May-August, Year 10 A.E.
(May, Year 10 A.E.)
Swindapa smiled as she stepped ashore at Pentagon Base, with the spring wind whipping her hair about her ears. She bent, touching her fingertips to the dust of the White Isle, then to lips, heart, and groin in the gesture of reverence.
It isn't home, not anymore, she thought. Home was the red-brick house on Main, the sea, her daughters, and Marian. Tears prickled behind her eyelids, unshed, and she smiled with a sad joy. But it is the birthplace of my spirit. Though I may never return here whole-hearted, yet I cannot ever altogether leave either.
In the history that bore Marian she had died a captive of the Iraiina, and her folk had gone down into a starless dark, overrun by the Sun People and remade in their image.
We saved them from that. O Moon Woman, great is Your kindness to us. Smile on Your children; send us a fortunate star to guide our feet. There was confidence behind the prayer; hadn't Moon Woman twisted time itself to give the dwellers-on-Earth a chance to make a better path?
"When do we get to see Grandma again, Mom?" Heather whispered up to her.
Swindapa stroked her head. "In a day or two, my child," she replied in Fiernan. Her daughters spoke it well; how not, when she'd sung to them in their cradles? "She's at the Great Wisdom, or coming to meet us."
There was the ritual of disembarking to go through, salutes, greetings. She looked curiously about her at the base; it had been nearly two years since she'd seen it, and it had grown like a lusty infant, seeming to change every time she turned around. The five-sided, earth-and-timber fort from when this was the Islander base for the war against Walker and the Sun People was still there, cannon snouting out from its ramparts. Two flags flew there, the Stars and Stripes and the crescent Moon on green that the Earth Folk had chosen.
Sprawling around it was the town that had grown up under its walls. Some called it Westhaven, some Bristol for the name of the place in the other future the Eagle People had come from.
It roared and bustled around them, full of excitement over the Islander fleet that had sailed in out of the dawn. The town had swallowed up the little Earth Folk hamlet that had stood here, but Pelana-torn son of Kaddapal stood there to greet them, grayer but still hale and looking stout and prosperous. His sister Endewarten spoke for Moon Woman here now, since their mother, Kaddapal, had taken the swan's road beyond the Moon-died, as the short-spoken English tongue put it. Four or five thousand others dwelt here now; mostly her birth-people, but perhaps one in four were Islanders, and there were hundreds of others from anywhere on this side of the water within reach of Islander ships.
The air smelled of their doings, of woodsmoke and coal smoke, of fresh-cut timber and brick-kilns and mortar, of hot iron and brass; it was filled with the clamor of hooves and hammers, the whirring of machines, the chuff… chuff… of steam.
They walked up toward the fortress in company with Commander Hendriksson, the base commandant; the town itself was under Nantucket law, mainly because Earth Folk custom had no way to deal with such a huddling of people without lineage ties. Lucy and Heather dropped back to walk with the commandant's children, their initial shyness dissolving in chatter. A policeman watched them go by; another thing the Earth Folk had not had before, or need for it.
But nobody need carry a spear when they drive their cattle to water, either, Swindapa thought. Aloud, she said: "Many more buildings."
"Mmmm-hmmm," the black woman replied, brought out of her thoughts. "All sorts, too."
The streets were mostly paved with brick, and over them traffic brawled and bustled. More manufacturies had opened on the outskirts, where roads gnawed into field and forest, and the docks were thronged with ships. Swindapa smiled to see that some of them were captained as well as crewed by her folk. Those who studied the Stars made good navigators.
Many of the shops-carpenters, smiths, wainwrights, saddlers- had signs out advertising for apprentices, who would also be mostly Earth Folk. So were the workers in the new industries, the healer-helpers studying in the new hospital, and many of the students in the Islander school.
We learn, she thought. A haildom of Moon Woman stood near a Christian church. And the Eagle People learn from us, as well. What comes of it will have the bone and blood of both of us in it.
She smiled more broadly yet to see a charioteer chieftain of the Sun People drive by, gawking in awe. He carried a steel sword at his waist, and his horses were shod in the same iron that rimmed the wheels of his war-car. But a Spear Chosen of the Fiernan Bohulugi rode past him on horseback, feet in the stirrups, a musket at his saddlebow, ignoring him with lordly contempt. The charioteer flushed, but the peace of the Alliance held his hand.
"I'd really better go on to the Great Wisdom first," she said to Marian. "The Grandmothers will be more ready to listen to you after I've listened to them. I'll take the children on, and they can visit with Mother and their cousins."
A smile replied, the same rare beautiful thing that had captured her heart.
"I'll miss you, sugar. A few days, then."
The road up from Pentagon Base was less of a rutted track now. More of a rutted road, Swindapa thought, as a warm spring shower cleared and she pulled off her oilskins and tossed them across the saddlebow, then looked around with delight on the mellow evening that brought them up onto the downland country, her oldest home.
Wind chased cloud-shadow over the great open roll of the countryside, fluttering the grasses and the leaves of the beech trees in patches of forest on hilltops. It was intensely green and fresh, and even when the scents-cut grass, horse, damp earth-were the same as in Nantucket, they were different in a subtle way her nose knew even if she had no word for it. Here and there she saw a barrow-grave of the ancients rising as an island of green turf, perhaps speckled with the gray-brown or white of sheep. The whitewashed wattle-and-daub walls of the round houses, great or small, were marked with intricate patterns of soot, ochre and saffron that told stories her eyes could read. Clumps of greenweed starred the pasture with yellow gold, and there were crimson tormentil, betony, hawkbit, the blue of clustered bellflowers; butterflies exploded upward at the clop of horses' hooves, meadow browns, marbled whites.
Every now and then she reached out to touch the shoulder or arm of her mother; strange to have her riding a horse, wonderful that it was, beside her. And the horse itself had come west-over-sea from what the Sun People called Jutland, brought by Fiernan traders now that the beasts had so many more uses than war.
"Are you still happy, child of my womb?" Dhinwarn said.
"Oh, very," Swindapa replied. "Into what star-path-through-shadow (life, living) isn't rough-going-storm-cold (weeping-laughing) woven? Mostly, very happy."
It was good to speak Fiernan again. Enough to begin thinking in it, even if that meant groping for a word now and then when she used an Islander concept.
Her mother grinned at her. "Even without-" she made a gesture with one finger.
Swindapa chuckled, held up her hand in the same gesture, added the other fingers together, and moved the hand rhythmically.
"Without nothing, and it's never tired at that!" she added, and they shared a bawdy laugh.
Marian would be so embarrassed, she thought, smiling fondly.
"I see you are happy; Moon Woman has set stars at your birth that called you to a strange way, but not a bad one," Dhinwarn said. She shook her head. "It's strange and frightening, this love-between-only-two people the Eagle People have. Yet not a starless thing or a turned-back path."
"No, wonderful and terrifying," Swindapa agreed. It had scared her at first, that her whole life should be so wrapped up in only one other. "There's nothing so warm; it's like being inside the fire, without being burned."
Heather and Lucy raced by on their ponies, waving and shouting to their mother; an uncle pursued them, swearing and laughing at the same time.
"Those two are fine girls," Dhinwarn said. "You should bring them here more often."
"As often as the stars set a path for it," Swindapa said.
She looked around at the countryside. Not everything was as she remembered, even from her last visit. There were new crops amid the familiar wheat and barley and scrubby grass of fallow fields. Machines were at work, cultivators and disc-plows pulled by oxen-or sometimes by shaggy ponies that had once drawn only chariots. The whir of a hay-mower's cutting bar made a new thing in the long quiet of the White Isle.
More stock, she thought. More fodder to overwinter it. New byres and sheepfolds, too. Bigger beasts, some of them. Something teased at her eye, until she realized it; she'd seen scarcely a single woman spinning a distaff as she walked or sat. Thread comes from the machines now.
Some of the small square fields had been thrown together for the convenience of the animal-drawn reapers the Eagle People had brought, too, changing the very look of the land. If you looked closely, there were other changes; iron tools in the hands of the cultivators, more and more colorful clothes and cobbled shoes on the dwellers, brick-walled wells, the little outhouses that the Islander medical missionaries had advised and the Grandmothers agreed to make part of the purity rituals, here and there a chimney, or a wagon with a load of small cast-iron stoves, or a wind pump.
"More changes than you would think, and more every year-like a rock rolling downhill," Dhinwarn told her, sensing her thought. "Some are discontented, thinking they break old harmonies. Others say no, best of all so many more of our children live and grow healthy."
Her smile grew slightly savage. "And because we listened first, we grow faster than the Sun People in all ways, wealth and knowledge and numbers. Many of them come west now-not to raid, but asking for work or learning."
Swindapa nodded. "We had to become other than we were, or cease to be at all," she agreed.
They spoke more, but her voice was choked off when the Great Wisdom itself rose above the horizon on the east, looming over the bare pasture as it had been made to do so many centuries before. She had seen the pictures on Nantucket, of the great stones shattered and abandoned, their true purpose lost. There were times when that image seemed to overwhelm her memories, but here the Wisdom stood whole and complete, the great triathlons and the bluestone semicircle…
She began to sing under her breath, the Naming Chant that called each stone by its title, and listed the Star-Moon-Sun conjunctions that could be sighted from it-not only the great ones, the Midwinter Moon that chased the flighty Sun back to Its work of warming the Earth dwellers, but the small friendly stars that governed the hearth or the best time to take a rabbit skin.
Marian never could sink her mind into this, she thought. Odd, for she knows the Eagle People's counting so well. Perhaps it's that she can't see that a word can be a number too.
Beside her Heather and Lucy grew quiet until she finished, their lips silently following along on some of the simpler bits. When she was done and waved them ahead they clapped heels to the ponies and rode off to the north, toward the Kurlelo greathouse, shouting greetings to cousins they hadn't seen for a quarter of their short lives. Swindapa stood in the stirrups and shaded her eyes with a hand.
The huge round, half-timbered shape of the greathouse, with its conical roof of thatched wheat-straw, looked subtly different. A metal tube at the apex…
"You put in a copper smoke-hood!" she said, delighted.
Her mother nodded and took off her conical straw hat. "It's much easier on the eyes now," she said. "And warmer in winter. Better for the girls doing the Chants, too." She smiled. "We've so much more time for that! More time for songs and stories, for making bright-please-eye-warm-heart-joy-in-hands things."
Swindapa's smile died as she remembered that this was not only a visit. It was a meeting, and the news was of war. The Grandmothers didn't decide such matters; that wasn't their business, save where the Sacred Truce was concerned. But those who did decide such matters would listen carefully to their opinions.
"Uhot-na. InHOja, Inyete, abal'na," the elder of the Grandmothers in the circle began, as the last of those who felt they should be here drifted into the smaller round hut and ranged themselves about its hearth. Her owl-headed staff nodded in her hand.
There were a score and one in all, a lucky number, although nobody had arranged it thus. Swindapa breathed in the scent of woodsmoke and thatch and cloth and sweat… yet even this wasn't as it always had been. The smells included soap, the bitter scent of hops, and one of those sitting around the whitewashed wall was wearing glasses.
"A good star shine on this meeting. Moon Woman gather it to her breast. We're here to talk, let's talk," the Eldest said.
She picked up the sticks in her hands, tapping lightly along their colored, notched lengths. Each notch and inset in the yard-long wands marked some happening, or feeling, or shade of meaning. They squatted on their hams around the fire, shadows flickering on their faces- wrinkled crone, stout matron whose drooping breasts were proud sign of the children she had borne, Swindapa the youngest of them but the one whose path had wandered beyond Time along the Moon-trail. Others, star-students, Rememberers, Seekers.
The Grandmothers of the Great Wisdom.
The Eldest spoke, with her voice and with the flashing sticks: "Would that the Eldest-Before was with us, who first greeted the Eagle People, was here."
She saw so far, so much. I'm lost without her.
Another set of sticks took up the tapping rhythm. "You sat by her feet a long time. We'll listen to you; there are many here, we'll find out what Moon Woman wants. Everybody rides the Swan sometime."
Greatly daring, Swindapa took up her rods. She'd made them herself, on the voyage over. They looked different; more angular, in parts, with strange colors. That showed her spirit…
"I've seen the changes here. Most of them are happy."
Doubt, uncertainty, a tremulous joy, children laughing, cattle lowing, peace.
More tick-tapping, weaving in and out. An older woman spoke: "Happy for now. In the many-cycles to come, who knows."
Doubt, nagging worry-concern.
The eldest: "Eldest-Before saw only a darkness without stars before the feet of the Earth Folk, before the Eagle People came from out of time."
Relief, joy, an aching not noticed until it went away.
Another: "We thought we'd have peace, but now the Eagle People are talking of a war, far away, with people who never harmed us. Is that the path Moon Woman's stars reflect, now?"
Distaste, wariness, doubt, doubt.
"Moon Woman shines in all the lands-who aren't Her children? The Eagle People came from very far to help us, shouldn't we do the same for others?"
"Earth Folk have never carried spears so far. Bad enough to fight for our own hearths."
Blood, mothers burying children, burning, grief, wrongness.
Swindapa took up the exchange. Her people were great rememberers. So:
"Once the Earth Folk lived from the Hot Lands to Fog-and-Ice place. We didn't carry spears beyond our own neighborhoods, but the dyaus arsi, the Sun People, they carried them everywhere. One fight, another, everyone hoped each would be the last. And when the Eagle People came, we'd gone back so far our heels were wet in the ocean at our backs. Not everything is good, just because we always did it."
Resolution, fierceness, sadness.
Another voice: "There's too much of the dyaus arsi in the Eagle People, for my taste. They are a restless breed; even in their Wisdom Working they cut everything up, then stick the bits together to suit them. Bossy, rude, turn-up-the-nose-we-know-best. I don't like this Father-Son-Spirit teaching they bring, either."
Irritation, disquiet, longing for peace, for the endless turning-in-harmony-growing.
Swindapa: "Yes, they descend from the Sun People, but with some of us in them, too. And an acorn doesn't look much like an oak; you can't eat an apple until it's ripe."
Patience, waiting-becoming, patience.
Another: "There's more than one road to the same place. Call an apple an ash, it's still an apple-the Father-Son-Spirit-Mother doesn't teach as Diawas Pithair did. If the Eagle People are greedy and fierce, they don't take it out and stroke it the way the charioteers do."
Dhinwarn: "They gave my daughter back to me, when she was taken from the Shining World. They beat back the Burning Snake for her, that had eaten all her dreams."
Love, warmth, heartache-assuaged, joy.
The words went back and forth, until the words faded out of it and there was a tapping chorus of agreement, woven in and among the humming song. After a while they began to sway, and then they rose, dancing in a spiral. The spiral wove out of the hut, and an owl hooted and flew above them as they swayed and hummed toward the Great Wisdom.
"This is more Ian and Doreen's kind of work than ours," Swindapa said, drawing her horse a little aside.
Marian cocked an eye at her and chuckled. "First you grumble about how we're always fighting," she said. "Now we're playing at diplomats, and you complain about that."
Swindapa smiled herself, then sighed and shrugged. "I don't like going among the Sun People much," she said.
Marian nodded sympathy. "Don't let them make you il'lunHE peko 'uHOtna, then," she said.
That meant something like gloomy; or perhaps dark-spirited or Moon-deprived. Even after these years, she still found the Earth Folk language a tangle; she suspected that you had to grow up speaking it to truly understand it well. Still more the dialect of Swindapa's home, where they piled pun upon allusion upon myth in a riot of metaphors.
"You're right, my Bin'HOtse-khwon," Swindapa said. "But I miss the children."
"So do I, sugar, but they're happy enough at your mother's place for a while."
The Islander party drew rein at the edge of the woodland trail, looking downward. The sun of the summer evening cast long shadows across them, and over the landscape that stretched away to the marshes by the Thames-the Ahwun'rax, the Great Chief River. In one course of the tides of time, this was the border of southern Buckinghamshire, not far from Windsor. Here it was the tribal lands of the Thaurinii folk, the teuatha of the Bull.
The stockaded ruathaurikaz of their chieftains stood atop a low chalk cliff above the river. Faint and far, a horn droned. Below, at the foot of the heights, lay that which made this clan more important than most. The river split around a long oval-shaped island; from the south bank a bridge of great timbers reached to the isle, and another from there to the north shore. Boats lay at anchor downstream of them; even from here Marian could see that some of them were quite large, one a modern design, probably out of Portsmouth Base or Westhaven.
Around the fortlet lay open pastureland where shaggy little cattle and horses and goatlike sheep grazed. Fields were smaller than the grazing, wheat and barley just beginning to show golden among the green; hawthorn hedges marked them out, or hurdles of woven willow withes. Farmsteads lay strewn about, dwellings topped with gray thatch cut from river reeds. Men at work in the fields, women hoeing in gardens, all stopped and pointed and stared, the racket of their voices fainter than the buzzing of insects. Not far away a girl in a long dress and shawl squeaked as she heard the thud of hooves and rattle of metal. She almost dropped the wicker basket of wild strawberries in her hands, then took to her heels, yelling.
Apart from that there was no sign of alarm, no signal fires or glints from a gathering of spearheads; instead the folk gathered to stare and point, some crying greetings. The peace of the Alliance lay on the land of the Thaurinii, with not so much as a cattle raid to break it. There had always been more trade here than in most steadings; the boats marked it, and the sign of many wagons on the roadway.
Dust smoked white under hooves and wheels as they rode down the gentle slope. The sun was hot for Alba, and sweat prickled her body under the wool and linen of her uniform. Behind her the Marine guard drew into a neat double rank of riders, with the Stars and Stripes of the Republic at their head. Behind them were the two-wheeled baggage carts and the attendants that Sun People respectability required.
The horn dunted again from the chieftain's steading, and the narrow gate swung open. No chariot came out of it; the reports were accurate, then-this particular tribal hegemon was progressive, as such things went in the Year 9. Instead of the traditional war-cart, he and his rode horseback, with saddles and stirrups made to Nantucketer models. They did carry weapons, but that was to show respect to warrior guests, swords slapping at sides in chased bronze scabbards or the more common axes across saddlebows, painted shields across their backs.
Likewise their finery, bright cloaks and tunics in gaudy patterns, kilts pyrographed in elaborate designs-or, for some, Islander trousers. The leader wore a tall bronze helmet with great ox horns mounted on it, the totem of his tribe. Beside him was a younger man whose helm was mounted with a metal raven, its wings flapping as his horse cantered; that was bravado, a declaration that he claimed the favor of the Crow Goddess, the Blood Hag of Battles. Behind the chieftain and his retainers walked trumpeters blowing on long, upright horns. Their bellowing echoed back from trees and river and palisade and a storm of wildfowl took wing from the water.
Marian flung up her hand. The trumpeter behind her blew his bugle, and the little column came to a halt. A wind from the river flapped out the red-white-and-blue silk of Old Glory, and the gilt eagle above it seemed to flap its wings as well.
"I am Commodore Marian Alston-Kurlelo," she said in the local tongue. "Daughter of Martin, War Chief of the Eagle People."
That harsh machine-gun-rapid speech came easily enough to her now; the complex inflections and declensions were simple, compared to her partner's language.
"We come in peace," she went on, "to speak for the Republic to the chieftains of Sky Father's children." They'd undoubtedly heard of the mission and its message by now, but the forms had to be observed.
The older man nodded. He was tall for this era, an inch or two more than Marian. His brown beard was in twin braids and his hair in a ponytail down his back, the traditional Sun People styles. The face was handsome in a battered way; in his mid-thirties, early middle age by contemporary standards. The little finger of his left hand was missing, and his tanned skin was seamed with thin white scars; all in all he looked tough enough to chew logs, but the green-hazel eyes were friendly enough. Unlike those of some of his followers…
"I am Winnuthrax Hotorar's son," he replied. "Rahax of the Thaurinii folk. Be you guests and peace-holy beneath my roof and among my people. May the long-speared Sky Father hear me, and the Horned Man, and the Lady of the Horses. May your crops stand thick and your herds bear fruitfully; may your wi-" He coughed, paused, and ammended the traditional "May your wives bear many sons."
"May your household prosper."
"Long life and fruitful fields, weather-luck and victory-luck and undying fame be yours, Winnuthrax son of Hotorar," Marian said ceremoniously. "May many descendants make sacrifice at your grave in times to come. May the God of my people guard you and all yours."
Winnuthrax smiled, nodded, and dismounted. "Your God is a powerful God," he said, as Marian joined him. A youth came up with a platter of bread and salt, and a cup of mead. "As we learned on the Downs."
"You were there?" she said, sprinkling the bread and taking a bite. The two leaders pricked their thumbs and squeezed a drop of blood into the mead, then shared the cup.
"Indeed, I led my tribe's war band to the battle on the Downs, following the wizard," he said casually. "Likely I'd have laid my bones there if I hadn't taken an arrow through my shoulder. Your Eagle People healers found me after our host fled, and it healed clean. Otherwise you'd be dealing with my son here. Eh, Heponlos?"
The young man with the raven-decked helmet nodded. When he removed the helm, she saw he was short-haired and that his beard was cropped close to his jaw-Eagle People styles.
"So I know your God is strong to give victory," Winnuthrax said. He inclined his head politely to Swindapa. "And so is Moon Woman, of course, lady… Some of my people here have taken the water-blessing of your Eagle People skylord, He of the Cross, and the crops haven't suffered, so the land-spirits don't mind. I'd make Him sacrifice too, but His priests and priestesses say He won't have those who don't forsake others."
Marian nodded and walked by the Thaurinii chieftain's side as they led their horses up the slope to the stockade. She wasn't surprised at the chief's lack of resentment; the Sun People tribes didn't feel any lasting grudge at being beaten in a straight-up battle, and the Americans hadn't ravaged their homes or harmed their families-quite the contrary-they'd prevented reprisals by the Fiernan Bohulugi, who did carry grudges. There were plenty of the easterners who resented the Alliance, but it was for other things.
"You've prospered, chieftain," Marian observed as they walked.
The broad shoulders shrugged. "We've always been traders here as well as fighters-there's blood of Moon Woman's people in us, for all that we're Sky Father's children now. More trade of late, yes; and some of our young men have taken work on your ships, or in your war bands. The gold they win buys us new things, and those who return bring new knowledge and seemly ways."
His son tossed off a creditable salute and smiled when Marian returned it in reflex.
"Hard Corps, fuckin' A," he said in English that was heavily accented, but fluent. "Corporal Heponlos Winnuthraxsson, Marine rifleman aboard Frederick Douglass on the Baltic expedition, ma'am."
"Thank you, but we've sworn an oath to the Eagle People God to lie with none but each other," Marian said politely.
"As you wish, of course," Winnuthrax said, raising his mead-horn. He looked a little relieved; the obligations of Thaurinii hospitality hadn't been designed with this sort of cross-cultural contact in mind. The servant girl he'd summoned looked relieved as well… or possibly that was a look of disappointed curiosity rather than anxious relief.
"I think it's 'disappointed curiosity' this time," Swindapa whispered in her ear, grinning.
Marian snorted. "You're much prettier," she murmured back. "And you don't have nearly as many fleas."
Something like this happened every time they guested overnight at a Sun People chieftain's steading, but her partner still found it endlessly entertaining. Then again, the Fiernan language didn't even have a word for monogamy; it was something Swindapa did out of love, because her partner cared about it. Marian looked at the servant girl's neck; no scars, although she'd probably been wearing a collar until a few years ago. The prohibition on slavery in the Alliance treaty hadn't been as hard to enforce as she'd once feared, but she suspected from the reports and her own observations that the abolition was often more a matter of form than fact, particularly in the backwoods.
Oh, well, Rome wasn't built in a day. Not everyone who worked in the Republic or served in its ships and regiments stayed on; plenty went back home, like her host's son. That brought its own problems, but it carried the seeds of progress.
The hall of the Thaurinii chiefs reminded her strongly of the others they'd guested in over the past month, a sameness that underlay differences of detail. The walls were wickerwork thickly daubed with clay, between a framework of inward-sloping timbers that turned into the crutch-rafters that carried the thatch of the roof. The chief's seat was in the middle of the southern wall, a tall chair of oak and beech, its rear pillars carved in the shape of the Twin Horsemen, their most notable feature their erect luck-bringing philli. A second chair was for the most honored guests; everyone else sat on stools, or on benches, or the floor, with sheepskins and blankets beneath them if they were lucky.
She noticed one difference there; the floor was mortared flagstones, rather than dirt covered by reeds. There were still fire pits down the center of the floor, but there was also an iron heating stove with a sheet-iron chimney, both probably turned out here in Alba at Islander-owned plants. The feast had been mostly traditional-roast pork, mutton, beef, and horsemeat with bread-but there had been potatoes and chicken as well.
The Thaurinii differed from the more easterly tribes in some other respects too; the women of the chief's family had eaten with them, although they were withdrawing to the other end of the hall now that the serious drinking was supposed to begin. Probably residual Fiernan influence. She and Swindapa were being treated essentially as warrior-class men, of course, but she was used to that. Irritating, but not unbearably so.
Progress, she thought. Longest journey, single step, and all that.
Leaping shadows from the fire pits gleamed on the gold or copper that rimmed whole-cowhorn cups, on bright cloth and gold torques around hairy necks, on the weapons and shields hung on the walls between bright crude woolen hangings-she hid a smile at the printed Islander dish towels that held pride of place. Sun People art was often quite good of its kind, but when they fell for Nantucketer stuff they tended to nose-dive into the worst kitsch available. The air smelled of woodsmoke, cooking, a little of sweat and damp dog, but not very unclean-there had been a bathhouse here before the Event, although Winnuthrax had improved it with soap and a real tub since.
They're really not such bad sorts, Alston told herself. Of course, they're warlike and macho to the point of insanity, and cruel as cats to anyone who isn't a blood relative or an oath-sworn ally, and they'd a thousand times rather steal something than make it themselves, but they have their points. They were brave, and many of them were even honest…
Winnuthrax leaned over to refill her horn. Marian sighed; headache tomorrow, but at least they weren't breaking out distilled liquor- when that met a tradition of heroic imbibing, the results could be gruesome.
"So, this is the same war as the one in the distant hot lands, closing in on the wizard Hwalker's lands? Some of my folk enlisted with your Marine war band for that-two young men outlawed for kine-reaving outside the bans, Delauntarax's daughter who ran away-but she was, ah, strange-and half a dozen who were just restless or poor or all together. The Cross-God priest at Seven Streams mission brings their letters to us sometimes and reads them. Much good fighting there, gold, good feasting, strange foreign lands to see. If I were younger, I'd be tempted myself."
"I am younger, and I am tempted," his son Heponlos said.
"No, and again, no," his father said, exasperated. "You are my heir."
"You could pick one of my uncle's sons and ask the Folk to hail him."
Winnuthrax sighed, and then shrugged. "Well, you can see there's no shortage of young men anxious to blood their spears."
Marian nodded. "Yes, this is the same war-but a different part of it. Isketerol of Tartessos is an ally of Walker's, and he attacked us this spring. We slaughtered them then, and now we take the fight to their homeland. We don't require your aid under the Alliance, but we ask it as oath-friends."
"Hmmm." Winnuthrax rubbed at his beard and then cracked something between thumb and forefinger. "Well… yes, that's what I've heard."
A feral light gleamed in his son's eyes. "Tartessos swims in gold, they say; wine and silver and oil and cloth, many fine things."
Marian felt Swindapa's faint snort beside her. Yes, I know, she thought. They are a bunch of bandits. But for now, they're our bunch of bandits.
"It'll be a serious war," she said.
"But you'll be supplying weapons?"
She nodded, a trifle reluctant. The charioteer tribes would do anything to get their hands on firearms; the Republic kept modern ones- as "modern" was defined in the Year 9, meaning breechloaders-out of their hands as far as possible.
"Hmmm. Well, I'll speak to the folk, talk to the heads of household, and hear their word," Winnuthrax said.
He was a long way from an autocrat; war-leader, yes, but there was an element of anarchic democracy to these tribes, at least as far as free adult males were concerned.
"Let it never be bandied about that the Thaurinii don't stand by their oaths and their friends, and you've dealt well with us, that's beyond dispute." He sighed again. "And enough of business-tomorrow, I can show you some boar worth the trouble of carrying a spear!"
This time it was Marian who sighed. Swindapa had taken the Spear Mark as a teenager, uncommon but not rare for a Fiernan girl; she actually liked hunting big dangerous pigs with a spear. Marian Alston liked hunting, but sensibly, with a gun. Still, you had to keep face. Sun people hospitality was like that; sacrifice, chanting and blood and fire, to put the guest in right with the tribal gods; sonorous ancestral epic; gluttonous feasting, drinking, boasting…
All very Homeric, but a month is about all I can take, she thought. Nearly over, thank God, and then she could get back to the sort of rational preparation she felt comfortable with.
"No, boss, I can't do that," Bill Cuddy said. "Not a straight copy."
He was sweating, a little. Usually Walker was sensible enough, but his temper was more uncertain than usual after the reverses in the East. It was times like these you remembered that he only had to shout, and the guards would come in and kill you-or even worse, hand you over to Hong.
There are times I really wish I hadn't listened to Will, Cuddy thought, forcing himself to meet the cold green eyes and shrug. Yeah, I've got a mansion and a harem and I'm richer than god, and the work's interesting, but sometimes…
The windows of the private audience room were open; outside, the blue-and-white-checked-marble veranda had an almost luminous glow under the afternoon sun, and the trails of hot-pink bougainvillea that fountained down the sides of man-high vases were an explosion of color. The warm herbal scents of a Greek summer drifted in, and the sound of cicadas, almost as loud as the city-clamor of Walkeropolis beyond. A servant entered and removed the remains of a pizza- Walker had eaten at his desk today, things were moving fast-and another knelt and arranged a tray of hot herbal tea, cold fruit juice, watered wine, and munchies. Bill Cuddy didn't feel at all like eating, even those little pickled tuna things on crackers with capers, which he was usually pretty fond of.
Walker indicated the rifle that lay on his desk, acquired at enormous expense via the Tartessian intelligence service in Nantucket.
"That doesn't look too complicated."
"No, boss, it ain't. It's a fucking masterpiece of simplicity; Martins could make one of these by hand, filing it-parts wouldn't be interchangeable, but it'd work. So, yeah, I can make the rifle, no sweat. It'll cut into our Westley-Richards output, total production'll go down for six months, maybe a year-but not all that bad. Besides the loading mechanism and ammo, it's pretty much the same gun-bit better ballistic performance, is all."
"You're telling me you can, and then you can't?" Suddenly Walker smiled, an open, friendly grin, and thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Oh, wait a minute-it's the ammo, right?"
He spun a brass cartridge on the table next to the rifle; the polished metal caught the sun that came through the French doors and spilled flickering shadows across furniture inlaid in ivory, silver, and lapis lazuli.
"Yeah, boss. Look, I could turn out small quantities, yessir. Machining rounds from solid bar stock, maybe-but that'll eat materials, and Christ, it'll tie up an entire lathe all day to turn out a couple of hundred! The drawing and annealing plant to turn out millions of those fuckers-no way. Not in less than three, four years-and to do that, I'd have to pull all my best people off other stuff, and off teaching. I mean, Jesus fucking Christ, boss, I just don't have the range of machine tools that Leaton does, or electric power sources or-and he doesn't have to teach all his trainees to goddam read first!"
"Okay," Walker said grudgingly. "God damn. This is going to hurt morale-the men aren't used to the other side having more firepower." A wry smile. "And I'm used to having you pull miracles out of your hat."
The smile didn't reach all the way to the eyes; Cuddy felt himself beginning to sweat again. "Well, yeah, we can't do that ammo yet, but I've had an idea."
"Oh?" Cool interest this time, complete focus.
"Yeah. Actually I was busting my ass trying to figure out how we were going to do what Leaton did, and it occurred to me-why not do an end run instead? So I looked up some stuff I remembered from that book you've got, the one by the dude called Myatt, some Limey Major or something…"
"The Illustrated History of Nineteenth-Century Firearms!" Walker said, nodding unsurprised. They'd already gotten a lot of use out of that one.
"Yup. So I thought, they must have had a lot of problems with drawn-brass stuff to begin with, maybe they had something else? Something that didn't work quite as smooth but that still did the job?"
Walker nodded again; that was also something they had a lot of experience with.
"So here it is."
He reached down into the leather briefcase at his side and handed over a round of ammunition. Walker took it and turned it over in his hands. It was made a little like a shotgun shell, built up of iron and brass and cardboard.
"The thing like the iron top hat, that's the base," Cuddy said. "Primer we can do-I've been dicking around with mercury fulminate for nine years now; you should crucify me if I hadn't made some progress. Percussion cap in the base, then you wrap a strip of thin brass around that, and then that holds the cardboard tube with the bullet and powder."
The lynx eyes speared him. "Tell me the disadvantages."
"It's not as strong as the regular type. Not completely waterproof, either. And the brass, when the chamber's real hot, it may glue itself to the walls and jam, or tear apart when the extractor hits. But it'll work, boss. I can duplicate this rifle, all it needs changed is the shape of the chamber, and I can turn out this ammo in quantity-simple stamping and rolling, and then handwork assembly-line style."
"Cuddy, you're a fucking genius!" Walker leaned back in his swivel chair, a dreamy smile on his face. "You say it would have screwed us if I'd ordered you to go ahead on duplicating the ammo?"
"Up the ass, boss, totally. Not just losing production, but it would have dicked up our expansion program by tying up my people."
A harsh chuckle from his overlord. "One gets you ten, that's exactly what they planned!" His hand struck the desktop with a gunshot crack. "That bitch Alston thinks she has me typed-and she's smart, I nearly did that."
Cuddy swallowed and looked away. Alston was the only thing that could make Walker's eyes look, for a moment, entirely too much like Alice Hong's for comfort.
Walker went on, "What about the Gatlings?"
Cuddy shook his head again. "No way, bossman. The ammo isn't strong enough to be hopper- or clip-fed." His grin went wider. "But."
"But the same book had an idea the Frogs used, back around Gatling's time. You take a whole bundle of rifle barrels, say seventy-five of them, and clamp them together. You load them with plates in a frame-the plates hold the ammo. Load a plate in, wham, hit the trigger, take the plate out, put in another one." He held up a hand. "Yeah, heavier and slower than a Gatling, but it'll work."
"Cuddy, you are my main man! Get right onto both of them. Top priority."
Cuddy rose, nodding; he paused to greet Helmuth Mittler on the way out. He and the head of Section One weren't all that close-the ex-Stasi agent reminded him too much of cops who'd busted him in the past, those pale eyes with the I've-got-the-goods-on-you look. Still, the former East German did good work… and it was just as well to keep on the good side of him, he was important at court too.
Maybe I'm not sorry I listened to Will after all, Cuddy thought. His bodyguard fell in around him as he walked down the corridor. Tonight I'll celebrate. Susie. Yeah, Susie.
Susie-her own name was unpronounceable-was the most enthusiastic girl he'd picked up here; like a demented anaconda in bed and she worshiped him like a god.
Of course, I did win her off Hong, he thought. Probably quite a contrast.
It was all a matter of contrasts. He'd felt hard-done by, that first six months after the Event; now things were fine. Susie felt her life had taken a turn for the better when he won her from Hong… all a matter of contrasts, and of being adaptable.
"Guys, this is crazy," Peter Girenas said.
The tall redheaded man shrugged, smiling. "Pete, crossing North America in the Year 8-9, now-that's crazy. Staying where we like it, that's sensible."
The bluff where the Islanders and their newfound friends had wintered looked better now that spring had melted the last of the snow and green grass covered the mud in fresh growth. The row of log cabins had their doors and windows open to air; they' d been crowded but not impossibly so. Now most of the Cloud Shadow People were back in hide tents; there were plenty of hides, with more pinned to the logs to dry.
Henry Morris was still limping, very slightly; he probably would for the rest of his life. His wife, Raven Feather, stood beside him, smiling, with their baby in her arms. Henry was dressed for the hunt in leggings and long leather shirt; so were the two young men beside him, but they carried bows, rather than atlatls and darts. Bows they'd made themselves, under Morris's skilled direction.
"Dekkomosu…" Giernas began.
The Lekkansu-former Lekkansu, now a Cloud Shadow warrior, Girenas thought-smiled and shook his head.
"My heart's full of love for you, brother," he said softly. "But not for your people. I'll stay here, where I don't have to meet them soon. And where I can help these people who've taken me in."
"Look, Henry, it's okay now… but what if you decide you've made a mistake? What if you get sick?"
"If I get sick, I'll heal or I'll die," Morris said. "And if I decide I'm making a mistake, well, I'm closer to the Island than you are, aren't I?"
"Okay, okay," Girenas said. "So, that's fair; we leave you your share of the gear and all the mares in foal, and one of the stallions. Good enough?"
"Good enough," Morris said. He advanced and shook Girenas's hand, embraced Sue Chau, thumped Eddie Vergeraxsson on the shoulder.
Girenas swung into the saddle. Their six packhorses and remounts were ready. So was Eddie, of course, and Sue. Beside her Spring Indigo rode, their child across the saddlebow in a carrying cradle he'd made overwinter himself. Girenas turned his horse's head to the west. Ahead the spring prairie waved in a rippling immensity of green, starred with flowers, loud with birdsong.
"Let's get going," he said to his party. "Long way to California. Hell-" he turned in the saddle and looked back at Morris. "You'll never find out what happens!"
Morris waved, laughing. "I'll know what happens here," he called. "And that's as much as any man can know!"