Chapter Eight

Hoka hey!” Ivan screamed, and the rest of his band echoed it hundreds-fold.

The Lakota burst into a gallop and swerved in towards the head of the enemy column, stretching out as they did so, then angling for the corner in unison like a flock of birds. The warriors leaned forward along the necks of their horses, faces close to the manes, as arrows began to wicker out at them.

Hitting moving targets was hard. The square corner of an infantry block was where it was hardest for the people in it to shoot back.

Susan leaned forward and rose in her turn, the movement rippling down the formation like a wave as they all aimed at the corner-point of the enemy formation, drew and loosed, which would give three or four arrows for every enemy soldier under the lash. She was timing it to the floating motionless moment the horse had all its hooves airborne; she shot at a banner-bearer, ducked again…

… and the Korean ranks went by in a blur of motion and the nerve-wracking whupt of arrows driving by in return, and then they were swinging wide and angling in towards the next block. There was more return fire this time, since the enemy had more warning.

A man ahead of her pitched sideways off his horse with a black-fletched arrow through his neck, an O-mouthed expression of shocked surprise on his face she suspected she’d be seeing for a long time, then hit the ground and bounced. Another leapt free as his horse was hit in the hock of its left fore, and tumbled to the ground in a crackle of breaking legs. He struck the ground rolling, came upright and ran; one of his comrades swung in and extended a hand and he bounced up behind his rescuer.

Something banged into Susan’s back just as she started to straighten up to shoot again, painfully hard and right over the kidneys, below the part the shield on her back covered.

OOoooohfSHIT!” she said.

The arrow wobbled off her bow and she got a mouthful of Big Magical Dog’s mane and a painful bump on the nose as the upward motion of his neck met the downward plunge of her face.

She pulled in a breath—the stab of raw fear she dealt with by ignoring it, the way you did—and felt around with her right hand.

It scratched on a few broken links in the mail lining of her jacket, protruding through the ripped surface of the leather.

Glancing blow, she thought. But two inches lower, and that arrow would have skewered me all the way across.

Light mail wouldn’t stop a hard-driven bodkin at close range… and she’d seen people dying with an arrow through the kidney. It always killed, but never as quickly as the victim wanted to go by then.

“Fuck you, you evil dickweeds!” she wheezed.

The groping hand also met an arrow standing in her shield which she hadn’t even noticed when it hit. She screamed wordless rage and stood in the stirrups, shooting six times as fast as she could into the mass of Koreans whirling by, not trying to aim anymore except into the formation.

Ivan Brown Bear gave a wild whoop and peeled left, right between the third and fourth of the enemy blocks. That meant they were shooting at the Lakota from both sides… but mostly over them, and their formations wavered as they stopped and turned and tried to bear on the racing mass of horse-archers. The Lakota leaned forward into their horse’s necks, and the enemy’s arrows mostly went into each other.

Susan gave a wild whoop of her own, waving her bow over her head and yipping derision at the enemy as they rode free out the other side; her companions joined with a few choice Sindarin insults of their own:

Hû úgaun!

Which was Morfind’s contribution: cowardly dog.

Faramir was a bit more imaginative, as much as you could be in a language that wasn’t yet very strong on scatology, obscenity or blasphemy.

Thiach uanui a naneth gín gen hamma!

Which meant: You’re stupid and your mother still dresses you!

The Lakota poured out the other side of the enemy formation and turned south again, which kept their left sides towards the foe—perfect for horseback shooting, and monstrously inconvenient for them to shoot back, which they couldn’t do at all without halting and turning themselves to put their bow-hands towards their targets. That cut down on the number of arrows coming back at them, and return fire was the main difference between this and hunting stampeding buffalo on the makol—the risk of being pounded into mush if you fell or your horse stumbled was about the same.

Drum and trumpet sounds from behind them made the first troop of the enemy halt; the others double-timed out to either side, moving from column into line… which had been the point of the exercise. Ivan brought them wheeling down the line of the enemy’s front just as they were forming up. Streams of arrows sleeted out as the Lakota emptied their quivers in a ripple that spun men around and dropped them limp and sent them stumbling and screaming and clutching at the wood and iron in their bodies. In one spot a dozen fell in a single instant.

“Hoka hey!” Ivan screamed again.

In the same moment he sheathed his bow, swept out his shete and put up his shield, and turned his horse into the gap in the Korean formation, where there were no spearmen left standing with shields and spears to shelter the archers. His band followed him with the instinctive savage unison of wolves avalanching onto a wounded buffalo. It was a maneuver that had broken infantry more than once in the Prophet’s War. And before that during the post-Change wars with the Square Staters to the east, when the Seven Council Fires were seeing how much of their ancient range they could take back, pushing until the farmers got too thick on the ground and they had to start worrying about the Prophet’s growing strength to the west.

Susan and her companions followed suit—she felt a flush of savage irritation, but there wasn’t any choice, not when the alternative was trying to turn around into a dense stream of galloping horsemen waving edged metal or leveling the light lances some carried.

Even well-trained horses usually wouldn’t ram right into what looked like solid obstacles to their limited sight; their inbred fear for their legs forbade. They would shoulder people aside, hard, if they’d been accustomed to it and they had no room to stop. Their own fear of falling when they were traveling at speed made them ready to do it, to get something out of their way before it tripped them. A shoulder-to-shoulder line of men with sharp pointy things was too much to ask of them, but a straggling clump was another thing altogether. The Koreans were being a little slow in rallying, and it was going to…


Big Magical Dog’s left shoulder hit a man trying to aim at her; he pitched backward, fell, and screamed briefly as the Lakota onrush rode over him. The horse stumbled, and Susan gathered him up with knees and balance. To her right Morfind had cased her bow and had her bush-sword in her hand—about two feet of what looked like a kukri that had been straightened out and lightened a little. She drove the point into the face of a Korean who was trying to hack at the hocks of a horse in front of her, and then freed it by letting the motion of her mount swing her arm back and yank it out of the bone where it had lodged. That let her make an upward sweep like a polo-player, right into a wrist holding a sword, and both went flying in a spray of red.

This is going to cost them, Susan thought.

Galloping horses moved at better than thirty miles an hour, and nobody was slowing down—which meant that a couple of hundred tons of flesh moving at speed had rammed into the opening in the Korean ranks, wedging it further with their bulk and close-quarter killing. The Lakota were screaming like files on stone as they drove steel home with that momentum behind them. She could see Brown Bear up ahead, whirling a head-breaker—a long-hafted club with a stone head shaped like a small football—around his head and striking down to the right and left while he shouted out an earthy war cry that translated roughly as: beat ’em so bad you can fuck ’em up the ass!

They were almost through and the noise was like a waterfall in the mountains next to the ear, but sharp as well as blurry. Even so Morfind’s scream of:

Natho Faramir!” cut through: Save Faramir!

Big Magical Dog repaid all her patient training in that moment as she slugged herself back against the cantle of her saddle, tucked the toes of her boots under her mount’s elbows and snatched at the reins with her free hand. He reared up and stopped in little more than his own length by crow-hopping forward on his haunches, using his own weight thrown backward against the momentum of the gallop. It was something that would have been difficult if they were all alone on a patch of nice firm dirt. Surrounded by running horses and slashing hostiles, on ground littered by bodies, it was an astonishing feat of athleticism.

Thanks for trusting me, Big Magical Dog! flashed through her mind.

Faramir’s Arab had an empty saddle; it was dancing in a circle, lashing out with its hind hooves every few seconds and squealing. Faramir was on the ground, with an arrow in his left shoulder and a Korean standing over him with an upraised sword. He didn’t wait for it to descend; instead he lashed a foot upward beneath the skirt of the soldier’s steel-studded leather coat, which was split like a horseman’s before and behind. The Dúnedain’s steel-toed boot rammed home. The Korean was probably wearing a cup and if he was it would reduce the damage, but Faramir was a very strong young man.

He also had a long knife in his right hand, even if his left wasn’t much use right now. He stabbed as the Korean jackknifed forward, then pulled the bleeding body over his. Several arrows and two swords struck it as more of the enemy crowded in to try to finish him off. It could only be seconds before something serious hit him.

Aöa ye!” Susan shouted, and shifted her balance again.

That was a command: hit.

Big Magical Dog did exactly that, rearing and lashing out with both forefeet, snorting and eyes rolling. Susan felt her body flex with the movement, and something like an interior click! snapping her teeth together as the steel-shod hooves struck with nine hundred pounds of quarter horse behind them. The enemy who’d been raising a spear in both hands to stab down at Faramir was flung like a rag doll launched from a catapult, knocking down his comrade on the other side.

Morfind was there now. In unison they bent low as Faramir struggled out from under the body, his face and chest and hair a mass of blood; he’d lost his helmet somehow. Susan ran her left hand under his armpit, and he reached up and grabbed her belt with reassuring strength. It was different on the other side; the head of the arrow was through his jerkin there, and his teeth showed in a grin of pain as Morfind lifted with the same underarm grip.

But there was no time to be gentle. Susan grunted with effort and levered herself back into the saddle, using the thrust of her foot against the stirrup as much as she could. That put him on his own feet, but suspended between the two riders.

Her companion did the same, and their horses broke for the clear space behind the enemy formation in the wake of the Lakota warband, bounding off their haunches. They weren’t quite the last out, but it was uncomfortably close, and Faramir was giving gasps of pain every time his feet struck the ground between them.

Judging from the empty saddles, the band had lost more riders in the thirty seconds or so it took to burst through the ruptured Korean line than in all the rest of the engagement, but the enemy were reeling. Faramir’s horse came trotting up behind them, and Susan took a quick look around. They were out of bow-range of the Korean force, which was busy trying to repair its formation anyway, but they were also behind it, and the Lakota weren’t stopping.

“Can you get back in the saddle, sweetheart?” she asked.

“Don’t… have much… choice, eh?” Faramir said between clenched teeth.

Susan caught the reins of his horse, and Morfind bent over to grab the back of his belt, where the tomahawk-loop was. Faramir scrambled up, and she thought with a stab of alarm that he was starting to look a little gray—possibly shock was setting in. They kept their speed down to a canter; all three horses were panting like bellows, and had foam spattering on their necks and chests… and on the riders. The Lakota slowed down too as soon as they were out of bowshot of the enemy, and hooked around to get in front of them again… but now the Imperial Guard of Dai-Nippon were deploying there, and the shaken Koreans didn’t show any great eagerness to rush them.

Beyond the Japanese a forest of lances moved, the heads and pennants blazing in the air, as high as the heads of pikes—twelve feet of their own length, and then the height of the tall horses the knights rode. Their armor glittered too, eye-hurting bright where it was white—bare and polished—or merely vivid on the colors of shield and horse-trappings and plumes. Susan looked back towards the enemy as they cantered towards the spot where the High Kingdom’s banner marked Órlaith….

Something struck her. It wasn’t physical, but it was real none the same, and it struck her mind. She had just enough time to realize it was something the kangshinmu were doing before—

Where am I? she thought. A voice seemed to whisper: I… see… you.

Part of her knew. She was in her trailer, sprawled in the recliner; and nearly filling it, flesh bulging against her jeans and tank top. Both her feet were in the pressure-bandages that kept the compresses against the sores that wouldn’t heal. She had a can of beer in one hand, and the VR goggles in the other, and she wanted to pop a few more before she put the headset on, to make the illusion better…


She bit back a scream as for an instant she seemed to burn. Then she was back in the saddle, with Faramir making choked-off sounds and pawing at the arrow in his shoulder. Morfind was…

Her face looks as if she’s not here! Same thing’s happening to her that happened to me!

That gave her a hint, and Susan leaned across and poked the end of her bow sharply into the other woman’s ribs, getting a violent start.

“I saw… I saw…” she gasped, then fell silent.

Morfind’s pale blue eyes were wide; they went wider as she looked past Susan’s shoulder, raising a trembling hand to point.

Susan turned to follow her finger. Órlaith and Reiko had both ridden out in front of their formations. And they had both drawn the weapons that hung by their sides, Órlaith holding hers up with the point towards the sky, Reiko slanting hers forward. From among the Korean ranks there was a thrashing, and then the kangshinmu and his acolytes staggered forward, walking as if they were being dragged unwilling.

Then the center of the three, the sorcerer-lord, screamed. It was a sound of such agony that Susan shivered even at a distance too great to see expressions. He tore off his three-horned crown and screamed again, and light broke from his eyes and nose and open mouth. Light that started as a sullen red, and swiftly grew brighter and brighter…

Then the man was gone. His acolytes went mad, one rolling and tearing at his face with his hands, the other stabbing himself in the face and chest and gut, over and over again, the knife driving in like a hydraulic machine’s pistons.

Tennō Heika banzai!

The Japanese raised their war shout—To the Sacred Majesty, ten thousand years!—and charged, their spears leveled. Behind them the Association’s oliphants screamed, and there was a shout:

“Haro, Portland! Holy Mary for Portland!”


“I wish we had the Jewel and the Mirror here, too,” Reiko said. “I could better serve my people and our common cause if I did.”

They handed the reins of their horses over to grooms and dismounted.

Órlaith chuckled. “I think we have other things to attend to, before there’s a second Quest.”

Reiko gave her a half-admonishing smile. The Imperial Regalia of Japan comprised three great treasures; Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the Grasscutter Sword, the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. The Sword for strength, the Jewel for abundance and the Mirror for Truth.

Before the Change they had long been hidden away in the great shrines, for their ancientry and their symbolism. All three had been given by Amaterasu-ōmikami herself to Her grandson when he was sent down to the earth of Japan, to father the line of the Yamato dynasty in a dark predawn past, and all three had been kept secret in the most sacred shrines, brought out only in strictest privacy for an Imperial investiture—the Sword had been so secret that it had never become known after the Pacific War of the past century that it had been stolen!

“Your Sword… it is more compact,” Reiko said. “It fulfills the three functions in itself. And besides, of our three treasures the Mirror is still missing.”

Órlaith frowned, and spoke slowly and seriously. “I think… Reiko, I think that it will come to you. How unlikely was it that the Grasscutter would be found, and come back to your hand? Yet it did.”

She touched the hilt of the Sword of the Lady. “I think that if this were cast into the deepest depth of the sea… that somehow a great squid would catch it, and the squid be eaten by a cachalot, and then the Sword would be cast out of the whale in a lump of ambergris and be brought to my heir as a gift by a fisher who caught it in her nets.”

Reiko started to speak, then stopped for a moment before she continued:

“Something… something like that was in the history of the Grasscutter Sword that I saw in dreams… in visions… before we came to the lost castle. A fatedness.”

Órlaith stripped off her gauntlets. The hands beneath felt a little sore; she hadn’t taken any actual wounds, but she had the full set of nicks, bruises, scrapings and wrenchings that went with a fight, when you used every part of your body and the joints in particular to an unrestrained ten-tenths of capacity against those doing likewise with life and death as a prize.

Men-at-arms were usually extremely fit, until their youth caught up with them—her father had just begun complaining now and then about stiffness and old injuries before he died in his forties.

Not far away, Susan Mika and Morfind Vogeler knelt to either side of Faramir Kovalevsky. Their hobbled horses were nearby, and Faramir was lying on a saddle blanket, with his head and shoulders propped up against a saddle laid in the dirt. He’d been stripped to the waist, and a set of bandages immobilized his left shoulder and arm; they were stained yellow and smelled strongly of a spicy-medicinal ointment. His eyes were closed, but fluttered open and looked at Órlaith a little blankly.

“I say well done to you, and very well done, my faithful friends,” Órlaith said, smiling down at them. “I’ve congratulated Brown Bear and his folk, but you helped with it—the timing was perfect, luring out the enemy shamans. They were mad with rage against you… and that left them more vulnerable.”

“Yes,” Reiko said, and nodded to them. “Because of your very great trouble and taking pains, my Guard’s fight is less hard, fewer have died than might be. Osoreirimasu. Very great thanks.”

Morfind and Susan bowed their heads.

Then Susan spoke: “I’m worried about Faramir, Your Highness. He’s been logy ever since he got hit—I don’t think it’s just shock. He’s been hurt before.”

Órlaith went down on one knee. She felt Faramir’s brow, and then laid fingers very gently on his injured shoulder. He stirred and made a throaty, inarticulate sound. His pale skin didn’t have the taut sheen of health that it usually did; it wasn’t exactly flushed with fever, but there wasn’t something quite right either. Presumably he’d been dosed with morphine….

Reiko picked something up; the bloodstained stub of an arrow, scored along its length with marks where a field surgeon’s arrow-spoon had been used—an instrument that slid along the shaft and encased the head. Arrows were often barbed, even if subtly in the narrow punch-heads used to penetrate armor, and the heads might be weakly attached so that they would remain in a wound if you just pulled on the shaft. Both were true in this case.

Reiko flicked it aside with a grimace. “Sometimes the jinnikukaburi weapons are poisoned or just filthy. Sometimes there is no infection, but the one injured simply… declines.”

Morfind had lost her brother to this enemy not long after the High King died, in the same fight that had scarred her face; her expression went blank. Susan’s eyes appealed.

Órlaith frowned, touching the hilt of the Sword of the Lady. Trying to remember…

“Yes. My father was wounded on the Quest, by an arrow shot by a Cutter magus—and he very nearly died. It wasn’t poison or wound-fever, not as they usually are.”

She sighed and laid her hand on the hilt. More than her body ached now. Holding the Sword in your hand in battle gave you pains that went as deep as the soul. You were pushing that part of your very self as hard as your body.

But when she drew the feeling was…

Gentler, she thought.

Everyone around her still stiffened or gasped; the world flexed when the Sword of the Lady was unsheathed, as if beneath the weight of something that was too powerful for the fabric of reality—for the story of things that made up the world. Or almost too powerful. She reversed the grip with a quick snapping flex of the wrist, so that the blade lay along her forearm. It felt like a longsword to the hand, but a little lighter than a steel weapon of the same dimensions.

But when Da bore it, it was an inch longer in the blade and a quarter-pound heavier; I remember that, she thought with a slight shiver. Then it was as if it had been designed to his hand, now as if to mine. As if the world could be amended, quietly, so that we scarcely notice, like a letter re-drafted and stuck back in the file.

She held it very carefully as she lowered it to rest on Faramir’s body for a moment, with the pommel between his brows. The Sword wouldn’t cut her, or her near kin; in fact she could bounce it off her skin like the edge of a wooden ruler. To anyone else, someone not of House Artos, the edges were sharp enough to part a drifting hair… and they were indestructible, unlike steel. Órlaith had had to unlearn some of her long training in the arts of the blade, to use one that could not be damaged, was utterly rigid, and had so little friction that blood ran off it as if it were greased and left not even dampness.

The sensation that followed when the Sword touched Faramir was indescribable; the nearest she could come, even to herself, was like a bent muscle relaxing, or a blockage that flowed again as it should, the feeling you got when you drowsed into sleep after a long hard day and a bath and your body felt warm and contented under a duvet.

Faramir’s gray eyes fluttered open. “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer,” he said softly in the speech of his folk. “And so the rightful King shall be known.”

Órlaith smiled, lifted the blade, and sheathed it with a shing and click of metal on metal… or what sounded like that.

His eyes drifted closed again and he sighed and slept. “Is he healed?” Susan Mika said anxiously, and added: “Your Highness,” because others were present.

“No,” Órlaith said. “But he’s healing. I think… I strongly suspect… that something was preventing that. It’s been, ummm, removed.”

The looks on their faces made her slightly uncomfortable; so did those on those observing from a distance. She restrained an impulse to snarl. Reiko looked almost amused, as they walked away to have their armor off—you could do that yourself, but it was much easier with assistance—and said in Nihongo:

“I am sorry, my oath-sister, but to see you wince as another layer of myth and legend wraps around you… it amuses me.”

“I admit you’re worse off that way,” Órlaith said dryly.

“Órlaith, my friend, we have fought all day; we have wielded powers that are not of this earth. We have seen to our other duties and succored our people. Now I have another suggestion.”

“What’s that?”

Reiko smiled: in fact, she grinned and held up her tessen war-fan to mark off points.

“That we wash and dress in comfortable clothes and then have a dinner my cook prepares—he has been weeping with frustration that I have not allowed him to make a kaiseki-ryōri and Hawaiʻi has all the ingredients—and listen to my court ladies play, and drink sake, of which they have an excellent brand here, and recite sad poetry until we weep and witty poetry until we weep with laughter and get gloriously but not too drunk and watch the moon rise and then bid each other farewell and go off to our beds and sleep.”

Órlaith laughed. “Even better if there were a comely young man of a madly romantic variety waiting for each of us, but the food and poetry and drink and sleep sound more than good enough. Ikou! Let’s go!”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling