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 (57 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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The long lifting stride of the great mare was like floating, like flying. The arrows came down with a whistling rush, and he brought his kite-shaped four-foot shield up and let the lance incline down. Shafts went
thunk
into the shield, skipped and broke and glanced from his armor with sounds like a metalsmith’s hammer striking, and felt like that too, but it was nothing. A few broke off Epona’s barding, and she bugled shrill defiance.
Behind the raven visor his teeth pulled back from his lips; the men ahead would kill him if they could, and he intended to return the favor. Swelling speed, dust, the huge bellows sound of Epona’s lungs working, strings of slobber from her mouth spattering her barding and his armored legs. The lancehead came down; the others to his right followed in a rippling wave. He rode lightly, picking his man, some Montana Rancher with the rayed sun of the CUT painted on his steel-strapped leather breastplate.
The man brought his shield up, but the light leather targe barely slowed the point of the lance. The Cutter’s body flexed like a flicked whip as the lancehead punched through him and blood burst out of his nose and wide-open mouth. Impact shocked Artos back against the tall cantle of the war-saddle and the lance cracked across.
He threw away the stub and swept out the Sword.
Shock.
The world seemed to slow for an instant, sounds deepening. Arrows moved past him, and he could see how they twirled as they flew. Cold fire ran through him, and he screamed in what might be agony or joy beyond bearing, and he could feel his connection to everything that was. Raven wings beat behind him, vast, implacable, fanning the fires that consumed worlds. He was those fires, the twisting transmuting light at the heart of exploding suns, the primal blaze that set the universe alight and made the very fabric of things. Time rushed past him, and he rent the substance of eternity as time itself rent apart cheap cloth. Behind him new life would rise.
This is how it is to wield the lightning
, some lost fragment of selfhood knew.
This is what it is to be a God, a lord of sky and storm and war!
He screamed again as the
ríastrad
took him and the Dark Mother’s mantle covered his eyes. He danced among veils of stars and galaxies, and the substance of his being flung outward. A tug at his hand, and a man’s arm flew upward; a backhand cut and ruin flopped away. Epona slammed into a lighter horse shoulder to shoulder, and the beast flipped backward to land on its wailing rider. Men hammered and stabbed at him, but shield and armor protected him like Her wings. He struck and struck, and struck and struck, killing with each blow. An ax twisted the metal of his visor, and he ripped it off with an impatient sweep of his shield-hand and cast it aside. He was wholly of the moment, and the observer at the still and hidden heart of things, the pivot on which the worlds turned.
Men saw his face, and the hardened fighters of the CUT screamed and threw themselves aside and fled. A few drove their own blades into their throats before he could reach them.
Sword and man and horse were one.
And that One was Death.

Rudi!

A voice was calling him, beneath the long slow sonorous song that was the dance of Time running from glowing Creation to the flaming Rebirth. The Sword struck, struck—

Rudi! Come back! Now!

Light and darkness blew through him. He was a man who rode a horse, and—
“I am the smile of the Mother and the grin of the Wolf, the dancer and the Dance! I am light, and lust, and power, and love, and hate!
I—am—Artos!


Rudi, please, please don’t leave me!

Shock.
He gasped, mouth struggling to suck in air to a body burning its substance with supernal speed. A wave of weakness, as he stared at Mathilda’s white tear-streaked face. He blinked, and then screamed again as he collapsed back into himself, as if the universe crammed itself into a grain of sand. Time resumed.
The battlefield had fallen still, except for the sounds of agony in the background. Men were staring at him; some had thrown themselves down and beat their faces against the earth, or hammered at their own temples with their fists. Many wept.
“I . . . I’m me, Matti. Thank you.”
The bulk of the Cutters were still in front of him, though a spray were already in full flight southward. He rode out towards them; Epona reared and milled the air, shrilling a challenge, then came down again, pawing the earth with one hoof. He thrust the Sword towards the sky.

Hear me!
” he called into the echoing silence. “This is no mere war of men for land or power. Your lords have sold you to demons who are the enemies of humankind, and of Life and Mind itself; their victory would be your own eternal defeat. If you stand here, every one of you will die. Run, and some will see their homes again; not many, but some. Tell your people what I have told you, I, Artos, High King of Montival, who am the Sword of the Lady.
Go!

 
 
He never knew what followed in the next few minutes. When he came to himself he was standing and Mathilda had her arm around his waist, holding something to his lips. He drank, choked on the strong almost tasteless vodka, drank again. The Sword was sheathed again; it never needed to be cleaned or sharpened.
“God, that was scary,” Ingolf said slowly.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Artos said. “From the inside, it was far worse.”
“Ah . . . you want a pursuit? Our horses are fresher, we could probably catch a lot of them.”
Artos shook his head. “No. No need to lose men in little scrimmages, and it’ll be dark soon.”
“I hate to see so many get away.”
Artos’ hand touched the pommel of the Sword, and he spoke with the certainty of a man saying the rain would come when the clouds rolled in black:
“I told them the truth. Not one in ten of them will cross the border alive.”
He looked around. The after-battle tasks had resumed, and folk were pouring out of the gates; a few score of the enemy were captives, not counting their wounded. The Drumhellers were giving those first aid, rather than the mercy-stroke, though of course they tended their own hurt first . . . and the strangers who’d come to rescue them. Bjarni’s men had taken the gravest losses, but most of them were still on their feet. He gave Mathilda’s arm a squeeze, more symbol than anything else when they were both in full plate, but symbols were important—more important than anything else, he was finding.
Then he walked over to where the Norrheimer flag stood. Bjarni was there, looking downward at something . . .
Syfrid of the Hrossings
, Artos thought.
Lying on his back, mouth still a little open and his great ax in one outflung hand, two arrows through the mail on his chest. Lanky Halldor Syfridsson glared across his father’s body at Bjarni.

Wyrd bithful araed
,” the Norrheimer king said. “Fate is that which cannot be turned aside.”
“Now my father is dead,” the younger man said, a tear streaking his blood-spattered face. “As you wished!”
The redbeard shook his head; blood clotted the close-cropped whiskers as well. It pooled on the ground around them, and the flies buzzed hundredfold.
“No, by almighty Thor and Forseti who hears oaths! Your father was not my friend, but he was my father’s man, a worthy
godhi
and a strong warrior, brave and cunning, and we fought side by side.”
“He should have been King!”
“He would have made a good one, but that was not his wyrd. We were rivals, yes. So the Gods made men: to contend with each other for power and place, as they made bulls or stallions to be rivals to lead the herd. Yet I did not wish him dead.”
“So you say!”
The Hrossings and Bjornings bristled at each other, and the men of other tribes looked alarmed; that was perilously close to calling Bjarni a liar. Artos stepped forward and pulled the sheathed Sword from its frow.
“Hold!” he said, and held it pommel up between them. “
Look.
Look and see the truth of each other’s hearts!”
They did, their eyes meeting through the crystal. Artos felt a humming, a meeting and merging. Bjarni’s face went pale. The long horselike countenance of the younger Norrheimer seemed to waver. Then it firmed as he clenched his jaw.
“I have wronged you, lord. I say it. Accept me as your handfast man!”
“I will. It’s right to grieve for a father, but this day Syfrid feasts with the heroes in Valhöll. He waits your coming, and your sons, and the sons of your sons.”
Halldor went to one knee, and Artos stepped back smiling very slightly. He and his party faded away, to leave the Norrheimers to settle their own affairs. A man in a long mail hauberk rode up and slid from the saddle with the ease of one who’d lived on horseback.
“Mr. Mackenzie?” he said, extending a hand. “I’m Avery McGillvery, the Rancher here. Many thanks! Your sister gave us
just
enough warning—she’s in our infirmary, resting.”
“Ah, and that’s good news!” Artos said. He felt something inside him thaw.
“And then you showed up just in time. They’d have been over the wall in another ten minutes.”
Inspector Rollins came up, grinning as well. “A and B troops are nearly here,” he said. “Another four hundred men.”
“So, the Force is with us!” Artos said.
The Rancher and the Inspector laughed. Artos and his party looked at them in surprise.
CHAPTER TWENTY
DOMINION OF DRUMHELLER
(FORMERLY PROVINCE OF ALBERTA)
JUNE 3, CHANGE YEAR 25/2023 AD
 
 
 
R
itva opened her eyes and winced as pain speared into both. A hand was under her head, and held a glass of water to her lips; it was well water, cold and good, and she swallowed it and let her head fall back. A light shone in both her eyes, candle-flame reflected from a mirror in a little box. She was in some sort of big open room, a long whitewashed rectangle with a high ceiling of beams and planks, a school or a church or something of that order. There was a slight smell of blood, and a stronger one of medicines and antiseptic.
“Hi, sis! It’s the day after the battle, if you need to know. We’re visiting the wounded. You count, sorta.”
Mary was grinning down at her—a few scratches on her face and hands, bruises, the white mark a helmet’s padding made across your forehead. Her eye patch had a new silk ribbon, and her hair was back in a neat fighting braid, and she was in formal Dúnedain black with the crowned tree and seven stars on her sleeveless doeskin jerkin. She held up a helmet, a plain sallet which after a moment Ritva recognized as her own; it had a crack in the crown and Mary stuck the tip of her little finger through it.
“You keep getting banged up like this, people will be able to tell us apart!” she said, wiggling the finger again.
They smiled at each other wordlessly. Rudi’s face moved into view. “And how are you feeling?”
Ritva made a mental effort—her head ached and he was a little blurry around the edges—and switched to English.
“I feel,” she said, “as if someone shot me in the leg and the shoulder and then hit me over the head with an ax. But you ought to see the shape
he’s
in.”
“Worse than yours, though you’ll have to stay here for a bit and heal. They’re good people, and much taken with you.”
A groan came from the bed beside her. She looked over; it was Ian Kovalevsky, and the doctor was changing the dressing on his buttock. Rudi chuckled, and for a moment he was the brother she’d known all her life.
“Now
there’s
an unfortunate,” he said.
“Why?” Ritva asked. “It’s an honorable wound and no worse than mine.”
Kovalevsky groaned again, and the doctor—she was a short slim middle-aged woman in a green tunic and cap and trousers, brown-skinned and gray-haired, with a bird’s fine-boned grace—said in a pleasant chirping singsong accent: “Shut up, babyish boy. There are many more injured than you, oh yes indeed.”
Two younger women helped her, dressed in outfits of the same color and cut and sporting the same stethoscopes around their necks: they were obviously her daughters, and equally obviously their father had been someone who looked more like the Constable.
“It’s not the pain,” the young redcoat said.
Rudi laughed. “No. It’s the thought of being . . . what’s your name, lad?”
“Kovalevsky, sir.”
“Being
Half-Ass Kovalevsky
or something of the sort for the rest of his mortal days.”
“They wouldn’t . . .” Ritva started, then thought; she knew young men, including Dúnedain. “They would. Even his friends.”
“Especially his friends,” Artos amplified, and the injured man nodded mournfully into his pillow.
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
10.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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