Read The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change Online

Authors: S. M. Stirling

Tags: #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Alternative histories (Fiction), #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Alternative History, #General, #Regression (Civilization), #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - General, #Dystopias, #Fiction

The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change (10 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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The longbowmen around Eilir were all wearing war-cloaks. They shed them as they rose, a wave of motion and a quiver through earth and air and forest, a gleam on the bodkin points of the arrows and the savage swirls of war paint on their faces. She came to one knee herself, hand going to the wire-and-leather-wrapped hilt of her sword. Then she began to move forward, flitting from tree to tree to rock and on, until she was close enough to see faces. The chant continued:
Poison in your dreams
Some will not awake
Nothing’s as it seems
Iron bonds will break
Hearts will be set free
Wrongs will be made right
Sleep and death will be
Justice in the night
Sleep will be
Justice in the night
Death will be
Justice in the night!”
Sleeping men twitched and whined and thrashed and called for their mothers. Then one rose, and
was in command of himself. The robe he wore was the color of clotted blood, almost black in the night. Jeweled color showed on his wrists as he lifted his hands and the loose sleeves fell back.

I . . . see . . . you . . . little witch. You . . . are . . . too . . . late. The end . . . of . . . everything shall . . . swallow the light in . . . perfection.”
Even lip-reading, the words
into the world, as if language itself strained and buckled under their burden. She remembered the reception room at Pendleton last year, and looking into the Prophet Sethaz’ eyes, like a window into nothing, a caterpillar eaten out from the inside by larvae. The missing part of her left ear seemed to throb.
“And we see you,” Juniper replied. “Dark sun-light and shining Moon; the balance of the light and dark; perfection is un-life. We are living Mind and living World and we will
be perfect.
The two figures locked into stillness, but she could have sworn that they were fighting . . . or were they dancing?
Not my business. I’m a war-chief of the Dúnedain Rangers. Get working, woman!
She drew her sword and slid the shield onto her left arm. The soldiers were getting up and that
her concern. But mostly they were staggering, mouths open in shouts or cries or howls, their eyes seeing things that weren’t there . . . or at least things that
couldn’t see, and was very glad that she couldn’t see. None of them were putting on their armor; one was thrusting his hands into a banked fire, into the bed of hot embers beneath the ash. Another blundered towards her, his shortsword jabbing the air in front of him. She twisted aside—he wasn’t really trying to strike her—and knocked it out of his hand with the metal-shod edge of her shield. For good measure she slammed it into his head behind the ear with precisely calculated force and dropped him cold as a banker’s charity.
A wave of the blade, and the hillside erupted. The Rangers came first, to secure the enemy commanders and the fieldpieces that squatted on their wheeled mounts. The Mackenzie archers were just behind them; they moved among the Boisean soldiers, binding hands behind backs with spare bowstrings and making sure they didn’t harm themselves further. All of them gave her mother and the Corwinite magus a wide berth. She was Chief of the Clan; she was also Witch-Queen and Goddess-on-Earth, and right now that was more obvious than anyone liked, especially after what had happened at Imbolc.
Which left her daughter free. The problem was that while the CUT’s adepts were not invulnerable, she knew by experience that they were
very hard
to kill.
Back of the neck . . .
she began; then the thought was interrupted.
A huge figure trotted down the broken asphalt of the road from the northward, six-seven and three-hundred-odd pounds of John Hordle, her handfasted man . . . or as he usually put it, she was
the missus
. She pointed with the blade of her sword, and he nodded grimly. He’d been in Pendleton too. His own weapon was slung over his back, and it had a four-foot blade. His great auburn-furred paw went up to the long hilt and the bastard sword came out as he spun, astonishingly light and quick for a man his size.
The red-robe tried to turn. Even before the heavy steel struck he crumpled, his attention divided. Hordle gave a grunt as the edge struck.
“They’re tough, but that’ll put the bugger down, roit enough,” he said with satisfaction as the body pitched to one side—the head went considerably farther.
Juniper Mackenzie collapsed as well; Eilir had her arms about her mother’s torso before she was halfway to the ground. The green eyes blinked at her, and then rolled up in her head. Her mouth opened; Eilir could feel the vibration of the shriek through the throat. She pinched one earlobe sharply; the rigid shaking stopped, and Juniper looked at her with her waking gaze.
“I’m—” she began, then turned aside and was copiously sick.
Eilir held her until it was finished, produced a handkerchief and wiped her face, snagged a nearby bedroll to place beneath her head. One of Hordle’s ham-sized hands came in sight with a canteen, and she helped her mother rinse and spit.
A tap on her shoulder, and she looked up. John spoke, waiting until she had her eyes on his lips:
“Is she roit, then?”
, Eilir signed bluntly.
This sort of thing backlashes at you. That’s the price. The more oomph you have, the worse it is. And someone . . . Someone or Something . . . was giving Mom
of oomph.
“. . . like wrestling with a rotting corpse,” Juniper whispered.
Eilir gave her more water.
she signed.
“I’m not a baby!”
The protest was feeble; her daughter smiled.
You took care of me long enough. Let me return the favor.
John squatted as Juniper’s eyes fluttered closed; they looked sunken.
“We’ve got to clear out as soon as we’ve looted the wagons and put thermite on them fieldpieces. Thurston’s men respond bloody quick, and Corwin’s lent them more cavalry. Let me take her.”
He did, lifting the slight body as if she were a child’s straw dolly.
“Lighter than she was,” he said soberly. “She’s wearing herself down to a nub.”
We all are,
Eilir signed.
She looked eastward for a moment, where the first hint of dawn was paling the stars over the mountains.
I just hope they’re coming.
That’s them
, Ritva signed.
All Rangers learned Sign; the younger generation from their cradles. Partly that was because of Eilir Mackenzie, their cofounder with her
Astrid, the Lady of the Rangers. And because it was simply so useful, almost as much as Sindarin . . . which few outside the Fellowship ever had the patience to learn either.
She peered carefully around the pine trunk, body and head shrouded in the hooded war-cloak with its mottled green-brown-white surface and loops for bits of pine twig.
I make it about two thousand in this bunch,
she estimated.
The tail of them is over about a mile thataway.
Damn, I’m
not as good with estimating distances as I was before I lost the eye
, Mary replied fretfully.
Oh, well, one more bit of payback, coming up.
Then she silenced herself by raising her monocular, tilting it cautiously to keep the bright pale morning sunlight from making a revealing glint on the lens. Or her
palantír en-crûm
, as it was called in Edhellen. Down on the coast where the Greyflood, the St. Croix that had been, merged with the Atlantic in a tangle of little islands, you could tell that spring was coming, even if it wasn’t quite there yet. Even the snow had a grainy, tired look.
Up here near the edge of the North Woods it might as well have been February, except that the days were a bit longer. Their breath smoked, and even the scent of the big tree’s sap was faded to a ghost of itself, the rough bark hard as cast iron beneath her gloved hands. The fresh snow glittered. More of it made a fog about the feet of the Bekwa column, kicked up by their snowshoes.
If you can call it a
column, she thought snidely.
I’m not expecting Bearkiller standards, but really!
The wild-men the Norrheimers called Bekwa—apparently only some of those gangs called
that, but it served—came on in no particular order, in clots and clumps and straggling files, a dozen here, a score there. Some of them grouped around standards on long poles—the antlers of a moose, the skulls of tigers and wolves and men, bits of leather or cloth scribed with crude symbols. A few carried the rayed sun of the CUT, gold on scarlet. Others just trudged; a few drew sleds, or walked behind others drawn by dogs or ponies. One of those keeled over as she watched, going to its knees and then struggling to rise as its owner beat it with a stick. Then it fell; the man drew a long knife, cut its throat and whipped off his crude steel cap to catch the blood. Hoots and yells rose as others crowded close to butcher the animal, many of them haggling off bits of raw meat to eat before it cooled. Inside five minutes nothing was left but the raw bloody skeleton and some of the guts. Others scrambled to add the sled’s cargo to their back-packs or toboggans.
They’re not organized, exactly, but they seem to get things done,
Mary signed thoughtfully.
They’re a lot better equipped than the Southside Freedom Fighters were when we first met them, too.
Ritva nodded.
I don’t think they crashed quite as hard after the Change as happened in Illinois,
she replied.
Bit more space between the cities, maybe. Not good, but less absolutely bad.
All the Bekwa seemed to have a spear at least, solid weapons with heads ground down from pre-Change steel and well-hafted. Belts bore knives of various sizes, and hatchets. Quite a few had shields, usually the archetypical barbarian’s
sign nailed on a plank backing, although many read
instead. There was the odd ax, filed and cut down from woodchopping models; the originals were far too heavy to fight with, of course. Plenty of metal-headed clubs, too, or war-picks. Distance weapons were equally divided between buckets of javelins and real bows; it was impossible to tell how well those were made at this distance, but the sentry-scouts they’d met on their way in had had a straightforward wooden-stave self-bow, competently made but light in the draw.
Hard to tell if there’s much body armor
, Mary signed.
But I’d bet on a fair bit.
Could be underneath their coats and furs
, Ritva replied.
She didn’t expect mail coats or brigandines, much less articulated plate. But the Bekwa could make leather; a jacket of boiled moose hide was pretty good protection, enough to turn a glancing cut or a thrust that didn’t hit straight on and hard. Even better if you fastened bits and pieces of metal to it, and washers and lengths of chain and the like could be found in any of the dead cities. Certainly a number of them had bowl helmets—literally made from old stainless-steel kitchenware. Not nearly as good as what a workshop in Montival or Iowa made, or for that matter the spangenhelms the Norrheimers used, but better than nothing.
It could be taken for granted that all the wild-men were skilled fighters, and tough as old shoes; if they weren’t, they’d have gone into someone’s stew pot over the past generation, or ended up with their heads on a stick if the local tribe had put its Change-era culinary indiscretions behind it. The two Rangers waited patiently, pitting muscle against muscle in motionless exercise to avoid stiffness. When the last of the Bekwa had passed they slipped their hands into their climbing-claws and went down the big white pine cat-fashion. It was as natural as walking, when you’d spent a lot of your life in and out of
in forests that made these look like brushwood.
The twins landed softly, not far from the body of the Bekwa sentry; Sentry Removal was a Dúnedain specialty.
Then six men rose from behind a curtain of blueberry canes, the points of the bolts in the firing grooves of their crossbows glittering and the thick steel prods bent.
“Calisse de Tabernac!
” one of them swore, the tassel on the end of his knit cap dangling over a villainous squint. “What we got here, eh? Biggest dam’ raccoons I ever see!”
“Uh-oh,” Mary said, keeping her hands carefully motionless and in view.
Ritva said.
ne of the six Bjornings who stood by the upright rune-stone was a young man in a mail byrnie, but he moved with a bad limp. The others were women, equipped with spear or bow, swords at their waists. They all exclaimed at the sight of the war-party from Kalksthorpe—about two hundred, plus Abdou el-Naari’s forty-four, and fifty more picked up from lonely steadings along the way. Artos suppressed a smile at the obvious relief the man was trying so hard to hide, and thumped a fist on his own brigandine-armored chest in greeting as one of the women slipped away.
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
6.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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