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 (64 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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She is so beautiful
, Artos thought.
Enough to make a man ache, and not just in the obvious places.
Not conventionally pretty; her features were bold and a little irregular and her face long—she took after her father in looks, as in her height. But there was a glow to her that went beyond mere youth and health, and her light brown eyes were wells where thoughts moved like golden-scaled fish in the depths. He saw himself reflected in them, and knew she saw herself in his.
And though we have known each other so long, my breath comes fast at the sight of her.
With a cool shock:
The Goddess is here, here and now. So Maiden becomes Mother, and the Son becomes the Lover. We too are part of all that is.
The music died, and they took the steps to the altar. Ignatius smiled at them; Artos almost thought that
he
winked a little too. Then he raised his hands and spoke:
“ ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honorable estate, instituted of God in Paradise . . .’”
The words and gestures went on. At last Ignatius took Artos’ right hand in his own, and Mathilda’s from Sir Nigel’s, and laid them in each other’s. He felt the strong slim calloused fingers of her sword-hand grip his as his smiling stepfather stepped back to join his mother.
“Say after me:
I, Rudi Artos Mackenzie—
” the priest began, and Artos echoed him.
“. . .
and thereunto I plight thee my troth
,” he finished, his strong clear voice filling the church.
Mathilda’s answered it: “
I, Mathilda Christine Arminger, take thee, Rudi Artos Mackenzie, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom at bed and at board, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth.

For a moment Artos knew sickening fear; the whole matter of the rings was suddenly gone from his mind, as if it had stuttered and missed a step. Then Ingolf and Mary each stepped forward with the golden bands on small satin cushions. Ignatius extended his hands over them and raised his voice:

Bless these Rings, O merciful Lord, that those who wear them, that give and receive them, may be ever faithful to one another, remain in Your peace, and live and grow old together in Your love, under their own vine and fig tree, and seeing their children’s children. Amen.

The priest’s voice was strong and well-trained, but for a long moment Artos lost the thread of it, simply looking into her smile. Then she squeezed his hand again, and he heard:
“. . . thereto have given and pledged their troth each to the other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a Ring, and by joining of hands; I pronounce therefore that they be Man and Wife together, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

He took a long deep breath of delight, hearing Ignatius add under his breath:
“Bless you, my children
.”
“Wife,” he said softly to Mathilda.
“Husband,” she replied.
“It’s not a formal part of a Catholic ceremony,” Ignatius said, “but you may kiss the bride.”
He lifted the veil and did. Her lips were soft and sweet, but the arms that went around him were strong. The scent of her mingled with the flowers in her hair and made him dizzy, as if the great stone mass of the church were tilting slowly.
“And there is a time and place for everything, my son!” Ignatius said, with suppressed laughter in his voice.
Mathilda was flushed and laughing herself as she drew away. Mary stepped closer, elegant in Dúnedain formal black and piratical with her eye patch, and handed Mathilda the bouquet.
“Give everyone a chance to get out, so you can throw it, Matti,” she said. Then she smiled. “Sister.”
Mathilda blinked in surprise. “We are now, aren’t we?” she said, delight still bubbling in her voice.
The great doors spread wide, and they walked towards them. Mathilda’s eyes went wide as well, as the pipers of the High King’s Archers sounded off on either side of the portals; the sound was stunning-huge, magnified by the high walls that surrounded the keep of Castle Corbec, and the superb acoustics of the church.
“Edain, I’m going to
skin
you!” Artos muttered.
Then he saw his mother grinning, and knew the Archer hadn’t been alone in it. These weren’t the sweet uilleann instruments usually played at a handfasting either, since nobody had thought to bring those from the Clan’s territory in a time of battle and tumult; they were the
píob mhór
, the great war-pipes, and from the sudden rattling roar beneath the savage drone someone had dragged a Lambeg along as well. The ranks of the High King’s Archers stood without, with their bows raised to make an arch.
At least they’re not playing
“The
Ravens’ Pibroch”
or “
Hecate’s Wolves Their Howl
,” he thought; it was a march, his own mother’s “My Heart Sees Green Hills in the Mist.”
There was no choice but to pace forward to the stately rhythm. Mathilda’s hand tightened on his, and he could see she was fighting not to smile. Then as they crossed the threshold—someone had the minimal tact to wait until they were off the consecrated ground—Mary snatched a besom from a girl behind her and laid it before them with a sweeping gesture.
Oh, well
, Artos thought, and caught Mathilda up in his arms.

Over the broom and into new life!
” his clansfolk shouted, as he stepped over it.
He kissed Mathilda again, and then the Mackenzies stormed forward, cheering. The men among them grabbed him and tossed him up and bore him overhead on their upthrust arms, and the women did likewise for Mathilda. Then they began to dance, two lines curling around each other
deosil
and
tuathal
to the music of pipe and drum, faster and faster until both the newlyweds were tossing and whirling like boats on a stormy sea. At last they stopped, threw both upward with a great shout, and then set them on their feet. The pair staggered together, arms around each other’s shoulders.
“Well, at least they didn’t strip us naked, carry us upstairs and throw us into bed,” Artos said in Mathilda’s ear.
She blushed—exactly that wasn’t uncommon at a Clan wedding—and they straightened as the bagpipes fell silent.
Voices rang out instead, and somewhere a flute, both high and sweet. He recognized his mother’s soprano, still effortless on the higher notes, and then saw his nearest kin standing about her, with his elder half sister Eilir swaying and Signing the lyrics as the others sang:
 
“Fly we on o’er hill and dale
Spruces guard our faery tale
Hemlock branches bless and say
Upon my lovely’s wedding day
Joy on thy fair handfasting day!”
 
Juniper stepped forward and sang:
 
“Tide will roll and bridge stand fast
Eagles watch and breezes pass
Ebb and flow whilst ravens play
Upon my fair son’s wedding day
Joy on thy fair handfasting day!”
 
Then Mary and Eilir took the forward place:
 
“Upon my fair brother’s wedding day
Joy on thy fair handfasting day!”
 
Juniper herself brought him the plate with the fruitcake, though Sandra was beside her.
“Made with my own hands,” the Mackenzie chieftainness said.
“I threw in some currants,” Sandra added. “Really, it’s all right, dear. I checked; this isn’t a pagan rite. Well, no more than Christmas. And it
will
make the Mackenzies happy.”
“I’m not worried,” Mathilda said. “I’m—” She checked and cuffed at her eyes. “I’m almost crying, and I don’t know why.”
Artos pulled the sgian dubh out of his knee-hose and cut the round cake. There was another cheer as he and Mathilda each fed the other a bite. He leaned close in the course of it.
“Only a little longer to wait.”
“Rudi...” she said two hours later.
“Yes, my darling one?”
“I . . . um, could you leave the Sword outside?”
“I can deny you nothing.”
The castellan of Corbec had given up his private quarters in the South Tower with every evidence of willingness at the bridal feast.
Mind you, with Sandra here so would I, in his position!
Those quarters were a suite of rooms just below the machicolations of the tower. Edain and a squad of his King’s Archers were a floor below, and had cheerfully promised to pitch anyone who came up the spiral staircase right back down again, or out an arrow-slit and into the lake. The stairs gave directly onto a semicircular space, and the doors leading to the individual rooms opened off that. Artos drew the Sword—
Shock.
Gentle this time, distant, like a chiming of bells and the scent of mulled wine.
—and thrust it into the floor before the entrance to the sleeping quarters. The surface was granite tiles on concrete beams, but the blade sank in a double handspan and stood quivering.
“I think that will ensure us all the privacy we need,” he said.
“You’re showing off!”
“To be sure. And when better?”
Corbec was at nearly five thousand feet, and the nights were chill. A crackling pine-scented fire was burning in a big tiled hearth in the bedchamber, and it was pleasantly warm, smelling of blossoms and clean linen. There were wildflowers on the tables and headboards and in the arched windows, pale yellow and bright gold, blue and purple and crimson—saxifrage, mountain jasmine and penstemon and more. Artos could sense Mathilda’s nervousness, and he crossed to the table and poured them both a glass of white wine from the bottle that rested in its silver ewer full of snow.

Anamchara
mine, we’ve waited this long, a little more won’t hurt. It’s not as if we had to show a bloody sheet!”
She surprised him by laughing. “Oh, we couldn’t.” At his raised brow: “I’ve been riding astride all my
life
, Rudi! Mom asked the doctor and she said it was all gone by the time I was thirteen.”
He joined in the chuckle. “But you are nervous, my darling. I can tell, you know!”
“I’m—”
She sat down, looked at her hands, spoke in a small voice. “I’m afraid I won’t be any, ummm, any good at this, Rudi. And I really want to be.”
Artos sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders and kissed the sleek brown hair over her ear. “Now, acushla, I’m going to betray one of the Men’s Mysteries to you.”
She made a small inquiring noise, and he went on: “And that mystery is that while for a woman it can be good or bad, well . . . for a man, unless he’s ill or very drunk, it can only be good or better. So let’s start with good, and get better with practice, shall we? Years and years of practice!”
She laughed and punched his shoulder, and suddenly they were kissing . . .
EPILOGUE
 
 
 
E
dain Aylward Mackenzie looked up from where he was about to throw the dice onto the inside of the buckler lying on the floor. There shouldn’t be any noise—the ceiling above this ready-room was tall, and good and thick to boot—but suddenly there was, beyond the subdued buzz of voices and the hoot of the night wind around Castle Corbec’s towers.
“Quiet!” he said
The conversations died instantly. Men and women froze where they were, sitting at the tables or leaning against walls between the racks for spears and bills. Some reached for weapons, and then froze at his upraised hands.
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
10.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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