Chapter Seven

Susan Mika and her companions waved and kept their bows conspicuously cased as they rode up to the Lakota warband, conscious that they’d been observed for minutes and that several dozen had arrows on the strings of their bows, though nobody was actually pointing one at them or drawing. They kept their horses to a trot because of the footing; creepers and grass and the general vivid green of the vegetation here covered a multitude of sins once you were off the beach, not least holes left by two generations of abandoned ancient houses falling down or burning down and being torn to bits by the rampant tropical vegetation or salvagers or both.

The speed also helped them look nonthreatening. Montival’s endlessly varied local customs and dress and ways of life had produced a wide variety of military skills for this army. But it also meant that a lot of the participants looked like weird foreigners to one another, particularly to the jumpy, disoriented and overwhelming majority for whom this was their first trip away from home and their first battle.

Apart from being short—a grandmother had called her vertically challenged, which she supposed was an oldster’s joke—Susan personally looked the way Lakota were traditionally supposed to look, and which not all did. That despite the fact that one of her grandmothers had been called Fox Woman for the color of her hair, and a grandfather had been an exchange student named Ulagan Chinua,which was Mongol for Red Wolf, studying range management at SDSU before the Change. Individuals had moved around a lot in those years as the needs of survival dictated, and paired with the people to hand.

She didn’t dress in the full Lakota regalia most of the time, though she did braid her hair and wear a couple of feathers she felt entitled to for her deeds. And she felt a little ambiguous about finally talking with the Lakota contingent of the Montivallan expeditionary force, which was another reason why she had kept her horse to a fast rocking trot getting here, not the flat-out gallop she would have used normally.

On the one hand she was proud of her folk, their power and famous deeds. And that the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires, were the lords of the makol, the high plains and the Black Hills that marked the easternmost march of the High Kingdom. There were times when she missed the prairies bitterly, when things like the memory of the buffalo hunt and the Sun Dance festivals made her want to cry, and even the frigid stinging blizzards of winter could bring a sigh. And it would be nice to hang out with people who spoke her own language, literally and metaphorically. Though their everyday tongue was their own version of English, they remembered the other too, especially the prominent families like hers, and everyone learned it or at least took some lessons along with reading and writing and math and so forth in the schools that accompanied their herding camps.

And dropping in might mean a chance to score some buffalo-hump jerky. Oh, that taste of home, just like Mom used to make!

On the other hand, there was the little matter of why she’d left home, with a fair number of people wanting her dead. Which led into why her uncle had used his influence with the High King to get her a post in the Crown Courier Corps that put her under the protection of the Crown of Montival everywhere she went, and why she didn’t ever intend to go back unless it was briefly and on official business.

It’s not as if I’m running from shooting someone in the back from ambush. He did hit me first and he outweighed me by fifty pounds. What was I supposed to do? Not pull a knife and just try to punch him back? Yeah, I called him an asshole before he hit me, but then, he wasan asshole, and what business of it was his in the first place?

The problem was that some people, who were idiots but still there they were, thought he’d had a good reason for that, and she’d never really gotten to tell her side of the story. That was another reason her uncle had advised a quick departure; not letting it develop into a feud.

And Unk did have a point; the guy may have been an asshole, but he’s a very dead asshole, and seeing me all the time was going to remind his friends, if he had any, and certainly his relatives of that.

Winter camps could get very boring up on the makol, plenty of time for brooding, and the Lakota had a very decentralized form of government by consensus. It was a chief’s job to keep divisions under control and he couldn’t look as if he was giving her a break because she was his niece, or some people would just stop listening to him.

On the good side, they were all a long way from home here—a very long way, she knew, looking around. This open area—she’d seen a faded, flaking sign, obviously at least fifty years old, reading Pu’uloa Beach Park—was surrounded by what had probably been housing before the Change; you could still see the remains of building pads here and there, or where the roads had been before the Hawaiians levered them up to remelt the asphalt and use it elsewhere, a familiar form of salvage. Smashed-up concrete made a good material for a rammed earth wall, too.

Modern houses had been scattered through it, mostly of light construction with palm roofs. Each had been surrounded by a large garden and usually an orchard of orange trees and lemons and mangos and breadfruit and bananas, some of the fences still incongruously gay with masses of flowers on bush violet or bougainvillea.

The houses had all been burned by the invaders, which given some of the things she’d seen might be a mercy to anyone passing by. The enemy apparently liked to get humorously structural with body-parts. Some of them had been very small body parts, and there had been a lot of grilled bone split for the marrow; goats, pigs, cattle and people all mixed, all adding to the scorched-rotten stink heavy in the warm perfumed air. There must have been a fair number of livestock around, too, or the rampant tropical growth would have been even more rampant.

The three of them drew up before the Lakota standard, which was a dark red flag with seven white tipis set base-to-base in the center to make a circle. Faramir and Morfind got some curious looks, since there weren’t many Ranger Staths as far east as the Lakota country yet.

Théhaŋ waŋčhíŋyaŋke šni,” Susan Mika said, raising her hand; it was literally accurate, if you took “long time, no see” as “several years.”

“Backatcha, Susie,” the Lakota commander Ivan Mat’o Gi replied, returning the gesture.

He was also an Oglála, an older cousin of hers, and fortunately a rather sympathetic one; a couple of his akicita were giving her hard looks, though not the especially honored one who bore the Eagle Staff beside him, like a shepherd’s crook wrapped in otter skin with feathers along the outside. Most of the band were Húŋkpapȟa or Sihásapa or whatever and hadn’t known her from a prairie dog until the ones who didknow her realized she was here and the gossip mill got going.

“Still living it up, I see,” he continued, looking at her companions.

She didn’t reply to that; as far as she was concerned, she considered Morfind and Faramir as settling down rather than living it up. She wasn’t nineteen and fancy-free anymore.

“Mae Govannen, blotáhunka Mat’o Gi,” the two Dúnedain Rangers said, giving him the Dúnedain salute, right hand to heart combined with a slight bow, and getting a nod and:

“Hiya, pleased to meet ’cha.” in return.

Susan hid a smile—in Eryn Muir she’d been the exotic outlander girlfriend, and now it was their turn. Though she had to admit the Dúnedain Rangers were more open-minded than her own folk, possibly because they lived scattered all over among outsiders rather than in a single shared place that was a world in itself.

The Ranger cousins were slightly mispronouncing the word for war-leader and the man’s name—Brown Bear—despite her coaching, but would get props for trying and coming close. He usually went by Ivan, anyway, and as kids they’d all called him Big Nose, since it was a truly commanding beak that had only grown as he approached thirty.

But good enough. My Sindarin is still lousy too, and I’ve had a lot more practice.

“Not that we don’t appreciate the rest, but we were just getting stuck in and we didn’t come here to watch a battle,” Ivan said to her, lounging at ease in his light saddle like someone who’d grown up that way, which of course he had. “So, what does Golden Eagle Woman want us to do now?”

Lakota generally referred to the Crown Princess by that name; the Golden Eagle was her totem by Mackenzie custom, and she’d gotten the same protector’s call when she spent time up on the makol. It helped that the waŋblí was a symbol of warrior power and courage among the Lakota, and they’d been impressed with her along those lines even as a teenager.

“Well, first she wants to double check your horses are good and recovered,” she said.

And ran her eye over them, with the benefit of an experience that started as a toddler and had been refined even more as a Crown Courier, riding two hundred miles a day at times.

“Look fine to me,” she added.

“Yeah, though they could have used some more free grazing and exercise than we got over on that other island,” Ivan said. “Being shut up in those floating wooden boxes is even harder on horses than people… unless sailors count as people, which I doubt. But basically we’re okay, though I’d like some more remounts.”

She grinned at him. “Since when were there ever enough horses? I mean, even counting the ones we hadn’t stolen yet?”

He laughed at the reference to their national sport and looked at the sleek dappled gray Arabs the two Dúnedain were on.

“Are those ones your friends ’r riding as good as they look? They sure are pretty.”

Better than they look. Fast, real staying power, especially in hot weather, scary smart, and they turn even sharper than a quarter horse.”

“Nice to know,” he said, like a horse-breeder making notes. “So, action? Getting sort of boring.”

Susan swung her arm to the northwest.

“If you’re good on the horses, the Crown Princess wants you to cautiously develop the enemy’s position there.”


“They’re pushing ahead there, or will be. In a big column. Shoot ’em up and slow ’em down and make ’em spread into line.”

“That’s what I thought you said, but it pays to be sure. Wašícu sure do like to talk fancy,” Ivan said.

“But don’t get tangled up. She’s got someone else in mind for the heavy lifting. The Japanese will be along, and some Portlander knights.”

“Well, the crawdads have their uses,” Ivan said, using the eastern slang for Association heavy cavalry. “Ramming their heads into walls, for one. When they don’t have ’em somewhere else.”

“And the enemy shoot back pretty well, so be careful.”

“Yeah, we noticed. Their bows look funny but there’s nothing wrong with the performance. Okay, tell Golden Eagle the Guardians of the Eastern Gate are on it.”

He swung his helmet on, a steel cap topped by buffalo horns and fur with a long tail of pelt that fell down his back, and turned to his command, several hundred wild youngsters, grinning faces painted with red and black and white for war. Here and there a few gray-streaked braids with more of the feathers of accomplishment in them showed veterans… who’d been wild youngsters themselves in the Prophet’s War where they got the varicolored scalps sewn to the outer seams of their leggings or dangling from lances.

They were mostly in short-sleeved shirts of light riveted mail or leather jerkins sewn with steel scales or washers, with round shields of buffalo-hide taken from the neck-humps of bulls and faced with sheet metal from ancient autos, armed with bow and shete, knife and tomahawk and now and then a rawhide-bound stone-headed war club, which was nicely traditional. And on a yard-long shaft of springy laminated horn it also cracked skulls just as effectively as any alternative.

Hoka hey, Lakota!” Ivan shouted, and waved his shield; it had a buffalo head on it facing out, divided into four quarters and painted white, yellow, black and red.

“Let’s go! It’s a good day for those shits over there to die! We’ll sting ’em and slow them down and skip when they try to punch back.”

The warriors all started forward, and broke into a canter within a few paces in fluid unison. Their yelping war cries split the air with a shrill menace. Susan and her companions joined them; her instructions were to observe, but she definitely intended to do some shooting. For the sake of the thing, and because she already had a lot of grudges piled up against these people from the High King’s death, and then the expedition to South Westria where they’d come uncomfortably close to killing her several times, not to mention her friends. And now from doing all this nasty stuff here in Hawaiʻi: they managed to give her more reasons to kill them every time they met, personal and principled together.

And I’ll go along because what I see, Orrey knows, what with the Sword. Which is sorta creepy, but way useful.

She reached over her shoulder to her quiver and checked the shafts there and the bow in the case by her knee. Her bowstave wasn’t very thick; the general rule was that the draw on a war bow should be about two-thirds to three-quarters your body weight, and she was five-foot-one and built in a way she thought of as whipcord or graceful and unkind people called skinny like a rattlesnake. But nobody had ever complained about her accuracy, on foot or on the back of a šúŋkawakȟáŋ.

“C’mon, Big Magical Dog, we’ve got work to do,” she said, and leaned forward slightly; the horse took the hint and speeded up. “Forward the Lakota and the Dúnedain!”

The terrain they were heading into was flattish and open and had been cleared of pre-Change ruins except for an occasional snag; mostly it was covered in well-grazed grass and low shrubs, though there were blue-green hills on the edge of sight ahead that looked as if they were densely wooded. Here and there were coconut palms, whose feather-duster shape she was still getting used to. Patches of younger trees had the pruned look that meant they were coppiced regularly for small wood or more likely for charcoal and planted amid stretches of ruin too stubborn for anything else, to get some use out of otherwise useless ground while the patient roots ground brick and concrete back into soil.

She’d seen the technique often enough in Montival with very different types of tree. It was usually the sign of a large settlement nearby or of some sort of smelting industry, or both.

“You know,” she said to her companions, and waved around. “If it weren’t all fucked up, this would be even prettier than the country around Hilo. And the weather’s great—like the air was kissing you. Like you guys’ home down in Westria, but not as dry.”

“Well, yes, meleth e-guilen, but right now you can tell it’s a battle,” Morfind said from her right.

“Most of the songs leave the… the mess out,” Faramir said grimly from her left.

Neither of them said more; one of the many things Susan liked about both of them was that they weren’t chatterers. They left that to her, mostly.

“Yup, messy,” she said, as she clapped her light helmet on and fastened the chin-cup. “Like I said, seriously fucked up. It’s worse somehow because it’s so pretty otherwise. I like the flowers. Like home in the springtime, only I think it’s all year-round here.”

They were close enough that the snarling brabble punctuated by shrieks and scrap-metal-on-cement sounds, which went with a big fight, was fairly loud, but still blurred by distance into a seamless whole.

It was astonishing how far thirty thousand yelling voices carried, but then, that was more people than most cities had. Battles were even more densely packed than cities, too; the line ahead was less than a mile long west to east from one end to another.

She could see the low black string that marked where the armies made contact, and the sparkling ripple that was its movements. Bolts and cast-steel roundshot and napalm shells from the Montivallan field-catapults firing over their own troops’ heads made flickering streaks or lines of black smoke in the distance amid the ratcheting clatter of the cocking pumps and the TUNG! of release.

Occasional dead bodies littered the fields as they rode north over the ground where the fight had gone; mostly Koreans in their spiked helmets, but a fair scattering of Montivallans too, since the stretcher-parties took only the wounded until the post-battle cleanup.

Here and there a dead horse lay, which she admitted in strict privacy bothered her too. Lakota were mostly nomad herders, who raised cattle and sheep and horses and managed the buffalo herds that had returned since the Change, and they couldn’t afford to be sentimental about animals… even less than most people could, in the modern world. They all calmed theirs down when they began to roll their eyes and snort at the smells and noises, even though if you thought about it from their own point of view the beasts were totally right to convey:

You absolutely sure you’re absolutely sure about this, boss?

But you couldn’t depend on horses for your life and live with them from colt-hood on without feeling something for them; they weren’t machines, after all. They had a spirit, like people.

“The horses cannot choose to stay at home,” Faramir said, which proved they’d gotten to the point of thinking alike.

“Neither can humans, most of the time,” Morfind answered.

“Yeah, but at least we have some idea of what’s going on,” Susan said. “Of course, that makes things worse too, sometimes.”

Arrows bristled from the ground, with clusters where a flight had come down before the lines shifted, and there were bent javelins, broken pikes, bits and pieces of gear such as water bottles, little pools of blood that attracted some of the swarms of flies from the bodies when a hungry kite or gull landed and disturbed them with its flapping wings—they went to work on the faces first, since those didn’t have armor. That was why the Montivallan dead were all rolled onto their stomachs with a jacket or shield or whatever laid over their heads by the medical squads that had checked they were goners.

Charred patches still smoldering showed where napalm shells had landed, and added burnt meat and a chemical reek to the stink.

Not all the bodies looked much like bodies anymore. The results when a catapult bolt designed to punch through a foot of hardwood hit living people wasn’t very pleasant at all, and when roundshot struck human beings at close range the target splashed.

They passed the Japanese contingent double-timing forward, their lamellar armor clattering and the long blades of their higo-yari spears rising and falling; sunlight gleamed from the almost liquidly intense brightness of their lacquered armor, red and black and yellow, protection and boast at the same time. There was a leashed eagerness to them that Susan could sense, even though their faces had a stone restraint; this was an enemy they’d fought all their lives, usually at a disadvantage, and they were looking forward to the boot being on the other foot and risk be damned.

Empress Reiko rode at their head, with a few mounted commanders and standard-bearers. Susan cast a critical eye; the Nihonjin leaders were competent in the saddle, but…

Not bad… for farmers. That about sums it up, she thought, which confirmed her earlier experiences.

When they got close enough to see individual banners, beehives and honeybees made it clear that the far left of the Montivallan infantry line was the Deseret regiment that had passed them on the beach.

Three blocks of pikemen with crossbowmen between held the end of the line, with a fourth phalanx in reserve; evenly-spaced ridges of dead about fifty yards behind showed that the Koreans had fallen into the trap of trying to push into what looked like holes between the blocks of pikes and get at their flanks, not knowing how fast the rear files in a good formation could turn ninety degrees and ram right into you like a wall of high-speed points, flanking you in turn like the steel jaws of a bear trap.

Right now the long shafts of the first four ranks of pikes were leveled, held so that they all extended to the same length, and the long heads of spring steel were locked into the shields of the Koreans where they formed an overlapping wall.

Push of pike,” Morfind murmured.

The phrase was technical and evocative too, because this was like a giant lethal football scrum, a grunting heaving snarling shoving match of armored bodies with braced booted feet churning at the dirt. Dust hovered over them as the hobnails ripped up the grass, adding an odd mineral tang of volcanic soil to the stink of sweat loaded with rage and fear, and blood and wastes from the dead and wounded.

Behind them the fourth line had their weapons held overarm, snapping forward in punching two-armed stabs aimed at men’s faces, hard enough to smash all the way through to the spine if they hit. Farther back still was a forest of pikes held upright by the rear ranks, rattling together occasionally or making sharper sounds and swaying when an arrow struck them, or bobbing when a man stepped forward to replace a casualty. The Koreans jabbed back when they could with their shorter weapons, or hacked at the heads of the pikes with swords; now and then one would try to crawl forward beneath the points, which usually ended badly. Mostly they took the pike-points on their shields, keeping them as an overlapping wall, and now and then the whole formation would heave a few steps back or forward in rippling panting unison.

Occasionally a chant would break out, shatteringly loud until there wasn’t enough breath and it died back down into massed grunting and cursing:

Juche! Juche!” from the enemy, or something like: “Jug-ida! Meogda!

And from the Deseret soldiers a huge crashing bellow, resonant and blurred from being shouted out behind lowered visors:


The half-armored crossbowmen—and women, unlike the pike formation with their sixteen-foot weapons—were shooting in a kneeling-standing two-deep line in the intervals between the pike-blocks, well back from the close-quarter action: leveling their weapons and firing, then pumping the cocking-levers built into the forestocks, taking another thick stubby pile-headed bolt from the cases at their belts and clipping it into the groove ahead of the bent string and repeating the process. It was more like labor in a water-powered linen mill than what Susan thought of as fighting, with a lot of extra danger thrown in, but it certainly worked.

Many of the bodies behind the line had had bolts in them, rather than the bigger wounds the heads of the pikes made; the vanes that guided the bolts were mostly cut from pre-Change credit cards, though thin varnished leather was increasingly used as the plastic aged and crumbled.

The noise—which included the near-continuous heavy tung! of crossbow prods made from salvaged leaf springs releasing, a tooth-grating sound not quite in synch—was too loud to hear their noncoms’ commands, but they’d be chanting, or screaming:

First rank, take aim… fire!… reload in nine times: reload!… second rank, take aim… fire!… reload in nine times: reload!…

Or if the line went forward: Company will fire by advancing ranks….

Arrows came flicking and whistling back from the rear ranks of the Korean formation; not an overwhelming mass, but a steady whickering flow arching across the sky, enough to give a continuous rattling chorus of bang! sounds as they deflected or shattered on the plates of the heavy infantry’s armor, or a shriek or curse as they went home in flesh. They weren’t running out of shafts yet, though with their fleet sunk they wouldn’t be getting any more, either. Arrows went fast in a battle, and they were bulky if not heavy to lug around.

“You know,” Susan said to her companions, “I went through Deseret a lot as a Courier. Nicest people you’d want to meet, I mean, mostly—you get the odd hard look or cold shoulder for being a gentile, or some guy who’s absolutely a no-go tries to get into your pants, or you run into one who’s bound and determined you’re going to hear about Joseph Smith and the angels and the golden plates and the Lost Tribes, which is how I found out I was really Jewish.”

The two Dúnedain chuckled indulgently at the odd beliefs some isolated folk had. Susan went on:

“But nine times in ten they’re real friendly—after a while I had families in all the towns I touched who treated me like little sis, home-cooked meals and all. Mostly they don’t drink, they don’t brawl, they hardly even cuss or cheat. But put them on a battlefield…”

“They are doing well,” Faramir agreed. “I wouldn’t want to be taking what they’re dishing out.”

The Lakota column, or mass or band, swung wider westward to avoid the field ambulances and stretcher-parties and pack-mules bringing up more bolts and the trickle of walking wounded helping one another towards the nearest field hospital. This wasn’t Susan’s first fight by any means, but it was her first big set-piece battle. Montival’s last major war had petered out in guerilla skirmishes about the time she was born, or a few years earlier depending on how serious you considered the final scuffles with holdouts hiding in caves in the Bitterroots living on camas and the odd gopher and what they could rustle and steal and harder and harder to tell from plain old-fashioned bandits.

But she’d grown up on the descriptions of the storm-and-thunder parts of the Prophet’s War as told around the fires, and one of the things the oldsters all agreed with was that in a mounted skirmish you could be killed anytime, but in set battles things were dangerous only for about half bowshot on either side of the line of contact. Beyond that it was only mildly risky.

An extended line of light cavalry guarded the flank; they were on quarter horses too, and equipped much like the Lakota, with a few differences such as wearing chaps instead of leggings and high-heeled boots instead of the simpler moccasin-like gear her folk preferred. Their guidon-flags had a bucking horse on them, or spiky rancher’s brand-signs. That meant they were from the territories of the Pendleton Round-Up, with its capital at the little city of that name: ranchers and their retainers from the arid lands south of the Columbia bend and around the Blue Mountains, east of the better-known Central Oregon Ranchers’ Organization with its center at Bend.

A lot of them had volunteered, and were anxious to demonstrate their loyalty. For reasons of chance and if-they’re-against-it-I’m-for-it local squabbles and the dynastic foibles of their ruling Bossmen they’d been on the wrong, losing side during most of the Prophet’s War a generation ago. The second wave from back home would probably include a lot of riders from the Crown Province of Nakamtu, what had been the core territories of the Church Universal and Triumphant and before that Montana, for the same reason. The distance from the coast was the only reason they weren’t here already.

A few genial shouts of:

“Well, if it ain’t the Injuns come to rescue the cavalry!” rang out.

They were answered by elevated Lakota middle fingers and cries of:

“Every damn time, cowfuckerboys!” or “Get off that poor mangy dog and get a horse, why can’t you?”

To which some wit replied:“’Cause you Sioux horse-thieves stole them all.”

“While you were riding them! And you never noticed!”

An officer came galloping up to Ivan Brown Bear, flanked by a signaler with a brass trumpet slung across her chest and holding a light lance flying a pennant of dark blue with a yellow brand shaped like deep U whose left arm was drawn out at the top to make a 7, and whose right merged into a capital P. The man wore a breastplate of overlapping steel-rimmed lacquered bull-hide segments, and had a scabbed-over cut on a red sweating cheek that he rubbed at absently with the back of one of his rawhide gauntlets. He also had a long blond beard braided into a fork and the skull of a cougar minus the lower jaw mounted on his light sallet helm, snarling endlessly. His high-horn saddle was liberally adorned with tooled leather and silver accents and rested on one of the colorful patterned blankets for which his realm was famous.

The broken-off stub of an arrow stood in it, too.

The man was in his thirties. The signaler was around Susan’s age, had freckles, and looked enough like him to be close kin and probably was. She gave the Dúnedain and the Lakota woman a curious look and a nod. Both their horses were sweating, and had flecks of foam on their necks and chests, evidence of hard work; their round metal-faced shields had the same brand symbol as the banner. Ranchers throughout the interior of Montival used them much like an Association knight’s coat of arms.

Coat of arms you burn into a cow’s ass, Susan thought to herself; she considered the habit absurd.

“Hi, Ivan, finally come out to do some work, right?” the stockman-officer said with a smile that showed gaps in his teeth. “Late to the dance, as usual.”

They leaned over in the saddle to slap the palms of their hands and then the backs of their fists together, two rangy tough-looking men with the weathered appearance of a life spent in the saddle, and both in their prime.

The Lakota leader grinned back. “Thought I’d check whether you were asleep or just jacking off behind a bush, Red Bull,” he said and pointed at the other man’s face. “But say, wašícu, look out! You’ve got a dead pussycat biting on your head!”

“That’s Cap’n Red Bull Anderson sir to you, you idle bastard,” the rancher replied. “And I kilt this catamount my own self! With a kitchen knife! When I was six! And asleep.”

Then seriously: “What’s up?”

“Golden Eagle Woman says the savages are going to hit this flank with a column,” Ivan said. “So we Lakota are going out to completely fuck up their day.”

“Yeah, we got a runner with that news ’bout the enemy a little whiles ago and didn’t like it one damn bit—not enough of us to stop a big column. Ain’t been nothin’ but a few pokes and slaps at us so far, they’re all afoot and we cut ’em up bad, but Lordy they’re mean as snakes, this bunch! Can’t say I enjoy fightin’ ’em all that much, lost some good boys, but killing them’s just a pleasure, it purely is.”

“You don’t fucking say,” Ivan replied. “Okay, so we’re going out to develop the position.”


“Shoot ’em up, make ’em spread out.”

“Then why in seven hells didn’t you say so?”

Ivan chuckled and said: “Expect the Japanese and some Portland crawdads along in a bit, so don’t get in the way—the crawdads, they’re not much on looking where they’re going once they drop their visors and swing those barge poles down.”

“God give you good shootin’,” Anderson said. “We’ll switch to our remounts while you do, and thank you kindly for the chance.”

“Don’t take too long. Remember, blanket first, then the saddle, and both of them go on the top side of the horse.”

“Dang, who’d a thunkit? Thanks for that there deep Injun wisdom, good luck, and kill a few extra for me.”

“Same to you, and glad to oblige.”

The rancher and his signaler galloped off. The Lakota moved forward at a faster trot, over ground littered with the byproducts of what Anderson had called pushing and slapping. That included a fair scatter of enemy bodies with arrows sticking in them that bore the distinctive Pendleton fletching, made from the iridescent blue-green tailfeathers of the black-billed magpie. All of the enemy dead had been archers, judging by the gear and by the dead quarter horses with arrows in them littered here and there. The Round-Up fighters had removed their own fallen, including the dead.

The Lakota didn’t gallop yet. You did that only when you were within bowshot of the enemy; a horse could keep up a gallop only about as long as a man could run flat-out, so you didn’t waste it. When you needed the speed, you needed it to be there and you needed it bad.

Susan leaned down to her left as they cantered past one clump of bodies, hooking her right heel around the horn of her saddle, using one hand to keep the arrows from falling out of her quiver. With the other she scooped an enemy bow off the ground and flicked herself back into the saddle with a flex of leg and torso, foot finding stirrup as she examined the Korean weapon.

It was about the same four foot in length as hers, and likewise made of a sandwich with wood in the center, horn on the belly and sinew on the back, but it was much rounder in section, rather than flat strips. The grip was merely a stiffer section wrapped in hide strips, instead of a rigid hardwood grip with a shelf cut in so that you shot through the centerline of the bow. And the ends were rigid forward-canted levers of hardwood tipped with bone, with a notched string-bridge to hold the cord off them. She tried a draw, and found it too heavy for her as she expected, but the pull was quite smooth.

It was covered in fine leather….

A closer inspection of the leather covering and the bone tips of the levers made her shudder and hold it out between thumb and forefinger; also the string-bridges were made from human teeth. Morfind leaned in, looked, and grimaced.

Yrch,” she said, as Susan threw it away and wiped her hands on her doeskin breeches.

In the Histories, that word meant orcs, though from her recent immersion in Dúnedain society what exactly orcs were or had been in the first Three Ages was something you could chew the fat about endlessly around the fire on winter evenings, which at least beat the crap out of horse genealogies and buffalo-hunt anecdotes on the boring scale.

Though maybe that’s because I haven’t been listening to it all my life.

In MSS, Modern Spoken Sindarin, yrch just meant the enemy—especially enemies who ate human flesh or did other things that were…

Well, orc-like, I suppose?

… like working for evil sorcerers.

Yrch? You said it, girlfriend!” Susan said fervently.

It certainly fit the bill pretty precisely here, or close enough for government work.

No dirweg, hirillath!” Faramir said quietly: Watch out, ladies!

Susan let out a long breath. She and her companions pulled their shields off the hooks on their bowcases and slung them over their backs with their leather straps, then set arrows on their strings. She opened the steel-lined leather case that held her binoculars too, which she had a lot of practice doing one-handed, and stood a little in the stirrups with bent knees as she leveled them—you had to compensate for the up-and-down motion of your horse or the magnification flicked your vision all over the landscape.

The enemy column was coming towards them at a uniform pounding trot to a hammer of drums, successive blocks ten men across and twenty deep one after another, driving forward like a steel fist. They had banners with them too, a flag with a central red panel with a white circle around a five-pointed red star, bordered above and below by narrow white stripes and broader blue ones. That was innocuous enough, but the human skulls with the red-painted teeth of dogs or wolves added on top of the poles rather spoiled the effect.

So did the skulls bobbing on the sides of the horse-litter in the center of the formation. She couldn’t see much of the person sitting cross-legged in it; the intervening cavalry was in the way. But she thought she’d seen that baggy costume of many colors and strips of cloth before, and the fringed mask, and the tall three-peaked crown of gold filigree. Two more in similar but simpler costume capered on either side, waving open fans and carved wands.

“Uh-oh,” she said. “Take a look there!”

She handed the glasses to Faramir, who did and then passed them to his cousin Morfind, moving their horses around each other as easily as they would have their own bodies.

“One of the kangshinmu,” Susan said.

Órlaith had told her—knowledge courtesy of the Sword of the Lady—that originally the word had just meant shaman possessed by a spirit, part of the traditional beliefs of Korea and no more good or evil than anyone else’s faith. Only after the Change had it come to mean possessed by a particular spirit, as the Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant and his magi had been taken over and twisted by the same entity back home. Only in Korea, they’d won.

Morgul,” Faramir called grimly over the drumming hoofbeats: black magic. “Tego ven i Melain am mand!

Susan most certainly didn’t mind the thought of the Valar keeping them safe, but…

Tunkasila, le iyahpe ya yo!” she murmured as she recased the binoculars, just in case Grandfather needed reminding; and there did seem for a moment to be a strong hand on her back, though she couldn’t have sworn it wasn’t her own mind.


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling