Ranger Peter Girenas grunted as he lifted the gutted white-tail from the pack-horse’s back and threw it over one shoulder. Two others hung from the white-oak branch where he carried it, and he quickly ran the leather cord that dangled ready through a slit between the bone and tendon of the carcass’ hind legs. The horse gave a heaving sigh and shifted from hoof to hoof.
With one hand braced against the flank he jerked the crossbow bolt free. Easier than digging out a bullet, and cheaper — it was only in the last couple of years that ammunition for the black-powder smoke-poles had gotten cheap enough to use for hunting.
“Here it is, Pete” Sue Chau said, handing him half the deer liver, spitted on the green stick she’d used to grill it over the low coals of the fire.
“Thanks. Perks says thanks too.”
She laughed and nudged the dog with her toe. Perks didn’t normally allow liberties, but right now he was too occupied with the deer-head to resent it. Girenas squatted by the fire to wolf the hot, savory meat down; the smell alone was enough to make a man drool, after a day’s hard work. It went well with the green smell of summer forest, the leafy-yeasty odor of the mold on the ground under the woods, and the spicey sassafrass tea boiling in the pot on one of the camp’s hearth-rocks. The rich organ-meat juices filled his mouth as he bit into it and ran down over his chin.
Have to shave soon, he thought, as he wiped it with a palm and the bristles rasped at his hand. Or mebbe start a real beard. He’d tried two years ago, but it had grown in patchy, as well as three shades closer to orange than the sun-faded ash-blond thatch on his head. Still, he was twenty-one now, old enough to raise a decent crop, and it would be a relief to stop scraping his face. Shaving in the bush was no joke, even with a good Seahaven straight-edge.
He was concious of the girl’s eyes on him as he stripped off his equipment belt and buckskin hunting shirt and went to the edge of the creek to wash off. Look all you want, he thought, grinning down into the water as its pleasant coolness cut through the sweat and dried blood on his skin. The young man stood an inch over six feet in his moccasins, with long legs and arms and wide shoulders heavy with the muscle that logging, trekking and hunting put on you. His face was broad in the cheeks, snubnosed, weathered to a dark tan that made the pale grey of his eyes all the more vivid. He flung back his head in a shower of droplets and turned still grinning. Sue was a couple of years younger than him, but well past the gawky stage; a looker, too, with exotic slanted blue eyes and amber skin, long black hair, the heritage of a half-Vietnamese father and French-Canadian mother.
Not that any of that old-timer crap means anything here, he thought, catching her eye and winking, chuckling when she blushed and looked away. You were a Nantucketer or not, that was the important thing here in the Year Eight. So far all they’d done on this hunting trip was hunt, but he had hopes — and there was a lot more privacy here than back at Providence Base.
She frowned as his expression went cold and his eyes slid past her. “Pete –”
The man cut her off with a chopping gesture. “What is it, Perks?” he said.
The beast stayed in his stiff crouch, head pointing northward and hair bristling along his spine, the beginnings of a battle-rumble trickling out of his deep chest; he was a mastiff-wolf mix nearly a yard high at the shoulder, and right now he looked to favor his wild father’s side of the cross. Peter felt his skin roughen with more than the cold of water drying in the forest shade. His eyes flickered about. They had camped by a little overhang, where the creek ran down from a stretch of rocky hills. A couple of elms had fallen here in some storm, leaving a clearing edged with thick brush. Half a dozen steps in any direction the woods began, tall white pine further north where a forest fire had gone through perhaps a half-century ago, white oak and chestnut and hickory lower down, all tall enough to shade out most undergrowth. Now that the sun was three hours past noon the shadows under the great trees were deep and soft, hard for eyes half-blinded by the light spearing down into the open space.
Sue had gone silent, her eyes scanning as well. She made three casual steps sideways and picked up the Seahaven-made Westley-Richards rifle leaning against a shagbark hickory, her thumb going to the hammer to pull it back to full cock. Pete walked towards his own bedroll and weapons, equally slow… no sense in making whoever or whatever was approaching commit themselves.
A twig snapped, and four men moved through the scrub at the forest edge. Damn, Peter thought as he halted and stood at his ease, face an unreadable mask. Rather have a bear, or a cougar.
“Heel, Perks,” he said; the dog trotted to stand beside him, hair bristling on its neck and shoulders, teeth showing long and wet.
The Nantucketer raised his right hand with the palm forward. “Peace,” he said — the gesture was common here, and they might have that much English.
Although I doubt it, he decided; they weren’t any group he recognized. Stocky muscular men with bronze-brown skins, dressed in breechclouts, leggings and moccasins much like his. Hide bundles rode their backs; two gripped flint-headed darts set in atlatls, spear-throwing levers; one had a steel-headed trade hatchet in his hand; another an elaborately carved hardwood club. Their bold-featured faces were as impassive as his; he watched their eyes, hands, feet, all the clues that told of intentions. Each had the sides of his head shaved and painted vermillion, with the hair up in a roach above and trailing in a queue behind; all the tribes on the coasts near Nantucket did. These had bars of blue pigment across their faces at eyebrow level as well, and a strip of yellow from brow to chin.
Whatever the hell that means. Maybe from far inland… Or they might not be from any tribe at all, just homeless wanderers from bands broken up in the epidemics. One had heavy facial scarring, looking like a really terrible case of acne. He’d seen Indians mark up like that from the chickenpox that had run through the coastal settlements in the Year 3. Or maybe measles from the year after.
“Peace,” he said again.
Uh-oh. They weren’t looking at him much; they were looking at the camp. It wasn’t much, just two bedrolls and their travelling gear, but it would be a fortune to locals. Steel tools and pots, cloth, the three horses, most of all the rifle and crossbow. And attacking strangers wasn’t considered wrong by any of the tribes they’d contacted — not unless oaths had been sworn.
“You’re welcome to share our camp,” he said. “Hinyep ZHotopo,” he repeated, in Lekkansu, the tongue of the sea-coast people the Nantucketers had most dealings with. Hunters from one of the bands who traded with the Americans would have replied in kind; they took hospitality seriously.
Damn. No response at all, except to widen out a little as they came towards the fire. He was concious of a cold sour churning in the pit of his stomach, and a furious annoyance that Sue was here… and all of it was incredibly distant, like the drumbeat of blood in his ears.
“Stop!” he said, waving them back, scowling. Can’t just…
The spearcast came with blinding speed. Girenas was already dropping and rolling as the Indian brought his atlatl back over his shoulder, and the ashwood shaft wickered through the space he’d been standing in to thud three inches deep into a beech tree and stand quivering. The second spearman was aiming more carefully when Sue’s rifle went off with a sharp crack and a long jet of off-white powder smoke. The Indian folded around himself with a surprised ooof!, like a man who’d been punched in the gut. He wouldn’t be getting up again though, not with an exit wound the size of a baby’s fist blasted out the other side of him by the hollowpoint.
Girenas flipped himself back to his feet, and the eighteen-inch bowie strapped along his right calf snapped into his fist and into a gutting swing. The hatchet-man jinked in mid-leap as he dodged back from its menace, his war-shriek turning to a yell of alarm. His friend with the club was using it to fend off Perks, the dog slinking around him with an endless ratcheting snarl and making little rushes whenever he saw an opening. Ignore it. The world sank down to one man and a razor-edged piece of steel on a two-foot wooden shaft. They circled, crouched, their soft mocassins rutching in the fallen leaves and punk of rotten branches. Five seconds passed, and then the Indian feinted twice and swung in earnest, a blow that would have chopped halfway through Girenas’ face at the jawline. He met the descending arm with a bladed palm, and the hatchet spun away. The bowie slammed forward, cutting edge up.
The Indian’s hand slapped down on his wrist. For an instant they grappled chest-to-chest, the heavy smell of sweat and the bear-grease the man wore on his hair rank in his nostrils; the warrior’s body felt like a bundle of rubber and steel. Then Giernas hooked a heel behind an ankle and pushed. They went down; the Nantucketer used surprise and his greater weight to land on top of his opponent, one knee in his stomach. The air wheezed out of him in a choking grunt. Giernas pinned him with his left hand and ripped the other free of the weakening grasp, stabbed once, again, again. The body thrashed under him and blood splashed into his face, but he ignored it as he rolled erect.
That was just in time to see the third Indian dodge a buttstroke to the face from Sue’s rifle and grab it in both hands, trying to wrestle it away from her. Somewhere less serious the look on his face as she hopped up, kicked both feet into his belly and fell backward to flip him up and over would have been comical. Sue spun around like a top on her backside, raising both legs high into the air and slamming her heels into the Indian’s face as he started to rise with a sound like a croquet mallet hitting a ball — a move from the unmercifully practical school of unarmed combat Marian Alston had made part of Islander schooling. She scrambled to grab the rifle, came up to both knees and pounded the steel-shod butt into the Indian’s bloodied face again and again, panting with fright and rage, twisting her torso to put force behind the blows.
The last Indian was writhing under a hundred and twenty pounds of wolf-dog, trying to hold the fangs away from his face. Girenas scooped up his crossbow from where it hung on a branch-snub and put the short thick quarrel through the Indian’s chest a second or two before the wide-stretched jaws would have closed on him.
That was a mercy, in its way.
“Reload!” he snapped at Sue. She was pale and her hands shook. “Reload! Now!” She took a deep breath, let it out, and obeyed. He nodded satisfaction. “Heel, Perks.”
The man pumped the iron lever set into the forestock of his crossbow six times, and the thick steel bow cut down from a car’s leaf-spring ratcheted back and clicked into place, ready for the quarrel he slipped into it. The girl pushed up the breech lever of the rifle, her eyes enormous in a face gone pale, thumbing home a paper cartridge, closing the action and priming the pan. They both went to ground behind logs, eyes scanning.
“Perks! Circle!” Girenas snapped.
The dog slipped through the underbrush and made its way around their campsight. The Ranger followed, infinitely cautious, eeling his way through the brush. He found Perks nosing back along a trail; he followed it for a few hundred yards, until he saw a place where all the Indians had paused in a muddy patch.
“Only the four of them,” he said as he stepped back into the campsite. Relief mingled with sadness as he cleaned the knife and looked at the dead men. “Damn –”
Sue Chau had been staring at them too. Abruptly she turned and blundered three yards away before going to her knees and vomiting up a rush of half-digested deer meat. Girenas nodded, sighed, and brought a pannikin of water.
“Rinse and spit,” he said. “Then have a drink of this.”
The silver flask had been his father’s; it had Cyrillic lettering on it. The contents were pure Nantucket barley-malt whiskey, aged a year in charred oak. The girl obeyed, choking a little on the spirits, then went to splash her face.
“Sorry,” she began.
“Nope,” Girenas said. “You did pretty good.” He kept his tone cool. “Still want to be a Ranger?”
She looked at the dead men. The bowel stink was already fairly bad, and the flies were arriving in numbers. “This sort of thing, does it happen often?”
“Nope,” Girenas said again. “Mostly the locals don’t give us trouble, or not this bad. Sometimes, though. Mebbe once a year.”
Sue took a deep breath. “Well, I’m not quitting,” she said.
“Good,” he said with approval, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Now let’s cover them up and get going.” He looked at the sun again. “Might make the Base if we push it.”
They broke out the shovels and dug, setting rocks from the stream on top of the earth; Girenas planted the men’s weapons as markers at their heads. Silence reigned as they broke camp and headed south towards Providence Base; Sue went in the lead with her rifle in the crook of her arm, then the three pack-horses with their kills and gear following. Girenas brought up the rear, ranging to either side, and Perks went further still like a hairy gray shadow among the trunks of the huge trees.
It was hours before they saw sign of their own people. That was scanty at first, a buried campfire, hoofmarks, a nest of feral honeybees, clover and bluegrass growing wild from seed dropped in horsedung. Then breaks in the forest canopy where loggers had gone through, clearings scattered with stumps and chips or already rank with tall grass, brambles, flowers and saplings. They stepped onto a rutted drag-trail heading downhill, and then the hills parted to show Narragannset Bay gleaming out before them, white-ruffled blue water, banks and islands green to the water’s edge, sky thick with wildfowl. Half a dozen craft were in sight, leaving wakes like cream-white V’s behind them; a schooner, fishing boats, tugs hauling rafts. Below ran a road, gravel over dirt, and they could hear the faint shriek of a steam whistle.
“Home,” Sue said.
She opened the breech of her rifle and used the cleaning rod to tap the paper cartridge out, stowing it in the pouch at her belt before blowing the priming out of the pan and easing the hammer forward. Girenas slipped the quarrel from his crossbow back into its quiver before pulling the trigger with a flat whung sound.
“Home,” he agreed, with a sigh.
“Oh, hell, Pete,” she said with a wry smile. “It could be worse. You could be stuck in an office job back on the Island.”
“Get sent to the past, spend all your time reading and annotating reports,” Councilor for Foreign Affairs Ian Arnstein muttered, in the privacy of his sunroom-office. “What a dashing life we exiled adventurers lead. Christ, I might as well be back in San Diego grading history papers.”
Well, not exactly, perhaps, he thought, resharpening his goose-quill pen on the razor built into the inkstand and looking down at the report. God, but I hate these pens. The last ballpoints had run out years ago, and nobody had got around to fountain pens yet; it was the usual story, too much else with higher priorities.
God, but I miss my PC. Oh God, for a Hewlett-Packard laser printer.
He pushed his glasses back up his beaked nose — and losing them was something he didn’t even want to contemplate, given what the Island lens-grinders were turning out as an alternative — and read the paper before him again, winding his fingers absently in his beard as an accompaniment. It was a long-standing gesture; unlike many new growths on the Island, he’d had this back before the Event, when shaving was easy. It was bushy and curly and a dark russet brown where it wasn’t gray, like what was left of the hair on his head, almost matching the color of his eyes.
He tugged harder as he read on. The Kayaltwar tribe over in Alba were building boats… probably war-boats for raiding abroad. That made him want to tear a handful out by the roots. Some bright boy in a pyrographed leather kilt had figured out that while under the Treaty of Alliance they couldn’t hitch up their chariots, take down their tomahawks and hit the neighbors up for cattle and women in the old style — several punitive expeditions had driven that lesson home — third parties weren’t covered.
Those people are like the fucking Energizer Bunny. There was a map of Britain — or the White Isle or Alba — in one corner of the room. A line ran from roughly what would have become Portsmouth to what would have become southern Yorkshire. Everything east and south of it was the various teuatha of the Sun People, the chariot-driving, Indo-European-speaking newcomers William Walker had enrolled in his attempt at conquest; these days they were Nantucket allies in theory, in fact a resentful protectorate. West and north of that were the Fiernan Bohulugi, the descendants of the megalith builders, allies in fact.
Dotted lines marked individual tribes. “Kayaltwar… right, north bank of the Thames.” The Sun People tribes weren’t much for commerce. What they did understand was raiding, rustling, rape and slaughter; and now they were playing Viking…
“Blond proto-Celtic Commanches of the Bronze Age,” Ian muttered, turning pages.
He looked at the sketch of the ship. Up front was a figurehead that looked for all the world like a dragon’s head. Some passing Islander trader or priest of the Ecumenical Church might well have told them about the Vikings, like dropping a catalyst into a saturated solution. As if they didn’t get enough ideas of their own. Have to be careful not to push ’em too hard, though…
First, radio Commandant Hendriksson to send out more agents. The Treaty forbade hindering traders and missionaries, which was convenient for espionage. Find out who exactly was doing this. This might be just some warriors who got a rush of thought to the head, not the tribal hegemon. Note: we might use bribes and economic threats to lean on the Kayaltwar High Chief, if he’s not involved. Then see which of the Kayaltwar’s neighbors had the most blood feuds with them — inevitable that some would. They could complain to the Alliance Council at Stonehenge, saying that they felt threatened, and that would put it under the Treaty’s purview… if you stretched that deliberately-ambiguous document a point or two.
“Note,” he wrote at the bottom. “Consult with Doreen –” his wife treated Gordian Knots the way Alexander had, and that corrected his tendency to on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other himself into paralysis “– then talk it over with Marian, Jared and Martha.” He brushed the feather tip of the quill over his nose.
“Note,” he went on. “Talk to Prelate Gomez. Missionaries?”
For a moment he chuckled at the thought. A thoroughly secular Jew, helping to spread religion among the pagans of Bronze Age Britain. Ecumenical Christianity at that –the federation of denominations here, which was working out to be something rather like a very High Church Episcopal with Unitarian overtones. Another dry chuckle; the snake was biting its own tail with a vengeance, with Americans bringing the Anglican faith to prehistoric Alba.
Then he began writing up an appreciation for the Chief; they’d have to explain things to the Town Meeting. How the ancient Athenians had gotten anything done with all decisions made by a committee of thousands baffled him, and all the more so now that he’d seen direct democracy in action.
He sanded and blotted the paper, rose, stretched and looked at his watch. Four-thirty, and he’d been working since eight. “Christa,” he said to his second assistant, ambling out into the sitting room and then down the corridor to her office. “Get fair copies of these typed up, would you? And run one over to the Chief’s, and one to Commodore Alston-Kurlelo at Guard House.”
Almost unfair, he thought, looking around at the filing cabinets and map-boards. But then again, as Marian Alston-Kurlelo is wont to say, fair fights are for suckers. Preliterate cultures just didn’t appreciate the advantage being able to store and collate information like this gave you; the locals averaged the same smarts, but they were working from a vastly smaller store of accumulated experience.
Ian trotted up the first flight of stairs, to one of the converted bedroom suites serving as Doreen’s office. The ex-student astronomer looked up; she was sitting across a table from a short, dark man in a long woolen robe, flower-pot hat and curled beard, repeating a sentence in something guttural and polysyllabic. Papers were scattered on the surface, some covered in ordinary writing, others with what looked like Art Deco chicken tracks.
Akkadian, Ian knew, with a shudder — the Semitic language spoken in Hammurabi’s Babylon; he had to learn it too. They’d both had some Hebrew as children, which helped… a little. Akkadian was the diplomatic language in today’s Middle East, the way French had been in Louix XIV’s Europe. At least they’d been careful with their language teacher this time, after the nasty experience with Isketerol of Tartessos in the Year One. Shamash-nasir-kudduru — The God Shamash is Guardian of the Boundary Stone, or Sham for short — was a weedy little Babylonian date-merchant one of the Islander ships had picked up in a brief initial survey of the Persian Gulf; he’d been living on Bahrain, Dilmun to the locals, and not doing very well. In fact, under the face-fungus of a beard he looked like Saddam Hussein after a long time on a strict diet.
“My lady,” he said in a thickly guttural accent, after a sidelong glance at Ian, “here we have the… it is to say… symbol, meaning ‘day’.” He drew one wedge with the broad end upright, and two more springing off to the left and slanting upwards. “It to be is able also to be the symbol for a sound.”
“Which sound?” Doreen asked with a sigh.
“It is sound ud,” the Babylonian said. “That is first sound. Also symbol is for tu or tam or par or likh or khish…” He drew another, with an upright wedge, three horizontal to the side, and an arrowhead to the left. “It is sound shu, qad, qat. Can mean quatu, it is meaning in your speech, ‘hand’. Also emuqu, ‘strength’, or gamalu, ‘protection’, or…”
Ian cleared his throat. “What say we commit some dereliction of duty?” he said.
“God, yes,” she groaned. “If I try to memorize another one of these damned spikey things, my head will burst open like a watermelon. Shams, you can knock off too. Same time tomorrow.”
The Babylonian made a bobbing gesture over folded hands and collected his writing materials. Doreen tidied her own desk; she was neater than Ian, perhaps because as Doreen Rosenthal before the Event she’d been a budding astronomer in her late twenties rather than a bachelor — well, widower — professor of Classical history just past fifty. She also looked extremely good bending over like that in a light summer dress, with her long black hair falling down and half-hiding a wonderful view of decolletage. She’d been positively chunky when he’d first seen her, back the day after the Event, and working as an intern at the Maria Mitchell observatory. Its sole operator, in fact. She’d used the computer and little reflector telescope to pinpoint the real date from the stars. Of course, we all lost weight that first six months, and God knows we’re not likely to sit around watching TV any more. Nowadays she could have modelled for a statue of Ishtar, one of the more sexy kind.
“Let’s pick up David and grab something to cook down at the docks — couple of lobster, we’ll boil ’em up and throw together a salad.”
Their housekeeper-nanny had the boy back in the kitchen while she sat with a cookbook, reading slowly with her lips moving. Back at the end of the Alban War the Islanders had insisted that the defeated Sun People tribes let all their slaves go free. Denditarwa had been one of many who came to Nantucket, since she’d been taken in a raid when she was only six and had no surviving family. The gap in living standards was so enormous that even the most lowly job here was luxury by Bronze Age standards.
Sort of like Mexico and California, only more so, Ian thought. “If you haven’t started dinner yet, Denditwara, don’t bother,” he said. “We’ll handle it — Quigley’s Baths first, and then the evening’s yours.”
“Thank you, boss,” she said, dipping her head; she was half his age and short, a round-faced blond who looked extremely English. Physical types were evidently much more constant than culture or language.
Ian and Doreen winced slightly; getting her to use something else besides the Sun People term for ‘master’ had been difficult. So had been getting across the concept of being an employee and working for wages. The Alban gave them a shy smile of gratitude for the free time; she was seeing a young man who worked in the whalebone mill.
“Can I see the boats, daddy?” David asked. He showed signs of sharing his father’s height, but the face had Doreen’s oval shape and olive tone; black ringlets hung around his ears.
“Yes, you can see the boats if you promise to keep close to me and your mother,” Ian said. He could see the six-year-old considering the bargain.
“Will,” he said. “I want to see the boats.”
That’s a relief, Ian thought, chuckling. David also liked wandering off on his own, and there had been panic-striken moments because of it. Nantucket was a better place for childen than LA, but there were still street hazards.
“What a zoo,” Ian muttered an hour later, as they watched Denditwara scamper off to meet her bone-grinder and David started to tell them about a game of catch he’d played with one of the other children in the baths. The roar of traffic nearly drowned the child’s treble piping.
“All right, all right, hold your horses, we’ll get out of the way –” Ian said, as a carter cried for space. His voice didn’t hold much real annoyance; he was feeling too pleasantly relaxed right now.
He and Doreen were standing on the broad flat expanse of the Steamship Dock, where the ferry from the mainland had tied up to drop off cars and trucks and tourists, back before the Event.
Arnstein looked up reflexively as he remembered that never-to-be-forgotten night… God, eight years ago. A little more, since the Event had been in March and it was into July now. The crawling dome of fire over the island, and then the terror next day as the impossible truth sank home. Then the even worse terror; seventy-five hundred Americans on an island that produced little besides daffodils and a few gourmet vegetables, all thrown more than three thousand years into the past. Fear of starvation, food riots, cannibalism… Hell of a thing for a middle-aged professor of Classical History at the University of San Diego and would-be science fiction writer to get himself caught in. Hell, he’d almost cancelled his spring vacation on Nantucket that year.
“But we made it. Tight at times, but we made it,” he muttered.
He looked over at Doreen as she bent to jerk their son back from a determined attempt to pet a pony. The shaggy, stiff-maned animal was sulking in the traces of a cart heaped high with barrels of maple syrup from Providence Base on the mainland. It had a look of settled discontent on its face, an I-am-about-to-bite-you expression; the Bronze Age chariot ponies they’d brought back from Alba usually did. The first generation cross-bred from the Alban mares and the island’s Quarterhorse and Morgan and Thoroughbred stallions were a lot better, but still expensive.
“What was that, Ian?”
“I said we’d made it.” The two of them nodded in silent agreement.
Fishing boats were unloading amid a raucous swarm of gulls over a little to the southeast, at Straight Wharf and its basin and the row of long solid-fill piers constructed to the east over the last few years. Their frames were double rows of hundred-foot oak and hickory logs driven into the harbor bed, and the fill was sand and gravel from the same location — he could see three steam dredgers churning it up as they cut paths through the shallow water to the southwest. That part of town hadn’t been as densely built up before the Event, and the new waterfront there was full of fish-drying sheds, workshops, warehouses and timber-yards built since.
The pungent iodine smell was part of life now, and even the more earthy stink of the drying sheds and the whale-oil rendery in the old A&P building to the west had become so familiar they didn’t register the way they once had. The paddle wheels of steam whale-catchers and tugs pulling barges from the mainland churned the blue water into white froth, lighter than the patched and faded sails of the wind-driven craft.
Here on Steamboat Wharf only the respect due Councilors kept a small bubble of space open. Half a dozen brigs and schooners were tied up — the classes Nantucket’s new merchant houses used for long-distance work. The ratcheting of the spindly cranes and winches that swung heavy loads ashore was loud even against the clatter of hooves and iron wheels on the pavement; from Alba, tin and iron and copper and gold, bundles of pungent cowhides and sacks of grain and big round cheeses; from the Baltic amber and flax, tar and pitch…
Factors and dealers and storekeepers dickered and yelled, customs agents prowled, sailors chanted their rythmic heave…. ho! Stamp and go, stamp and go, heave… ho! as they hauled to swing cargo ashore. Indians in blankets jostled kilted proto-Celtic warriors and priestesses of the Fiernan Bohulugi cult of Moon Woman from Alba in poncho and thong skirt, watched by an Olmec noble wearing a cloak of woven hummingbird feathers that shimmered in impossible shades of turquoise, scarlet, purple. A herd of moas – the smaller breed, only four feet at the shoulder – were being pushed clucking and protesting onto a barge, headed for Long Island and the farming life. The spattered byproduct of their fright added its aroma to the thick odors of drying fish and boiling whale blubber, raw leather, horses and horse-dung, sweat and wood-smoke, tarred rope and wooden hulls.
The fresh sea-breeze kept it tolerable even in summer. Mostly tolerable. One reason the Meeting had authorized the steam dredgers was to dig deep channels southeast up the lagoon, so some of the more odorous trades could be moved downwind of town.
They dodged around a cargo from the Carribean going inland on steam haulers; bulk salt from the Islander penal settlement in the Bahamas, a few precious sacks of coffee from plants set out on Trinidad the spring after the Event, chunks of raw asphalt, sulphur for gunpowder…
Plus quetzal feathers, wild rubber, jaguar pelts, chocolate beans, raw cotton, jade, quills of gold dust and silver, mahogany and dyewoods from trading along the Main, he thought. The list sounded more romantic than the hot, sweaty, dangerous reality; the Indians down there were corn-farmers and therefore more numerous and better organized than the hunting peoples along the New England coast. There had been one short, sharp war with the Olmecs already.
Of course, that was that noble-savage True Believer idiot Lisketter’s fault. Rousseau, what sins have been committed in Thy name! Lisketter and her followers had ended up very dead, along with a few of the Islander military and a whole raftload of Olmecs. Lisketter’s people had been sacrificed to the Jaguar God and eaten, most of them. He didn’t even like to think about what had happened to Lisketter before she died.
“And speaking of lobster pots,” he said.
They pushed their way to the base of the Steamship Wharf, along a waterside section of Easy Street, then over to the shallower basin beyond Old North Wharf which had once held pleasure boats and now catered to the inshore fishery.
“Got ’em right here for you, Mr. Arnstein,” the lobsterman said, hauling up a net dangling overside from his boat.
The lobsters were all in the three-pound range, with their claws held shut by little wooden wedges in the joints, waving their antennae as if they foresaw the pot of boiling water that awaited them.
“Thanks, Jack,” he replied, handing over a silver nickel, the Republic’s own coinage, and accepting the change in coppers.
The former software salesman nodded thanks. David prodded the gently squirming canvas sack with his fingers and giggled at the sensation. Ian checked his turn at the fisherman’s soft exclamation and looked to his left.
Another ship was being towed south between the breakwaters and into Nantucket’s harbor. The design was American; to be exact, a scaled-up copy of the Yare, a two-masted topsail schooner that had carried tourists around the island before the Event. It wasn’t Island-built, though. Countless small details showed that, starting with the stylized mountain on the flag at the mainmast top — that looked uncannily like the Rock of Gibraltar on a Prudential Insurance commercial. Six small bronze cannon rested with their muzzles bowsed up against the bulwarks on each side of the craft.
One of Isketerol’s ships. Ian shook his head; you had to hand it to the man…
“When you tell it, my sire, it’s as if I can see it with my own eyes,” Sarsental said, his eyes glowing.
Isketerol hid a grin. The new King of Tartessos was still in his thirties, with no silver strands in his bowl-cut black hair, and all his teeth. He could remember what it was like to be a boy of twelve winters, just coming to a man’s estate and wild for great deeds.
He leaned back in the courtyard lounger, smiling at the children sitting around his feet. Deck chairs were another Ammurrukan thing. The Eagle People certainly know how to make themselves comfortable, he thought idly.
“Weren’t you frightened?” one of his daughters asked.
Isketerol laughed. “Some of us were like to soil our loincloths,” he said. “There we were, just two shiploads of us — the old ships, remember, small and frail — alone among the northern savages on a trading voyage. That was dangerous enough, they’re wild and uncouth. Then there it was, the Eagle ship itself. Three hundred feet long and made of iron –”
“– and with masts a hundred and fifty feet tall. Three of them. Hull shining white as snow, with a red slash of blood-color across it, and the great golden image of their Eagle god beneath the bows. Many of us wanted to flee right there, I can tell you.”
“But you didn’t, my sire,” his eldest son said.
“No. Let that be a lesson to you.” He reached out a hand and made a snatching motion. “Be cautious, but when the Jester drops a chance for advantage, take it! The Jester is bald behind, you can’t grab his hair once he’s past. I stayed by the side of the barbarian chief we’d been dealing with, and Aruccuttag of the Sea rewarded me, as he often does brave men. For when the Amurrukan, the People of the Eagle, landed… one of them spoke Achaean, and I could act as their go-between with the natives as they dickered for grain and beasts.”
He fixed an eye on his eldest son. “See what learning foreign languages can do? I’d have been dumb as a fish but for that. So study your Achaean and Sudunu and English.”
Sarsental nodded, slow and thoughtful. Good! Isketerol thought. He didn’t intend that his heir should fritter away the mightiness he was building here.
“That’s when you met the Medjay chieftainess?” a daughter chimed in eagerly. “The Nubian warrior?”
Isketerol winced slightly. Have I told it so often that children correct me? Still, it was important that they all learn; there would be work enough for all the children of his wives. Little Mettri didn’t look as if she’d settle down to spinning and overseeing the housemaids, and she loved this part.
“Yes,” he said. “A tall woman, black as charcoal, was their captain — some of the Amurrukan are dark of skin like the Pharaoh’s Medjay warriors; some look like us; the most of them more like the northern peoples on this side of the River Ocean. Alston was her name, a fierce warrior, good sailor, skilled with the sword and very cunning. She’s still the Amurrukan war-leader, under their king Cofflin.”
“A woman,” Sarsental said dismissively.
Isketerol reached out a hand and rapped him on the head with his knuckles. “Their customs are different. Don’t underestimate an enemy! I’ve made that mistake, to my cost.”
“Yes,” he went on, “she was the one who invited me to their homeland across the River Ocean, to teach them the languages of these lands around the Middle Sea. On the Eagle I met William Walker –” he pronounced the Amurrukan name carefully “– and became his blood-brother, for he was discontented with the rule of Cofflin and Alston, and wished to find a land where he himself could be lord. And there I learned much; and from him I learned much. That summer on the Nantucket island, and later back in the White Isle, when Walker made war and became a king for a space, with me at his side as his right hand and wiseman. Together we pirated the Yare and her cargo from Nantucket, together we conquered and ruled among the Sun People and the Earth Folk. When the Amurrukan made alliance with the Earth Folk and defeated him, it was I who took him and his band to the Achaean lands, and received in reward the great ship Yare, and much of her burden of treasures.”
“After you stopped here in Tartessos and made yourself king with his aid!” they chorused. No, they haven’t grown tired of the tale.
“Not just made myself king,” Isketerol said. “Began to make Tartessos great — and after the Crone comes for me, you who are my children must make our city greater still. And to do that you must learn many things, so –”
They groaned, but obeyed as he signaled to the servant to take them back to their lessons. Sarsental went willingly enough; it was his day to practice the new arts of riding on horseback and shooting with fire-weapons.
Isketerol stretched and sighed; time to get back to work. He was a slight wiry man of medium height such as was common in southern Iberia, dark of hair and eye and olive of skin, with thin white scars seaming the brown skin of his forearms and a mariner’s callused hands.
“Send in the King’s Chief of Makers,” he said. The musketeer guards by the entrance to the courtyard stood motionless, but a messenger from the rank standing by the wall hurried out.
Soon the official came, with a slave bearing a long bundle behind him. Both went down on their faces in prostration, and Isketerol signed them up.
“Let me see it,” he said. Then: “Yes,” he went on, pulling back the hammer of the musket. “You have done well. I will not forget it.”
Dappled shade fell through the grapevines that covered the wooden beams above him. The musket was solid and deadly-feeling in his hands, stocked in beechwood, the iron blued to an even finish. Its smell of oiled metal was heavy and masculine amid the scents of flowers and sun-dried earth. He swung it to his shoulder and took aim at the figure of a warrior in the mural painted on the whitewashed wall of adobe brick across the courtyard.
Squeeze the trigger, he remembered. Click-whap! and the hammer snapped down. Sparks flew as it cracked the frizzen-cover back. A pouch of cartridges accompanied the weapon, each with one charge in a cylinder of paper, and a bullet shaped like a conical helmet with a hollow in the flat base. A minie ball, the books said — why he didn’t know, for it was not in the least round.
“Yesss..” the king of Tartessos said happily.
His hands caressed the weapon. Much better than the first crude batches that had to be fired with pieces of burning cord. In a few years they would have breechloaders, but this was well enough.
“How many?” he asked his Chief of Makers.
“Lord of the City and the Land, Bridegroom of the Corn Goddess, Favored Son of Arucuttag of the Sea and the Lady of Tartessos… fifty now, and ten more each seven days, to begin with. Each with bayonet, and ramrod.” The man’s tongue stumbled slightly over the English words.
That was not such pleasant hearing. The man hurried on: “Lord King, if you did not insist on the, the measuring with screws of each part –”
“Then the guns could not be repaired at need with ready-made parts from the royal armory,” Isketerol snapped.
And if many had to be taught to repair the parts, they would start making them for themselves. William had left him a set of duplicate micrometer gagues along with the spare lathe, and he intended to keep the manufacture of guns his own monopoly just as long as he could.
“I do not understand this making of each thing so like another thing,” the artisan said.
“It is not necessary that you understand; only that you obey!” Isketerol shouted in exasperation.
“You are the King, lord,” the man said, bowing, turning pale beneath his natural olive.
Not only the king, but a king more powerful than the one who had fallen to iron-armored warriors and fire-powder bombs and William’s deadly Garand rifle. The old king had done nothing without consulting the heads of the great families.
Today many of those heads hung on iron hooks from the walls of the palace. Now when the King of Tartessos commanded, men fell on their faces and obeyed; men in the whole southern half of Iberia, and in the lands south across the Pillars, as well. He and Will had spoken much, those months in the White Isle, and his share of the Yare’s cargo included books to supplement what he’d learned in Nantucket itself. The history of the years that might-have-been was full of hints on the manner of ruling and how a king might gather all the reins of power to himself; on the keeping of records and maps and registers, on police and bu-reau-cra-cy and armies, on the coining of money and the building of roads. The problem was that he had so few others who understood. Most of them were young men he’d raised up from nothing, but that was good too — such men knew that all they had depended on his favor, not on their birth.
His reined in his temper as the Chief of Makers trembled before him; it had taken Isketerol long enough to understand the Ammurukan words ‘interchangeable parts’ and ‘mass production’ himself.
In that false history the Eagle People recorded, nothing remained of Tartessos three thousand years from now. No trace of the city or her people, of her gods or tongue or customs. If he was to build a house that lasted forever, the foundations must be laid deep. His voice was stern but not angry when he went on:
“Work harder on the machines for the cutting of metal! Then you will make many, many more muskets, and everything else that the kingdom needs.”
“Lord King, we hear and we obey,” the man said, backing away.
Isketerol relaxed back onto the lounger and considered the list written on the paper before him, written in his language but using the Eagle People’s alphabet. He frowned slightly; paper the Islanders would sell, glassware, tools, luxuries, but not lathes or milling machines such as he’d seen so often there in the place of mysteries called Haven of the Sea. Well, Tartessians might not have the arts from out of time, but they were no fools… and he had the drawings, the books, the men Will had helped train in Alba.
Already they had done much; oddly, the most useful of all had been the machine with lead seals for the making of books — moveable type, in the Ammurukan tongue. He intended to see every free child in Tartessos schooled in it, even the girls. The alphabet was so easy to learn, compared to the old script.
All the common people of Tartessos called down blessings on his name; he’d given them wealth, made captains of fishermen and lords of farmers, brought in foreign slaves to do the rough work. Even the new customs, the purified water and burying-of-excrement and washing-with-soap rituals, no longer brought complaints. Not when so few died of fever or flux.
Hmmm. And now that I have an embassy there, we can — very slowly, very secretly — see if any of the Ammurukan with useful knowledge can be brought to come here and join me.
The Eagle People had godlike powers, but they were men with the needs and weaknesses of men. He could offer land, slaves, silver, wealth, power as nobles under him. It was a great pity Will hadn’t accepted his offer, but William Walker was not a man to take second place, no matter how rich the rewards.
Rosita Menendez walked in, her robe of gold-shot crimson silk brushing the tiled floor. Isketerol winced slightly; silk was another thing the Islanders would sell in Tartessos, but the price was enough to draw your testicles up into your gut. And of course what one of his wives had, all the others demanded, leaving him no peace until he bought it for them. Someday he would get ships as far as this land of the Shang people; it was mentioned in the books.
“Hi,” she said in the Ammurukan tongue, sitting on a stool by his feet. He replied in the same, to keep fluency.
“Hello, Rosita. How does your school go?”
“Fine, Iskie,” she said.
Has she been drinking again? he wondered, and then relaxed when a sniff brought no scent of wine or the brandy the new distilleries were turning out. No, it was just Eagle People gaucherie; they had no sense of ceremony or manners. Well, she’s far from her people, lonely sometimes. Most of the time being a queen in Tartessos was enough compensation for her… although to be sure, he hadn’t mentioned his other two wives when he courted her back on Nantucket.
“Actually, Iskie, some of the students could take over more of the basics, the way they do the ABC stuff now,” she said. “Plus Miskelefol and a couple of others are good enough to do most of the routine translations of the books, if I help them a little with the dictionary,” she went on. “They’re learning English a lot faster than I learned Tartessian, for God’s sake.”
“Good. You will have more time for teaching the mathematics and bookkeeping and medicine.”
She rolled her eyes but kept her sigh silent, knowing that even a queen wasn’t immune from the knotted cords of her husband’s belt. Especially a foreigner queen with no kindred in the city.
Well, she’s pretty enough — and she’d given him one child, a son to be sure and a fine lad — but her knowledge is more important than her loins. She’d been a healer’s helper back on Nantucket, a registered nurse in Eng-il-ish. Invaluable here.
Walker’s woman, Alice Hong, would have been even more useful. A full doctor, a mistress of some of the Islanders’ most powerful arts.
“Then again, no,” Isketerol said to himself, shuddering slightly. “I am very glad the Lady of Pain is far, far away.”
Far enough away that the thought of her was stirring. He drew aside the loincloth that was his only covering on this warm day, and motioned Rosita closer. She knelt on a pillow beside the lounger.
“Use some of that Ammurukan knowledge,” he said, grinning and guiding her head with a hand on the back of her neck. This was another thing he’d learned on the Island, although it was catching on fast here.