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 (61 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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She met his eyes with respect but pridefully, blue eyes searching pale gray. He let his slight smile grow to a grin.
“You’d be Asgerd Karlsdottir, then, lass?”
“Yes, Master Aylward.”
“Welcome to the Aylward Asylum for Bedlam Boys, then. It’s the women who keep the wits.”
She hesitated, then seemed to realize what he meant and ducked her head in acknowledgment.
“What does the collar mean?” she said after an instant.
“This?” He touched the thin torc of twisted gold around his neck; he was so used to it that he didn’t notice it unless reminded. “That Oi’m handfasted . . . married, most say. Could Oi see that bow?”
Surprised, she handed it over. He drew it—about eighty pounds, very respectable for a woman and more than he was really comfortable with himself these days—and looked down the length of it before he returned it to her. It was very much as he’d have done it, if he was working with hickory rather than yew; that was a good second-best for a bowyer, tough and springy.
“Well, all the time Oi spent teaching this gurt gallybagger wasn’t wasted. No, not wasted at all. Come on, lad.”
He led them a little south, well past the road leading to the castle gate. A tented camp lay by the water’s side amid scattered pines, looking across the emerald lake to the rock and scree of the mountainside; little three-man tents, grouped in threes themselves around common campfires, with each set of three in a triangle to make nine in all. Racks of bicycles were propped near them, and some light carts rigged so that they could be pulled by two horses or fitted with a frame for four bicycles. Kilted figures sat working on their gear and talking, or stood to shoot at man-shaped targets of folded straw mats and poles scattered out several hundred yards eastward. Arrowheads flashed in the afternoon sunlight, and the pale blur of gray-goose feathers.
“Mackenzies!” Edain said happily.
“Yus,” his father replied. “The High King’s Archers. All volunteers, mostly young, and a wild lot. But good shots and good at fieldcraft, every one of them, and at least fair with a blade.”
“Who’s in charge of′em?” Edain asked wistfully. “I’m bullyragging the ones the chief . . . the High King . . . picked up along the way. Fast learners and hard fighters, but not bowmen born like us.”
“This lot’re under Aylward the Archer,” he said casually, then laughed at the younger man’s double take. “Yes, you. Oi’m not ’im, not anymore, so that leaves you, which stands to reason.”
He nodded down towards the camp. “Think you can ’andle ’em?”
Edain’s gray eyes narrowed, and his mouth drew into a line as he thought for a moment and then nodded slowly.
“Sure and I can,” he said; his accent had acquired more of Rudi Mackenzie’s lilt in the past two years. “I don’t see why not. There’s been a good deal of news about the place, concerning our little walk in the woods, I’d be thinking?”
“News whenever a letter made it ’ome. And songs, stories and tales, each one wilder than the last and more each passing month,” his father replied. “And while they’re mostly about Rudi and the Princess, you’re mentioned in many. Young Fiorbhinn’s been making a few of them!”
His mouth quirked and Edain chuckled; Lady Juniper’s youngest had all her mother’s music and magic, but not nearly as much hard-learned common sense as yet.
Mind, in wartime people need dreams more than ever.
“Ah, well, that will all help, a wee bit,” Edain said shrewdly, nodding. “And I’ll just tuck the Southsiders and Norrheimers who swore to the High King in with ’em, too; they’ve had a chance to get to know me, and they’ll want everyone else following orders as well.”
Sam Aylward hid a sudden fierce surge of pride.
A thousand years of farmers and fighters
, he thought.
And this one’s an Aylward with the best of them.
Asgerd caught his eye and glanced away swiftly, hiding a smile herself; he had the uncomfortable feeling that she’d read his mind.
No, no fool she. And best not to let the lad get too cocky
, he thought, and went on aloud:
“You’ll be glad to ’ear Eithne’s not among them. She’s handfasted to Artan Jackson over to Dun Carmody . . .”
“Artan the leatherworker? Big fella, missing half his left ear, Elk sept?”
“Roit. And she’s just delivered of twins.”
Edain blew out his cheeks in a soundless
whoosh
of relief. Asgerd cocked an eye at him, and he shrugged and grinned sheepishly.
“You’d be an odd young man if you hadn’t been interested in women before you met me,” she said dryly. “But now that you
have . . .”
“And there’s a fair number ’ere you ’ave met.” He put two fingers to his lips and gave a piercing whistle. “
Oi! Dickie! Front and center!

“Me brother,” Edain said aside to Asgerd. “Three years younger than me, three years and a bit . . . by Maponos of the Youths, he’ll be near eighteen now! Eighteen come this Lughnasadh!”
“Time doesn’t stop while you’re on a journey,” Asgerd agreed.
Then she glanced eastward. Sam thought she was thinking of
her
home, clear the other side of the continent, and one she’d probably never see again.
“Fetch the rest, lass,” Edain said to Asgerd. “Best they meet their new comrades. You can make Dick’s acquaintance later.” A grin: “Though I’d wish you to meet Ma and the sisters before me lout of a brother!”
She nodded and trotted off. A man came bounding up the low slope, moving with a springy elastic step despite the weight of brigantine, sword and dirk and buckler, slung longbow and the war-quiver of forty-eight arrows and knocked down swine-feather over his shoulder. The green leather surface of the torso-armor carried the new arms of Montival’s High King, the crowned mountain and Sword, rather than the Moon and Antlers of the Clan Mackenzie.
The face above the mail collar was high-cheeked and snub-nosed, blue-eyed and pale apart from the half that was summer freckles; his long hair was rust-colored, falling down his back in a queue bound with a spare bowstring, and a sparse scattering of lighter hairs showed he was trying to grow a mustache and failing miserably. An enormous grin showed square white teeth. He was lanky, but an inch or so above Edain’s five-nine, and his chest and arms showed the effects of thousands of hours of practice with the bow since the age of six as well as a countryman’s labors.
“Edain!” he shouted. “A hundred thousand welcomes, brother!”
“Dick!” Edain called back. “This pup’s grown teeth, by the Gods!”
They fell on each other in what was half an embrace and half a bearlike wrestling match; Garbh growled dubiously, then caught the younger man’s scent, froze as her memory worked, and began leaping about happily herself. It ended with Dick’s head clasped under Edain’s left arm while his right rubbed knuckles vigorously on his brother’s head until they were both roaring with laughter.
“Ah, Dick, it’s good to see you again, by each and every one of Them, from the Lord and Lady down to the house-hob,” Edain gasped, releasing him.
“And you too, even if you were the bloody noogie champion of Dun Fairfax.”
Then Edain went on more soberly: “So, it’s the High King’s sworn man you’d be?”
“What else, for an Aylward?” Dick said.
“What else indeed,” Edain said.
He stepped forward and embraced him once more. “That’s from your brother, then.”
Then he cuffed the younger man across the side of the head, a
clap
of calloused hand on bone.

Ow!
Boggarts bugger you, what was
that
for?” Dick said, rubbing at his ear; the blow hadn’t been enough to really hurt, but it hadn’t been a love-pat either.

That
was from your bow-captain; the bow-captain of the High King’s Archers. Found your sept totem yet, Dick?”
“Wolf, of course. Came to me plain as daylight while I slept in the forest. Sounded like Da, that he did.”
“He did for me too, but it’s a bit of a surprise, it is. I was thinkin’ it would be Coyote, or maybe Raven or Fox.”
Edain pointed his index finger in his brother’s face. “I know how you love your daft jokes, Dickie. But this is serious business, so we’ll not be havin’ any of that. I’ve thrashed you before, and I can do it again if you need your face put in the midden. Understood? You’re a grown man now, and I’ll be treating you as such.”
The younger Aylward brother straightened pridefully. “Understood, bow-captain!”
“Good. Fall them all in, then.”
He grinned again, slapped his fist to his brigandine and bounded off.
Sam spoke casually: “Would you loike me to tell ’em you’re in charge?”
“By Lugh of the Many Skills, no, Da!” Edain said briskly. “How could I ever get a fair grip on them then? They have to learn to listen to
me
.”
His father nodded, hiding his smile once more. Then the younger man went on, looking over his shoulder.
“Ah, good.”
A column of troops came trotting up forty strong with a jingle and clank of gear, Asgerd at their head. He ran an experienced eye over them. About two-thirds were dressed and equipped in the Clan’s style, brigandine and bow and shortsword and buckler, right down to the kilts. Far more of them were dark-skinned than you’d find in a Mackenzie dun, but any single one of them could have been dropped in without exciting much comment. Most of the Clan or their parents had started out as farm and small-town folk in western Oregon, but a fair scattering had come from the cities and a few from everywhere under the sun.
Including England!
Sam thought wryly.
Those would be the Southsiders he spoke of
.
The rest were in trousers and jackets, with bigger round shields slung over their quivers and longer swords at their belts; a few had axes across their backs, carried in loops beside their quivers.
Must be that place in Maine where they’re all fair mad for the Viking bit
, Sam mused, then felt his kilt brush his knees.
Well, who am Oi to speak, so to speak, eh?
One huge man with a forked braided beard carried a gruesome ax-warhammer combination, and looked able to use it. A big thickset woman with extremely cold dark eyes nodded to Sam Aylward in mutual recognition, and he pursed his lips at the way she moved. Built like a brick on legs but very fast with it; fast and heavy was rare and dangerous.
“Follow me,” Edain said curtly.
And they do, no arguing
, Sam thought as he strolled in their wake.
Oi did a proper man’s work raising this’un, bugger me blind if Oi didn’t!
The hundred and twenty Mackenzie archers had turned out and were waiting—not standing at any rigid attention, many leaning on their unstrung bow staves, but in good order. About a quarter were women, and a good half hadn’t been in the First Levy when his son left that April day two years ago, and few of them were older than Edain. He nodded to a few friends, and then stood before them with his thumbs hooked into his sword belt. He spoke in a carrying voice, not shouting and not excited, but hard and clear.
“I am Edain Aylward Mackenzie, called Aylward the Archer; the totem of my sept is Wolf.”
Then, suddenly punching his fist skyward: “Hail to Artos, High King of Montival. Hail, Artos!
Artos and Montival!

A moment’s surprised silence, then a roar from every throat; to his surprise Sam found himself shouting too:

Artos! Artos!

When silence had fallen again, Edain went on: “So you’d be the High King’s sworn archers?”
“Aye!” someone shouted, and the others took it up.
“Then I’m to command you. For three reasons, each good and sufficient: I can outshoot any of you, I’ve more time in the High King’s fighting tail than any of you . . . and third’s the charm, the High King wishes it so. Any questions?”
Silence, and he went on: “These behind me have been with the High King longer than you, as well. With him through battle and ambush and long hard journeying. That makes them your comrades, and you’ll all be treating each other as such. We’re all going to be like brothers and sisters or I will kick your arse so hard your teeth will march out like Bearkiller pikemen on parade. Is all that clear,
mo seanfhaiseanta bithiúnaigh féin
?”
“Aye!” his very own old-fashioned cutthroats replied.
“Can’t hear you.”
“Aye!”
“Better. Now here’s your first orders. There’s to be a handfasting this night—”
Ignatius looked around the Sacristia of Castle Corbec’s church, the vesting room behind the altar. He smiled a little at the familiar scents of wax candles and the metal and cloth of the cruets, ciborium, chalice, paten, the altar linens, the vessels of the Holy Oils; they were like old friends, greeting him after long absence. Candlelight glittered on the golden thread of the vestments waiting on their T-shaped stands. Then he stood as Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski entered the room.
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
13.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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