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Authors: S.M. Stirling

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Snowbrother

BOOK: Snowbrother
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Snowbrother

S.M. Stirling

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 1992 by S. M. Stirling

A shorter and substantially different version of this novel was published in 1985.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises P.O. Box 1403 Riverdale, N.Y.

ISBN: 0-671-72119-4 Cover art by Larry Elmore

Map by Eleanor Kostyk First printing, May

Distributed by SIMON & SCHUSTER 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y.

Printed in the United States of America

to Jan
PROLOGUE:

Long ago, in the Before, we were as the gods are, riding thunderbirds of metal, wielding
Break-the-Sky medicine, smashing whole cities at a single blow. Then, all the lands were one
realm, from the bitterwater of the east to the sea beyond the Westwall mountains. In
fortresses beneath the earth, or aloft beyond the world of air our Ancestors ruled, the chosen
warriors of the gods. Weak and sinful, many turned from the honorable path of war, all but
the faithful few, and the ahKomman were angered. So the Godwar came, and the year
Without Sun; the Ztrateke ahkomman walked no more with humans, and the world was
broken and changed. But we are warriors still.

Kommanz folktale

quoted in the
Book of Journeys

of Anyamarah the Far-Traveled

preserved in the libraries of the Rose Temple, Senlaw

775 th Year of the Maleficence

(4720 A.D.)

STONEFORT KEEP

KOMMANZ OF GRANFOR

AUTUMN, 4962 A.D.

"It is good," one of the councilors said, hawking and spitting in the dirt. The gobbet of phlegm landed near the outland merchant's boot, but his diplomatic smile never wavered.

Zhy'da Mek Kermak grunted and looked down at the plow below the low earth dais where the ruling kin and their wisefolk waited. The Senior of Stonefort Keep was a tall rawboned woman in her early fifties, still ropily muscular; except for those knocked out in fights, she still had all her teeth, strong and yellow as she grinned.

"Maybe too good," she rasped, taking another pull at the leather cup of beer. The plow had a wooden frame, but the share and moldboard were of dark-shining durcret; that was a southron thing, almost as strong as metal but far cheaper. In the demonstration two horses had drawn it easily through tough prairie sod, while six oxen struggled and heaved at the clumsy Kommanz breaking-plow.

It was a hot day, even though the first night frosts had come; no sign of a thunderstorm in the cloudless sky, which was a good omen. Mustering Fair, bright noon sun through a harvest-haze of dust, air heavy with the smells of sweat and dung and smoke. The angular stone ramparts and towers of the Keep bulked at their backs, and the close-cropped pasture of the Home Field stretched for kilometers on either side over land flat as a tabletop. Today it was crowded. Warriors drilling, the village contingents come in to show that their skills had not rusted. Wagonloads of tribute from the dependent territories, piles of yellow grain, potatoes, whole-cowskin sacks of sunflower oil, bolts of cloth, milling herds. And everyone with something to sell, everyone who could be spared in the lands about Stonefort. It was a relief after the tension and fear of harvest season, when folk took turn and turn-about reaping and riding guard against nomad raiders or bandits. The grain and flax and oilseeds were safely cut and carted; potatoes and roots were still to be brought in, but those were safely unburnable.

This was the best time of year; plenty to eat, good hunting—the fall bison herds would be through soon—and usually no more fighting than the soul required. Mostly skirmishing with other Keeps, fighting within the Bans for ransoms and herds. The fair was the beginning of it.

The ruling kinfast had spent the morning handing out judgments; fines and compounding for blood feuds and killings, a few floggings and ear-croppings and nose-slittings for serious crimes like horse theft or blasphemy, one straw-haired head sending rivulets of blood down a pole. That one had killed outside the Bans, cutting down a pregnant freewoman; even someone mad-drunk or
ahrappan
should remember what was peaceholy.

"You, merchants," she said, rising. "Go, over there."

The southlanders bowed slightly and withdrew. They were from the Pentapolis, the League of Ten Cities three weeks' journey to the southeast; odd-looking, in their tight trews and jewel-buttoned silk jackets, with long rapiers at their sides and dart pistols bolstered at their hips. They had brought a strong escort down the trade-trail this season, mercenary knights, and armored foot-fighters with pikes and crossbows. Zhy'da did not fear them for that, or for the train of two dozen huge six-wheeled wagons with their ceramic flamethrowers. The merchants were careful to stay within the area marked out by the demon-headed poles; that was peaceholy too, although only with the second Ban.

On the other side of the dais tribute accounts were being handed in, and a tallyman was droning:
"—and it is said that the Thorut's-kin are yeoman-freeholders of Tunbak village.

And their clan is Mad Bear and their lords are the Kallak's-kin. And it is said they hold seventy hectares in free of the village and fifty from their lords and grazing right in commons. And it is said their service in peace is the labor of one for one day in every week and two for one day in mainharvest and hayharvest weeks with plow and team and scythe and cartage, and of grain ten horseloads, and one colt in ten and one beast in ten and the wool of fifteen sheep. And it is said their war-service is five lancers fully trained with gear and remounts—"

No
, Zhy'da thought.
I fear the southrons' arts of peace, not their weapons
.

"
If
we buy their plows, we need them to plow at all," she said. "So we must sell more to them, every year."

Her wombchild Zte'vf laughed. "Or take."

She swung an arm without bothering to look around, backhanding him across the mouth.

"Drunk before sundown? Twenty lashes tomorrow." The beginning of a protest; she struck him again. "Shut up, before I remember the dumb donkey I must have fucked to throw a stupid colt like you," she said. "Make obeisance and go, bring your kinsib Shkai'ra to me."

One of the warmasters sighed. "Time was when we raided south to the Great River itself, and the Ten Cities paid us tribute," he said.

Zhy'da shrugged. "Time was when the southrons weren't so many and their cities so strong," she said. Even the rural knights in the south had mostly replaced their brick-and-timber forts with castles of glassfiber-reinforced concrete, and the cities had walls like cliffs and murder-machines to guard them. Too many Kommanz warbands had been caught on their way home, slowed by loot.

"We can beat their war-hosts and kill their peasants, but we can't spare strength to really harm them, not with the Sky-Blue at our backs."

Several of the Kommanza spat off the dais at the mention of the Sky-Blue Wolves of the High Steppe, the cannibal nomads of the short-grass plains to the west.

"A long time since they tried to break the border," the warmaster observed. Nothing this summer but the usual raids; the Kommanz had smashed several, taking prisoners for sale and sending the survivors wailing back to their tents.

Zhy'da nodded; that was the point. Fifty winters ago drought had struck, and half the tribes between the Scarp and the Westwall tried to push east into the tall grass country.

The three southeastern realms, the
Kommanz
of Granfor and Ihwaz and Maintab, had called out their levies to meet them: twenty thousand lances. Every second adult in three of the six Kommanz realms had died that year, and the slaughter of nomads in battle and pursuit had left windrows of bones. You still found them here and there, hidden in the long grass and crunching under hooves. Since then both sides in the ancient conflict had had time to breed back their strength.

"With the southron tools…" the warmaster continued, shrugging.

Many others grunted agreement; the plow was impressive, but the horse-drawn harvesting machine even more so. Every Keep maintained five-score or so of full-time fighters with no trade but war, and the village chiefs each had their retainers, but the core of a Kommanz warhost was the yeomen. Few of the freeholder kinfasts had more than a slave or
so, many none at all; it was not safe to keep many more unfree about, in a land so wild and thinly peopled. Yeomen must train to war and work their fields and flocks as well, and the new machines would spare many hours for drill and fighting. Yet perhaps they were unwise, or unlucky. It was always dangerous to break with custom, an opening for evil witchcraft and bad luck.

"How will we pay?" Zhy'da said, glancing around to the caravanmaster, manager of the Keep's trading interests. The man shrugged, rattling handfuls of tally-sticks.

"We can't send much more south," he said. Slaves were a Kommanz export, mostly nomads, but those were too fierce and flighty to fetch good prices. Then there were wool and leather, dried meat, horses, hides, metals, and pelts traded or taken from the forest peoples north and east. And a trickle of goods brought all the way through the Zekz Kommanz, the Six Realms that surrounded the northern end of the plains of Almerkun like a horseshoe; silk from the lands across the Westwall, along the Mother Ocean; sea-otter furs, walrus ivory, spices, sandalwood, jade.

"Not much more unless we let them build a railroad north, so we could ship bulk grains."

More grunts, this time of derision. Horses could pull enormous loads on durcret rails, but nobody in Stonefort, in the whole of Granfor, was going to let the southrons thrust such a spear into the belly of the Kommanz lands. Not since the Maleficent's day had a southlander army marched into the Realms and lived. That was because the Kommanz would scorch the earth before it and harry its flanks and rear until it weakened and despaired from hunger, and they could overrun and slaughter. A railroad could supply troops through such manmade desert, and the Kommanz Keeps and village walls were built to keep out the wild nomads, not a cityfolk siege-train that could throw ton-weight blocks half a kilometer or more.

"We could send more hired fighters south," one of her kinmates said. Kommanz mercenary cavalry were always in demand.

Zhy'da shook her head. "Too many don't come back. We need those riders. And if we spend more time growing and making goods to sell, that weakens us too. And the southron have reasons of their own to offer such things, when they never have before.

Perhaps just gain-hunting, perhaps not. The
Kommand'ahan
in Granfor-the-town has to speak on this, at MidWinter Gathering, but until then we need a way to get wealth that doesn't weaken our warstrength."

The
Kommand'ahan
was sacred, but in secular matters must listen to the Keepholder clans, and Stonefort was among the mightiest of those. She looked up at the sun; in a few hours her children would be back.

"Here's one answer—"

What duty
? Shkai'ra Mek Kermak's-kin thought. It could only be an assignment, when the kinmother sent her sib to fetch her from overseeing drill. His words had been few and rough, but she scorned to ask more; they hated each other more than was common, being the youngest of their generation and rivals for succession. A trickle of apprehension stiffened her spine, colder than the sweat that soaked the padding under her armor. Zhy'da Mek Kermak's-kin believed in testing the offspring, sometimes to destruction. Zte'vfs lip was swollen
and there was dried blood in his cropped yellow beard. That might have happened in a number of ways, but a kinparent's fist was most likely.

His fault, not mine; if they're angered, it's with him
, she reminded herself.

"Take over, Eh'rik," she said to the war-master beside her. He could handle the inspection as well as she; this was training for her as much as the village levy they were drilling-He nodded silently. Two of the Stonefort household troopers fell in behind the Mek Kermaks as they left, lances slung and wheelbows in their hands with arrows nocked. That was prudent, although she was full-armed and her sib bore saber and wheelbow. Bandits or outlaws might be about, or skulkers from the high steppe, infiltrating through the broad strips of unbroken grassland between villages. This close to home the steppe was almost tame; she could see herds of longhorns and beefalo and sheep with their herders, and there were patches where the bluestem had been grazed down to knee height. Mostly it was chest-high on a tall horse, a wavering sea of bronze and wine-russet stalks starred with deep purple-blue downy gentians, running to the horizon all around. When they skirted a swampy vale, ducks and geese lifted in clouds huge enough to hide the westering sun. The air was cooling toward sundown, smelling of dry grass and wild rose and horse.

BOOK: Snowbrother
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