The Protector's War
|Author:||S. M. Stirling
|Series:||Emberverse I: Book 2|
|Avg Member Rating:||
The national bestselling alternate history epic continues...
Ten years after The Change rendered technology inoperable throughout the world, two brave leaders built two thriving communities in Oregon's Willamette Valley. But now the armies of the totalitarian Protectorate are preparing to wage war over the priceless farmland.
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 18th, 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 underway. 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 Canolettos 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 the 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 rear-view mirror. God alone knows where the poor bitch left her bones. Hope it was quick.
Bicycle-born 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 main 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 the Change Year Eight the estate was on the northeastern-most 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 had been warm, that August day in 1996. 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 six 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 and 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 matt green; they wore steel breast and back-plates, mail sleeves and leggings, 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 axe-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: What a stunner!, roughly.
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 axe 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 cosy room and take a nap...
The Woburn Abbey garrison was a thirty-man platoon of the 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 in 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 further 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 detachment Nigel Lording 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, he thought.
A clank sounded from behind him. Ice rippled trough 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 shiite," Hordle sighed.
He drew the hundred-and-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, turning his yellow beard dark. He toppled backward with a clank. Two more bows snapped in the same instant; a shaft went wide, but the other slammed into the second Icelander's nose. It had been shot from a kneeling position too, uphill, 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 boot-heels 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 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 Pied Merlin that Hordle's father ran 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-à-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.
"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; he moved with practiced agility in the sixty pounds of alloy-steel protection, plus an extra sword and 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."
Nigel Loring woke in darkness. He lay for a moment letting his eyes adjust, ears straining for the sound he'd heard. Had it been his imagination? A fragment of a dream, a dream of combat before the Change or after it? God knew his life had provided plenty of material for nightmares, starting with Oman back in the 70's.
No. That was something. Perhaps an animal in the grounds, or a guard stumbling in the darkness, but something. Something real.
Maude Loring stirred beside him in the big four-poster bed. "What is it, dear?" she asked.
"Shhh," he said, straining to hear again.
Nothing, but there was a tension in the air. He put out a hand in the darkness and touched her shoulder. Then he swung his feet to the floor and padded over to the window. They were in the Covent Garden suite--bedroom, dressing-room and bathroom, the latter restored to limited functioning. The same engineers who'd set up the wind-pump system to give the house running water had put a grid of steel bars over the window, mortising the ends into the stone. That was a rather soft local limestone; Sir Nigel had determined in the first days of his captivity here that he could get the frame out, with a few hours unobserved work and some tools. He'd filched a knife and could have improvised a chisel from it, but the guards were quite alert--two below the window all night, and a pair at the doors, all stolid types who pretended they couldn't speak English or follow his halting Icelandic.
The bars were thick and close-placed, allowing a hand to go through but not an elbow, but they didn't totally destroy the view, and the windows themselves were half-open on this warm summer's night. His eyes weren't of the best--he'd needed corrective contacts since an RPG drove grit into them in a wadi in Dhofar--but seeing was as much a matter of knowing how to pay attention as sheer input. He looked down the long stretch of grassland across the park to the westward, and saw moonlight glinting on the Basin Pond and the dark bulk of the Abbot Oak--where Abbot Hobbes had been hung in 1538. His hands tightened on the steel as he saw movement south of there, dark figures flitting towards the building. Not the roving patrol the Varangians kept up here, either. There were far too many of them; he estimated at least four or possibly half a dozen, but they moved so quickly and skillfully it was hard to be certain.
"Maude," he said softly. Her white face was framed in dark hair as he turned, sitting up and alert. "Something's happening. We'd best take precautions."
She nodded briskly, swung out of bed and began to dress. They had had twenty-two years together before the Change and eight since, and neither needed many words to know the other's mind. He quickly slipped into his colonel's undress uniform; that was the post-Change version, designed to be worn under armor or as fatigues, tough and practical and with grommets of chain mail under the armpits, to cover the weak spots in a suit of plate. This set was clean, but there were stains from blood and sweat and the rust that wore off even the best-kept armor. His wife looked a question at him as he felt behind the frame of an 18th-century painting of a London scene and took out the dinner knife. He'd palmed it when the Varangians arrested them at table with the King at Highgrove and brought them here. It had been filed down to a point and given a respectable edge over the last two weeks, and she'd carefully braided and tied unraveled fabric from the bottom of an Oriental rug onto the grip so that it wouldn't slip in his hand.
He slipped the blade up the right sleeve of his jacket. She dressed then herself, in riding breeches and tweed jacket; they were allowed exercise, though always separately and under heavy guard. King Charles had made their confinement comfortable enough, probably the result of guilt and reluctance. Queen Hallgerda hadn't managed to talk him into throwing the pair into a dungeon, or sending them to the headsman's axe, not quite yet.
But she will do it, given enough time to convince him it's for the good of the realm. Damn the woman!
"What do you suppose is happening?" she said calmly.
"Not quite sure, old girl, but I think it's a rescue attempt," he said, his voice equally serene.
Although I feel more nervous than I have in thirty years, he thought. It's a trifle different when the wife's along too.
"I don't suppose..." Maude said.
Sir Nigel shook his head. "If His Majesty was going to give us the chop for asking about Parliament and elections and lifting the Emergency Powers Act once too often, the Varangians would handle it without needing to sneak about through the shrubbery. Light the candle, please. If it's friends come to call, we should make sure they know we're in. Then give me a spot of help with the furniture."
She nodded calmly; he felt a stab of pride as she picked up a lighter and flicked it alive, then went around the room touching the flame to candle-wicks and the rapeseed-oil lanterns, as calmly as if they were back home at Tilford. Mellow golden light filled the room, touching the Chinoserie of the wallpaper, the pictures and mirrors in their ornate frames, the pale plaster scrollwork medallions on the ceiling. It was a melancholy sight, in its way; the detritus of a thrice-lost world, the elegant symmetries of the Age of Reason filtered through the Age of Steam and his own twentieth century. The current situation was more suited to an older, darker period--the Wars of the Roses, perhaps, or even the stony roads of Merlin's time.
A few seconds sufficed to force a mixture of wood-splinters and candle-wax into the keyhole; then he shoved wedges made from shims worked out of the interiors of tables and settees under the doors. Together they dragged a massive desk over and tipped it up against the frame, lodging the edge against the pediment above and bracing smaller items in the remaining space. It had all been planned in advance, of course, against the chance they would need it.
"That should hold them for a little while," he said, as a shout from the other side asked what they were doing.
Maude nodded; she was a strong-featured woman of fifty, two years younger than he, and three inches taller than his own five-foot-five. It went unspoken between them that the Varangian commander almost certainly had orders to see that they didn't survive any rescue attempt.
"If you could detach this table-leg for me, darling?" she asked politely.
He nodded, braced a foot against the frame and wrenched the mahogany loose, working it back and forth so that the pegs wouldn't squeal when they broke. Sir Nigel was a small man, but nobody who'd seen him exert himself thought he was weak. Maude smiled and hefted the curved hardwood.
"Makes me nostalgic, rather." At his glance and raised eyebrow: "About the size and weight of the hockey stick I used back at Cheltenham as a girl."
She took a good grip on it and waited; Sir Nigel took the opportunity to use the splendid bathroom one last time. He'd rather have had his armor with him, but unlike a suit of plate the cloth uniform did have a button-up fly and a functioning loo wasn't all that common these days. He might as well have one last chance at decent English plumbing.
As he returned a horn sounded, dunting and snarling in the night--not the brass instrument the Regular forces used, but the ox-horn trumpet the Special Icelandic Detachment affected. The clash of steel sounded, rapidly coming closer, and men's voices shouting--and then a few screaming in pain.
Nigel Loring smiled slightly. "And they wouldn't tell us where Alleyne was," he said dryly, feeling another glow of pride; for his son, this time.
"I rather think we know, now," she said.
"Right on schedule," Alleyne Loring said. "Good old Major Buttesthorn."
They approached the great Georgian country house from the west; the long stretch of grass was being used to graze the garrison's horses and working oxen since the Basin Pond provided a natural watering-point, and large dark shapes shied and moved aside as they trotted forward. A sudden clash of steel sounded faintly from over Woburn Abbey's high roof, and then the snarl of a signal horn. Hordle grinned more widely. The Sids' families were quartered in one of the two big outbuildings behibvfnd the main house, the South Court, and the cover there was much better for a clandestine approach. The diversionary attack was going in right as planned--with maximum noise and plenty of fire-arrows. That ought to keep the day-watch at home; with luck, some of the ones on night duty would hurry back.
But not all of them... and if the rescue party wanted Sir Nigel and Lady Maude out alive, they had to move quickly. For that matter, the garrison commander would probably send a detachment out here as soon as he collected his wits. Hit them fast when they weren't looking, and put the boot in hard while they were still wondering about the first time...
"That's the window," Alleyne said, pointing.
"Just like the drawings, sir," Hordle said.
The Abbey was built like a giant uneven H with the short arms and the Corinthian façade in the middle of the connecting arm facing west, and the longer east-facing ones enclosing a court open in that direction. The rooms faced west, the candlelit window was sixty feet up and a hundred distant from where the storming-party halted.
He took a blunt-headed arrow from his quiver; it had a small slip of paper fastened to it with a bit of elastic. Then he drew carefully, well under full extension, and shot. The arrow hissed away, and an instant later he was rewarded with a tinkle of breaking glass.
The arrow smashed the windowpane and flicked across the room to dent the plaster. Nigel Loring winced slightly at how narrowly it had missed a painting by Nebot; his wife was already unfastening the message.
"Stand clear and pick up the string from the next," she said. "But dear, we can't climb down even if they do have a rope attached. The bars..."
The first shot hit the bars and bounced back. The second landed in the room trailing a thin cord, and Maude Loring began to haul it in hand-over-hand, a pile of it growing at her feet.
"Sir Nigel!" a voice called from the hall outside their suite. "Please to open the door, immediately!"
He didn't bother to reply. Seconds later the first axe hit the outside door of their suite.
"Keep going!" he barked to his wife, and went to stand beside the doorway.
Through the piled furniture he could see the panels begin to splinter; a two-handed war axe made short work of anything not built to military specifications. The dry splintery scent of old wood filled the air, and the glug-glug-glug sound of Icelandic, in this case panting curses between grunts of effort. He flipped the knife down into his hand and into a thumb-on-pommel grip, good for a short-range stab, then risked a glance over his shoulder.
The heavy rope had come up at the end of Maude's cord--two of them, in fact, both woven-wire cable. One was the top of a Jacob's ladder, and she was a little red-faced with effort before she clipped that to the bar nearest the left side of the window. The other had a ring-clip swagged onto the end. She fastened it to the center bar, made sure that the thin cord that prevented it from falling back was still tied to a chair, and stepped back.
"Encourage them to hurry, my dear," he called, and turned back to his own task--making sure the Varangians didn't break through too soon.
"You chaps! Do hurry--we're in a spot of bother here!"
He heard her voice crying out into the darkness, and then the first axehead came all the way through the panels of the door. It withdrew, and took a yard-wide chunk of the battered wood with it. A gauntleted hand groped through to feel for the knob and lock. Sir Nigel had anticipated that, and left a pathway; he slid forward and stabbed backhanded, his arm moving with the flicking precision of a praying mantis. Stainless steel stabbed through buff leather and flesh and bone, and he barely managed to withdraw it in time as the guardsman wrenched his arm back with a scream.
One, he thought. Out of this fight, if not crippled.
There were no great army of men here, less than thirty; the entire Special Icelandic Detachment numbered only three hundred, and it was a quarter of the ration strength of the British army as of Change Year Eight--and the troops all spent the majority of their time laboring on public works or doing police duties or working to feed themselves. More wasn't necessary, when the whole of mainland Britain held only six hundred thousand dwellers.
Immigrants included, he thought, poised, as the axes thundered again. Well, they're just doing their duty as they see it.
"Right," John Hordle said. "Let's clear the way!"
They tallied on to the main cable, Hordle and Alleyne at the front--the younger Loring was only six feet and built like a leopard rather than a tiger, but strong as whipcord with it.
"Remember, stop pulling the moment it comes free!" Alleyne said sharply. "If we pull the precursor cord lose, we'll have to run another up."
Hordle took a deep breath and called:
Seven strong men surged backward against the cable with hissing grunts of effort, driving against their heels as if this were a tug-of-war game at a village fair. Steel squealed against rock; he could feel the bar bending as the cable went rigid, and then there was a sudden release of tension as it broke free. They all threw themselves forward at once, and Hordle blew out his cheeks in a gasp of relief as he saw Maude Loring's hand come through the remaining bars, hauling up the cable and setting it on the next of the steel cylinders. The first fell, bent into a shallow U, clattering and clanging as it dropped on the pavement below the window.
This one came more easily; they knew the strain needed, and knew they could deliver it. A man could get through already; one more and it would be easy. Lady Maude looked over her shoulder as she refastened the loop.
Then she called, urgently: "They're in the room!"
"I'm coming, Mother!" Alleyne shouted, dashing for the ladder.
"Christ!" Hordle shouted; they'd need another bar out before he could get through, for certain! And the Lorings couldn't climb out, either, not with Sids in the same room. They had to get some blades in there, to throw the Sids back on their heels and give the Lorings time to break contact. So...
"Heave, you bastards!"
Maude shouted out the window: "They're in the room!" and snatched up her table-leg.
Some corner of Nigel Loring's mind wished desperately for a sword. Three Varangians were crowded into the entrance, hampering each other... but not enough that a man with a converted table-knife had much of a chance against three armored killers. Two of them set their shoulders against the desk and the other furniture that blocked their way and started rocking it back by sheer brute strength; the third punched the top of his axe at Loring's face like a pool-cue, an effective stroke when you didn't have room for a chop--five pounds of steel would crush your facial-bones in with unpleasant finality. The Varangian expected Sir Nigel to leap back; they knew he was agile enough. That would give the axe-man space to push his way into the drawing-room, drive Nigel into a corner and demolish him.
Instead he jerked his head just enough aside to let the pell of the axe go by; blood started from his cheek as the grazing steel kissed him, a burning coldness. Then he slid forward again with that dancer's grace, his left hand gripping the axe and pulling it to one side, the knife in his other whipping across in a backhand slash at the other man's eyes. The guardsman bellowed in alarm and snatched his head aside in turn, saving his eyes at the price of taking a nasty cut that opened his face to the bone along one cheek, and relaxing his hold on the axe as he did.
Sir Nigel's hand clamped down on it at once and pulled sharply; he stabbed backhand with the knife once more, and the axe came free as his opponent twisted once more to avoid the point. It hit the shoulder-joint of the back-and-breast and snapped with a musical tunnnggg sound; then the Varangian did something sensible--smashed one gauntleted fist at Nigel's face, and used the other to draw the short sword hung at his waist.
Two sensible things, actually, Sir Nigel thought, skipping backward away from the gutting stroke of an upward stab.
The mass of furniture overturned with a roar, scattering itself over the room in a bouncing, crackling tide. The two Varangians who'd pushed the barricade out of the way stumbled forward, puffing and off-balance for an instant. Nigel saw that, but there was nothing he could do about it--and his own panting reminded him forcefully that he was fifty-two this coming September. In superb condition for a man his age, but still a good three decades older than his immediate opponent, and air burned like thin fire in his lungs. He could smell the acrid odor of his own sweat as it ran down his cheeks and shone through the thinning gray-blond hair on his scalp.
The Varangian was also enraged by the slash that had nearly taken his eyes. It streamed blood into his red beard across a face contorted in fury; he stood eight inches taller than the Englishman, and seemed to have arms longer than an ape's as they wove with sword and dagger advanced. Sir Nigel hefted the axe; it was heavier and longer than he liked in a weapon but he gripped it expertly with his left hand at the outer end of the helve and his right, feet spread and at right angles--which might have been a mistake. The guardsman's blue eyes went a little wider as he recognized hold and stance, and he made no move to attack. He didn't have to. In a few seconds his comrades would be on Loring, and it would end in a flurry of axe-strokes impossible to counter.
"St. George for England!" Loring shouted, and attacked.
His first move was a feint, a lizard-quick punch with the head of the axe. That brought the Varangian blades up to block. Stepping in, he delivered the real blow--an overhead loop that turned into a cut at the neck, hands sliding together down to the end of the haft. The other man began a sidestep and block to deflect it, but at that instant Maude Loring's chair-leg cracked into his elbow. The chain-mail there probably saved the bone from breaking, but the two-handed blow on the sacral nerve still made his had fly open by reflex, and the dagger in it went flying. His wild stab with the shortsword left him open, and the axe in Sir Nigel's hands fell on his shoulder with a sound like a blacksmith's hammer.
The Varangian toppled backward with a sound that was half curse and half scream of shock and pain; the broad curved cutting edge of the axe had gone through the metal of his breastplate, just deeply enough to sever his collarbone. Torn steel gripped the blade tightly enough to pull Nigel forward; he released the haft of the axe perforce. Movement from the corner of his eye, to the right--
A figure in dark-green armor squeezed through the window. It was a complete suit of plate, officer's or lancer's gear... and there was the face so much like his below the raised visor. Alleyne Loring was grinning as he reached over his shoulder to flip a longsword through the air, then dropped a shield to the ground and skidded it over with a push of one foot.
Sir Nigel raised his hand as the weapon spun towards him; the leather-wrapped hilt smacked into it with a comforting solidity, and he had a yard of double-edged, cut-and-thrust blade in his fist. It was his own, intimately familiar from eight years of practice and battle. He snatched up the heater-shaped shield as well; it had the five Loring roses on its face, and a diagonally-set loop and grip on the rear. You slid your left arm in from the lower left, took the bar at the upper right corner tightly, brought the fist that made up under your chin just so... He had it up under his eyes and the sword poised while the two hale Varangians hesitated. Another figure climbed and wiggled through the window, cursing the tightness--a man huge and familiar, grinning as well as he took his archer's buckler in his left hand and drew the great hand-and-a-half sword slung by his side with the other.
Little John Hordle, Nigel thought, grinning back. Well, the card's full and the dance may begin in earnest!
More Varangians crowded through the shattered door, axes and the spike-blade-hook menace of a guisarme on its six-foot shaft. There was a movement of silence as the three Englishmen stared at their foes, silence save for the moaning of the wounded man crawling out the door among his comrade's feet, and then it began. An axe swung at him; he stepped into the stroke, sloping his shield to glance the battering impact away at an angle, stabbing around it at a face...
Steel rang on metal, thudded against wood; breath sounded harsh as men stamped and shoved and thrust through the great candlelit drawing room. Over it a roar of battle-cries:
"Konung Karl! Konung Karl!"
"A Loring! A Loring!"
"St. George for England!
"Éttu skít Engelendingur!"
Hordle's wild-bull bellow as his heavy sword cracked into the shaft of an axe and through it and into a face: "Die, you sodding Sid bastard!"
Then the guisarme hooked over the edge of his shield, hauling him forward and off-balance, leaving him open to the wielder's partner. The Varangian poised his axe to kill, but an arrow went by, close enough to brush the fletching against Sir Nigel's neck. It buried itself in the Varangian's face, slanting past his nose and coming out the angle of his jaw, breaking most of the teeth on that side of his face in the process. Nigel killed the man behind the guisarme by reflex, a swift twisting thrust to the neck, then turned his head to see a someone kneeling in the window with his bow in his hands. He recognized the narrow dark face; Mick Badding, from his old SAS company.
"Get out! The horses are here and the Sids are coming round!" the man shouted.
Seconds later the last two Varangians were out of the room, dragging a third between them by the arms. They'd left two dead behind them, and chances were they'd be back soon enough. Or they'd simply hold the corridor and then come around to cut off the rescue party outside the window.
"Time to depart indeed," Sir Nigel said. "Maude, if you'll go first--"
He looked around, then made a small choked sound. The sword fell from his hand, clattering on the floor. Maude Loring was lying there herself, clutching at her side. Nigel and Alleyne went to their knees on either side of her, looking incredulously at the wound in her side. From the broad slit that her fingers tried to hold closed, the point of the shortsword had gone in under her floating rib. From the amount of blood that flowed through those fingers and spread a stain on the carpet, skill or chance had wrenched the knife-edged weapon around in the wound, cutting into her kidney or several of the great veins
Father and son shared a single appalled look. Both knew from experience precisely what that particular injury meant: death, not long delayed. A pre-Change trauma unit might have been able to keep her alive, if she were in it now. All the surgeons in the Changed world couldn't save her, with a miracle thrown in.
"Maude..." he croaked, unbelieving.
Her face had been clenched against the scream that would distract him from the life-and-death focus of combat. Now it relaxed, and the hand against her side did too; he clamped the wound with his own, but the blood-tide was ebbing even as he did. Her eyes moved from his face to Alleyne's; she tried to say something, then shuddered and went still.
Time ceased to move. Words went by, without meaning until a voice shouted in his ear:
"Sir! Colonel, there's no time. We have to move now."
That seemed to start his mind working again, after a fashion. Men have died to free you. Your son's here--Maude's son. You have to move now. He reached out and shook the younger man across from him, shook him by the side of his helmet until the armor rattled on him.
"Alleyne!" he snapped. "Pull yourself together, man!"
His son obeyed with an effort that made him shudder, but his eyes slid down towards Maude's harsh features again, relaxed and somehow younger.
"Put her here," Sir Nigel said gently.
That was a couch; the body had the boneless flaccidity of the newly dead. Nigel closed her eyes and held them for a second, then stood and scrubbed his left hand across his face, forcing a deep breath into his lungs. Hordle and Badding were throwing the wrecked furniture into the doorway again; then the big NCO smashed a lamp on it. Flame splashed up from it as the glass oil-reservoir shattered. It roared higher as several others joined it.
"Sir," Badding said. "Out."
"Sir, don't play silly buggers with us now. Your lady's dead and beyond help. You're what we came here for!"
The dark-bearded pug features were twisted with concern; and Badding, he remembered, had a wife and three children and a farm near Tilford, and a young sister he'd brought through the Change. He nodded, picked up the shield and sword, went to the window and swung himself out.
The impulse simply to let fall was strong. Instead he made himself put hands and feet to the ladder. Too many were depending on him.
"I am so sorry, Nigel," Major Buttesthorn said. "So very sorry."
"Fortunes of war, Oliver," Sir Nigel said, in a voice that forbade condolences, even from an old friend.
They were stopped in a deep hollow in the Aspley Woods; northwest of Woburn Manor, surrounded by feral rhododendron and waist-high bracken. Those hills were densely forested with oak and beech and ash, ancients two centuries old and towering a hundred above them in a canopy that allowed only a rare glimpse of starlight above, the moon having set. The small, almost flameless fire was enough to make tea, or rather the herbal substitute that went by that name these days. He could smell the slightly acrid scent of it over the scent of damp leaf-mould as he checked automatically for red-ant nests before sitting.
One of the soldiers thrust a thick mug into his hands; he sipped automatically at the hot brew, heavy with beet-sugar to hide the taste. In the distance a wolf howled over the nighted hills--some distant part of his mind told him it was one of the packs descended from the escapees released by the keepers of Woburn Safari Park and Whipsnade, the country extension of London Zoo near here. The rest of him felt at one with the cold lonely sobbing that echoed through the night, fierce and solitary.
Get a grip, Nigel, he scolded himself. And wolves are very social.
"And thank you, Oliver," he said aloud. Raising his voice slightly: "Thank you all. I know you've taken a very great risk."
There was a murmur, but not much talk; they were too close to possible pursuit, even if their back-scouting had shown the remaining Varangians preoccupied with putting out fires and sending off messengers rather than actively following the raiding-party. And beyond that, traditional English reserve seemed to be making a comeback in the Changed world, something he rather approved of, along with a good many other things. Everyone crouched and reached for weapons when a rustling went through the woods, like heavy careless feet in the dried leaves, then relaxed when John Hordle chuckled:
"Badger," he said. "Does sound like a man bludging about, eh?"
Buttesthorn sat near Nigel. "Do you want us to take care of the Varangians who're left?" he said, his voice soft and careful, as if the other man were fragile or explosive or both. "We'll be going back that way... might actually be safer with no witnesses, don't you know..."
Nigel shook his head. His son was standing guard out in the darkness; out where there was nobody to see his face. Nigel envied him. It was as if his mind were a compass needle; every few seconds it seemed to slip out of his grasp and turn back towards the sentence Maude is dead. Each impact hit him with the same force.
"No," Nigel said, surprised at the calmness of his own voice. "It's no use, Oliver. In a fight like that, you strike out at anyone who's going for you. The man probably didn't even know who he was stabbing, just that someone had hit him on the elbow and he was about to be struck with a very large axe. This isn't about personal vengeance. And you wouldn't have the advantage of surprise, anyway. Say what you will of them, the Varangians are stout fighters and in a stand-up battle there aren't enough with you to overrun them."
Oliver Buttesthorn bowed his head. Loring went on: "Besides, you're going to be needed here, Oliver. I can't stay, not unless I'm prepared to start a civil war. Which I am not, and besides, we would lose."
"It may come to that," the other officer said.
"And it may not. And in a few years, if it does come to that, perhaps you won't lose. But I would, if I tried it now. You can't harvest a field before it's ripe."
His smile was slight and painful as he sat with his back against a fallen log, but Buttesthorn's brows went up. The other man was about Loring's age and only a few inches taller; he would have been fat save for the ruthless standards of their regiment before the Change and hard living and harder travel and fighting afterwards. Instead he was built like a balding, red-faced fireplug.
"Just thinking," Loring said, "that it's a great pity Charles has become so... eccentric."
One of the enlisted men in the background muttered something: it sounded like gone bloody barking mad, you mean? It helped a little, to keep his mind on impersonal things.
"He was splendid, those first few years; well, he did know all that organic farming bit, which was frightfully useful. The Emergency Powers decrees were essential, at first. And then the other things... I was quite enthused when he abolished that metric nonsense and brought back the old weights and measures."
"And pounds, shillings and pence! If only it had stopped there," Buttesthorn said. "I blame Queen Hallgerda for encouraging him."
Loring shrugged. "That's how she and her relatives have elbowed themselves into power," he said. "By backing up his, ah, whims. And one can see why they were resentful; far too many people expected all the Icelanders to stay farmhands forever, just because they arrived hungry and destitute. Still, her faction's alienating more and more people of all backgrounds. The King may be... strange, but his sons are both very likely young men."
"Unless Hallgerda Long-Legs has them done away with in favor of her own brood," Oliver said grimly. "His Majesty may be mad, but by God it's certain he's not impotent or infertile. Three already!"
"Well, old chap, that's why you need to keep a careful eye out and make preparations," Nigel Loring said, finishing the so-called tea. "And keep up the pressure finally to call a real Parliament. Now you must get going, old friend, and so must I."
"That's the farm, sir," John Hordle said not long after dawn.
A chorus of pink... pink... pink... came from blackbirds their passage had disturbed; the twittering of robins and the long liquid trilling of song thrushes wove through it. With some part of himself that wasn't numb, Nigel Loring reminded himself that he should listen carefully; he'd left England many times before, but this was likely to be the last parting. Riding east from Aspley Woods, down the escarpment and then back northwestward across sandy heath with the cool smell of dew-wet heather crushed beneath a horse's hooves... there wouldn't be much more of that, if they made good their escape.
He nodded and halted his horse with an imperceptible shift of balance and the slightest touch on the reins; that wasn't an easy trick to learn, in the heavy war saddle and a full suit of plate. Compared to the way he'd learned to ride--in the slight English saddle, and then foxhunting--it had felt like being strapped into an upright coffin. But he'd picked up the knack rather thoroughly.
Even an old dog can learn the odd new trick, he thought, shading his eyes with his hand and peering northeastward against the dawn--the visored sallet-helm was slung to his saddlebow.
The farmer had probably taken up the land here because there was a tax-and-rent reduction for those willing to be first in such places, isolated and dangerous, and the ten-foot-high fence of angle-iron and barbed wire that surrounded the houses was supporting evidence. This was the very northernmost edge of cultivation; in fact, there wasn't another active farm for half a mile, and the old A5130 had been hacked back into barely-passable state to reach the narrow lane that led to the homestead. North of here the road was simply a linear mound of thornbush twenty feet high.
The largest building in the little cluster of habitation was a long low-slung whitewashed cottage, with a thatched roof and small square-paned windows; several centuries old from the look of it and the size of the oaks and beeches in the garden--which included a lawn ornament in the shape of a four-foot black rooster half-hidden in tall shaggy grass. Four other cottages stood nearby in a rough row along an old laneway, ranging from a tiny half-timbered affair to a modern two-story probably built in the 1960's; they'd all been reroofed with thatch, probably because if you grew long-stem wheat it was easier to use the straw than find fresh slate or tile. Besides which, it was officially encouraged.
Early as it was, the farm's folk seemed hard at work. He uncased his binoculars and looked; smoke rose in slow drifting columns from the tall brick chimneys that pierced the roofs, and he saw a woman in overalls and Wellingtons leading a horse towards a cluster of barns and a pond a hundred yards south. The space around the barns held a comfortable litter of tools--a two-furrow riding plow, a set of disk-harrows and a tipping hay-rake. Two more women hoed in an acre-sized stretch of vegetable garden, and an indeterminate teenager walking back towards the farmstead from the barns had a yoke over the shoulders and buckets of milk on either end. A brown-skinned girl-child of eight or so in a shapeless wool frock fed chickens that clustered and gobbled about her feet with grain held in her apron. Another who might have been her sister save that she was pink and blond guarded a clutch of toddlers with the aid of a nondescript collie--everyone was breeding enthusiastically these days, but from the numbers there must be at least three married couples here. The smell was of turned earth wet with the morning, smoke and manure and baking bread.
He could hear the rising-falling moan of a wool-spinning wheel from the small cottage, joined by the rhythmic thump... thump... of a loom. A post-Change metal wind-pump whirled merrily to fill a tank set in an earthen mound. Forty or fifty acres of cultivation surrounded the steading, in fields edged by hedges new or newly trimmed back; sheep and cattle grazed on pastures whose origin as a golf course was barely visible. Stooked sheaves of wheat and barley stood in neat tripods and children with slings sent a flock of thieving black rooks up from them; other fields held harvested flax in windrows, potatoes, turnips, beets, and a young orchard that was just coming into bearing, with apples glowing red among the leaves.
The cleared land was an island, though. Beyond it was wilderness. The hedge around the field further north where the men labored at clearance was typical; it had sprouted twenty feet high or better, a wall of hawthorn and bramble; the hawthorn had spread further horizontally both ways, covering the old farm lane and sloping out into the field from all four sides as well. The faster-growing bramble intertwined with it and went on ahead, reaching out nearly to the center of the field, each cane starting a new plant where it dipped and touched the ground; it hadn't reached the center of what had been an open space yet--that was merely chest-high with dock and nettle. Most of the land was a tangle taller than a man, with bramble canes ranging from pencil-thick to thumb-thick coiling between each other in a mass of thorns and tough wood and dense green leaves hiding it all. It was thick with birds as well, their voices louder than he'd ever heard on an August day before the change, and with insects and small game. Rabbits burst out and fled in hysterical bounds as the dense scrub was chopped down.
His skin itched just looking at it; bramble thorns broke off beneath your skin, and often the result was infection and septicemia. Most of lowland Britain was like this now, big patches even in the south and a continuous mass of it from the frontier of settlement here to East Lothian in Scotland, save for pre-Change forest and moor. Plenty of saplings were already sprouting through the ground cover, oak and beech, ash and alder, but it would be generations before the king trees grew tall enough to close the canopy and shade out the scrub.
"You're certain of them?" Nigel asked, tilting his head towards the men in the field.
Both Hordle and his son nodded.
"Hordle introduced us," Alleyne said. "Brief acquaintance, but I agree with him. That means taking the farmer's men on his word, but they haven't turned us in yet, eh? And he did give us some very useful pointers on Newport Pagnell. He's hunted that far north a few times."
The archer continued: "You didn't have much to do with Bob, sir; he mustered out to take up the farm about the time we got back from that mission in France, four years ago. But I've known him a good long while now, since before the Change. I, mmm, warned him to volunteer for escort duty back when we took the Queen out of London, and recommended him, like. Warned him to get the missus and his boy in the convoy, as well. He vouches for his folk; one of them's an Icelander, but he's got no use for the Queen's party. And we need fresh horses and supplies."
Nigel nodded agreement. He and Alleyne couldn't ride their war mounts in full harness for long--that wore the beasts out, and they might need trained reflexes and best speed before they reached the coast. The same held for his son, and Hordle's weight was a trial for anything he rode in any event. Eight years wasn't long to breed up a horse-herd, and they were still scarce despite imports from friendly Ulster.
He took a firmer grip on his lance, his hand on the shaft and the butt resting in the ring welded to his right stirrup. The shield slung over his back clattered as he rode along the cleared lane until the farmhouse was hidden from view, then down towards the men working in the field ahead.
A broad strip had already been chopped free of brush near the dirt roadway, and the gate had been hacked out of a mountain of vegetation covering it. The cleared land looked as if giant moles had been at work, holes pocking the deep-brown boulder-clay soil where the roots of the bramble-bushes and blackthorns had been ripped out. Every so often in the cleared space there was a great heap of brushwood twice man-height, and a few smoking circles of ash showed what would be done once the cuttings had dried enough to burn. A little further out the farmer and two helpers were chopping at the heavy tangle with billhook and axe and machete, piling it in mounds, then tearing out root and arm-thick stump with a wheeled machine whose steel tines were pulled by four oxen.
Hard work, that, Loring thought. More difficult every year.
The three men turned at the sound of hooves, quickly snatching up weapons--two longbows, which the law now said every adult had to keep and practice with, and a billhook that would slash through men as easily as tough thornwood. The area to the north of here wasn't quite clear of human life; a few thousand feral outlaws still haunted it, even after plague-spots like Milton Keynes were burned out. The Brushwood Men probably weren't technically cannibals these days, but they weren't really human any more, either, and it would be little consolation to their victims that the raid was for food-stores and tools rather than long pig.
The men at work relaxed when they saw the horses and harness, and further when they were close enough to see faces. All three wore tough cord trousers, boots... and knee-length linen smocks, the classic smock-frock of the English rustic. The last men to wear them as daily routine outside plays and pageants had been dying of old age about the time Nigel Loring's great-grandfather used his head to stop a 7mm bullet from a Boer Mauser at Spion Kop. Two years ago an order had gone out from Highgrove to 'encourage' the making and wearing of the archaic garments in every Commandery.
The King had thought it would introduce an element of tradition and continuity into the countryside. Nigel didn't think the effect in front of him was quite what Charles had had in mind...
"'Ullo, Bob," Hordle called, as they rode into speaking distance. "Told you I'd be dropping by with some friends."
"Hey, mon, I see yuh," the farmer replied. "Little John an' he friends always welcome at Jamaica Farm. I don' forget who get we out of London."
He was black, not exactly a startling sight even these days, but rare--there hadn't been all that much of a New Commonwealth immigrant presence on the Isle of Wight, nor on Man and Anglesey and Arran and Orkney. The yawny-drawly Carribean accent was strong in his deep bass voice, turning it soft and pleasant. Standing side-by-side his head would have been a few inches below Hordle's, which made him merely tall instead of towering, and he was strongly built, corded muscle moving under the sweat-slick ebony skin on his forearms.
The dreadlocks do rather clash with the smock-frock, Nigel thought fleetingly. So does that gold hoop earring.
An equally big blue-eyed man leaned on a long-hafted billhook. He--Nigel blinked--had a leather Rugby goalie's helmet on is head, set with a pair of bull-horns above his ears and tufts of his white-blond hair sticking through the straps. Beside him a lean redhead set his bow down and looked dourly at the three riders; he wore a Scots bonnet and by his weathered face was nearer forty than thirty, the oldest of the three by most of a decade.
"Nice pinnie you've got on there, Bob," Hordle said, grinning and nodding at the smock-frocks. "Fetching, it is. Though maybe it'd look a bit daintier with some flowers embroidered about the edge? And a lace collar?"
"This dress de national dress," Bob replied. "King Charlie, he say it get we in touch with our English roots. Mon, English roots be strong!"
He pointed to where his machete rested, amid a tangle of arching brambles taller than a mounted man's head. "Dese, they got canes grow t'ree inches a day, and grow new roots where da hell they touching; you leave one bit of root, they grow up again. And we out of weedkiller--use de last from Wyevale Garden Center, two, t'ree year ago. Feeling de English roots more and more on Jam-aiiica Farm."
"Oach, aye, indeed," the redhead said; his voice had a soft West Highland lilt, almost Irish save for the rolled r's. "And it is often on Skye I felt the hankering for just such a smock-frock as this, so English I was. Archie MacDonald, at ye're sairvice, sair."
"Jà," Gunnar Halldorsson put in, naming himself as well. "Me too. Studying marine engineering in Reykjavik, sometimes I felt naked without a smock." His thick-fingered hand tented the coarse linen away from his body. "In memory of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother carried off by Vikings in the year 900, ha? So, the hat, too."
He flicked thumb and forefinger against one of the bull-horns. Bob fished in his pockets and came out with a cigarette made from a twist of paper, lighting with a flick of his thumb.
"The smocks, I don' make no trouble, I say, fine. Easy to make and clean. The thatch on every roof order, it don' bother me--thatch on me Jamaica Farm to start wit' anyway. But when decree straight from Highgrove say we have to learn de Morris dancing..." He took a long drag on the short, fat smoke. "Then I say to de King, Charlie, mon, you kiss my fine royal Rasta ass!"
"And when my land is cleared, you can kiss mine," the Icelander said, grinning. "Remember, we start on it this year."
"And on mine," the Scot reminded him. "In the meantime, t'waur better we get these gentlemen under cover. The old south barn, until sunset; that'll rest the horses, the which will do them hairm."
Copyright © 2005 by S. M. Stirling
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