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

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BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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Or stranger than some things I’ve met myself
, he reminded himself, his hand on the moonstone pommel.
“I don’t think any of them is Gollum material,” Ritva said, a trace of sulkiness in her tone.
“Though I wouldn’t put it past them to bite off a finger if they got within snapping range,” Mary added.
Her husband, Ingolf, nodded. “Me neither, Rudi,” he said in his flat Wisconsin rasp. “Kill ’em and be damned to them.”
He was a big man, as tall as Rudi and a little broader, with a battered face beneath his cropped brown beard that showed all thirty of his years. Normally it was good-natured, despite hard times spent as a hired soldier and salvager, but now it clenched like a fist. He’d been a prisoner of the Church Universal and Triumphant in Corwin itself. The wounds on his body had healed, though the marks were there. The ones in his mind and soul had taken longer to knit, and scars remained there too, visible sometimes in his dark blue eyes.
“Matti?” Rudi asked.
“Kill them,” she said firmly, though with a slight undertone of regret. “You didn’t promise them quarter the way you did the pirates, and they’re not knightly foes who are protected by the laws of chivalry. As Ard Rí you certainly command the High Justice, and as your principal vassals and tenants-in-chief, we’re a sufficient court under feudal law. Also we just don’t have the people or attention to spare to guard them, or the food to keep them.”
Her
parents had been founders of the Portland Protective Association, and before that in the Society for Creative Anachronism—a fellowship dedicated to the preservation of ancient ways and skills. When the Change set them free to live out their dreams, they’d also turned out to be the two most pellucidly ruthless human beings Rudi had ever met. Her long-dead father, Norman, had wrought in sheer throttled rage at anything that thwarted him, and from a vicious relish at the power to deal out death. Sandra Arminger was very much alive, still Regent of the Association; unlike her dreadful spouse she was a cold killer rather than a hot one. Her daughter was neither, tenderhearted if anything, but she’d still been raised to the stern necessities of kingcraft.
So had he, if on the smaller and gentler scale of the Clan Mackenzie. His mother had condemned men to death when she had to, though never without regret.
“Fred?”
Frederick Thurston’s brown, blunt-featured face scowled. “They were behind my father’s murder. Kill them.”
Actually that was your elder brother,
Rudi thought.
He wanted to be President in Boise too, and to hell with old customs like elections, which your father wanted to preserve
.
Though the Cutters might have planted the seeds of that bit of murderous treachery, at that. Virginia Thurston nodded vigorously; the CUT had overrun her family’s ranch in the Powder River country out west in what had once been Wyoming, and killed
her
father. She’d brought her own feud to add to the balance when she met Fred on the journey east and joined the quest.
“Father Ignatius?”
The knight-brother frowned; his Order trained as scholars as well as in the warlike arts, and often acted as de facto judges in the wild places where they did much of their work.
“This is certainly
terrae nullius
, land without sovereign or law,” he said. “Certainly the Cutters are heretics, murderers, oppressors and wagers of unjust war, and their adept is an open diabolist. In which, I think, he merely represents the whole hierarchy of the cult. And you, Your Majesty, are a King—if not yet an anointed one. You may therefore judge them at your discretion.”
Rudi’s mouth quirked a little; that “anointed” bit
was
going to be awkward when they got back home. He was of the Old Religion, like nearly all Mackenzies, and wouldn’t object to a Catholic ceremony—his faith taught that all paths to the Divine were valid. Christians tended to be a little more exclusive.
“In other words, I must do as I think best?” he asked. “And take the burden of it for good or ill?”
Ignatius inclined his tonsured head; he was so grave usually that you forgot he was only a few years older than Rudi’s twenty-four.
“Precisely, Your Majesty. We must each bear the cross that God gives us, carry it up to Heaven’s Gate, and that is the one He has given you.”
I’m a well-loved man,
Rudi thought, glancing to meet Mathilda’s grave regard.
And I’ve true friends and comrades here at hand, who’ll never fear to speak their minds to me. But at seventh and last to be King is to be alone, alone in the narrow passage where there is neither brother nor friend. Kingship is to stand for your folk before the Powers, and before necessity.
“Something new has come into the world,” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard above the wind. “I was given the Sword to use, as well as to bear. And not only for the chopping of heads; plain steel would do near as well for that.”
A smile. “Like the fine sword you gave me, which saved my life many a time.”
“Which just disappeared,” she said, frustrated.
He drew the blade forged in the World beyond the world. It had the form of a knight’s weapon, long and double-edged and tapered to a savage point. It felt lighter in his hand than he would have expected from the thirty-eight inches of the blade. Or perhaps it felt
alive
, rather than light in any physical sense. The metal
looked
like steel at first glance, pattern-welded in intricate, waving layers. Then if you looked more closely the patterns seemed to disappear into untouchable depths, shape within shape, a soft endless
pull
at the eyes that repeated . . .
All the way down
, he thought.
It doesn’t glow. Not precisely. Not to the body’s eye, at least.
The High Seeker took a step back as Rudi approached; he didn’t think there was the slightest physical fear in it.
Major Graber stepped between them. His angular face had the look of a man ready to die, but then he’d always been like that. His fists were clenched and held in a position that Rudi recognized; his tutors in unarmed combat had used it sometimes. The other troopers of the Sword of the Prophet moved to flank him; behind, Rudi could hear the rustle and clink of his folk making ready.
“Don’t begin anything without my word,” he said, looking over his shoulder for an instant. “That’s an order, mind.”
Graber swallowed and met Rudi’s eyes. “High Seeker!” he said, managing to throw his voice over his shoulder
without
turning his head. “What are your orders?”
The Cutter magus ignored him, his eyes fixed on Rudi. The expression in them was not quite fear, and he paid as much attention to the Sword as to the man bearing it.
Not enough is left of the man to fear the body’s death,
Rudi thought, meeting the empty eyes and a snarl like malice distilled.
What was it that Abbot Dorje said, back in the Valley of the Sun? Yes:
Men who sell their souls invariably make a very bad bargain.
Whatever dwells there where the man once was fears this blade, with a terror that has little to do with the fate of the mortal shell it inhabits.
“High Seeker!
” Graber said desperately, but the magus stayed in his slight crouch, snarling silently.
A shock ran up Rudi’s hand; the Sword seemed to
twitch
. Then he reversed it in a single fluid tossing snap, holding it by the hilt with the blade down.
“Major Graber,” Rudi said briskly. “You’re a soldier, and a good one. I’ve fought you often enough to know, and for you to know me somewhat. Believe me, then: stand aside, and your men will be unharmed, nor will anything happen harmful to your honor or your oaths. On that you have
my
oath.”
Graber gave one last look at the High Seeker and then jerked his head, as if using the tuft of chin-beard that marked the center of his rock-formed jaw as a pointer. He and the troopers stood aside, but they were tensed to spring if they must.
Rudi raised the Sword until the crystal pommel was level with his own eyes . . . and then pressed it to the High Seeker’s forehead.
He’d expected a scream. Instead the Cutter adept seemed to
stop
. The thin-lipped grimace on his face died away, and then the rigid inner tension that had made it a thing of slabs and angles. Then the hazel eyes blinked at him, and suddenly they were just eyes once more, not the bars of a cage where something looked out and hungered.
Silence stretched; there was a sheen of sweat on Graber’s face, and a fear that had nothing to do with his own danger. The High Seeker blinked again and looked around him.
“Mom?” he said uncertainly, in a wavering voice, as if the harsh gravel tones weren’t
his
. “Mom? I’m scared, Mom. Dad said I have to be brave when the Church men come, but I’m scared. Where are you?”
He patted himself, and then looked at his hands. An expression of horror crumpled his face then, and tears leaked down his cheeks. He stumbled forward, the empty sheath of his shete banging awkwardly against his leg, as if he’d forgotten how to walk with it. Forgotten how to walk with the body of a man of thirty-odd years, too.
“Lady?” he blurted out to Mathilda. “I feel funny, lady. You seen my mom, ma’am? She looks a little like you.”
Mathilda’s face was white, though she had looked steady on more than one battlefield; she took a pace backward, and he could tell she was fighting not to draw her own blade. She did cross herself.
Ignatius stepped forward and spoke in Rudi’s ear, quickly and quietly. “I think the Corwinite cult take their trainees very young, Your Majesty,” he said. “And I think this man has just lost all the years since they did. Pardon me.”
Then louder, with a kindly tone: “Your mother is not here, my son. What is your name?”
The Seeker stood erect; you could see the effort it took him.
“I’m Bobby,” he said, with a quaver in his voice. “Bobby Dalan, sir. Bobby Dalan from Scrabbledown Ranch. You get me back home and Mom and Dad will be real happy, sir.”
He wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand. It was a grown man’s hand, and a warrior’s, scarred and sinewy. That made the gesture shocking, and . . . Rudi found himself blinking too.
“I will look after you until you can go home,” Ignatius said. His voice became a soothing murmur. “Here, my son, come and sit by the fire and be warm. Would you like to sleep? There’s a blanket you can use. You are sleepy, aren’t you ...”
A silence deep enough to ring had fallen when the priest rose a few moments later; wonder on most faces, and horror among the troops of the Sword of the Prophet who’d followed the adept so long. Ignatius wore a quiet smile when he came back to them, and he crossed himself.
“God’s mercy is very great,” he said. “Great beyond our comprehension.”
Rudi’s mouth quirked. Ignatius wasn’t the sort of Christian cleric who was always shoving his piety in your face, but it was bone-deep .
“It’s the Sword of the
Lady
, Father,” he said.
The smile grew broader. “And the Lady of Sorrows is most merciful too,” he said, and chuckled at Rudi’s snort. “That is a thing to which I can personally bear witness.”
Then he grew entirely grave. “And so are
you
, Your Majesty . . . which, since you
are
to be High King, is reassuring to know.”
“We’ve been in each other’s sporrans for years now,” Rudi said. “I’m not a man who enjoys killing and never was.”
Fighting, sometimes, yes,
he admitted to himself.
Because I do it well, and it’s necessary work, and it calls forth all you have in you of strength and heart and wit. But killing in itself, no. Though it’s part of living and also sometimes necessary, even killing in cold blood.
The warrior-priest shook his head. “I knew that you were not a man of blood, my King,” he said. “But you had very good personal reasons to hate the Corwinite magus, and excellent reasons of policy to kill him as well, and it lay within your rights in law. That you chose not to . . . speaks well of how you will rule.”
Rudi looked around. Several of his companions were looking disappointed . . . but they all nodded as he sheathed the Sword once more, and there was awe in their eyes.
“Major Graber,” Rudi said.
“Yes?” the officer replied, crossing his arms on his chest.
He had an outward calm; his men were younger, and looked rocked to their foundations. That was the disadvantage of a creed that preached inevitable victory: its doctrines tended to be silent on what to do if you lost. Particularly if the loss was not merely a matter of swords.
“There’s a village on this island,” Rudi went on, nodding to Ingolf to show where he’d gotten the tale of it. Some of them were refugees from the mainland from just after the Change who came with stock and seed and tools, and the rest were Indians from this place—from the same time as the forest, brought forward with it—who had their own knowledge to add to the mix.
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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