Dr. Justin Clemens — Captain, Republic of Nantucket Coast Guard (Medical Corps), currently assigned to the Expeditionary Force in the Middle East — sipped at the thick sweet wine, mouth dry. It was never easy to tell someone about the Event. Much else about the Twentieth had faded, but that memory of terror remained far too fresh. He’d been a teenager then…
His fiancée picked a date from the bowl on the low table that stood between her and the Islander medic. He went on:
“…and then the glowing dome of light was gone, and our whole island of Nantucket was… here. Back in this age. More than three thousand years before our own time.”
The platform beneath them was the terraced rooftop of a section of the The House That Was The Marvel of Mankind, The Center of the Land, the Shining Residence, the Dwelling of Majesty — in short, the palace of King Kashtiliash, son of Shagarakti-Shuriash. It sprawled around them as a city within the greater city of Babylon, crenellated outer walls where sentries paced with the late-summer sun bright on their steel and bronze, whitewashed adobe and colored brick and tile, courtyards, gardens, audience halls, workshops, storerooms, hareem, barracks, shrines and archives, faint sounds of chanting, talk, feet, wheels, hooves, a whiff of cooking and a stale draft of canal-water…
The two doctors sat on cushions beneath an awning, amid potted plants and flowers and dwarf trees brought from all over these lands.
Justin watched the woman as she frowned and thought, noticing again how her face turned beautiful with the mind within, despite thinness, big hooked nose, receeding chin and incipient moustache. The huge dark eyes had depths to them. It made him painfully aware of his own round-faced near-plumpness, kept under control only by the necessities of campaigning and twelve-hour workdays.
Here’s hoping she gets it, went through him. So many just can’t grasp the concept. Plain bewildered, or lost in superstitious terror. Azzu-ena was extremely bright, and she had self-confidence as well. Her doctor-father had had no sons, and brought his daughter up to his trade, which was very rare but not completely outlandish in Babylon. These archaic-Semitic peoples weren’t what you’d call feminists by a long shot, but they weren’t as pathological about it as many of their descendants would… would have, in the original history… become.
Well, there’s the Assyrians, he reminded himself. They shut women up in purdah like Afghans in the 20th. But they’re just nasty in every concievable way.
Of course, asu was not a very presigious occupation among the Babylonians regardless of whether the doctor was a man or a woman. Medicine and surgery were just treating symptoms, to their way of thinking; the ashipu, the sorceror/witch-doctor, had the real power.
As one of the physicians on call for the King’s women Azzu-ena had been given the run of the Palace after her father died, including its huge library of clay tablets; she had talked much with foreigners, here where merchants and embassies from all the known world sought the court of the king; otherwise she had been left mostly to herself and her thoughts.
“I see,” she said at last. The huge dark eyes met his, too large for the thin face. “Everything you have shown and told me in this past year has been true, so this must be also. I knew when I saw you cut the child from the womb — and yet the mother lived! — that your arts must be beyond ours…”
The doctor winced a little. Am I being cruel? he thought. For someone as intelligent as Azzu-ena would think about the implications of the Event:
Your world is dead three thousand years in the eyes of the strangers. In most places that means that nothing, nothing of what you love and what makes up your inmost soul remains; your people, their poets and kings, their gods and their dreams, their hates and fears, the words your mother sang you to sleep with, all gone down into dust and shadow —
A little more of Babylon would endure… or perhaps it would be worse to have those parched bones dug up and studied by an academic curiosity equally dry.
“That’s why we have arts that you don’t,” Justin went on aloud. “We have three thousand years more history… more time to learn things.”
To himself: The hell with it. This is the only present moment there is, and time is mutable — we’ve proved that. It’s the 20th, America, the world I was born in that’s illusion, a fading might-have-been. Whatever the future is to be, it won’t be a repetition, and it won’t be we Islanders alone who make it.
The concept of development through time puzzled her at first; Babylonians thought of history as decline from a previous Golden Age, not of progress. They did also know that there had been a time before metal or agriculture, though; he reminded her of that, and went on:
“And it’s why we command so few of the arts we had before the Event.”
Her eyes went wide. “I… don’t understand. You have thunderbolts to knock down city walls, you can fly, your ships of the ocean sail about the earth as if it were a pond, you really know what causes diseases and how to cure them…”
“What we’ve shown is just the shadow of what we had,” Clemens said. “Hmmm… think of it this way. If this palace — the palace and its dwellers alone — were to be thrown back to the time before men knew how to cultivate the earth or make bronze or write on clay, what would happen?”
Her brows knitted in thought. “I… think I begin to see. Yes! The palace artisans — there would be none to bring them food, without peasants to grow the barley. So they would have to go into the fields with plow and hoe and sickle themselves… and there would be no traders to bring tin and copper and hard woods when those in the storerooms were used up… and no work for all the scribes, without a kingdom to administer… too many priests… they would all have to go to the fields or make bricks.”
Smart girl! Clemens thought admiringly. It was a long time before Adam Smith’s observations on the division of labor, but she’d grasped the principle that specialists depended on a big population.
“Exactly,” he said aloud. “We were faced with starvation, because almost none of us were farmers or fishermen; and very few were even artisans, because Nantucket had few… places-of-making, workshops.” That was as close as he could get to factory in this language; they were speaking Akkadian, to improve his command of it.
“We had — have — the knowledge to make, oh, carts that run without horses or oxen, or flying ships much larger and faster than what you’ve seen, or –” he shrugged. “But not the skilled workers and special machines, or the machines that made the machines, or the smelters and forges to make the metal, or to find and refine the fuel, or the farmers to grow the food and the roads to bring it to us. What we were able to make and maintain was only a shadow of what our whole realm, the United States, was able to do.”
A buzz of voices rose from city and palace, a snarling roar echoed from the sky, and a long teardrop shadow fell over them. They looked up, leaning out from beneath the awning and shading their eyes with a hand. The orca shape of the dirigible RNAS — Republic of Nantucket Air Service – Emancipator was passing over Babylon, on its way to the airfield beyond the southern gates. Five hundred feet of canvas, birch plywood and goldbeater’s skin, droning along with six ex-Cessna engines pushing it through the warm Mesopotamian air, the Stars and Stripes on its cruciform tailfins and the Coast Guard’s red slash and fouled anchor on its flank.
Azzu-ena shuddered. “That is but a shadow of your arts?” she said.
“A faint shadow,” Clemens said. “We have to hope it’s enough. It’s more than the rebel Walker has.”
To himself he added: We think. So far.
“Then how can he hope to stand before you?”
“He’ll be fighting close the lands he’s made his own, near to Ahhiyawa, Greece. The lands of our strength are far, far away from here.”
“On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.”
“That’s Wenlock Edge,” Commodore Marian Alston-Kurlelo went on, pointing to a looming darkness in the south, an escarpment beyond the river they sought. Her hand swung westward towards a conical shape. “And we’re on the slopes of Wrekin hill. An English poet named Housman wrote that, a little before my time.”
Adventure, bah, humbug, she thought. “A Shropshire Lad” I could read back home in front of the fire, with a cup of hot cocoa.
She gripped the hairy warmth of her horse more tightly with her thighs, as rain hissed down through the tossing branches above. It ran around the edges of her sou’wester and rain-slicker into the sodden blue wool of her uniform, leaching her body’s warmth. If you absolutely had to be out in weather like this, nine hundred pounds of hay-fueled heater were a comfort.
I’ve come a long way from Prince Island, she thought, clicking open a compass to match against the map in her head. In miles and years. Thousands of both.
Marian Alston had joined the Coast Guard at eighteen, a gawky bookish tomboy who never quite fit in, furiously determined to escape her beginnings on a hardscrabble farm in the tidewater country of South Carolina. She was in her forties now, a tall slender ebony-black woman going a little gray at the temples of her close-cropped wiry hair, with a face that might have come from a Benin bronze in its high-cheeked, broad-nosed comeliness.
They paused at a slight rise, where a fold in the ridge gave them a view over swaying forest and the country that fell away before them. She went on:
‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood
“It’s a good poem,” the younger woman riding beside her said.
Swindapa Dhinwarn’s daughter, of the Kurlelo lineage, lifted her billed Coast Guard cap and shook her head. Droplets flew off the clubbed pigtail that held long wheat-blond hair in check, save for a few damp strands that clung to her oval, straight-nosed face. Her smile showed white even teeth, and her English-rose complexion was tanned to an outdoors honey color by a decade of sun reflected off the ocean.
She went on: “But why are so many Eagle People poems sad? Don’t you ever make poems about beer? Or roast venison and playing with babies and making love in new-mown hay on warm summer afternoons?”
One of the Marines riding behind them chuckled, barely audible under the hiss of rain, the soughing and wind-creak of branches, and the slow clop-plock of hooves in wet earth. Alston smiled herself, a slight curve of her full lips.
“I’ve got gloomy tastes,” she said. “If we’re benighted out here and we can find anything that’ll burn, we can at least arrange the venison.” An extremely unlucky deer was slung gralloched across one of their pack horses. “Still, he catches the area, doesn’t he?” she went on, waving.
She’d visited here as a tourist before the Event — even now her mind gave a slight hitch; English tenses were not suited to time travel — and the bones of the land were the same.
And the weather’s just as lousy, she thought, sneezing.
But there were no lush hedge-bordered fields here, no half-timbered farmhouses or little villages with pubs where you sat with the ghosts of cavaliers and highwaymen, no ruined castles and Norman churches, no shards of Roman Viroconium — Uricon, in Shropshire legend. No Iron Age hillforts, either, on the ‘blue remembered hills’. Not yet, and now not ever, here. Sometimes back on Nantucket among the buildings and artifacts of that future you could forget, or your gut could forget. Forget that an entire history –three millenia of people, being born and living, fighting and building and bearing children and dying — had… vanished… when the Event happened.
The little party rode their horses down narrow rutted trails made by deer and wild boar and aurochs as much as men and men’s herds, beneath towering oaks and beeches, ash and chestnut and lime, tangled thorny underbrush to either side. Wind whipped through leaves turning sere and yellow with early autumn, scattering them downward with a steady drip and drizzle following behind. The air above was thick with wings, many on their way southward for the year, and their cries drifted down with the rain; redpolls and siskins chattered anger at the humans from the boughs. The trail veered down from a ridgeback, through a marsh-bordered stream edged with alders; water lapped her stirrup-irons and mud spattered on her boots and trouser-legs with a cold yeasty smell. The storm mounted, moaning through the branches and ruffling the surface of the puddles. It was good to speak into the teeth of the whetted wind:
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
“Roman?” Swindapa asked.
In the decade they’d been together the young woman of the Fiernan Boholugi had acquired a fair modern education to add to the lore of an astronomer-priestess of Moon Woman and hunter of the Spear Mark, but not much of it concerned the details of a history that would never happen.
“A people that invaded… would have invaded Alba a long time from now. About…” Let’s see, this is 10 AE, which makes it 1240 BC, Claudius invaded Britain in the 40’s AD, so… “Call it thirteen hundred years from now. They would have built a city thereabouts.” She nodded off to the northwest, to where Wroxeter stood in her birth-century.
“Like the Sun People,” Swindapa said with a slight shiver.
Alston leaned over and squeezed her shoulder for an instant. The Event had dumped her command — the Coast Guard training windjammer Eagle — into the early spring of 1250 BC, along with the island of Nantucket. The first thing they’d done besides catching a few whales was make a voyage to Britain, to barter steel tools and trinkets for desperately needed food and seed corn and livestock; they’d ended up making their first landing among the Iraiina tribe, the latest of many teuatha of the Sun People to invade the White Isle. Among the gifts those proto-demi-Celts had given Alston was a girl they’d taken prisoner from the Earth Folk, the Fiernan Boholugi, the megalith-building natives of Alba. Swindapa, who still sometimes woke screaming from nightmares of that captivity.
“That’s a long time gone, sugar,” Marian said. “Lot of water under the bridge, and the Sun People are pretty quiet, nowadays.” The poet spoke for her:
“There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.”
“Yes,” Swindapa said quietly. “Would you — would we have made war on the Sun People, if Walker hadn’t come here and tried to be a king among them?”
Ouch. That’s a toughie. “I think we’d have helped the Earth Folk defend themselves,” she said. “I was pushin’ for that, as soon as I got to talking with you.”
A brilliant smile rewarded her, and Marian felt the familiar but always startling warmth under her breastbone. And personal matters aside, we needed something like the Alliance. Nantucket was too small in area and numbers to keep even the ghost of civilization alive on its own.
“You were so shy in those days,” Swindapa said. “I knew Moon Woman had sent you to rescue me and put down the Sun People, and that Her stars meant us to be together always, but I had to drag you into bed,” she went on.
“Well, whatever else the Fiernan Boholugi are, they aren’t shy,” Marian agreed. Lordy, no. Got me out of the closet, for starters.
Swindapa sighed again. “I thought once the Sun People were beaten, we’d have peace. Sailing, work and the children.”
Marian’s expression turned grim. “Not while William Walker’s above-ground, I think.” Her fist hit the saddle-horn. “Damn, but I should have finished him off!”
“You were nearly dead with wounds, yourself. And he was prepared to flee if he lost.”
Alston shook her head. There were no excuses for failure. “A rat always has a bolt-hole. All our problems since, they’re because he got away.”
“When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat;
The people scattered roses before my horse’s feet.
And now I am a mighty king, and the people dog my track;
With poison in the wine-cup, and daggers at my back.”
“Self-pity, Will?” Dr. Alice Hong asked mockingly.
“Robert E. Howard,” William Walker replied. “Kull the Conqueror, specifically.”
He turned from the tall French doors and their southward view over the palace gardens and the city of Walkeropolis. The valley of the Eurotas reached beyond, drowsing in a soft palette of green and brown and old gold, up to the blue heights of Mount Taygetos. The city’s smoke and noise drifted in, mixed with flower-scents from the gardens, and a warm hint of thyme and lavender from the hills.
The King of Men smiled at her. “I thought it was appropriate.”
He was a little over six feet, tall even by 20th-century standards, towering here in the thirteenth century BC. Broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, he moved with an athlete’s quick, controlled gracefulness; reddish-brown hair fell to his shoulders, confined by the narrow diadem of royalty wrought in gold olive leaves. The face it framed would have been boyishly handsome yet, even in his thirties, if it had not been for the deep scar that cut a V across his cheek and vanished under the patch that hid his left eyesocket; the level green stare of the surviving eye glittered coldly. He wore loose trousers of black silk tucked into polished half-boots, and a gold-trimmed jacket of the same material cinched by a tooled leather belt that bore revolver and chryselephantine dagger. A wolfshead signet ring of ruby and niello on the third finger of his right hand was the only other ornament.
“Or to put it in American, babe,” he went on in a voice that still held a trace of Montana, “the Greek VIPs liked it better when I was the wizardly power in the background and not Supreme Bossman. Planting my own low-born outlander ass on the throne of the Kings of Men has seriously torqued them out.”
“Rational deduction from the information available,” Helmuth Mittler agreed, running a hand over his close-cropped gray-and-yellow hair. “The disaffected Achaean nobles have little grasp of sophisticated conspiratorial politics, but they are not stupid men — not the surviving ones. They haff support among the more reactionary elements of the population… and they learn quickly.”
He pronounced that und zey learn kvickly; the Mecklenberger accent was still fairly strong. His Achaean was better, but for small conferences like this Walker preferred English. Besides nostalgia and modern vocabulary, it was a more compact and economical language. There was something about the sonorous formalities of Mycenaean Greek that wasn’t conducive to quick sharp thought, in his opinion.
“Evolution in action,” Walker agreed, nodding to the ex-Stasi agent.
Who managed to get out before the Berlin Wall went down, with a fair amount of money and some extremely good fake ID, he reminded himself. It wouldn’t do to underestimate his security chief. Aloud he went on:
“We caught the dumb ones first.” A chuckle. He’d introduced crucifixion, along with the other innovations. “Those who cross me get crossed.” It impressed the wogs no end.
“I get a lot of information through the Sisterhood of Hecate,” Hong said. “Yeah, there are still a lot of the telestai and ekwetai… mmmm… unhappy — especially since Agamemnon… ah… died.”
“Shot while attempting to escape,” Mittler chuckled. “Classic.”
“Jumped off a fucking cliff calling on the God-damned Gods,” Walker grated.
Which gave him major mojo among the wogs, Walker reflected bitterly. The ‘given sacrifice’, they called it. He’d had years of clear sailing, while Agamemnon imagined the foreigner he’d raised up was safe, because he didn’t have the blood-right to the throne that too many of Mycenae’s endlessly intermarried vassal kings and nobles could claim. What a fucking nuisance. Fortunately, dead men had trouble taking advantage of their own baraka, especially when their heirs died with them.
Dumb bastard, trying to break out like that. Hell, even at the end I was treating him well, and pretending that the orders came from him… in public.
Now… he had the New Troops and their firepower, yes, and the crawling terror of Helmut’s secret police, not to mention the supernatural dread of the Sisterhood of Hecate, but raw fear was a chancy basis for power. Frightened men were unpredictable. He’d take force over legitimacy any day, if he had to chose one or the other, but it would be nice to have both. Presumably his kids would — legitimacy meant staying on top until nobody could remember anybody else, when you came right down to it. Dynastic immortality wasn’t the type he’d have picked, given options, but it was the only kind going.
“And that’s why I have to get back to Troy,” he said, returning to his swivel-chair behind the desk.
The other two looked at each other. “Sir,” Mittler said. “Your position here in Greece is still unstable. Particularly with many troops being required abroad.”
“That’s what I’ve got you and your Section One for, Helmut,” Walker said genially. “How did the old saying go? A secure throne needs a standing army of soldiers, a sitting army of bureaucrats, a kneeling army of priests, and a crawling army of informers.”
Alice looked at him and gave the faintest hint of a wink; he replied with a smile that barely crinkled the skin around his eyes. And, of course, I have Alice and her little cult to watch the watchmen. Mittler’s cold gray eyes caught the byplay, and the ash-pale brows rose slightly.
Dr. Alice Hong was a complete nutter, a sadist in the literal clinical sense of the word — she couldn’t get it off without inflicting or feeling pain, preferably both — but very smart. And fully conscious that a woman could never rule Meizon Akhaia in her own right, not in this generation, which made her the safest of all Walker’s American followers. Mittler didn’t have that drawback in plumbing design…
Of course, Mittler was also smart enough to see that a power struggle at the top might well bring down the whole jury-built structure of Great Achaea. And Helmut Mittler wanted to defeat the Republic of Nantucket, wanted it very badly. Partly to keep the wealth and power he enjoyed, and partly to satisfy an old and bitter spite against the people who’d ruined his country and cause. The Nantucketers were the closest thing to the United States around, here in the Bronze Age.
Walkerian Age is more appropriate now, he thought absently, considering, then came to a decision.
There were times when the mushroom treatment was useful, but if you kept your top-flight people in the dark and covered in horseshit all the time you couldn’t expect them to make sound decisions. And an operation this big required delegation, absolutely, however much it went against his personal inclinations. Too many great men had been ruined by refusal to see that — Napoleon, for instance, and Hitler. Augustus Caesar had been much smarter, and Genghis Khan. So… he’d fill them in.
“I don’t have Zeus Pater for a great-granddaddy,” Walker said genially, “What I do have is the prestige of victory. Momentum. That keeps a lot of mouths shut and minds obedient that wouldn’t be, otherwise. So I need a big, conspicuous win, particularly since we’re up against guys with guns now, not just pumping out grapeshot at bare-assed spear-chuckers. So it’s back to Troy for the last act there.”
“Sir,” Mittler said, clicking heels and bowing his head. “I must therefore begin preparations. When Troy falls, we can at least deal with that damned Jew, Arnstein; he has been the brains of their intelligence apparat. Stupid of them to let him be caught there. If I haff your permission?
“Certainly, Helmut. Keep up the good work,” Walker said. You pickle-up-the-ass kraut, he thought behind the mask of his face.
There were times when Mittler’s eternally punctilious Middle European Ordnungsliebe got on the American’s nerves; it was like being trapped with a Commie/Nazi villain from a bad 50’s war movie. Ve haff vays to mak you talk. But he was a useful kraut.
He’s got the ‘German Disease’, though, Walker thought. Wonderful at doing, lousy at figuring out what to do. All tactics and no strategy. No wonder we beat them twice running. Of course, he’s built up quite a local cadre who’re loyal to him and not me or the kingdom, but it’s an acceptable price. For now.
The Royal Guard and the new standing army more than counterbalanced them. Besides, everyone knows who Helmut is and what he does. That made him too unpopular to rule himself, like Beira or Himmler.
Alice stretched in her chair, arms over her head and small breasts straining against the thin white silk of her tunic. Walker watched with detached appreciation; sex with Alice was like fucking a humanoid cobra, but it had its points as an occasional diversion.
“If dear, dear Helmut ever has to… go… you really must let me handle it,” she said. “He doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what the human body can endure.”
Walker cocked an eyebrow. “I’d have thought you had some things in common,” he said.
“Really, Will! The man has no sense of artistry. He might as well be adjusting the bolts on a tractor.” She looked at her watch. “Well, I have to run. We’re holding an initiation tonight — quite important.”
“Girls only, I’m afraid… unless you want to watch through the spyhole again?”
“Thanks, but business calls. See ya, babe.”
The cult she’d established was a hobby with Alice, and another chance to engage in the sadomasochistic grand guiginol she adored, but it had tentacles throughout Meizon Akhaia, among women of all classes, and in the medical service she’d organized and taught. These gods-besotted wogs took religion very seriously indeed, and after the perversions and atrocities of the initiation process the new members felt completely committed, as if they’d severed all links to everyone except the Dark Sisterhood. He vaguely remembered reading that the Mau Mau had used the same tactics. Some of the Haitian bokor brotherhoods, the darker side of Voudun, did that too — it had been in the Coast Guard briefing papers, when he was stationed down in the Caribbean watching for drugs and refugees coming out of Port-au-Prince.
“Education is a wonderful thing,” he mused, pulling another pile of reports towards him.
Crops, roads, factories, schools… there was a hell of a lot more to being an Emperor than ‘inventing’ gunpowder, or even just commanding armies. Right now he was sweating blood trying to get a banking system established. More and more of it was stuff like that, too, not hands-on. Turning this Bronze Age feudal mishmash into something worth running had been like pushing a boulder uphill, even with twenty carefully-picked American helpers and the fifty tons of cargo — machines, metals, tools, books, working models — that he’d liberated from Nantucket along with the schooner. And the earliest stages had been hardest.
Satisfying, though, he thought, remembering one of his favorite books as a kid… although as usual, he’d been rooting for the villains, the ones with sane motives. Yeah, it was in “The Iron Heel”, he recalled. How had Jack London put it?
“It is the king of words — Power,” he quoted to himself, remembering a boy reading in the rustling scented solitude of a hay-barn, alone with his savage bright-colored dreams. “Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.”
And there was no road to Power that didn’t involve hard work; that made the work satisfying in itself, fun, worthwhile. He bent back to his task.
“Lord king,” a soft voice said a few hours later; he noticed that, as he hadn’t the noiseless slaves who’d turned up the kerosene lanterns.
Walker looked up. It was his house steward, the chief of the residential staff. “Yes, Eurgewenos?” he said.
“Lord king, shall I have the kitchens send a meal here? And do you wish a particular girl for the night?”
He looked out the window; almost dark. Dinnertime, by the wall clock; they’d finally gotten those to work well enough for everyday use and were closing in on chronometers good enough for navigation. When he’d arrived, Mycenean Greek had used a moment for all times less than their vague conception of an hour…
“Inform the Lady Ekhnonpa that I’ll be dining with her and the children.”
“The King commands; we obey.”
A hareem was very pleasant, but he had a certain nostalgic affection for Ekhnonpa and he’d kept her around. She’d born him three children, and put on a good deal of weight, but her undemanding adoration was relaxing, sometimes. Her father Daurthunnicar had been a chieftain up in Alba, his first base of operations after he’d cleared out of Nantucket; he’d won the daughter and heir-apparent status by beating the tribal champion… to death, with his hands and feet. The Nantucketers had upset that applecart — he touched the scar and the patch over the empty eyesocket Alston’s sword had left, and his lips curled back from his teeth for a moment.
Time to settle that debt, he thought. In full. With interest.
Swindapa raised her head, took a long breath through her nose, cocked an ear. “Not long now,” she said. “That’s hearth-smoke, and a dog barking.”
The deer-track widened and turned into a rutted mud road as it wound upwards; that made the forest less gloomy, but it also let in more of the rain coming in on the wings of cloud from the Welsh mountains. A clearing appeared, and little thatched clusters of round wattle-and-daub huts with sheep-folds and cattle-corrals around about; the cold breeze ruffled rain-dimpled puddles. Smoke came leaking out of thatch in tatters that ran down the wet driving wind — or in a few cases from chimneys of brick or sheet iron, nowadays. A noisy dog brought some of the inhabitants out to the side of the road. They were multiply wrapped in sheepskins and blanket-like cloaks of raw wool, looking like hairy bundles with feet.
A few carried weapons — steel-headed spears or crossbows handed out to the Republic’s Fiernan allies during the Alban War a decade ago, and a couple of trade muskets with waxed leather wrapped around the flintlock and pan. Times were peaceful, but old habits died hard even with new tools. They relaxed and pointed the business ends skyward when they saw the Nantucketer gear and uniforms, and the standard-bearer that marked an embassy. The Stars and Stripes hung limp and wet on the pole socketed into the bearer’s stirrup, but the gilt eagle above was a bright flash in the rainy dimness.
Marian glanced backward out of the corner of her eye; the khaki-clad Marines were sitting their horses easily, reins in their right hands and Werder rifles riding in the crook of their left arms, eyes wary even here among friendlies. She had her eye on their sergeant, Zena Ritter, for possible promotion — a slender wire-tough young woman with cropped dark-red hair and an implausible number of freckles, who’d been taking correspondence courses from Brandt Point OCS via Westhaven HQ. The Republic’s military needed people who could function out on their ownsome without undue hand-holding, satellite links, or a Pentagon to do their thinking for them.
As she watched, Ritter tossed a bar of ration chocolate to a clutch of children. The waxed paper wrapping came off to squeals of delight.
Generous, Marian thought. Even back on Nantucket chocolate was still expensive, gathered wild in Central America and traded to Islander schooners working the Main.And they recognized it. Must be a fair bit of trade through here…
Swindapa reined her horse aside and spoke to the locals in the purling glug-glug of the Fiernan Boholugi tongue, a language that had vanished a thousand years before the birth of Christ in Marian’s history. She dropped her knotted reins on her saddlebow to let her hands move in fluid accompaniment to her thought. When she rode on she was shaking her head in amazement.
“Sugar?” Marian asked. Lord, if you tied a Fiernan’s hands, they’d be struck dumb.
“It’s… these people are out in the… what’s the word, the sticks? They talk a dialect I can barely follow.”
The black woman smiled to herself; Swindapa’s lineage, the Kurlelo, lived by the Great Wisdom — Stonehenge, far south of here in Wiltshire on the open upland downs. By Fiernan reckoning, that made them the center of the world; the Kurlelo Grandmothers were the high priestesses of Moon Woman and students of the stars that revealed Her will. Those dry and sunny hills were thickly peopled and closely farmed as well, very different from these middle lands of Alba; here human habitations were still islands amid swamp and a wildwood-jungle of giant oak trees on heavy clay. Not until the Age of Iron brought better tools and plows would settlers make much progress against the king trees and the thick fertile low-country soils that bore them. In the original history at least…
“In the sticks, yes,” Swindapa went on, in pleased wonderment at how far the changes had gone. “And yet look at all they have! Ten years ago, they would have made most of their tools of wood and bone and stone, shared one bronze blade with the whole family. They were… hillbillies. Now they have steel axes, pans, spades, scythes, Nantucket plows… even iron stoves. And yes, they say we’re getting near Irondale. Right where you thought we were.”
“Glad of it, ‘dapa. Gettin’ old and creaky for riding in the rain like this, much less a God-damned week of it.”
I can still do it, she thought, measuring her endurance with stubborn objectivity. Gets harder every year, though. She kept herself in shape as conscientiously as she worked at any other duty — a certain bleak inner honesty made her admit that compulsive would be a better description — but today creak and click and joint-pain told of the teeth gnawing, quiet and relentless. The Event had sent thousands back through time, but every one of them still slid down the slippery slope of entropy at a minute per minute on their own personal world-line.
Oh, hell, this is nothing compared to standing a quarterdeck watch in the Roaring Forties.
Wet wool clung and chafed against her skin, and the raw clammy chill had sunken in towards her bones. The cleared fields grew and spread out to the edge of sight, muddy plowland and pasture with treelots, and then the terrain rose slightly hills deep in forest once more. The road climbed with it, becoming broader and better-built as it did, then snaked down a dry gully towards the Severn, winding its way from the mountains of Snowdonia to the estuary far southward. Here it ran from west to east in a swift-flowing gorge, flanked by rumpled hills that fell steeply almost to the water’s edge, shaggy with ancient oak and alder.
She looked up to where the sun would have been, if the sky weren’t the color of wet iron. It was getting on towards evening; somewhere a wolf called to its pack and the sobbing howl echoed through the gathering dusk. The crossbred Morgan-chariot pony mounts scarcely flicked an ear at it; their shaggy coats were wet and mud-streaked, and their heads drooped. One blew out its lips in a blubbery sigh, and Marian slapped her mount’s neck in reassurance.
“Warm stable and oats soon enough, boy. We all need it.”
“I’d rather have some roast pork and a bed, myself,” Swindapa said, her urchin grin bright. “And a bath, nice and hot.”
Marian supressed an involuntary groan at the thought of sinking into a steaming tub. Irondale’s lights showed bright through the wavery murk ahead as they came down onto the road along the narrow riverside flat. By the roadside was a man-tall granite boundary-marker. On one side were Fiernan geometrics; the other bore the Republic’s eagle, with an olive branch in one claw and a bundle of arrows in the other.
“It’s grown,” Swindapa went on thoughtfully, looking at the town’s lights. They’d last visited in 04, when the new settlement was nothing but mud, stumps, tents and construction-yard litter. “Three thousand four hundred residents, according to the latest report.”
Her slight sing-song accent grew a little stronger, as it did when she used the mnemonic training she’d received as an apprentice to the Kurlelo Grandmothers at the Great Wisdom.
“When I saw the numbers I thought that was many,” she continued after a moment. “But I hadn’t realized that three thousand four hundred was so many.”
Which was natural enough; the whole of Alba hadn’t had a single town, before the Event. As near as they could tell, there were less than half a million people in the whole of the British Isles. Possibly much less. By the standards of this era that was a dense population; the best estimate the Republic’s explorers and savants had been able to come up with counted around fifty million for the entire planet.
“Halt! Who goes?”
She nodded approval as the sentries stepped out from neatly camouflaged blinds on either side of the road and raised their rifles. One had a bullseye lantern as well, and snapped it open to shine the beam on their faces. Marian raised her right hand to halt the little column.
“Commodore Marian Alston-Kurlelo and Lieutenant-Commander Swindapa Kurlelo-Alston and party,” she said.
That flustered the militiaman a little, and he stammered and flushed before stepping back with a salute. “Pass, friend!”
Marian returned the gesture; she could hear him chattering excitedly in Fiernan as they heeled unwilling horses into a walk again and passed on into Irondale. Fame, she thought. Her mouth twisted ironically as they rode into the scattering of buildings, several streets of them on either side of the main road. A few were round huts and wood shacks from the early days, more small brick cottages with tile roofs and chimneys set among trees and gardens, with a scattering of big houses in what she thought of as the Nantucket Georgian style
Half a mile up the S-shaped valley of the tributary stream a dam penned back the flow into an artificial lake, and sluicegates released it in a torrent of white foam onto the tops of half a dozen thirty-foot overshot waterwheels; they turned with a constant groaning rumble and splash, a querning undertone to the other noises. As the riders watched a blade of fire lanced skyward from a blast furnace, white at its core and framed in red where it left the top of the sooty pyramid of brick, shedding a long plume of spark and cinder downwind. It was accompanied by a enormous shrill scream, like a wounded horse the size of a mountain. The living horses beneath them shied and skittered, then quieted as the sound stopped and their riders soothed them. A smell of hot iron and coal-smoke drifted down through the wet along with the clangor of the works and multicolored volcanos of sparks from the Bessemer converters.
Their horses’ hooves clopped hollow on asphalt pavement; they passed schools, Ecumenical Christian church, public baths, library in a corner of the town hall, medical clinic where a pair of doctors from the Cottage Hospital healed and taught. Then the inn, a rambling brick structure two stories high, wings added on to an original modest core, with yellow lamplight showing behind its windows. That brought an inner groan of relief. She thew up her right arm, hand palm-forward.
“Halt and dismount!” Swindapa called crisply beside her, and the hoof-clatter died.
Alston swung down out of the saddle with a creak of leather, conscious of a little more stiffness than she would have felt a few years earlier. Despite the rain and raw chill people were thick on the sidewalks here, under the bright gas lights of the cast-iron streetlamps. It was a mixed crowd, Nantucketers born and naturalized, Fiernan Boholugi and Sun People from scores of lineages and tribes, plus little dark hillmen from the mountains to the west who were neither. Plenty from beyond Alba, too; a burly redhead covered in swirling tatoos from the Summer Isle — Ireland-to-be — a pale giant from the Baltic like a human birch-tree in a shaggy bearskin cloak, gawking about him in wonder… More and more, in wildly varying costume although sensible Islander-inspired overalls and jackets and boots predominated; many wore miner’s helmets with lamps, or hard-hats; there were even umbrellas. A round score of languages sounded, with weirdly-accented lingua franca varieties of English the most common and the smooth pleasant singsong of Fiernan a close second.
If clotted cream could speak, it’d sound like Fiernan, Alston thought, arching her back and stretching muscles stiffened by a long day in the saddle. Too bad a Commodore can’t rub her ass in public… Alder-wood clogs rattled on the brick, almost as loud as the clop of shod hooves and the rumble of steel-rimmed wheels.
“Stand easy, corporal,” Swindapa said.
“Ma’am! Squad, stand easy. Unload,” Sergeant Ritter echoed.
The Marines raised the muzzles of their rifles, thumbed the cocking-levers on the right side to the safety position; then came a chink-ting as the triggers were pulled. The grooved blocks that closed the breeches snapped down and the shells in the chambers ejected, to be neatly caught and returned to bandoliers.
The inn’s sign creaked above her. She could make out a gilt low-relief eagle — modeled on the figurehead of her Eagle, the Coast Guard training windjammer she’d sailed a little too close to Nantucket the night of the Event. Beside it was the crescent Moon that had become the Fiernan national sigil. An open door swung a waft of warm air and light and cooking smells in their faces.
“Commodore Alston-Kurlelo!” the innkeeper said. He walked with a limp, and snapped off a salute to her as he came, then advanced with the hand extended and a wide white grin.
The name and face popped up out of the officer’s retrieval system at the back of her brain; he’d been a first-year cadet on the Eagle at the time of the Event, and with the Expeditionary Battalion in the Alban War, the year after. Badly wounded at the Battle of the Downs, when they broke Walker and the Sun Peope war-host. Plus blacks were rare enough in the Republic to be notable.
“Cadet Merrithew,” she said, shaking his hand. “Wayne Merrithew.” He was a stocky man in his late twenties now, his dark-brown skin a few shades lighter than hers, wearing an apron and holding a towel and a glass he’d been polishing.
“I thought you were working over in Fogarty’s Cove on Long Island, back the other side of the pond? Assistant manager at the Wild Rose Chance.”
He shook his head, still grinning. “Not since 05. Decided to get my savings and gratuity out of the Pacific Bank and set up here, ma’am, once my in-laws sent word how well things were going in Irondale,” he said.
He’d married an Alban, as had many of her original cadets — they’d been over two-thirds male, which had upset the gender balance back on Nantucket considerably, in the beginning. She’d been relieved when so many war brides turned up.
Not that I could have complained even if I’d disapproved, she thought with an inner smile, glancing at her partner as she stroked the nose of her horse. Seein’ as I did pretty much the same.
“How is Amentdwran, Wayne?” Swindapa asked.
‘dapa remembers him too, Alston thought. Not from any particular effort, but the Grandmothers made a science of memory; they’d had to, with an astronomy-based religion and no way to store information except in living brains.
“Fine, fine — expecting again, that’ll be number four, after the twins. But come on in out of the wet, for God’s sake! No, my people will take care of the horses.”
Two came at a run, agog at seeing the living legends; they bobbed heads and made the Fiernan gesture of reverence, touching brow and heart and groin, then led the horses around to a laneway at one side of the building. Alston cocked an eye at her escort, but the Marine noncom had her squad well in hand — they’d taken their rifles and gear first, and she was telling off one to go check that the stabling was all right. It would be, but you had to make sure. Horses were equipment, and if you took care of your equipment, it took care of you.
“The deer’s yours, Mr. Merrithew,” Alston said, indicating it with a lift of her chin. “Dumb beast walked right out in front of us yesterday and stood there in plain sight of God and radar.”
“Well, I’ll take that, but the rest is on the house,” he said, and raised a hand to forestall protest. “The Skipper doesn’t pay in any place I own. And Pete!” An eight-year-old boy came up, face struggling between awe and delight; the café-au-lait skin and loose-curled hair left no doubt who his father was, in this world of palefaces. “Run up to the Manager’s house and tell them all who’s here!”
They walked through into the main room of the Eagle And Moon, shedding rain-slickers in the hallway and feeling their bodies relax in the grateful warmth. That also brought out the odors of wet wool and leather and horse-sweat and everything else that went with a week’s hard travel and camps too muddy and wet and cold to do much washing. Marian Alston-Kurlelo wrinkled her nose slightly; there was no point in being squeamish in the field, but she liked to be clean when she could, especially in civilized surroundings like these.
She looked around; the inn was whitewashed plaster on the inside, with flame-wrapped logs crackling and booming in an open fireplace, and a less scenic but more effective cast-iron heating stove burning coal in a corner. A long bar with a brass rail stood on one side, swinging doors let a clatter and savory smell of roasting meat and onions and fresh-baked bread in from the kitchens, and a polished beechwood staircase with a fancifully-carved balustrade led upwards. Coal-oil lamps were hung from oak rafters, bright woven blankets on the walls along with knicknacks that included crossed bronze-headed spears over the mantle, and a sheathed short sword modeled on a Romangladius and made from a car’s leaf-spring. They hadn’t had many firearms, that first year…
“Kept my ol’ Ginsu,” Merrithew said, slapping the sword affectionately. “OK, sergeant, you and your squad, the beds’re up the stairs thattaway, bedding, robes and towels, bathroom’s at the end of the corridor.”
“Very well, sergeant; carry on,” Swindapa said; her responsibility, as Alston’s aide-de-camp.
All to the best, Alston thought. Ritter’s air of hard competence tended to turn to blushes and stammering when addressing the Commodore directly — there were drawbacks to being a living legend.
“Settle your people in, and then dismissed to quarters until reveille tomorrow,” Swindapa went on.
“Sue, show ’em.” Another brown-skinned child, this one with enormous eyes of a curious hazel-green; she grabbed the sergeant by the hand and led her away. “Commodore, Ms. Kurlelo-Alston, your room’s at the end of the corridor here. The bath’s ready too, and we’ll have your kit unpacked by the time you’re finished, and hot robes. I recommend the roast pork tonight; it’s acorn-fed, and damned good.”
He bore them on, chattering, and thrust thick ceramic mugs of hot mulled cider into their hands. Alston closed grateful fingers around hers, and met the cerulean blue of Swindapa’s eyes. The Fiernan spoke her thought for her.
“We may live, after all.”