The New York Timesbestselling author continues his post- apocalyptic series chronicling a modern world without technology. 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...
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September 07, 2010
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Excerpt from The High King of Montival by S.M. Stirling
Imbolc, February 18,
Change Year 24/2023 AD
"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 calloused 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 they were the most important words I'd ever heard but now they're gone, mostly. Then you were back, and I didn't care anymore where we were."
She took his arm. "Now...now, like you said, it's all of a piece. And, more important, 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, which 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 height of six-two made the action easy. A few stray locks tickled 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 fill 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 don't notice I am 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 nonetheless.
"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. Rudi's friends and kin and the followers picked up along the way, thirty altogether, stood around a crackling driftwood fire that spat sparks blue and green. The surviving dark-faced corsairs from the two Saloum rovers were a bit farther away with their heels to the waves that hissed up the sand, forty of them...and not quite enemies anymore. And the High Seeker of the Church Universal and Triumphant was farther 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 sword blades 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 gray 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 magi in the bloodred robes 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 eye patch 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 Havel 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 Dunedain Rangers used among themselves--for secrecy, because few others knew it, and because their founders were 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. That was actually from a different set of writings. But Astrid Havel, the Hiril Dunedain--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 from the actual Histories; 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 times when he was a child. It was a grand 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 Dunedain 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.
"Though 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, as tall as Rudi and a little broader, with a battered face beneath his cropped brown beard that showed all thirty of his 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 his 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 Ri 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, tenderhearted 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, 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 wee 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."
A smile. "Like the fine sword you gave me, which saved my life many a time."
"Which just disappeared," she said, frustrated.
He drew the blade forged in the World beyond the world. 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 to 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.