Chapter One


Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie felt the massive frame of the frigate Sea-Leopard quiver beneath her feet as the fourteen-shot broadside cut loose, the catapults on the gun-deck below shaking the thick Douglas fir and Garry-oak structure of the warship as it sailed parallel to the coastline and across the land-breeze with a slow rocking-horse motion. The three masts and their stripped minimal shapes of battle-sail towered above her, and the other five frigates of the Montivallan Navy squadron traced a line behind her that might have been drawn with a ruler, white wakes against the cerulean blue of the ocean.

A little farther out from shore were the smaller, less drilled ships of the allied fleets, the navies of Hawaiʻi and Dai-Nippon, and the transports and barges that bore the troops who would storm ashore to put right the sneak attack and invasion. It was the task of the warships to soften their way.

Bolts and eighteen-pound roundshot arched out, a near-flicker as they left the launching troughs, arching away into invisibility with distance. That drew a merciful veil over what would be happening on shore as they slashed into the massed ranks of the Korean invasion forces, the dense black mass on the white beach, sparkling here and there with edged metal. They raised their square shields in a futile gesture against missiles designed to shatter the thick timber frames of warships or the stone of fortress walls.

What was it Da said? Órlaith thought grimly. Yes, that it’s a great pity that fighting evil starts with killing evil’s conscripted farmers.

Odors of tarred rope and wood, hot canvas and sweat and metal oiled with canola gone slightly rancid in the mild warmth overwhelmed the scented breeze off the land, that itself was tainted with the smoke of burning homesteads where the invaders from the east had harried among the Hawaiian workshops and settlements around Pearl Harbor. Behind the Montivallan ships some smoke still rose from the ocean itself, where the enemy fleet had met its fate five days ago and was now mainly drifting wreckage… and bloated bodies feeding the gulls. Sweat ran down Órlaith’s flanks into the padded arming jacket and trews beneath her suit of plate, light and flexible though that titanium-alloy marvel of smithcraft was, but this wasn’t nearly as bad as some desert summers she’d worn it through back home.

Still, when she took a dipper of water from the scuttlebutt with a murmur of thanks to the sailor it slid down like the pure product of a mountain spring, stale and warm and tanged with the chemicals that kept it safe though it was. You had to be careful about things like that, though: it occurred to her that if she made a casual joke and asked if there wasn’t cold beer instead, some officious twit might run around in a panic trying to find actual cold beer and getting in everyone’s way.

While she was off looking for the Grasscutter Sword with Reiko—and dodging the people her mother the High Queen had sent to drag her back if they could—she’d gotten used to being around only her core of followers who knew her well and were friends as well as vassals. It was irritating to readjust to people who saw only the rank, though she couldn’t really blame them, since that was all they could know.

“Time to get closer,” Admiral Naysmith commanded quietly, standing at ease in her white linen tropical-service uniform jacket and gold-braided epaulettes and fore-and-aft cocked hat. “Apparently they use all their artillery as dual-purpose, and they didn’t have time to dismount any from their fleet. Which they didn’t expect to lose, of course. Unwise to be so specialized.”

Empress Reiko of Dai-Nippon spoke… in her own language, though her originally indescribable and purely book-learned English was reasonably understandable now after most of a year of dogged effort:

“The jinnikukaburi navy is built for landing raiding troops and taking them off again. Fighting at sea is secondary for them.”

Órlaith translated, since she had perfect modern Nihonjin courtesy of the Sword of the Lady she bore, though she tactfully gave post-Change coinage of jinnikukaburi as the enemy.

The literal rendering was something on the order of human-flesh cockroach or possibly cannibal bug monsters.

Considering what her folk’s scant survivors had suffered since the Change from the reavers who came across the Sea of Japan, Reiko’s attitude was understandable, and she had a mild case compared to most of her countrymen. Particularly since the enemy did eat the flesh of those they killed… and one another, when they were really hungry or someone was being punished. They didn’t always kill you first, either.

But Montival wanted to keep it plain they were fighting Korea’s demon-ridden sorcerer tyrants, not the land or the people, however much they’d been corrupted by that tyranny and however theoretical the distinction most of the time. Distance made that easier. Reiko had admitted the usefulness of the distinction, but rather grudgingly; most of her subjects simply wanted to kill them all.

Naysmith gave a respectful salute.

“Thank you, Your Majesty, that explains a good deal,” she said to Reiko, and added: “Domo arigato,” with a pronunciation Órlaith’s ear caught as just as bad as Reiko’s English had been when they first met.

Then the Royal Navy commander went back to watching the beach through levelled telescope, her square blocky face calm beneath the small blue brand-scar of the Bearkiller A-List between her brows. Only the observers in the tops or held aloft by great man-bearing kites cabled to the sterns of the repeater frigates had a better view. If the enemy troops pulled back from the beach the allied assault could come ashore uncontested beneath its shelter… but if they didn’t, they had to stand under the hammer.

As Órlaith’s mother had said to her once, battle was always a set of choices, and the mark of a really good commander was to present the other side with a series of choices that all amounted to: damned if you do, damned if you don’t, each set worse than the last until they ended up with no alternatives between surrender and die.

And Da had laughed and marked out some maneuvers he’d seen on the table with crusts and saltshakers and gravy boats and wineglasses and added:

And never, never give them the gift of time to recover from a mistake.

His finger had stirred the improvised markers; she remembered the big long-fingered hands vividly, the scars and nicks and battered look of them and the way the red-gold hairs stood out against the weathered tan and the thick swordsman’s wrists that hardly dimpled in at all from the forearm.

Looks easy here, does it not, my darling girl, here when we’re cool and collected and can see it all? And you say, How could this captain or that have blundered so? But ah, when your heart is pounding and there’s dust in your eyes and much depends on the next decision and everyone’s screaming at you for this or that… then it’s hard, hard. Any fool can hit, timing is much less common, so it is. The same punch can break your knuckles or his face, depending on when you throw it. And waiting because you can’t decide… that’s a decision too, and always a bad one.

Naysmith went on: “Switch to napalm shell. Open up the fleet and tack in succession, conforming to Sea-Leopard. All ships keep full lookouts on each other. Minimal sail, dead slow just enough to keep steerage way, prepare to strike sail and drop anchor on the word of command. Captain Edwards, you will take this ship in about another three hundred yards closer to shore for our next pass to establish the bombardment line.”

“Aye-aye, Admiral,” he replied.

She’d just made a vote of confidence in his ship-handling skills and those of the other frigate-captains, since it was the sort of maneuver that looked easy and stately… unless it ended in disaster. The local pilots their new ally King Kalākaua had supplied were a help, but the Montivallan frigates were also deeper-keeled than anything they were used to. And since there was no time to do their own surveys they’d just have to hope the charts were accurate, which so far they had been.

“Then make it so.”

The Sea-Leopard’s captain echoed the command, and signal flags relayed it to the rest of the allied fleet. The ship came about as the four hands at the helm spun the fore-and-aft paired wheels, the view past the distant bowsprit circling with ponderous certainty, land and then sea again as the third officer pointed with his cane and called:

“Thus… thus… very well, thus!”

A volley of commands via speaking-trumpet ran upward as the sails were adjusted by the crew aloft, and deck-teams hauled away and cursed the men-at-arms of the Protector’s Guard and the kilted ranks of the High Queen’s Archers who crowded into their working-space.

Órlaith could look down from the quarterdeck through a hatchway and into a part of the ordered confusion of sweating backs heaving at the levers of the hydraulic pumps that cocked the massive springs of the throwing weapons. Now they rushed to the other broadside as if the shrill twittering of the bosun’s pipe were playing directly on their nervous systems, adding to the slight canting of the deck. Behind them the portside catapult-ports slammed shut like so many doors, sending the gundeck into darkness for an instant before the ones on the starboard snapped open and threw their shafts of light into the gloom.

The catapult-captains were gingerly laying the fireballs in the troughs of their machines with swift cautious motions, using tools like a giant version of kitchen-tongs to lift globes of ceramic or thick glass filled with a sticky mixture that would cling and burn inextinguishably. Each was wrapped in skeins of cord soaked in the same to act as fuses, and the shells were carried up from the metal-lined magazines below the waterline in sets of four, encased in rectangular steel boxes that could be slammed airtight-shut.

Napalm shells on wooden ships made everyone safety-conscious. The hulls of the Montivallan vessels had salvaged sheet aluminum covering to protect against fire on the outside, but within it was just timber.

A uniform fourteen-fold touch from fire sticks set the wrapping around the shells afire, flickering yellow and trails of black smoke, and the gunners gripped the lanyards as the last adjustments were made to the elevation and traverse wheels. They watched as the officer at the ladder in the rear sounded his whistle and slashed his cane down.

TUUNNNNGGG, as the springs—salvaged from the suspensions of pre-Change mining trucks—drove the paired throwing-arms forward whap! into the rubber-padded stops, so fast that there was no apparent time between the release and the stop, just here and then there. The frames slammed backward violently, slowed and then stopped by the hydraulic recoil cylinders that recovered the energy for the cocking mechanism, and then the pumpers were at their violent labor again. The whole was as choreographed as a ballet, and had to be, when forces of that strength were unleashed around vulnerable human flesh.

The ship shuddered again, and this time the broadside’s missiles trailed smoke and fire all the way to the shore hundreds of yards away. Some burst too soon and left arcs of yellow fire in the air, but more cracked open just over the enemy’s ranks and sent spraying gouts of liquid flame into their faces. More still ploughed into them and shattered and scattered burning gobbets that clung and ran down beneath armor to turn men into torches that ran and screamed and then fell to smolder and stink.

The enemy formation heaved and split, then settled down again with an almost inhuman discipline.

Or supernatural, Órlaith thought. This is not just a contention of kings, or tribes fighting over borders like wolf packs over their hunting-runs.

That could get bad enough; humans were a quarrelsome breed. This…

She laid her hand on the pommel of the Sword of the Lady, moon-crystal cradled in antlers… or at least something that looked like that to human eyes and felt like it to a human palm, just as the double-lobed hilt appeared to be black staghorn veined with silver and the crescent guard and the long two-edged blade looked like layer-forged steel. All might simply have been a masterpiece of the bladesmith’s art, making any experienced hand long to whirl it for the joy of feeling its perfect supple balance.

But if you looked more closely, the layer-forged metal turned into recurring shapes that vanished into each other and drew your eye in and down, down and in….

The Sword had been forged beyond the light of common day, to embody the land of Montival and the line of her blood. Her parents and their sworn companions had made the Quest of the Sunrise Lands a generation before, sought and fought and followed dreams and portents, to find it in a place even her father couldn’t describe… because language itself buckled beneath the burden. He’d believed it wasn’t a thing of matter at all, but a thought in the mind of the Triune Goddess given shape and form and palpable substance, a thing possible only in the modern era, after the Change began to open doors in the walls of the world that had been long closed.

It didn’t give her that indefinable sense of connection here that it did back home in the lands and on the waters of Montival. These islands in the midst of the Mother Ocean were the domain of Powers wholly other than those she knew, wild and fierce and strange.

As she raised her gaze she sensed a woman-form with eyes that glowed like lava turning to look at her, like a ghost-wave of heat across her face. That One abode in the white-tipped blue of the mountains inland, or perhaps She was those mountains and the earth-fires at their hearts on all these islands born of upwelling rock meeting the sea in cataclysms of steam and flame. In the blue, blue waters alongside, a grim seaborne maleness snatched at the land with every retreating roar of surf, rode the waves with fin and devouring shark-sharp tooth. And beyond those were others, a kaleidoscope of forms up to a terrible fourfold majesty. But They weren’t unfriendly; not to her, far from it. She felt Their burning wrath that foreign men had dared to land with weapons in hand, to bring fire and killing among the folk who honored Them. Their hand was over Their people… and gave leave to anyone fighting alongside them against the same foe.

Above the enemy… a flat louring darkness, a taste of the absolute cold and motionless stasis at the end of all things, when the very atoms of being had decayed, and a stillness that hated and hungered. But strong, strong with a strength that had eaten the cosmos itself in other turns of the Wheel.

And the Sword did give her an intuitive sense of where her own people were—as if she carried all the maps and files and notes in her head, continually updated, and could recall them perfectly. The information was just there when she needed it, as if remembered; her father Rudi Mackenzie, the first High King, had told her that when you bore the blade forged beyond the world to war it was like having the world’s best general staff living in your head. And like much of what the Sword did it was a little… disturbing when it popped up at the back of your mind all of a sudden. It didn’t do things for you so much as made it possible for you to do things that wrung every ounce of the possible out of you, and a little more besides.

Through it she could feel what her followers felt. As any commander needed to do that and could… but through the Sword it came sooner, and more definitely. Fear of course, but also anger—her father had been much loved as a ruler and a man. The foe ahead were the ones who’d come to Montival and killed the High King, a gross offence to their pride and sense of themselves. Hence the grim resolve she sensed, a driving need to avenge his blood and the realm’s honor.

Better still was an iron determination not to fail comrades whose respect mattered more than life: shields locked with a file-mate whose family had the farm next to theirs, the playmate and workmate of all their years; the bow-line who were village neighbors and blood relations and initiates of the same Mystery; the men-at-arms who had proudly knelt and put hands between those of a lord and pledged loyalty unto death for all to see.

Each one knowing those who survived would return home to tell their kin of their honor or their shame.

“The enemy are very determined, but they won’t stand and take that for long,” Naysmith said clinically.

The elite of her people, the Bearkillers, selected what they called their A-List for merit and trained them to think as well as fight, and the Royal Navy recruited from all Montival on the same basis.

“They’ll pull back to regroup and reinforce, maybe dig in behind field fortifications once we’re committed to a single landing zone and we can’t keep making them run up and down the beach trying to get ahead of us anymore. But here and now they’re tired and they’ve taken heavy losses. Hitting them immediately will cut our butcher’s bill, even if our landing-troops have to fight with their feet wet, and it gives us most of the day to fight.”

Órlaith glanced at the two monarchs who flanked her on the flagship’s quarterdeck, King Kalākaua of Hawaiʻi and Tennō Heika Reiko of Dai-Nippon. Each gave her a very small crisp nod, which was possibly a historic record for brevity and efficiency as far as coalition warfare was concerned. Montival had the bulk of the strength, but she had to tread carefully around the pride of her allies; not just the monarchs, but those behind them who they had to heed. And both of them had things to contribute that she and the realm needed badly.

Kalākaua was a big handsome brown-skinned young man of a few years more than her mid-twenties, glistening with coconut oil and lightly garbed in stout strapped sandals, a scarlet-and-yellow malo loincloth twisted around his waist and ending in a panel before and behind, and a short semicircular cape of the same color. He wore a light armor jacket of coconut-fiber woven with stainless-steel strands, similar guards on his muscled forearms, and a crest of yellow feathers across his round helm from brow to neck. There was a heavy nine-foot battle-spear in his hand, a short chopping sword and knife at his waist, and he was raging-eager to punish this attack on his people.

And she knew from things he’d said how bitterly he regretted all the sweat and toil lost as well as the lives—resettling an Oahu devastated and depopulated when the Change stopped the world-machine had been a work he and his father had pushed at all their lives. Much would have to be done over again, after the waste of war.

She thought Reiko had the slightest ghost of a smile on her lips as well, or perhaps only in her narrow dark eyes. Her left hand rested on the hilt of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi tucked through the sash that girt her set of Tosei-gusoku composite armor, a new design that drew heavily on the legacy of the Sengoku, the Age of Battles. Two of her samurai stood by ready to hand her the flared seven-plate kabuto helmet with the chrysanthemum mon on its brow, or the long higoyumi bow and naginata; altogether she looked like some kami of war from her people’s long, long past, down to the fact that her five-foot-six made her as towering for a Nihonjin woman as Órlaith was among her own people.

She’d recovered the lost Imperial sword, one of the three great treasures of her dynasty, with Órlaith’s help… very personal help, since it had been only the two of them at the last, there in the haunted castle in its little bubble of otherness in the Valley of Death. Órlaith had held the doorway and Reiko fought within against perils not altogether of this world to reclaim a plundered inheritance brought there in the great wars of the last century. Absorbing the shattered fragments of the Grasscutter from within the bodies of her enemies and into her Masamune heirloom sword as it cut her foes down, to make the sacred Imperial blade anew in a different form.

Which is rather grisly, when you think about it. And if I find custom and ceremony irksome… for Reiko going back to it after a taste of freedom must be like being buried in living cement, though she’ll never complain. My dynasty began with my mother and my father; hers is thousands of years old and claims to have been started by the son of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami… and that claim may be literally true. Certainly the Immortal One Shining In Heaven reached down and claimed her, that day on the beach at Topanga.

They were close friends, as far as their respective obligations allowed. They were of an age, and they had shared things no others did, starting with the fact that their fathers had been slain by the same enemy within an hour of each other. And going on to what they both bore at their waists, in shapes that only seemed to be steel. The Grasscutter had its own powers, and they’d both seen them….

“Admiral, I think the assault wave should go in now?” Órlaith asked, a little rhetorically.

Admiral Naysmith snapped her telescope shut and meditatively raised a fist to her lips, touching them for a moment to a ring that bore three interlinked triangles in a knot.

“My thoughts exactly, Your Highness,” she said, nodding slowly.

Sometimes I feel a bit irked when she’s surprised I’m doing the right thing. Yes, I am a lot younger, but I was raised and educated by the people who won the Prophet’s War, Admiral Grim-All-Business, with the Valknut on your ring. Why is it that people who follow a God who’s a notorious trickster are usually so… so serious? The Thurstons out in Boise are that way too. But it’s a party every night in Valhöll. To be fair, those among the Bearkillers and Boiseans who are Christians are like that too.

Bearkillers tended to think that Mackenzies were incurably light-minded, and that Associates were playactors too concerned with dressing up in fancy garb and ancient titles to be taken entirely seriously. They were like Boiseans that way, only more so. Órlaith qualified in both categories, in a way, even if she was a niece to their Bear Lord—he was her father’s half-brother, on the other side of the blanket.

And I do carry the Sword of the Lady.

“Signals, my compliments to General Thurston, and pass the order to the first wave to commence the assault as per the operational plan,” Naysmith said. “All warships, prepare to elevate to maximum range to avoid friendly fire when we have boots on the beach, but not before, and then to cease fire on order.”

The flags moved again, and far above them the kite-rider released a grenade that trailed bright-red smoke all the way down, visible for miles… and to all the ships where eyes were kept constantly on that dot in the sky, connected to the repeater frigate by a long curve of cable. Nothing would happen immediately. There was a lot of waiting in war, another irritating instance of what her elders had told her turning out to be true.

You want the waiting to be over. Then it is, and you don’t.

“Oh, I think I recognize that expression you’re wearing,” a voice murmured behind her.

It ran beneath the background noise of the crowded ship, everything from the creak of flexing timber and the thrum of wind in the rigging to the hundredfolds slapping of the crews’ bare feet and the constant ratcheting clatter of the catapult pumps and the shanties the crews chanted in unison, like a surf that never ended. That meant you could have a fairly private conversation, if you were careful. Anyone who’d grown up in a tight-packed village learned to speak that way, or gave up any hope of privacy, and it was worse around Court and castles and manors where your rank made everyone want to eavesdrop on you all the time.

Nobles learn the jailhouse whisper as sure as convicts do.

The voice went on in the slightly staccato accent of the north-country; you could close your eyes and know the speaker had been born after the Change, in Association territory and not far from Portland.

“It’s the expression my liege’s family gets on their faces when they’re about to do something very brave and very noble and very very stupid.”

That was Lady Heuradys d’Ath, her sworn knight, Chief of Household and girlhood friend. Órlaith looked over her shoulder, which involved rotating herself a bit at the hips when wearing a suit of plate with the bevoir that shielded jaw and chin in place and laced tightly to her breastplate. Especially when the four-foot elongated teardrop shape of a knight’s shield was slung over her back point-down.

Heuradys d’Ath already had hers on her arm, ready to sweep between Órlaith and harm, blazoned with the arms of Ath—sable, a delta or on a V argent—quartered below Órlaith’s crowned mountain and sword crossed with the baton of cadency. She was two years older than Órlaith’s quarter-century, and stood an inch shorter than the Crown Princess’ five-foot-eleven, with amber eyes and dark-auburn hair, her regular features a little blunter than Órlaith’s chiseled looks.

As she spoke she held out Órlaith’s helmet, with the arming-cap and gauntlets in it; strictly speaking that was squire’s work, but they’d never stood on formality. Órlaith sighed and pulled the knit wool and chamois leather of the cap over her braids, drew on the gauntlets and gave a slap of fists into opposite palm to settle them. Then she took the helm and settled it firmly and fastened the chin-cup and straps; the constriction of the felt-and-sponge pads around and on top of her head infinitely familiar, and she began the slight automatic motion of the head every so often that compensated for the way the sides of the broad sallet cut into her peripheral vision.

It was much worse with the visor down, of course, but then you were covered from the crown of your head to your toes. It didn’t make you invulnerable, but it did limit the feasible targets on your body very sharply. At close range there was nothing in the world more dangerous than a knight who knew their business, and nothing harder to stop.

“Da never hung back from a fight,” Órlaith said to her. “Are we going to have this conversation again?”

Heuradys helmed herself likewise and flicked the visor up with one gauntleted finger so that it shaded her face like the bill of a baseball cap. Her suit was of the same rare alloy and matchless craft from the Crown workshops, a gift given for her knighting and a signal mark of favor. Even the Crown Princess hadn’t gotten one until she reached her full growth.

“By the Dog of Egypt, we most certainly are! Yes, he never hung back… and he died only a couple of decades older than you are now, leading the charge in a skirmish,” Heuradys added with a bluntness few others would have dared.

They both had tall sprays of feathers mounted on either side of their helms, Golden Eagle for Órlaith since that was the sept-totem that had appeared to her on her vigil, by the Mackenzie custom she followed; her visor was drawn out a little and had the point curved to suggest a beak when it was down. Heuradys had northern Snowy Owl plumes of black-flecked white in the same place, and their like etched thinly into the surface of her helm, to mark the Goddess to Whom she gave her first worship.

Associate nobles were mostly Catholic Christians, like Órlaith’s own mother and half her siblings, but mostly wasn’t the same as all. Half the d’Ath family were pagans, and considered eccentric in other respects as well.

“It was by treachery after the skirmish he died, coming between me and the knife,” Órlaith said. “And there was a prophecy he wouldn’t live to see his beard go gray.”

The smaller details of her father’s death didn’t alter the general point. Heuradys had been there too… and she had loved him, too, both as a long-time honorary uncle, as her family’s patron and her personal benefactor, and as her King. Órlaith forced a warrior’s lightness in the face of death into her tone. That too was part of grieving.

“And that prophecy was given him by Gangleri the Wanderer.”

In a dream when he slept in a cave on the Quest, out in the Sunrise Lands, she thought

“Oh, a prophecy from a god that he’d fall in battle before he was old,” Heuradys said. “That was like needing divine intervention to tell you that the sun would probably rise in the east next Friday. And you’re the same way. He was the best master of the blade I’ve ever seen—even better than my Mom Two—”

Who was known as Lady Death, in a pun on her title of Baroness d’Ath. She’d been one of Rudi Mackenzie’s tutors in his youth; in fact, Tiphaine d’Ath had been ennobled and endowed by the first Lord Protector of the Portland Protective Association when she captured Rudi and held him hostage for a while as a child, during the Association Wars, before the High Kingdom was formed. Órlaith had heard Lady D’Ath say that Heuradys was as good with a blade as she’d been in her prime… though she’d never said it to Heuradys, because, as she put it, vanity was a leading cause of death.

The scolding went on: “—But as the wise man said, even Hercules can’t fight two, and a random crossbow bolt through your visor-slit is no respecter of persons and doesn’t care how good you are with a sword… even that sword. Here’s a prophecy from a mere humble worshipper of Athana: you won’t make old bones either if you don’t remember that a monarch is supposed to command. You’ve got plenty of people… people like me… to do the hack-and-slash.”

“I’m not reckless!”

“Remember how you had us steal a sack of ramen and run away at night so we could set out on a Quest to find the Superman in his Solitary Fortress of Ice at the north pole… when you were eight? Gray-Eyed One witness I knew in my heart it was dumb even then, but you always could talk the birds from the trees or a honeycomb from a bear. And you’re just as good at convincing yourself that it’s a splendid idea to do what you want.”

“No harm done that time, sure.”

“So you don’t remember the trouble we got in after Bow-Captain Edain dragged us back by the ears?”

In point of fact Órlaith did vividly remember how sick she’d gotten of ramen, which had been served up for her dinner every single day until the sack they’d filched from the Guard armory was finished, and by then she retched at the sight and smell of it. The stuff still repulsed her.

“It’ll be the First of Never and two days more before you let me forget that little bit of mischief, am I right?”

“I’m going to have it put on my gravestone, along with, Here lies Lady Heuradys d’Ath, peerless knight, who died shouting bitterly: It’s all your fault you mad bitch! at her BFF.”

“And you yourself being so timid, Herry dear.”

Heuradys raised one eyebrow. “I’m your household knight and heir-vavasour to three quite theoretical manors out in the Palouse with nothing on them yet but a few peasant families and about six thousand sheep munching on bunchgrass and crapping wherever they please. You’re the heir to Montival. It’s just a bit of a bigger responsibility.”

“And I have four siblings after me….”

“Three if you don’t count the one who managed to get washed out to sea and is She-knows-where.”

“Four siblings, so there’s more than one spare wheel to the dynastic wagon… there they go!”

The assault battalions finished clambering over the rails and down the nets on the sides of the transports, and the barges pushed off with a row of oars flashing like the legs of a salt-water centipede on either side; there were local pilots in each, fishermen and sailors born with a foot in these waters and an instinctive feel for them. But the crews and the troops were her people, come here at her call, and she bared her teeth with the aching need to be with them and share their peril.

Not yet, not yet; Herry’s right that far. The monarch doesn’t charge at the forefront more than once per battle and that at the crucial point, she thought. I can feel them, through the Sword… can they feel me with them? Yes, at some level, I think so… the veterans all swear that in the Prophet’s War they could sense Da’s hand on their shoulders somehow.

Heuradys handed her a pair of binoculars and she leveled them, adjusting the focus and compensating for the ship’s roll. The first wave was a brigade of heavy infantry from the United States of Boise, in what the old world had called Idaho. Some very conservative elderly people there still called it simply the United States of America, though the Thurston line of Generals-President had quietly abandoned that claim when they swore allegiance to Rudi Mackenzie. Fred Thurston, their current ruler, had been with her father on the Quest in a complex sequence of events that had involved his elder brother in parricide and usurpation… and probably demonic possession.

The Boiseans wore armor of bands and hoops of steel plate joined by polished brass clasps, helmets with flared neck-guards and bills over the eyes like jockey caps and hinged cheek-guards, big curved oval shields in their left hands and heavy javelins with long iron shanks behind the points in their right. An officer was the first to leap down as the barges grounded in near-unison, shin-deep in the low surf; you could tell his rank by the stiff upright crest of red hair from a horse’s mane mounted across his helmet from ear to ear and the vine-stock swagger stick in his hand. Beside him was a standard-bearer with a wolfskin cloak and the flayed head of the animal snarling above his brow, who was carrying a tall staff with the Stars and Stripes below a spread-winged gilded eagle.

He was too far away for Órlaith to hear what he shouted, but she could hear the answering call from his troops: a long deep guttural snarling:


It carried as well as a drumbeat, and stirred something primal that coiled under her breastbone and made the little hairs on the back of her neck try to stand under the constriction of her arming-doublet.

As they gave the Republic’s battle cry they leapt over the bows and sides of the barges, some of them neck-deep as they waded shoreward with their shields and javelins held over their heads. A few had to be rescued by their comrades and crawled ashore coughing, heaving and spitting up seawater, but the rest formed up quickly, crouching with shields up and covering them from eyes to the greaves on their shins. They needed to be; despite the constant stream of roundshot and bolts going by overhead arrows were already coming back from the enemy ranks, standing quivering in the sheet-metal facings of the plywood shields marked with a black stenciled spread-wing eagle and crossed thunderbolts. More shafts came every moment, and the Korean forces used a powerful composite bow of horn and sinew. Here and there a man fell still or writhing, an arrow in face or arm or thigh showing you could meet your own personal ill-fate regardless of how the battle went overall. The rear ranks dragged them out of the way and back to the stretcher-bearers and medics and merciful morphine, and a new man stepped into each vacant place with stolid speed.

Another order, this one carried by the hoarse screaming of brass cornu, coiled trumpets Boisean signalers wore like sashes. She’d known the Boisean battle-calls even before the Sword came to her—that one meant form standing testudo.

The front rank went to one knee with their javelins point out and butts stamped into the sand, shields braced on the ground edge-to-edge like a wall bristling with spines; the second rank held their shields up to make the wall more than man-high, and the third and fourth snapped theirs up overhead to form a roof. The whole took mere seconds, in a rippling unison like a living machine, and full of a deadly menace and promise.

More arrows sleeted down on them, but the formation stood. Just offshore now were more barges, keeping station as the empty ones threaded through and headed back out to load more troops. That second wave was full of archers in kilts and light open-faced sallet helms and green brigandines marked with a silver waxing crescent moon between black stag-antlers.

“Oh, the kilties do love to sing and chant,” Heuradys said; those were the Clan Mackenzie’s archers. “It’s a pity they’re too crowded to do a sword-dance first. They’d rather dance than fight any day… well, so would I.”

Behind her Karl Aylward Mackenzie and his brother Mathun—young men now of her household, and alike clansmen from Dun Fairfax—made small rude noises as they leaned on the cased staves of longbows made of yellow mountain yew from the Cascades, taller than a tall man and still unstrung, with grips and risers of black-walnut root and tipped with nocks carved from elk antler. The others in the small band of Mackenzies they led sniggered quietly.

One of them—Órlaith didn’t turn her head to see which, for dignity’s sake, but the voice was female, she thought Boudicca Lopez Mackenzie—began to murmur along with the men and women raising their bows closer to shore, and she could feel her wish to be there like the tension on a drawn bowstring:

We are the point
We are the edge—
We are the wolves that Hecate fed!
We are the bow
We are the shaft—
We are the darts that Hecate cast!

Not even Mackenzies, who were a people of the bow and raised to it all their lives, could shoot accurately from a barge rolling in the low waves near shore. They didn’t have to—their target was a black mass of thousands of men and spearpoints drawn up in plain sight and only about a hundred paces away… and there were thousands of the clansfolk, too. Thousands of the clothyard arrows flew upward at a forty-five degree angle for maximum range. They slowed to the top of their arch, twinkled slightly like stars on a rippling night-time sea as the honed edges of the heads caught the sunlight when they turned, and plunged point-down towards the enemy formation with a rushing whistle that was audible even here.

It didn’t end, either, continuing like the sound of steady rain on a tile roof, punctuated by a multifold hail-drum as the points struck shields and helmets, armor and dirt… and human flesh. The enemy staggered under the blow and began to crumple, like a sandcastle in rain.

Maith thú, and doubly well done! Good shooting!” Karl said. “Mackenzie abú!”

Another volley and another rose, regular as a metronome, until six or seven were in the air at the same time, and twelve left the strings in the first sixty seconds alone. At that angle a longbow shaft of dense straight-grain Port Orford cypress-wood from an old-growth tree, with a head beaten, cut and ground from the head of a pre-Change stainless-steel spoon, was moving three-quarters as fast when it hit as it had when it left the string… and that was very fast indeed.

In the old wars with the Association, charges of knights had been stopped dead in their tracks by that arrow-storm. And at the Battle of the Horse Heaven Hills the death-sworn fanatics of the Prophet’s red-armored elite guard had died in windrows before the Clan’s section of the battle line, men and horses piled four-deep, weakening them crucially for the charge that broke the power of the Church Universal and Triumphant forever. The Koreans weren’t nearly as heavily armored as either of those foes had been.

“Nock… draw wholly together… let the gray geese fly… Loose! Nock . . .” one of the clansfolk behind her murmured.

That echoed what the bow-captains in the barges would be shouting. Mackenzies prided themselves on being a free people, with no lords but the Chief of the line of Juniper Mackenzie they hailed themselves, governed by their assemblies where any crofter or crafter could stand and vote and speak their mind to anyone, including the Mackenzie Herself Herself. One of the reasons that boast was largely true was that anyone in the dúthchas could cut a dozen yew staves in a single autumn day and put them to season in the rafters of their cottage, and a year later a skilled bowyer could turn that seasoned stave into a longbow in an afternoon at modest cost. Long chill rainy winter afternoons in the Black Months were often spent making arrows.

Naysmith made a gesture with her telescope: “Ships to cease fire.”

The clamor of the broadsides ended, a stillness running down the line of battle from Sea-Leopard to Wave-Witch. In that—relative—silence another brass snarl from the cornu rang clear, and the Boiseans began to move forward, opening up their formation into a checkerboard, boots pounding in unison and right hands cocked back with the javelins—the pila—leveled until they were thirty paces from the foe.

Then at another signal each of the front line took a skipping sideways step and threw. The heavy spears flew out in flat arcs at close range, their narrow heads slamming into bodies and faces and penetrating armor of lacquered leather and steel lamellae like a metalsmith’s hammer-driven punch. Where they hit the heavy square shields with hard crack sounds they slammed through the outer layers of hide and wood, and then the shanks of soft iron bent to let the wooden shafts drag on the ground, making the shields useless… and making it impossible to pull them out and throw them back. She could see the enemy making that nasty discovery themselves, shaking their shields or wrestling and hammering at the embedded weapons while their officers screamed at them to keep ranks.


A huge unified crashing bark from the whole Boisean brigade, and the front rank snapped out the short leaf-shaped thrusting-swords worn high on their right sides and charged at the run with shields advanced. The rows behind threw in sequence, three thousand spears in thirty seconds, then moved up behind their comrades in the dance of the maniples; taking spear-thrusts on their big shields, their helmets and shoulder-armor shedding the overarm slashes that the enemy’s point-heavy sabers delivered, punching the shield-bosses into faces like a twenty-pound set of brass knuckles and smashing the steel-shod lower edges down into feet hard enough to snap bone or into a fallen enemy’s neck to finish him. Crowding close and stabbing, stabbing, stabbing at face or groin or gut or armpit, sometimes bending under a shield held like a roof to aim a hocking backhand cut at an enemy’s ankle or knee.

Officer’s whistles trilled, and the front rank stepped back as the second rank stepped forward sword in hand to replace them, letting the tired men at the enemy’s forefront face opponents who were always fresh. The effect was rather like the endless teeth of a circular saw in a water-powered timber mill ripping into one log of tough wood after another.

Though wood doesn’t scream in quite that way… Órlaith thought.

Behind them the barges bearing the Mackenzies moved in and grated on the sand of the beach, and the whooping clansfolk leapt free, holding their precious bows and quivers overhead.

The savage wail of the bagpipes sounded then; the pipers of each contingent playing the skirling menace of “Hecate’s Wolves Their Howl” in unison as they assembled on the beach. Lambeg drums began their inhuman hammer and the tall upright carnyx horns bellowed through mouths shaped like the heads of boar and wolf and tiger. True howls and ululating banshee shrieks ran louder still from contorted faces painted for war in jagged designs, sept totems or sheer fancy in red and black and green and yellow.

Some of them did dance a wild whirling step or two as they landed, or just flipped up the rear of their kilt and slapped their buttocks in the enemy’s direction.

Those on board tossed loads of fresh arrows down in a rain of thirty-two shaft bundles before the sailors pushed off and started back out. The archers shook themselves out into their bands by Dun and sept or oath-bond, trotting up with wolfish springy strides to spread out on the flanks of the heavy infantry. This time they delivered aimed fire at close range, slower but even more deadly, with the eye-punching accuracy of lifelong practice, and eóghann—helpers, teenage apprentices not yet old enough for the bow-line—ran back and forth with bundles of shafts, or got the wounded to the rear and began first aid beside the healers.

From about the age of six on, Mackenzies shot at the marks most days, for training and the public pride of making a good score. More, they rarely set foot outside their villages—duns in Clan dialect—without a bow in hand and a quiver on their back, because they hunted even more often for food and hides and fur. And to protect their crops and orchards and truck gardens from the nibbling hosts of deer and elk and boar and rabbit and bird, and their livestock and children from the hunger of wolf and cougar and tiger the year-round, in a world where humans and their tame fields and beasts were scarce again, and unpeopled forests and marshes and savannas many and broad.

Órlaith nodded, feeling what her folk did, knowing what they knew.

“It’s time,” she said. “Admiral Naysmith, send in the rest of the force—we have enough of a perimeter now not to get tangled up.”

A question was in the glance she got, and she explained:

“The enemy is bringing their first wave of reserves forward to try and push the Boiseans back into the sea by main weight while they’re fully engaged.”

Then she looked at her allies, and back at her handfast Household companions. “And let’s get going ourselves.”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling