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 (13 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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“Ahhh, that was made from the Apples of Life,” he said, passing it to Syfrid.
Horn-signals went through the Norrheimer host. They were deployed in six groups of a thousand or more, each atop a hill not too far from the rest, in a loose shallow V running from north to south. The strongest clump was here in the center, with the Bjornings and Hrossings together. The formation had been enough to tempt the wild-men to try ramming through the low ground between each position to surround them. Bodies showed where those attacks had broken under a hail of missiles, and then the swords and axes of men charging downhill.
He eyed the enemy, pushing back his helmet by the nasal bar until it rested on his forehead and then using his father’s binoculars. Distance leapt closer, and men turned from ants to doll-figures. They’d suffered heavily, but . . .
“They’re still ready to fight. Though we killed them two, three, maybe even four for one,” he said meditatively. “We’ve better gear, we’re in better order, our men are more skillful and the foe have to come at us uphill. I think they’re hungry, too.”
“And they still outnumber us three to two or better,” Syfrid said. “They can afford losses.”
“If they’re willing to take them. I didn’t expect them to be so many, or so fierce. They fight like men who want to die.”
“If I was a Bekwa savage
I’d
want to die, too,” Syfrid said, and they grinned for a moment.
“Or like men who have to win or starve to death,” the older chief went on. “Men who burned their boats behind them.”
“Or they fight like men who feel the hand of their God, or both.”
He raised his eyes; ravens rode the wind, and crows. Even a few hawks.
“They
will feed well today.”
It was chaos over there among the enemy host, but patterns were appearing in it, like ripples in water. More and more warriors gathered around a central banner, the rayed golden sun on scarlet. Their chanting rose, breaking louder and louder across the half-mile distance:
“Cut! Cut!
Cut! CUT! CUT!”
“They’re going to try and smash us here in the center,” Bjarni said. “That bunch is massing to come straight down our throats. Well, let’s bite hard.”
“Do they have enough spearmen for that and to guard their flanks at the same time?” Syfrid wondered.
“We’re going to find out,” Bjarni said. Then louder: “Our hospitality is so warm on a cold day they can’t get enough of it. Honor requires we give every one of them enough feasting that he’ll have to be
carried
away to sleep it off.”
“And we’ll furnish a deep bed to do it in,” Syfrid said, flourishing his ax.
Grim laughter rippled through the ranks, and then farther away as the joke went from mouth to mouth; you had to show you were confident. A chieftain’s main, his soul-strength, ran all through a war band. While it did, Bjarni gripped the silver Hammer that hung around his neck on a chain and spoke within his mind:
Thor, old friend, You are also the Friend of Men and guardian of Earth who is Your mother and mine. I have made offering to You many times. Now lend me Your might as I fight against etin-craft for my folk, my home, my woman and our children!
Through the binoculars he could see a figure standing before the wild-man host, a man in a dull red robe with a shaven head. He drew a blade and flourished it, then pointed at the Norrheimers—and it felt as if he pointed at Bjarni himself. He grunted slightly, like a man punched in the gut.
“The
trollkjerring
,

someone whispered fearfully, and it rippled through the Norrheimers. “The sorcerer. He comes with them this time. We fight trollcraft!”
“Give me one,” Bjarni said, pointing to a stack of javelins upright in the ground behind them.
Syfrid raised his brows but did so. Bjarni cased his binoculars, pulled down his helm, hefted the spear thoughtfully—it was well balanced—and stepped out of the ranks. At his gesture the signalers blared out a sustained hoarse call on their long bull-horns. Eyes swung towards him along all the Norrheimer line. He filled his lungs. Casting your voice was a skill a chief had to have, whether speaking on a battlefield or from the Thingstone when the folkmoot met.
“To you, Victory-Father, the blót!
” he shouted.
So that those beyond hearing but in sight should know what he did, he tossed the javelin up into the air, a high whirling circle, and caught it as it fell again to smack against the hard calloused palm of his hand before he signed it with the
Ansuz
, the rune of the High One.
Then he took three steps forward and threw it towards the enemy. The point gleamed a little as it reached the height of its arc over a heap of the foemen’s dead and wounded, then slanted down and stood in the hard snow-covered earth. A roar ran through his men, long and deep and fierce. They knew what he meant by that, boast and threat and prayer together: he had dedicated every soul in the enemy host to the One-Eyed, the rider of the Death Horse, the Lord of the Slain to whom the warlords in the sagas gave men. That meant a fight to the knife, without quarter or mercy. Invoking Odin was never done lightly.
Bjarni stepped back and took his fresh-honed sword from his bannerman; the edge of the hard steel gleamed as the familiar weight filled his fist. The enemy were moving, first the rayed sun flag and the sorcerer, then thousands . . . and all of them seeming to aim at
him
. All around Bjarni and on the other hills men were coughing to clear their lungs and then breathing deep over and over to give a little more strength, hefting weapons, stamping their feet to make sure of their footing. Chiefs and their
hirdmenn
, their sworn guards; strong stolid yeomen of the levy, their sons and carls and hinds; youngsters wild to prove themselves heroes out of the sagas and bearded fathers of families anxious about the spring plowing, and a scattering of strong fierce women; all fighting by the neighbors and kin and blood brothers who would see their honor or their shame. Spears snapped down like a bristling porcupine, and shields overlapped in a wall.
The second rank came closer, to support the first with shield against back and stab over their shoulders. Syfrid crouched a little, his teeth bared in a taut grin, the great war-ax held slantwise across his body in armored gauntlets, one hand just below the broad blade and the other near the end of the haft. Just now Bjarni was very glad indeed to have him close. He might not be quite as strong or quite as quick as he’d been in his fights beside Erik the Strong, but he had a generation’s unmerciful experience to compensate.
“Cut! Cut!
” rang out.
“Ho La, Odhinn!
” bellowed back.
The enemy grew closer; first at a steady jog-trot that rumbled through the ground until he could feel it in the soles of his boots, then faster as archers shot from the inner part of the Norrheimer position over the heads of the front ranks, then at a pounding run as they came in range of volleys of throwing-spears and stones from whirring slings. Men fell as the bale-wind blew arrows and edged metal and lead slingshot at them, silent or screaming. The rest shrieked bloodlust, teeth snarling in bearded faces often streaked with blood already, or patterned with ritual scars.
Bjarni raised his shield up under his eyes as missiles came back at the Norrheimers. But fewer; it was harder to shoot and attack at the same time. Two arrows struck in the shield with angry
thwack
sounds and an impact he could feel like hammer blows in the metal-sheathed birch plywood, and three or four more banged off his mail or his helmet, bruising-hard. Scores of shafts arched towards the
trollkjerring
, but none struck. He loped forward as easy as a wolf, turning and jinking but as if he was anticipating the arrows rather than dodging them, not bothering to use his shield. Closer, and Bjarni could see him smile, look into his eyes . . .
And the sword drooped in his hand. The eyes
pulled
. He blinked, and saw himself dead, standing rotting amid corpses yet still seeing and feeling, and Harberga crouched with shreds of his son’s flesh dangling from her grinning jaws. His hall was ash in a world of ash, where dead moon and gutted sun collapsed into themselves. Still his living corpse stood and watched, and love, honor, hope were dead, had never lived, as the stuff of the world itself decayed, and the blackness was forever. But that was good, for at last there was purity—
“Thor with me!” he groaned, and raised his shield.
Slivers of wood and metal spun away as the red-robed man’s blade hammered. Bjarni staggered backward, his left arm numb. Blow after blow rained on the shield, and then it fell in shattered pieces from the handgrip. A cut landed on the mail covering his left leg, and it buckled beneath him. He fell on his back, and the blade went up to kill.
CHAPTER SIX
NORRHEIM, LAND OF THE WULFINGS
SIX-HILL FIELD (FORMERLY AROOSTOOK COUNTY, MAINE)
MARCH 25, CHANGE YEAR 25/2023 AD
 
 
 
G
arbh lifted her nose and growled very softly; there wasn’t much wind, but what there was came from ahead. Then she pointed, silent now, the thick shaggy barrel of her head trained to the northeast. Artos flung up his right hand, clenched into a fist, and eased back in the saddle. Rhiannon wasn’t quite what her dam was, but she was an intelligent horse and very well trained; she stopped instantly, with only a white puff from her nostrils as she snorted.
His own war band stopped too, then spread out to either side with minimum fuss as he waved the hand from left to right—there was a clop of hooves muffled in snow-covered pine-duff, a rattle of bits and bridles, but much of that was because many of their horses were local mounts picked up catch-as-catch-can. The Kalksthorpe levy and the rest of the Norrheimer
fyrd
were slower, but they managed it, and few spoke questions; those mostly got a hard hand across the mouth from their neighbors. Scouts fanned to the sides and forward.
It was dim here, and quiet, though from ahead he thought he could
almost
hear a dim confused burring sound like heavy storm surf beating on cliffs a long way away.
Sound’s deceptive in forest
, he thought.
The more so when there’s snow on the branches.
They’d come along an overgrown road most of the day through oddly uniform stands of pine that all looked about fifty years old, but now they were in mature forest or old second growth tall enough to shade out most underbrush; white pines, hemlock and leafless sugar maples. Dry powder-snow lay thick on the boughs, fetlock-deep on the horses.
Edain looked a question at Artos, who held up three spread fingers, turned them towards his eyes and then tapped them forward towards the brightness ahead. There the sun of midmorning broke through a generation’s scrub growth of birch and alder that was spreading out into the open ground.
Edain nodded, caught two others with his glance and slid to the ground himself, moving forward through the brush as easily as his totem Wolf might have done, bow in hand. Asgerd followed him; she was good at skulking in these woods. Ulfhild went too, and she was very good indeed; a little surprising, since you didn’t expect that degree of slinking marten grace from someone built like a white-oak barrel. Garbh ghosted along at her master’s heels, head low and thin black lips drawn up silently over long yellow fangs that knit together like edges of jagged broken glass. The mottled gray-white-brown wool of the scouts’ coats and hoods disappeared almost instantly.
The rest waited, apart from dismounting to spare the horses; there wasn’t much point in doing anything else until they knew the facts. After a half hour a raven went
gruck
, or something that was very close to the real thing, and from what sounded like the forest edge ahead. Eyes came up, and spearpoints and drawn bows; Artos let one corner of his mouth quirk up, and then answered with the same call. Garbh trotted into sight, and the three scouts after her. Asgerd looked grimly tense; Ulfhild was grinning, blood on the Norrheimer broadsword naked in her hand; Edain jogged with the same tireless hunter’s pace he always used unless he was sprinting.
“Action?” Rudi asked.
“Acht
, nothing but a scuffle, Chief. The Norrheimers are there, all right, and they’re between us and the enemy. We met a few of the Bekwa, stragglers, is all, the which was unluckier for them than us.”
Fred Thurston had the map out before he arrived, and the young Mackenzie sketched on it with one finger.
“On all the six hills. They’re close enough to support each other—half-bowshot. Well, half for Mackenzies; three-quarters, here. We got close enough to shout, and the Bekwa are led by a red-robe right enough . . . but only the one
bachlach
, the exceeding luck and good fortune of it. The fighting-men are all Bekwa, none of our old friends from Corwin.”
Artos nodded. “They could send a few missionaries to convert men,” he said. “Easier than armies.”
“That’s a good formation, if they keep coming straight at him,” Fred said, his black eyes narrow on the map and then glancing up abstracted as he built a model in his mind. “Good when neither side has field artillery, that is.”
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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