The Tears of the Sun

S. M. Stirling



Rudi Mackenzie-Artos the First, High King of Montival though yet to be formally crowned-finished the last crusty bite of the ham sandwich, savoring the smoky taste of the cured meat and sharp cheese, and washed it down with the last swallow in the clay crock of beer. Then he leaned back against the smooth-worn roots of the gnarled wild apple tree and sighed, listening to the soft sough of wind in branches, the hum of bees. A sharp tup- tup came from a flock of little yellow-faced warblers diving through a cloud of mayflies, and then a buzzing zee- zee-zee-bzzzee as they swarmed off like swooping dots of sunlight into the Douglas firs above.

“Now this,” he said, “is something on the order of a homecoming, so it is. Or close enough for government work, until the war is over. Which is appropriate, since now we are the government.”

His newly handfasted bride Mathilda Arminger snuggled into the curve of his shoulder, a pleasant solid burden, her brown hair smelling of summer like the sun-warmed grass in which they rested, and her strong not- quitepretty features relaxed as she turned her face towards the sun. The weight didn’t bother him, though Mathilda was a rangy five-nine and had the leanly solid build of someone who’d trained to fight in armor most of her life. He was a tall man, born late in the first year of the Change-which made him a few months older than his bride-long- limbed, broad in the shoulders and narrow in the waist, with a regular high-cheeked face just on the edge of beauty, a shoulder-length mane of hair a color just halfway between gold and molten copper, and light eyes of a changeable blue-green-gray.

“It’s fair beyond bearing, this is. We’ve seen everything from the Sunset Ocean to the lands of Sunrise and nothing can quite compare,” he said softly.

He pulled a strand of long grass free and chewed meditatively on the stem as they looked down through the screen of firs to the open benchland below that made an irregular oval of grassland running east-west along the side of the hill, about a mile long and half a mile wide at its broadest. Most of it was rolling meadowland where horses and red-coated cattle grazed thick green grass starred with pink lupine and white daisies, separated by hawthorn hedge and white board fence into paddocks studded with great garry oaks or the tall black walnuts his mother’s great-uncle had planted long before the Change. Beyond that the forested ground fell away steeply and blocked sight of the little valley of Artemis Creek flowing westward into the great green-gold quilt of the Willamette lowlands. Those faded in turn to the blue line of the Coast Range on the very edge of sight, even to keen young eyes on a day cloudless from horizon to horizon.

Mathilda crossed herself and touched her crucifix to her lips for an instant.

“God made all lands beautiful in their own way,” she said. “But this is our way, or part of it. For Rudi and Mathilda, not just the King and Queen.”

“It’s a good thing to have your heartstrings rooted in one place, small and very dear,” he agreed. “You build from there, but it’s the foundation, as the love of your kin is the starting place for a regard for folk in general.”

When he’d left this place two years ago to journey to the Sunrise lands and return, there had still been a good deal of boy in his face. Though he’d already been a warrior of note and chosen tanist of the Clan, successor to his mother as Chief. There was little of that lad left, though the man the boy had become was contentedly relaxed for the moment. Living out a prophecy every day was much more wearing, he found, than simply living with one looming in his future had been, and he needed to take the moments of peace when he could.

“I like the beard,” Mathilda said, tickling his jaw; he arched his neck and purred like a cat. “Very distinguished looking. This time. Not mangy, like the previous attempts.”

“Like a wheat field struck by rust and weevils and blight that was, the black sorrow and shame of it, but the third’s the charm.”

“I remember when you were sixteen and tried for a mustache. Your mother said: And aren’t you getting old enough to shave that peach fuzz on your lip now, boyo? You blushed crimson.”

The short-cropped growth was a slightly darker shade than his head hair, and had come in dense and even this time.

It adds a few years to my looks, Rudi thought. Which cannot hurt when I’m dealing with so many touchy men and women of power. Human beings are like that; buried memories of our childhoods, perhaps, when age is authority.

She sighed. “Remember how we used to come up here as kids and lie finding shapes in the clouds?”

“It drove your attendants mad. Not that some of them ever liked your spending part of the year here.”

“Those ones didn’t last. Anyway, it was in the treaty.”

Off to the left was the little waterfall, falling like a strand of silver lace over a lip of rock and into its pool, and below it the dam and querning gristmill, busy with grain from the just-completed harvest. Beyond that the distant snow peaks of the High Cascades glittered like islands of white against blue heaven in the east; the enemy held the Bend country overmountain, up to the forts in the passes. To his right he could just see the white stucco on the walls of Dun Juniper, and over it a blink of paint and gilding from the Chief’s Hall. The wind down from the crags carried a hint of the glaciers, and the strong wild scent of the great fir-forests that rolled mile after mile along the west-facing scarps.

“We’re still driving them all crazy,” Mathilda said. “Just in different ways.”

The oval of pastureland and garden on the knee of the hill below was a little crowded, with tents in many of the paddocks and far more horses than usual, including those of Dun Juniper’s share of the eastern refugees quartered in every Mackenzie settlement.

“I wish we’d been able to do more than a flying visit in Portland and Castle Todenangst, though,” she added. “They’re home too.”

She was in a kilt and plaid herself, not for the first time. She’d spent half of every year here since they were both ten, back at the end of the War of the Eye, and had often gone in Mackenzie dress for convenience’s sake. Now it was also a statement that the High Queen belonged to all her peoples, not just her native Portland Protective Association, the same reason she’d taken to wearing jeans and turtleneck when they were in Corvallis.

Which was wise, given the long and well-merited grudges many bore from her ghastly bachlach of a father’s reign and the wars against the Association; there were still people to whom the sight of a cote-hardie or hose and houppelande were like a red rag to a bull. Some simply feared the Colossus of the North because it had more territory and as many people as all the rest put together. The War of the Eye had trimmed it back, but it had recovered quickly and had been growing steadily stronger in numbers and wealth and power all three under Sandra Arminger’s farsighted rule. That had made everyone nervous until the rise of the Prophet and the Church Universal and Triumphant had buried old feuds in a common fear.

“Or the PPA outweighed all the other powers before we proclaimed Montival,” Mathilda murmured. “If you look at it in terms of everything from the Pacific to the Sioux country and not just as far as the Rockies, then the Association is cut down to size… and people may learn to relax about it a little.”

Rudi chuckled. Their minds did tend to run alike. He’d heard that longmarried couples were often so. They’d been wed about one turning of the Moon, but he supposed being friends from childhood as well as lovers now hastened the process. Plus both being the children of rulers, and extremely shrewd ones.

“But we have to win the war to make that more than a claim,” he said, and kissed her. The touch was soft and sweet, and he murmured: “In the meantime, your wearing a kilt does have its merits…”

“Eeek! Rudi! ”

He stopped, a little unwillingly even though he’d been playing.

“But we have permission from the Gods themselves now,” he said, teasing. “Yours in particular, since we

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