The High King of Montival
|Author:||S. M. Stirling
|Series:||Emberverse II: Book 4|
|Avg Member Rating:||
With The Sword of the Lady, Rudi Mackenzie's destiny was determined. Now he returns to Montival in the Pacific Northwest, where he will face the legions of the Prophet. To achieve victory, Rudi must assemble a coalition of those who had been his enemies a few months before and forge them into an army that will rescue his homeland.
Only then will Rudi be able to come to terms with how the Sword has changed him, as well as the world, and assume his place as Artos, High King of Montival...
Imbolc, February 18th,
Change Year 24/2023 A.D.
"Where did it all go?" Mathilda Arminger said. "There were roads and houses! Now it's just trees. They're old trees too, you can see that, even if the sea-wind has stunted them."
"Why are you asking me?" Rudi Mackenzie said, with studied reason in his tones.
The which always drives you crazy and makes your eyes sparkle fetchingly, anamchara mine, he thought.
"You're the one with the magic sword!"
Mathilda caught the twinkle in his own eye and stuck out her tongue at him. They laughed, a quiet relieved sound; it was good to have nothing but a mystery troubling them, as opposed to homicidal strangers. Rudi let his hand fall to the hilt of the weapon slung at his right hip. The pommel shaped of moon-crystal held in antlers gave him a slight cool shock as his callused palm touched it, less a physical sensation than a mental one... or possibly spiritual.
"What does it feel like?" Mathilda asked, subdued again.
"To hold it?"
She nodded, and he went on:
"It's... hard to describe, that it is. Not as much of a shock as the first time, I grow used to it, but... It's as if my thoughts themselves were faster, somehow. More sure. More themselves. You know how you think, if I do a certain thing, that might happen, or the other thing, or then again perhaps this? And your wit and experience give you an idea of each, and how likely they are? Well, when I do that now it's as if little mummers were making a play of it in my head, and I know what's most likely. It's... disconcerting, that it is."
"It would be," she said seriously. "Useful! But, well, Rudi, if you could really see what would happen whenever you did something, would you have any freedom of choice at all? After all, you'd always know the best thing to do!"
He laughed a little, but there was less amusement in it this time.
"Sure, don't folk choose to do things even if they know it's folly and the result will be black disaster? And don't they do that all the time?"
She snorted and elbowed him in the side. In armor it was more heard than felt, but he took the point.
"So, bearer of the Sword of the Lady, what does its power tell you about this island? What and where and what is it, now?" she said.
"It's not visions I'm receiving," he said. "And there's no printed list of directions on the scabbard!" He could feel her shift.
"You'll probably spend a lot of time learning what it can do," she said.
Rudi smiled at the winter ocean. Nobody's fool, my Matti! he thought. Aloud:
"That I will! So far it's like the sharpening of my own thoughts. And I think..." he hesitated for an instant. "I think that this island has been a... a patchwork since the Change ended the old world, that it has. Not quite the place it was before that day. Not quite the island of another time, or many other times. Now it's all of one thing--and that thing is the Nantucket Island that was before men first cut down its trees for cornfields. As if a thing started the year we were born has now been completed."
"Then what happened to the island from our time? Or at least from the time of the Change. There were thousands of people here, according to the books."
"I suspect--not know, mind, but suspect--that the island that lay here twenty-four years ago was switched for the one we've gotten. And so began the Change Years."
She frowned. "But wouldn't that have made things different? Changed the past, I mean. When the English came here they didn't find men speaking English, or riding horses, or forging iron swords."
The vision that had come with the Sword's finding was slipping away, as such things did. Flickers of a forest far grander than this, grander even than the Douglas fir woods of his homeland. Trees that towered towards a crescent moon. Three Ladies--Maiden, Mother, Crone--had spoken with him, and he could still grasp at shattered fragments of what they told, at vistas of time and space vaster than a human mind could ever hold, of universes born and dying and reborn again.
He touched the hilt, and Mathilda shivered against him. Rudi was tempted to do likewise.
"You've the right of that. There's something... something about what the Ladies said to me... spirals of time, and each different yet partly the same... As to how the one is linked to the other, well, don't ask me, for I can't do more than babble of wondrous things seen in dreams."
Then he worked his shoulders and returned to practicalities:
"From the sky, the weather, and the way our wounds have healed, I'd say we lost about a month since we arrived... in an instant or so," he said. "And to be sure we've lost that... town, too. If it was altogether here to begin with, the strangeness and dark bewilderment of it. I kept seeing it different while we were running through it."
"Me too," Mathilda said, and crossed herself. "Then... it was as if someone was talking to me."
"Who?" Rudi said, and tightened his arm as she shivered.
"A... a woman in blue? Ignatius saw her in the mountains, but... or was she in armor? There's Saint Joan... I don't know. And it was the most important words I'd ever heard but now they're gone, mostly. Then you were back, and I didn't care any more where we were."
She took his arm. "Now... now like you said, it's all of a piece. And more importantly it looks like it isn't going to change on us again."
There was as much question as certainty in her voice. He nodded: "It feels that way to me, as well."
Now there was a thick low forest of leafless brown oak and chestnut, and green pine behind; ahead lay beach, and salt marsh full of dead brown reeds, and the ruffled gray surface of a broad inlet of the winter-season Atlantic. It still seemed a little unnatural for the glow of sunrise to be over the eastern waters; the only ocean he'd ever seen until a month ago had been the Pacific that beat on the shores of Montival--what the old world had called Oregon and Washington.
It's still the Mother's sea, he thought.
The wind came off it, damp and chill under a sky the color of frosted lead, blowing his shoulder-length red-blond hair around his face and smelling of salt and sea-wrack; it brought out the gray in his changeable eyes as well, overshadowing the blue and green. Mathilda's brown locks were in two practical braids bound with leather thongs, framing her strong-boned, slightly irregular young face. She leaned against him and he put his chin on her head; she was taller than most women, but his six-two made that easy. A few stray locks tickled at his nose. He shut his eyes, letting the scents of sea and woman fill his nostrils, and the rushing-retreating shshshsshs of waves on sand and the raucous cries of gulls his ears.
She sighed deeply. "I feel... I feel like all the way from home to here I've been running down a set of tower stairs in Castle Todenangst, the way we did when we were kids and you were visiting? And it's dark and I didn't notice I was at the bottom and my feet keep trying to run down after I've hit the floor."
He nodded--she could feel the pressure of his chin, even if she was looking into the green leather surface of his brigandine. Between that, with its inner layer of little riveted steel plates, and her titanium-alloy mail hauberk and the stiff coat of padding beneath, the embrace was more theoretical than real, but comforting none the less.
"I know what you mean! Near two years we've been after the Sword, from sunset to sunrise, from Montival to Nantucket... and now we've got it, the creature. What next?"
"Home," she said, and there was longing in the word, a feeling he could taste in his own mouth.
"Home. Though that walk is likely to be upstairs, as it were."
Then she went on: "You said to walk towards the Sword was to walk towards your own death. Now we've got it--and you're still alive, by Father, Son and Holy Ghost!"
"And I'm still walking towards death," he said. At her scowl: "Though to be sure, we all are! At the rate of a day for every day, so to speak."
Then she sighed, and he nodded. It was cold, if bleakly beautiful, and the damp chill penetrated their grimy wools and leathers and padding. More, there was work to be done. They turned and walked hand-in-hand back towards the spot where the... town... had been.
The Nantucket where the Change had begun a generation before was gone. So was the Bou el-Mogdad, the captured Moorish corsair vessel they'd run ashore as it burned beneath them, and the wharf it had struck with multiton violence. Slightly charred, the long slender shape of her sister-ship lay canted on the shore. Even awkwardly stranded on the sandy mud by the retreating tide the pirate schooner Gisandu still had the graceful menace of her namesake--the word meant Shark in the Wolof tongue. Beaching her hadn't done any harm; ships of that breed were built for longshore work.
Three groups stood there under the shadow of its bowsprit, edging apart. His friends and kin and the followers picked up along the way stood around a crackling driftwood fire that spat sparks blue and green, thirty altogether. The surviving dark-faced corsairs from the two Saloum rovers a bit further away with their heels to the waves that hissed up the sand, forty of them... and not quite enemies any more. And the High Seeker of the Church Universal and Triumphant further away still with the ten men left to him, glaring helplessly at both the other groups.
Only Rudi's own folk were armed; they'd awoken to find the others still groggy and helpless. The Cutters and corsairs were looking uneasily at the cold steel glint of swordblades and spearheads and the points of nocked arrows. Father Ignatius of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict nodded to Rudi, a short brisk gesture. His hands rested on the pommel of his own sheathed longsword; his tilted dark eyes were calm, and his armor showed through the battle-rents in his kirted-up black robe. Their injuries had healed, but not the damage to their gear.
"We had best settle matters here soon, Your Majesty. Our food supplies are very low. The Gisandu's stores were exhausted bringing both her crew and the Cutters here. Also we do not have so much of an advantage over them that we can long delay," he said.
There was a limit to the number of men you could hold at the point of a blade, and it wasn't very high if they were brave and knew their business. Which described everyone here quite well.
"That's the truth. It's past time to... settle... these Cutter fellows, Chief," Edain Aylward Mackenzie said grimly. "Settle them in the Mother's earth, and send the souls of them off to the Summerlands for a talking-to from Herself."
Edain was a few years younger than his chieftain, but he was no longer the carefree youth who'd crossed the Cascades.
He came because I asked him; because I was his friend, and his Chief... I'd feel guiltier about that if things were any better back home.
They weren't; from the little they'd heard the war against the Cutters and their allies wasn't going well at all.
"It's tired and weary and plain buggering annoyed with them I am, and that's a fact," Edain went on.
The cold wind tousled the other clansman's mop of oak-brown curls. Usually his grey eyes were calm and friendly, but now they were as bleak as the ocean waves. The long yellow stave of his yew longbow twitched slightly in his grip. The Mackenzies were a people of the bow, and even in that company his friend was Aylward the Archer, as his father had been before him.
Rudi nodded thoughtfully; the Sword of the Prophet and the nameless magus in the blood-red robe had been on their heels all the way from Montival--though nobody had known that was the land's name when they left. They'd killed and injured friends and kinfolk and sworn men of his, and if the questers weren't all dead it wasn't for want of the men out of Corwin trying. Their Prophet himself had set them on his trail, and they'd followed it with bulldog tenacity.
"Hain dago," his half-sister Mary said--they shared a father. "Kill them."
She touched her eyepatch and scowled at them with the one cornflower-blue orb left her; the other had been cut out of her head by another red-robed magus of the Corwinite cult back in the mountains of what had once been Montana. Her twin Ritva Larsson nodded vigorously and spoke as her thick yellow fighting-braid bobbed on her shoulder.
"Aunt Astrid has a standard order for situations like this," she said.
She fell into Sindarin again for a moment, the pretty-sounding liquid trills of the language the Dúnedain Rangers used among themselves--for secrecy, because few others knew it, and because their founders had been devoted to a set of tales of the ancient world they called the Histories. Then she translated: "Behead them every one, and that instantly."
Rudi's mouth quirked. Astrid Larsson, the Hiril Dúnedain--the Lady of the Rangers--did have a rather straightforward approach to such matters.
When he replied, it was in the tone you used to quote from a holy book: "Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends."
He spoke with malice aforethought; the Rangers weren't the only ones who liked to read old tales by the fireside in the Black Months. His own mother had told that one aloud in Dun Juniper's hall many a time when he was a child. It was a grand good story of battle and adventure, and it had songs she'd rendered in her fine bard's voice.
The twins gave an identical wince; they'd been too similar even for close kin to tell them apart, before Mary lost the eye. Rangers took their Histories seriously. You could do worse as a guide to life, though he didn't really think they were as close to fact as most of the Dúnedain imagined. Still, who could tell? The world before the Change had been very strange by all accounts, and it was difficult to tell fancy from truth in those tales. Dragons and Rings of Power were no odder than flying ships and weapons that burned whole cities.
Or stranger than some things I've met myself, he reminded himself, his hand on the moonstone pommel.
"I don't think any of them is Gollum material," Ritva said, a trace of sulkiness in her tone.
"Thought I wouldn't put it past them to bite off a finger if they got within snapping range," Mary added.
Her husband Ingolf nodded. "Me neither, Rudi," he said in his flat Wisconsin rasp. "Kill 'em and be damned to them."
He was a big man, tall as Rudi and a little broader, with a battered face beneath his cropped brown beard that showed all his thirty years. Normally it was good-natured, despite hard times spent as a hired soldier and salvager, but now it clenched like a fist. He'd been a prisoner of the Church Universal and Triumphant in Corwin itself. The wounds on his body had healed, though the marks were there. The ones in mind and soul had taken longer to knit, and scars remained there too, visible sometimes in his dark-blue eyes.
"Matti?" Rudi asked.
"Kill them," she said firmly, though with a slight undertone of regret. "You didn't promise them quarter the way you did the pirates, and they're not knightly foes who are protected by the laws of chivalry. As Ard Rí you certainly command the High Justice, and as your principal vassals and tenants-in-chief we're a sufficient court under feudal law. Also we just don't have the people or attention to spare to guard them, or the food to keep them."
Her parents had been founders of the Portland Protective Association, and before that in the Society for Creative Anachronism--a fellowship dedicated to the preservation of ancient ways and skills. When the Change set them free to live out their dreams they'd also turned out to be the two most pellucidly ruthless human beings Rudi had ever met. Her long-dead father Norman had wrought in sheer throttled rage at anything that thwarted him and from a vicious relish at the power to deal out death. Sandra Arminger was very much alive, still Regent of the Association; unlike her dreadful spouse she was a cold killer rather than a hot one. Her daughter was neither, tender-hearted if anything, but she'd still been raised to the stern necessities of kingcraft.
So had he, if on the smaller and gentler scale of the Clan Mackenzie. His mother had condemned men to death when she had to, though never without regret.
Frederick Thurston's brown blunt-featured face scowled. "They were behind my father's murder. Kill them."
Actually that was your elder brother, Rudi thought. He wanted to be President in Boise too, and to hell with old customs like elections, the which your father wanted to preserve.
Though the Cutters might have planted the seeds of that bit of murderous treachery, at that. Virginia Thurston nodded vigorously; the CUT had overrun her family's ranch in the Powder River country out west in what had once been Wyoming, and killed her father. She'd brought her own feud to add to the balance when she met Fred on the journey east and joined the quest.
The knight-brother frowned; his Order trained as scholars as well as in the warlike arts, and often acted as de-facto judges in the wild places where they did much of their work.
"This is certainly terrae nullius, land without sovereign or law," he said. "Certainly the Cutters are heretics, murderers, oppressors and wagers of unjust war, and their adept is an open diabolist. In which, I think, he merely represents the whole hierarchy of the cult. And you, your Majesty, are a king--if not yet an anointed one. You may therefore judge them at your discretion."
Rudi's mouth quirked a little; that 'anointed' bit was going to be awkward when they got back home. He was of the Old Religion, like nearly all Mackenzies, and wouldn't object to a Catholic ceremony--his faith taught that all paths to the Divine were valid. Christians tended to be a little more exclusive.
"In other words, I must do as I think best?" he asked. "And take the burden of it for good or ill?"
Ignatius inclined his tonsured head; he was so grave usually that you forgot he was only a few years older than Rudi's twenty-four.
"Precisely, your Majesty. We must each bear the cross that God gives us, carry it up to Heaven's gate, and that is the one He has given you."
I'm a well-loved man, Rudi thought, glancing to meet Mathilda's grave regard.
And I've true friends and comrades here at hand, who'll never fear to speak their minds to me. But at seventh and last to be King is to be alone, alone in the narrow passage where there is neither brother nor friend. Kingship is to stand for your folk before the Powers, and before necessity.
"Something new has come into the world," he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard above the wind. "I was given the Sword to use, as well as to bear. And not only for the chopping of heads; plain steel would do near as well for that."
"The one you gave me, which saved my life many a time."
"Which just disappeared," she said, frustrated.
He drew the blade. It had the form of a knight's weapon, long and double-edged and tapered to a savage point. It felt lighter in his hand than he would have expected from the thirty-eight inches of the blade. Or perhaps it felt alive, rather than light in any physical sense. The metal looked like steel at first glance, pattern-welded in intricate waving layers. Then if you looked more closely the patterns seemed to disappear into untouchable depths, shape within shape, a soft endless pull at the eyes that repeated ...
All the way down, he thought. It doesn't glow. Not precisely. Not to the body's eye, at least.
The High Seeker took a step back as Rudi approached; he didn't think there was the slightest physical fear in it.
Major Graber stepped between them. His angular face had the look of a man ready to die, but then he'd always been like that. His fists were clenched and held in a position that Rudi recognized; his tutors in unarmed combat had used it sometimes. The other troopers of the Sword of the Prophet moved to flank him; behind Rudi could hear the rustle and clink of his folk making ready.
"Don't begin anything without my word," he said, looking over his shoulder for an instant. "That's an order, mind."
Graber swallowed and met Rudi's eyes. "High Seeker!" he said, managing to throw his voice over his shoulder without turning his head. "What are your orders?"
The Cutter magus ignored him, his eyes fixed on Rudi. The expression in them was not-quite-fear, and he paid as much attention to the Sword as the man bearing it.
Not enough is left of the man to fear the body's death, Rudi thought, meeting the empty eyes and a snarl like malice distilled. What was it that Abbot Dorje said, back in the Valley of the Sun? Yes: Men who sell their souls invariably make a very bad bargain. Whatever dwells there where the man once was fears this blade, with a terror that has little to do with the fate of the mortal shell it inhabits.
"High Seeker!" Graber said desperately, but the magus stayed in his slight crouch, snarling silently.
A shock ran up Rudi's hand; the Sword seemed to twitch. Then he reversed it in a single fluid tossing snap, holding it by the hilt with the blade down.
"Major Graber," Rudi said briskly. "You're a soldier, and a good one. I've fought you often enough to know, and for you to know me somewhat. Believe me, then: stand aside, and your men will be unharmed, nor will anything happen harmful to your honor or your oaths. On that you have my oath."
Graber gave one last look at the High Seeker and then jerked his head, as if using the tuft of chin-beard that marked the center of his rock-formed jaw as a pointer. He and the troopers stood aside, but they were tensed to spring if they must.
Rudi raised the Sword until the crystal pommel was level with his own eyes... and then pressed it to the High Seeker's forehead.
He'd expected a scream. Instead the Cutter adept seemed to stop. The thin-lipped grimace on his face died away, and then the rigid inner tension that had made it a thing of slabs and angles. Then the hazel eyes blinked at him, and suddenly they were just eyes once more, not the bars of a cage where something looked out and hungered.
Silence stretched; there was a sheen of sweat on Graber's face, and a fear that had nothing to do with his own danger. The High Seeker blinked again and looked around him.
"Mom?" he said uncertainly, in a wavering voice, as if the harsh gravel tones weren't his. "Mom? I'm scared, Mom. Dad said I have to be brave when the Church men come but I'm scared. Where are you?"
He patted himself, and then looked at his hands. An expression of horror crumpled his face then, and tears leaked down his cheeks. He stumbled forward, the empty sheath of his shete banging awkwardly against his leg, as if he'd forgotten how to walk with it. Forgotten how to walk with the body of a man of thirty-odd years, too.
"Lady?" he blurted out to Mathilda. "I feel funny, lady. You seen my Mom, ma'am? She looks a little like you."
Mathilda's face was white, though she had looked steadily on more than one battlefield; she took a pace backward, and he could tell she was fighting not to draw her own blade. She did cross herself.
Ignatius stepped forward and spoke in Rudi's ear, quickly and quietly. "I think the Corwinite cult take their trainees very young, your Majesty," he said. "And I think this man has just lost all the years since they did. Pardon me."
Then louder, with a kindly tone: "Your mother is not here, my son. What is your name?"
The Seeker stood erect; you could see the effort it took him.
"I'm Bobby," he said, with a quaver in his voice. "Bobby Dalan, sir. Bobby Dalan from Scrabbledown Ranch. You get me back home and Mom and Dad will be real happy, sir."
He wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand. It was a grown man's hand, and a warrior's, scarred and sinewy. That made the gesture shocking, and... Rudi found himself blinking too.
"I will look after you until you can go home," Ignatius said. His voice became a soothing murmur. "Here, my son, come and sit by the fire and be warm. Would you like to sleep? There's a blanket you can use. You are sleepy, aren't you..."
A silence deep enough to ring had fallen when the priest rose a few moments later; wonder on most faces, and horror among the troops of the Sword of the Prophet who'd followed the adept so long. Ignatius wore a quiet smile when he came back to them, and he crossed himself.
"God's mercy is very great," he said. "Great beyond our comprehension."
Rudi's mouth quirked. Ignatius wasn't the sort of Christian cleric who was always shoving his piety in your face, but it was bone-deep.
"It's the Sword of the Lady, Father," he said.
The smile grew broader. "And the Lady of Sorrows is most merciful too," he said, and chuckled at Rudi's snort. "That is a thing to which I can personally bear witness."
Then he grew entirely grave. "And so are you, your Majesty... which, since you are to be High King, is reassuring to know."
"We've been in each other's sporrans for years now," Rudi said. "I'm not a man who enjoys killing and never was."
Fighting, sometimes, yes, he admitted to himself. Because I do it well, and it's necessary work, and it calls forth all you have in you of strength and heart and wit. But killing in itself, no. Though it's part of living and also sometimes necessary, even killing in cold blood.
The warrior-priest shook his head. "I knew that you were not a man of blood, my king," he said. "But you had very good personal reasons to hate the Corwinite magus, and excellent reasons of policy to kill him as well, and it lay within your rights in law. That you chose not to... speaks well of how you will rule."
Rudi looked around. Several of his companions were looking disappointed... but they all nodded as he sheathed the Sword once more, and there was awe in their eyes.
"Major Graber," Rudi said.
"Yes?" the officer replied, crossing his arms on his chest.
He had an outward calm; his men were younger, and looked rocked to their foundations. That was the disadvantage of a creed that preached inevitable victory; its doctrines tended to be silent on what to do if you lost. Particularly if the loss was not merely a matter of swords.
"There's a village on this island," Rudi went on, nodding to Ingolf to show where he'd gotten the tale of it.
The some of them refugees from the mainland just after the Change who came with stock and seed and tools, and the rest Indians from this place--from the same time as the forest, brought forward with it--who had their own knowledge to add to the mix.
"They're fishers and gardeners and hunters of the whale; good-hearted folk, from what I hear. They have more women than men, and it could be they'd take in any of you who wished to stay here. The rest may return to the mainland with us, but closely watched and unarmed, and the journey westward will be perilous at best."
The man nodded, a swift hard gesture. "I was tasked with assisting the High Seeker," he said, in a voice that might have been forged from iron.
"The High Seeker no longer lives," Rudi pointed out. "Now there's only the boy who was murdered to make him."
After a slight hesitation, Graber went on: "My family is in Corwin. My wives, my children."
Rudi shrugged. "You tried to fulfill your mission; it's for you to decide if you and your kin can await anything good from your rulers because of it. But you've time to think, all of you."
When he turned back to his friends Mathilda linked her fingers together and tapped her paired thumbs on her chin, a habit she'd picked up from him.
"Do you think you can trust this Graber?" she said softly.
Rudi shrugged. "Within reason. My judgment is that he's a hard man, with little mercy and no yielding in him, but not without honor of a sort when left to make his own choices. There was a poet of the ancient Greeks... he said something about a perfect man being hard to find..."
Father Ignatius nodded. "I think I know the one you mean," he said. "Simonides of Keos."
Then, quoting: "So I will never waste my lifespan in the vain unprofitable search for a blameless man. If you find him, send me word. But that one I will love and honor who does nothing base from free will. Against necessity, even gods do not fight. Undoubtedly he was among the virtuous pagans."
Rudi nodded. "Like myself?" he said ironically.
Ignatius smiled slightly and tapped one booted foot on the ground; if the shoe fits...
Rudi and Mathilda chuckled; the younger man went on: "Graber... is as good a man as can be expected from his upbringing, and the time and place of it. Raised elsewhere, he'd have been a good man by our way of thinking as well. I'll kill him if I must, but I'd rather not."
He turned his head. The corsairs had moved a little further away, as if to disassociate themselves still more from the surviving Cutters and whatever their fate would be. As he watched they spread their prayer mats and knelt on them, bowing to the eastward, where their Holy City lay.
Now, what shall I do with the lot of you? he thought. That's less of a problem, for I did promise quarter to those of you captured in Kalksthorpe in return for sailing me here. As for the others... well, in honor I can do nothing but extend the same terms to them. Yet you are pirates, and honor doesn't require me to be an over-trusting fool. Mercy to the guilty can be cruelty to the innocent, as the saying goes.
Abdou al-Naari rose. The crews finished their prayers and stood as well, rolling up their mats. Rudi Mackenzie had been waiting quietly until they were done with the ritual; Abdou had to admit he was polite in such matters. The five daily prayers were God's will unless something very urgent intervened, and besides that it was good to reestablish routine; it helped the men's spirits.
And it helps mine, Abdou thought. Sorcery is more often heard of than seen, even since the Change, but I have seen it now.
Witchdoctors and shamans were as common as peanuts in the Emirate, for all that strict law forbade them, but he had never put much credence in them. Yes, there was more than natural law to the universe--even if he had been inclined to believe anything so impious, the Change was a stern warning to the contrary. God could do as He willed, and He had created many beings other than men, some with strange powers. But this... was enough to put all of them in fear.
All men fear. Only cowards allow the fear to govern them. Call on the One and meet your fate, Abdou.
Then he took a deep breath and went on to the infidel leader: "My friend Jawara, of Gisandu captain, say... says... that there were snakes in his head, while sorcerers hold him by spells. Now they gone. He thank you."
Djin fly away with English! Abdou thought. Why can't the misbelievers speak some civilized language?
He was captain of a Saloum rover, which meant he had enough mathematics for navigation, and he could design a ship besides--or a bridge, or an aqueduct. He was fluent in the Hassani dialect of Arabic, which was his father's tongue and in the Wolof and Serer languages common throughout the Emirate of Dakar; he knew enough Mandinka to get by; he could read the classical tongue of the Holy Book, and some of the dead French speech--enough to appreciate poetry as well as to read books on practical subjects like engineering.
But his English had been learned strictly by rule of thumb for trade and war, and in present company he was humiliatingly conscious that when he spoke it he sounded like some peasant from the back of beyond.
Or like a baboon sitting in a baobab tree and scratching its fleas. Or like a tongue-tied foreigner, which is another way of saying the same thing.
Pride kept his back stiff as he bowed and touched brow, lips and heart with the fingers of his right hand in a graceful gesture. His wounds no longer pained him when he performed the courtesy; somehow they'd had time for more healing, when he felt nothing but the space between one breath and another. Another strangeness.
"Thank you for rescuing of him and men. Thank you for exposing false marabout who led us here. Peace be upon you, and God's blessing for you, your sons, and the sons of your sons."
The so-called holy man whose visions had brought Abdou's little two-ship fleet to these bleak northern waters lay on the snow-speckled sand not far away. The corsairs had taken care of him themselves, as soon as they'd woken, and they hadn't needed any weapons to do so despite the man's unnatural strength; his head now looked out over his shoulder-blades, and his arms and legs were visibly broken in several places as well. The green turban had rolled away, and the edges of it fluttered in the cold breeze.
"Blasphemer," Jawara said in Wolof, and spat on the corpse, his full-featured black face contorted with hate. "Apostate. Sorcerer."
Abdou translated; he shared the sentiment wholeheartedly, even if he was less given to showing his feelings. The infidel chief nodded, his straight and implausibly sunset-colored hair swaying about his jaw. The Moor had never seen anything quite like it, though many English had hair the hue of sun-faded thatch or reddish wood. His face bore the starved, angular look whites had and which Abdou had never liked; in Rudi's case you had to admit that he was handsome enough in an alien fashion. One disastrous encounter in the fight where he'd been captured had shown Abdou that the infidel's long-limbed body could move with a leopard's speed and strength.
That had been honest combat, though; he averted his eyes from the pommel of the sword the man carried now. Such things were not lawful for Believers. Best to think of it as little as possible.
"When we home, there is..." he made washing gestures with his hands.
"Making clean," Rudi said. "Cleansing."
Abdou nodded, his face grim. "Cleansing of marabouts of the Mouride Brotherhood, if any more like this. I go Dakar, emir's court, speak there. For this too, we thank. The Faith is pure. For any to... make it not pure, not clean... that is a great evil."
"You are welcome," Rudi said. "And that cleansing will be a thing to benefit the whole world, not just your own land. Now, how is the ship? We've that little journey to Kalksthorpe to make."
Jawara spoke far less English than Abdou, but he understood a little. They both looked at the Gisandu and sighed; now she and her cargo were lost too. The Bou el-Mogdad was simply gone, and the Kalksthorpe folk had her load of treasures already. And the corsairs' families and clans would have to pay ransom for their return as well. It had been a disastrous voyage in more ways than one. His kin had put many years of labor and hard-won wealth into those ships.
"Ribs good, none stove in," Abdou said after they'd conferred for a little; his vocabulary was better for nautical matters than general conversation. "Need spare boards to patch hull leaks, once we caulk sprung seams. We refloat her with anchor out to sea, capstan, when patches all done. For long voyage, need to pull out of water, refit with... special tools, supplies.
"You've only to get us back to Kalksthorpe," Rudi pointed out. "Less than a week's sail to the northward."
"Now you know we deceived by false marabout, should give ship back to we," Abdou said. "As you say, home need cleansing. Faster if we have ship. We take you back, go home, never sail these waters again. By God and His Prophet, I swear."
If you do not try, you will never succeed. And I mean that oath. If I never even hear of these waters again it will be too soon!
Rudi grinned, teeth flashing white. "You were pirates before you met this marabout," he said. "He used no magic to make you willing to fall on the Kalksthorpe folk, kill them and plunder their goods. Count yourself lucky your lives are spared, but your wealth is forfeit."
Abdou shrugged. The accusation was not completely without truth. Mostly his business was salvaging in the dead cities along the old American coast; there were far fewer such remains of the ancient world in his native land, and his people needed the metals and goods. But that often meant fighting, with the bands of mad cannibal savages who haunted the ruins, or with others on the same venture. The Kalksthorpe folk often clashed with his, being great salvagers themselves. For that matter, as pagans they were legitimate prey by law, but he didn't expect Rudi Mackenzie to grasp that point, being only a kufr himself.
God's will, he thought. The Merciful, the Lovingkind, does as He wishes, not as we wish. It is not for mortal men to question Him. I live, my son Ahmed lives, my blood-brother Jawara lives. We will purge our homeland of a great wickedness. Praise be to the One!
He sighed again and went on aloud: "Ready to sail, Inshallah, with the morning tide in week, ten days, if all work hard and we no need cut timber. Not much food though, for all people these, even for short voyage. We all go hungry before end."
Rudi Mackenzie showed his teeth in an expression that did not even pretend to be a smile. "Needs must. I grudge every day. My people need me at home, and they need me now."
Then a voice cried out:"Sail! Sail ho!"
Copyright © 2010 by S. M. Stirling
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