Imbolc, February 18,
Change Year 24/2023 AD
"Where did it all go?" Mathilda Arminger said. "There were roads and houses! Now it"s just trees. They're old trees too; you can see that, even if the sea-wind has stunted them."
"Why are you asking me?" Rudi Mackenzie said, with studied reason in his tones.
The which always drives you crazy and makes your eyes sparkle fetchingly, anamchara mine, he thought.
"You're the one with the magic sword!"
Mathilda caught the twinkle in his own eye and stuck out her tongue at him. They laughed, a quiet, relieved sound; it was good to have nothing but a mystery troubling them, as opposed to homicidal strangers. Rudi let his hand fall to the hilt of the weapon slung at his right hip. The pommel shaped of moon-crystal held in antlers gave him a slight cool shock as his calloused palm touched it, less a physical sensation than a mental one…;or possibly spiritual.
"What does it feel like?" Mathilda asked, subdued again.
"To hold it?"
She nodded, and he went on: "It's…;hard to describe; that it is. Not as much of a shock as the first time; I grow used to it, but…;It's as if my thoughts themselves were faster somehow. More sure. More themselves. You know how you think, If I do a certain thing, that might happen, or the other thing, or, then again, perhaps this? And your wit and experience give you an idea of each, and how likely they are? Well, when I do that now it's as if little mummers were making a play of it in my head, and I know what's most likely. It's…;disconcerting; that it is."
"It would be," she said seriously. "Useful! But, well, Rudi, if you could really see what would happen whenever you did something, would you have any freedom of choice at all? After all, you'd always know the best thing to do!"
He laughed a little, but there was less amusement in it this time.
"Sure. Don't folk choose to do things even if they know it's folly and the result will be black disaster? And don't they do that all the time?"
She snorted and elbowed him in the side. In armor it was more heard than felt, but he took the point.
"So, bearer of the Sword of the Lady, what does its power tell you about this island? What and where and what is it, now?" she said.
"It's not visions I'm receiving," he said. "And there's no printed list of directions on the scabbard!" He could feel her shift.
"You'll probably spend a lot of time learning what it can do," she said.
Rudi smiled at the winter ocean. Nobody's fool, my Matti! he thought. Aloud: "That I will! So far it's like the sharpening of my own thoughts. And I think…;" He hesitated for an instant. "I think that this island has been a…;a patchwork since the Change ended the old world; that it has. Not quite the place it was before that day. Not quite the island of another time, or many other times. Now it's all of one thingand that thing is the Nantucket Island that was before men first cut down its trees for cornfields. As if a thing started the year we were born has now been completed."
"Then what happened to the island from our time? Or at least from the time of the Change? There were thousands of people here according to the books."
"I suspectnot know, mind, but suspectthat the island that lay here twenty-four years ago was switched for the one we've gotten. And so began the Change Years."
She frowned. "But wouldn't that have made things different? Changed the past, I mean. When the English came here they didn't find men speaking English, or riding horses, or forging iron swords."
The vision that had come with the Sword's finding was slipping away, as such things did. Flickers of a forest far grander than this, grander even than the Douglas fir woods of his homeland. Trees that towered towards a crescent moon. Three LadiesMaiden, Mother, Cronehad spoken with him, and he could still grasp at shattered fragments of what they told, at vistas of time and space vaster than a human mind could ever hold, of universes born and dying and reborn again.
He touched the hilt, and Mathilda shivered against him. Rudi was tempted to do likewise.
"You've the right of that. There's something…;something about what the Ladies said to mespirals of time, and each different yet partly the same…;As to how the one is linked to the other, well, don't ask me, for I can't do more than babble of wondrous things seen in dreams."
Then he worked his shoulders and returned to practicalities:
"From the sky, the weather and the way our wounds have healed, I'd say we lost about a month since we arrived…;in an instant or so," he said. "And to be sure, we've lost that…;town too. If it was altogether here to begin with…;the strangeness and dark bewilderment of it. I kept seeing it different while we were running through it."
"Me too," Mathilda said, and crossed herself. "Then…;it was as if someone was talking to me."
"Who?" Rudi said, and tightened his arm as she shivered.
"A…;a woman in blue? Ignatius saw her in the mountains, but…;or was she in armor? There's Saint Joan…;I don't know. And they were the most important words I'd ever heard but now they're gone, mostly. Then you were back, and I didn't care anymore where we were."
She took his arm. "Now…;now, like you said, it's all of a piece. And, more important, it looks like it isn't going to change on us again." There was as much question as certainty in her voice.
He nodded. "It feels that way to me, as well."
Now there was a thick, low forest of leafless brown oak and chestnut, and green pine behind; ahead lay beach, and salt marsh full of dead brown reeds, and the ruffled gray surface of a broad inlet of the winter-season Atlantic. It still seemed a little unnatural for the glow of sunrise to be over the eastern waters; the only ocean he'd ever seen until a month ago had been the Pacific, which beat on the shores of Montivalwhat the old world had called Oregon and Washington.
It's still the Mother's sea, he thought.
The wind came off it, damp and chill under a sky the color of frosted lead, blowing his shoulder-length red-blond hair around his face and smelling of salt and sea-wrack; it brought out the gray in his changeable eyes as well, overshadowing the blue and green. Mathilda's brown locks were in two practical braids bound with leather thongs, framing her strong-boned, slightly irregular young face. She leaned against him and he put his chin on her head; she was taller than most women, but his height of six-two made the action easy. A few stray locks tickled his nose. He shut his eyes, letting the scents of sea and woman fill his nostrils, and the rushing-retreating shshshsshs of waves on sand and the raucous cries of gulls fill his ears.
She sighed deeply. "I feel…;I feel like all the way from home to here I've been running down a set of tower stairs in Castle Todenangst, the way we did when we were kids and you were visiting? And it's dark and I don't notice I am at the bottom and my feet keep trying to run down after I've hit the floor."
He noddedshe could feel the pressure of his chin, even if she was looking into the green leather surface of his brigandine. Between that, with its inner layer of little riveted steel plates, and her titanium alloy mail hauberk and the stiff coat of padding beneath, the embrace was more theoretical than real, but comforting nonetheless.
"I know what you mean! Near two years we've been after the Sword, from sunset to sunrise, from Montival to Nantucket…;and now we've got it, the creature. What next?"
"Home," she said, and there was longing in the word, a feeling he could taste in his own mouth.
"Home. Though that walk is likely to be upstairs, as it were."
Then she went on: "You said to walk towards the Sword was to walk towards your own death. Now we've got itand you're still alive, by Father, Son and Holy Ghost!"
"And I'm still walking towards death," he said. At her scowl: "Though to be sure, we all are! At the rate of a day for every day, so to speak."
Then she sighed, and he nodded. It was cold, if bleakly beautiful, and the damp chill penetrated their grimy wools and leathers and padding. More, there was work to be done. They turned and walked hand in hand back towards the spot where the…;town…;had been.
The Nantucket where the Change had begun a generation before was gone. So was the Bou el-Mogdad, the captured Moorish corsair vessel they'd run ashore as it burned beneath them, and the wharf it had struck with multiton violence. Slightly charred, the long, slender shape of her sister-ship lay canted on the shore. Even awkwardly stranded on the sandy mud by the retreating tide, the pirate schooner Gisandu still had the graceful menace of her namesakethe word meant Shark in the Wolof tongue. Beaching her hadn't done any harm; ships of that breed were built for longshore work.
Three groups stood there under the shadow of its bowsprit, edging apart. Rudi's friends and kin and the followers picked up along the way, thirty altogether, stood around a crackling driftwood fire that spat sparks blue and green. The surviving dark-faced corsa...