Read The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change Online

Authors: S. M. Stirling

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The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change (9 page)

BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
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The two Dúnedain gave identical nods. “We can travel three times faster than this bunch,” Mary said.
“There and back again,” Ritva added, despite her sister’s glare.
Rudi signed agreement; a war band traveled at the speed of the slowest. And the Rangers trained hard in just that sort of scouting and endurance trek. He himself could keep up with his half sisters cross-country, but he didn’t know many others who could.
“Go, find out who’s where with what, and get back to me. Hopefully by the time I reach Eriksgarth.” Then he added:
“Hortho le huil vaer, muinthel nín
.

That meant
fair winds speed you on, sister
. He’d never had the time to spare to learn the Rangers’ special tongue, but he had a fair assortment of stock phrases. Ritva and Mary both put their right hands to their hearts.
“Harthon cened le ennas, muindor nín
,” Ritva said solemnly: “I’ll see you there, my brother.”
Mary spoke to Ingolf:
“Unad nuithatha i nîr e-guren nalú aderthad vín.”
When his lips began to move in silent translation, she leaned close and whispered:
“Nothing will stop the weeping of my heart until we are once more together.”
Ritva added a wink—he thought at Hrolf Homersson—and they picked up the skis that leaned against a pillar, put them over their shoulders and left at a tireless springy trot.
Artos took a deep breath and jumped to the top of a great hogs-head full of something heavy.
“Folk of Kalksthorpe,” he called.
His voice wasn’t pitched very loud, but absolute silence fell; he could hear the cold wind hooting around the logs of the walls.
“You’ve agreed to follow me to this war-muster,” he said; his glance went to Thorleif Heidhveigsson.
The man nodded soberly. “I did,” he said.
Kalksthorpe didn’t exactly have a chief, besides Kalk himself; they settled matters by a folkmoot where every adult had a voice, much like a Mackenzie dun. The settlement was small enough for that to work, just, if most were sensible. But the seeress’ son was a leading trader and craftsman, a respected man whose word carried weight. Hers carried even more, and the word of the Gods through her.
“I’m
not going to quarrel with the High One’s opinions about war,” the householder said, confirming Artos’ thought. “Who here is fool enough to do that? He’s the Father of Victories.”
Nobody volunteered to put on the offered shoe; Artos held his grin within himself. He didn’t doubt for a moment the truth of Heidhveig’s vision, but it
was
politically convenient as well, and no mistake.
“Do you all swear to it?” he said.
A moment’s silence, then a crashing shout of agreement from the two-hundred-odd fighters; most of them hammered weapons on shields, a hollow booming thunder that turned into a roar as it echoed back from the rafters.
“We swear!”
“Then hear my word! You will obey my orders; a war band without a leader is like a ship at sea without a captain, food for the carrion eaters. And you will take those orders through those I appoint as if from my own mouth. Doubtless there are many men of mark among you, but we’ve no time for me to make their acquaintance. Frederick Thurston here is my chief of staff—”
The dark young man nodded. He had the specialist training for it . . . and Fred had come to follow the same Gods as the Norrheimers, over the past year or so; the Lord of the Ravens had personally claimed him as a follower through Heidhveig. That would give him added authority.
“—and Ingolf the Wanderer is my second-in-command.”
Ingolf crossed his muscled arms on his chest over his mail hauberk. Even to someone who didn’t know him, he looked to be exactly what he was; a fighting-man vastly experienced, shrewd, and dangerous as an angry bear when the steel came out. And unlike Fred Thurston he was accustomed to making do with scratch bands of amateur warriors.
“Princess Mathilda is in charge of our logistics . . . our supplies; she will set rations and give all orders concerning forage and shares. Virginia Thurston is horse-mistress.”
The rancher’s daughter nodded. She also snorted a little; to her way of thinking nobody here knew
anything
about the beasts.
“Father Ignatius is master of the making of camps, the setting of watches, and all matters concerning health and order. Edain Aylward is master-bowman and chief of archers.
Don’t
waste my time quarreling with any one of them. Understood?”
Sober nods. These Norrheimers were more stiff-necked than his clansmen at home, and almost as fond of argument and dispute, but also a bit more practical. Vastly more so than, say, nobles of the Association.
“Then let’s be off.
March!”
 
 
He paused a half hour later, to look back over the cleared snow-covered fields to Kalksthorpe, squinting against the sun before they entered the shade of the low pines.
“What’s wrong, Rudi?” Mathilda said, snowplowing her skis to a stop beside him and thrusting down her poles.
He frowned and rubbed his left hand across his face. The right stroked the pommel of the Sword; he did that often now, a habit that felt ancient already.
“I . . . I don’t know,” he said. “It’s . . . as if I’m
concentrating
all the time.”
“You’re a King and running a war, Rudi!”
He shook his head. “It’s not just that. It’s like I’m concentrating
all the time
, sure. As if it stops only when I make it, instead of the other way around. Just now I found myself looking through the list of candidates for Chancellor of the Realm in Montival! Which is not only odd, but premature in the extreme!”
She smiled at him. “Oh, that’s easy. Father Ignatius.”
She’s right
, he thought; something
clicked
in his mind in acknowledgment as she went on:
“Though you may have to hit him alongside the ear and throw the chain of office over his head while he’s dazed.”
Artos chuckled.
He does take that
humility
business rather seriously
, he thought.
Aloud: “And I feel like a
pipe
a lot of the time. Like a pipe with something rushing through it, and being worn away by it.”
Her thick brows frowned in concern. “What does that really mean?” she said.
“I don’t know!”
He made a gesture of apology as she flinched a little; he seldom raised his voice. Then he looked down at his clenched fist and forced the long sinewy fingers to unfold.
“You know that engine they have down in Corvallis, at the university? The one that can be set to do all sorts of calculations?”
She nodded, and he knew they were thinking of the same thing. The great room, and the cogs and gearwheels and cams, moving smoothly as the hydraulic turbine whined, and the white-coated attendants like priests of a mystery, or a glimpse of the ancient world.
“The Analytical Engine.”
His mouth quirked a little bitterly. “Thinking about what the Sword does . . . I feel like a
dog
in that room with the Engine, looking at it and trying to understand it, with my nose going around in circles and my ears drooping!”
Forlornly, she tried a joke: “I didn’t understand it anyway, Rudi!”
He sighed and rubbed his forehead again. “And sometimes I can feel things
happening
through the Sword. As if it was carving a path from . . . somewhere . . . to somewhere . . . to do . . . something. But I haven’t the least idea what.”
 
COUNTY OF THE EASTERMARK
BARONY OF DAYTON
PORTLAND PROTECTIVE ASSOCIATION
HIGH KINGDOM OF MONTIVAL
(FORMERLY SOUTHEASTERN WASHINGTON STATE)
MARCH 16, CHANGE YEAR 24/2023 AD
 
Eilir ghosted through the chill darkness to where her mother waited beneath a big lodgepole pine. She slid the knife back into the sheath along her boot after she’d wiped it, and sank down beside the older woman. This was as far as they could get towards the encamped enemy convoy, even with Dúnedain doing the Sentry Removal. The United States of Boise’s army was extremely disciplined and tended to operate by the book; the problem was that they used a
good
book, one that had definite things to say about putting out a wide net and checking on it often. The raiding party had a hundred Mackenzie archers along too, and
they
wouldn’t have gotten this far without open fighting, although they hid and skulked quite adequately once the way had been opened for them. There were five times that number of enemy troops camped down on the roadway.
Ready?
she said in Sign.
Juniper Mackenzie’s face was in shadow, hidden by the fold of her plaid that she’d pulled over it like a hood. She was on one knee, with her rowan staff leaned across her kilted thigh. The head was the Triple Moon in silver, waxing and full and waning, two outward-pointing crescents flanking a circle.
Readier than I wish,
Juniper signed.
The moon was down, and starlight hid her face. Eilir Mackenzie hadn’t seen her mother in some time and had been a little shocked at how much she’d aged; the once molten-copper hair was faded and heavily streaked with gray now. Whatever it was that had happened in that ceremony back at Imbolc—that voice tolling in her head and the flash of light like nothing since the Change—it hadn’t made her any happier.
Be careful!
Eilir signed, laying a hand on her shoulder.
If they see you too soon—
Juniper’s hand covered Eilir’s for an instant.
I’m the one who taught
you
how to move through the woods, my girl!
Eilir’s eyes prickled. For a moment she was struck by an almost unbearable memory, of herself as a little girl with her mother in the woods on the mountainside above Dun Juniper . . . or what had just been their house in the hills then. Her mother’s hands parting the grass ahead of them, and the fox cubs tumbling over each other in the little clearing ahead, drunk with play and prancing in the moonlight. The way she’d taught her daughter to move quietly, even when Eilir couldn’t hear noise herself.
Now Juniper took a deep breath and stood. Then she walked towards the enemy camp in the valley below with her rowan staff moving in precise scribing motions in her right hand, glittering and swooping. The silver head glinted in the faint starlight, but no more brightly than the hoarfrost that covered rock and brush and pine tree. The snow-clad tips of the Blue Mountains were the merest hint behind; not far away a waterfall brawled down a rocky slope, heavy with spring melt. Most of the men ahead were in their little tents, or shapeless mounds of sleeping bag under the wagons. Breath puffed white where the draught horses dozed, their bridles tied to picket ropes, each strung between two trees.
Eilir Mackenzie’s breath caught as she saw a sentry rise and heft his long iron-shod javelin, the big oval shield marked with Boise’s eagle and crossed thunderbolts up under his eyes. Things were moving in the air about her mother, things the eyes couldn’t see but the mind sensed as a tangle of something like lines of bright and dark.
Uh-oh. Mom’s in Spooky Mode. Heavier than I’ve ever seen.
Eilir made the Horns with her left hand. She couldn’t hear what her mother said—sang, rather, soft and eerie and gentle. She’d been deaf since birth, but she knew the words. The little hairs along her spine tried to rise, and her belly wanted to cringe beneath the armor and padding where it rested on the dirt. The soil beneath her seemed to
hum
, somehow.
 
“Sleep of the Earth of the land of Faerie
Deep is the lore of Cnuic na Sidhe—”
 
The sentry’s challenge came slow, and then slower, softer, his lips barely moving. He swayed as she let the staff stop and blew across her bunched fingertips into his face. The Boisean soldier’s face went from hard suspicion into a tremble; then he wept, sitting down and burying his face in his hands as sobs shook his armored shoulders.
“Hail be to they of the Forest Gentry
All dark spirits, help us free—”
Another sentry came running; he seemed to stumble, to draw into himself. Then he halted for a moment, set the butt of his spear against the earth and the point to his throat. Juniper moved, her staff knocking the javelin aside so that it merely gave him a nasty cut on the face; the rank salt-and-iron scent of blood filled the air, and it seemed to smoke with Power. He lay facedown, hands and feet making vague gestures. Juniper paced between the banked fires with her left hand going to her belt and then out in a sowing motion as the rowan wood of her staff passed over the sleepers:
 
“White is the power of the state of dreaming
Light is the song to make one still
Dark is the power of Death’s redeeming
Mark but that one word can kill—”
BOOK: The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change
7.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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