Seven Devils Mountains
(Formerly western Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 15th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.
By the time the lingering summer sun was well down behind the peaks Cole Salander had had a chance to wash and get outside a satisfactory amount of cowboy beans, some sort of griddle biscuit and a couple of pounds of strong-tasting pork with a very satisfactory BBQ sauce. Someone opened a sack of nuts and dried fruit that was quite tasty too, and there was wine though nobody was drinking very much.
“Sip, man, sip! Don’t swill it! That’s a Larsdalen red!” Talyn said as a small straw-covered jug went around the group by the little fire not far from the tent-flap. “It’s not beer!”
There were only the two Mackenzies, the Bearkiller pilot and him; the Clan used a nine-man squad, but the rest of Talyn and Caillech’s outfit were still off on their scout. Evidently they and Alyssa were old friends.
“Alyssa gets treats from her parents, and it makes up for the sharpness of her personality, so to say,” Talyn said.
Caillech threw a dried apricot at him, which he caught and ate, and Alyssa made a rude noise with her lips.
Cole sighed. He missed his friends and buddies, too, although he hadn’t been in the special-ops unit enough to make really close ones. Still, sitting round the fire eating BBQ ribs and drinking wine after a ten-mile hike on mountain tracks was a hell of a lot better than some of the other things that could happen to a prisoner. He hadn’t ended up full of arrows this morning, for example, which was also a definite plus, and he wasn’t sitting in a cage in chains.
And it was good wine, or at least a lot smoother than Army-ration issue or what you got in the bars around base camps. Cole had grown up on water and milk, with beer once he was past his mid-teens and diluted whiskey on special occasions, but there were vineyards closer to Boise City.
“Good ribs,” he said.
He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and tossed the stripped bone to Talyn’s dogs. They’d looked towards their master for permission to take the treat the first time. It made him slightly homesick; he’d had a dog before he reported for duty, one he’d had since they’d both been pups and hand-trained up himself and let sleep on the foot of his bed despite his mother’s scolding. They’d been inseparable until poor creaky smelly half-blind old Bob ran into a catamount that had been sniffing around the sheep-pen and died doing his valiant best. He’d hunted the cougar down with his crossbow, blind with rage, and its hide was now gracing the floor in front of the fireplace back home, but even at a heedless eighteen he’d known a milestone in his life when it happened.
“Not bad, but the sauce is a bit mild,” Alyssa said, wiping her face with a cloth—eating them one-handed was messier than the usual way. “Mackenzie cooking is pretty good but they go lighter on the peppers than most Bearkillers like.”
It had been about as hot as Cole liked. When he raised his eyebrows at her she went on: “My grandmother… on my mother’s side, Angelica Hutton… was the Bearkiller quartermaster while Mike Havel led the first of us back to Larsdalen. She’s Tejano. We got a war-cry from Finland from the Bear Lord’s family, and Tex-Mex cooking from her. From what the books say about Finnish food it was a hell of a good bargain.”
A hair-raising squeal brought Cole’s head and attention whipping around. Talyn laughed and tilted back the flask.
“The pipes!” he said, toasting the harsh droning sound as it modulated into something resembling music.
“They’re not torturing a pig or biting a cat’s tail, honest,” Alyssa said. “Mackenzies are a tuneful bunch, always playing something. Including bagpipes, if you can call that a musical instrument. Especially the Píob Mhór, the war-pipes.”
“And a war-camp is the place for war pipes,” Talyn said. “But it’s true, we’re a musical lot, having Brigid’s blessing.”
Cole nodded, a little puzzled. Everyone but the very rich made their own music or did without most of the time; he’d heard a wind-up phonograph once at a county fair, but hadn’t been impressed and anyway they and the records to play on them cost the earth. His parents had complained all his life about how you couldn’t just snap your fingers and have first-class music in the modern world, which was even more annoying than the rest of the stories about the old times.
He understood more of what Alyssa meant when half a dozen flutes and stringed instruments and little hand-held drums played with a stick came in faultlessly, weaving around the hoarse wild song of the drones.
Cole could pick out All You Need Is Love or Old MacDonald or Riders on the Storm with a six-string guitar and one of his uncles was pretty fair with a lute and he had an aunt who played a mean fiddle at barn dances, but everyone he could hear was better than that. As good as the professionals you heard at county fairs or parades, and better than the neighborhood favorites who played weddings and funerals.
“Sure, and wasn’t the Chief, the Mackenzie Herself, a bard by trade before the Change?” Caillech said. “I’ve often heard the oldsters saying how her music kept their hearts up, in the terrible years. And the songs taught us all the ways of the Lord and Lady, of course.”
“Gillie Chalium!” someone shouted. “Let’s dance the blades!”
Which apparently meant something. Talyn whooped, and Caillech grinned as she got up and hitched at her plaid.
“Sword dance,” Alyssa explained.
More of the clansfolk put out circles of swords in the open spaces between the campfires—eight blades each, set with one edge down in the dirt and the other up, points-in. Talyn and Caillech faced each other in one circle, bowing and then standing with hands on hips. Another pair joined them…
“Pretty,” Cole said, as the dance began. Then: “Gurk!”
It started slow, and seemed to involve keeping the upper body fairly straight; the hands switched up from hips to over the head from time to time. The feet, though, were moving quicker and quicker—and it involved skipping and stepping over those sword-blades, while keeping the eyes locked on the other dancer, and all four taking a leap to the left at intervals combined with a high kick so that the whole ensemble moved in a circle counterclockwise.
All done in the dark by flickering firelight.
“Care to give it a try, Private First Class?” Alyssa asked slyly.
“Christ no!” Cole blurted.
He was quick and agile and liked a barn-dance or a waltz, but the thought of maybe stamping his foot down on the business edge of a solidly grounded sword-blade made his toes curl in reflex. Those were fully functional swords, too; good steel salvaged from leaf-springs, and sharp.
“My thought exactly,” Alyssa said. “Nice to watch, but I’ve never wanted to try it. It’s one of those things the Mackenzies do because they enjoy freaking out the cowan, too.”
“Ignorant, benighted infidels like you and me.”
“You’re not, ah—“
“Of the Old Religion? No. Quite a few of us Bearkillers are, say one in every two or three, we and the Mackenzies have always been neighbors and allies. My branch of the family’s Catholic—
She pulled on a fine chain around her neck, showing her crucifix and kissing it before she replaced it.
“—but I wouldn’t claim to be a very good Catholic. My aunt Signe and her younger kids are pagan, though. Asatruar, to be technical, which is sort of different from the Clan’s version. I don’t think Mike Havel… the first Bear Lord… was religious at all, from what people say.”
“I know what you mean,” Cole said, and nodded
That sort of thing had been more common in the old days. He didn’t know anyone at home who didn’t go to church at least occasionally, though. The world had been a strange place before the Change.
“We Bearkillers let people make up their minds about that sort of stuff pretty much as they please. What really matters to us is doing your duty to the Outfit. Mackenzies… well, they’re tolerant as all get out, but if you were cowan it wouldn’t be a really comfortable place to live in the long run, you’d feel left out. A lot. Left out of pretty nearly everything.”
“So that’s a religious sword-dance?” Cole said, watching with interest.
He’d stopped expecting a scream and blood to interrupt, and he could see that this would be useful training in situational awareness and swift movement. Probably more fun than drill, too, but it still put his teeth on edge a bit. Mackenzies seemed nice enough folk from what he’d seen, nothing like the propaganda apart from being on the other side, but they certainly weren’t what you could call timid. At all.
“Everything is religion, over there in the Mackenzie stamping grounds. Even peeling an apple. Even sex. In fact, especially sex… how does it go… All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.”
“From the Charge of the Goddess. They take it pretty seriously, too. Which can be dangerous to anyone who doesn’t abide by their rules.”
“Well, let’s just say their dùthchas is about the safest place in the whole world to be a woman on her own, even at a Beltaine feast when everyone’s drinking hard and running around buck-naked except for wreaths or masks or antlers on their heads and yelling Evoe! Io, Io, Bacchios!, and believe me they totally know how to let their hair down at a party. Oh, my, yes. But they don’t take any excuses at all for someone who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’.”
“Head-chopping for offenders?”
“More likely burial at a crossroads with a spear in you. Possibly burial alive with the spear in the dirt if they’re really angry or afraid the Goddess is going to smite the vicinity, or both. You ask me, they pick the right things to be completely intolerant about.”
“Gurk! And I though the dance was scary.”
She grinned, then winced a bit as a scab on her lip pulled.
“If you think the Gillie Chalium is scary, you should see the Dannsadh Bhiodaig.”
“What’s that when it’s got its pants… or kilt… on?”
“The dirk-dance, a dirk is what they call those long daggers they wear. Sort of like a knife-fight set to music. Actually it’s as much a training kata as a dance, but the Clan loves mixing stuff up like that. Real experts do it with live steel and fast.”
The dance ended with a leap and shout; there was a bit of shuffling around, and then the pipes started up again.
“Hey, I know that tune!” Cole said happily as the pipes sounded through the humming rattle of the bodhran drums. “That’s Lord of the—“
The music faltered a little, and heads turned. Cole did too.
A tall man stood on the jut of rock near the fire, in kilt, saffron-dyed loose-sleeved shirt and a plaid pinned with a broach of silver and turquoise knotwork. His bonnet had Raven feathers in its clasp. A long sword whose pommel shone and glittered hung at his right hip; the firelight gleamed on the bright red-gold hair that fell to his shoulders and the dense short-cropped beard on his sharp-cut regular features. A grin lit his face, and the blue-green-gray eyes sparkled. A ripple and murmur went through the crowd, a chant—
“Ard Rí! Ard Rí!”
“Holy crap, could that really be—“
“Yeah,” Alyssa said. “My cousin Rudi! Or His Majesty Artos the First, High King of Montival, to you lowly peasants.”
“Here?” Cole blurted.
Alyssa grinned. “He shows up everywhere. It’s… notorious!”
The chant changed: “Artos! Artos!”
Cole shivered a little despite himself; Rudi Mackenzie’s name had become a thing of fear to Boise’s survivors. And here he was, like something out of an old old story, like one of his great-grandfather’s illustrated books; Tales of the Round Table and those. There had been a great big tin box the family had discovered when they fled back to the old ranch-house after the Change, and he’d read them after chores all his childhood. Good stories, and a lot more realistic than most pre-Change stuff.
Then the newcomer threw back his head and sang, in a strong deep tenor that wasn’t quite a bass, and the musicians took the tune up again:
“Dance, dance wherever you may be!
I am the Lord of the Dance said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the dance said He.”
“Well, whoever he is, like I said, I know the song. Something familiar at last!”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Alyssa said, and uncorked another jug. “Here.”
He took a swig and hugged his knees as she sat beside him, using his shoulder to lower herself with her good hand. He sighed inwardly at that. Cole Salander wasn’t quite twenty-three yet, but he was old enough to tell when a woman was interested in him. Maybe fighting off that bear that’d been about to eat her had something to do with it. It had been a large and very determined bear, or very hungry, or both.
Unfortunately, it’s an interested woman on the other side of the war, and a banged-up woman with a cracked arm who I’m probably not going to see again after a couple of days from now. Dang, I really have the luck, don’t I? Maybe I should hunt up a dice game, I’ve got to start beating the odds on something soon or lightning will hit me out of a clear blue sky.
The dancers began to move, left hand on hip, the right above their heads; the beat started slow, but every time their feet brought them to the edge of a blade there was a lightning-quick step.
The man called Rudi Mackenzie sang on in a slow rhythm, voice carrying effortlessly through the music and the crackle of the fires:
“I danced at a Beltaine with the pole standing tall,
And ribbons flowing ‘round the dancers all.
I danced in the morning of the Midsummer Feast
As the day dawned pink with the Sun Lord’s heat!”
“Ok, maybe I don’t know this one,” Cole muttered to himself. “But, what the hell, it’s the same tune.”
He joined in the clapping and the chorus:
“Dance, dance wherever you may be!
I am the Lord of the Dance said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the dance said He.”
The tall man went on, quickening just a little:
“As Lughnasadh came and the corn shone gold,
Moonlight brought the kiss of Samhain cold.
I danced about the balefire, late at night,
And turned the Wheel against all fright!
The Mackenzies all joined in the chorus; evidently this was an old favorite with them. Then:
“As the world turned black, I lighted the log,
With Yule burning bright and piercing the fog.
I lay with my Lady in the dark of the year,
And I’ll be reborn when Beltaine draws near!”
Rudi Mackenzie leapt down from the rock as the song ended, and the dancers crowded around him. There was a whoop and they tossed him high and set him on his feet again.
Panic seized Cole. Something was talking to him. Something was talking him, and he was watching it like a play.
Emotion came with it, a cold malevolent hate, a rancid disgust at… everything. Himself included; himself especially. He was alone in a prison of rotting meat, he had to get out, get out into the dark warm rightness.
His hand stripped the knife out of a belt and he lunged up. The tall man’s laughing face loomed before him, a brightness that made an intolerable twisting at the heart of things. He moved, fluid and sure even as part of him struggled to open his fingers and halt his arm—
There was an instant when they were looking at each other eye to eye. His arm quivered, the muscle knotting, and sweat ran down his face. The grip around his right wrist was intolerable, but the pain as the bones ground together had no bearing on what he was doing, what whatever it was was doing.
Cole Salander was a passenger in his own head, like a rich man riding the mail-coach except that he was beating at the windows and trying to smash his way out and getting absolutely nowhere, but that distant part of him had time to feel professional admiration. He’d never seen a control-counter done that fast, and despite the awkward cross-body position the strength that held him was unbelievable. Cole knew he was exerting ten tenths of his body’s capacities, almost enough that the hard muscles tore loose from their anchors on his sturdy bones, but he might as well have been pushing at something carved out of seasoned maple-wood.
“No! Don’t kill him!”
Rudi Mackenzie’s voice rang out, the tone flat and even though the point of the dirk was a half-inch from his belly. He snapped:
“Hale and alive, Edain!
Something hit Cole across the backs of his lower thighs with savage force. The pain alone wouldn’t have made any difference, but simple mechanical leverage made the joints of his knees buckle and pitched him backward. Hands seized him in half a dozen places and began to bend his arms behind him. A guttural sound escaped his throat, as if he was trying to pronounce something that hurt because it wasn’t meant to be said.
Vision began to strobe, the fire-lit night interspersed with somewhere else, somewhere that was black in a way that negated the possibility of anything else.
He twisted against the strength that pulled him away from what he must do. Flashes, a man’s square face, a blond woman’s locked in a rictus of effort.
“Fáfnir’s bones he’s strong!” a soprano voice gasped.
Hands and arms gripped him, half a dozen strong warriors just enough to contain the quivering violence that locked them all into a dynamic stasis. It took two to get the knife out of his hand.
“I… see… you,” rasped through his throat.
“And I you,” the High King said grimly.
To the others: “Hold him fast, now.”
His right hand stripped the Sword out of the sheath at that hip, leaving it pommel-upright in his grasp. The world froze in a blaze that was light and darkness, a smile that was and wasn’t his mother, a feeling of completion. Nothing more was necessary, but something that was/wasn’t him shrieked. In the same movement, fluid and sure, Rudi pressed the antler-cradled crystal to Cole’s forehead.
There was something like steel wire around his brain, straining and then snapping.
He didn’t black out, but everything became irrelevant. The sudden rag-doll limpness of his body almost tore it out of the hands gripping it, where the previous instant’s unnatural strength had been checkmated. They carried him back and plunked him down sitting on top of a barrel full of something heavy and solid, a posture that kept his feet off the ground and made it impossible for him to move even if he felt like it, which he didn’t.
When his eyes fluttered open again he felt almost normal, except that he had no desire to do anything whatsoever except sit and there was a film of something like flexible glass between him and the world. Hands rested heavy on his shoulders and a Mackenzie shortsword was close enough to his throat to make the little hairs crinkle a bit, but that was nothing he could care about.
The High King’s voice, facing off against Bow-Captain Luag’s anger and meeting it with a slight smile.
“That he is not, Luag. He had no more choice in the matter than a man hit on the head with a sledgehammer can chose not to fall.”
A hand fell almost caressingly on the hilt of the Sword. “I’ve met the like before. They must have foreseen that the line of his fate would be tangled with mine, so. And I can tell you with a great and certain certainty that it won’t happen again. Not with this one. He’s guarded against such now, for all his life to come.”
“It would be just as certain if he were dead, but you’re the High King,” Luag said, but it was a grumble now and not hot rage.
“Indeed I am.”
The bow-captain sheathed his own weapon and stepped back.
Cole felt enough life return to smile slightly at the shocked, uncertain faces of Alyssa and Talyn and Caillech. Rudi held out his hand.
“A bit of a pick-me-up, Edain.”
The square-faced young man Cole remembered stepped forward, a flat silver flask in one hand. The other held an unstrung bowstave of impressive thickness.
That part of Cole’s brain that handled logic was starting to work again, as were his nerves, and he suspected that was the thing that had whacked him across the backs of his knees in a way that was going to make him limp for days. All things considered, he didn’t mind much.
“Waste of good brandy, sure and it’s a crime, Chief,” the archer said, but handed it over.
Cole did as the flask was held to his lips. The sweet fire coursed down his throat; he gasped, and things stuttered to life within him. For a moment he had a crazy sensation of being a grape, and feeling utter completion as he was picked and fermented and distilled, then it spun away and the world began to break through the film around his being.
“What—“ his voice began to rise.
The High King stooped a little, one hand braced on his knee, which put their eyes on a level.
“Look at me, man.” Cole did. “Now, you’ve met a High Seeker of the Church Universal and Triumphant at some time, have you not, the misfortune of the world?”
“I… yeah, of course, I—“
A gust of panic suddenly squeezed his throat shut. He knew he had, a red-robe priest of the weird cult that ruled beyond the Rockies. One had shown up to be chaplain, and… But he couldn’t remember it.
“I… I can remember remembering that I did, but—“
“Easy, easy. Drink again. My guard-captain can refill his flask later.”
Cole did, gulping and coughing. The light changeable eyes were steady on his in the firelight, but their presence was like a burning limelight, like looking into the sun for a moment.
“How can I remember remembering but not remember?”
“The Sword of the Lady healed your mind,” Rudi—Artos—said. “A compulsion was laid upon you, like a seed… or a spring trap set for game. The Sword removed it, but that means a scar upon your memory. Count yourself lucky; the compulsion was subtle, and meant to be hidden. If it hadn’t been, more of you would have been lost when the tainted part was burned away.”
The flask was empty. Cole looked down at it—there was a wolf’s face on it, thin black lines set into the silver—and wondered whether he should ask for more or just upchuck. A gust of wild laughter threatened to break free. Probably puking all over the High King would be blasphemy or lèse majesté or something like that.
“Cole Salander, is it?”
“Yes,” he said. Familiar ritual straightened him a little, as he rattled off his rank and serial number.
“And you’ve two brothers, Jack and Tanner?”
That startled him enough that his stomach subsided. “Yeah. They went missing—“
“At the Horse Heaven Hills last year, yes,” the High King said. “There was more than a little chaos, just then.”
His hand was on the Sword again, eyes slitted in thought for a moment before he went on:
“They’re alive. Tanner I grieve to say lost his left foot at the ankle, a matter of a six-pounder roundshot, but he’s recovering and will be able to get about well enough to do a man’s work yet. Jack has taken service with Frederick Thurston, the one of your first President’s sons who yet lives, and the one who didn’t betray and kill him and sell his country to the enemy of human kind. With which enemies you have just now had, I’d be thinking, a closer acquaintance than is comfortable. Not so?”
“I, uh. Yeah.”
Rudi straightened and clapped a hand on his shoulder. When he spoke he raised his voice to carry among the onlookers; faces stretched back into darkness.
“This man did no wrong of his own will. He’s now free of all taint, and I swear by the Sword of the Lady and She who chose me to bear it that he means to abide by his oath. He strove his utmost to resist the bane laid in his soul, and that may well have slowed the stroke just enough to spare me. And he’s now under my protection and that of the Goddess through me, so heed the word of the Mother-of-All.”
A babble broke out, as the late-comers were filled in. The square-faced man took his flask back and tucked it into his sporran.
“You’d think they’d have learned by now it wouldn’t work, and they so full of eldritch knowledge,” he said cheerfully.
Cole thought he was a little white around the gills, though.
“It didn’t work this time,” Rudi said grimly. “If we do well, we’ll keep dodging and weaving long enough for me to accomplish what I must. There’s a reason I was given the Sword. The Lady’s protection does not sleep, but neither does the hatred of the Malevolent.”
He turned his attention back to Cole. “You can see your brother Jack soon,” he said. “And perhaps he can acquaint you better with the rights and wrongs of this miserable war.”
The beautifully modulated voice rose again. “Are there those who’ll care for this man?”
Three stepped forward. “Ah, cousin Alyssa. And Talyn and Caillech of Dun Tàirneanach. See that he sleeps, and that he’s bundled warmly; shock’s a possibility.”
They helped him back, and got out his bedroll to wrap around him while they built up the fire a little and set rocks to heating; he did feel core-chilled.
After he stopped shaking Cole looked into the darkness where Rudi Mackenzie had vanished.
“He’s… quite something, isn’t he?” he said slowly. “He’s got… impact. Whatever it is about a man that… The old General had a lot, and my CO has some… but that guy, he’s got all there is to get.”
“Baraka,” Talyn said soberly. “The Mother marked him for Her own when he was yet a boy, in the nemed, the sacred wood above Dun Juniper. My own father saw it, the great Raven flying out of the setting sun… the mark of Her beak is between his brows, you saw it? That was put there by no human hand. Some say he’s Lugh come again, the Sun Lord’s self returned in His joy and wrath and splendor.”
Cole nodded. It was weird, but somehow it made sense. Then he yawned enormously, and the world faded away. He scarcely felt hands moving him into the tent and laying him on the pine-boughs, hot stones at his feet and back.