Read an Excerpt
Seven Devils Mountains
(Formerly western Idaho)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
June 12th, Change Year 26/2024 AD
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 well 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 worked into the hide there. 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.
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 backseats. 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 backward 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, Change Year 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 humankind. 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 ear–range, 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 facedown 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?” he asked.
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.”