

“Indeed, my child,” Ignatius nodded.

No surprise to him either, Mathilda thought. A knight-brother trains in politics.

“Denson intends to use the Cutters’ own eagerness to kill us as a tool to reinforce his influence with the Bossman,” Ignatius amplified. “He evidently fears that it isn’t as unassailable as he would like people to think.”

“Nobody who has to depend on Anthony is in an unassailable position,” Odard said.

Mathilda nodded. “Including Anthony. I think he doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do from moment to moment, or whether his boredom is going to overcome his good sense.”

“This is a man not used to being thwarted in anything,” Ignatius said. “I have been... very concerned at you being so much in his company.”

“Yes,” Mathilda said again, unhappily.

I can’t very well haul off and give the man what he deserves, though it hasn’t gotten past the odd wandering hand. Yet.

“I know what you mean,” she replied aloud. “So far I’ve just let all his hints fly over my innocent head. But I’ve also become good friends with Kate Heasleroad. And he does value Kate’s good opinion of him. That restrains him, as much as anything does. He’s intelligent enough to realize she’s the only person he knows who wouldn’t drop him—or murder him—if he weren’t ruler.”

Ignatius nodded. “That was well and wisely done, my child,” he observed. “Both for reasons of prudence, and for itself as a kindness.”

Mathilda shrugged. “She has all the drawbacks of my position back home, and none of the advantages. Plus she’s stuck married to a man I wouldn’t have if he were the only male left in creation, and she’s extremely lonely. I was sorry for her. And she’s not as stupid as... well, as I thought at first, though she’s no genius either. Just very... inexperienced.”

The priest nodded. “And I hear that my lord of Gervais has made friends as well.”

“A few, Father,” Odard said. “Even the Bossman... although I don’t think he really has friends. But I amuse him and he likes hearing about the Association; I’ve never met anyone so fundamentally bored. He’s fairly confident I don’t want anything from him in the way of gold or land or offices, too, which must be a relief.”

For once I sympathize with him, Mathilda thought; she’d had far too many people maneuvering for favor around her all her life, or at least as much of it as she could remember.

“Excellent,” Ignatius said. “However, the enemy is also aware that there is a good chance that the Bossman will let us go... and even that he may let us go and keep them, or at least keep them for long enough that our trail will be cold. Therefore they will strike. And soon.”

“The Bossman and his guests are well-guarded,” Odard said.

“From mortal enemies,” Ignatius warned. “But remember the fight when you were rescued after the battle at Wendell, Princess.”

Mathilda did, and shuddered. “They have a High Seeker of the Corwinite cult with them,” she said.

“They do,” the warrior monk replied grimly. “And while the C.U.T. are deluded fools, they speak truth when they say their prayers are answered. They simply don’t realize by what.”

“I could wish Heaven were a little more proactive on our behalf, Father,” Odard said.

The priest looked at him for a long moment and then shook his head.

“No, my son, you do not. It is precisely the difference between our Lord and theirs that we are given help, while they are treated like puppets and tools.”

Mathilda nodded. “What can we do about it? I mean, apart from cutting them into little bits. That seems to work—but we were lucky, and Mary and Ritva were lucky too.”

“If luck you call it,” Odard said.

They all quirked a shared smile. Dúnedain were not the only ones to read the Histories. She loved them herself; they were far more alive than the chronicles of the world just before the Change, and who knew how much truth had gone into their fashioning, since the morning of the world? Perhaps as much as the Chanson du Roland or the Morte d’Arthur or the Saga of Bowie Gizzardsbane; nothing in the Quest of the Ring seemed as impossible as firebombs that could destroy cities, or talking by invisible waves. But the Rangers were so literal about it.

Then after a hesitation the soldier-monk went on:

“There is something you should know; I have permission to tell it now. Something that happened while we were in Chenrezi Monastery. I was alone in the woods on the mountainside, just before Christmas. And as I prayed—“

He told the story. Mathilda felt her eyes growing wider and wider. Ignatius was fervent, yes—you didn’t become a warrior-monk of Mt. Angel without a real vocation, much less be ordained priest as well. But—

“Are you sure, Father?” she asked; her eyes flicked to the statue of the Virgin.

I don’t doubt that you believe it. So that’s why you’ve been so protective since then!

“Very, my child,” Ignatius said flatly.

He handed her a note. She opened it; the Cardinal-Archbishop of Des Moines’ seal was at the bottom, with a brief note: I believe that Fr. Ignatius has indeed been granted the vision he reports.

Mathilda blinked. I wouldn’t have disbelieved Ignatius anyway.

He was closer to her than Father Matthew now, though she’d known her old confessor since childhood. Having a Prince of the Church confirm it did help, though.

Which means... She felt her heart almost stop, and her voice stuttered a little when she got her breath back:

“But... but I’m not that important! The Queen of Angels in person told you to guard and guide me?”

Astonishingly, Ignatius grinned. “My daughter, how important you are is something that Heaven evidently knows better than you! Doesn’t He watch over the fall of a sparrow? And are you surprised that the Mother of God is wiser than Mathilda Arminger?”

Odard laughed and licked a finger, miming making a tally in the air.

“He’s got you there, your Highness.”

After a moment she snorted unwillingly. “Yes, he has.”

“You are a human soul, and all are precious to God, whether Princess or peasant,” Ignatius said gravely. “But it was strongly implied that some great purpose is served through you. More than your position as heir to the throne, or your role as mother of the next Lord Protector. There is something that you are to accomplish.”

It was terrifying and glorious at the same time. She closed her eyes for an instant, taking a long deep breath, then gave the knight-brother a glance from under a raised eyebrow:

“And you, Father, are apparently important enough that the Lady of Sorrows drops by to tell you that you’re her champion!”

The priest sighed and put his shapely, muscular hands in the sleeves of his robe, lowering his eyes for a moment. Sometimes it was irritating when clerics assumed humility, as if they used meekness as a form of rhetorical ju-jitsu. Ignatius didn’t do that, which made it all the more effective; suddenly she felt a little ashamed at twitting him that way.

“My children, that troubles me more than I can say. I hope I am willing to take the martyr’s crown of glory, if that is the will of God. But I am not so lost in vanity and pride that I wish for it. Even Our Lord asked that the cup pass from him. Consider the implications.”

She did, and felt herself quail. Only heretics thought that Heaven’s favor meant things were going to go well for you in a worldly sense—her tutors had gotten that lesson well home to her, starting with the example of what happened to Christ Himself. The Lord tried those He most loved; the strongest steel came from the hottest fire. The cross you were given to carry up to Heaven’s gate would be just exactly as heavy as you could bear by your uttermost effort plus the essential freely-offered Grace, neither more nor less. Still...

“If she says that this quest is vital, then there’s really no choice,” Mathilda said. “Not that there was anyway; I couldn’t desert Rudi. I’m not going to turn back regardless.”

“But the Queen of Heaven also told me something else,” Ignatius said.

She blinked a little at his smile; he was an undemonstrative man, but for an instant there was happiness in his face that sang despite the matter-of-fact tone:

You will be tested beyond what you can bear, unless you throw yourself upon Him and His love. In them is strength beyond all the deceits and wickedness you have seen; strength to put them behind you.”

He cleared his throat. “I will do my best, your Highness.”

“And so will I,” Mathilda said.

“And so will I,” Odard added. Then, lightly but with an undertone of wonder: “Somewhat to my own surprise.”

 

@@@

 

“As you commanded, my lord,” Rudi said with a bow and a sweep of his hand towards the piled cargo.

“Well, yes, yes, it seems to be mostly here,” the Bossman said, flicking aside the trailing dagged sleeves of his new tunic.

Rather badly, Rudi thought absently. It takes a deal of practice to wear court dress gracefully. I wonder if he realizes what he’s putting himself in for? I could always eventually escape back to Dun Juniper, and the merciful simplicity of a kilt!

Anthony Heasleroad paced down the line of pictures with the bells on the upturned toes of his giltwork shoes jingling. A clerk walked behind him, checking off items on a clipboard compiled from museum catalogues of the old world. Some of the paintings were stacked three or four deep, with the finest on the outside. Other treasures besides stood on the lids of the crates that had held them, with wisps of the hay padding still drifting about; cups of carved alabaster, jewels, icons that were themselves jewels of paint and gold leaf, ancient hand-copied books on parchment opened to display the faded glories of their illuminated capitals, worked Church vessels of precious metals...

“Nearly all of the items on the list. My lord,” Edgar Denson added hastily, and then: “Your Majesty.”

Rudi Mackenzie kept his face politely blank. Evidently there had been changes in the court etiquette of Iowa, since he’d left.

And to be sure, I have a fair idea whose ideas those ideas were!

Kate Heasleroad was wearing a fair imitation of Mathilda’s cotte-hardi. Some of her ladies-in-waiting were in less skillful ones; they looked a little out of place in the Dubuque City Hall’s plain whitewashed assembly chambers, as much as their floral perfumes did among its faint smell of old lamp-oil and harsh soap. The city itself seemed to be ruled partly by an elected Council, all of them present in their best old-fashioned clothing and looking extremely nervous, which wasn’t unreasonable at all in the presence of their—

Whimsical, Rudi thought. Sure, and whimsical is the best way to think of it.

—whimsical ruler. The Emergency Coordinator of the city looked only slightly less so, and that because he was at court in Des Moines more often.

Rudi caught Matti’s eye as he went briefly down on one knee; the courtesy might have been to Iowa’s ruler... or to her.

The which is no substitute for a hug and a kiss, he thought. But as close as we can come. For now.

The impulse sparkled in his eyes, and he could see she sensed it; her smile held a reproof as warm as the wind in a blossoming orchard, and as full of a delicate promise.

He’d had enough time to get his good kilt and plaid out of their baggage, and his ruffled shirt and short silver-buttoned Montrose jacket and raven-plumed Scots bonnet. For some reason she was in the male version of Portlander court dress tonight: tight hose, tooled shoes with upcurled toes sporting little silver bells, brown-velvet tunic with long dagged sleeves dropping down from the elbows and the Lidless Eye of her house on the breast in rubies and jet, jewels on her belt and dagger-hilt. That she and Odard were armed was a good sign in itself.

Her face stayed grave, but with her eyes on him he was suddenly acutely conscious of his own appearance in a way that was rare for him.

Good work, he mouthed silently, shifting his eyes from her to Iowa’s ruler to show what he meant.

“And you got the savages to haul them back?” the Bossman said.

“Yes, my lord,” Rudi said, and gave a brief—and colorful—account of his interruption of the Knifer ambush and the horse-stealing expedition that followed.

“Ah, I wish I’d been there!” Anthony Heasleroad said.

“I’ve no doubt you’d have been like a lion in battle, your Majesty,” Rudi said.

And a roar of laughter at this point would be less than diplomatic, so, he thought. There’s an element of truth to it, lions being cats, and so probably more concerned with food, sleep and fornication than heroism.

Being diplomatic—lying credibly—was part of being a courtier or ruler; and there were certain things you just didn’t say to a strange overlord.

I wouldn’t trust you on latrine detail, much less a raid was one of them.

He recalled Aunt Judy remarking that a mind-healer was in much the same position as a courtier, having to think carefully before talking: for example you’d rarely hear one say Brigid come in splendor, no wonder your mother never loved you!

Not aloud, no matter how hard she thought it.

Heasleroad nodded to the clerk: “See that they’re packed up and sent to the House in Des Moines immediately. We can settle where to put them later.”

“Your Majesty, why not a public exhibition?” Denson said. “That’s what we originally planned.”

“Yes, yes,” the Bossman said.

Then he brightened, taken out of his usual peevish boredom:

“We could have it on my birthday. That’ll leave a month and a half for getting ready. We could have a public feast, with pigs and oxen roasted in the streets, and a parade, and square-dancing, and then the viewing. And... and we could have a, a revision of titles at the same time. Governor is so old-fashioned and Bossman... Bossman is a bit rustic.”

“That would be an excellent idea, my lord,” Denson said.

A pained smile hid an expression that disagreed violently with his words; he shot Mathilda a venomous glance before he went on:

“Perhaps we could have festivities every year on that day... a different theme every year. This year it could be... the Majesty of the Heasleroads, God’s plan for Iowa.”

“Good!” Heasleroad said. “See to it, Edgar. Now—“ he looked at the city council and clapped his hands together. “What about dinner?”

As they walked away towards the banqueting hall, Rudi looked over his shoulder; the State Police officer’s face was showed naked irritation for an instant.

A wise king doesn’t show disrespect to his lords, Rudi thought. Matti’s mother is polite even when she’s going to kill one of hers; as she says, the cost of courtesy is low and the return often very high indeed. You’ve much to learn if you’d keep your dynasty safe, my lord Anthony.

He fell in beside Mathilda. “Not the time to ask for leave to depart?” he said quietly.

“No,” she said. “Time to watch for an opportunity, then bolt. Better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.”

A troubled smile. “And we’d better not spend too much time together. The Bossman is, ummm, not a very reasonable man.”

He’s a spoiled baby in a man’s body, Rudi thought, with a snort.

Then he nodded and drifted away, which the local informality made easy. For all Matti’s brief lessons and the Bossman’s apparent enthusiasm, the Iowans hadn’t yet got to the point where courtiers went to dinner in pairs carefully graded by rank, preceded by musicians blowing trumpets and heralds shouting out titles.

The which I always found either amusing or irritating, when I was in Association territory, he thought.

The hall they entered was probably used for something else most of the time; there were basketball hoops at each end, mostly hidden by colorful bunting, and the walls were covered by flags and banners, the floor by rich but mismatched carpets. The banquet itself was as elaborate as an anxious city could make it, with a blaze of expensive wax candles in silver holders, snowy linen and fine china and cutlery, crystal bowls full of flowers and fruit. Carvers were at work, their stations in the center of the square of tables bearing roast pigs and smoking quarters of beef, racks of glazed ribs, roast turkeys and ducks, pheasants and chickens and grouse in the splendor of their crisp golden skins, stuffed baked fish as long as a tall man’s leg...

A stream of platters with made dishes came out from the kitchens. Rudi sat willingly enough, six positions down from Kate Heasleroad’s left hand and eight from Mathilda on the Bossman’s right. At least he’d get a good dinner out of this. Ingolf was tactfully absent... and had other work to do, to be sure. If Edgar Denson’s plan was to work, they needed a bit of extra muscle, beyond what the Southsiders could provide; and Edain would have to lead them, he being the one they knew best after Rudi himself.

And after the Southside Freedom Fighters’ idea of cooking, this will be very welcome, indeed. Brigid Sheaf-Mistress, how long it’s been since I tasted vegetables or bread!

He tore open a warm roll from one of the baskets and buttered it, the rich yeasty scent of the interior filling his mouth with a rush of hunger-spit; he had to swallow before he could bite into it, for fear of drooling down his good plaid. He followed it with a selection of salad, boiled new potatoes left alone in their own perfection, then a little beef in a cream and herb sauce.

There was an added spice to the food, as well. Right down at the other end of the head table were the red-robed High Seeker from Corwin, and Major Graber of the Sword of the Prophet in the rough blue uniform his service wore beneath armor. The server there was setting out slices from the haunch of a suckling pig, but from their glares neither of the Church Universal and Triumphant’s men was going to enjoy his food.

Rudi looked at the emptied plate before him, added two slices of roast pork with crackling and mashed potatoes and steamed beets, and covered the meat and potatoes with gravy before happily lifting a forkful to his mouth. It was good honest food, fine materials well-prepared, if a little blander than the cooks at Dun Juniper would have made it—no herb crust on the meat, for starters. And nothing like the complicated cooking Portland’s nobility favored, where art warred with indigestion.

He chewed blissfully, looking at the Cutters again and nodding good cheer, raising his wineglass to them. Was it his imagination, or did wisps of steam float over the High Seeker’s head?

“Is deacair a bheith ag feadail agus ag ithe mine,” he murmured, sipping the indifferent vintage.

A plump Farmer next to him stopped putting butter on his broccoli and looked at him.

“What’s that?” he said.

“A saying of my mother’s people: It’s hard to whistle and eat at the same time,” Rudi replied, and got a blank look and uncertain smile. “And harder still to swallow when your gut is so tight with rage it aches. Bad for your digestion, that is; bad for your nerves; even worse for your disposition.”

And to be sure, it was better to eat before a fight, within reason, for the bit of added endurance. A prickling ran along the back of his neck as Graber narrowed his cold eyes; even without Ingolf’s warnings he would have suspected that if Bossman proved cooperative about the quest departing, the Cutters would not.

Indeed not. So, eat, but not too much, he thought, waving aside a second round of the serving platter and taking a slice of sour-cherry pie instead.

The Gods were at play tonight, and he one of the pieces they moved on Their board. He dropped a scoop of the ice-cream on the pie.

Something sweet, for quick energy. It wouldn’t do to be heavy and slow.

 

@@@

 

“Right, listen up,” Ingolf Vogeler said.

He looked over the men his friend Jack Heuisink had brought from the family estate, Victrix Farm.

Well, there’s Jack. He doesn’t look like he’s let himself rust.

The heir to Victrix was in his mid-twenties, a little shorter than Ingolf—under six feet—but broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, with cropped dark-red hair and a broad snub-nosed face, moving like a lynx. The Heuisink retainers grouped around him in the dimness of the empty warehouse amid the ghostly smells of pine-tar and fermented soy and freight more nameless, faces underlit by the blue flame of the alcohol lantern he’d put on an upturned barrel.

Six were from Victrix Farm’s National Guard Security Detail; the household troops, what they called ‘deputies’ back around his own home in the Free Republic of Richland.

And they actually look as if they’ll be useful, not just glorified muscle for keeping the vakis in line, he thought, tapping his sword-hand thoughtfully on the plate vambrace on his left forearm.

Jack was a few years younger than the man from Wisconsin. They’d met when he ran away to join Vogeler’s Villains up north in the Republic of Marshall during the Sioux War, and he’d spent more than a year with the free company Ingolf commanded in that...

Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition exercise in futile butchery and pointless destruction which ended with the survivors on both sides right where they started, just poorer and less numerous and occasionally missing important body parts, Ingolf thought.

It wasn’t the only war Ingolf had fought in that finished that way, either; about par for the course, in fact. That was one reason he’d gotten out of the hired-soldier business.

But it was sure educational, if you survived. Real educational.

It had given Jack actual combat experience, and the Heuisinks’ men were notably tougher-looking than the general run of their kind in Iowa, and almost certainly better-trained; their coalscuttle helmets and mail shirts were carefully browned, and their short recurve bows and long horseman’s shetes looked like they’d seen use. Either Jack had worked them hard, or the Heuisinks had hired men who’d seen border duty beforehand, or both. Probably both.

Most importantly, none of them looked too nervous, just serious and paying careful attention; one was stolidly finishing a ham-and-cheese sandwich and licking a stray squirt of mustard off his fingers as he waited. All of them had given Ingolf a quick professional appraisal; a few had nodded in sober recognition when they met his eyes. Not of who he was, but of what.

And if they are nervous, it’s because they’re not used to cities, not because it’s their first fight, Ingolf thought.

Aloud: “Jack, you’re in tactical command.”

And they know you, so they’re less likely to run screaming.

“Come fast when I call,” he finished aloud.

Jack nodded; he raised his voice a little when he replied and came to attention and saluted smartly:

“Yes sir, Captain Vogeler!”

One of his eyes drooped a little in a wink as Vogeler returned the gesture. None of these men knew Ingolf from Adam except possibly in Jack’s war-stories, but they’d grown up around the Heuisinks. None of them was going to be much impressed by the fact that he’d been a paid soldier and salvager all his adult life; they certainly wouldn’t give a damn about his birth into a Sheriff’s family in the wilds of Wisconsin, which was desolate dirt-faced yokeldom’s native land to an Iowan. Deference by the master’s son and heir would make them a lot more likely to do what Ingolf told them, which could be crucial.

Christ, I wish I had my old Villains with me, he thought.

Not for the first time, and only partly because they’d all been close comrades who he missed bitterly even now; that had come from years of serving together, and they’d all known what they were doing and known each other’s capacities.

Or I wish that we were doing this with just Rudi’s bunch. Yah, yah, there’s only ten of us, but at least we’ve been in hairy situations together, and I can be sure they’re all first-class. These guys are strangers, except for Jack. And when I did know him he was a wild youngster, not a married man with kids. Hope he hasn’t changed too much.

Worrying about the mission as a whole kept him from worrying about Mary, too. She was up there on the rooftops right now. Or possibly on her way back already, depending when the Cutters made their move.

God-damn Edgar Denson and his plan. What was it Doc Pham used to say when someone got too fancy?

The Readstown physician had doubled as a teacher in the hamlet’s school and director of their amateur theatricals. When the stage directions got complex he’d say—

‘Too many notes, Herr Mozart’. That about describes it.

Denson was smart, no two ways about that. But he wasn’t a soldier, not really; he was an intriguer and politician who did some fighting now and then. Certainly not one who’d had years of first-hand experience of how easy it was for the wheels to come off a plan when it met the one the other guy was driving.

Your enemy always has a plan too, the swine. That’s why we call them ‘the enemy’.

“Thanks again,” he said to Jack, as they shook hands one last time before they buckled their gear.

The other man’s hand lacked much of the little finger and the tip of the next; he’d gotten that putting it between a Sioux tomahawk and Ingolf’s face.

“Hell, Captain, you saved my life a lot more often than I saved yours, back when. Mainly because you knew what you were doing and I didn’t.”

Ingolf shrugged. “It was my job. But you’ve got family responsibilities now, Jack.”

The Iowan cinched his sword-belt and shrugged to settle it on his hips; he was wearing a jointed two-piece breastplate and flexible tassets to protect his thighs. Iowa had the best metalworkers in this part of the world, and his family could afford the finest.

“That’s really why I’m here,” Jack replied. “My kids are going to be around for the next sixty years, God willing, and by then they’ll have grandkids. These Cutters... they may not get to Iowa soon, but if they aren’t stopped they’ll be here someday.”

Ingolf nodded. “Christ, Jack, why aren’t there more who can see that?”

Jack grinned. “You’re expecting people to be sensible now, Captain? How you’ve changed!”

“Point. I wish Mary and Ritva would get back here,” he said. “What’s going on out there?”

 

@@@

 

Ritva Havel raised her head, slowly, leaving just her eyes above the ridge and brought the night-glasses to them; beside her Mary used a monocular.

Their heads and most of their faces were covered by a knitted cap of wool made in the irregular very dark taupe color that faded into an urban background better than black. It was full night—the moon was down—and from above the gaslights at the corners of the streets hid more than they revealed, killing much of her night-sight no matter how carefully Ritva squinted and looked aside. The building where the Cutters were quartered was unlit... which was significant in itself.

She took a deep breath, feeling her blood pump and senses extend themselves outward. It wasn’t particularly nice air in itself—this town burned coal too, like most in Iowa, and it was heavy with wet and still too warm for comfort. Sweat trickled and ran down her flanks, making the coarse dark linsey-woolsey and supple leather of her Dúnedain working garb cling and chafe.

But at least I’m doing something instead of sitting and worrying! she thought. Real Ranger work.

The door opened. There was only a moment’s gleam of muted light, noticeable because it caught at the edges of honed steel. The Cutters’ armor was partly metal, but mostly lacquered leather the color of dried blood, not very conspicuous in the dark. They came out in disciplined silence, with only a very slight clatter of harness and boot-heels on pavement. A rough count showed forty or fifty; not all the survivors of the troop Graber and the Cutter magus had brought east with them, but well over half.

And unless Denson lied to us, about now he’ll—

A brighter light flickered and then steadied. Edgar Denson of the State Police strolled forward, half a dozen of his men behind him, their shetes drawn. According to the plan he’d insisted on he was going to hold the Corwinites in conversation for a few moments, enough for the two Dúnedain to flit back and put the rest into motion. She wouldn’t put it past him to have some elaborate triple-cross in mind, but so far, so good.

She glanced aside and met her sister’s one eye above the face-covering mask-hood. Their thoughts ran in perfect harmony:

Just a moment more, to make sure Mr. Denson is doing what he promised.

“Halt,” the Iowan said to the Cutter party. “Care to explain why you’re all out at night, and armed?”

Graber was in the lead, but the red-robed Seeker pushed past him before he could do more than clap his hand to the hilt of his blade.

I—see—you,” the Cutter priest said.

Fingers of icy slime caressed her at the sound. Memories cracked open like a too-fresh scab, although it had been a year since that encounter in the snow-thick forests of the Teton slopes. It wasn’t fear that made her want to flee the Cutter priest’s presence, exactly. More an elemental disgust. This was something that shouldn’t be in the world, and it made everything around her suddenly seem alien, alien and slightly decayed. Some part of her expected to smell rot from her own flesh.

“What?” Denson said.

I—see—you,” the Prophet’s man said again staring into his eyes.

The voice sounded suffused, as if it was swollen with freight beyond what words could bear, as if meaning itself would tear apart at the weight and leave words to rattle empty through human skulls.

“You—are—mine. Eternally. For—a—beginning.

Ritva could hear Mary’s breath hiss out, a slight sound in the night. It had been a Seeker who cut the eye out of her face. And Ritva who killed him, which had been like a battle in a bad dream, against an opponent who wouldn’t die. Denson had courage. He cleared his throat, but when he spoke his voice was calm and sardonic.

“Hey, don’t you guys know voodoo only works on people who believe in it?”

The Seeker laughed. There was no joy in the sound; listening to it made you doubt the possibility of joy for a second. But there was considerable satisfaction.

“What is that you wear around your waist, man?” he asked, in tones more human.

Sorta human, Ritva thought. Sorta-kinda.

“It’s what I use to hold up my pants and for my shete, when I’m not pointing it at some asshole I’ve suddenly decided needs killing,” the secret policeman said, his voice gone hard.

He waggled the long curved horseman’s weapon, the point rising until the razor-edged six inches on the back of the blade hovered near the Cutter’s throat.

“You may have lost the concept out in Montana along with regular baths and brushing your teeth, but it’s called a belt in this part of the world,” he went on. “Any more questions about civilized fashions?”

“You lie,” the High Seeker said casually. “It isn’t a belt; it is a giant rattlesnake. What a fool you are, to wear a deadly serpent around your body!”

Denson started to laugh himself. Then Ritva saw his face shift, as one hand dropped to his midriff. He gave a single high shriek and dropped his sword. He struck convulsively at himself before the steel rang on the pavement, scrabbling and pounding... and then pitched to the ground, twitching. Her own breath caught as she saw his purple, distended face and the foam on his lips. Then her throat clenched tighter still, as her eyes dropped to his right hand.

It bled, where the palm was pierced by the loosened pin of his belt-buckle.

Thiach iluuvea gail, Heru Denson,” Mary observed, dropping back into Sindarin.

“No, he isn’t very bright. Wasn’t.”

“He wouldn’t listen to us, and now look what it got him. And us.”

“And there goes our crucial delay. Well, maybe Denson’s retainers will attack them—“

The men behind Denson wavered, got a good look at their commander, then threw away their weapons and took to their heels. From the sounds they were making, the State Police troopers didn’t intend to stop until they hit the Mississippi—or Nebraska, if that street lead east. She very much doubted they planned to stop and inform the authorities of what had happened... not that anyone would believe them in time if they did.

I don’t know if I believe it myself, she thought in some corner of her mind. There are stranger things in the Histories, but this is the Fifth Age of the World!

All the Cutters except the Seeker formed into a column, quick-timing down the night-empty street in a harsh clatter of leather and hobnails on pavement. The Corwinite priest stayed a moment and raised his arm until it pointed at the two Dúnedain, where they should have been invisible in the blackness.

“There—is—no—escape—for—one—they—have—touched.

Mary nodded. “Uh-oh,” she said, very softly.

“I know what uh-oh, means,” Ritva replied. “It means we’re fucked.

A tile grated under a foot behind them, where the grapnel holding their climbing rope was hooked into the roof’s gutter.

“Kill,” the High Seeker said.

Then he turned and walked after the troopers of the Sword of the Prophet. The two Dúnedain whirled, as the trio of men swung up onto the edge of the roof. Curved knives gleamed in their hands, and the moonlight glittered from the steel and from eyes empty of humanity. Those eyes blinked in perfect unison. They weren’t Seekers, just troopers of the Sword, but something of the red-robed magus was there in those blank faces. A nullity that was less than emptiness, one that hungered for existence and hated it at the same time.

It’s as if they’re contagious, somehow.

Ritva had a sudden flash of memory. Long ago she’d been on her belly behind a fallen fir-tree in the mountains east of Mithrilwood, watching a pair of scrub jays feeding their nestlings. Something had made her turn her head, and a rattlesnake as long as her forearm had been there, behind the same sun-warmed log. It had turned its long patterned head and looked into her eyes. Looking into the eyes of the Church Universal and Triumphant’s men was like that...

Except that she had a feeling that if their eyes stayed locked long enough the same reptile gaze would be on both ends.

“Varda and Manw aid me!” Ritva said. Then: “Im suu ei thiach men!

Sweat suddenly drenched her, but she felt better: I fart in your general direction might not be as dignified as a call on the Lord and Lady, but it helped.

Beside her Mary was still, motionless with something beyond Ranger training, as if she was once more in the Seeker’s grip as she had been that day the eye was cut out of her head. The bow in Ritva’s hands came up. If she had thought about the action it would have stopped, but she forced her mind not to consider it. Ten thousand hours of practice had graven the movement into brain and bone and muscle, as much as breathing or walking. There was the slightest creak, as yew and horn and sinew bent and flexed and stretched.

“Kill,” they whispered through identical smiles, their voices overlapping so that the sound was a sibilant blur: “Kill/kill/kill/Kkkiiiillll.”

And attacked. Their movements were jerky, but perfect and unerring on the irregular surface of the curved tiles. Behind them something moved, planes of shining jet that receded into infinity, as if constructs greater than worlds squeezed down to interact with the tiny space of the planet, of this rooftop in one place and time. The soot-covered laurel-leaf arrowhead touched the cutout through the riser of her recurve, right above the black-gloved knuckle of her left hand. The fingers on the bowstring seemed locked, but she breathed out and let the waxed linen cord roll off the pads.

Snap.

The string lashed at the bracer on the inside of her left forearm. Achingly slow, the arrow began its flight; she could see the way the fletching rippled, and how the slight curve in the way the feathers were set to the cedarwood made the whole spin as it flew. She couldn’t be seeing it move; the distance was less than thirty feet, and the shaft would be traveling at two hundred feet per second. In this darkness it should be a blurred streak at most.

The central attacker’s body flexed loosely as the point approached, as if it was moving backward even before it struck. When it did he swayed like a whip being snapped, and looked down for an instant at the narrow thirty-inch shaft transfixing him just beside the breastbone.

He’s not going to stop, Ritva knew.

Then he did, but the fixed smile on his face did not alter as blood runneled out his nose and hung in threads from his lips.

Not—yet—to—rule—so—many,he said. “Soon. We—will—be—abroad—and—loose”.

And collapsed forward. The others continued their herky-jerky advance. Ritva bounded back frantically, her soft elf-boots gripping at the roof-ridge as she dropped her bow and the longsword hissed out in the two-handed grip.

Lacho Calad!” she cried.

There was a wheeze of relief in it too, for Mary was moving as well, the ball and hook whirling on the ends of the length of fine chain she unwrapped from her waist.

Drego Morn!

Her sister completed the Ranger war-cry. Flame Light! Flee night!

 

@@@

Cover Map 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

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


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com