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 (4 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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“They’re fishers and gardeners and hunters of the whale; good-hearted folk, from what I hear. They have more women than men, and it could be they’d take in any of you who wished to stay here. The rest may return to the mainland with us, but closely watched and unarmed, and the journey westward will be perilous at best.”
The man nodded, a swift hard gesture. “I was tasked with assisting the High Seeker,” he said, in a voice that might have been forged from iron.
“The High Seeker no longer lives,” Rudi pointed out. “Now there’s only the boy who was murdered to make him.”
After a slight hesitation, Graber went on: “My family is in Corwin. My wives, my children.”
Rudi shrugged. “You tried to fulfill your mission; it’s for you to decide if you and your kin can await anything good from your rulers because of it. But you’ve time to think, all of you.”
When he turned back to his friends, Mathilda linked her fingers together and tapped her paired thumbs on her chin, a habit she’d picked up from him.
“Do you think you can trust this Graber?” she said softly.
Rudi shrugged. “Within reason. My judgment is that he’s a hard man, with little mercy and no yielding in him, but not without honor of a sort when left to make his own choices. There was a poet of the ancient Greeks . . . he said something about a perfect man being hard to find ...”
Father Ignatius nodded. “I think I know the one you mean,” he said. “Simonides of Keos.”
Then, quoting:
“So I will never waste my lifespan in the vain unprofitable search for a blameless man. If you find him, send me word. But that one I will love and honor who does nothing base from free will. Against necessity, even gods do not fight.
Undoubtedly he was among the virtuous pagans.”
Rudi nodded. “Like myself?” he said ironically.
Ignatius smiled slightly and tapped one booted foot on the ground;
if the shoe fits . . .
Rudi and Mathilda chuckled; the younger man went on: “Graber . . . is as good a man as can be expected from his upbringing, and the time and place of it. Raised elsewhere, he’d have been a good man by our way of thinking as well. I’ll kill him if I must, but I’d rather not.”
He turned his head. The corsairs had moved a little farther away, as if to disassociate themselves still more from the surviving Cutters and whatever their fate would be. As he watched they spread their prayer mats and knelt on them, bowing eastward, where
Holy City lay.
Now, what shall I do with the lot of you?
he thought.
That’s less of a problem, for I
promise quarter to those of you captured in Kalksthorpe in return for sailing me here. As for the others . . . well, in honor I can do nothing but extend the same terms to them. Yet you
pirates, and honor doesn’t require me to be an overtrusting fool. Mercy to the guilty can be cruelty to the innocent, as the saying goes.
Abdou al-Naari rose. The crews finished their prayers and stood as well, rolling up their mats. Rudi Mackenzie had been waiting quietly until they were done with the ritual; Abdou had to admit he was polite in such matters. The five daily prayers were God’s will unless something very urgent intervened, and besides that it was good to reestablish routine; it helped the men’s spirits.
And it helps mine
, Abdou thought.
Sorcery is more often heard of than seen, even since the Change, but I have seen it now.
Witch doctors and shamans were as common as peanuts in the Emirate of Dakar, for all that strict law forbade them, but he had never put much credence in them. Yes, there was more than natural law to the universe—even if he had been inclined to believe anything so impious, the Change was a stern warning to the contrary. God could do as He willed, and He had created many beings other than men, some with strange powers. But this . . . was enough to put all of them in fear.
All men fear. Only cowards allow the fear to govern them. Call on the One and meet your fate, Abdou.
Then he took a deep breath and went on to the infidel leader:
“My friend Jawara, of
captain, say . . . says . . . that there were snakes in his head, while sorcerers hold him by spells. Now they gone. He thank you.”
Djinn fly away with English!
Abdou thought.
Why can’t the misbelievers speak some civilized language?
He was captain of a Saloum rover, which meant he had enough mathematics for navigation, and he could design a ship besides—or a bridge, or an aqueduct. He was fluent in the Hassani dialect of Arabic, which was his father’s tongue, and in the Wolof and Serer languages common throughout the Emirate of Dakar; he knew enough Mandinka to get by; he could read the classical tongue of the Holy Book, and some of the dead French speech—enough to appreciate poetry as well as to read books on practical subjects like engineering.
But his English had been learned strictly by rule of thumb for trade and war, and in present company he was humiliatingly conscious that when he spoke it he sounded like some peasant from the back of beyond.
Or like a baboon sitting in a baobab tree and scratching its fleas. Or like a tongue-tied foreigner, which is another way of saying the same thing.
Pride kept his back stiff as he bowed and touched brow, lips and heart with the fingers of his right hand in a graceful gesture. His wounds no longer pained him when he performed the courtesy; somehow they’d had time for more healing, when he felt nothing but the space between one breath and another. Another strangeness.
“Thank you for rescuing of him and men. Thank you for exposing false marabout who led us here. Peace be upon you, and God’s blessing for you, your sons, and the sons of your sons.”
The so-called holy man whose “visions” had brought Abdou’s little two-ship fleet to these bleak northern waters lay on the snow-speckled sand not far away. The corsairs had taken care of him themselves, as soon as they’d woken, and they hadn’t needed any weapons to do so despite the man’s unnatural strength; his head now looked out over his shoulder blades, and his arms and legs were visibly broken in several places as well. The green turban had rolled away, and the edges of it fluttered in the cold breeze.
“Blasphemer,” Jawara said in Wolof, and spat on the corpse, his full-featured black face contorted with hate. “Apostate. Sorcerer.”
Abdou translated; he shared the sentiment wholeheartedly, even if he was less given to showing his feelings. The infidel chief nodded, his straight and implausibly sunset-colored hair swaying about his jaw. The Moor had never seen anything quite like it, though many English had hair the hue of sun-faded thatch or reddish wood. His face bore the starved, angular look whites had and which Abdou had never liked; in Rudi’s case you had to admit that he was handsome enough in an alien fashion. One disastrous encounter in the fight where he’d been captured had shown Abdou that the infidel’s longlimbed body could move with a leopard’s speed and strength.
That had been honest combat, though; he averted his eyes from the pommel of the sword the man carried now. Such things were not lawful for Believers. Best to think of it as little as possible.
“When we home, there is ...” He made washing gestures with his hands.
“Making clean,” Rudi said. “Cleansing.”
Abdou nodded, his face grim. “Cleansing of marabouts of the Mouride Brotherhood, if any more like this. I go Dakar, Emir’s court, speak there. For this too, we thank. The Faith is pure. For any to . . . make it not pure, not clean . . . that is a great evil.”
“You are welcome,” Rudi said. “And that cleansing will be a thing to benefit the whole world, not just your own land. Now, how is the ship? We’ve that little journey to Kalksthorpe to make.”
Jawara spoke far less English than Abdou, but he understood a little. They both looked at the
and sighed; now she and her cargo were lost too. The
Bou el-Mogdad
was simply
, and the Kalksthorpe folk had her load of treasures already. And the corsairs’ families and clans would have to pay ransom for their return as well. It had been a disastrous voyage in more ways than one. His kin had put many years of labor and hard-won wealth into those ships.
“Ribs good, none stove in,” Abdou said after they’d conferred for a little; his vocabulary was better for nautical matters than general conversation. “Need spare boards to patch hull leaks, once we caulk sprung seams. We refloat her with anchor out to sea, capstan, when patches all done. For long voyage, need to pull out of water, refit with . . . special tools, supplies.”
“You’ve only to get us back to Kalksthorpe,” Rudi pointed out. “Less than a week’s sail to the northward.”
“Now you know we deceived by false marabout, should give ship back to we,” Abdou said. “As you say, home need cleansing. Faster if we have ship. We take you back, go home, never sail these waters again. By God and His Prophet, I swear.”
If you do not try, you will never succeed. And I mean that oath. If I never even
of these waters again it will be too soon!
Rudi grinned, teeth flashing white. “You were pirates before you met this marabout,” he said. “He used no magic to make you willing to fall on the Kalksthorpe folk, kill them and plunder their goods. Count yourself lucky your lives are spared, but your wealth is forfeit.”
Abdou shrugged. The accusation was not
without truth. Mostly his business was salvaging in the dead cities along the old American coast; there were far fewer such remains of the ancient world in his native land, and his people needed the metals and goods. But that often meant fighting, with the bands of mad cannibal savages who haunted the ruins, or with others on the same venture. The Kalksthorpe folk often clashed with his, being great salvagers themselves. For that matter, as pagans they were legitimate prey by law, but he didn’t expect Rudi Mackenzie to grasp that point, being only a
, an unbeliever, himself.
God’s will
, he thought.
The Merciful, the Lovingkind, does as He wishes, not as we wish. It is not for mortal men to question Him. I live, my son Ahmed lives, my blood brother Jawara lives. We will purge our homeland of a great wickedness. Praise be to the One!
He sighed again and went on aloud: “Ready to sail,
, with the morning tide in week, ten days, if all work hard and we no need cut timber. Not much food though, for all people these, even for short voyage. We all go hungry before end.”
Rudi Mackenzie showed his teeth in an expression that did not even pretend to be a smile. “Needs must. I grudge every day. My people need me at home, and they need me
Then a voice cried out: “Sail!
Sail ho!”
his city is going to fall,” Signe Havel said bluntly. The Rancher-delegates who made up the CORA assembly roared—some in agreement, some in protest, some to hear themselves make noise, as far as she could tell. It echoed off the walls of the old pre-Change theater; shouting faces shone desperate in the light of the gas lamps, a thick smell of sweat and burnt methane and hot lime, wool and leather and linen. The representatives of the city itself and the smallholders who farmed the irrigated land upstream and down mostly just stared at her wide-eyed.
“Why can’t you stop them?” someone shouted.
Signe leaned forward and braced her hands on the sides of the podium, and the lames of her articulated suit of plate clattered slightly against each other, despite the backing of soft leather. Moving quietly in armor was like trying to tiptoe in a suit sewn with cowbells. She wanted them to notice it; notice the nicks and the indented lines that looked like someone had taken something sharp and pushed it against the steel
very hard
. Which was exactly what had happened, and she still had the bruises underneath.
“You may notice we’ve all been
to do exactly that, your people and mine.”
She paused to let the way she looked—and for some of the closer delegates, smelled—reinforce the words.
Rationally it’s silly to wear sixty pounds of metal to talk to people,
she thought.
But then again, who ever said war is a rational activity? And the whole
went crazy when I was eighteen. It’s been getting worse ever since. My armor is a symbol, and Mike taught me about the value of symbols. He used them and knew he was using them, even when he believed in them himself. Because symbols hit down below the part where
makes any difference.
She was very tired, tired enough that her eyeballs felt as if they’d been rolled in a mixture of fine grit and cat hair before they were stuffed back in their sockets. There was probably enough red around the pupils to drown out the blue.
I’m forty-three now. I can’t go for days without sleep anymore. Willpower makes up for the tired and the hurt and the hungry, but every time it takes a bit more water from the well and someday soon I’m going to run dry.
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
5.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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