Penguin.com (usa)

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Excerpt from from S.M. Stirling's The Sword of the Lady

Chapter One

The Wild Lands (formerly Illinois) Middle Illinois River

August 18, Change Year 24/2022 AD

"Shining pearl within the crimson sky,
Guide me in the coming night
Perfect seed within the humble husk,
Ground my feet in soil so I may rise
Patient leaf within the endless pool
Calm me when the torrent falls
Gentle wind within the slanting grass
Bear me ever on until I rest—"

Rudi Mackenzie and Edain hadn't been singing the hymn; more of a breathy whisper, though it rang loud in their minds as the moon rose enormous on the horizon, and they'd come down here below the lip of the valley where there was more cover for the rite. Rudi stopped instantly when a stick snapped. The warm sense of communion ghosted away like dust in a desert, and he sank down behind the tangle of wild rose in a motion that was swift but smooth rather than a catch-the-eye jerk.

Five paces to his right and a little behind him Edain Aylward Mackenzie did the same; his great shaggy half-mastiff bitch Garbh vanished even more completely, belly to the ground, ears cocked and only her black nose moving as it wrinkled. The air wasn't moving enough to carry scent any distance, but her blocky barrel-shaped head seemed to split as the thin black lips drew back silently from her long yellow fangs.

The other half of her was probably wolf.

Both men listened hunter-fashion, with their whole bodies: not straining, but opening themselves to the summer twilight, letting sound and sight and smells and the movement of air on skin flow in until you knew. The evening hush was strong and the hot thick air hazy along the ridge where they lay above the river valley, full of rank odors of flowers and greenery and warm earth damp from yesterday's thunderstorm. Sweat trickled down Rudi's flanks beneath the brigantine torso-armor he wore, a corselet of little steel plates riveted between two layers of soft green leather. Something with too many legs bit the back of his left knee below the kilt and above the sock-hose, adding to the prickling itches. The coarse sandy grain of the leather on the riser grip of his longbow drank moisture from the palm of his left hand, growing damp but not slippery, which was the point.

The steep fall of ground to the river below was a patchy almost-forest. Single stands or clumps of mature pre-Change burr oak and shagbark hickory, black walnut and sugar maple reared above teardrop-shaped surrounds of saplings, where they'd rolled their seed downslope in the decades since the State foresters had stopped coming to prune and tend. The new growth ranged from fresh sprouts to fair-sized trees as old as Rudi, but the canopy wasn't tall or closely spaced enough to shade out the undergrowth yet, and a dense understory of weeds and scrub was just past its summer prime.

The open spaces were brushy meadow scattered with white pasture thistle and Queen Anne's lace, and thickets of four-foot-tall Gaura, its pink flowers a wash of fading color as the deeper scarlet of its leaves turned black with sunset. The faint sweet scent of it became stronger with crushed stems and petals; as the sun dropped lower behind him he could see the tops of the plants swaying in little jerks in half a dozen spots. Once ... a moment's stillness ... twice ... again ... another pause ...

And there's no wind, Rudi thought grimly, as his mouth went dry.

He was only twenty-three, but he'd seen enough violent death to know how easily it could happen to him—know in body and blood, as well as his head. He kept his breaths long and deep and slow to help loosen the tightness in gut and crotch and slow the pounding of blood that were the instinctive response to a sudden deadly threat. Half of transcending fear was making the fl esh serve the spirit's need, instead of letting it command you. 001-486_much, but every bit counted at the narrow passage. His eyes stayed fixed on the vegetation, and the off-and-on course of the small betraying motions.

Men crawling on their bellies then, moving a bit at a time and pausing in between. Men or wolves or wild dogs, they all know that trick, but I'd be betting the first.

Here in the Wild Lands men would most likely attack him on sight, and they'd likely be faster than he afoot, over ground they knew. He glanced over to where Edain waited, a movement of eyes more than head, and got a very slight nod.

That meant both agreement that they were undetected so far and waiting on you, Chief. Here and now that was both a burden and a comfort; the call was his, but you couldn't ask for a better man than Edain to have your back for all he was just turned twenty. Rudi moved his right-hand fingers, thumb to each as if counting on them, then turned it palm-up and lifted it a bit, a combination of gestures that meant how many? in Clan war-Sign. Edain's answer was a tiny shrug; he didn't have any real idea either.

So ... no less than six, possibly about thirty if they're very good. And they haven't seen us yet. It's someone else who's the expected guest at the feast, and them laying the table and knocking out the bung of the barrel of red salt ale. Someone coming by the track down there along the river; the position they're in will be invisible from down by the water's edge.

The ambush was being set with real skill; he doubted most Mackenzie warriors could have done it better, or even Dúnedain Rangers. He kept his breathing slow and quiet and deep, and his body motionless with a silent wariness that was coiled rather than stiff, ready to explode off the ground if he must. Nothing moved but his eyes, and he flicked them back and forth; a steady fixed gaze was oddly noticeable to the one you were staring at, like brushing a feather over the nape of the neck.

If it was only six or so savages then he and Edain could probably handle them, not taking into account whoever they were planning on ambushing. The two Mackenzies would have the advantage of surprise, height, good purpose-made armor and weapons rather than crude makeshifts, and skills none of the wild-men could match.

But there's also the matter of the rights and wrongs of the thing, so.

The ones walking into this ambush might be men of deep-dyed wickedness for all he knew, and meeting their fate; this wasn't his territory, and he wasn't one to draw the blade on strangers lightly.

On the other hand, I need friends here—or at least allies. I've no time to spare; the lives of my friends depend on it. And at seventh and last, fights are usually about us and them, not rights and wrongs. Needs must when the Fates drive.

Half in prayer: And if this deed must return on the doer, let it fall on me; it's my decision, and Edain but follows his chieftain. This is a burden I took up with the sword.

1 | 2 | 3