age was dark enough
there be dragons
rearing white unicorn on a field sable, whipping in the wind. A
milkweed seed, turning, turning lazily above fields of dead grass
pounded flat by the feet of generations of faires and training and
tournaments, endless hours at court of afternoons in high summer,
multifoliate telltale tracks of any city-state upon the land shining
dry, ashen yellow at the height of July.
The slow breeze stirred the flags. There was not a sound in the
fields. The cloud cover was barely moving that day, all gray dust
and ash, flat boiling oceans of mashed potatoes stretched beyond
the edge of the known world.
I wavered in those tense opening seconds. The heat was getting
to me, though the sleeves were off my white shirt, no longer fit
to wear at court with the collar unlaced to its end.
The dagger shifted in my left hand, a straight line past my left
ear circling mine enemy round the inside, round the inside, round
the inside ...
My peripheral vision registered the circle of ropes, driven into
the soil on stakes of cold iron. With a new generation coming to
flower, the state was happening on its own now, the ways of what
celebrated in prime bloom, the most recent of the old ways incidental
to what was left.
In between the silence were random pieces and objects even now
beginning to be treated as witchery. The monks and wise-women hoarded
books, and rarely lent them out. It was better to take no chances.
This age was dark enough.
Even the word "witchery" was not an absolute bar to anything.
On Beltaine, the young maidens of the fiefdom drew down the moon
and danced with the fire. The Church had never been very strong
in this part of the world. Everything was relative.
Everything had simply picked up, with nothing now to get in the
way. The endless, interwoven, half-inbred succession at court. The
merchants and artisans watching the balance of power with the same
patient contempt, knowing that the pendulum would swing and the
internal motor would revolt. It had been ever thus, for centuries
irrespective of the Last Times that had brought us here.
The chiurgens clustered at the left side of the circle, shaded
from the day by their wide-brimmed hats, their eyes anxious to tell
which artery, which blunt-force injury, which piece of torn gristle
to catalogue and heal. The three old women and one bright-eyed lad
would do what they could for the vanquished.
But the results of this duel would more than likely be mortal.
The last chance to cry off had been withdrawn. When a woman was
the object of combat, this was nearly always the case.
At the edges of the crowd, the marshalls watched with gimlet eyes,
beaten-silver tiaras clamped in
tight above the brims of gray Stetsons, swinging truncheons banded
with yellow and black to mark them from far off.
A few of them wore sunglasses. The blowers who melted their own
wares now in furnaces from the sandy soil of these fields were back
to cutting the old type with tie-on temples, the kind the Chinamen
had first brought, putting the lenses on biers in the smokehouses
to tint them black.
The smitties knew close work and could make stationary frames for
some of those, but it cost the
earth. And the blowers had had none in their ranks to teach them
to correct the near or far of sight, who now had to overcompensate
and squint for the most part.
Little squires' kids, in long rough homespun jerkins and woven
sunhats hung with straps round their necks, bumbled around with
water bottles for the artisans and nobles there assembled. The bottles
had been recycled so many times they were held together with cedar
panacea-pitch, duct tape and prayer.
Back at the keep, the sweltering morning rang with the sounds of
hammers. The throb of the drums was closer here, where I circled
with my dagger in one hand and my rapier held in a cross-body posture
as I watched the ostentatious ostrich feather flapping in Morgan's
Lord Morgan had seemingly forgotten my Katya since she was 15 and
he taught her to fence, going through the motions behind her with
his eyes far away and one hand on her burgeoning tit.
Of late, his insults had grown since Katya chose me in troth. His
station allowed him every opportunity to flout the spirit of the
But then, had not nearly every love-ballad and lay from what we
had celebrated when all this began, had most of those torchy old
wooing songs not been written in praise of my cuckoldry, your cuckoldry,
other people's cuckoldry? All now was turned upon its head but bethought
him moral ground to act the prick and call me out.
The drummers, two fat boys with spectacles whose like were a rare
thing passed down and only occasionally useful, watched inscrutably,
their hands never flagging from the huge heirloom kodo drums brought
to the keep long ago. Before.
Lord Morgan was in a two-point stance, dancing with his back foot
first like some Tae Kwon Do
hotdog, his dagger clutched in his left fist high over his shoulder
and his rapier held before
him with the wrist just a little too limp. This would be strictly
ghetto-Fabulist rules, apparently.
What was once escape had become necessity in every aspect of our
lives there. The rare metal
tanks of gas that could make piped-out fire with flint-and-steel
were jealously hoarded.
smitties, whose craft was as old as the empires of the East, had
had some success bottling the fumes of carbide crystals, but it
was tricky. They were still learning. Carbide was a by-product from
coal dug out of those same hills much further down by the grubbies
who were a caste all to themselves. A grubby was more priceless
to the King than a brewer or a well-learned grower of hemp.
Lord Morgan and I looked like the hands on a clock, circling each
other with knives.
Morgan's sneering face seemed to relax as he spun forward, feinting,
the rapier point stabbing up
and in like a Fate's needle. I saw the distinctive gutters on his
blade that marked it King's iron. I
danced easily aside, parrying his cocky thrust-lunge. The actual
duel was already boring the shit
out of me.
I had studied the sweeping, dancing Italianate style of rapier-and-dagger
fighting since this shit
had started, but even in that brief time I'd still learned enough
to block almost anything he could
pull. Unless he started fighting dirty, in which case it was peasant
rules and anyone's engagement.
Every day there seemed to be some new blood feud, if only to keep
things interesting. Narrow any
human focus down, and where one or two or more are gathered, the
clans will always find some
new flavor of the week to fight about ... and die for.
The grass was always greener on the other side of the ropes, but
here the heath was blasted and
Behind the drummers, the golden-haired Queen watched on her litter,
her haughty face neither condemning nor condoning, simply looking
on. Two Nubians on a side bore the poles, thick brass torques shining
on their biceps.
I am fairly tall and I have a reach on God. I came in using that
reach, parrying everything he had,
rocking back and forth on my insteps and sweeping with measured
Time slowed down to a buzz. Morgan's left-center mass looked like
a goddam barn door. When
he turned, it was not quick enough.
I spun as I ducked to one knee, pistoning my rapier up and in and
pinning him like a bug on a
card. It was not close to anything vital. Lord Morgan would be off
his feet for a few weeks, and
perhaps get a sickener, but the chirurgens knew of poultices and
sterile fields and drains.
The crowd oohed as one, a few Gypsy yells of "WHOOOLOOOLOOOLOOOLOOO"
at the edges, the way they war-whooped when the knights trained
their squires, the way they carried on for all the training that
would come to nothing.
The scientists among us were few indeed, mostly those with some
vague schooling. Our armies were mostly there as a security blanket.
It would be a while, if ever, before our flat map would expand.
All the knights were speechless, the old ones like armored dwarves
to the right of the drummers, the young ones in shinier armor moving
forward hesitantly. I saw one big knight in spectacles, no more
than five years older than me, drop to his knees and salute me with
I grinned like a Jolly Roger and saluted him back with my dagger.
The big knight began to lead
some of his fellows in a time-honored song:
SI-LENT KNIIIIGHT ...
UN-CONSCIOUS KNIIIGHT ...
ON ... THE GROUND ...
LOST ... THE FIGHT ...
Two mutts were fighting with each other at the edge of the great
circle on the eric, snapping and snarling with the heat. I withdrew
my blade, wiping it on the grass as Morgan fell to one knee. His
crew of fops stood with their arms folded. As the circle broke apart,
they alone did not take up the crowd's ragged cheer.
I would cry off next week from any of their challenges, rarely
leaving our tent with Katya and her mother who had driven us there
many, many years before, the night of the Deluge.
Katya's mother was teaching me to weave tapestries. When I was
not in the bardic circles, I was
working on a large design with her, a tapestry of war times some
five feet across and two up and down.
Of the mushroom clouds that had raged through the sky in pillars
of fire on that wild Saturday night at an event we only knew then
as one put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism, in the kingdom
of An Tir. It had been my first SCA event, before the radios went
out on the news that so many we knew and loved had finally lost
Long before the chirurgens began fumblingly treating the first
cases of radiation poisoning who had
wandered onto the borders of the event from inland.
Travel was still hard. We could not cobble together a dragon with
big enough tires and Cuban-style refitted parts to get more than
30 miles beyond the fief. The smitties were working on it.
few learned ones among us with any scientific skill had made crystal
radios that were of little use, since the only stations we picked
up were in an Eastern European dialect that no one at the event
But that Saturday night, before the bombs had begun to fall, Katya
had walked me through that world while the fires began to light
the night and the Tablero games began in earnest at the edges of
the drum circles.
Head-scarved and jingling in the hella-sexy gypsy garb of her character,
Katya had said to me: "Don't you see? When you strip away politics,
the basic human spirit is one that just wants to have fun."
The forests had echoed with song at sunset and the stars had seemed
very close indeed.