Chapter One


Seven Devils Mountains
(Formerly western Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 12th, Change Year 26/2024 A.D.

 I am so fucked, Pilot Officer Alyssa Larsson thought, as the glider hit a pocket of cold air, shocking and utterly unexpected.

The nose went down and she had a feeling like her stomach was floating up into her throat, like skiing down a steep slope and going over a bump into a jump.

Like falling, in other words.

Get out of this pocket, fast! Dive out! training and reflex said.

She did. Her hands and feet moved on the controls of the glider with delicate precision, coaxing the last ounce of performance out of the Glaser-Dirk 100. Air whistled by, the loudest thing in the profound silence of the sky; the cockpit was paradoxically stuffy and smelled of lubricants, ancient plastic and fresher leather and fear-sweat. The falling-sled sensation went away, but she’d gone down three or four hundred crucial feet. Her head whipped around, and she saw uncomfortably high ground all around her, a situation that had gone from chancy to bad all at once. This was unfamiliar territory, known only from the map—that was the whole point of reconnaissance flying, but it made things a lot more dangerous. Over the country she knew the spots for likely lift were all as familiar as the feel of her bootlaces. Here, not so much.

Of course, I know where the nearest three landing points are. Only now I can’t get to any of them.

She was over dense forest, with a saw-toothed ridge of nearly vertical rock directly ahead; she could get to it, but not over it to the steep river-valley beyond. Alyssa shoved the goggles up on the forehead of her leather helmet, hiding the snarling face-on bear’s head over her forehead. Her eyes peered at the air over the ridge.

Shit. No birds.

Birds were a good way to find air moving upward; lots of them didn’t like to flap if they could avoid it. So probably no updraft directly ahead. She was sweating and her mouth was dry, but there was no time to be afraid. Her hand moved on the stick, very gently, no rudder, just the shallowest of banking turns to cruise along the face of the ridge looking for a spot where there was an updraft.

No joy.

The aircraft was losing one foot of altitude for every forty it went forward towards a sheer slope, and there weren’t that many feet left before you ran into the trees and rocks below. She was moving faster than a galloping horse, faster than a pedalcar on rails, faster than virtually anything else in the world except a peregrine falcon stooping or a catapult bolt, and when hundreds of pounds hit at speed… the gentle floating of the glider would abruptly transition to nasty un-Changed calculations of kinetic energy release and the strength factors of human bone and tissue. Her bone and tissue. The only good thing was that this wasn’t happening over enemy-held territory; it was pretty well uninhabited around here these days.

If I can get this thing down in one piece, we can bring in a horse team and pack it out.

They’d been built to disassemble, and been modified since to do it more thoroughly.

“All right, my beauty, let’s do this,” she muttered.

Some of her older instructors had been pilots before the Change, when powered aircraft could just bull their way through the air. Most of the time she agreed with the modern school which held that dancing with the invisible currents of the sky-ocean was preferable, but right now something to just push would be welcome. And aesthetics be damned.

“Well, shit, Bearkiller,” she told herself as she leveled out again, sparing a quick glance downward.

“OK, the Bear Lord was aloft in something a lot less aerodynamic and with a lot higher stall speed than this over mountains not all that far from here when the Change hit. With Dad and Aunt Signe and all in the back seats. Uncle Mike walked away… well, swam away… from a real hard landing, the rest of the family survived too, so will you if it comes to that.”

Although he just barely survived. Holy Mary Mother of God, if he hadn’t—

Since she’d gotten her wings a little while ago she had a much better grasp of what a combination of blind luck and superlative piloting had been required at the very beginning of the Bearkiller legend. Her mind blanched at the thought that the whole world she knew including her personal self wouldn’t have existed if her aunt’s future husband been just a little less skillful or fortunate.

So I’ve got to live. Maybe as much depends on me!

She turned away from the ridge to try and get closer to base. That ridge ahead was going to be really close, looking like a fanged jaw reaching for her. Her gut tightened in an involuntary effort to haul the sailplane upward by sheer willpower. She absolutely needed to climb at least a bit, but she couldn’t put the nose any higher. If she tried she wouldn’t climb, she’d just drop below stalling speed and fall out of the sky like a leaf in autumn as the wings lost lift.

Like a leaf in autumn except for the last crunchy bit. Just a little more then slam the stick down once I clear the crest to get some margin back then go looking for an updraft—

Speed was dropping. Dropping fast, too fast. Reflex tried to make her turn the nose down again, but that would mean diving into the mountain slope so bloody damned close below.

Just another hundred yards…

Stalling felt like slipping backwards an instant after the controls went mushy.

Oh fuck me, what utter brass-assed moron came up with this mission in the first place—

The left wingtip brushed the top of a tall larch less than a second later. Whirling impact, battering, tossing, the scream of tearing metal. She shouted and flung her arms up in front of her face.


 High King’s Host, Boise Contingent HQ
County Palatine of the Eastermark
(formerly eastern Washington State)
High Kingdom of Montival
(formerly western North America)
June 1st, CY 26/2024 AD

 Fred Thurston was dickering with a would-be defector from what remained of the United States of Boise’s army. Rudi Mackenzie stayed in the shadows at the back of the tent, arms crossed on his chest, ignored after a single startled glance and a jerk of Rudi’s head towards Fred. The man who was now High King Artos of Montival kept silent; he was scrupulous in not interfering in the chain of command without very pressing need, and with Fred such was very rare indeed.

Though there’s need more often than I’d like with others.

Artos the First was a young man, a Changeling as it was called here—he’d been born near Yule of that year—but the High Kingdom of Montival was far younger. Its armies were cobbled together from what had been a dozen separate realms, many of them with a history of mutual suspicion or outright battle. Everything was a makeshift of constant improvisation.

You fight with what you have, not what you’d wish, Rudi thought.

Even if you were fighting the biggest war since the Change. Certainly the biggest in North America since then, if you didn’t count the desperate scrambles in the months after the machines stopped. Not the biggest in the world, probably; Asia still weighed heavily in the nine-tenths-reduced total of human kind. Rumors trickled in now and then across seas pirate-haunted when they weren’t empty. They spoke of warlords fighting each other and invaders from Mongolia and Tibet across the ruins of China, and the bloody rise of Mahendr Shuddhikartaa hai —Mahendra the Purifier—carving out a new empire called Hinduraj on the Bay of Bengal…

The world is wider and wilder than we can know. But this is the part the Powers have set me to ward.

The defector and Fred had gotten down to cases more rapidly than Rudi would have considered tactful at first, which was another reason he was leaving this in his friend’s capable hands. Someone who’d grown up among Boise’s folk would understand them in ways that Rudi never quite could, even bearing the Sword of the Lady. The officer wouldn’t be his subject unless and until he came to an agreement with Fred, and even then only indirectly.

He and Fred had gone all the way to Nantucket and back together on the Quest; they were comrades and allies, but lord and sworn follower as well. Fred had come to understand the relationship those words implied, but most Boiseans didn’t. Worse, they thought they did understand it.

Being ignorant is truly bliss compared to being misinformed, especially if you’re aware of the depths of your own ignorance. As Mother says, it isn’t what you don’t know that will kill you, it’s what you think you know that just isn’t so.

“Yes, sir, Mr. President,” the officer said at last, saluting; he hadn’t been invited to sit.

“I’m not President yet,” Fred replied sharply. “There’s a little matter of elections first. I expect to win them… but I also intend to do it fair and square.”

The man looked very slightly anxious; he was in his thirties, with Brigadier’s insignia on his loose olive-green linsey-woolsey field uniform of boots and pants and patch-pocketed jacket. Fred wore the same kit, the uniform of the realm that called itself the United States of America and ruled much of Idaho from its center at Boise, but without marks of rank at all apart from the Stars-and-Stripes badge on the shoulder. That ostentatious plainness was a statement in itself.

“But we have an agreement, sir?” the man said.

“Certainly, Brigadier Roberts. Unless you insist on having the personal parts in writing? That could be embarrassing down the road, unless we altered some of the details.”

So you’d better hope I win the vote went unspoken between them. And use what influence you have to make sure I do. Someone else might not consider themselves bound by our negotiations here.

The man licked his lips; they were thin, like his face, and together with his cropped blond hair and pale yellowish eyes gave him the look of a wolf that had gone a little too long without a meal. Those eyes flicked towards the back of the big tent. The High King had never made any secret of the fact that one of the things the Sword gave him was the ability to tell truth from falsehood. By now, nearly everyone believed it.

Or more precisely, I can sense the intention to deceive, Rudi thought. The which means my simply standing here keeps him… relatively… honest.

Though with a man as fundamentally untruthful as this, whether anything he said was true at heart would be a matter for philosophers to split hairs over.

“Of course not, sir. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust your word.”

And oddly enough, he does trust Fred’s word. Wise enough not to judge others by himself, at least.

Fred nodded. “Report to my chief of staff, and we’ll slot your men into the overall TOE. He’ll show you where to plant the eagle.”

He stood and returned the brigadier’s salute, then shook hands. The man left, his stride growing brisker with relief, and there was a clank as the armored guards outside the tent’s entrance brought their big oval shields up and thumped the butts of their long iron-shod throwing spears to the hard-packed earth. Silence fell for a long moment, amid the smell of hot canvas and dust and horses and woodsmoke from the encampment beyond. There were sounds—voices, someone counting cadence, the massed tramp of booted feet, iron on iron from a field smithy—but they were curiously muffled.

“I don’t like that deal at all,” Fred said quietly, when the defector was well out of earshot, looking at his right hand and turning it back and forth. “I’ll do it for three and a half thousand men… to save three and a half thousand men… but I don’t like it at all.”

Rudi Mackenzie smiled wryly as he came forward and sat across from him.

“I don’t like it either, Fred. And neither of us likes fighting battles, but you do as you must, not as you would. You must have seen it with your father; I certainly did with Mother, by Nuada of the Silver Hand who favors Kings! It may mean dying for the people…”

Fred ran a hand over his hair, which was cut short in a cap of soft black rings. “I think I’d actually prefer that, sometimes.”

“We’re all going to die sometime, to be sure. More often ruling well means we have to do things like shaking hands and breaking bread with men we’d rather put face-down in a dungheap with a boot to the back of their necks. The which hand-shaking and bread-breaking is nearly as unpleasant as death and wears harder on the soul.”

Fred grinned in weary agreement and kneaded the back of his neck. “Thor with me, this sort of thing wears you out worse than a march in armor. And that’s an attractive image. The manure pile and the boot and his face, that is.

Rudi nodded. “And you can wash muck off your boot, but it’s harder to get clean of that sort.”

He jerked his head towards the entrance, the long copper-gold hair swirling about his shoulders. Fred sighed and nodded.

“Should I have been more… tactful?”

“No, you were about right, I’d say. He’d smell a trap if you were all hail-fellow-well-met and inviting him to sit down for a yarn and a tankard of beer with a slap on the back in good fellowship. And he’d despise you if he thought it was genuine. Best to make it a matter of business and advantage on both sides.”

The king and his ally were both big young men only a year apart in age, with similar broad-shouldered, long-limbed builds, both with the smooth graceful movements of those raised to the sword and the tensile wariness of those who’d also lived by it in lands beyond law. In other ways they differed. The younger son of Boise’s first ruler had bluntly handsome broad features and skin of a pale toast color, legacy of his sire’s part-African blood.

“Well, it is to our mutual advantage,” Fred said. “And he does have some virtues. He’s smart enough to treat his men well enough that they’ll follow him. Especially now that he’s leading them in the direction they want to go.”

“That always makes it easier, to be sure,” Rudi said.

The High King’s eyes were a changeable blue-green-gray, brighter by contrast now as the setting sun turned the big command tent into a cave of umber gloom. He wore the pleated kilt of a Mackenzie in the Clan’s green-brown tartan, with a plaid pinned at his shoulder over a loose-sleeved saffron-colored linen shirt cinched at wrists and throat with drawstrings.

A sword hung at his right side from a broad belt, in shape a knight’s long cut-and-thrust weapon with a shallow-curved crescent guard and a double-lobed hilt of black staghorn inlaid with silver knotwork. Its pommel was a globe cradled in a web of antlers, at first glance a perfect sphere of moon-opal. Then if you looked closer it was like crystal, and within it curves that drew the vision deeper and deeper—

Fred’s eyes flicked aside from it, though he was a brave man, and not just about physical danger. “Was Roberts telling the truth?”

Rudi’s hand fell to the pommel in a gesture that had become habit. “What do you think?” he asked.

I try to keep from being too dependent on this, Fred. You should too. The more so as neither I nor the Sword will be with you whenever you might need them.

“That he was reasonably sincere, and he’ll keep his word—as long as he still thinks we’re the winning side,” Fred said.

Rudi flipped up his hands in a gesture of agreement. “See, you don’t need the Sword of the Lady to tell you that.”

Fred looked at it again, obviously forcing himself a little.

“That thing is useful. It had better be, after we went through hell and high water to get it—

Rudi chuckled; that was uncomfortably close to being literally true.

“But… better you than me, Rudi! I can judge men pretty well, I think, but it would be sort of stressful to know what I read was true. And I’d hate to be incapable of half-believing some little white lie.”

Rudi laughed; he’d been born late in the first Change Year, but there were already a few faint lines beside his eyes that showed he was a man who laughed often.

“My sentiments exactly and in precise measure, Fred. But I’m stuck with it; worse, my children after me.”

Fred’s smile died quickly. “Speaking of an inheritance… what I really hate about making deals with Roberts and the others who backed Martin after he killed dad is that he gave them land, land from the public reserve that should have been kept for division into more family farms. Dad always said yeomen are the bedrock.”

“More than they deserve, sure and it is,” Rudi said. “Though finding folk to work it for them… that’ll be another matter.”

Land—who held it, and on what terms; who worked it, and how; and for whose benefit besides their own—was what most of modern politics, and much of modern life for that matter, were about.

“They deserve what Martin got, what you gave him,” Fred said.

Which had been the Sword through the gut. Though at the last that had been a mercy, freeing his soul even as he died.

Fred’s face hardened as he spoke. Rudi reflected that the younger man normally wasn’t much of a hater, which was a very good thing in a ruler for more than one reason. But Fred had hated his elder brother Martin, for parricide and killing their father’s dream of a restored United States and allying Boise with the malignancy that was the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Possibly most of all for killing the love they must have felt once, he thought sympathetically. I have no brothers, but of my sisters I am most fond.

Fred went on: “And I have some ideas about tax policy on unused land…”

A cough at the entranceway brought their heads around with a caution ground in by short but extremely eventful lifetimes. Hands relaxed from weapons as they saw who stood there, a young man of middling height but broad-shouldered and thick-armed, with a square face and oak-colored brown curls beneath his Scots bonnet.

“Merry meet, Edain,” Rudi said to his guard-captain.

Edain Aylward Mackenzie put down the trays of food he was carrying. They looked a little incongruous with the outfit of the High King’s Archers anyway. That was the Mackenzie kilt and plaid and the green brigandine the Clan’s warriors usually wore, though the outer layer of leather bore the Crowned Mountain of Montival rather than the Mackenzie crescent moon cradled in antlers. He had shortsword and buckler at his belt, a dirk, and a sgian-dubh tucked into his knee-hose.

Across his back was a quiver of gray-fletched arrows, with a great yellow yew longbow thrust through the carrying loops on its side. The Mackenzies were a people of the bow, and old Sam Aylward their first teacher had been known as Aylward the Archer in his time. His son bore that nickname these days, for very good reason.

Right now he prodded a thick callused finger at the food. “Merry meet, and merry part, Chief; and you, Fred. Now eat, both of you.”

Rudi blinked in surprise. “Arra, and is it that time already?”

“It’s sunset,” Edain said. Then with a show of thought, tapping a thumb on his chin: “It happens nearly every day in these parts, and then most often it grows dark!”

“And how would I remember such things without you to remind me, blood-brother?” Rudi grinned.

Edain snorted. “The Lord and Lady may know, but I don’t even ken how I got you to Nantucket and back alive. I’m here because Fred’s batman came to me near weeping, Not now they tell me, not now, we’re too busy… And to think a crew of fancy cooks have toiled and moiled all the day to whip up this feast for you, sure and they did like Lughnasadh come early, what with the well-basted roast suckling pig with the honey-garlic glaze and the spiced meat pies with their fragrant flaky crusts and the succulent fresh-picked asparagus and steamed sweet peas and glazed carrots and stuffed eggplant and four types of bread hot from the oven and sweet butter and the cakes and ices and whipped cream and all!”

Rudi chuckled; the food consisted of two bowls containing chunks of mutton stewed with dried beans and desiccated vegetables, a stack of tortillas and a block of ration-issue cheese the size, shape and consistency of a cake of soap. It was the same food anyone in the US of Boise contingent would be eating tonight, officer or enlisted.

“Sit, man,” he said to Edain, as he pulled the little knife out of his sock-hose and shaved rock-hard dry cheese onto the bowls of stew. “There’s work to be done and I’ll need you to hear and speak. You’ve eaten?”

“Aye, Chief. Asgerd saw to it.”

Fred uncorked a wine bottle and poured three glasses as Edain unhooked his baldric and hung the longbow and quiver from a peg on one of the tentpoles.

“You should have gotten Asgerd pregnant, the way Rudi and I did our wives,” the Boisean said, then looked at his King.

“And I won’t have to envy you much longer, Rudi. I wouldn’t have your job on a bet, but that, yeah. To hold our daughter—“

The longing was naked in his face for an instant, and the remembered joy in Rudi’s own.

“Son,” Rudi said absently. “For you two it’ll be a son, first.”

All three men looked at his hand on the pommel of the Sword.

“You’re going to name him Lawrence,” Rudi went on. “And Dirk after Virginia’s grandfather. He’ll go by Dirk, mostly… sorry! I should have left you to find that out; it comes on me unawares, betimes.”

Fred’s face unfroze. “Well, in the old days they had machines… x-sounds, did they call them? To tell you ahead of time.” His smile grew wide. “A son! Our son!”

Then he laughed. There was a silver hammer on a chain around his neck; he touched his jacket over the spot where it lay.

“Son or daughter, Freya knows it’s the only way I was going to stop Virginia coming on campaign with me,” he said. “Freya keep her and our kid both safe, too.”

“They’re a fierce lot in the Powder River country,” Rudi acknowledged, drawing the Invoking pentagram over his bowl of stew. “Hail and thanks to the Mother-of-All who births the harvest, to the Lord who dies for the ripened corn, and thanks to the mortals who toiled with Them,” he went on, before taking up the first spoonful.

The Powder River plains in old Wyoming were where Fred had first met his spouse, when she stumbled into their camp on the run from the followers of the Church Universal and Triumphant who’d taken her family’s ranch. She’d ended going to Nantucket and back with the Quest.

Fred hammer-signed his bowl, murmured: “Hail, all-giving Earth,” and went on: “And Mathilda’s meek and retiring, Rudi, yeah, right, she certainly wouldn’t be here even if she hadn’t gotten knocked up. And I’ve never seen her charging over a barricade into a mess of Saloum corsairs right beside you, shield up, visor down and sword swinging and screaming Haro, Portland! Holy Mary for Portland! at the top of her lungs.”

He tasted the stew. “Damn you, Edain, you actually made me hungry as hell with that description and now I have to eat this.”

Rudi chewed and swallowed. It was… fuel, slightly enlivened by the chilies some camp cook had dropped in to disguise the fact that the contributing sheep had probably died of old age. He’d eaten much worse, and the tortillas were even palatable when fresh; he rolled one, dipped it in the stew to spoon some up, and took a bite before he spoke:

“Matti fights from duty and necessity. Virginia actually likes it. The fighting, I should be saying, not the killing as such, though to be frank she also minds that less than you or I.”

“Yeah,” Fred acknowledged. “And she’s got a powerful hate on for the Cutters, and just between me and thee, Rudi, sometimes she doesn’t grasp the difference between leading a country and owning a ranch, not deep down. At least this way she’s got a chance to get to know Mom and my sisters better. And Mom will do anything she has to with a grandchild to protect, even keep Virginia in line.”

“And if Asgerd’s not blessed by the Mother-of-All yet, it’s not for want of trying on our part,” Edain said cheerfully. “And there’ll be time enough.”

Like Fred he’d met his wife on the Quest. Asgerd Karlsdottir had been born in what was once northern Maine, and was now the Kingdom of Norrheim. Edain had come away from their time there with a new wife. Fred had found a faith, one that spoke to his soul as his family’s nominal Methodism never had.

Rudi used the half-eaten tortilla to gesture. “Look you, we just took… what, a tenth of Boise’s remaining strength this last hour? And without an arrow or swordstroke, and it was the fraction of it blocking our way at that. Took it from their line of battle and added it to ours.”

“Yeah,” Fred nodded, soberly. “I’ve got as many men as the junta has now, infantry at least, and mine want to fight. Or at least to get the job done so they can go back to their farms without worrying about the Cutters threatening their families.”

Rudi nodded, but it wasn’t completely a gesture of agreement. “I want to pick up the pieces without killing any more of your people. Corwin is the real enemy.”

“Damn right. It’s not their fault Martin screwed them over and got them on the CUT’s side.”

“True, but morals aside… two things a king can never have enough of: one is money, and the other is good troops. And good soldiers will get you gold more often than gold will get you good soldiers, as my foster-father Sir Nigel is fond of saying. I want those men fighting for us.”

“But we have to hammer past Boise as fast as we can,” Fred said; he’d been trained in Boise’s staff schools, where playing devil’s advocate was a standard technique. “Before the passes are snowed in again and while there’s still grazing. Otherwise the League of Des Moines and the Canuks will get to Corwin before we do. And you… we… Montival… don’t want that.”

“No, though the Lakota will be with them, and they’re part of Montival now, keeping our spoon in that stewpot across the Rockies. Also our allies may not get to Corwin this year, being naturally less eager than we; if they tie down the bulk of the Prophet’s men on the high plains, I’ll be satisfied. But when Corwin falls, the war is over bar the mopping up.”

“When being the operative word,” Fred observed dryly.

“Exactly. Fighting into next year means fields unplanted or unharvested, and there’s been too much of that already.”

“So… if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly,” Fred quoted.

Rudi nodded, barring his teeth in what was not quite a smile. That was from Macbeth, and that tale of ambition and treachery and death seasoned with ill-wreaking magic was all too apposite.

“The city of Boise itself… that may be tricky. Your father built strong walls and gates.”

“Not if they’re opened from the inside.”

“That would be… difficult.”

Fred hesitated, obviously reluctant. “There’s… a way. Dad told me about it. I’m pretty certain that he told Martin, too… but I don’t know who Martin told.”

“Ah, so?” Rudi said softly. “Now that is most interesting. If… those Powers… thought to ask him, he would have told. Told anything. But they have a weakness; they don’t like the world of matter. They might not have.”

“And anyway, the fortifications… it’s the men that count, in the end. But the number of officers coming over to us is slowing down. Even though the writing’s on the wall.”

Rudi nodded grimly. “The Cutters can compel men’s minds, if given even the slightest opening. Notice how bitter Roberts was against the CUT? Somethin’ they did frightened him badly, and he’s a bold bad man. We need to bring as many waverers to our side as we can while they still own their own souls. That’ll be easiest if they’re facing you in particular rather than Montival in general, not least because they know the common soldiers will hesitate to fight their own. That may well have turned the Horse Heaven Hills fight in our favor.”

Fred mopped his bowl with a tortilla and chewed on it thoughtfully. When his mouth was clear: “There are a lot of Cutter horse-archers still loose; if I run into them… there’s nothing like some plate-armored lancers riding barded destriers on your flanks to give you peace of mind. Say what you like about the Associates, they can fight. I won’t be sorry to have the Grand Constable leading them either, she may not be the most charming person on earth—“

“An acquired taste, yet worth the effort.”

“—but she knows her trade and then some.”

“Very true indeed, and I’ll be glad when she’s back. But the propaganda the enemy is putting out paints me as lusting to divide Idaho into fiefs for my supporters and build castles on it, the way my black spalpeen of a dead father-in-law did with the lands he took in his day… which admittedly was a great whacking amount of territory which now sprouts noblemen and castles like toadstools after rain.”

“Yeah, if I ride in trailing a menie of armored Associate lancers with pennants streaming and gold spurs gleaming it’ll make that look sorta convincing,” Fred acknowledged. “Dad never slugged it out with Portland, but for a long time everyone expected that to happen, and there were some pretty bloody skirmishes before we split the Palouse with them. What’s your plan?”

“I’ll use them at need, but I’d like to keep the chivalry of the PPA in reserve as far as I can, until we’re east of Boise into lands where there’s no memory of the wars against the Association. Or of the days when Norman Arminger was the… what was the phrase… the big bad.”

Fred frowned. “I see your point. And they can be an arrogant bunch, and come across as even more arrogant than they are, to people who aren’t used to their, ah, ways. But from a strictly military point of view—“

“War is the means, Fred. Victory is the end, and that’s always about politics. We need to separate the remaining Boise troops in the field against us from the Cutters; the Grand Constable and the barons can trample them underhoof in finest feudal style with my hearty cheers. So I want air reconnaissance as far as Boise itself. For that we need good launching sites, say in those mountains southeast of here for a start—“

“The Seven Devils. Hmmm. There were old airstrips up there before the Change… probably a lot of thermals and updrafts… I suppose you want me to turn my field engineers loose on the approach roads? ‘cause I don’t have any glider squadrons to spare, to put it mildly. It’s harder for the Air Force to defect, oddly enough. As units, at least.”

“Right you are. Forbye we can use Bearkiller pilots and ground crew, and Mackenzies to guard and skirmish down towards the lowlands, if you supply the transport. With luck we can draw some of the Cutter cavalry off, too, and make them fight us in terrain that gives us the advantage.”

Edain stirred from where he’d been holding his glass between two palms and listening silently.

“And you’d be wanting to go up and supervise yourself, Chief,” he said wearily. “Not leaving it to those whose proper business it is. That’s the ill news you had for me.”

“How well you know me!” Rudi said. “Get the Archers ready. I’ll not try to go alone, lest you sicken with worry and do yourself an injury.”

“Or put the toe of me boot to the stony arse of you, that being the way to get sense into your thinking parts, Chief,” Edain said. “Now you’ve eaten, I suggest you seek your tent, unless you’ve decided to do without sleep as well. Something is making your judgment worse than it might be.”

Rudi nodded goodbye to Fred and rose. “You try presiding at meetin’s and reading reports all day, Edain, and see if you don’t seize any excuse to get away!”

More soberly, and looking out into the fire-starred darkness beyond the tent: “And I’ll be sending those pilots into peril. They can at least see the face of the man who’s asking them to do it.”