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DIES THE FIRE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER ELEVEN:

 

There was a hypnotic quality to riding the disk-harrow, Juniper decided. The horses leaning into the traces ahead, their shadows falling before them, the shining disks sinking into the turned earth behind the plows and leaving a smooth seedbed behind...

"God damn it!" Dennis called from her left. "Woah, you brainless lumps of walking hamburger! Woah!"

His single-furrow walking plow had jammed up with bits of tangled sod again; it was one of the half-dozen copies they'd made of the museum's original. And it was scraping along on top of the turf rather than cutting it, the handles jarring at his hands. Dennis leaned back, pulling at the reins knotted around his waist; Dorothy Tubman, who was walking and leading the horses, added her mite to the effort, and the team stopped.

Then they looked over their shoulders. Horses didn't have very expressive faces, but she would have sworn both of these were radiating indignation—at the unfamiliar task, and at the sheer ignorant incompetence behind the reins.

"Easy, Dennie," she said soothingly. "Remember, bo le bata is capall le ceansact; a stick for a cow, but a kind word for a horse."

"I'd like to use a goddamned log on these beasts," he said, but shrugged and smiled.

Of them all, only Juniper had any real experience at driving a horse team, and that only with a wagon; she did know how surprisingly fragile the big beasts were, though. She looked up at the sun and estimated the time since the last break...

"Woah!" she called to her own team. Then: "All right, all teams take five! Rest and water the horses!"

She hauled on the reins, wincing as they slid over fresh blisters beneath her gloves. When they'd stopped she wiped a sopping sleeve over her face, tender with sunburn despite the broad-brimmed hat and bandana—the early-April day was bright and warm. Damp reddish-brown earth was soft under her feet as she jumped down. It had a scent at once sweetly green and meaty, a compound of cut grass and damp dirt and severed roots and the crushed camas flowers that starred it. That made a pleasant contrast to the smell of her own sweat, and of Cagney and Lacy's.

"God damn it, why does this thing keep jamming?" Dennis said. "It's not just the copies Chuck and I made, the original does it too."

There was an edge of frustration to the point of tears in his voice. He knelt and began pulling at lumps between the coulter-knife that cut the furrow and the moldboard that turned it over.

Chuck Barstow and John Carson halted their teams as well; Carson turned and looked at the crooked, irregular furrows that lay behind the three plowmen.

"The plows jam because it's old meadow sod," Carson grinned.

He was a lean fortysomething man, with sun-streaks through his light brown hair, and blue eyes. He also owned the property four miles west, where Artemis Butte Creek flowed out into the Valley proper and the real farmland began, and he was here as part of a complicated swap of labor, animals, and equipment.

"Hasn't been plowed in a hundred years," he went on as they unharnessed their teams. "Not even been grazed heavy these past forty or more, this bit. Lots of tangled roots, most of 'em thick as a pencil. A big tractor could just rip it all to shreds, but horses... Well, two-hundred-fifty horsepower against two-nothing, it stands to reason!"

The furrows were roughly along the contour of the sloping meadow, and very roughly parallel; oblong islands of unplowed grass showed between them, and the depth varied as if they'd been dug by invisible land-dolphins porpoising along.

At least there weren't very many rocks to hit around here.

"I thought I knew what hard work was," he said. "No work harder than farmin'. Now I know my granddad knew what hard work was, and I've been kidding myself. He farmed—I operate machinery. Did operate machinery."

They all unhitched their teams, leaving plows and harrow standing where they lay, and led the big animals over beneath the shade of a spreading oak to the north. They brought buckets of water from the creek rather than taking them to it—it was easier to make sure they didn't overdrink that way. The little pool below the waterfall was close there, and she gave it a longing look as she hauled the water.

The thought of stripping off her sweat-sodden clothing and diving in, then standing beneath the falling spray...

Better not, she said. Got to keep going. And Mr. Carson might shock easily.

Presbyterians tended to be more cautious about nudity than Wiccans, in her experience.

Juniper banished the image of a whooping dive into the cold water. Instead she uncorked a big ceramic jug—until recently an ornamental sitting on the mantelpiece over the kitchen fireplace in her cabin. It held spring water, cut with cold herbal tea. When you were really thirsty, that quenched better than water alone.

After a swallow she passed it around, trying not to think about fresh lemonade. Dennis took it with a grin, wiping the neck and bowing.

"My thanks, gracious Lady Juniper, High Chief of the Clan Mackenzie, herself herself," he said.

"Go soak your head, Dennie," she replied, scowling. "Cut that out. This is a democracy. Sort of."

"If only I could!" he said, passing the jug on to John Carson. "Soak my head, that is."

Their neighbor glugged and passed it to Chuck in turn. "Time was an acre was a few minutes work," he said. "On a tractor, that is! Even if I was towing the rototiller for a truck crop. Now I feel like I've plowed Kansas if I get an acre done in a day."

His mouth quirked: "You know, I had an old three-furrow riding plow in a shed—"

All their ears perked up; then they groaned as he went on:

"—but I sold it for scrap instead of making it into a lawn ornament like I'd planned."

The meadowland sloped gently down from the edge of the rise behind her to the lip several hundred yards south. There was the rough first-pass section nearest, the lumpy -brown-green quilt of the area that had been plowed twice, then the smooth reddish-brown seedbed the disk harrow left. The disks had an automatic neatness built in, chopping and mixing grass and roots and dirt into a light mixed mass. The smooth look of it was sharp contrast to work that depended on the skill of human hands, or the strength of human shoulders.

The rest of the clan were working on the finished section; adults turning over a spadeful of earth at regular intervals, the children behind them dropping in a section of seed potato and a dollop of fertilizer. Some of the children still wore green blazers, much the worse for wear and grime; most worked barefoot and in their knee-shorts.

They'd bury the cut eyes and mound up the earth on the next pass. It wasn't as heavy work as plowing, but it was monotonous; she'd done her share of that, too.

"We're getting it done," she said, almost to herself. "By the Lord and the Lady, I feel like it's aging me a year a day—not surprising, with days that feel like years—but it's getting done."

Now if the weather cooperates and the bugs and blights stay away... We should have an Esbat soon. There are lots of crop-magic spells.

John Carson nodded. "By the time this field is finished, we'll all know what we're doing, a little more at least," he said. "That'll mean my fields go faster, for which I thank you. Not to mention this fall—come November, we have to start planting the winter grains."

"That harrow's yours," Juniper pointed out. "And it's saving us a lot of time. Neighbors should help each other. Not to mention that silage you're giving us. Big horses like these can't work on grass alone."

"Neighbors need to help each other more now more than ever," Carson said somberly. "I don't know what I'd have done without your plow teams, Ms. Mackenzie."

Most of them courtesy of the Museum, but let's not mention that, she thought.

"Good of you to take in all those kids," Carson went on. "I've got my brother and his family and a cousin and his, besides those three the Reverend Dixon talked me into, and I had to turn away others—it hurt, but what could I do? Almost wish I'd been a Mormon instead of a Presbyterian—we'd have had more food stored. As it is I slaughtered more of my stock than I liked."

A snort. "Not that it mattered after those bastards in Salem cleaned me out, eh? It leaves the silage for the plow teams, at least."

Just then a thudding of hooves came from the streamside road. Dennis hefted his axe and lumbered over to the spot where it emerged from the woods. Sally was there with her bow, seated behind a blind they'd rigged with every art that they could manage. She was the only adult they could spare, and that only because her leg still wasn't healed enough to let her do much work.

Juniper worried about it—it just wasn't safe not to have more people watching, given the number of hungry refugees about—but there was nothing else they could do, just yet. Not keeping careful enough watch might cause a disaster; not planting the crop in time would certainly kill them all.

A rider in blue denim overalls came through; a girl in her late teens, blond hair streaming. She halted for a moment to talk to Dennis and Sally, and then trotted her horse over to the tree.

"Dad!" she said, and then: "Lady Juniper."

Dennis, I am going to kill you with your own axe for starting that Lady Juniper nonsense, the musician thought, but the girl's face looked too urgent to bother with his warped sense of humor.

"There's people headed up here," she said. "We saw them pass our place—we're plowing the old south field, Dad, like you said—and they went right up the creek road. Uncle Jason said I should come right up and tell you."

"How many?" Juniper said quickly.

Could it be a foraging party?

The thought brought a cold chill. That was the latest bright idea of the remnant of the State government, parts of which were still hanging on in Salem. They'd started organizing bicycle-born townfolk and refugees to go out and requisition food and livestock for issue as rations to the urban population, and the refugee camps—Salem hadn't quite collapsed totally, the way she heard Portland and Eugene had done.

John Carson looked equally frightened. That was how he'd lost most of the considerable herd of cattle he'd had before the Change, that and casual theft by passing scavengers, and the remaining dozen head were grazing on Mackenzie land, for safety's sake.

"Just four, on foot," Cynthia Carson said, and Juniper blew out her cheeks in relief. "They're leading a horse; one woman, three men. No bows or crossbows—just the usual."

For safety's sake, Juniper still fetched the crossbow hanging beside the seat of the disk-harrow and spanned it, and strapped on her sword-belt, before walking over to the guardpost. Dennis and Chuck had been talking about a simple, quick way to make body armor, and perhaps when they had the plowing and planting done...

Chuck brought his sword and buckler, too, his hand resting on the hilt as he peered down into the shadow of the streamside road.

Then: "Alex!" he blurted, letting the longsword swing free.

Chuck's younger brother smiled and swayed, leaning against the horse he'd been leading; he had the family looks—sandy-blond and leanly muscular. The girl beside him wasn't one Juniper remembered, but she'd never been much involved with Alex, since he wasn't of the Craft and didn't like her type of music—he'd been strictly a thrash-metal fan. The closest they'd come was when she'd hired him to do repairs on her barn in '95; he was a builder by trade.

The two young men behind were strangers as well—one fair and short, the other dark and tall. Polite strangers, though, since they laid down the axe and shovel they'd been carrying. All four were gaunt but not skeletal, and all carried heavy packs; the horse's load was mainly large sacks made of heavy paper, bulging with something small and homogenous, and topped by bedrolls and blankets.

"Oh, God," Alex said. "I thought we'd never make it, honestly, I did... And you're here..."

He was almost crying with relief, and the haunted-eyed young woman clung to him with tears streaking the grime on her face.

"I... this is Barbara. Vince and Steve, they saved our lives. We got caught around Lebanon by some..."

He swallowed. Everyone winced; they knew what he meant. Not everyone out there was starving quite yet, but enough were, the more so since everyone who did have food was hoarding it against the future. Some were already hungry enough to eat anything at all—and there was only one large animal still common and easily caught.

"Eaters," the girl whispered.

Suddenly his eyes went wide. "Can we stay?" he blurted, looking from face to face.

Juniper caught eyes, willing acceptance; there were nods, mostly; Chuck and Judy's were emphatic.

"Of course," she said, turning back to the younger Barstow. With a smile: "And the horse you rode in on, too."

The animal was tired-looking, but well-fed otherwise—the Valley wasn't short of its sort of food. And it was a saddle breed, unlike Cagney and Lacy or the big Suffolks Chuck had liberated from the living-history exhibit. That would be useful.

"Welcome to the Clan Mackenzie, Alex," she said. "What's in the sacks?"

He grinned; even that was weary. "Barley," he said. "Certified seed barley. We found it yesterday in an overturned truck—the other half of the cargo was sacks of fertilizer, and they covered it up, but we saw rats digging; there's more, we hid the rest and brought what we could. And if you knew how tempting it was to just eat it..."

"Come have some Eternal Soup instead," she said, smiling. "And then we'll get a wagon ready."

Threefold return indeed! she thought. Actions most definitely do have consequences.

Not a matter of a celestial scorebook of punishments and rewards, just that everything was connected.

Then another thought struck her: Oh, Goddess—we'll have to plow more!

 

@@@

 

There, Juniper thought, freezing, the only motion the slow rise and fall of her chest.

You don't see me. You don't smell me. You don't hear me. I bind your eyes, your ears, your nostrils, horned one; in the name of Herne the Wild Hunter, so mote it be.

The mule deer hesitated, then caught Cuchulain's scent—the dog was with Dennis, two hundred yards northeast through the dense bush. The animal turned swiftly away from the smell of predator, head high and ears swiveling. The mottled clothing she wore would fade into the spring woods, and the wind was wrong for him to pick out human scent from the cool decaying-wood and damp-earth smells. Ferns and brush stood between her and it, but for a moment it poised motionless, quivering-alert.

They were up in the mountain forest, a thousand feet above the old Mackenzie land. This area had been clear-cut much more recently than hers, and there was more undergrowth. It was still cold here, the more so on a rainy day—there might be sleet or snow if they went a little further up-slope. The deer had already begun to head up towards their summer pastures, though: even without guns, the hunting pressure on their herds in the foothills was much worse than usual.

She exhaled, ignoring the cold drops trickling down her neck, remembering what the book said and practice had reinforced: stroke the trigger gently...

Thunggg!

The short heavy bolt flashed out, and the butt of the crossbow thumped at her shoulder. Her breath held still, as she waited for it to be deflected on some strand of second growth, but instead there was a heavy, meaty whack. She didn't see the strike, but nothing could hide the deer's convulsive leap.

"Dennie!" she cried, springing forward. "I got him!"

Dennis roared in triumph as he heard her voice, and he plunged towards her—she could hear Cuchulain's frenzied barking as he scented blood, and the shaking of branches as the ex-manager of the Hopping Toad pushed his way through the thickets.

Blood splashed last year's stems and the green of the new growth. She ran crouched over, sliding through the undergrowth easily. Juniper had never hunted before the Change, but she'd walked these woods on visits all her life, lived here six months in the twelve for the past decade—and all those years she'd watched the comings and goings of its dwellers, deer and fox and coyote, otter and eagle, rabbit and elk.

She half-remembered the lay of the land even here, well off her great-uncle's property; she wasn't altogether bewildered when the deer disappeared in a crashing and snapping. The depth of the ravine that opened beneath her feet still shocked, and she threw herself backward and slapped a hand on a branch slimy with moss to steady herself.

"Dennie!" she called. "Careful! There's a ravine here, and it's hidden!"

"I see it!" he bellowed in return. "Wait a minute, and I'll work around the head!"

She waited, breath slowing. The path of the deer's fall was just visible, and a patch of brown hide where he lay; it was a two-year-old male, she thought, and already nicely plump—the Willamette's climate was mild and there was good grazing in the foothill woods year-round. The bottom of the ravine was full of fallen timber and thick brush; not the distinctive three-leaf mark of poison oak, thank the Goddess and Cernunnos.

A slight sadness passed through her at the thought of the deer's loveliness broken, but she'd been around enough small farmsteads to know first-hand that meat didn't come from a factory wrapped in plastic.

And sure, my stomach is rumbling so loud I can hear it over my panting, she thought. Venison in the Eternal Soup, sweet richness of fat on the tongue... Lord and Lady, did people ever worry about too much fat? Little medallions of tenderloin. Grilled liver. Maybe sausages, with sage and dried onions—there's some of those left, surely? Smoked haunch...

Dennis arrived, with much crackling of brush; he was a city man still, although he was learning—in coordination with the shrinking of his gut, which had gone from embarrassing to merely substantial since the Change. He also had a coil of rope around his shoulder, and his axe slung with its handle through two loops sewn to the back of his jacket.

They made the rope fast to a firmly-rooted tree. Cuchulain went down the steep slope with four-footed recklessness, but the two humans were more cautious danger to themselves aside, the clan simply couldn't spare the working time lost in an unnecessary injury. Even Sally Quinn was helping with the poultry and around the house, on a crutch. The tangled mass below was just the sort to hide a branch broken off stabbing-sharp.

The deer was freshly dead, a trickle of red running from nose and mouth.

"You'll get some, fool dog," she scolded, pushing Cuchulain aside as he lapped at the flow. "Feet and ears and offal."

Then she spoke more formally, kneeling beside the deer and stroking its muzzle:

"Thank you, brother, for your gift of life. And thanks to You, Cernunnos, horn-crowned Lord of the forest, Master of the Beasts! We take of Your bounty from need, not in wantonness; knowing that the Huntsman will come for us too in our appointed day, for we also are Yours. Take our brother's spirit home to rest in the woods of summer in the land beyond the world, and be reborn through the cauldron of the Goddess, who is Mother-of-All."

Then they ran a cord through its hind feet between tendon and bone, cast a loop of cord over a convenient branch, and hoisted it up, working quickly; she put a basin from Dennis' pack beneath it and cut the throat with two deep diagonal slashes. The carcass had to drain or the meat wouldn't keep, and the blood would go into oatmeal to make a pudding. Privately she thought that tasted awful, but she'd eat her share.

Dennis sharpened the skinning knives while she drew a sign in the air over the basin; then Cuchulain yelped, a sudden squeal of pain. Juniper looked up sharply—there were black bear and cougar in these forests as well. She caught a flash of movement in the thicket tweny yards up the gully from them, a hand holding a rock waving from beneath a pile of brush and dirt.

"That's a man!" Dennis said sharply.

"Yes," Juniper said; the patterns sprang out at her, once she knew to expect camouflaged cloth. "And a hurt one, too!"

They made their way carefully through the tangle. Closer, and she could smell human waste—the man had been trapped here long enough for that, then. She looked up, and saw slick mud and fallen dirt where the treacherous edge had crumbled beneath him. He was under an overhang of the ravine's side, jammed awkwardly up against it, and his leg had been caught between two downed saplings the springy wood had snapped closed around the flesh again.

His lips were swollen...

Dying of thirst, she thought. In this wet wilderness, and not ten feet from running water!

She brought her canteen to his lips. Dennis studied the situation, pursed his mouth, and then swung the axe twice. The man's hips and legs swung down a bit as the tension was released.

"Sorry," he said, coughing, and then sipping again—which showed considerable self-control.

"Thanks, mate," he went on to Dennis.

"Don-niah iss anim dyum," Dennis said carefully, then winked at Juniper as he dragged brush away. "But you can call me Dennis."

"That's Donnacadh is anim dom, Dennie; your pronunciation would give a goat glanders," she said, propping the canteen upright and digging in her pack for some hoarded trail-mix. "And speaking of which, my fake harp, mas maith leat slochain, cairdeas, agus moladh, eist, feic, agus fan balbh."

The injured man smiled as he took the concentrated ration, and managed not to gulp it.

"I chucked a bit of wood at your dog because I thought it was that coyote again. One's been visiting, waiting for me to come ripe."

There was an English tang to his voice, but not Cockney or boarding school; instead a broad yokel burr that reminded her of documentaries she'd seen about places with thatched cottages and Norman churches.

Juniper nodded, examining. "He wasn't hurt, just startled. You shoulder's dislocated," she said. "Ball right out of the socket and displaced up."

"I know, lass," he said. "Tried fixing it, but I couldn't get the leverage."

Dennis looked at him and grinned. "That's Lady Juniper of the Clan Mackenzie you're talking to, man," he said.

"You're not Scots, surely?" the Englishman said, giving her another head-to-foot glance. "Irish, I'd have said."

"My mother was born in west Ireland, my father's family came from Scotland a long time ago by way of Ulster, and Dennie here has a weird sense of humor," she said. "What else is wrong?"

"I don't think aught else's broken or torn—just sommat bruised and battered! I couldn't come at the legs with me arm out, is all."

Dennis laid down his axe and held the man steady. She braced herself with a foot under his armpit and took his wrist in a strong two-handed grip; a quick jerk, and he gave a sound that was halfway between a muffled yelp and a sigh of relief.

"Dennie, you go get help," Juniper said. "Chuck, Vince, Alex, Judy if she can be spared—warn her to expect business, anyway—and a horse to the base of the trail; stretcher, tools and ropes and such."

A grin. "And tell Diana that the guest comes with a venison dinner!"

Dennis nodded, stuck the haft of the axe through its loops, and swarmed his way up the rope and the ravine's steep side, puffing like a grampus but more easily than he would have before the Change.

That done, she studied her...

Well, probably new clansman, if he's at all suitable, she thought. The unsought omen should never be disregarded. A gift from the Horned Hunter, this one.

The man was older than her by a decade but younger than Dennis, she judged; square-faced, not tall but very broad-shouldered, with thick muscular arms and gray eyes bloodshot now; his hair was light-streaked brown, and his naturally fair skin had been tanned to the color of old beechwood by harsh suns.

She shook hands carefully; his great square paw swallowed hers. "And you're English, by the sound of you?"

"Samuel Aylward, at your service, lady," he said, then winced when he tried to give a half-bow. "Samkin to his friends. Late of Crooksbury, Hampshire, late sergeant in the Special Air Service."

"You're a long way from home!"

"Not much wild land left back in old Blighty. I like wandering about in the woods; it's an old family tradition, you might say, Lady Juniper."

"That Lady Juniper is just a joke of Dennie's, Mr. Aylward. He's always teasing—well, it's a long story."

He looked at her and quirked a smile. "It's Lady Juniper or call you an angel from heaven, lass; I was getting fair anxious, there. What was that last bit of Erse you said to him? Stumped him, I could see."

"Roughly translated: if you want to be liked, shut up and listen. We're old friends."

"Thought so," Aylward said, then sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.

Long-held tension released his face, making it look younger despite stubble and lines and dirt. She held his head while he drank again; he knew enough to pace himself, and nibbled on some dried fruit when she gave it to him. He was wearing camper's or hunter's garb, and a pack; a long case lay not far away. She snagged it and worked it out of the tangled branches.

"What's this?"

"My bow, if it's not a broken stick," Aylward said. "I bloody well hope not. I'm no Adams, but I spent a lot of time making it, I did; it's my favorite reflex-deflex longbow."

She opened the soft waterpoof case; the stave within was yellow yew, about six feet long with a riser of some darker wood and a leather-wrapped grip; a neat little quiver held six goose-feathered arrows. The wood shone and slid satin-smooth under her touch. When she took it up by the grip it had the fluid natural feeling of handling a violin from a master-craftsman's hands, despite being far too long for someone only three inches over five feet in her socks.

"It's fine, indeed. Were you poaching?" she said, teasing to distract him from his injuries—it hadn't been the deer-hunting season when the Change hit.

"There's no season on boar here," he said a little defensively; feral swine were an invasive pest, and unprotected. "And—"

She nodded encouragingly and gave him another drink of the water. Best if he talks a little, she thought.

"And I've the time for it these days. Call me a masochist."

He took a deep breath; she could sense he wasn't much of a man for chatting with strangers, in more normal times. Not surprising now, when he's half-delirious and just reprieved from a very nasty death. Juniper waited, her face calmly attentive, ready to accept words or silence.

"Is the war over?" he said, after half a minute.

"War?" she said, bewildered.

"I was looking north towards Portland from the mountainside when I saw the flash," he said. "And then everything went dark—lights out good and proper, none since, and everything electronic in my gear was buggered for fair. I was staying high, working my way south and waiting out the fallout, until I ran too hard and looked too little after a buck and landed down here."

She looked at him with pity. "Oh, you poor man!" she exclaimed. "You thought it was World War Three? It's much worse than that, I'm afraid!"

 

@@@

 

A day later Juniper finished adding the column of figures, wishing for one of the old mechanical crank-worked adding machines as she did, and putting it on a mental list for scavenging or swapping.

All the adults were present, including a near-silent Sam Aylward propped up on the couch with his wrenched leg and sore shoulder; Sally Quinn could sit well enough now, and move without a crutch if she was careful. The children were up in the loft with Eilir, who was the eldest, minding them—learning Sign had become a mark of status with the youngsters, since Eilir made up one hundred percent of their adolescent reference-figures. None of the other adults had teenagers, and she did only because she'd started so early.

The adults of... she supposed she couldn't just say the Singing Moon Coven; half the people weren't coveners at all. Though to be sure they weren't exactly cowan, either.

Well, I may have suggested we call it a clan, she thought. But it was Dennis who suggested Clan Mackenzie, the black-hearted raparee!

He'd been ribbing her for years about her musician's Celt-persona; she supposed this was either revenge, or a streak of buried romanticism coming out.

Most of the front of the cabin was a big living room, with the stone-built fireplace dominating the north wall. A fire crackled and spat in it now, casting a welcome warmth and filling the room with the delicate flower-scent of burning applewood—she was still using the salvage from clearing out the old orchard last summer. A kerosene lantern on the plank table gave acceptable reading light you could use gasoline, if you were extremely careful. Firelight ruddy and yellow brought out the grain of the big logs that made up the walls. Rain beat like gentle drums on the strake roof above them, and the windows looked out on the verandah like caves of night.

She'd always liked the great room; she remembered winter days, with Eilir sprawled on the rug and her schoolbooks before her, Cuchulain curled before the hearth, Juniper strumming at her guitar as she worked on a tune and listened for the whistle of her teakettle, and snow patting feather-paws against the windowpanes.

Now it had rolled-up bedding tied in neat bundles stacked around the walls; the children slept in the loft and her own former bedroom was assigned to the handfasted couples on a roster, so that they could all have a chance at some privacy.

The Hall of the Mackenzies was stuffed to the bursting point. The crowding would have been tolerable for a week or so at a Pagan festival, but the prospect of living like this all her life...

She shook her head and got up to throw another log on the fire. Aylward spoke:

"Wait a minute, lass—Lady. That's yew, isn't it? Could I have a look?"

Everyone glanced over at the Englishman; he'd seemed a friendly enough sort, but on short acquaintance not given to inconsequential chat.

"To be sure, it is," Juniper said. "It's an understory weed tree here."

She put the billet in his big spade-shaped hands; it was four inches thick and a little over four feet long, with thin smooth purplish bark scattered with red-brown papery scales.

"Nicely seasoned," Aylward said, running a critical eye over it. "Is there any more like this?"

"A ton or so; the whole bottom half of my woodpile, out in the shed. The loggers cleared out a lot of it last year and I salvaged it for firewood; hadn't worked my way down through the applewood yet. Do you have a use for it?"

Aylward grinned. "We all do! If you let me at a drawknife and spokeshave, and a bit of hardwood for the risers, and a little glue."

Sally Quinn looked at him sharply. "You're a bowyer?"

Aylward nodded. "A hobby; I make and fletch me own shafts, too. Longbows are simple enough, even with a separate riser; I could do two or three a day, and anyone who's handy with wood could learn the trick."

Dennis grinned enormously; he was handy with wood, and loved learning a new way to work it. There was a pleased murmur all around the table. They had the three crossbows, which were irreplaceable once they broke down, and Sally's fiberglass target weapon, but that was it.

"Threefold return indeed!" Juniper said happily, resuming her seat and tapping the pile of figures Andy and Diana had worked up. "Now, people, we have just enough food to get everyone here—"

And how we've grown!

"—through to harvest. At a minimum diet for people working hard."

There were groans at that. Her own hands itched where the blisters never quite had time to heal. She'd had a big garden every year since she inherited this place, and now knew the difference between that and growing all your own food.

"Over to you, Chuck. Tell us what we can expect to get, for all the sweat we've been investing."

"Chuck, Lord of the Harvest," Judy said, grinning, leaning into his shoulder with her arm around his waist.

A laugh went around the table; it was a title of the High Priest of a coven, and Chuck had been the only candidate for that post, as well as farm manager. It also meant the Great Rite would be symbolic rather than actual from now on, with the High Priest not Juniper's man.

Rudy...

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then forced a smile.

He took up the story, with a pad of his own. "OK, we've got all the acreage we need turned and fitted, and most of the potatoes planted—we'll keep the rest to put in between now and June, to stretch the harvesting season out, same with the veggies. Seven acres so far all up, here and down by the Fairfax place, counting what Frank Fairfax had in before the Change."

He paused to glare at Dorothy and Diana and Andy, who were organic-produce fanatics... or had been, before direct personal experience of hunger, which tended to make one less finicky.

"I presume nobody's going to object to using fungicides if we have to? 'cause those potatoes are the margin between living and dying, and anyway they came treated."

"If we have to, Chuck," Juniper said soothingly. "If we have to. We've got them on hand, haven't we?"

He nodded, and the three made unwilling gestures of assent as well.

I'm Chief Soother, that's what I am! Juniper thought. Unruffler of Feathers! Dennis should have taken to calling me the Clan Facilitator, not the Chief.

"The Fairfaxes had four and a half acres of fall-planted oats, which should come ripe in June; English hulled variety, good stuff. And I think we got that barley Alex found for us sown in time for some sort of yield. We've got a deal with the Carsons to help harvest some of their wheat on half-shares come summer; enough to really help and for seed grain of our own this autumn too. We might do the same elsewhere, but I'm not counting on it..."

He took a deep breath. "Let's put it this way, Mackenzies; it'll be tight until June, and after that we're going to get awful sick of potatoes boiled and mashed and oatmeal and carrots and turnips and cabbage and beans and barley soup and whatnot, but we'll have enough to last through until the next crop year. More than enough, if we're reasonably lucky. In fact, we may not have enough people to harvest it all!"

"Of course," he went on, amid the cheers, "that brings up the question of storage. Potatoes take a lot of space, and we'll be storing by the ton, and we're going to have a fair amount of grain as well. I think more root cellars should be the first priority now that we've got some time to spare—"

"Oh, no you don't," Judy said. "We need a better bathhouse and laundry system for heath reasons—"

"Hey, wait a minute," Dennis cut in. "There's that old gristmill east of Lebanon, we could put it in below the waterfall with only a short sluicegate to build. Nobody's claimed it yet, and we could charge to grind other people's grain come summer—"

"And on second thoughts," Chuck said, glaring a little, "we ought to do a regular daily training schedule with archery and sword-and-buckler. The bandit gangs are getting—"

Juniper sighed and put her hands to her forehead. The threat of starvation had kept this collection of strong-willed individualists moving in one direction. Now she was going to have to earn her corn.

She looked around the table and caught several pairs of eyes—Dennis, Sally, Alex and his three friends. Let's see, how many votes... Sam wasn't comfortable enough with them to take much part yet, but she had hopes there, which was for the best.

Because some weren't going to like what she would suggest they do now that the most of the potatoes were planted, but the will of the Lady and Lord were plain.

At least to me it is, she thought.

She reached back and picked up her fiddle and bow from a table beside the couch. The first long strong note brought silence.

Then she improvised; a pompous boom for Chuck's voice, a piercing commanding shrill for Judy's, short anxious tremulos for Diana and Andy, a querulous rising inflection for Dennis' Californian accent...

Chuck was the first to snort. After a minute they were all laughing, and she wove the discords into a tune, one they all knew; the rollicking Stable Boy, and moving on to Harvest Season and Beltane Morning.

People missed music, with a craving almost as strong as that for food; there just wasn't any, in the Changed world, unless you made it yourself or persuaded someone in the room with you to do it. Soon everyone was singing.

Eilir's head poked down through the stairs to the loft; she couldn't hear the tunes, but she loved watching the audience. Smaller heads peeked around hers.

 

"Out in the wood

There's a band of small faeries

If you walk unwary at night;

They're laughing and drinking

And soon you'll be thinking—"

 

When she stopped the tension had gone out of the gathering. Everyone was ready to move the furniture aside and unroll their bedding; Andy and Diana were sleeping in the loft with the kids tonight, and they went up the stairs with a candle in its holder.

And tomorrow I'll tell them about doing some outreach.

 

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