The knight’s tale
a story of the future
If history repeats itself, the future may come more than once.
Three generations after the end of the famines and plagues now known as ‘The Elide,’ when the Long Wars are little more than legend, a depopulated world has renewed itself again.
The earth’s abandoned colonies in the heliosphere are flourishing and independent, while the ‘remnant’ peoples of the earth have reorganized under weakened governments without armies.
Trade between the outer nations and the earth has increased steadily as fears of lingering viruses fade and the demand by the former settlements for the earth’s natural resources and raw materials like wood, fertile soil, and specific minerals, continues to grow.
In a mere three weeks of the year 2162, John Holt, an aging paladin in the now dwindling Order of Pelagius, those sworn to defend surviving civilization, attempts to keep his own honor while fulfilling his duty and resolving past mistakes, even as he confronts his own future.
Called upon by Wilmer Wright, a former knight and now local sheriff, to solve the mundane murder of a cattleman in New Hampshire, John is beguiled once more by the sheriff’s daughter, Glenys, as he finds himself entangled in the breaking of a local slave trade, snared by the correcting of a wrongful death he may have caused, and obligated to investigate another.
Unknowingly at first, he must confront a greater power working to dominate the Myriad nations of the earth and the independent states of the heliosphere, even as a previously vanquished foe seeks revenge amidst a clash of history and circumstance, while using railguns, railroads, dirigibles, steam trucks, and river barges, and with the help of a horse named Rosie.
Praise for Vincent McCaffrey’s Writing
“McCaffrey is never cloying or playing to demographic. He’s just telling a compelling, old-school yarn, the kind of story a man who knows his literature tells.”
“Vincent McCaffrey is obviously a man so well read that he seems to have gleaned a deep understanding of human nature from his studies. His characters are appealing and sympathetic and his story well plotted. I look forward to his next novel after what was a most enjoyable debut.”
“McCaffrey has a gift for crafting quirky characters and original dialogue…”
First Chapter Preview
Sunday, June 6, 2162
The last dark of night stole shape and substance from the shadows beneath the pine. A first waking of birds tested the air. The muffled crack of a limb, twisted by the gentle fingering of a cool draft, and the drop of a pinecone onto the thick mat of fallen needles went unnoticed by horse or man. But another sound, no more than an insect against the first soft bluster of oncoming dawn, pestered the larger silence.
One eye opened. Through a gray wisp off the ashes of his campfire, John looked toward Rosie. Wide-eyed, ears erect and turning nervously, she backed against her tether, snorted, and returned his stare. John slipped a hand forward in his sleepsack to his gun, shifting the clasp with his thumb. A gathering chorus of catbirds, warblers and cardinals further tattered the quiet. Calculating that the lingering dark would hide the movement, John turned his head just enough against the undermat to better hear. Rosie saw his attention and stood still. The only odor he noticed was the warm whiff of insect repellent from within the sleepsack. A pine knot, still smoldering at the center of the ashes, began to buzz like a fly. But above that faint noise, there was another sound. A vibrating. Metallic.
A drone perhaps?
No. More distant. An engine.
John sat up.
To the east, through the pine growth just beyond his campsite, where granite teeth abruptly opened the great black maw of an old quarry, the land fell away from the wood to the uppermost edge of a crimson ball of sun just breaking the dark rim of the Earth. The noise was away, from the southwest. The vibration became a chatter, growing louder, coming on toward him at a great pace.
Unready muscles tightened. The thick of the surrounding pine blocked his view until the last seconds. The surging growl of turbines finally engulfed the greater wood. Abruptly, the flat underbody of a Stammer air shuttle loomed into the slate blue void above, blood-rimmed on black in the full light of dawn and passing in mere seconds, the sound immediately fading. It was headed north toward the White Mountains, directly at the highest peaks.
He cussed aloud. “Damned tourists,” and fell back to the cushion of his sleepsack. The sudden jerk of adrenalin that pulled him from a pleasant dream faded. The cool of the morning brought a shiver to his bare flesh.
Was he overreacting?
Twice the day before he had felt the eyes of someone watching him. Twice he had broken his trail and doubled back, but found nothing. Not a fern broken but what Rosie had trampled before. No grass left bended beneath another foot, and his own path clear to see, especially where he had dismounted to cross rougher ground.
A drone was possible, especially if the signal from his tech had been cheated. But unlikely. Their range was short. The wood was very thick and his position could easily be lost from the air.
He might be getting old. Too many years of paranoia.
No, not paranoia. It wasn’t paranoia that kept him alive and in service longer than most knights. It wasn’t paranoia if someone was actually out to get him. But with an amygdala thinned by worry, the mind does fail. Finally, it will always fail. Even the best of machines would, and he was only human.
He arose slowly at first to catch any other sounds but hearing nothing more than the larger waking of the birds and the sough of wind at the top of the pine and stood a moment longer there for the appreciation of that, before lunging to grab his shirt and pants off the stub of a branch above his head, pulling these on quickly against the cold. Leaving his tegument and boots aside in front of the pyroflex by the ashes of the fire, he untied the cord to his provision pack, suspended there just out of reach, and let it drop before lifting the kit and the ferro-skillet from his saddlebags. Close by his foot, he noticed the small soft-covered book he had been reading by the light of the fire, fallen away among the pine needles during the night. He plucked this up with irritation at his carelessness, beat it clean once against his leg, and tossed it into the opening of his sleepsack. Walking gingerly on bare feet, he browsed the near perimeter of the campsite until he found enough fallen wood to stoke the fire back to life.
Newly bared by his own movements while setting up camp the evening before, a flat slab of lichen-mottled stone peeked from beneath the drift of pine debris. He had not noticed it then. Now he used a stick to clear the perfect rectangle of stone edge, about two feet long and four feet wide. He noted that the stone was deeply set and perfectly level. A number—several numbers—were roughly etched at one margin, beneath the lichen crust. A date, ‘1821.’
Over the years, he had seen other stones like this one. It was a sill stone. The first step into an ancient house. Once, there had been a family here, proud of their new-built home. Before these pine had taken their turn in this place, it had been cleared. The land would have been opened and farmed. Lives were lived. Right there, beneath the sandy soil washed down from the hills above, would be a cellar hole, perhaps still defined by a buried wall of fieldstone once set in place by calloused hands. If he took the time, he might even find a small graveyard, placed near and within sight of a remembering eye. Or possibly that was now long gone as well, into the void of the quarry.
The quarry, though no longer in use, would have been made many years later, well after that house had fallen in decay, at the time when stone was needed for the foundations of a hundred more houses, or for the millwork, which in ancient times, turned their wheels in the current on every river in these parts.
Once before, only a few years ago, he had chosen this same spot because of the proximity of a spring that silently trickled away into the void of that quarry, adding to the dark of a pool below. This was a natural place for a house. He had thought it then and thought it now again.
Breaking several smaller dead branches across his knee, he shoved them into the ashes, and then laid the remainder across, before adjusting the pyroflex shield to be sure the heat would better reach his boots. The thinner tegument, spread out, warmed easily enough. A flame leapt at dried sap in the wood and burned the chill from the air. Rolling his sleeping sack to expose the length of undermat, he began his usual morning regimen. The exercises were done by habit, with little thought beyond the sting or protest of one muscle or another. His mind wandered, as it always did at this time each day.
A dream, a disquieting patchwork of fragments from the past, had lingered in his mind. He found himself too often reconsidering such things these days. A bad habit…six years later. Little had changed since he camped at this place before. Yet he had not noticed the sill stone that time either.
He had been preoccupied then.
His mind touched on a few of the people he had known during that year, not far from this place. Two were dead—casualties of foolishness and greed. Others, however, mattered more to him. Rufus, his squire at the time, was now a knight on his own but John had no idea where. He had heard something of Therese since, from Cornelius. She was well and married now. She had two children. And Jose—to whom he still owed a large debt—had started his own shop and found himself a good place of his own down near Bow Lake. But Cornelius Dern was there yet and still sheriff in Meredith, after taking over as Deputy when Bob Allan was murdered. A difficult man with a quick temper, Dern had, after all, been of help to John when it was most needed. And certainly, the Harrell boys were alive, the older one out of prison, but likely well enough.
As John had hoped, Therese had since left Meredith and gone to live in Portsmouth with her new family. A fine woman. She had offered to wait until John’s service was complete. She had wanted to wait. She had been with him for three days, here in this place beneath the pine, before he had been able to persuade her against that folly.
He willfully dismissed the memory as a distraction.
Nevertheless, he was glad now he had chosen this trail to ride. Airfast would have had both him and Rosie to their destination at Lyme in less than five hours. But he would have missed seeing this place once more. The smell of the ancient pine on the settled air of early morning was worth the ride. Besides, Rosie disliked the narrow stalls in the airships. She had balked repeatedly during boarding for the shorter hop from Boston to Concord.
With his routine done, John sat at the edge of a lip of rock above the quarry pool, close by the spill from the spring, cupping the cold water in his hands to clean his face, and then his feet. His back arched in reflex to the chill of it. He used a small towel to wipe the water dripping from his beard, and the sweat from his body. Enough of a bath, for the moment.
A morning mist grayed the pool below, but he knew that in the full light of day that would still remain darkened with tannin. Hadn’t Therese once said to him that this was an omen—the way the clear water turned blood dark in the pool that filled the old quarry? It was the way she saw such things. Against reason. And though he loved her, it was just that sort of thing that made him understand there should be an end to it.
And something else.
By that time, with Therese alternately crying and then angry, there had been another matter in his mind. Just one brief encounter—too short to make anything of, except in his imagination—though he had been unable to forget. This had been a part of his dream as well.
During those days when he had worked nearby, he had gone to West Lebanon to investigate the connections between the larger magnetic sling there by the river and the other at Meredith, beside the lake. They were ostensibly different companies, of course, but he knew that Wei Group was behind them both. And there, in the busy office of the Hardy Terminal, he had spent hours one day at a desk not big enough for a child but equipped with a screen showing all shipments for the year previous. He had the boxes of paper manifests piled beside him, in no order at all, forcing him to match them at random. Periodically, to give his eyes a rest, he had looked up to watch the line of shippers come and go as they filed new manifests with the clerk, and studied the simple methods used, identical at both slings and, as he noted, so easily circumvented. But at least every payload had an absolute weight. And every shipper had a name and specific location of origin. Matching these with the receiving records posted on the screen was mind-numbing, but possible. He had looked up frequently at the line of waiting shippers for relief.
And there he had seen a woman—too young, he thought immediately, until he heard her speak to the clerk. She had the confidence of someone older. She had dark honey-colored hair—he had thought immediately of the nectar of buckwheat. She wore a simple purple blouse and a pleated brown skirt. She was obviously dressed for going out someplace other than a shipping terminal. She had the legs for the skirt. And the hips. And the body for the blouse. As she awaited her turn with the clerk, she looked back at him at least as boldly as he had studied her. He immediately had the sense that she had seen him first as she stood in the line and had hoped he would look up again from his work.
Feeling ridiculous, wedged there behind the small desk, he had stood then and approached her on impulse.
Just a momentary flirt. A diversion for a dull day.
“Could I ask you a few questions?”
Her face was cold and her voice flat. “You can ask.”
“What are you shipping today?”
He laughed at the coincidence with his thought about the color of her hair. “Seriously?”
“Yes. Honey! You’re a knight. You dress the part, anyway. You know they can’t make their own honey at the settlements. Not yet, anyway. In season, we ship it out in bulk, for the local apiaries.”
He had shown her his badge then, almost apologetically. An afterthought. He should have presented it from the first to be polite.
“Sorry. Just part of an investigation.”
“You are investigating young women who ship honey?”
“Is there a restriction?”
“No. Just a sudden interest.”
She smiled at the truth of the admission. Barely a flicker of a smile, a turn at the corner of her mouth, but the first she had offered him. The clerk returned then with her paperwork.
He was close enough to smell her and had no idea what it was more than some delicate perfume. She signed a form and turned back to him, nodding toward the boxes of manifests at the small desk.
“I’ve got to go now. From the look of it, you have some work to finish. Come back in a few years when you’re free.”
He was unsure if the smile was mocking.
It was all at once too smart an answer. She had seen his badge. She could guess his age. Knights were not a good prospect for a young woman interested in a fuller life. It was the very matter he had tried to make Therese understand. Most knights did not marry until their term of service was completed. Yet her response had left him nearly wordless.
He had asked, “What’s your name?”
“Glenys. And yours?”
His cap was off and lying on the desk, but he raised his hand as if to tip it as he nodded.
She smiled again, but fully. And she had said only, “Ride and be well.”
It was the adieu of one knight to another and this left him agape for a second time before she turned away at his silence, or perhaps before he might say anything more.
He managed to call after her, “If you’ll wait, I’ll return.”
False bravado. A near lie. An encounter of less than five minutes and he had turned back on every principle he had so recently argued with Therese.
The woman with the buckwheat-honey colored hair had turned around at the door and smiled a final time, and then was gone.
Hadn’t that been the deciding matter? Of all the cases he had to choose from, hadn’t this single word made the decision a simple one? Or had Polly simply done that, as she always did. Like any good sergeant, she seemed to know what the next assignment should be—what was good for her lieutenant. The case at Lyme had been second from the top of the stack. That was always Polly’s way too, letting him reject the first to show his own discrimination and independence—really just a private joke between them over the years. Once, he had picked up the top report and made as if he would accept it, just to see Polly Cooper’s cheeks drop.
Throwing his head back to face the fractured blue field of sky between the rising spires of pine, John grimaced to himself with the thought. It was such a pitiful excuse to determine the path of a knight!
But that day, six years ago, at West Lebanon, as he had turned back to the boxes of remaining manifests, his eyes had picked up that one name from the sheet the young woman had filled out for the clerk. John had not reached for the paperwork then, though he had wanted to. Such an act would have been a personal folly, desperate and futile. But he had stolen a glance, and not forgotten. ‘Lyme’ was the name written as the place of origin for the honey.
John stretched his leg out into the air and fingered the scar over his knee. A reflex. He was always wondrous over the repair. Not as good as new, of course, but nearly. It gave him warning for a change of weather and, late at night, ached sometimes for no reason at all. Just a little sore now from too much time in the saddle. A good reminder of his mortality.
The edge of concern returned over whoever it was following him as his eyes skated to the pop of wood at the fire, and then through the graying shadows, stopping at the rectangular stone.
Now it was easy for him to imagine a small cabin here just for himself, one side facing east, giving that ancient doorsill a renewed purpose. With the porch to the south, of course, toward the greater opening of sky above Newfound Lake. He would cut all those trees away in that direction and use them to build and let the sun into this place once again. As it must have been, once upon a time. And he would sit on his porch then, in the morning and drink his coffee and—.
Jolting upward, he went back to get the small pot. You need water to make coffee. He was getting stupid as well!
He was getting old. He was almost 43, with mandatory retirement two years away. But he had started service early after graduating from the Academy half a year ahead of the others. He had even been offered the chance of retirement following his last injury. He could fairly retire now at any time. And, after all, there were limits set for a reason.
John re-tethered Rosie by the spring water and laid down what fodder was left in the sack from the previous day. The tether was perfunctory. Rosie would not bolt, but the act itself was comforting to them both. Unwrapping a small white slab of lard, he sliced a wedge for the narrow pan. When the lard sizzled on the ferro, he laid down a cut of ham and a moment later edged it aside and broke two eggs into the grease. These were the last of the provisions he had bought the day before at the village of Concord. He’d be eating groats-cracker again tonight and the thought of it was a caution to take his time with this meal. He was wont to eat too fast.
His mother was the first to tell him that, and it was still true.
Sitting now at the edge of the rock again and pulling his bread apart in rough chunks to gnaw at the crust, he reconsidered the gold of the first sun-shatter through the pine. This was his favorite meal and often the only one he might have control over on a given day. It was also true that a good breakfast often set his mood.
And that was another matter. He had been getting moody. A bad sign. Only one of several to watch for.
He pushed this thought away to stretch his weak knee out in front of himself once more and felt the sore tug of the reconstructed ligaments. He should seriously consider the advantages of a proper porch on any good house, wide enough to sit back against the rockers, with a rail for his feet…someday.
There was no rush, but it was time to be moving.
The mind was a funny place. Organized on its own principles. You could train your thoughts as much as you liked, and study what you thought was most important, and yet out would come something so irrelevant that there was no measure for it. Absurd!
It was partly his own fault. Many knights had their regular partners to whom they returned for intimacy between assignments. As he should have had. He even knew of several in the Service who had married these women, though they had been lovers to others through the years when the knight was away. Somehow this sort of arrangement worked for them. Perhaps it was natural enough that way. But he had never done it. Even with Therese, who would have waited faithfully for him alone. She was well above most women he had ever met. And yet…
For the last eight years he had been assigned to track smuggling and piracy. This was not his choice. The stewards knew he had made his early reputation against the slavers. But over those years he had become known to so many of those thugs in court he could no longer work out of uniform without being recognized. And though slaving was still where much of the criminal money was, John had made enemies in the Service: those who had tired of his persistence and believed he pressed his prerogatives too far. And that fact, true or not, took certain other advantages away.
Tracking was something he did well, though the crimes assigned to him now often seemed petty by comparison to the nastier work of stealing lives. In fact, much of his job lately had merely been a treadmill of capture and release. For them, a quick dollar and low risk with minor punishment. For him, endless days of chasing trails and leads and confrontations that were seldom bloody but often came close, followed by hours spent in courts awaiting no-shows who had little to lose by flouting the law. He’d spent too much of his time in court, rather than in the field. Nine-tenths of it was alien traffic, of course. And half of those cases ended with him sitting in a wood-paneled room rather than a pinewood, and too often at the eL-5 transnational court, with the soy-smell of unfinished lunches on desks; there delayed by a judge who, depending on the politics of the matter, might dismiss the case on a technicality.
eL-5 was the worst, but the Earth courts in Boston and Philadelphia were little better. Morals were bought and sold by the pound—no, perhaps Mars was the worst. The Martians were arrogant. They were simply smarter than everyone else, or so they thought, but certainly no more honest.
He had been forced to trek to Mars only once in his 20 years, but that was enough for him. Most of his cases with any connections to the settlements had thankfully been referred to the nearer eL-5 jurisdiction. Soy-smell or not, better than the odor of Martian cedar.
They were all a bunch of thieves, in any case. They were politicians and not fair judges. The Fivers at least had the modesty to know when they were in the wrong, if not to admit it. Too often he heard the complaints of those who thought the drift of political power was inevitable. ‘Naïve’ they called him, knowing he could not take affront at the truth.
Their complaint was usually that the too sacred ‘Natural Law’ of the Pelagians was simplistic at best, and at worst, crudely unsophisticated for the modern world. That the Law should not be open to mere reason; the Law must be objective, and above petty moralities; that the Logos, Ethos and Pathos of the Pelagian motto was insufficient. Possibly even that the law should be placed in the hands of trained Judges alone.
It was an attitude he most often quietly ignored, but a duty assignment last year had finally spoiled much of the satisfaction that was left in the job for him. And that, after so much of the fun had gone out of the chase years ago when he had nearly lost his leg. The entertainment of out-guessing some pirate trying to steal a varietal grass seed or make away with some unfortunate beekeeper’s best hives had faded some years before.
They were producing their own honey on Mars now, he heard.
The previous summer he and Bill, his lieutenant-squire, were tracking the entry of three birders. Birders, for Christ’s sake! Specifically, hummingbirds, as it turned out. He had never known there were so many types of hummingbirds. They had followed two of the suspects through a dozen states, across one league territory to another, from New Mexico to South Carolina. The entry of an unassigned ‘drop-in’ over the Gulf had been detected and a tip from a criminal associate taking money at both ends had made the connection. Thieves were so predictable. Never honorable in the pinch.
In that case, John had finally picked up the track he wanted in Baton Rouge. Three women, all from the same mining colony on an asteroid in the Hildas. The joke was always that the Martians bred like rabbits, but Athe, in the Hildas, already had several hundred thousand people, and the colony was less than sixty years old. Given the looks of the two women they had eventually caught awaiting transport for themselves and their contraband in a camp on Pawleys Island on the coast of South Carolina, it was easy to see why the Athe men found it difficult to keep their hands off them. Inbreeding or not.
The women had followed the usual pattern and travelled apart to ensure at least a partial success. With only John and Bill in the chase, the third suspect had gotten away. What spoiled it, however, was the accusation of one of the women in the Court at eL-5—Laura was the name she had used. She had accused John of molesting her. She had in fact tried to seduce him into letting her go, and, when he did not succumb, she had accused him of doing it anyway. Of raping her!
Laura. The name had an edge on it in his brain even now.
The Athe counsel filed a complaint with the transnational court at eL-5 and made a public deal of it. News releases had dredged up every old case of a knight who had overstepped the proscribed prerogatives of authority. More testimonies were taken. In his own defense, and with Polly’s help, John had managed to find the woman’s previous record. She was a professional thief and perhaps worse. Likely the progeny of some poor victim of a kidnapping on Earth a generation ago, ‘Laura’ had been blessed with the natural genetic resistance, and she had likely been raised as a pirate. A ‘Romany’ they called the ones who had no allegiance beyond their families. John discovered that she had actually married two different scribes, one on Mars and another at eL-5, as a means of gaining access to their codes—and he was ready to use that information in court. But then the judicature in Atlanta had dismissed the case because the birds had died in captivity during the delay while awaiting trial. Finally, an idiot clerk in the sheriff’s office had smartly disposed of the smell, and the evidence, and likely made himself a little richer in the process.
And for all the trouble that ‘Laura’ had made for him, he wished just now that he had actually let her seduce him. At least it would be something better to remember her for, after the fact.
Pleasures were too few, after all, and it had been her want.
It was a fact that the thought had crossed his mind at the time. Athe women were of a very different sort. He had heard they made sport of sex there. But true or not, she had been too angry with him.
So quickly angered by his rejection.
Naked, with her clothes discarded on the cabin floor, she had asked him, “What’s wrong with you?”
A fair question, and one he asked himself often enough. Yes?
The blue tattoo of Athe, a spider web band from one side of her body to the other, from ankle to ankle, dividing her body front from back in halves, even following the turn of her arm and the elbow down to and over the middle finger of her right hand, had inevitably caught his eye, and it was this filigree of color that allowed him to focus his own thought away from seduction.
He had told her, “Look to yourself. What pride is there in using your body in trade for this?”
The years he had spent fighting the slavers had left too deep a mark on him. But she had guessed his less righteous thoughts by then.
Dismissing him with flick of the tattooed finger on that hand, she had said, “Puritan!” as if it were anathema. Perhaps, from her lips, it was a curse. Nevertheless, what was his guilt for the thought? After chasing three half-naked women through near jungle until Rosie had a case of hoof rot—following them for months, while watching them each day, every day. He knew them better than their husbands. If they ever had real husbands!
But then the woman had lost her sneer as if suddenly hurt and turned back to him. “Or is it only love? You love another?”
Was it possible that the race had so finely tuned their sense of others that she could have known?
He should have simply admitted it then. He was the puritan, after all. But he had let her think otherwise. Why? Because he had thought otherwise?
Rosie pushed at the fodder with her muzzle, interrupting his thoughts with disdainful snorts. She wanted better. The three-day-old sedge was beginning to mold.
John stood, stretched one last good time, and retied Rosie’s ballastic robe where it had been left loose overnight. Her eyes watched him from the gaps in the brown and gray camouflage of the chanfron as he snapped it to the robe. She did not appear calm and her disquiet was his as well. She was a roan Morgan and the gray in her face had given her the look of a wise mother from the day he had first found her as a two-year-old. At just over sixteen hands, she had been chosen for her size, but he had long since grown to appreciate the expressiveness of her face. He was glad for the shielding of the chanfron now if only to hide her criticism of his malingering as he pulled the tie for the peytrel over her chest from beneath. Her stockings and peytrel were crucial protection from the brambles that choked the old paths.
John set the crinet for her neck, and the crupper to cover her rump, and then put the saddle in place and cinched. Though all of this, both armor and saddle but without his weapons, was less than thirty pounds, it was a weight that he knew would gain on her as the day wore on, and especially with him in addition.
Next, in an order followed by rote, he packed his kit and sleep-sack away and tied them to the saddle, his eyes scanning the woods, reflexively, after each procedure. He removed his shirt and pants once more and pulled the fire-warmed ballastic of the tegument over his body, then his socks, and then the shirt and pants again. Reluctantly, he snatched his boots from their place by the pyroflex.
He hated the boots. As lightweight and easy as the ballastic flannel of his clothes felt, no boots were ever right. Warming them only lessened the ordeal by degree. His feet had become as skinny and knotted as pinewood and nothing was comfortable anymore.
Boots on, he snatched at the upper edge of the pyroflex fire shield, collapsing it in one motion, with a slap of the reflective plastic on itself as a comment to the unhappiness of his feet. That sound cut into the crowding audience of the pine. Scanning again, his eyes stopped there and inspected a shadow he had not seen before. But this was only the rising sun playing through a swath opened by a fallen tree.
Next, he slipped his doublet on and tied his leggings, fastened his belt and tightened the keeper strap across his left shoulder to assist the added weight. He pulled his jacket over that. His jacket would be good for now. Light enough, even with the stiffening plates that protected his chest and back. But as the day warmed, he would have to put it away, and he would be more vulnerable then.
John checked the railgun as he secured the strap at the back of saddle. He clipped and unclipped the magazine from his rifle. He pulled his pistol from the holster at his belt and checked the load, then noted that the light at the butt of the dk glowed green from its scabbard at the pommel.
With his viaticum accounted for, and secured, he set his cap. The hard shell of the cap sat securely on a loose net of shaped ballastic against the short cut hair of his scalp. Finally, he unfolded the collar at his neck, unfortunately better protection from mosquitos, or the sun than from bullets, and fastened the cap securely. This was the last item in a protocol followed precisely each morning for more than twenty years. But smothering the fire was the concluding matter to be done. Something of a ceremony to that as well, with the smoke and steam a symbolic beginning to another day.
Before mounting, he unclipped the tech at his belt and confirmed his position with the geocor. The rhombus animation flickered briefly as the security delay matched upon itself. His objective was nearly due west, toward the Connecticut River. But the ridges were high in that direction and those few routes beneath the forest canopy, uncertain. It could be hard on Rosie. Having already chosen to avoid the quicker southern route up the Lebanon interval because of unwanted exposure to the larger villages there, it was better now to go all the way north, beyond Wentworth, and follow that better trail west.
No rush now. The murder was a month old. The local Sheriff at Lyme had likely done his work well, but the best evidence, the small details John had the eye for, would be long spoiled, if indeed there truly was a murder. Reconstructing the circumstance might take weeks.
John set his foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up. Oddly, it was that moment in the field each day when he was most uneasy. This was the feeling of rising into the sights of some weapon or another. The refraction of light by the ballastic fabric of his uniform offered little concealment within such close quarters. The pine weald teased him with a mottle of shadow and a dapple of light.
He nudged Rosie gently with his heels and she set out at her own pace.
Shortly he was away from the shadowed bosk of old growth pine and into a broader wood of oak, ash, maple and hemlock. There the verdance of June, as if ensnared in swaths by sudden and frequent breaks in the canopy of wind-tossed leaves above, dissolved in a dull shimmer on his uniform—enough to make his passage nearly invisible. Finally, the rise of the ancient road he sought appeared before him as a geologic oddity through a low hedge of sumac and raspberry.
Before the Long Wars, this path had been graded above the forest floor. They had called them ‘highways’ then, perhaps two hundred years ago. That was a term now used only for the beaconed paths of the airships, but it made some sense. This road, the conceit of a long defunct Federal government that must have been drunk with power for wanting to tie its domain in such an asphalt net, had been well followed by trucks in those times, and even by cars, but now was only a primary footpath that might easily let him avoid whoever came his way—if he was watchful. The ancient macadam was crumbled to fine bits and still packed deeply enough to discourage trees of any larger size, but the ‘chuck, chuck,’ of the steam-diesel combos had not been heard on this route in many generations. And though the scrub and bramble were high in places, it was still better footing and more merciful on Rosie than the denser wood a few yards below.
All things considered, it was a faster trek than most, interrupted only now and again by the rivulets and creeks that had reestablished their natural paths. Even foot traffic was insufficient here these days to raise concern for rebuilding more than rudimentary bridges. The smaller Amberjack airbuses carried most of the citizenry between the towns. Horse and buggy as well as wagon traffic were kept to that small network of rough roads from farm to farm, closer in to the villages. Few towns found it economically viable to maintain even the most rudimentary thruway beyond an immediate vicinity. Such an expense would be an unnecessary extravagance given the low cost of air travel.
Following the Merrimack River Valley north from Concord during the previous day, he had hoped to avoid being seen and had often taken the routes farthest from the villages. A steady drizzle of rain had helped with that, though he had several times caught sight of the red and yellow beacon lights that marked the airway. As the weather had bettered, he had turned farther away from the primary routes plied by the airships, leaving the Merrimack behind at the White Oak Beacon and passing on to the length of Newfound Lake late in the day. He had used dusk to veil his presence near that shore when he could. Still he had run on several families camping there. The fishing was worth the stop—trout, shad and bass he knew, and a perch would have been tasty from his skillet—but he had moved by as quickly as he could.
A cluster of boys, swimming in a cove despite the chill of evening, had stopped their game to stand at the shore, shivering in the cool and staring up through the half-dark as he passed. The wraith-like shimmer of light from his uniform must have given them a fright. A small girl on the shore ran away toward distant tents as if this rider on the horse were a ghost. Retold, their parents would likely doubt their reports in any case. After all, it was likely that no knight had been this way in the six years since his last passage.
In the bright of the morning, after heading due north for little more than an hour, the valley broadened to the west in the path of the Baker River and fields opened wide, he would be readily seen despite the camouflage of the tegument. No avoiding that. The corn growing close by the remains of the road was barely high enough to conceal a dog.
A farmer waved to him from a tractor. John touched the brim of his cap.
Overhead a string of battered timber carriers, each full to capacity with ash, beech and hickory for the bigger factories on the Merrimack, settled low behind a fat and silvered Pollock, moving steadily on its invisible track toward the Pemigewasset flyway.
The great northern gold-rush of the hardwood timber trade was more than twenty years old, yet it had changed everything. However long it lasted, the simple and better life of those first to return to the forests was already becoming little more than folklore and history. Still, he would prefer some part of that, rather than none.
Ahead, a horseman approached going south in John’s path. His overalls were soiled with machine grease and his untrimmed beard was speckled with his last meal, as if he had eaten while in the saddle. He appeared to be a farmer, rather than a lumberman, and he nodded at John with little surprise, but then dug his heels in when he had passed. The word would be out quickly now.
John hurried Rosie with a few words. “Giddy-up, old nag.” Her response was a reluctant trot. Somehow, she knew the trail was a long one and hurry would not make the difference. She ignored his insult.
Moving north and west would take him away from the more familiar territory of Plymouth and Winnipesaukee. Perhaps the one who had been watching him would then relent…But this was an idle speculation. Better to assume the worst. Having spotted him, they might follow and watch for the better chance. And they could not afford the miss; they would choose the right place. Perhaps they even knew of such a place ahead and waited there now.
He had, in fact, some appreciation for both the young Harrell brothers. Law breakers or not. They were, after all, the independent sort that he tended to like. Their hatred of him was fair enough. John had brought an end to a bad business, but it was the work they knew. Now, to his knowledge, they were full-grown men, both farm hands and probably alike the fellow he had just passed, but now with little of the freedom they had known as boys. Nor were they likely to ever have such liberty again. And given the chance, they might follow John, seeking their revenge, as he might well have done in their place.
There were other possibilities, of course.
Polly had warned him. His sergeant had made the case quite strongly. Though generally unreported, twenty-six knights had fallen in the past year. Far beyond any normal reckoning. Six or seven in a year might be expected just given the odds. But not twenty-six.
John knew that younger hands had already been directed to the investigation of that concern. Polly told him a dozen knights had had been reassigned. Fresh minds not plagued by thoughts of retirement would find the cause of the increased casualties and deal with it accordingly. If necessary, to end the assault, every knight from V-prime to Titan would be called upon. But in the end, they would find the cause and settle it. And though it was not his concern here, he should take nothing for granted. Each of the other losses had occurred in the course of some normal duty assignment. That was the report. And that was what should be on his mind instead of the color of buckwheat.
When the woods had closed again at either side, limiting observation, he had lolled in the saddle awhile with his thoughts, before the hair at his neck bristled once more. Rosie’s ears twitched. John turned the collar of his jacket up, as if against a chill. In fact, he was warm but the collar might be the difference if a shot was made. True, a good shot it would have to be, firing on a moving apparition, but there were those who could make it, especially here in the mountains. Hunting was a living here. And more, an arrow was always a possibility. A bolt from a crossbow perhaps, though less likely at any great distance. Accuracy would be the matter. A railgun would be unlikely for much the same reason. The best marksmen here used rifles. And though the armor of the ballastic would stop or check most hits from any powder-driven bullet not perfectly placed, the bruise could well knock him off his horse. He would likely survive that, but it was not a pleasant thought. Such damage might take months to overcome. He did not heal as well or as fast as he once had. Yet he was the smaller target. His still greater care was for Rosie. The chanfron left too much of her head exposed. The flanchards left much of her legs vulnerable, especially on the raised ground of the old highway. Her stockings would resist the barb of a bramble but would not absorb much of the impact of a bullet.
He left his rifle in the scabbard but pulled his dk loose in its short sheath on saddle as precaution.
The dk was a handy tool in close quarters. Originally issued by some legal genius of a desk-rider as a ‘knight’s sword,’ to decrease fatalities during confrontations, it was useless at any real distance because of its limited capacity and short range. The dk was critically relegated by most knights for a better purpose as protection against dogs or hogs or other animals likely to attack a knight’s horse while in the saddle and thus popularly referred to as a ‘dog killer,’ the adjustable impulse was a decent alternative for any larger animal a knight didn’t actually want to kill. And he ought to be prepared for that possibility now.
Within sight of the bright red winking of the Prospect Beacon marking the path of the Baker River, and to allay his sergeant’s concerns, he turned Rosie to a side path, northwest, following an upward rising trail that the tech labeled as connecting through to the Dorchester Road in little more than a mile. Polly had messaged him repeatedly that there were fewer homesteads that way and less likelihood of encountering anyone as he passed the village of Wentworth. This road was reduced to two grassy ruts between the thick overhang of second growth unharvested in twenty or thirty years. This might also offer him a better opportunity to deal with whoever was behind him.
A high bosk of weed trees soon gave way to small, oddly shaped fields of brick and stone amidst stands of sumac and honeysuckle woven over the remnants of fallen structures. Whatever business had survived here beyond the wars had finally succumbed long ago, probably when the roads had at last become impassable for the diesel trucks. Descending once more he scanned the ruins at either side looking for evidence of recent passage. Once a village had been in this place. The only name offered by his tech was an ancient settlement called Swansboro. Close by, a stump of chimney brick arose beneath a web of honeysuckle. Lilacs trimmed the path at either side, grown wild into a collapsing hedge of blooms marking the remains of once fenced borders, their stalks combing the air with perfume. The visible cellar holes here were shallowed now from the sifting of countless spring thaws, but still well defined by blocks of stone large enough to be too cumbersome for the scavengers. He had no idea what they had been made here then. Most likely it was a lumber mill and the attendant village.
The way was laid open at the second turn of the road by a broad granite shelf rising over eight feet high with a dish-like cap of brick and stone. He would not be visible to satellite surveillance there if his concern was a drone and he would have the vantage. He might at least catch a glimpse of who was tracking him. Just beyond was a lower meadow, small within the confine of ancient factory foundations. Rosie could browse there while he waited. She would appreciate the rest in any event.
Somewhere close, but out of his own view, water narrowed in a natural sluice through a cleavage of stone and fell toward the broader channel of the Baker River. Perhaps they had milled wood here, tapping that power. He was curious to look for signs of the past, but the steady rush of the water covered any sound of approach and he must keep close watch now on the path behind.
In waiting, he could not help the other thoughts that crowded against his concentration. Woodworking might be a good business to consider for himself, after all. He had learned a bit of carpentry along the way. More since his father’s first lessons, because of his time at Meredith when he had covertly taken the temporary job in a small shop. Today, he might be able to buy such abandoned land as this in a quitclaim, post credit with the Guarantee Bank, and build a house above one of those cellar holes. The meadow behind could be fenced for a useful paddock. A good life. A modest life…
His mind wandered to his childhood, as it so often did in refuge from larger worries.
Well before he was born, his father had built the house John had grown up in, just above the floodwaters of the Catawba, in North Carolina. But John’s earliest memories were watching his father build things for others. Anything at all, John recalled. His mother once explained that her husband was given to experiment. Just as he would add to the house as the family grew, making it a constant project. That was John’s brother’s house now, and John could not return there except in temporary refuge or to visit, but perhaps his mother would come north if he built a place of his own here. He had not seen her since his mid-service sabbatical—more than ten years now.
A late swarm of black flies pestered the air around his head but kept a respectful distance. Pale yellow cinquefoil danced mockingly in a playful breeze at the weedy edge of the granite ruin by the field.
Rufus, his lieutenant during the time at Meredith, had complained mightily over the black flies. But then, John had given his aide the duty of scrounging about in the hinterlands for information and evidence while his mentor played out much of the time in Jose’s woodworking shop building canoes. Poor fellow. Rufus undoubtedly had some other unfortunate squire to do such tasks for him now…But it was a funny thing, after all. He had wanted Rufus to go to the sling in West Lebanon that day to check on the shipping manifests, and then changed his mind on impulse and gone to do it himself. What long lost line of thought had been behind that bit of chance? Certainly, Lyme would have otherwise played no part in this journey.
He would not leave the associated states of the Myriad when his time came. Of that he was sure. There was more than plenty enough for him to choose from here. There were those who found more comfort in the close environs of the isolated settlements of the heliosphere. Life was prolonged out there, and that was important to some. The aches and pains of aging were easily lessened beyond the serious gravity of Earth. Armstrong was a favorite for the oldest because of the medical facilities there and the Moon’s proximity. But the Moon was often called ‘death’s waiting room’ for that very reason. Others preferred the higher costs and lower-g splendors of eL-5. And they were both close enough for frequent visits to the Earth. But the interest in either baffled him. Even the appeal of Mars was a mystery. And the irony was that once they emigrated out to one settlement or another to lessen the simple ravages of age, or to avoid whatever lingering dangers they imagined to be here on Earth from the viruses, what did they do but order up remnants of their abandoned home. Birds were a favorite pet. Or a patch of lawn, even at the exorbitant price per square foot of real-estate at eL-5. And wood furniture and veneers to hide the plastic core of their artificial lives.
No. He was being too critical.
Better they go to the ample security of those easily controlled environments and leave the Earth free of their petty worries. Better, as far as he was concerned.
Soon, he had wasted an hour. No one had come.
If it weren’t for Rosie’s previous confirmation of the fact, John would doubt himself now. Paranoia was indeed the last delusion of the failing knight. More likely, in this case, his pursuer was simply clever. John switched the tech at his belt, pressed at the sync to access the geo-core, waited for the faint click of the match, and spoke softly.
“As yesterday, I’m followed. I’ve found no sign, but this much is certain…Approaching Wentworth. I’ll divert and pass on to Lyme. I should be at Lyme tomorrow morning.”
Polly Cooper knew exactly where John was from the position of the geo-sync, of course, but it would be good for his sergeant to know what was planned so that any deviation could be noted and questioned.
Her voice chirped, “Roger that.”
Rosie offered a low whinny, her ears turned northwest to the old Dorchester road. There was something else going on.
John saddled and rode that way at a trot, keeping to the taller grass to avoid making unnecessary noise. The black-rubber shoes cupped over Rosie’s hooves offered little enough sound, but he was unsure just how close he was in his approach to the road. The geocor did not clearly define the immediate topography beneath the overhang of trees that blocked the direct view from the satellite. He might suddenly find himself in an opening and exposed to whoever was coming. Guessing himself to be no more than fifty yards from the junction of the path and the old road, he slowed and then dismounted. Rosie followed behind, her reins loose.
A break in a cross thatch of small birch, where a larger tree had fallen, offered his first view of the rise that was followed by the road. He waited once more. This time, only moments.
Someone was singing.
A young girl in a pale blue dress walked ahead of what appeared to be a family group. She was singing in a small clear voice and swinging a crooked stick at the weeds before her. All of the party, but one, were on foot. All were girls, but for the big fellow on a well-proportioned and healthy-looking workhorse. The fellow, perhaps forty years old, sported an oiled beard and a curve of belly beneath a white shirt peeking from the parting of his jacket. He rode high on his horse, and lazily, with a gun across his lap. This appeared to be a game rifle, not a weapon. His collar fastened tight beneath a billow of neck flesh. The beard glistened to a matching black in the sunlight. He slapped his thigh in rhythm to the song. The other girls, each dressed in the same pale blue, were talking among themselves about a matter John could not decipher. They had the accent of speech common in the hills. There were eight of them, none older than fifteen, he guessed. Few families were so large except where prosperity made it easy. The weight of the man made him look very prosperous. There was no apparent mother present, though the girls all looked enough alike to be sisters.
The song was a familiar hymn that John could not remember the name of. Something he had encountered elsewhere before. He believed it was a Baptist tune. Perhaps something his mother sang. John looked down at his tech. It was Sunday. He had forgotten the day.
He waited until they were well beyond before continuing on.
To avoid Wentworth and the inevitable interruptions of a small village, even with its touted eight miles of improved road, he worked his way upward from the Baker River, crossing ancient unreclaimed pastures grown thick with beech, ash and hickory, keeping to a newer logging path. By noon he rested in the open at a spring near the edge of a working farm. A trough channeled the water for a small herd of Hereford cattle, visible in tall grass less than a quarter mile below. There was no wind. The sun burned against his cap and the sensors beneath reacted by pulling air into the space at his scalp quickly enough for him to actually feel the passage. He had removed his jacket and the sunlight quickly brought up a sweat beneath his tegument.
Over the river, at the center of the Baker River Valley, an airship with the multiple fins of a newer Pollock tugged a short trailer of wide-bodied cargo units toward the south. From his angle, each of the carriers looked like a section of a truncated vertebra, with the primary helium in the wide centrum above, and the curved and concave surfaces of the articular plates unnaturally apart to allow for sway. The smaller cargo units were suspended closely below, nearly hidden by the lamina and pedicle. The similarity of appearance between airship carriers and segments of animal vertebra had been noted since the earliest days of airfreight, having become part of the jargon, yet it was always a visual fascination when the units shifted against the air currents in ‘a dancing of the bones’ as they were pulled forward by the Pollock that served as the ‘head of the beast.’ More cattle, John guessed, by the look of this load. The wider units were seldom used for heavier lumber. This cargo was probably out of the terminus at Bradford and bound for the Porterfield stockyards near Boston.
He had calmed from his morning wariness. What sharper amygdalic disturbance he had felt before was either dulled now by its own persistent buzz, or the actual presence that worried him had been left behind, as he had hoped. Either way, he was relieved to be free of it. He might even remove his cap and collar and feel the fresh air at his ears for a moment. Beyond the browsing Herefords below, there was a profound peace in the picture of the neat white cottage that peeked at him over the rump of the hill. Rosie nipped at a thick edging of grass by the barbed wire. His breakfast still sat well with him. He could not help thinking that life here was good. And that very thought was a pleasure and brought other more practical musing with it.
As useful as it was to live lower in an interval, closer to the main flow of water and the access of a central road, there were better delights found higher on the slopes. Frosts did not settle here. There was less of the dampness in general that tended to bother his leg. Perhaps a windmill might give him the resources he needed if he found the right place. The wind at higher elevations could be employed to store water, which could then be released at times like these when there wasn’t enough of a breeze to run a saw. A good rough-country sleigh in winter months would make a better road less crucial. And if he could hold back his product for more than a few months at a time, he might even afford the price of an air pick-up. All of which begged him to settle his mind about just what it was he wanted to make. Furniture? Was he really of the mind for such detail? Rather, he might make something a bit more utilitarian. Perhaps bookshelves. Perhaps the sleighs themselves! In the shop at Meredith, John used to marvel at Jose as he made his canoes and burnished the wood to a high polish that hurt the eye with their gleaming—
A cold scream knifed the air.
Mounted, Rosie would not make a jump of the fencing and there was no gate close by. John rode instead back along the trail of posts that ranged downward toward the river and village, circling the rise of the open pasture, until he came to the break of a narrow and rutted path. Several smaller screams followed. Each shorter than the last. At full gallop, he switched his tech and described the situation in brief as he followed the fence right to the dooryard of the house.
John’s approach was clearly heard from within and the door opened as he swung from his saddle. A burly and full bearded man with thick arms filled the doorframe, bearing a colorful array of tattoos and wearing only a leather apron. He spat his anger with his words.
“What do you want?”
By appearance alone, there was no doubt who John was. The snarl of the man was unplanned, and from the subtle collapse of the muscles beneath the roughage on his cheeks, instantly regretted as he recognized John’s uniform.
John started the routine. “I am a Pelagian. I’d like you to step out from the house, please.”
The man held back both his breath and his thoughts with a blank stare. John noted the bare feet and legs below the apron edge. The man’s lips hardly parted his beard when he spoke.
“Please step out into the yard.”
The fellow must understand his options. He did not look addled or stupid. John waited. The man’s eyes flicked downward at the left side of the doorframe.
John stiffened his voice. “Don’t! Step out, please!”
There was no weapon in John’s hand to be seen. By rule, any weapon drawn should be used, and his gun was clearly in the holster at his belt. But John had palmed the dk from his saddle as he dismounted, concealing it behind his wrist and fore-arm.
Perhaps the fellow thought he could move quickly enough. But then that question was soon moot.
The movement of man’s eyes had been a diversion as he instead brought his right hand up from beneath his apron, but never made the angle necessary to fire in John’s direction. John’s single shot from the dk into the leather bib covering the man’s chest halted the motion of the arm. The handgun fell loose as the muscled body crumpled into the doorframe like so much cordwood dropped there on purpose. Folded over that way, it was clear the man was naked, with the tattoos extending in a snake-like ring across his back.
A sob of a woman came from the dark inside the house. John pulled at one limp arm and dragged the man into the yard. There were more sobs as the woman found her breath. The tech clipped at John’s breast pocket chirped with alarm. He spoke to it as he entered the cottage.
“I have incapacitated a man at the door to a small house. He attempted to shoot me. As I said on my approach, there were screams. I can hear the crying of a woman inside.”
John stooped for the fallen handgun before pushing the door all the way open allowing daylight to reach the far wall of the main room. From a table where she was tied on her back, a naked woman stared up at him—little more than a girl, really, with eyes glowing deer-like in the dark. She was bleeding from thin cuts across her breasts. Both the blood and the tears that wet her cheeks glistened.
John spoke at the tech. “There is a young female here. She’s tied. Unclothed. She’s bleeding. She appears drugged. Perhaps in a state of shock, but I smell the odor of burnt cocaine.”
He cut the ropes then and lifted the woman to a chair, speaking to her as he did, and while telling his sergeant to call the local sheriff in Wentworth.
“You’ll be okay. A medic is coming.”
The woman moved stiffly as he put her down, as if unsure if her joints would bend. She mumbled something. He felt her pulse. It was amazingly normal. Before the adrenalin brought up by her torture, she must have been nearly comatose. Her eyes drooped. The blood from the cutting on her breasts had stopped flowing. These marks were clearly intended to scar, not to kill.
An open bedroom door to one side revealed a mess of sheets and blankets dragged to the floor as if from a struggle. John took one of the blankets and draped it around the woman’s shoulders.
Looking into the yard, John could see that the burly man was now sitting up. Tough chap.
Taking the cuff-strap from his belt, John stepped out and threw it in the man’s lap.
“Put that on and loop it through the fence post.”
The fellow obediently grabbed the strap and buckled it as if he had done this more than once before.
“Stay on your ass, and don’t move, or Rosie’ll kick your head in.”
John went back to where the woman sat. Her head was bent forward. She had already fallen asleep in the chair. He pulled the table in front of her, draping her arms so that she would not fall. Then he studied his surroundings.
The room was plain. Simple would be the word. A couch. A single reclining chair. No v-screen. No home techs or vors-tech visible at all. The edges of the furniture had the rubbed look of long use. Though a stone hearth was high with ashes, the place appeared generally clean except for the dripped splatter of blood on the honey-colored pine of the floorboards. A nice little home that did not match the appearance of the man grunting to himself in the front yard. Two windows were open wide for air to the back. That would be in the direction of John’s first hearing. At the other side, faded flower-patterned curtains were pulled across a larger window that must face down the valley.
The light from the gaping entrance caught at another color. On the floor, just to the side of the bedroom door, a pale blue dress lay crumpled, the bodice torn where it had been removed by force.
John pulled the curtains aside for more light. Toward the village in the distance two vehicles, the yellow of an ambulance and the white of a sheriff’s truck, jounced toward him on the rough surface of the road along the river.