But not every leader has altruistic aspirations. Norman Arminger, medieval scholar, rules the Protectorate. He has enslaved civilians, built an army, and spread his forces from Portland through most of western Washington State. Now he wants the Willamette Valley farmland, and he’s willing to wage war to conquer it.
And unknown to both factions is the imminent arrival of a ship from Tasmania bearing British soldiers...
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Woburn Abbey/Aspley Wood/Rasta Bob’s Farm
August 12th, 2006 AD—Change Year Eight
I’ve been here before, John Hordle suddenly realized, his thumb moving over the leather that covered the grip of his bow.
The moon was up, and it glittered on the ruffled surface of the water to his left, where swans and ducks slept or swam lazily. But there was still little light under the three tall yews and the big oak; the night around him was still save for night birds, the whoo-whit of tawny owls and the screech of the barn type. Seven armed men lay grimly silent behind brush and waist-high grass, watching the great country house a quarter mile to the northeast. Candles and lantern lights flickered and blinked out behind the windows as the servants and garrison sought their beds. The pale limestone of it still glowed in the light of moon and stars.
When was that? Before the Change, of course, but when? In summer, I think.
Woburn Abbey was old; it began as a great Cistercian monastery, in the year when the first Plantagenet was crowned King of England. Henry VIII hung the last abbot from an oak tree on the monastery grounds when he broke with Rome and declared himself head of the Church, and granted the estate to a favorite of his named John Russell. The fortunes of the Russell family waxed and waned with those of the English aristocracy and England herself. In the palmy years of the eighteenth century the fifth duke rebuilt the country house in Palladian magnificence and surrounded it with a pleasance—deer park and gardens covering five square miles—very convenient with London only thirty miles to the south. In 1953 the eleventh duke had opened it to the paying public, complete with golf course, pub, guided tours and antique shop—and avoided the forced sales which so many of his peers suffered after the Second World War.
Came on a day-trip, I did, drove up the M1. After I enlisted, but before I did the SAS selection…August of 1996, ten years ago to the month. Me first leave…who was the girl? Blond all over, she was, I remember that for certain. And she giggled.
In England the Change had struck in the early hours of the morning on March 18, 1998: the owner’s family and Woburn’s staff had only begun to realize what the failure of electricity and motors and explosives meant when the first spray of refugees from Milton Keynes and Luton arrived in the area two days later. The last duke’s heir set up emergency quarters in the buildings and in tents in the great park, doing his best to organize supplies and sanitation. That ended when the last of the deer were eaten or escaped; by then most of the animals in the attached Safari Park had been released, before the keepers realized that even lion and timber wolves, tiger and rhino were edible when the other choice was death.
Shortly thereafter the hordes fleeing north from London met those from the midland cities moving south, and the great dying was well under way. A cannibal gang from the south side of Milton Keynes used the buildings as a headquarters for a time, roasting the meat of their catches in the fireplaces over blazes fed by the Regency furniture, rutting in the beds where Victoria and Albert had slept, and sitting beneath the Canalettos and Rembrandts to crack thighbones for the marrow with Venetian-glass paperweights. They turned on each other when prey grew scarce, and the last died of typhus on Christmas Day of 1998, shivering and comatose and alone.
Mary Sowley, that was her name. Bugger me blind if it wasn’t ten years ago to the day . We drove through Safari Park and looked at the bloody lions and didn’t that get her motor going…She married that commuter in Essex, the one with fuzzy dice hanging from his rearview mirror. God alone knows where the poor bitch left her bones. Hope it was quick.
Bicycle-borne scouts from the Isle of Wight scoured Bedfordshire in the spring of 1999; the smaller island off the south coast of the greater had kept two hundred thousand alive in the wreckage of a world, but resettling the British mainland was urgent. Their primary concern was to see where a useful crop of volunteer wheat could be reaped from fields unharvested the previous year and find the tools to do it, but on instructions from new-crowned King Charles III they made a stop at Woburn and a cursory attempt to board up windows and close doors as well, to protect the pictures and porcelain within. By the summer of Change Year Eight the estate was on the northeasternmost fringe of the recolonized zone, a royal garrison post in the commandery of Whipsnade.
There’s some who’d say it’s stupid to think about girls just before the hitting starts. Sam Aylward had, for example; but then Samkin was the sort who polished bullet casings in his spare time to cut down on the chance of a jam. I wonder where old Sam ended up? He was abroad somewhere on the day of the Change.
It was now nearly a decade later, and even past midnight John Hordle was sweating beneath his chain-mail shirt and underpadding. Insects buzzed and burrowed and bit amid the mysterious rustles and clicks of any forest at night—though these days that could include the movements of large carnivores with intent to harm.
Men are more dangerous, he thought whimsically. They’ll go for your throat when they aren’t hungry.
He could smell the intense yeasty smell of the dirt scuffed up beneath him as he crawled into position where grass and thistles stood tall. Training could let you move soundlessly; it didn’t make you any lighter, and John Hordle had reached seven inches over six feet when he turned twenty in the year of the Change. He’d never been fat, but the only time he’d been under two hundred fifty pounds was that winter and spring, when the rations on the Isle of Wight had gotten just short of starvation amid hard labor and wet chill.
A soundless alert went among the men of his squad as boots tramped through the night, tense expectancy as a pair of sentries made their rounds between the raiding party and its target, tramping along the low ridge between the water and the house.
Vicious SIDs, he thought, motionless but acutely conscious of the speeding of the blood beating in his ears. Or Varangians, as Sir Nigel prefers. More dignified, I suppose.
The armor of the big men who paced by was enameled a dull matte green; they wore steel breast-and backplates, mail sleeves and leggings, and rounded sallet helmets with flares to protect the neck. That color didn’t reflect much, but moonlight still glinted on steel—the honed edges of broad ax blades. Those were long-hafted weapons meant to be swung two-handed; the trademark of their unit.
“Hun er sviska!” one said, murmuring and shaping the air with his free hand. Which meant, roughly: What a stunner!
Special Icelandic Detachment, right enough, Hordle thought.
He’d picked up a little of the language—mostly in bed and from girls—since the islander refugee immigrants poured in during the second and third Change Years.
Same as King Charles, when he threw over Camilla and took up with Hallgerda. Mind, I don’t blame him. Those legs!
The other guard chuckled and nodded: “Hun heldur áfram og áfram.” That translated as: She goes on and on!
His left hand closed slowly on the grip of his longbow; there was an arrow on the string and four more were laid out in front of him, points and fletchings blackened with soot. One of the SIDs flipped his ax down from his shoulder and began a casual practice routine with it, spinning it in his hands and switching from right-hand leading to left on the fly—far from easy, and risky with an unshielded edge. It made an unpleasant fweeept sound as it cut the air in blurring arcs and circles.
Go on, Njal, Hordle thought, willing them to notice nothing. Back to your nice cozy room and take a nap…
The Woburn Abbey garrison was a thirty-man platoon of the Special Icelandic Detachment—SID—First Heavy Infantry Battalion, according to report. King Charles didn’t want regulars guarding a prisoner who’d been as popular with the troops as Sir Nigel Loring. That was why they’d moved him here, as well, rather than keeping the baronet under house arrest on his own commandery of Tilford Manor in Hampshire; too many of the folk there had been men of his own, or refugees he’d seen through the Dying Time on the Isle of Wight and led to settle their new lands. But Bedfordshire had only been colonized the last four years, and that, lightly; most of the dwellers were relocates from the Scottish islands and from Iceland and the Faeroes. They’d spent years working for others before they could accumulate tools and seed and stock to set up on their own, and they’d come this far north because the good land farther south was already claimed. And they were still much more likely to be unquestioning in their support of the royalist government than the native English.
Gratitude’s a wonderful thing, Hordle thought sourly, as his chest moved in a slow, regular rhythm and his eyes flicked back and forth in a face darkened with burnt cork. Too bad Charlie didn’t stay grateful to Sir Nigel for getting him out of Sandringham and down to Wight.
He’d been with the SAS—Special Air Service—detachment Nigel Loring took to rescue the heir to the crown from the Norfolk estate a week after the Change; the Household Cavalry had taken the queen out of London directly, in full Tin Bellies fig and using their sabers more than once on the mobs.
Perhaps if she’d lived Charles wouldn’t have gotten so strange…Or if any of the politicians had made it… The last messenger out of London had said Blair was on his way, but he’d never arrived.
If ifs and buts were candied nuts, everyone would have lived through the Change, Hordle thought.
A clank sounded from behind him. Ice rippled through the sweat on his skin; the sound had been faint, very faint, but it was worse than a snapped twig—nothing else on earth sounded quite like metal on metal. The two SIDs stopped.
“Who goes there?” one of them called, his English accented but fluent. He reached for the horn slung at his belt. “Show yourself! This is a prohibited zone!”
“Oh, you conscientious keen-eared shite,” Hordle sighed.
He drew the hundred-fifty-pound longbow’s string to the ear with a slight grunt of effort as he rose to one knee; the SID he aimed for had just enough time to put his lips to the horn’s mouthpiece before the arrow slashed through the intervening twenty feet. A sharp metallic tunk! sounded as the punch-shaped arrowhead struck the center of the guardsman’s breastplate and sank nearly to the feathers, with the head and a red-dripping foot of shaft sticking out of his back.
The horn gave a strangled blat that sprayed a mist of blood into the air, looking black in the moonlight and turning his yellow beard dark. He toppled backward with a clank. Two more bows snapped in the same instant: one shaft went wide, but the other slammed into the second Icelander’s nose. It had been shot uphill, from a kneeling position, and it angled upward through his brain and cracked out the rear of his skull, knocking the helmet off, spinning. The body shook in a moment’s spastic reflex on the ground, rattling and rustling the armor as bootheels drummed on the turf.
Hordle was on his feet and moving before the helmet came to rest on the sheep-cropped grass. He ran crouching into the open, grabbed both bodies by their throats and dragged the two men and their gear back to the shelter of the brush at a quick, wary walk. There was blood on his left hand as he dropped them and sank down again beside his bow. He washed palm and fingers clean with water from his canteen, and reached under the hem of his mail shirt to wipe it off on the gambeson. It wouldn’t do to have his hands sticky or slippery.
They waited silently, watching and listening. No sound of alarm came from the great Palladian manor ahead, a glimmer of pale limestone in the moonlit night. He nodded as Alleyne Loring came up beside him, going down on one knee. The young officer was twenty-eight, Hordle’s age almost to a day. The pub that Hordle’s father ran, the Pied Merlin, was less than half a mile from Tilford Manor, and they’d grown up as neighbors and playmates before the Change and served together since.
Alleyne wore an officer’s harness armored in plate cap-a-pie, from steel shoes to bevoir and visored sallet. He slid the visor up along the curved surface of the helm as he used his binoculars to scan the overgrown parkland between them and the entrance. It had been scattered trees and deer-grazed grassland before the Change, but even after the abbey was reoccupied there had been no labor to spare for ornamental work—the garrison here lived from its own fields and herds, with a little help from nearby farmers. There hadn’t been enough stock to keep the vegetation down either, until the last year or two. Bushes gleamed with beads of dew, and the grass was better than waist-high in places.
“All right,” the younger Loring said softly. “That gives us fifteen minutes until they notice. Go!”
He drew the long double-edged sword at his waist and led the way at a run, moving with practiced agility despite the sixty pounds of alloy-steel protection, an extra sword and a heater-type shield slung over his back. The six archers who followed were more lightly armored: open-faced helms, chain-mail tunics, sword and buckler. Hordle kept an arrow on the string and grinned in a rictus of tension, they’d be visible now from the upper stories of the building—to anyone unblinded by artificial light who knew what to look for.
“Who dares, wins,” he muttered to himself. “Or gets royally banged about if things go south.”
Excerpted from "The Protector's War"
Copyright © 2006 S. M. Stirling.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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