The High King’s Host
Horse Heaven Hills
(Formerly south-central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
November 1st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
Rudi Mackenzie looked up from the folding map table.
“Ah, most excellent!” he said, as the Lord of the Dúnedain dismounted and approached. “Hîr Alleyne, mae govannen. I chyth ‘wîn dregathar o gwen sui fuin drega od Anor.”
“Well-met, Your Majesty; and indeed our foes shall flee.” A pause. “Your command of the Noble Tongue has improved.”
Rudi smiled; he hadn’t spoken more than a few words or rote phrases until he reached Nantucket and stepped outside the world of common day, to return with the Sword of the Lady. He tapped the hilt:
“A benefit of this, I fear, and not my own merit.”
It gives me command of tongues… including ones that don’t exist, or didn’t until fairly recently when an Englishman invented them. Including, and here oddness becomes very odd indeed, both words and grammar that weren’t in what poor Astrid called her Histories, or indeed in any of the man’s writings, but which fit the rest perfectly. Which is a puzzlement I don’t intend to think about; it makes my head hurt.
There was a Dúnedain bard about, scribbling down the added vocabulary whenever she had a chance. She had a list, and she’d give him paragraphs and ask him to translate them and take notes in shorthand. Given what had happened to Astrid, and how it had aided the kingdom’s cause, he hadn’t had the heart to tell her to take herself off. Among other projects, the Lady of the Rangers had been working on a translation of the Histories… into elvish.
The handsome man with the haunted eyes and the first silver in his blond hair bowed with hand on heart in the Ranger manner, bending the knee as well. So did the others—though his twin half-sisters gave him antiphonal winks as they did.
They had a prisoner with them, a Boisean officer in the rough olive-green uniform that host wore under their armor, and he remained proudly standing. One sleeve had been ripped off, and ointment glistened on the skin there; doubtless there was a story behind it. He wasn’t bound, but two of the Rangers stood near with their long knives bare in their hands.
Something clicked in his mind, as if working some mathematical magic on the shape of face and eyes and hands. That’s close kin to the prisoner who went over to Fred last month.
He didn’t know if it was his own wit working there, or the Sword of the Lady working through him.
Sure, and I should stop wondering that. There’s no way to tell, and often enough it just seems to exaggerate the way I’ve always thought, like attaching a water-mill to a saw to give it added power. It’s obsessive I could become about it, to my own detriment.
The prisoner’s stiff refusal to bend showed courage, particularly if he believed any of the propaganda Martin Thurston was putting about concerning what a feudal tyrant Artos the First was. In what the Lady Regent Sandra considered one of life’s little ironies, much of the black tale was lifted from the actual deeds of Norman Arminger… who would be Rudi’s father-in-law, except that he was long dead.
And good riddance; I wouldn’t have liked to be in his skin, when he had to make accounting to the Guardians of the Western Gate. Even such a man as he probably deceived himself about his deeds. But there’s no lying before Them.
Alleyne stepped up to the portable map table and opened his report, reading and pointing things out at the same time, and one of the attendants put little carved hardwood chip markers on it and moved them around with something like a billiard-cue rake. It was now light enough to see the map well; the smell of the just-extinguished lamps hung in the air with a musky wax for a moment, and someone was cooking porridge not far away. Even a very new kingdom could be well-organized, if you had a competent Chancellor and other helpers.
The scents were soon lost in the wind that blew over the vast rolling landscape of the Horse Heaven Hills, even the stronger stink of the troops not far away. He felt he could see forever from here, and you really could see very far indeed. That air was cold and clean, and birds rode it high above—crows, buzzards, ravens, hawks, even eagles. They’d had time since the Change to learn it meant a feast spread for them when men gathered in such numbers; it wasn’t an accident that one of the Dark Mother’s names wasCrow Goddess.
He was in full plate now save for the helm and gauntlets, the marvelous alloy-steel suit Mathilda’s mother had had made as a wedding gift. It felt indecently light and easy compared to some gear he’d worn. Only a monarch could have commissioned it, and not a minor monarch at that, given the difficulty of working those refractory metals under modern conditions; most plate was made from ordinary salvaged sheet-steel. Although his still performed armor’s twofold miracle, making you too hot in warm weather and obstinately refusing to protect you from even the slightest chill.
The little markers on the map seemed to glow with significance as he watched, trembling with possibilities as his right palm rested on the moon-crystal pommel of the Sword of the Lady. He was used to the way it affected him now, the way it made him more of the man he had to be to do the job the Powers had handed him.
But I’m still not altogether certain I much like that man, he thought absently. I’ll just have to try not to be him so much I dislike myself, which would be a grievous fate given that I’m stuck in here with… me. To be sure.
Beside him Frederick Thurston grunted thoughtfully, his hard brown young face calm as he nodded.
“I’d bet they’re winding up to hit us here on our right, close to the river, but it’s nice to have confirmation. Well, that removes some of the uncertainty from the next twenty-four hours,” he said.
Rudi knew what he meant. Still…
“We know what’s going to happen in the next day, Fred,” he said. “A great many who’d rather be home tending their crops or their workshops are going to die, more still will be crippled, children will keep asking when their parents are coming home until they’re old enough to understand an ugly truth, and many a household will know want and hardship for years to come. Everything else is… arra, how did they put in the old days… damage control. The only consolation is that this isn’t just about which pair of buttocks will be gracing which chair, so to say.”
Eric of the Bearkillers traced the huge blunt arrow that was heading westward on the map with his metal left hand. This one was a utilitarian slotted trowel-shaped thing that fitted into the round shield across the big fair man’s back and would do as a weapon in a pinch, rather than the dramatic one that gave him his nickname of Steel-Fist. The Boiseans were coming in just a little north of the bluffs along the Columbia, the closest ground that would give them room to deploy.
“That’s not particularly subtle as an opening move,” he said, the plates of his armor clinking a little as he moved to stare meditatively eastward.
Rudi nodded. “They outnumber us five to four and they need a swift victory. Otherwise winter will kill them if they stay and force them to fall back on their bases of supply if they don’t; and the League of Des Moines is marching up their backsides, the which is a most uncomfortable sensation. Winter will slow the war over there in the east, too, but not altogether until they hit the mountain passes. If your troops are willing to suffer and you can feed them you can move on the high plains in winter; it’s the one time of year when footmen have the advantage, since there’s not much grazing. Come spring the CUT must be able to shift troops east to meet the Midwesterners. Hence they must come to us and break us the now, or lose the war over the next year. There’s no more time for slow maneuver. And if they can knock us away from the river, they win this round.”
He turned his head to the messengers. “Observation balloons up now; this will be the battlefield. Gliders concentrate on denying the enemy air reconnaissance.”
They scribbled and dashed away; heliographs began to blink. Rudi went on:
The McClintock was a big man, with a two-handed sword slung across his back, a claidheamh mòr with a four-foot blade and a cross-and-clamshell guard. He looked rather like John Hordle in seven-eighths scale, save for the bushy brown beard that fell down his chest over the steel and leather nearly to the big dragon-shaped brass buckle of his belt, and the rather baggy look of the Great Kilt he wore.
That garment wasn’t much like the neat, tailored pleats of the Mackenzie version; the skirt and plaid were all one five-yard-long stretch of woolen cloth held by waist-belt and shoulder-brooch, in a tartan of dark brown-red, blue and hunter green. He straightened a little when the call came.
“Aye, Yer Majesty?” the clan chief asked.
The McClintocks spoke in what they thought was a Scottish fashion, one that Rudi’s mother’s fine ear found even more excruciatingly artificial than the imitation of her Irish brogue which had settled in among Mackenzies back at the beginning. The McClintocks had formed in the forested hills and narrow beautiful valleys between Ashland and Cave Junction, down south of the Willamette, in the post-Change period; partly with Mackenzie assistance, and partly in imitation of them as a model that had worked in the wild and terrible years—the latter something they fiercely denied, of course.
Their Chief’s father actually had been named McClintock, at least, and he’d been a man of great strength of will and vision… and probably what the old world would have called certifiably insane, either before the Change or driven so by the terrors and horrors he’d seen. There had been many such in those years, and the mentally damaged were still common in the older generation. Rudi had always suspected, and since he first touched the Sword he knew, that the more successful of those founders had done more than dream and make dreams real. They’d tapped into patterns more ancient and strong than anything the old world had suspected, a subtle force pushing and shaping through individuals attuned to it.
So the Powers have their jests with us. Did our ancestors create the myths that now walk naked among us in the light of common day? Or do they but return, from an age of legends much like this new world of ours, an age whose recollection echoed down many a thousand year? For walk the world again they do, now, most certainly and uncomfortably real whether we believe in them or not. More real than the world or we its dwellers, sometimes, you might be saying. So heavy with reality they threaten to tear through the gossamer fabric of our lives.
“I want your clan’s warriors to hold this area—” he pointed south with one hand, and traced the scrambled contour lines on the map with the other “—between the riverbank and the plateau up here, as we discussed. Now we know it’ll be this stretch in particular and though it’s rough as a cob we can’t let them move through it. Sure as the Lady’s love they’ll put troops in there; light infantry, at a guess. Dispose your clansfolk as you will, so long as you don’t let them through.”
“Aye. We shall be th’ strong castle ye dinnae hae.”
Rudi nodded; the man was no fool. “The riverboats will support you with their catapults and flame-throwers, but they can only control the strip right along the water. Work east and come in on their flank if you can, but hold them you must.”
The hairy man nodded. “It’s gae bare for oor taste, but steep and rough enough tae suit. We canna complain, and we’ll hold it waur there’s bluid in oor veins.”
Chief Collin wasn’t crazed; often uncomfortably shrewd, in fact, but he had to use what his father’s obsessions had left. Things had jelled in the generation since the Change and become less fluid; back then there had been plenty of survivors eager to follow anything that looked as if it would keep them alive and their children fed. More than ready to dive headlong into what they thought was the past, since the present had betrayed them, though from what he’d heard and read what they made usually had only a passing resemblance to anything in real history.
Real being a term much in dispute in these times, of course.
Mackenzies had been known to refer to the McClintocks as the Clan Wannabee. Epithets in the other direction included Clan Little Wussy Pleated Skirt and went downhill from there. There were probably about as many of them as there were Mackenzies, but nobody knew for sure; they didn’t go in for census-taking.
But they’ve certainly sent everyone who could walk and do anything useful in a fight.
A little west the grassy plain was covered in them, in a dense mat of tartan and bonnets and plaids, mail shirts and boiled leather and hide vests sewn with pre-Change washers and crude noseguarded helms, all spread down a long slope. Banners rose above them, and a forest of steel; spears, gruesome-looking hooked Lochaber axes with broad blades two feet long, a fair number of yew bows, two-handed swords worn across the back in rawhide slings as well as the more common basket-hilted broadswords, round nail-studded shields with spikes in the center. The two men walked over to a jutting knee of hillside above them and Chief Collin drew his great blade with a flourish.
“Clan McClintock will hae the honor of holding the right wing! Och aye, there we wa’ stand, and there die maun we must—for our homes an’ oor bairns and this tall lad here! Hurrah for bonny Ard Rí Artos! Artos and Montival!”
“Artos and Montival!” Then a rhythmic pulse of: “Ar-tos! Ar-tos! Ar-tos!”
Rudi raised a hand, and the roaring cheer sank away. When he spoke it was in the Scots variety of Gaelic; he’d grown up familiar with the closely related Erse dialect, and the Sword made him preternaturally ready with tongues used anywhere in Montival. He shouted:
“Clamar theid na h-uaislean cruinn
Gun Cailean ‘bhith san airmh!”
Collin McClintock grinned widely in his burst mattress of a beard. That translated roughly as:
How can there be a gathering of warrior chiefs without Collin?
It was part of an ancient poem about the McClintocks, too, and before the Change Collin’s father had owned or accumulated quite a set of tomes on the subject of the Highland clans. From which he and his followers had afterward pulled a dreadful muddled mulligatawny of ideas from history, legend, myth and bad romantic fiction all simmered to taste with a curry-sauce of things wholly their own.
They no more spoke the tongue in their daily lives than Mackenzies did Erse, but enough of his followers knew the phrase for an enormous roaring cheer to bellow out amid brandished weapons. McClintocks didn’t paint their faces for war like his own clan… but a lot of them tattooed instead, everything from woad-blue to screaming scarlet. Rudi suspected they’d have frightened the victors of Cath Raon Ruairidh into fits, or possibly hoots of slack-jawed laughter.
Chief Colin leapt down among them, and dozens of sub-chiefs crowded around. A brace of his armored gallowglass bodyguards heaved him up on a shield as he harangued his followers with sword-flourishes for punctuation. They surged about him a tossing sea of weapons and contorted faces and banshee shrieks.
“By the Threefold Morrigú and the Dagda’s Club, will you look at that lot of prancing monkeys?” the commander of the High King’s Archers said under his breath. “They’ll be setting up a Wicker Man next. With real people in it. Where do they think they’re livin’, the boothie next the Dá Derga’s hostel?”
He nodded at one woman with bars of red and orange across her face and bones through the knot of black hair on the top of her head, who was doing an improvised war-dance with a javelin each hand and more in a hide bucket across her back.
“Poetry in motion, I don’t think,” he concluded.
Rudi grinned to himself as he walked back to the map table.
“I happen to know that their Chief’s sire forbade the ancient sacrifices as gessa to their whole clan. Admittedly it’s without doubt or question a very good thing that he did just that before they got completely out of hand, so. Forbye they have their uses, mo bhearthár.”
“Breaking heads and bottles and windows in a tavern, would that be, Chief?” Edain Aylward Mackenzie muttered, his square stubborn young face frowning. “Or gettin’ more friendly with their sheep than is right altogether, or proper?”
“Well, my mother did say once they’d all be fanatical Jacobites, if only there were any Stuarts about the place for them to be loyal to, the which there are not. As it is, I’ll have to do.”
Edain and the archers took stance behind him as he rejoined the party around the map table, their strung longbows in their arms; compared to the southerners their green brigandines and sallet helms and neatly uniform kilts and plaids looked very disciplined indeed. Eric Larsson was looking dubious himself as the hairy mass of McClintocks went pouring off south at a swinging trot. The massed rumble of their feet made a counterpoint to the keening wail of their pipers, which Rudi had to admit were just as good as any the Mackenzies produced. Or they would have been, if only they’d all been playing the same tune, which they manifestly were not.
“They’re reliable?” Eric said.
“Down among the rocks and gullies?” Rudi said. “Most certainly. To stand against cavalry in open country, no; to fight in ranks against a pike-hedge of heavy foot, no, not that either unless they carried all before them in the first charge. But for this? They were born for it.”
Everyone around the table nodded; a few just looked relieved to get the wild men out of the way and doing something useful where they didn’t have to look at them. Feeding the McClintocks and keeping them from starting epidemics with lax hygiene had been a continuous trial. They were battle-hardy enough, experienced from constant skirmishing with the bandits and the remnants of the cannibal bands down towards the old California border and sometimes with each other. And it wasn’t that they didn’t wash, but they also lived widely scattered in the forests and dells and by the hunt about as much as from their flocks and fields. Gathering together in numbers was something they simply weren’t used to, and they’d lost the necessary habits. Things that were tolerable in small doses were lethal when you crammed tens of thousands into a limited space.
“Eric,” Rudi went on. “Lady Signe.”
They were fraternal twins, tall and fair and in their early forties, and they ran the Bearkillers as war-leader and head of state, more or less—the post of Bear Lord had been vacant since Mike Havel died at the end of the War of the Eye, fifteen years and a bit previously. Signe had never liked Rudi overmutch… but they respected each other, and he did like her son and heir Mike Jr. Right now they were both in browned-steel armor, suits of plate that differed only in detail from Association styles, with the snarling crimson bear’s-head of the Outfit on their chests.
Mike was standing in the rear as befitted a junior, and in mail and arm-guards because he was still growing, but he had the mark of the A-List between his yellow brows, the Bearkiller elite, granted for his deeds south of the Columbia when the enemy invaded the lands of the CORA—the Central Oregon Rancher’s Association. That land had been overrun, but the dwellers and the Clan and the Bearkillers had charged a stiff entry-fee and guerillas were still collecting rent. Rudi went on:
“They’ll try to push you away from the river. The other thing they’ll try to do is tie up our reserves here. Take us by the throat with their left hand, so to speak, so they’ll be free to punch with their right.”
Eric grunted again, looking at the map. “So you’ll want us to hold without reinforcements.”
Rudi nodded. “It’s sorry I am, but that’s so. They’ve more light horse than we do by a wide margin, and out on the north where there’s room to move that will be crucial. I must have the men there to deal with that. Time… you have to buy me time. Remember, we win if we don’t lose. They lose if they don’t win.”
“Point taken.” Thoughtfully: “I’ll put Arvid Sarian and his boys in to form our junction with the McClintocks. His lot are hairy enough too.”
“And I’ll leave the Degania Dalet contingent behind you. Use them if your hairy men fail, or at need elsewhere; but that’s all I can spare.”
“Good. They’re reliable. And we’ll need them before the day’s out.”
Signe traced the twisting south-to-north line and the blocks marking the patched-together coalition that was the host of the High King of Montival.
“And the Protectorate’s knights?” she said, tapping the figures for the reserve behind the line.
“I’m going to shift some of the men-at-arms about and take a few whacks to keep the enemy guessing where the main weight will fall, draw as many of their light horse as I can on to the Clan’s archers—they’re still not used to foot soldiers who can outshoot them—and then concentrate the Association’s lancers for the decisive point. I’ll want the most of them fresh for that, too, where the place is right and the time ripened.”
“For the Schwerpunkt,” Eric said.
Rudi nodded; he’d learned that term from Sir Nigel Loring, his stepfather, who’d been a trained officer well before the Change over in Britain, where he’d attended an ancient warrior’s school called Sandhurst. It summed the concept up more economically than point of main effort, which was the alternative.
“I’d be happier if I knew where the Sword of the Prophet was, for that would be the target I’d prefer,” he said.
That was the elite force of the Church Universal and Triumphant, better than eight thousand men according to the latest estimates, superbly trained from their earliest years and fanatically dedicated. The others glanced at the Sword of the Lady. Rudi shook his head.
“Sethaz is here. He can’t see me or know my mind… or I him, nor his. Not beyond the usual way of deduction from a man’s deeds. So it’s mortal minds and eyes and swords that will settle things, and all the better for it.”
He turned to Frederick Thurston. “And you, Fred—here.”
His finger stabbed down on the map. Fred winced. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to…”
“Fight your countrymen, yes. That’s precisely the point. I think things have come ripe right now in that regard as well.”
Fred rubbed his shaven chin. His crested helmet was under one arm, and he looked quite dashing in the hoop-armor and scarlet cloak, with the loose black curls of his hair moving slightly in the breeze.
“I won’t be able to talk anyone into actually switching sides in the middle of a fight,” he warned. “We don’t think that way in Boise. Those who fight are going to give it everything they can.”
Rudi grinned. “I know. But just not fighting at all… eh, maybe that’s possible?”
Fred brightened. “A sit-down strike? Now, that might be possible, you’re right. As long as all they see in front of them is their own people. We know a lot of them are very, very unhappy about the situation. If they don’t get started, they won’t have to stop.”
He looked at the prisoner the Dúnedain had brought. “Centurion Woburn?”
The man nodded. “Centurion David Woburn, Sixteenth Battalion, AE12774,” he rattled off, conspicuously not coming to attention or saluting, and the battalion number was on his gear in any case.
“And you’re a man caught between two fires,” Frederick Thurston smiled grimly. “Either my brother is lying, or I am. I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I’ve someone here you should meet, though,” he said.
Then slightly louder: “Captain Woburn! Front and center!”
Rudi cut in as a man pushed through from the rear where he’d been standing with Fred’s staff and subordinates:
“Just to make one thing clear, Centurion Woburn; if you chose, you can sit out this war as a prisoner in safety and comfort. And when we’ve won, you can go home free as a bird and live just as you please and tend to your crops and cattle; I understand you’ve a wife and children back home on the Camas Prairie. If we were to lose, however…”
The prisoner winced; he had to have some notion of what his father had been doing in clandestine opposition to Martin’s regime, and it would get back that his brother had openly gone over to Frederick. Martin Thurston had never been the type to tolerate waverers, and since he’d met the Prophet eighteen months ago he’d become utterly merciless.
Rudi’s nod was not without sympathy, but not overflowing with it either; too much rode on this war to be excessively tender of any one man’s feelings.
That’s the problem with punishing any sign of wavering harshly, he thought. Once a man or his kin have wavered at all, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound and he must see your head nailed over the door of his hall, because neither he nor his can be safe while you live and have power. Those who despise mercy are as much fools as those who can’t withhold it at need. More, for mercy can be a weapon as real as a war-hammer to the head.
A man came forward and saluted Frederick, with the same lean, brown-haired, high-cheeked look as the prisoner, tanned and weathered like any outdoorsman but no more than a few years past twenty. He was in Boise light-cavalry gear, mail shirt and Fritz helmet under his arm, a curved saber at his belt and quiver over his back.
“Sir?” he said to Frederick.
Then he saw who was standing near. “Dave! Christ, they caught you too!” he blurted to his elder brother.
“Looks like you landed on your feet, Jack.”
“It was a God-damned stroke of luck, is what it was,” Jack said; then he looked over at the Dúnedain party. “I see you met Mary Vogeler. She and her husband… now there’s a man who knows his cavalry work!… and a bunch of wild Indians and Baron Tucannon and his menie mouse-trapped my command. Baited it with a flock of sheep, of all things.”
The brothers stood awkwardly for a moment, then embraced even more clumsily and stood back, looking at each other more carefully. Dave went on in a more normal tone:
“Dangled sheep in front of you, hey? What’s the difference between a cavalryman and an ordinary sheep-stealing rustler?”
His brother grinned as he completed the joke: “Same as the difference between bandits and tax-collectors: official permission. Yeah, it was dumb, even if the logistics were shit and we were hungry. But it got us… me… where we could find out for sure what’s really going on.”
His face went bleak. “I lost some good men. But not as many as staying in the campaign would have, and… We need to talk, Dave. I’ve talked to Fred’s mother and sisters… and to Juliet.”
“The President’s wife?”
“Martin Thurston’s wife. After she and the… Fred’s mother came and gave us a talk nine-tenths of my men came over in a body. And the rest were mostly just sick of the whole thing and wanted to sit it out somewhere nobody was sending arrows and roundshot their way. We really need to talk.”
Jack looked at his commander, who nodded and jerked his head slightly aside. They drew off together. Rudi nodded to the younger Thurston himself.
“Sure, and that was well done, Fred. You’re learning. Not least when to speak and when to leave it to others.”
“Got the basics from Dad and the details from you, Rudi,” Frederick Thurston said as he smiled whitely, but it was a slightly grim expression for all that. “It’s like a snowball running downhill in winter now. And every one I talk over…”
“…is one we don’t have to kill. That’s what war is about, sure and it is, for those who don’t love it because it’s the most rapid and efficient way of producing a great whacking heap of corpses. It’s a way of getting people to do what you want, and not the most economical when there’s an alternative.”
“And every one we talk around is another who can fight the Prophet’s men later. We’re not going to talk many of them around.”
“Arra, I fear you have the right of that, not until we’ve hit them hard enough to break the hold he has on their hearts. Though I have my hopes for the long run.”
Dave Woburn must have been thinking hard for some time; the conversation was brief. He clapped his brother on the shoulder and strode briskly over to Fred.
“Sir, Centurion Woburn reporting for duty,” he said, coming to attention and saluting.
“Right,” Fred said with a nod, returning the gesture. “First thing, let’s shed the pseudo-Roman crap; you’re a major. My Dad drew on that stuff because it was useful, not because he was some obsessive with a man-crush on Julius Caesar.”
Unlike Fred’s elder brother, Rudi thought, silent.
“Next, I’m operating under the High King’s orders here. You do understand that?”
The young officer’s face grew a little grimmer. “Yes, sir, General Thurston.”
“Good. We’re going to have a referendum on joining the High Kingdom after the war… right after the war, not ‘when circumstances permit’, which is another way of saying ‘Fifth of Never’.”
Woburn’s eyes flicked to Rudi. He nodded, his hand on the hilt of the Sword.
“That has my public oath,” he said, meeting the blue eyes of the rancher’s son. “I’m confident the result will be yes, which would be best for the peace and prosperity of all Montival; but I’ll abide the result, come what may. I’ve no desire to bring any land or folk into the High Kingdom against their wish and will. Save for the CUT territories, and that’s a matter of common sense and necessity. Just for your information, what’s left of Deseret wants to join us, as well.”
“I’ve never heard that your word isn’t good,” Woburn said after a moment. Then, after another pause: “Your Majesty.”
Rudi smiled, a little bleakly. “And you may have heard that no man can deceive me with effect while I hold the Sword of the Lady. Which, by the Lady and the Hornéd Lord who is Her consort, is nothing less than the truth. If you find that alarming… well, so do I. Not that either of our opinions matters a great deal.”
Woburn swallowed. “I wasn’t planning on lying, Your Majesty.”
“No, you weren’t. I know.”
And for me falsehood now feels like… very much like biting down on a piece of metal foil with your back teeth. Or a smell. I was always fairly good at reading men’s faces, but no more than that. Now it’s like a banner waving in the wind, if I concentrate. Lord and Lady witness, when this war is over I will hang the Sword on the wall and take it down only at direst need, making a sacrifice of Power to Justice, as Jason did of Medusa’s head. Too much truth can destroy you, or destroy your capacity to live among men as one of the human-kind.
“Good man,” Fred said to the elder Woburn brother. “But first we have to win the war. Which means you’re going to debrief, Major, and do so fully.”
He moved over to the map table, put his hand on the markers for the Boisean forces, and rearranged several.
“You had it mostly right. Here’s the order of battle as far as I know it, and how the brigades are going to deploy—”
Rudi’s eyes went north and east. The battle would be starting by now, the fringes of two vast hosts intent on violence meeting and clashing where they met, and battle was chaos where a slipped horseshoe or a man blinking as sunlight struck his eyes could change the fate of kingdoms. But he could feel factors shifting now, shifting a little in his favor.
Favor bought with blood, he thought. So, Ard Rí, let’s be about the work of the day.
He signed, and the attendants put away the markers and packed up the map table. Before they left he took Alleyne Loring aside for a moment.
“Lord Alleyne,” he said in Edhellen. “Rescuing Fred’s mother and sisters was a worthy deed, and it’s a help to us their testimony has been. But rescuing Juliet Thurston, and the manner in which it was done… that’s helped us more still, even though it was no part of your plan in the beginning.”
“Plans don’t survive contact with the enemy.”
“Call it a lucky chance, then, amid so much ill-luck.”
“If chance you call it,” Alleyne said, with the ghost of a smile.
Rudi nodded. “Not because Juliet’s beloved as they are, but because being who and what she is her word carries extra weight about Martin Thurston’s doings, and because his trying to kill her to silence her doubles that credibility, the which too many saw to hush up. He—”
He inclined his head to indicate where Dave Woburn was being introduced to his new comrades, then put a hand on the older man’s shoulder for a moment.
“—is not the first fighting-man who’s been brought to our side from Boise by the tale of it, and I’m thinkin’ he won’t be the last either, in this war. The battle today mayturn on that, and with it our homes and families; and for a certainty, there will be many on our side walking the ridge of the world come sundown who’d be lying stark and dead save for what you and your lady did that day. I won’t presume to tell you how much comfort to take from that, but for what it’s worth, there it is.”
Alleyne took a long breath. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said. “Astrid… Astrid knew what she was doing, and why. And I knew what might happen, every time we went on an operation together.”
He hesitated. “When she… her last words…”
“My sister told me,” Rudi said. “Like silver glass… green shores… the gulls… a white tower… home, home, at last…”
The older man swallowed painfully. “I always thought… it was a pardonable eccentricity? The, ah, interpretation of the Histories. It gave people comfort and meaning in their lives, and so I went along with it. But…”
Then he shook his head. “No. That’s being too gentle. I thought it was a functional madness. It didn’t interfere with the rest of our lives, and it did no harm… did good, rather. People need stories to live by, and why not those? Something like the Rangers was essential, Astrid had already set the… the process in motion, it was too late to use a different set of myths. And the Histories were no more fictional than the Bible, allowing for the difference in age. But…”
Rudi looked him in the eye. “Now you’re wondering if there could really be anything to it,” he said.
A nod, and Rudi went on: “My friend, after Nantucket, I think there actually may be something to it; to that, and to many another vision folk have had; to the Bible of the Christians, for that matter, as well.”
“All at once?”
Rudi shrugged ruefully: “Why would you expect to understand all of a God’s mind, save that part of themselves they make apparent to us? Any more than a dog can understand a man… though he understands the food, and the warm spot by the fire, and the hand of love upon the head, and the joy of a day’s hunt together.”
“Not a flattering comparison.”
“Now with that I don’t agree; there are few men so good as a good dog, for such will neither lie nor will they break faith. And I’ve always believed we pass from here to a place of rest and beauty where we heal ourselves and then return. What your lady saw… I don’t understand it, and I’m not going to pretend I do. But this I do believe; that your lady saw exactly what she thought she did, and that she is home indeed this very moment, the home for which she longed all her life. And that she is waiting for you, when you’ve completed the tasks duty and love lay on you here.”
“I… Thank you. Thank you very much.”
He took a deep breath. “And now there’s a bloody great job of work to do, Your Majesty.”
“That there is. I want you and your Rangers on the northern flank now, which will mean some swift riding.”
“We’ll be there, your Majesty.” More softly. “And someday… it would be very interesting to see. Very interesting indeed.”
“And now we’ve a battle to fight,” Rudi said. He shook his head. “Are fighting now, the opening steps.”