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THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

Emergency Coordinator’s Residence

Chartered City of Dubuque

Provisional Republic of Iowa

September 14th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

“Sure, and I don’t think your Majesty should be unguarded,” Rudi said, shifting uneasily with the prickling feeling along his spine.

Kate Heasleroad came back into the room at that instant, and Rudi breathed a sigh of relief, at least in the privacy of his mind. Her husband looked at her with annoyance, as if he’d been hoping she’d stay in the nursery. And he’d been dropping very pointed hints that Odard and the Mackenzie should leave, once his genuine interest in the conversation about heraldry had died.

And not hinting that Matti should leave, Rudi noted. Sure, and it will be a great inconvenience if I must snap the man’s neck after all the trouble we’ve gone to, conciliating him. Still, better than leaving it for Matti to do. Hmmm. Given surprise we could probably cut our way to the docks...

“Tommie’s sleeping soundly now, darling,” Kate said. “Annette’s with him.”

These rooms were part of the Emergency Coordinator’s chambers; in the terms Matti’s people used, where the Count of Dubuque usually had his apartments, that worthy being turned out now for his liege-lord’s convenience.

Or his lord’s convenience and his own inconvenience, he thought wryly, nodding pleasantly at Kate.

One of the ways Sandra Arminger dealt with difficult vassals or ones she suspected of disloyalty was to visit them. With the whole court in train, until the hospitality drove them to the brink of bankruptcy, swallowing the resources that might otherwise be spent seditiously. The best of that jest was that they couldn’t do anything but profess delight at the honor and spend on feasts, tournaments and entertainers as if money were water. Juniper Mackenzie had been heard to say that Sandra knew more ways of killing a cat than drowning it in a bucket of cream.

Rudi didn’t think Anthony was bright enough to come up with that idea on his own, but...

But it is interesting to see that another ruler could stumble on something of the sort by accident. I’ll have to be keeping that in mind, if Edain is determined I’m to be High King.

He tried to keep the thought light, but he had a sinking feeling that was what the Powers—some of them, at least—really had in mind.

And I was afraid of the burden of being Chief of the Mackenzies alone! Hmmmm, though. A High King of Montival would have to visit about much of the time, wouldn’t he? With so many different peoples, and them separated by wilderness and of such different customs and gods and laws, he’d have to show himself. But not so as to be a burden... unless there was some bad and wicked person of note that called for it... later, later.

“And a charming young lad your Tommie is,” Rudi said, with a smile that was sincere enough.

Children that age usually were, like puppies or kittens; it was how they made people put up with the nuisance and hard work they entailed. Rudi hoped the boy would have a more normal childhood than his father, and come out of it more of a man—not to mention more of a ruler.

Kate Heasleroad smiled back at him, almost involuntarily; at least Tommie would have her.

Behind her Matti mouthed: You’re being charming again, dammit!

Rudi’s eldest half-sister Eilir was deaf; he’d learned lip-reading from her, and it was a useful skill whether you could hear or no.

The Coordinator’s quarters were elegant, in a cool style of pastel fabrics and muted colors and blond wood that was not at all the Bossman’s usual taste, judging by what he remembered of the throne room in the State Capital; the modifications that had turned this whole second floor into one were skillful, arched ways linking large rooms.

“And for his sake as well as your own, you should have more guards about you,” Rudi said.

“There are plenty of guards,” the Bossman said.

He waved a hand and knocked over a glass on the side-table beside him. A servant stepped forward noiselessly and swept it away, mopping up the spilled wine and vanishing again.

Rudi had lived several months a year in Portland and Castle Todenangst and other holds of the Protectorate for much of his boyhood and youth; he was used to personal service, if not over-fond of it. But while lowly household folk in Portland’s territories were sometimes treated roughly by their lords they weren’t expected to be invisible. Their presence was part of an Associate’s consequence.

This self-effacement put his teeth on edge for some reason. It was as if they were trying to mimic the vanished machinery of the ancient world, that produced the fruits of work without human hands and will.

Aloud he went on: “To be sure, but the guards are not here within arm’s reach. A dozen yards away can be far too far, if you take my meaning, my lord. I don’t think those men from Corwin are to be trusted.”

“I don’t trust anyone,” the Bossman said, his voice careless and a little slurred.

The which is probably true, and makes you as helpless as a babe. The whole secret of the thing being to know who you can trust, as well as who you cannot.

“And I don’t like having men in iron shirts clanking about in the same room. Besides, this place is secure,” the Iowan went on.

There was something to that. The windows facing out a story over the street were broad, intact pre-Change plate glass panels that ran on grooves set in little wheels, but the wrought-iron scrollwork over them was more recent. It was ornamental, flowing designs of vines and flowers, but it also gave no space wider than a man’s arm, without blocking too much of the light in daytime, and it was set very solidly indeed into steel plates bolted around the openings.

All the windows in this building were like that, except the ones on the ground floor; they’d been bricked in until they were narrow slits, and there was nothing on that level but storage and guard-rooms, workshops and kitchens and armories. It wasn’t quite a fortress, but it would do fine against a rioting mob, particularly with people shooting crossbows through the openings at anyone on the ground outside.

The Bossman’s voice was slurred and his plump face was flushed and sweaty, despite the coolness of the damp air that came through the open panels.

“Always guards,” he said, and there was suddenly a wistful note in his voice. “Gotta have ‘em. Must be nice not to have to, like you guys. Just going where you want, doing what you please.”

“Oh, sometimes I’d have been glad of a few guards,” Rudi said cheerfully. “And there are drawbacks to being footloose and fancy-free, your Majesty. Why, I remember—“

Thock.

The sound was faint, but Rudi recognized it instantly; an arrowhead or crossbow-bolt striking in bone. The breath hissed out between his teeth; that was not part of the plan. The Cutters should have been stopped outside, with Rudi’s friends—and the Heuisinks, Ingolf’s allies—doing the stopping and the State Police swooping down to halt the brawl. Then the Bossman would wash his hands of them and expel both...

Something went wrong, Rudi thought, as his hand went to the hilt of a sword that wasn’t there. But as Sir Nigel says, something always does. Or as Sam Aywlard puts it, sodding pear-shaped is the shape to expect.

“Your Majesty, I think you’d better call those guards of yours,” he said quietly, but his voice was pitched to the level of command. “Call them now.”

Anthony Heasleroad was no fool; Rudi had reluctantly come to that conclusion some time ago.

But if those who had the raising of him had set out to ruin him, they could have done no better. If I was a Christian, I’d attribute it to the sins of the fathers. Or if I were a Buddhist like the good Rimpoche Dorje, I’d conclude he must have been a monster in some previous life.

He watched the warning sink through layers of drink-fuddled incomprehension, and then through a gauze of arrogance deeper still.

“Butler!” the Bossman called.

Then as Rudi began to move: “What the hell are you doing, you red-haired beanpole?”

A long scream came from below, where the stairs gave on the main hall. Then a shattering clash of steel on steel, and the sharp hard banging of blades on the leather of shields, and a war-cry that made his lips peel back from his teeth:

“Cut! Cut! Cut!

And another scream: not of pain this time, but of horror, an animal cry of disgust rising into the squeal a rabbit gave when the talons closed on it. Rudi leapt to the door and struck it with his shoulder. There was no time for subtlety now. It crashed open, and revealed a man falling backwards with his arms flailing; he met another at the head of the stair and tumbled backward.

Rudi’s hand moved with blurring speed, sweeping their swords out of the rack the guardsmen had been standing sentinel over and leaping back in a ten-foot bound from a standing start. By then Odard and Mathilda were by the door themselves, slamming it shut again and shooting home the bar; the baron of Gervais whirled a heavy chair over and jammed the top home beneath the brackets. Anthony Heasleroad was looking at them blank-faced, then with a dawning suspicion.

The bundle of weapons in Rudi’s hands included the Bossman’s shete. It had a good deal of silver and nielo filigree on the sheath, and jewels set in the guard, but the blade was steel as good as any Rudi had ever seen. He tossed the weapon at the Iowan ruler, still in the scabbard. The heavyset young man gripped it clumsily, staggered back into his chair and rose again, drawing the weapon with a flick of the wrist that showed some skill.

Though I’d swear he lacks the endurance to use it for more than one or two strokes. But at least it’ll convince him faster than words that we’re not out to kill him.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he said, then raised his voice: “Guards! Guards!”

The sound of fighting had died away, far faster than it should have; the sudden coppery smell of blood was shockingly strong. The prickling along Rudi’s spine intensified, and his scalp crept, as if his hair was trying to bristle as did a lion’s mane before battle. Everything looked normal, but he could feel gaps about him, as if bits and pieces of the world were vanishing from the edge of sight, only to reappear when his eyes moved in that direction.

I’ve felt something a little like this, he thought. On Samhain, and in some of the rites.

Not often, and never so strongly. He was no great lore-master, for all that the Otherworld had touched his life often. He knew little more than any Initiate.

But this feels wrong, so it does. Someone is using Art, but without any thought for the order of the world, or the Law of Threefold Return. That will fall upon him in the end, but before then what evil may it do!

“The guards—“ he began.

A crash came from the door. That barrier wasn’t the massive fortress-style portals that closed the exterior of the building. Carved panels splintered under the blows of heavy blades—at this moment you remembered that the shete had started out as a chopping tool a mere generation before. The steel flicked through in glimpses of brightness against dark oiled ornamental walnut. When the upper panel was a sagging mass of splinters a man’s helmeted head completed the ruin, butting through the remains.

Heasleroad cried out in relief. “Captain Butler! What is going—“

The guardsman looked at him, smiling through the gashes the splinters had cut in his flesh; one eye leaked clear matter down his cheek, running in thick threads through the red of blood.

Kill,” he said, his grinning teeth wet. “Kill—them—all. Kill—.

“Happy to oblige,” Odard de Gervais snarled, and struck.

He was a man of middling size, but strong and very quick. The longsword blurred down in a silver arc; there was a heavy wet sound, and underneath it a crack of parting bone.

“Haro!” he shouted, and then the war-cry of his House: “Face Gervais, face death!

The head sagged free, held by only a shred of flesh. Blood spurted out into the room, but for one long instant the body’s hands scrabbled beside the severed neck, trying to enlarge the hole through the broken wood. Then it went limp, and other hands pulled it back.

A billhook smashed through; Odard cut again, but this time the blade skidded with a shower of sparks off a sheath of steel wire wound around the wooden shaft behind the business end of the polearm. The weapon jerked back and then probed at him, thrust two-handed with a savage, skillful snap. He skipped back just in time, or a little later; the sharp point of the spike touched his breast, and a dark stain spread on the colorful cloth of the jupon.

“Here!” Mathilda cried.

She tossed him a shield; there were two, done up for Anthony Heasleroad’s amusement in the Lidless Eye of the Armingers, with the baton of cadency across it, and the mon symbol of the House of Liu—the Chinese ideograph for Poland, for his father’s mother, silver on red on black. There hadn’t been any reason to make the shields genuine, but there hadn’t been any reason not to, either, and Mathilda had taken full advantage of the Bossman’s expense account.

So these were the real article, elongated triangles four feet from rounded point to curved top, made of plywood and bullhide and covered in thin sheet metal, with the padded loops on the inside parallel to the length.

“Bless your foresight, Matti!” Rudi said. “Flank me—not in plain sight of the door!”

The two Associates took up the stance Portlander men-at-arms used for fighting on foot; left fist at chin height, which put the upper edge of the shield just under the eyes and the point at shin-level, and swords over their heads with the hilts forward. Rudi had no protection but the little buckler clipped to the side of his longsword’s sheath. He took that in his hand, some part of him wishing they had all their fighting-gear at hand; with a western knights’ head-to-toe panoply the three of them could hold the doorway in turn, and only be badly hurt by accident.

You fight with what you have, when you have to, he thought.

Rudi crouched and duckwalked towards the door, keeping below the level that could be seen through the ruins of the upper panel; it wasn’t easy to stay low when you stood six-two in your stocking feet. The billhook pulled back, and pulled a chunk of the splintered wood free with the curved hook on its rear.

The Bossman of Iowa moved forward, with the shete in his hand.

Get back, you fool!” Rudi barked.

Even then there was some remote corner of his mind that felt a relief at the frank words, like the bursting of a boil.

“There’s nothing you can do here! Look to your woman and your son!

Kate Heasleroad added her voice to his; a little to Rudi’s surprise it wasn’t shrill with fear at all. She was in the far corner of the room near the entrance to the nursery corridor, with an upturned table sheltering her and her own body between the edged metal and the path to her child. Her eyes were wide with fear and her fair skin turned milk-pale, but it was controlled fear, and she kept them fixed on the doorway to follow the action there. Her husband’s face was crimson, flushed with rage as much as with drink.

So he’s no coward, Rudi thought. What a time to develop the virtues!

Mathilda acted where Rudi couldn’t; she leapt forward just as a bow snapped on the landing outside, and threw herself in front of the Iowan. There was a hard crack as the point punched into her shield. It hit at a slant, penetrating shallowly and giving a malignant whine as vibration damped itself in metal and wood. She hit the Bossman under the short ribs with the pommel of her sword to stun resistance, threw him back with an expert heave of shoulders and legs, and used the motion to whirl herself back out of the line of fire. Only then did she snap the arrowhead off with another blow of the hilt, and the inch or two of shaft that had followed it through the shield.

“Haro, Portland!” she cried in a valkyr shout as she took stance again. “Holy Mary for Portland!”

Two more arrows plowed through the space she’d vacated; they went over Rudi’s head with a vicious whissst of cloven air like malignant yellow-jacket wasps, and slammed into the wall to stand quivering. Rudi came off the floor in a long lunge in the instant they blurred past, leg and arm in perfect line and the blade of the longsword lashing out into the hole in the broken door. The point drove home in meat and bone, and a bill clattered through the broken wood to lie spinning on the floor.

Hands gripped the blade of his sword, naked flesh against the metal. He stripped it backward with a wrench, and fingers fell away from the edge of the layer-forged steel. Another bill rammed close, probing for his life as the wielder crowded among the figures thronging the landing.

“Morrigú!” Rudi screamed.

It was half war-cry, half desperate appeal. He was used to fighting brave men, but not those who cared for wounds and pain and death no more than so many wind-up automatons.

Morrigú! Come to me, Dark Mother! I am the Lady’s Sword!”

The Crow Goddess had sent Raven to him long ago; not in dream and vision, but in the light of common day. He bore the mark of the bird’s flint-hard beak in the small scar between his brows. That pain had been brief. It flared again for an instant. Then what filled him was agony and fire, ecstasy beyond bearing, joy and horror at once. The world vanished and reappeared with jeweled clarity, and he understood. Every beat of his heart linked him to all that was, and he saw those threads.

His dropped the buckler and his hand closed on the bill’s shaft behind the head, wrenched it free, slammed it back so that the butt-cap cracked a skull. His sword thrust back and forth like the needle in a treadle-worked sewing machine. There was no rage behind the strokes, only a love that encompassed even the snarling faces behind the weapons that reached for him, a vast piteous determination.

Dark wings beat above his head, their drumbeat the death of suns, the wind of their passage a surge of fire like surf on a shore whose sand was stars. Flames circled a single Eye. The sword moved, and men died; others crowded forward, blades lashing at him and weapons beating at the hinges of the door. Planes of black light shattered. He screamed, and the cry was the soul of grief from the Mother of All at the pain of Her children, a boiling ocean of sorrow and rage.

 

@@@

 

“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” Ignatius whispered, and crossed himself.

His hands and balance halted the horse before his mind was aware of the need, and calmed the beast’s skittishness at the harsh overwhelming iron stink of blood. The rear entrance to the Emergency Coordinator’s residence had been well-guarded; the men wore the mail shirts and coalscuttle helmets of the State Police, and the door on its massive hinges was panels of solid steel strapped and forge-welded and riveted together into something that even a battering-ram could only have dented.

The Order of the Shield sent its knight-brothers where they were needed to succor the afflicted and rescue the weak; he had seen terrible things many times in his nearly thirty years of life, and he was just old enough to remember a little of the first year after the Change. This...

“How did they die?” Virginia Kane whispered.

“They killed themselves,” Frederick Thurston said; his voice was shocked into a machine flatness. “Or each other.”

He pointed with his saber towards one pair locked together; it shouldn’t have been physically possible for two men to choke one another to death that way, but the swollen purple faces and bulging eyes were unmistakable. And the same smile was on their faces, the same as all the others.

Ignatius mastered himself and swung down, his armor clanking; he was in the full knight’s gear of knee-length chain hauberk, coif and visored helm, plate greaves and vambraces. The well-trained destrier stood stock-still as he dropped the reins, though its eyes rolled piteously and shivers went over its black coat. One young man still lived despite the wounds that leaked blood over chest and belly and groin; his hand was locked around a chain that held a silver crucifix, and his eyes moved towards the priest.

“What happened here, my son?” Ignatius said, going down on one knee in the sticky redness that covered the asphalt.

He... came,” the young man gasped. “He... came.”

Ignatius nodded. Now I know where the Corwinite diabolist is, he thought grimly. Trying the rear entrance. But first—

“What did he do?”

The dying man’s face jerked, and he began to sob; not with the pain, but as a lonely child might.

“He showed me myself,” he whimpered, then began to thrash. “He showed me myself! Oh, God, I’ll die and I’ll have to see him again—“

Ignatius leaned forward, and locked the wounded man’s eyes with his, pouring his will through the joined gaze.

“He lied, my son. No sin is beyond forgiveness if you accept God’s mercy. Throw yourself upon His love.”

The priest felt something flow out of him... or through him, for it left him stronger, not weaker. A measure of sanity returned to the other’s face for a moment; he slumped, and whispered slowly:

“Bless... me... Father... for I have sinned.”

Aloud he spoke the words as the boy died. Within himself, silently, he added: Lady pierced with sorrows, this man too was born of woman. Intercede for him, I beg.

Then he stood, looking up at the blank wall as he drew his sword and pulled on the leather strap to slide the kite-shaped shield around and onto his left arm. There were narrow windows running up the brick wall, one per flight, but they were covered with grills bolted to the frames. The ends of the bars curved outward in sharp points.

“They’ve gone through here just a moment ago, but they barred it behind them. We’ll have to go around to the front of the building,” he said crisply. “And pray we’re in time.”

“No we won’t!” Virginia shouted.

She snatched the lariat free from her saddlebow and brought her horse around in a broad circle across the street and down a little. The silver spreader-weight flashed in the faint, distant light of the gas-lamps as she whirled it overhead, and the nimble quarterhorse sprang off its hindquarters and came pounding down the pavement at a gallop that struck sparks from concrete and echoed off the blank walls in rattling blows of sound. Frederick ducked in the saddle as it flew over his head, and then the loop settled over the bars of the first story grill as she sped past.

A heavy whunk sound came, a whipcrack snap as the tough braided bison-hide came rigid as a steel rod, and with it a scream of equine protest as the horse was thrown back on its haunches by the shock transmitted through the lariat snubbed around the high horn of the Western saddle—for a moment Ignatius felt a cold stab of fear that the beast would be flipped backward on its rider and crush her against the unyielding pavement.

Then there came a scream of shearing metal from above him; the half-ton of fast-moving horse and rider had snapped the bolts that held the grid across. Ignatius ducked again as the buckled, twisted metal fell to the ground and landed with a nauseatingly soft sound on one of the murdered State Police troopers.

“Too small,” Ignatius said, his eyes on the gap; a little light leaked out of it, as if there was a lamp several stories higher. “Without taking off my armor, at least.”

“Not for me!” Virginia said.

She brought the horse up the stairs; it snorted and picked its way between the bodies with its ears laid back, but stood obedient with its fore-hooves on the topmost. The young woman from Skywater Ranch put her bowie-knife between her teeth, kicked her feet out of the tapadero-enclosed stirrups, vaulted up to stand on the saddle and then jumped. Her gloved hands caught the frame of the window; for a moment she hung with her high-heeled riding boots kicking, and then she eeled her way through the narrow opening.

“Help her! God, gods, somebody, help her!” Frederick muttered.

His face went stiff as a yell came through the window; a man’s voice shouting in alarm, and then in pain; and overriding it Virginia’s wild cry:

“Skywater forever! Yippie-kye-ey, motherfucker!”

“Get ready!” Ignatius said crisply.

Frederick tumbled out of the saddle and reached for an arrow. Ignatius poised, light on the balls of his feet despite the sixty pounds of gear and fifteen of shield, blade ready over his head. There was a metallic clanking as the door swung wide, and the woman catapulted backward out of it—she’d pushed it open with a thrust of her shoulders, and turned the motion into a controlled tumble head-over-heels as a shete lunged for her.

Snap. An arrow from Fredericks’ bow flashed by, and then a crack as it slammed into and through the overlapping plates of metal-rimmed lacquered leather that covered the Cutter’s chest. His face went slack and he fell forward, the weapon spinning away. Another was on his heels, heavy curved blade raised and round shield up.

Jesú-Maria!” Ignatius shouted from deep in his chest, and sprang forward crabwise, left shoulder tucked into the curve of the long western shield.

His met the smaller plainsman’s model blazoned with the rayed sun of the Church Universal and Triumphant. There was a hard thudding impact, and he grunted as his own weight and momentum overbore the other man’s charge. That rocked the soldier of the Sword of the Prophet back staggering on his heels, and the warrior cleric’s blade came down. His lips drew back from his teeth as he felt the edge cleave leather and then flesh.

God forgive him, he thought as he wrenched it back with furious urgency. And me.

“Back me!” he called to the others as he pushed through the door.

He came in crouching a little so that the shield covered him from eyes to shin; he left the visor locked up for better vision in the dimness, but there was no part of him not covered except the narrow space between shield-rim and eyes.

“I lead. I’ve got the gear for this!”

The two youngsters followed, arrows on the strings of their powerful recurve bows. The stairwell was dark, but not absolute blackness. It showed the shadowed outlines of two more Corwinites rushing down at him, and the faint light caught blue on the honed edges of their blades.

“Cut! Cut! Cut!

Jesú-Maria!

“Skywater!”

Then Thurston’s bellow; some distant corner of Ignatius’ mind made a silent tsk sound:

“Ho la, Odhinn!”

Feet were pounding on the metal treads above, the heavy ringing sounds of boots with iron heel-plates and metal-strapped toes.

We’re not enough, not with only three, Ignatius knew; knew also that they must try anyway. Where are our friends?

 

@@@

 

“Can we kill ‘em?” Jake sunna Jake asked. “Please?

Beyond him on the crest of a roofline two dark figures came to their feet and gestured urgently. They used the broad gestures of Battle-Sign, which was common to Mackenzies and Dúnedain: Come quickly.

Edain Aylward Mackenzie swallowed; the folk from the west—from Montival, he thought—had taught the Southsiders some of the formulas of courtesy, but this please wasn’t quite the sort of usage they’d had in mind.

The Chief said not to hurt any of the town-folk if I could help it. Now, can I help it, or not?

The mob gathered ahead of him wasn’t large, only a hundred or so, though it loomed larger than you’d think in the darkened street and filled it from side to side—that cramped feeling was one reason he didn’t like cities. A milling churning mass of dark clothes and pale faces with a brabble of voices in the harsh clipped Iowan dialect. An ugly sense of menace, almost a scent, musky and raw, beneath the horse-piss and coal-smoke of the city.

And the herd of strangers was between him and where he was supposed to go to help the Chief and his comrades. Down this street to the end, past a church, and to the big building on the square. It was past time he got there, too; something had gone wrong.

“Rudi-man says Iowa fuckers ‘re friends,” Jake added, his tone growing more dubious still. “Dese’re no friends.”

Bionn gach duine go lách go dtéann bó ina gharrai,” Edain muttered.

That was something he’d picked up from Lady Juniper when she’d come to judge a dispute over straying livestock between his Dun Fairfax and the folk of Dun Carson that had almost come to blows.

“Wha thayt?” the Southsider said.

“That everyone’s a friend. Until your cow wanders into their garden,” he said.

And I understand what Rudi meant. We can’t afford to make these Iowans think of us as enemies, or bloodthirsty savages. That’s the politics of it. The Chief’s in danger, that’s what I know of it.

“And this is the Chief’s business, not mine, deciding such matters,” he muttered to himself.

He knew more about cities than the Southsiders did—it would be hard to know less—but he didn’t like them beyond a day’s visit or so, even a small and friendly one like Sutterdown, half a day’s walk west of Dun Fairfax. Much less this alien monstrosity. The townsmen had sticks—not proper quarterstaves, but heavy enough to give a shrewd knock—and a few had knives; one or two carried short broad chopping swords, what these easterners called footman’s shetes.

More than one had picked up rocks or bits of broken concrete or bricks. A ragged figure knocked a bottle against a building’s wall as he watched, and held the jagged stump in one fist. All of which was well enough for a brawl, but if he had to fight he was going to fight.

Behind him and Jake the grown men—and the odd woman—of the Southside Freedom Fighters fingered their new hickory bows. Some of them were fidgeting, feeling penned-in by the three-story brick buildings to either side, or by the distant glow of a gaslight at a corner and the constant grumbling mumble of wheels and hooves and Gods-knew-what that never seemed to stop here. Others grinned at the city folk, an expression that would have frightened the urbanites more if they’d known the wild-men better.

Raising his voice: “You good people should give us the road, that you should. We want no trouble, our quarrel isn’t with you Iowa folk, but we’re ready to shed blood if we must.”

One of the locals turned to the rest of the mob. “Remember what the Seeker said! The Prophet raises the lifestreams of his followers! The poor ‘n lowly are his and he’ll reward them.”

“Oh, sod all, that tears it,” Edain said. “The Cutters have been at ‘em.

I’m a peaceable man, sure and I am.

His father had gotten any inclination to brawling for its own sake out of him early, on one memorable occasion with a whistling bowstave on the shoulders and the observation that any young gallybagger in his family who wanted hard knocks could get them at home without bothering the neighbors.

But Da taught me never to back down when a fight was needful, so. The Chief needs me, and these Southside lads are depending on me to see them through, and those townsmen are getting themselves into a real fight, whether they expected that or not.

The thought made sweat break out on his brow; not the fighting, but the responsibility.

“And these fucks brought Eaters into Dubuque!” the Church Universal and Triumphant’s convert said. “Eaters! Chicago scum!”

Behind the Mackenzie a snarl went through the tribesmen, as much felt as heard. The Southsiders really didn’t like being called Eaters, which was unsurprising since they’d spent their entire lives fighting those who really deserved the name. Also in their legends Chicago was a lost paradise where their ancestors had been demigods, not to be mentioned with disrespect.

We’ll have to go through them, and no holds barred, Edain decided. They asked for it, and by Lugh and the Morrigan, we’ll give it them.

And there was a certain relief to the thought. He was a peaceable man, but fighting was something he knew how to do. Talking with a bunch of strangers wasn’t.

Yes, you can kill them,” he said.

The Southsiders surprised him by falling into ranks as they’d been taught; given how little time there had been for instruction and how their blood was up he’d expected a pell-mell rush. They set arrows to their strings and waited. Then one started a chant; it made him start to hear it in their slurred speech rather than the Clan’s lilt, but there was a raw menace to the sound in the shadowed, crowded night. It came like a breath of mountain and forest, the wildwood come stealing home into the walled town:

 

“We are the point—

We are the edge—

We are the wolves that Hecate fed!

 

We are the bow—

We are the shaft—

We are the bolts that Hecate cast!

 

“Wholly together...” He whipped an arrow out of his own quiver and drew to the angle of his jaw. “...let the grey geese fly... shoot!

Thirty bows snapped. The whistling sound of the arrows’ passage was oddly magnified by the buildings on either side. The distance was short but the light was bad, and the Southsiders weren’t even middling archers yet by his exacting standards. Against a bunched, unarmored target less than a second’s arrow-flight away it didn’t matter much. A score of men went down, screaming and thrashing and clawing at the iron and wood piercing them, or silent and still.

“Again! Shoot!

Another volley. Many of the townsmen turned to run, but the long shafts slashed down out of the darkness at them, the arrowheads glinting at the last second as the honed edges of the triangular broadheads caught the light.

At them!” Edain shouted.

The Southsiders swarmed forward, throwing down their bows and sweeping out knife and hatchet. They had no order at this yet or formal training to the blade; but they had a dreadful bounding agility, and each aided the other in a unison like a pack of wolves slashing at an elk. Their catamount screeching echoed from the buildings; it was actually much like the Mackenzie battle-shriek. After a moment the only sound from the Dubuque men was panic flight, or the moans and cries of their hurt.

“Leave their wounded!” Edain snapped; he’d stayed back and shot, something he didn’t trust anyone else here to do in this dim light and when friend and foe were at close quarters. “No need to finish them.”

One knifeman ignored him, jerking up the chin of an Iowan trying to crawl away and preparing to cut his throat. Edain tossed him backward with a snatch and grab—he wasn’t more than average height, but his shoulders and arms were broad and thick—and cuffed him silly with a forehand and backhand slap. The man almost lunged at him, but then the mad light died out of his eyes and he grinned sheepishly despite the blood running from his nose, abashed as a child caught with his hand in the nut-jar.

“Get your bows and follow me!” Edain snapped. “We’ve work to do yet.”

 

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“Screw this,” Ingolf Vogeler said. “It’s too long—we have to get going.”

Jack Heuisink hissed between clenched teeth. “Leading a band of armed men to the Bossman’s residence isn’t real healthy,” he pointed out. “Particularly as the Heuisinks and the Heasleroads aren’t what you’d call friendly. Unless there’s already an attack.”

Something’s gone wrong, Jack—“

He stopped as a knock came at one of the warehouse windows: tap, then tap-tap, then tap.

Three strides took him there. When he opened it a face was hanging there upside-down. All he could see besides the dark cap was the strip of skin across the eyes... and one of those was missing.

“Denson’s dead and the Cutters are headed for the Bossman’s quarters,” Mary Havel said. “They’ll be there before. Hurry! Edain and the Southsiders and Ignatius and Fred and Victoria are on their way.”

 

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The last of the State Police troopers who’d turned went down in a thrashing tangle on the floor as Rudi landed a drawing cut behind one knee; Odard made a quick downward smash with the lower point of his shield while, and the curved metal rim hit bone with an ugly crunching. Mathilda covered Rudi for a moment with hers, and a spearpoint scored across the surface, leaving a bright scratch through the paint that covered its metal sheath. The impact rocked her back; she had to use shield and sword in a blur of movement as two more thrust at her unarmored body.

When men fought with no regard at all for their lives, they died quickly... but the last of them had forced Rudi back into the room. An unarmored man couldn’t just slug it out; he needed room to take advantage of his height and quickness.

Two soldiers of the Sword of the Prophet shoved through in that instant, too quickly for any of the westerners to stop them. They weren’t berserkers of any sort, and they were in good armor, their round shields up under their eyes. Rudi leapt forward again; he could feel the ache in his muscles the hard straining as his lungs sucked in air, but the ríastrad that was the gift of the Crow Goddess made it seem distant, unimportant. His body would serve his need, until it dropped dead. A shield cracked under the edge of his sword, and the arm beneath it broke, but then he must whirl and parry a cut at his leg. He gave back, and more men crowded in—

One of the little pauses that happened in most close-quarters fights fell; the three from the west stood together, panting. Rudi recognized Major Graber, the man who’d been after them since Idaho.

The hard blue eyes met his. “If you give up now, I can promise you a quick death,” he said. “But only if you surrender now, before the High Seeker comes.”

Rudi’s mouth quirked; he’d spared the Sword officer’s life once.

And this is my thanks? he thought whimsically. And the jest of it is, it is a gesture of grace, so. He might not be such a bastard of a man at all, were he born and reared elsewhere.

“I’ll be thanking you, but declining none the less,” Rudi said, his voice detached and amused. “If you want us, come and take us and pay the price of it.”

Graber’s tuft of chin-beard moved very slightly as he gave a brief unsurprised nod, and there was a quirk to the corner of his mouth as he slid the spiked helmet back on his head.

“Kill these three,” he said. “Take the Iowa ruler and his woman and the child alive if you can. They’ll be useful as hostages.”

Wait!” Rudi heard.

Another man pushed through the door—and the soldiers of the Sword of the Prophet, men who would bite through their own tongues and die at a command, leapt aside to let him. His head was shaven, and a robe the color of old dried blood covered him; a shete was in his hand, but that was the least of the menace that surrounded him.

It was the eyes you saw. Ordinary brownish-green eyes, that were somehow windows into negation, to the bottom of all things where despair itself had drained to lie dead, dust and bones.

I—see—you,” he said, his head tilted at an odd angle, and even to one caught up in the battle-fury of the Goddess the words struck chill. “Son—of—Bear—Son—of—Raven.

“And I you, ill-wreaker,” Rudi said quietly. “You shall not pass while I live, nor harm those I love.”

“We—are—abroad—and—loose—and—will—not—be—put—back,” the High Seeker of the Church Universal and Triumphant said. “You—cannot—stand—against—us—without—It.

Something struck Rudi then, impalpable but with a wave of torment that made him feel his bones crack and grind against themselves until only seared powder was left. He grunted and flexed backward, as if a fist had hit him between the eyes. Then Raven’s mark on his brow flared again, a good white pain that cut through the sick agony.

“Lady of the Crows, fold me in Your wings!” he choked. “Lugh of the Sun—“

His head cleared enough for him to remember something else: Master Hao’s hard dry voice, in a practice field on a mountainside above Chenrezi monastery in the Valley of the Sun, as crisp and strong as the bronze bell ringing from below:

But the hand is not the weapon—the mind is the weapon, and the hand only its extension. Discipline your mind!

As he had then he turned his will into a dart, and thrust. The Cutter priest threw up his arms and howled, a sound that stunned the ears and made even his own followers stagger. Then they hurled themselves forward, shetes raised to kill, and there was only the dance of blades.

 

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I’m about to die.

Mathilda Arminger had time for that one thought. Her blade stopped one stroke of a Cutter’s shete, but the impact almost tore the longsword from her hand. Her shield turned another, just enough that the flat rather than the edge slammed into her unprotected ribs. It might have broken bones even if she’d been wearing a hauberk and padding; now she heard bone crack, and spikes of pain lanced through her chest as she tried to breathe. The shield-arm dropped strengthless, and she fell backward against the wall with an ear-ringing thump of head against stucco and slid downward.

Odard flung himself between her and the rising steel. His shield was tattered and split; the edge cracked down through the wood and leather, into his arm. He shrieked, but in the same motion he stabbed the broken stump of his sword into a face. The man reeled backward and Odard went to his knees, his right hand scrabbling at his belt for the dagger. Another Cutter wrenched his broad-tipped blade out of Anthony Heasleroad’s belly and kicked his body aside.

Beyond him she saw Rudi moving like quicksilver, whirling and striking as he fought his way towards them, and as the mist of pain and fuddlement darkened her eyes he seemed limed in fire, a winged shape that danced like spears of lightning amid dark thunderclouds. Then someone else was beside her.

“Jesu-Maria!” Ignatius shouted, and struck.

The man who’d been about to kill her fell backward, trailing blood. The priest’s voice rang thunder-deep; Mathilda felt it resonate through her aching bones, as she slumped against the wall with the force of the blow that had felled her still buzzing through her head and down her limbs in spikes of agony. A taste like brass and sulfur filled her mouth, and her breath came rapid through a dry throat. Odard crouched at her feet, swaying on one knee with his ruined shield propped against his shoulder.

On my right hand Michael! On my left hand Uriel!”

The soldier-monk’s sword and shield swung in beautiful unison, leaving trails of silver light to her dazzled eyes. Ignatius shouted again, over the slithering crash of steel, the dull ugly sound of a blade in flesh, and the panting snarls of his opponents:

Before me, Raphael! Behind me, Gabriel!

There was anger in that shout, but no rage; instead a happiness that was fierce and joyous at the same time. It was as if the spirit of anger filled him, pure and hot and infinitely clean.

As if this was the thing that anger was for.

The Cutter in the dried-blood robe came through the press, throwing his followers to either side in his eagerness. Murk moved with him to Mathilda’s aching eyes; not darkness that hid him from sight, but something of which darkness was merely a symbol—a whirling chaos that hummed with power but was somehow decayed, as if he were a window to a place where even the stuff of matter itself perished in an endless denial of possibility.

I—see—you,he said, in syllables of burning ash.

The battle ceased for an instant that stretched. Rudi used it to step to the warrior cleric’s side. The Cutter magus looked from one of them to the other with a grin of hatred.

“And I see you,” Ignatius said into the panting silence. “Go back, Hollow Man, to the nothingness that waits for you; for you have chosen it.”

You are nothing!” the High Seeker rasped. “A bag of bones and slime and dung, a worm that feeds on sunlight and turns it to shit!”

Ignatius smiled. “I am her knight, and through her the servant of the Most High, a miles of Christ; in His name I command you, not mine. From the bottom of my heart I pity you. Repent! Even for you there can still be mercy. Go back!”

The Cutter howled; Mathilda felt an almost irresistible impulse to beat her own head open on the wall behind her. Only weakness and the thought that that face and voice might be waiting for her on the other side of death stopped her. The curved shete leapt at Ignatius and his sword met it. Sparks flew through the air, and she smelled brimstone and lightning.

“On my right hand Michael! On myBehind me Gabriel!

Rudi struck as well, and the shadow of a great scythe seemed to move with the sword: “Morrigú!

As the monk shouted Mathilda’s vision blurred. Men fought, but it seemed to her that the two between her and the enemy struggled with a heaving roil rather than another human. Or as if the Cutter was the shadow of a man, a skin sack around a mass of coiling tendrils, behind a gaping scream of agony. Shapes stretched about the knight-brother of the Order as well; were they wings vaster than the Earth could contain, or were they blazing wheels, or a swirling cloud of flashing eyes?

And beyond them a blue-mantled figure whose hands stretched down, touching Ignatius on his forehead and the cross-guard of the sword he gripped, a power blazing into flesh and steel. And behind them all a radiance that was terror and longing all in one, that shone through her bones as if they were wisps of air—

“Retreat!” a voice called.

“No!” the Corwinite magus in the red robe—bloody in truth now—screamed. “We are too close!”

Even then Mathilda could sense how a trace of humanity had returned to the voice; there was human evil in it now, bloodlust and a furious anger at being baulked. When he howled as Graber grabbed him by the shoulders and wrestled him back it was merely shrill.

“High Seeker! Now, or we die without fulfilling the mission. They’re hitting us from both sides down there in the street and those whores in black are shooting from the roofs! Brave men are dying to buy us time to try again later. Now!

The Sword of the Prophet’s commander gestured, and three men rushed Ignatius and Rudi. The rest backed, then turned and fled, hustling the suddenly limp and half-conscious form of the High Seeker between them. Fred and Victoria shot in unison, and the last man through pitched forward with arrows through the backplate of his armor standing up like masts from a ship.

From below came the sounds of battle, war-cries, and a high screeching like so many great cats gone to war. Then Rudi was beside her, slamming his notched sword point-first in the floorboards and easing the wrecked shield off her arm while the doctor opened her bag. She almost fainted at the wave of pain, then forced awareness back; more voices were shouting, and others burst through the shattered door, Edain and Ingolf at their head.

“Are you all right, anamchara-mine?” he said, his arm holding her against his shoulder.

Blood was spattered across his face, some of it his own, but the wildness was fading from it, leaving only the blue-green gaze that had been in her life so long.

“No,” she said. “But I will be now.”

 

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