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Lord of Mountains

A Novel of the Change

S. M. Stirling - Author

ePub eBook | $9.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101605097 | 448 pages | 04 Sep 2012 | Roc | 18 - AND UP
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“[A] gifted author,”* S.M. Stirling created a fascinating neo-medieval world in his Novels of the Change where the remnants of humanity struggle to survive in a post-technological environment. Now, the New York Times bestselling epic continues as a king faces a challenge beyond the battlefield…

Rudi Mackenize, now Artos the First, High King of Montival, and his allies have won several key battles against the Church Universal and Triumphant. But still the war rages on, taking countless lives, ravaging the land once known as the United States of America. Artos and his Queen, Mathilda, must unite the realms into a single kingdom to ensure a lasting peace.

If the leaders of the Changed world are to accept Artos as their ruler, he will need to undertake a quest to the Lake at the Heart of the Mountains, and take part in a crowning ceremony—a ceremony binding him to his people, his ancestors, and his land.

Then, once he has secured his place and allegiances, Artos can go forward, and lead his forces to the heart of the enemy’s territory…

*San Francisco Book Review 


Chapter One

County of Aurea

(Formerly central Washington)

High Kingdom of Montival

(Formerly western North America)

October 30th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

Rudi had been inclined to think the final ball a waste of time and resources, one of the peacocking Associate habits that he had to put up with for the sake of harmony and which the north–realm nobles insisted upon even on the eve of battle. And perhaps there was an element of sheer vanity in it.

But on second thought, who should say how a man prepares his innermost self to die? Or a woman, sure. They have to be here, and the most of their ladies too, for they’re working in the field hospitals or managing the supplies or something of that sort, waiting for their lovers and brothers to be brought back on their shields. The only real burden is that they’ve brought their party clothes . . . garb, they call it . . . along this far; and we’re close to the river. There’s a certain mad gallantry to it, a defiance of fate; my foster–father says the Duke of Wellington’s officers did the same on the eve of Waterloo.

Torches and fires of pinewood in iron cages and strings of softly glowing paper lanterns lit the interior of Castle Goldendale’s bailey–court, the broad paved expanse at the heart of the inner keep. The Great Hall and the Chapel and the quarters of the seneschal and his officers surrounded it in an irregular circuit of roofs and balconies, spires and pointed–arch windows; candles glowed in the church, through the rich colors of stained glass wrought in saints and angels.

Mathilda and some others had had their Mass there, though most of the host had used household chaplains and field–priests in the encampments. A lingering scent of incense mingled with burning conifer sap and the cool night air. Sparks drifted heavenward.

The narrower slits of the solars and guard–rooms in the high round towers of the keep were bars of yellow against the half–glimpsed soaring heights, as much sensed as seen where their dark bulk blocked out the stars. Folk more humble crowded some of them; the castle staff, maidservants and men–at–arms, watching the gaudy flower–petal brightness below as a show arranged for their entertainment.

Black–armored spearmen of the Protector’s Guard stood at intervals around the enclosure, motionless as statues of gleaming dark metal, with the visors of their sallet helms down and leaving nothing to be seen but an occasional glint of eyes behind the vision–slits, the gleam echoing the yellow and scarlet of the Lidless Eye on shields like four–foot elongated teardrops. Kilted longbowmen of the High King’s Archers shared the duty—and honor—with their great yew bows in the crooks of their arms.

The walls enclosed the sound of the players as well, shawm and lute and recorder and viol, the sweet tinkle and buzz and fluting notes of Portlander court music. The tune ended, and the dancers turned and bowed or curtsied to politely applaud the musicians on their dais; several of them had the jeweled dagger that denoted Associate status or even the golden spurs of chivalry on their heels, for a troubadour might be a gentleman by Protectorate standards. The tale of the dance would be woven into that of the battle to come, for they’d be fighting in it too.

“Five minutes,“ the Mistress of the Revels said; she was Dame Lilianth of Kalama, who did something administrative for the Grand Constable most of the time. “Then The Knights of Portland, gentlemen, chevaliers, demoiselles and ladies.“

Her shrewd eyes took in the situation, and she made an almost imperceptible gesture; everyone except the two nobles with whom he’d been talking business withdrew enough to give a degree of privacy as Mathilda came up to him.

She was wearing a dark chocolate cotte–hardie with tight sleeves that showed rounds of her pale flesh between each button and a headdress with two low peaks in warm dark gold silk and pearls. It made a striking contrast to the tone of her sleek brown hair where it showed at the sides in elaborate braided coils, and she was laughing as she extended a hand to him.

“I need a partner for this one, darling,“ Mathilda said as he caught it in his and raised it to his lips. “And if you won’t dance with me, it’ll have to be Tiph here, and that would be a scandal.“

“Delia can make me dance in public, but only at home on our own barony and when she’s not nine months pregnant,“ Tiphaine d’Ath said. “Besides, how did our Lady Regent put it . . .“

She nodded towards the spot where the Lady Regent and a few other dowagers and lords with a good deal of gray in their hair sat, with pages offering tiny crystal glasses of liqueurs or brandy snifters on trays.

“. . . ah! Modern Protectorate culture doesn’t handle gender confusion well. Which reminds me, since it’s from her private stash I could use another cognac. Lioncel . . . no, serve His Majesty first.“

A tow–haired young squire slid forward noiselessly and poured for them both. Lady Death, as she was commonly known, was dressed to fit her nickname tonight; her tight hose were onyxine black, as was the sleeveless neck–to–thigh jerkin of soft chamois, fastened up the front to the throat with ties of black silk and jet. Her soft Court shoes were chamois as well, and the toes turned up—moderately. The loose black knee–length houppelande over–robe had buttons of some dark mottled tropical wood so hard it seemed metallic carved like black roses, and a collar open at the front and ear–high behind; the lower hem was dagged, and so were the turned–back sleeves that hung almost as low, showing a dark forest–green lining. Only the links of her belt and the buckles at the ankles of her shoes showed brighter colors.

“I wear hose and houppelande fairly often too, Tiph,“ the High Queen replied.

“Yes, but not at formal dances, Matti . . . Your Majesty,“ Tiphaine said. “Delia has to arrange it carefully even at Montinore Manor, or people end up turning and bonking heads and knocking each other over when they should be switching line, trying to figure out where I fit.“

“Now you’re drawing the long bow!“ Mathilda laughed. “Young gentlewomen learn who’s on the right and left by dancing with each other.“

“I wouldn’t know.“ Tiphaine shrugged, deadpan. “I spent my teenage years as your mother’s assassin.“

Mathilda gave a chuckle that was half a wince; that was a joke, and the more effective for being literally true, which was how Tiphaine’s rare excursions into humor usually worked.

“Half the time in a youngster’s dancing class it’s all girls anyway,“ Mathilda said.

“Yes, but it would be fun if it all seized up like that, wouldn’t it?“ Tiphaine said, her face expressionless as she sipped her brandy.

Sure and the prospect of a battle relaxes her, Rudi thought, amused. I’ve rarely seen her so whimsical.

“I would be honored to dance with you if all else fails, Your Majesty,“ Rigobert de Stafford, Baron Forest Grove, said gallantly with a low bow, sweeping off his round chaperon hat with its rolled brim and dangling liripipe tail.

“Yes, but you’d outshine me totally, my lord Forest Grove,“ Matti said with a smile and a little mock–curtsy in return.

“Or, since he’s wearing a skirt, I could dance with His Majesty . . .“

“In your dreams, Rigobert,“ Rudi said genially. “And it’s a kilt. Calling it a skirt has been known to turn Mackenzies berserk.“

de Stafford was a ruggedly handsome man in his forties, with a short–cropped golden beard and bowl–cut hair too fair to show the first gray strands, broad shoulders, thick wrists and large hands that were shapely but scarred where they rested on his belt of golden flowers. His court dress emphasized gold and scarlet down to the parti–colored hose—nothing too gaudy by northern fashion, but still a blaze of color and jewelry, including the chain of office that marked him as Marchwarden of the South.

For height and coloring, he and d’Ath could have been siblings, though he was six or seven years older. His wife Delia was Châtelaine of Ath, an arrangement which suited all three of them very well indeed for a multitude of reasons.

Mathilda’s teasing manner dropped away. “This one’s a little political, Rudi,“ she said. “The High King has to participate in the last dance of the evening. Sort of a fealty thing.“

“I haven’t even been crowned yet and already there’s protocol!“

Mathilda nodded, entirely serious. “It’s a chant du Brabant step, but with a new lyric. Or so Mother told me. One of her troubadours came up with it, modifying some old Society piece, I think. She says they hardly need to be prompted anymore.“

“Yes,“ Tiphaine said, in her ice–water voice. “Apparently a genuine monarch blessed by a visitation of the Virgin—“

“That was Father Ignatius . . . Lord Chancellor Ignatius, now,“ Rudi pointed out. “I’m a pagan and I had a vision of the Threefold Goddess.“

“Ignatius was one of the Companions of the Quest,“ d’Ath said. “In propaganda terms, the Lady Regent assures me you each bask in the other’s reflected glory, but it shines more strongly upward.“

Is that irony, or is she just copying the way Sandra usually speaks? Rudi thought.

The Grand Constable of the Association went on:

“— a High King married to our Princess, accompanied by signs and wonders, with a magic sword gained on a heroic Quest, gets their artistic juices flowing to the point where they barely need a subsidy from the Crown.“

“She used the phrase creaming their hose, in fact,“ Rigobert said. “Archaic vocabulary, but expressive.“

Rudi sighed gently and set his brandy snifter on a low round table of polished granite. His mother–in–law had always been shrewd enough to know that song and story were as much tools of power as hoarded gold or castles and catapults and men–at–arms. Sometimes he suspected that she didn’t really know quite how powerful they were, though. A glance in her direction brought her up to her feet and then down in a curtsy, spreading the pearl–gray silk of her skirts and sinking gracefully, her smooth middle–aged face smiling and revealing nothing except her usual catlike satisfaction as he bowed slightly in return.

Sometimes when she’s sitting with a white Persian in her lap, it’s downright eerie how similar they look, he thought whimsically. And I will never know precisely how much of what’s happened hereabouts these last two decades was by her plan and will, and what wasn’t, and what wasn’t but was fitted and shaped to suit her afterwards behind the screen of her wit, like my blood–father killing her husband . . . the end result of which is that her grandchildren, and his, will rule all of Montival. So who was the victor and who the vanquished, on the Field of the Cloth of Gold?

“All right, acushla,“ he said to his wife. “I will be most honored and pleased to lead the dance.“

“And I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t discover an emergency elsewhere, my love, or I will challenge you to a joust à l’outrance with sharpened lances.“

Their eyes met, and for a moment he lost himself in the warm brown depths of hers.

“Get a room, you two . . . monarchs,“ de Stafford said.

Rudi laughed. “The palace isn’t built yet, my lord.“

The Sword of the Lady was hung in his quarters, with a score of the High King’s Archers as an honor guard—not that he thought any human agency was much threat to it. It had been hard enough for him to come to it undamaged. But that absence let him pretend he was simply a man among his own kind tonight, and such chances were rare enough to relish.

Mathilda moved back into the open, circulating among the younger noblemen and ladies. A lady–in–waiting and a squire—

Yseult Liu, Demoiselle de Gervais, he reminded himself.

Seventeen, with tilted blue eyes and a maiden’s loose hair streaming in a yellow mane down from under a pale blue headdress, just on the verge of turning from pretty and fresh to spectacular.

And her brother Huon, three years younger. By Brigid’s cauldron and Lugh’s spear, he looks more and more like Odard every day, save that his eyes are dark!

—moved among the revelers, collecting little folded pamphlets they’d been studying; those would have the steps and music.

He closed his eyes for a moment in remembered grief, remembering also the look of almost mocking affection in Odard’s own as he lay dying so far away in Kalksthorpe on the shores of the cold Atlantic. It had been a long way for a knight of the Association to go to die; and it hadn’t been until he died that Rudi had fully realized how real a friend he’d become after years of not–quite–trust. Odard had been a very complex man, but the steel had been there at the core, when the Keeper–of–Laws came to reveal what he really was.

No man outlives his fate, he thought. He died as well as a man can when it’s far from home amid angry strangers; ah, but Odard, I miss you at my back this day!

Sandra Arminger raised her glass to him as his glance passed her again; she was talking to a barrel–built nobleman with a shaven head and rich dark clothing with a silver–and–gold linked chain of office around his bull neck, marking him as Conrad Renfrew, Count of Odell and Chancellor of the Portland Protective Association. Rudi snorted slightly, taking up the snifter to return the toast and then sipping at the smooth fire within the balloon shape. The man beside Portland’s Lady Regent inclined his massive head, one corner of his mouth turning up in an ironic smile that twisted the hideous white keloid scars that covered much of his face.

“Your Majesty?“ Tiphaine asked.

“I was just thinking that the Count of Odell, over there, led the army that tried to conquer the Mackenzie dùthchas back in the War of the Eye and nearly did burn Sutterdown to the ground. Some of the roundshot from his catapults are in the wall still. Yet here we are, allies and more or less friends. Forbye his sons most definitely are my friends, if not my closest.“

Tiphaine turned her snifter between her hands, the long slender wire–strong fingers flexing about the glass. She’d been fourteen or so on that day in 1998 in whose shadow the whole world lived, which made her one of the bridge generation between folk such as Sandra or Conrad, who’d been adults then, and his own generation, the Changelings.

“For that matter, I kidnapped you a bit before that, when I did that clandestine op to get Matti back,“ she pointed out. “And killed your bodyguards.“

“I mourned them,“ Rudi said sincerely.

For I liked Aoife and Liath well, and keened them as sincerely as a ten–year–old could, he thought. I make a sacrifice beneath the tree where their ashes lie mingled every year. But . . .

He tactfully didn’t mention the earlier attempt, when the first Baron Gervais, Eddie Liu, and Katrina Georges had tried to get Matti back and failed and both died in the process. Katrina had been Tiphaine’s first lover, and he knew she still mourned her even though she’d been happily settled with Delia de Stafford for a decade and a half—Rudi had been a hostage at Castle Ath when the newly ennobled Tiphaine met Delia, who’d been a mere miller’s daughter on the estate then.

People in general thought Tiphaine d’Ath’s most notable characteristic was a ruthlessness as complete and hard as the honed steel on the edge of a knife, but if Rudi had had to sum up her mind and character it would have been constancy he’d have put first.

Though she’s ruthless enough, too, and no dispute.

She was also an intensely private person, and he went on instead:

“But that was honest war. We’d raided the Association territories and took Matti, after all, and killed quite a few of her entourage in the process. And then you saved my life, you and Sandra between you. The Lord Protector would have killed me sure, in the end, if I’d stayed in Todenangst like a bit of grit under his eye. You taking me off to your new fief . . .“

“That was Lady Sandra’s orders; she got me the title and the grant for rescuing Matti and snatching you, after all,“ Tiphaine said judiciously. “Mind you, I agreed on taking you out of sight and mind, and even then it only delayed matters. Norman was like that. God, how I hated that man. I used to daydream about killing him.“

He turned his head sharply for a moment; it was unusual for her to express that much emotion. Her long handsome–regular face was as calm as ever, and her pale gray eyes calmly considering as they flicked over the crowd looking for threats and weaknesses. That appraisal was probably so automatic that she would require an act of will to stop it.

And it’s a fair bit I’ve learned from her, in all the years since. Much of the art of the sword, just for a beginning.

Rigobert snorted. “You weren’t the only one, my lady d’Ath. Even in the Protectorate. Lady Sandra actually loved him, though.“

“Aphrodite is a powerful Goddess,“ Rudi said seriously.

That was both literally and metaphorically true, if there was a difference in the Changed world. He drew the Invoking sign and went on:

“And sea–born Cyprian has Her own purposes when She bestows Her gifts. For that matter, Norman loved Sandra and Mathilda . . . in his way. I think it was his desire to look well in Mathilda’s eyes that preserved me when I first fell into his power. We were already close friends, from her time at Dun Juniper.“

The two Associate nobles nodded; they were both nominal Catholics, of course, but he knew Tiphaine wasn’t one in practice—that owl he’d glimpsed once on a chain under her shirt was a hint at exactly how not—and he strongly suspected Rigobert wasn’t either in his heart, though he didn’t know what Powers the man did follow. Sandra was that modern rarity, a complete atheist, or had been until recently. Not that she’d ever given any public indication of disbelief, but he suspected that the sheer overwhelming evidence of late had made her slide from joyfully hypocritical and political lip–service to the Protectorate’s established Church to something more sincere; she had the unusual sort of mind that used logic and evidence to produce conclusions, rather than the other way around.

Mathilda finished her task and came back to him, curtsying. He bowed in turn, making a leg in the Clan’s fashion, his shoulder–length red–gold hair flowing forward. His garb was his own people’s festival style; fine pleated tartan kilt to just above the knee with silver–buckled shoes and a little bone–and–silver hilted sgian dubh tucked into his right sock–hose, tight green Montrose jacket with a double row of silver buttons, lace at throat and cuffs, badger–skin sporran and tooled–leather belt and dirk, Scots bonnet with a spray of black feathers in the clasp that marked his sept totem as Raven, and a great broach of silver and jet graven in curling knotwork to hold the plaid pinned across his torso. There was a slight sigh from a clump of ladies nearby; his six–two of broad–shouldered, narrow–waisted, long–limbed height took full advantage of clothing designed to show a man off.

“Every woman here is envying me,“ Mathilda said softly as she laid the tips of her fingers on the back of his left hand to let him lead her out on the dancing floor.

“Except our friend the Grand Constable and a few others,“ he whispered back. “Some of them envying me, perhaps? And then my lord de Stafford might well be envying you, you know . . .“

Then he grinned more widely as she pinched his wrist painfully with a hand strengthened steel–hard by years holding the grip of a fifteen–pound knight’s shield.

“You’re incorrigible!“

“No, I’m the improbable bearer of an impossible Sword; nevertheless, I exist! Your mother doesn’t seem worried, by the way,“ he murmured to Mathilda.

She kept her head high and step gliding so that she seemed to drift forward in a rustle of silks, as if her feet were motionless, floating a fraction of an inch above the smooth stone paving blocks. It was as much a product of rigorous training as a swordsman’s stance, in its way.

“Mother doesn’t worry about battles,“ she said. “Not that way, at least. She picks people to fight them by judging their character and record, she told me once, and gives them everything they need, then sits back and lets them do their work.“

Well, the Powers picked me, but from Sandra’s point of view there’s not much difference, eh?

The chant du Brabant wasn’t fundamentally all that different from a lot of Mackenzie dances; rings and lines of men and women, moving in set patterns to the music, changing places with the rhythm. It was a good deal more complex, though, and involved the participants singing at some points as well as the musicians playing. Rudi had spent months every year in the Association territories after the War of the Eye—what the northerners called the Protector’s War. That had been part of the peace settlement, and it had involved a good deal of the same schooling Mathilda got just as she’d learned Mackenzie ways in her stays at Dun Juniper, but he hadn’t done much Associate–style dancing since reaching his majority, and none since they left on the Quest two years ago.

He closed his eyes for an instant as the ensemble played the first four measures, then opened them and let remembered skills flow back into nerve and muscle as the dance began on the repeat; the lead couple didn’t have to sing, at least, though Matti had given him the cues.

The sprightly tune began again and they started the hand–in–hand advance. That opening phase ended with the company around them, men in the inner ring and women in the outer, circling in opposite directions. The strong male chorus began to the sound of the instruments and the scuff of leather on stone:

The squire serves the gentleman,

And the gentleman follows me,

And in so doing learns the ways of skill and courtesy.

I ever serve my lady for the love she gives to me—

The men turned and faced Rudi and Mathilda where the royal couple pivoted beneath the arch of their own joined hands in the center, and as one they stopped and bowed:

And the knights of Portland stand and serve the King,

For our King!

The knights of Portland ever serve the King.

Rudi blinked; that chorus wasn’t in any of the versions of this piece he’d heard before, though the rhythm and scansion were the same. Each man straightened, took three paces backward and extended a hand as the women passed through, so that now the circles were reversed; the whole ensemble skipped in a complete circuit and then the ladies took up the song:

The girl becomes a maiden,

And the maiden follows me,

And in so doing learns the ways of skill and courtesy.

We ever serve the household with our hands and hearts and deeds—

They stopped and faced inward, and a uniform deep curtsy ran through them as the men circled behind, the wimples and headdresses bowing like wind through a flower–field made of silk and vair and jewels:

And the demoiselles will stand and serve the Queen,

For our Queen!

The demoiselles will ever serve the Queen!

Now the circle broke as it turned inward, into a moving line of male and female dancers linked by their hands. Rudi and Mathilda danced towards them in their turn; as each pair passed, they opened out and spun around the royal couple.

We serve as those before us

And we teach it to our young.

And fair the blooms that face the sky

That from our soil have sprung!

A crashing chord and they all halted and threw up their linked hands:

And our monarchs’ deeds are roared aloud

Whenever honor’s praise is sung!

This time they were facing Rudi and Mathilda in a spaced line, lord and lady alternating. They bowed and curtsied together as Rudi and Mathilda passed through to the head of the line and turned to face them; all hands were linked in a great chain:

And the knights of Portland stand and serve the King,

For our King!

The knights of Portland ever serve the King.

The voices wove together again:

And the knights of Portland stand and serve the King,

For our King!

The knights of Portland stand and serve the King!

The dance ceased, amid a shout of laughter; the dancers turned and did their bow and curtsy to the musicians, applauding, and then deeper to the royal pair. Rudi smiled as he and Mathilda inclined their heads in return.

Servants brought around trays of hot spiced wine. He took one, and Mathilda did too; they interlinked their arms so that each took a sip from the other’s glass first. Then he turned and raised it to the crowd, the flame dancing on silk and silver and shining eyes.

And in a day and a night, how many of these laughing young lords of the earth will lie stark with their blood draining into the thirsty soil? he thought, and fought to keep his face merry, as they’d expect.

“A fine dance tonight, and the dance of sword and lance to come,“ he said, pitching his voice to carry. “So one more cup, seek your beds and sleep untroubled, my lords.“

For I have other business tonight, with the Powers of the land.

“Artos!“ someone cried; he thought he recognized Rigobert’s voice. “Artos and Montival!“

Artos and Montival!


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