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Authors: S. M. Stirling

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To Harry Turtledove: true gentleman, wise scholar,
fine writer, good friend, and inspiration to us all.
We need every kalos k'agathos we can get.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to my first readers:

To Steve Brady, for assistance with dialects, and saving me from a couple of embarrassing faux pas about home-brewed beer and other things. As the saying goes, it ain't what you don't know that'll kill you, it's what you think you know that ain't so. Sample the Real Ale for me!

Thanks also to Kier Salmon, for once again helping with the beautiful complexities of the Old Religion, batting ideas on how it might develop in this (thankfully!) alternate history back and forth, giving me firsthand reports and pictures of Oregon locations, and coming up with the great idea about the ox and other nifty ideas.

To Dale Price, for giving me help with Catholic background, and some excellent suggestions.

To all of them for becoming good, if long-distance, friends.

To Bob Noonan, for help with the Gaelic, which I cannot speak. But
déan crónán cupla barraí agus cuirfidh mé bréagriocht air.

To Melinda Snodgrass, Daniel Abraham, Emily Mah, Terry England, George R. R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams, Sally Gwylan, Yvonne Coats, and Laura Mixon-Gould of Critical Mass, for constant help and advice as the book was under construction. And heck, they were already friends.

Special thanks to Heather Alexander, bard and balladeer, for permission to use the lyrics from her beautiful songs which can be—and should be!—ordered at www.heatherlands.com. Run, do not walk, to do so.

Special thanks to Kate West, for her kind words and permission to use her chants.

Special thanks—am I overusing the word?—to William Pint and Felicia Dale, for permission to use their music, which can be found at http://members.aol.com/pintndale and should be, for anyone with an ear and saltwater in their veins.

Thanks again to everyone from the author of
Amadis of Gaul
on down. Writing is a solitary occupation, but we aren't alone!

All mistakes, infelicities and errors are of course my own.

CHAPTER ONE

Portland, Oregon
December 10th, 2007/Change Year 9

N
orman Arminger—he rarely thought of himself as anything but the Lord Protector these days—stared at the great map that showed his domains, and those of his stubbornly independent neighbors; it covered the whole of the former Oregon and Washington, with bits of the old states of Idaho and northern California thrown in.

Winds racing out of the Columbia gorge howled amongst the empty skyscrapers, and drove rain that spattered audibly against windows hidden by tapestries shimmering with gold and silver thread. The map covered one wall of what had been the main hall of the city's old public library, built in Edwardian times with a splendor of gray-veined white marble and brass inlay. That and the easily adapted heating system were why he'd picked it as his city palace, back right after the Change, and he'd had workmen busy with it ever since.

Then he turned on his heel and walked to the larger of the two thrones that stood on the new dais at the foot of the staircase; his left foot automatically knocked the scabbard of his longsword out of the way as he sat. This hall was the place he'd first unsheathed it in earnest nine years ago, and where he'd first spilled a man's life with the steel. The chairs were massive gothic fantasies in jewels and precious metals, gold for his and silver for his consort's; the materials had been salvaged from luxury stores and worked up by Society-trained artisans. The long stair behind them was black marble carved in vinework, rising to a landing and then splitting in two, curling up to the second story and the gallery that overlooked the throne room.

Outside, day's gray light was fading into blackness under clouded heavens, but the great room was brilliantly lit, by gasoline lanterns of silver fretwork hanging from the galleries around it, and by a huge chandelier salvaged from a magnate's mansion in the center of the ceiling thirty feet above. That burned a spendthrift plenitude of fine candles; their wax-and-lavender scent filled the chamber, overlaying metal polish and cloth and the sweat of fear from the crowd of well-dressed courtiers, clerics, advisors and officials. It was silent except for the occasional creak of shoe-leather or crisp ripple of stiff embroidered cloth from the tapestries, quiet enough that the faint whisper of flame from the lights was audible; the shifting glitter of flame shone on the thrones, on the jewelry and bright clothes of the courtiers, and on naked steel…

Spearmen stood like statues about the walls, their mail hauberks gleaming gray and the heads of seven-foot spears bright; their big kite-shaped shields were flat matte black, bearing the same sigil of a red cat-pupiled eye wreathed in flame as stood on the great banner hanging from the ceiling to the landing behind him. Three household knights stood in a line before each throne. They wore black-enameled mail; the golden spurs on their boots and the bright steel-sheen of their swords were the only color about them, besides the Eye on their shields. The weapons rested ready with the long blades on their shoulders; their eyes moved ceaselessly behind the splayed nasal bars of their conical helmets. There were discreet crossbowmen along the second-story galleries as well.

After a moment the woman seated in the other throne reached out and touched his arm. Arminger nodded—Sandra and he had played good cop/bad cop very effectively for years—and spoke:

“You may rise, Lord Molalla, and approach the throne.”

The three kneeling figures stood: a man, a woman and a boy of about nine. The trumpeter beside the throne raised his long brass instrument and blew a simple tune, two rising and one falling note. The herald cried:

“The Lord Jabar Jones, Baron Molalla! The Lady Phillipa! Their son, Lord Chaka! You are bidden to approach the Presence!”

The knights before Arminger's throne stepped aside in perfect unison as the three approached, swinging like a door. Then they swung back and turned, which put them—and their ready swords—within three feet of the petitioners. Sandra's guardians remained facing outward, like iron statues with living, hungry eyes.

Jabar Jones—Baron Molalla—was a big man, an inch or two over Arminger's six-one, and similarly broad-shouldered, though unlike his overlord he'd added the beginnings of a paunch, despite being a little younger than the Lord Protector's mid-forties. His cannonball head was shaved and the color of eggplant save for a few dusty white scars. He'd been a gang leader before the Change; Lady Phillipa was a Junoesque redhead of a little over thirty, and came from the other major element among the Protector's original cadre of supporters, the SCA…these days known as
the
Society.

The Society's notion of clothing, or “garb” as they called it, had prevailed over the years, at least for the Portland Protective Association's upper classes, as had many of their notions. Phillipa wore an elaborate wrapped and pinned headdress of white silk that surrounded her face and fell to the shoulders of her long blue gown. The dress was what they called a cotte-hardi; jeweled buttons ran up from a belt of gold chain links to the lace at her throat, and down the long sleeves. For men garb had worked out to loose trousers, boots, linen shirt, belted thigh-length t-tunic and flat hats with a roll of fabric around the edge and dangling cloth tails; the only exceptions in the room were servants, clergy of the Orthodox Catholic Church in their long monastic robes or colorful dalmatics, and some foreign guests.

Arminger's clothes were the same, but in black silk, and he added silver plates to his sword belt, a gold chain around his neck that supported a pendant of the Lidless Eye on his chest, and a niello headband to confine his shoulder-length brown hair. That was receding a little from his high forehead; the features below were harshly aquiline, lines graven from nose to mouth, and the eyes were an amber hazel.

Molalla wore no sword belt. That was a political statement just now, as was his willingness to promptly obey the summons to court—some would have thought raising the drawbridges in his barony more prudent, though that was a counsel of desperation. The way his wife's eyes occasionally darted to Sandra Arminger's face was probably political appraisal by Phillipa, too. The women had been friends. She evidently didn't find the stony calm on the face of Arminger's consort very reassuring.

The way the guardian knights stood within arm's reach behind them wasn't reassuring either. It wasn't meant to be.

“You may speak,” Arminger growled to the man.

“My lord, I have petitioned to be allowed to explain my error before this—”

“You're lucky I didn't let you come near me until now, Jabar,” he said. “I was waiting until I could be sure I could control my temper. I'm not a forgiving man by nature. My confessor and His Holiness Leo tell me it's my greatest fault.”

A ripple of chuckles ran through the court, except for a few of the clerics. Arminger grinned inwardly, behind an impassive mask.

Actually, I was wondering what Strongbow or the Conqueror would have done,
he thought.

The Norman duchy and its offshoots from Ireland to Sicily and the Crusader principalities had been his area of study, back when he'd been a scholar, before the Change. Playing at knights had been his recreation, a way to live a little of the life those civilized Vikings knew. But the contacts that had given him had proved crucially useful in his rise to power. Society people—at least the less squeamish of them—had been very handy as a training cadre in pre-gunpowder combat and a dozen other skills, but there were problems…what had been their slogan?

Silently, he mused to himself:
“Recreating the Middle Ages as they
should
have been
.”

They were perhaps the only people in all the world who'd felt
vindicated
when the Change killed all high-energy-density technologies between the earth's surface and the Van Allens in a single instant of white light and blinding pain.

I'm more interested in the reality. With some refinements, of course. Showers and flush toilets are technologies I approve of. At least for
me.

“My lord Protector,” Molalla plowed on, sweating as he trudged through a speech obviously memorized in advance and probably written by his wife. “I sent the Princess Mathilda back on a well-guarded train as soon as the outposts reported a Mackenzie raid out of the Table Rock wilderness, thinking they'd be safe in Portland before the enemy could penetrate the lowlands—and I sent my own son along. My own younger brother commanded the escort, and was killed in the ambush on the railroad. I admit error, and I beg your mercy for it, but I claim innocence of any malice or disloyalty. Would I have done either if I hadn't thought it the safest course for the princess?”

Sandra spoke, her voice soft and careful: “But it wasn't as safe, lord baron, as guarding them in your keep would have been. Raiders could ambush a train—which they did. They could not storm a castle, which they didn't even try to do. And while the Mackenzies released your son at once, they did
not
release my daughter! For more than half a year, she has been captive among the Satan-worshippers.”

A heavy silence fell. The burly black nobleman opened his mouth, and then closed it.

Wise,
Arminger thought.

The whole past spring and summer had been a series of disasters. The Mackenzie raid, the failure of his attempt to salvage something useful from the old chemical-warfare dump up the Columbia at Umatilla—those damned Englishmen who'd come in on the Tasmanian ship had been responsible for that, suckering him completely—and then the rescue mission for Mathilda had crashed and burned spectacularly. If it hadn't been for the way the Umatilla expedition had extended the Association's influence into the Pendleton country, it could have been a dangerous blow to his prestige. As it was, land for new fiefs would keep discontent to a minimum.

When he spoke it was to his steward. “Why is Baron Molalla unarmed? Bring his sword at once; it isn't fitting that a trusted vassal should appear without a weapon.”

A man came up with the long blade, the belt wrapped around the scabbard and showing a buckle bearing the barony's sigil, a rampant lion grasping a broad-bladed assegai. Molalla donned it; his face stayed impassive, but sheer relief suddenly put a beading of sweat on his forehead, glittering in the candlelight. Servants handed sheathed daggers to his wife and son.

“Use it well in my service, and in the interests of the Association,” Arminger said.

He noted how Phillipa's eyes sought Sandra's again, and how her face relaxed slightly at the consort's smile and nod.

Easy enough to see who's got the political brains in that family, though Jabar's a good fighting man,
Arminger thought.

Chaka was looking at the Association's overlord worshipfully, too. Arminger suppressed a sudden wave of murderous fury at the thought of Mathilda lost among the fanatics; they wouldn't harm her directly, but every moment she was exposed to that poisonous brew of superstition and make-believe was one too many.

And if you screw up again, Jabar, all three of you are going to spend your final hours hanging from iron hooks on the wall outside!

He smiled instead of snarling the threat. It wasn't necessary; the baron and his family bowed and backed six paces away, among a crowd that didn't avoid them like plague carriers anymore, but Phillipa was looking extremely thoughtful. With an effort of will Arminger thrust gnawing worry aside; he couldn't afford distraction, and could do his daughter no good if he was crippled. Instead he made a gesture. Another trumpet blast echoed.

“Lord Emiliano Gutierrez, Baron Dayton!” the herald called. “You are bidden to approach the Presence!”

Emiliano was in his thirties as well, a stocky brown-faced man in fine white linen and gleaming satin. He grinned as he bowed, and met the Lord Protector's eyes, ignoring the naked blades ready behind him.

Men who can be intimidated easily aren't very effective servants, not as fighting men,
Arminger reminded himself.
Irksome, since intimidation is so much fun, but there you are.

“Lord Emiliano, I'm hereby appointing you Marchwarden of the South, to replace the late Lord Edward Liu, Baron Gervais.” He waved aside thanks. “Just see the damned Bearkillers and kilties keep to their side of the border.”

Another trumpet blast. “Lady Mary Liu, dowager Baroness Gervais! You are bidden to approach the Presence!”

A slim blonde came forward, sinking in a low curtsey; she wore mourning ribbons around her headdress. The knights did their deadly pavane.

“Lady Mary, I'm taking the barony of Gervais into personal wardship pending the majority of your heir, but I'm making you my steward for it until your son comes of age,” he said. “You may appoint a garrison commander from Baron Edward's following. Please inform me before you make a public announcement of exactly who.”

“Thank you, my lord Protector,” she said, in a high, reedy voice.

Liu's widow didn't have a prescriptive right to rule her husband's personal holding until the heir reached twenty-one. In strict form the land reverted to the Association, and the Protector could have given her a manor as dower house, or apartments at court, installed his own administrator and commander and collected the mesne tithes from the barony and its subordinate knight's-fee manors for himself. That would have given him the income for more than a decade; Liu's eldest was only eight. But Eddie had been one of his personal hatchetmen, and a good one, until his final failure. Besides which, Mary would probably do a pretty good job of it; she knew the place firsthand, and in the long run it would help to have Eddie's kids grow up there.

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