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DIES THE FIRE

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


CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

"What the hell is going on?" the store owner said, under the sign that read Dable Garden and Lawn Supply.

He looked at the two great horse-drawn wagons; curious children freed by the lack of school buses gathered around as well. Chuck Barstow glanced up and down the one street of the little town of Dable; houses faded into farmland not two hundred yards from where he stood, and new leaves were budding on the trees that arched overhead.

It was only nine o'clock, but there was a line outside the bakery, and the little grocery store. A group of men were pushing the dead cars out of the middle of the street, clearing the way. Several of them looked speculatively at the wagons, which made him nervous.

The strong smell of the horses' sweat filled the air; getting out of Eugene had been a nightmare—if you could call this out of it, since a ribbon of suburb and strip-mall extended nearly this far. Nobody had attacked them—quite—or seemed to guess what was under the canvas tilts. He still shuddered and swallowed acid at the back of his throat, thinking of the things he'd seen in the dying city.

"What do you think has happened?" Chuck said.

"Don't know," the storekeeper admitted. "Figure it's some sort of big power-out."

"What about the cars? Radios? The batteries?" Chuck said.

"Well, that could be one of those government projects—I read about it in Popular Mechanics, a bomb aimed at frying electronic gear. That's what must have happened; a test got out of hand."

If that was all, I might have believed something like that myself. Aloud he went on:

"What about the guns?"

"Guns aren't working?" the man said, his face going fluid with shock for a second.

Then he chuckled: "I suppose that's why you folks are carrying the swords and such."

Chuck had his own Society longsword at his belt and a buckler—a little shield like steel soup-plate—hooked over it, along with his dagger on his right hip; he'd had those over at Andy and Diana's for coven work. He shoved down a wistful thought about the gear at home in his garage; they'd decided it was too risky to go all the way south through the city for them, and that was that. The rest of the coveners had shovels, or axes, or at least long kitchen knives and baseball bats.

"What do you think really happened?" the storekeeper said.

"Well, we figure it's a global catastrophe," Chuck said. "All our technology—anything involving engines or electricity or guns—has suddenly stopped working. Planes fell out of the air. Most of humanity is going to die in the next six months, except for peasant farmers, and a lot of them are going to die too unless they're real lucky. It's the end of the world as we knew it, and of civilization. So we'd like to buy some things from you, if you're still foolish enough to accept money. We're running for our lives and honestly, I advise you to do the same damned thing."

The storekeeper was a thin balding man with thick glasses. Chuck could see his words being processed and rejected behind them.

Wierdos, the man thought, almost audibly. Suckers. But well-heeled suckers.

Chuck shivered internally. He knew he was talking to a man who would die, soon and horribly, simply because he couldn't really believe in what had happened.

It was all he could do to make himself believe in what had happened, despite the way everything had simply stopped working.

Too big, he thought. It's just too big. For most people, at least. I'm used to believing in things everyone else doesn't, and I think it's an advantage... and I did try to tell this guy the truth.

From what he'd seen, the vast majority of people were going to wait a while for things to return to normal, or for the Army or the National Guard to show up. Then when they started to get hungry, or the water didn't run any more, probably a lot of them would panic and go looking for a place where things were normal. The idea that the whole planet had... changed... was simply too big to grasp; and accepting it meant looking death in the face, the death of a world.

He shivered and swallowed a bubble of nausea; it was too big to grasp thoroughly, down in the gut, and all at once. By the time most really got it into their heads, it would be too late.

I'm among the living dead, he thought.

There were advantages to being one of a collection of misfits who believed in magic.

"So, what would you folks like?" the thin man said.

When the world turns weird, the weird get going, Chuck thought. Aloud he went on, suppressing laughter—hysterical laughter that he probably couldn't stop once it started:

"Do you accept personal checks?"

 

@@@

 

Sally sat beside Juniper on the driver's seat of the Traveler wagon; it was comfortable enough as they rumbled eastward along the dirt road, with a piece of artfully arranged board to support her injured leg. The Portland woman handled the reins quite well for an amateur, but the horses were experienced and knew the way as hills rose on either side.

Shadow flickered over them from tall roadside trees; between them were vistas of fields on either side, and growing patches of tall conifer forest running up creeksides and gullies towards the heights on either hand.

Juniper kept an eye cocked on Cagney and Lacey as her fingers moved on the strings of the guitar and she sang:

 

"Fly free your good gray hawk

To gather the golden rod

And face your horse unto the clouds

Above yon gay green wood.

Oh, it's weary by the Ullswater

And the misty breakfern way

'till through the crutch of the Kirkstane pass—"

 

The slow staccato clop and crunch of the hooves beat a rhythm below the rumbling wheels, and the rattle and creak of the wagon's wooden framework. She could smell dust from the road, the strong grassy smell of the big platter-footed gray horses, and greenness from forest and field beyond; a wet breath of coolness from Artemis Butte Creek, as it swung closer to the south side of the roadway.

Underneath the country smells was a tang of burning, something they hardly noticed any more—it had been constant since the Change. The Willamette was a giant trough, and the smoke from the vast city fires would linger for a long time. Until the fall rains came to clean the air, most likely.

Not surprising. With no power, what's the first thing people will do? Make fires, for heat and light and cooking, and when one gets out of control...

The music made the thoughts go away, at least for a while. When she'd finished the song, Juniper put the guitar behind her—there was a padded rack for it on her traveling wagon—and took the reins back. The road wasn't as straight and level now, as they wound up the creekside towards the mountains.

"That was nice," Sally asked. "I didn't go in much for that sort of music, but... I've missed music. Any sort of music."

She'd started talking more since she'd stopped being so fearful of the strangers—a fear for which Juniper couldn't blame her, considering the circumstances of their meeting. She could blame her for her soft-pop tastes, but didn't, not aloud.

There were types of music Juniper liked but didn't play herself—she had a weakness for old-time blues, Americana and even some types of hip-hop—and she'd probably never hear them again.

My entire CD collection useless, except as coasters, she. And all the old vinyl too. No music but the live kind, from now on. Maybe I should expand my repertoire.

"I was thinking," Sally said. "About those songs you do... I mean, the knights and swords and horses... I mean, is all that coming back?"

"All that never existed, not the way the ballads paint it," Juniper said. "I don't think what's coming will be exactly like the real past, either—but it's certainly going to have more in common with it than with the way things were right before the Change. Which is a pity; things were real rough back in the old days."

Sally smiled. "I suspect it's going to be a weird old world, when things settle down."

"That it will," Juniper said, musing; it was easier than thinking about the immediate future. "Well... buffalo on the Plains, again, perhaps?"

Sally nodded. "And not just buffalo. I took wildlife biology and ecology courses before I met Peter, and I did volunteer work at the Zoo before Timmy was born. Guess which country in the world has the most tigers?"

Juniper blinked in surprise. "Ah... India? China?"

Sally shook her head. "The United States of America. Over twenty thousand of them, mostly privately owned."

"Like that Tiger Lady in New Jersey, who turned out to have a whole pack of them?"

"Right. A lot of them are in enclosures they could get out of, with some determined effort—places out in the country. Tigers are really adaptable and smart and they breed fast, and without guns shooting at them they're very hard to kill. I'd be surprised if a lot of them didn't get loose...

"And there are those exotic-wildlife ranches," Juniper said thoughtfully. "Many of them well out in remote places, to be sure. And ostriches and emus and... why, I saw llamas in plenty the last time I was out Bend way."

Sally signed agreement: "If I know them the volunteers at the zoo in Portland will probably turn the animals there loose when they can't feed them. It'll make for some interesting ecological swings, when people are... rare... again."

Something else to worry about, Juniper thought; it made a change from obsessively not thinking about what was happening to all the people right now.

The hills pushed closer to the creekside road, and fresh-painted board fences appeared to their left. She pulled in slightly on the reins, calling out a soft woah! to the team, and the wagon slowed to an ambling walk as they came level with a tall log-framed gate on the north side of the road.

"Is this your place?" Sally asked.

"No, it's the Fairfax farm," Juniper said, pointing with her left hand. "They're the last house below me. It's not really a working farm, more of a hobby place for the Fairfaxes, they're retired potato-growers from Idaho."

She stood, tying off the reins on the brake lever beside her and shading her eyes; it was a warm day for March, and sunny, full of fresh sweet odors; they were traveling by daylight, now that they were so close to home.

The gravel-and-dirt road they were on ran east up the narrowing valley of Artemis Butte Creek; half a mile ahead it turned north to her land. It was all infinitely familiar to her, even the deep quiet, but somehow strange... perhaps too quiet, without even the distant mutter of a single engine. The Ponderosa-style gate Mr. Fairfax had put up when he bought the fifty-acre property three years ago was to her left, northward; the little stream flowed bright over the rocky bed to her right.

Hills rose ever more steeply to either side, turning into low forested mountains as they hemmed the valley in on north and south; behind them the road snaked west like a yellow-brown ribbon, off towards the invisible flats of the Willamette. A cool breath came from the ridges, shaggy with Douglas fir, vine maple and Oregon oak.

"You can't see my cabin from here, but it's that way," Juniper went on, shifting her pointing arm a little east of north, up the side of the mountain.

"It's in the forest on the slope?" Sally asked.

From here, there didn't look to be any other alternative; the ground reared up from the back of the Fairfax place to the summit three thousand feet above; most of it at forty-five degrees or better, with no sign of habitation. Eastward ridges rose higher to the Cascades proper, snow-peaks floating against heaven.

"No," Juniper said. "You can't see it, not from here, but there's a break in the slope—the side of the hill levels off into sort of a bench along the south side about four hundred feet up. There's a long strip more or less level, a meadow a mile long and a quarter wide. The creek crosses it from higher up, then turns west when it hits the head of this valley where the hills pinch together, and the road follows it. Right after the Civil War my ancestors arrived and spent two futile lifetimes trying to make a decent living off that patch up there. Maybe it reminded them of East Tennessee! But it stayed in the family when we moved into town in my granddad's time."

"Not very good land?"

"Middling, what there is of it that isn't straight up and down, but Lady and Lord, it's pretty! There's two creeks and a nice strong spring right by the cabin. All but the bench is in trees, near eight hundred acres of our woods, and more forest all around and behind it. We Mackenzies got to Oregon just a wee bit late for the share-out, you might say—story of our line since we left County Antrim for Pennsylvania in 1730, always just a little behindhand for the pickings."

"Eight hundred acres sounds fairly substantial."

"Not if you're a farmer, and the most of it's hillside! My great-uncle Earl the banker kept the farm as a summer place, and bought more of the hills about; he was a hunter, and dabbled in what they called scientific forestry. Then good man left it to me, the unwed teenage mother, the family's shame, the sorrow and black disgrace of it; everyone said he was senile. Mind you, I'd been spending summers there all my life, and was a bit of a favorite of his, and he adored little Eilir. Well, who wouldn't?"

Sally seemed to hesitate, then spoke: "Your family has been here a long time then? I thought you sounded... well, a little different." She smiled. "I'm sort of sensitive to accents; I spent my teenage years trying to shed mine."

"Ah, different I am," Juniper said, grinning and dropping further into a stage-Irish brogue for an instant. "Me sainted mither was a fair Irish rose, d'ye see? From the Gaeltacht, at that—Achill Island."

In her normal voice: "She met Dad while he was in the Air Force, over in England; his side of the family are Scots-Irish with a very faint touch of Cherokee. Mom had a genuine brogue, bless her, and spoke the Gaelic to me in my cradle; and for my type of music, a hint of the Celt does no harm professionally, so I make a habit of keeping it up. Did make a habit."

"Just the opposite for me. My father was Air Force too—Vietnamese air force, of course. He flew us out in a helicopter, but I don't really remember—"

Juniper held up her left hand and pulled the horses in; Sally fell silent at the sharp sudden movement. Then she set the brake lever and stood, shading her eyes.

Terry and Eilir had been tearing along the roadside verge, playing some game; he'd even picked up a little Sign over the past few days. Cuchulain had been romping along with them when he wasn't chasing rabbits real and imaginary.

Now he stopped by the gate and looked uncertain, running back and forth a bit with his tail down.

"He smells something he doesn't like," Juniper said, handing over the reins and picking up her crossbow; Dennis was carrying his axe instead.

Dennis caught the same clue. He'd been walking by the horses' heads; now he stepped away, pushing back the brim of his cowboy hat. His right hand went back and down along the haft of the axe hooked over his shoulder, lifting and flipping it to hold slantwise across his thick chest. Short commons and hard work had started whittling down the beer belly; now he looked like a shaggy ill-kept barrel rather than a melancholy pear.

"What's wrong?" Sally said sharply.

"Nothing except the fool dog, for now," Juniper said; she spanned the spare crossbow before she handed it to Sally.

Then her own went into the crook of her arm. "But I'd better take a look."

She whistled; Terry looked up and touched Eilir's arm, and they came back to the wagon.

Look after him, and keep an eye out, Juniper signed—too rapidly for Terry to follow, so that the boy wouldn't take alarm; he still had nightmares.

Be careful, Mom, Eilir replied, getting her own weapon from the wagon and slipping a bolt into place.

"The Fairfaxes friends of yours?" Denny said, as they let themselves through the gate and started cautiously up the laneway that wove between two grassy green slopes.

"Not really friends," Juniper said, her eyes roving

About half the Fairfax place was wooded, the steeper northern section; the merely hilly half towards the road and the creek was in pasture and fenced with white boards, apart from a bit in some bluish-green grassy crop she didn't recognize and a substantial orchard. They cut kitty-corner northeast through the ancient gnarled fruit trees; it was apples mostly, with some cherries, only recently pruned and sprayed after years of neglect. Blossoms showed tender pink and frothy white, scenting the air as the two walked beneath.

The house wasn't visible from the road, being tucked into a steep south-facing hill with a pond in front of it and then more hill beyond, with grass blowing on it among the blue camas flowers.

Too quiet, she thought. Doesn't feel like there are people there.

Aloud: "Not unfriends either, for all that they're strong Mormons and went pale when they realized I was an actual living breathing Witch. Frank does me favors with his tractor now and then, and his wife gave me some jam she made last summer, but it's a nodding acquaintance."

"You afraid someone less neighborly has moved in?"

"Just fearful in general, Dennie. Hush."

They went through the last of the fruit trees, and then to their hands and knees below the crestline of the hill; Juniper could go ghost-silent that way, fruit of months every year of her life following the ways of bird and beast in these wooded hills. Dennis had all the grace of a sea-elephant hauled up on a beach, but it probably didn't matter...

She uncased her bird-watching binoculars—another gift from great-uncle Earl, who'd shared the hobby—as they lay concealed in the knee-high grass.

The Fairfax place was old, a four-square frame farmhouse built in the 1880's. It had been boarded up and derelict for years before Frank Fairfax bought it. Now the white paint shone in the sunlight; the neat lawn with its flowerbeds went down to the pond, and a tractor-tire hung from the bough of a big willow, for the times his grandchildren visited. He'd added a two-car garage, repaired and repainted the barn, and put in some sheds as well. For a retired man of seventy, he drove himself hard; probably lifelong habit he couldn't shake.

"His stock are loose," Juniper said after a moment. "The which he'd never allow."

There were a dozen sheep lying in the shade of the tree, not far from the pond, fluffy white Correidales with a collie lying close by them; it got up and barked warningly at the humans. The henhouse by the barn gaped empty and silent.

Harder to keep chickens from being eaten, Juniper thought with a chill.

A Jersey cow and her bull-calf were hock-deep in the water, drinking; they looked up and blinked mild welcome as they scented the humans, jaws working on mouthfuls of water-weed. She scanned over to the barnyard; the gate there was open, and the fifty-horsepower tractor parked off to one side under its shelter-roof. Not far from it was a truck with a seed company logo on its side. Birds flew in and out of the buildings in throngs.

"Silent as the grave," Dennis said, which made her shiver a little.

"Let's go see," she said roughly.

Dennis led with his axe at the ready, and she behind him and to one side with the crossbow held to her shoulder. Fear gave way to sadness well before they came to the verandah with its swing-chair and lace-bordered cushions.

"Christ," Dennis said, lowering the axe and putting a sleeve of his dusty flannel shirt over his mouth.

Juniper tied a bandanna from her hip pocket over hers as she approached the door; she could hear the buzzing of flies going in and out of a half-opened window on the second floor, over to her right—the master bedroom. A crow launched itself from the windowsill as she watched, the harsh gruck-gruck-gruck loud in her ears.

Juniper swallowed. I know it's the natural cycle, she thought. The Goddess was also the Crone, death and darkness as well as light and rebirth were Her mysteries; that was why the scald-crow was sacred to Her. But...

There was a note taped to the glass behind the screen door, and the keys dangled by a cord from the knob. Juniper read it aloud:

"The emergency generator cut out when the mains power went and I couldn't get it started, and nobody else round about seems to be better off. I put our insulin in the icebox. Joan used the last of it yesterday. It was spoiled, but there wasn't anything else, so I told her there were two doses and injected water myself. I'm sure now she'll never wake up. I'm starting to feel very sleepy and thirsty and my feet are numb; I'm sorry I can't give her proper burial, and ask anyone who finds this to try and see that we're given LDS rites. Sam from the seed company left two days ago to get help and hasn't come back. I'm going to go let the stock loose so they can water themselves and set out feed while I still have some strength, but the road gate's closed so they won't wander too far.

"The second key is to the cellar where our emergency stores are. Anyone who needs them can use them; just don't waste anything. I think bad times are here, and that's what they're for. Whoever reads this, God keep you."

The next part was probably written later; the strong bold hand was much shakier:

"I can't keep awake any more, so I'm going upstairs to be by Joan in eternity as we have been together so long in time. Tell Joseph and John and Dave and June and Kathleen and all the children that we love them. Frank Fairfax."

Juniper turned away, clearing her throat and wiping savagely at her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Blessed be," she said softly, remembering their strained politeness, and the Christmas cookies they'd given Eilir, and the swarm of grandchildren who'd asked permission before they went up into her woods when they visited around Ostara time last year—Easter to Christians.

Silently to herself: Mother of All, Lady of the Cauldron, and Lord Sun, take Frank and Joan Fairfax into Your keeping. May they find sweet rest in the Land of Summer until the cycle is decreed once more. Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again.

Dennis stood back respectfully as Juniper put a hand to her eyes; he hadn't known them, after all. Then he looked at the animals, and the open barn as she came down from the verandah; he took the keys from her hand.

"I'm sorry as can be about your neighbors, Juney. But we ought to take an inventory. Their family was in Idaho?"

"Farmers near Twin Falls," she said. "Potatoes in a large way; Frank said—" she swallowed "—that he couldn't live without putting in a patch at least."

She went into the molasses-smelling dimness of the barn; Fairfax had opened sacks of feed, and one of kibble for his sheepdog. There were more flats of pelletized alfalfa up in the loft, grain-and-molasses feed and baled hay—old-fashioned square bales, at that.

Not only some stock, but we can feed it, she thought, a huge weight lifting from her chest. There's plenty of grazing here and on my place, and this will keep it over the winter.

The milk would be good for Terry, and Eilir... and perhaps she could try her hand at making butter and cheese, there were descriptions in books she had. A vision of Eilir's face goblin-thin like pictures of an African famine faded from the back of her mind.

And don't Mormons believe in keeping a lot of food on hand? Maybe that's what he meant by emergency stores. The Fairfaxes took all that seriously, I think. I'll look up some Mormons to do the rites their way when I can, she promised herself.

Twin Falls, Idaho might as well be on the far side of the Atlantic for all the good the Fairfaxes' family would get out of their stuff here, and they were probably better off than anyone on the western side of the Cascades anyway.

But Eugene isn't that far away, she thought. Dare I go and try and find Rudy? The place would probably be chaos and madness and stalking death by now. But dare I not try, Goddess? Didn't You descend to Annwyn for Your consort? And there's Chuck, and Judy, and Diana...

Then Dennis burst in, flourishing his axe. "Seed potatoes!" he yelled. "The sacks read Oregon Foundation Seed Program Certified Potatoes! The man must have been on a delivery run when the Change hit; Juney, there's a couple of tons of planting spuds on the truck. And the whole basement's stuffed with canned food and preserves and flour and medicines and seeds and candles and you name it! We're saved!"

She threw herself at him, and they whirled about in an impromptu dance, whooping with glee. After a breathless moment she broke free.

Thanks be, Mother of All. I see what You're telling me.

He was still exclaiming and waving the axe when her face went sober.

"What's wrong, Juney?" he said. "We can plant enough potatoes up by your place to keep us going all next winter, if we hurry—and there's enough to feed us all until October in style, too."

"Provided nobody comes up the road with bad intent," she said. "There's an old logging track from the back of the Fairfax place to the cabin. We'll use that up to the cabin, and get things in order. And then we'll start."

"Planting potatoes?" Denni said curiously.

"We'll start doing what we can for the world."

"For the world?"

Juniper waved a hand at the barn. "The Mother of All's been good to us, Dennie. But She's giving us a message, too. We have to pay back, if we don't want the luck to leave us—threefold return for good or ill."

 

@@@

 

"Woah," Chuck Barstow said, easing back on the reins. The other two wagons and the walking coveners halted too.

It was a bright, breezy spring day; sixty or a little more, and no sign of rain, for a wonder. The big yellow schoolbus ahead had swerved half-off the road. That was a narrow country two-lane blacktop, fifteen miles north of Eugene and a few east of the I-5. They hadn't seen anything but a few local farmers on foot and the odd horseman for hours, which was a relief.

The wagons could carry a lot, but they couldn't do it very fast or for very long at a time, not without killing the horses. He wasn't an expert—he knew just enough to put the harness on properly—but he knew that, from Juniper's tales of her team and what he'd picked up at RenFaires and Society events.

Faces came to the windows of the bus, and two small figures ran out, jumping up and down and waving their arms at the adults.

Chuck blinked again. It was a boy and a girl, both nine or ten, both in white shirts and green blazer jackets with some crest on the breast pocket, shorts and brown shoes and knee-socks. One had tow-blond hair and the other dark-red braids and freckles.

"Please!" the boy cried. "Sanjay's sick!"

"We're hungry," the girl added. "And we don't have any more water, either. Not good water."

Chuck's eyes flicked to the bus again; Washington plates, and they'd been heading north when things... Changed. Why on this side-road and not I-5, the Lord and Lady alone knew.

More children came crowding out of the bus; he counted twelve, all about the same age. Diana pulled up the second wagon, and the coveners on foot gathered around—all the adults had tools over their shoulders, long-handled pruning hooks or shovels or pitchforks. The garden-supply store manager had been willing to accept personal checks; they'd cleaned him out of every single seed for plants you could eat, and the tools could double as weapons at need. He thought they might have stopped a few fights already, simply by being there.

It was a new experience, being envied for his wealth; he didn't much like it. The coveners looked at the children with troubled eyes; their own children mostly glared at the newcomers with pack-instinct suspicion.

"Sanjay's really sick," the boy went on.

Before Chuck could open his mouth, Judy was off the bench with her bag in hand. Chuck hesitated, ran a hand over his receding blond hair, then shrugged and followed.

"Dorothy, would you mind watering them?" he asked, in passing.

The horses stood patiently, twitching their hides occasionally or tossing a head in a jingle of harness. Chuck's own nose twitched as Judy walked up the stairs by the vacant driver's seat. Sanjay was at the back of the bus, lying on an improvised pallet of coats and covered with more of the same; the children had made a clumsy effort to clean up the vomit, but he'd obviously fouled himself as well. His clammy, sweating brown face looked at them with bewildered hope—he was South Asian, by the name and the delicate fine-boned features.

Judy knelt by his side; the boy was groaning faintly and moving, clutching at his middle. She brought out an old-fashioned mercury thermometer and her stethoscope and began an examination.

"Mister," the tow-haired boy said. "I'm supposed to give you these."

These were notes. The first was from a Ms. Wyzecki, teacher at St. George's, Washington, in brusque no-nonsense tones:

None of the local people know what's going on, it finished. I am going to contact the authorites.

A list of addresses and phone numbers followed. The driver's note was short and to the point:

The kids are getting hungry. I'm taking the bike and going to see where the hell Ms. Wyzecki is, or where there's something to eat, or both. If I'm not back by the time you read this, look after them. They're good kids.

The first was dated Thursday morning, the second Friday at noon, twenty hours ago.

"Chuck!"

Judy's voice was sharp, her nurse-practitioner tone. He looked up.

"This boy has a stomach bug—contaminated water. I'm going to have to rehydrate him with a drip, and then he needs to be cleaned up and kept warm. I won't use an antibiotic unless he gets worse—Goddess knows when I can get more. Bring him!"

He did; the other children gathered round him solemnly as he laid Sanjay down on a tarp and Judy began to work.

"He drank water from the ditch when the bottles ran out," the mahogany-haired girl said. "I told him not to."

"Oh, sweet Goddess Queen of Heaven," Chuck groaned to himself.

"Do you mean Mary, Jesus' mother?" the girl asked curiously.

"Sort of," he replied, looking around at the others.

"I'm named Mary too. My brother's Daniel. We all went to the play in Ashland, and we were supposed to be taking notes on the countryside."

"Pleased to meet you," he said, solemnly shaking hands.

Like many kids their age, these seemed to have an almost catlike concern for propriety and routine. A few were sniffling or crying with sheer relief at the arrival of adults, and accepting hugs; others were more timid. Mary and Daniel weren't crying, not out loud, but a little of the look of strain left their faces.

I cannot leave these kids here to die, he realized suddenly. I simply can't.

"Let's set up a cookfire," he said to Diana. "We'll need sterilized water."

"I'll get the water jugs," Andy said. "We could heat up some miso soup. If they haven't eaten for a day and a half, they'll need something easy to start with."

The others split apart, to get at goods packed in a hurry, or to calm their own children.

"Can you take us home?" the redheaded girl said, after her first ecstatic gulp of water. "Our parents are going to be really worried. I mean, we couldn't phone or anything."

"We can't take you home just now," he said. "Where do they live?"

"Mom lives in Seattle. Dad moved to Los Angeles after they... well, they had a big fight."

You'll probably never see either again, then, he thought. Aloud:

"Well, we'll just have to look after you until we can find your folks."

St. Georges seemed to be an expensive private school, the sort where really rich people parked offspring they didn't have time for; the kids had been on a special excursion to the Shakespearian festival at Ashland, of all things.

Eugene had been bad enough the first night and day. What Seattle was like by now... Not to mention LA...

I don't want to think about it, he decided. Then, looking skyward and back at the earth and over towards the children: Ok, Ok, I can take a hint, You two!

"We'll take you somewhere fun in the meantime, though," he said to Mary. "Do you like camping out?"

She nodded solemnly. "You and your brother and... Sanjay?" Mary nodded again. "You and your brother and Sanjay can stay with us and Tamsin until things get better."

If they ever do, he thought. Aloud: "OK, people, volunteers for fostering!"

 

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"What's that?" Sally asked, pointing to a big black- walnut tree as the wagon creaked and jounced over the ruts of the logging road.

Juniper Mackenzie looked up. She'd been musing on how to get the food stores out of the Fairfax place and safely into her cabin's cellar and her barn. That was why she'd decided to take the steeper way from the he back of the farm up through the belt of forest and to her land. It was quicker, and if the logger's trucks hadn't torn it up too much she might spend the rest of the day getting a first load.

And do my shed and barn and cellar have enough room for all those seed potatoes? They need to be kept in a cool dark place until we plant. Needs must, we could bury them under straw in trenches, I suppose—

On the pathside tree was a wheel with eight spokes. A plank below it had letters burned into the wood: EWTWRF: AIHN, DAYW. Embracing the wheel was a huge pair of elk antlers—once the pride of her great-uncle's cabin—with a silver-painted crescent moon between them on the wheel's hub, points upward.

"That's the Wheel of the Year," Juniper said. "Crescent Moon for the Goddess; horns for the God, of course; we're the Singing Moon Coven, too. I put it up a long time ago, when I was in my new-convert, in-your-face phase."

"And the letters?"

"That's an acronym." She recited: "Eight Words The Wiccan Rede Fulfill: An It Harm None, Do As Ye Will. It's our basic commandment, you might say. Rede's just an old word for maxim or precept or advice."

Huge Oregon white oak and Douglas fir stood tall around them; the living musty-yeasty-green smell of the spring woods was strong. The woods were second-growth, but the area hadn't been clearcut since before World War One, and they'd been carefully managed for most of the time since, not to mention widely planted with valuable hardwoods like the walnut. Their rich mast of nuts and acorns attracted game, too.

Dappled sunlight flowed over the rutted dirt of the road in a moving kaleidoscope, and Eilir and Dennis strode ahead of the horses, signing to each other. Terry was curled up asleep on a nest of sacks behind them in the wagon, and the Jersey cow walked along tethered to its rear, with her calf following of its own accord. Sally looked much more herself with a few days rest and food; also much more ready to ask questions. She gave Juniper an odd sidelong look.

"That's... ah... a very civilized maxim," she said, glancing over her shoulder as they passed the sign

"True. It's also bloody difficult, if you take it seriously; it includes psychological harm, and it includes harming yourself. Very different from follow your whim."

"I... it's sort of difficult to believe you're actually a, ah..."

"Witch," Juniper said, grinning.

She put an index finger on the tip of her nose and waggled it back and forth.

"But this is broken, so I can't magic us up much in the way of goods."

At Sally's blank look, she went on: "Classical reference."

And my collection of Bewitched episodes on tape useless, curse it.

"Anyway, the Craft is a religion—magic is sort of one aspect of it, not the whole thing—and anything you've heard about it is probably wrong. Or read, or seen in a movie especially."

That did get through, thankfully. At least my charitable impulse didn't saddle me with a fanatic who doesn't believe in 'suffering a Witch to live'.

You found those in the most surprising places.

Juniper went on aloud: "My coven meets here, for the Sabbats and some Esbats; the Coven of the Singing Moon. We have a nemed, a sacred wood and... It's sort of a private faith; you won't find us knocking on doors, and we don't claim a monopoly on truth or think ourselves better than others."

Then she shrugged. "Well, being human, we actually do think we're better, but most of us try not to act like it. And... we did meet here. Goddess knows how many of my bunch are alive now."

"Is Dennie one of your... ah... coven?" Sally asked; she seemed to be having trouble making herself say certain words. "Ah... I'm a Buddhist myself."

"No; he's a blatant materialist, the poor man. And he's not Eilir's father, either; I know you were dying to ask. Or my lover. Eilir is living proof that you can get pregnant your first time: Is minic a chealg briathra mine cailin crionna, as Mom used to say. Many a prudent girl was led astray with honeyed words. By smooth-talking football players in senior high; bad cess to him, but I can't regret Eilir."

Sally gave a chuckle of laughter. "She's a nice girl, even..."

She touched her leg where the wound from the crossbow bolt was healing nicely. Neither of them mentioned the fact that a few inches up and to the left and it would have cut her femoral artery and spilled all her life's blood on the road.

"She's a wonder, and that's the truth," Juniper said, happy for a moment.

Thinking about Eilir usually made her feel that way.

"Anyway, we're an eclectic Georgian group who favor Celtic symbolism; which means nothing to you, of course, but think of it as our equivalent of being Episcopalians."

"You're single, then?"

"No, handfasted." At Sally's blank look she went on: "Married, in Wiccaspeak. My man was in Eugene when things Changed. He's a systems analyst, of all things, but he loves the old music—that's how we met; and he's my High Priest. Think of it as being the vice-president of the coven."

Softly: "Rudy's his name, Rudy Starn, and I'm trying not to think about him much. He'll know I've headed here, and I tell myself he'd want me to wait with Eilir until he comes, but it's hard, hard."

Then she held up a hand. Dennis had walked up to the crest of the ridge; that ought to give him a good view of the cabin, and he was using the binoculars as well. When he turned she stiffened in alarm, but he didn't seem frightened himself—just puzzled. And Eilir tore over the ridge and disappeared at a run, which she wouldn't do if there was anything to fear.

"Woah, Cagney, Lacey," she said as pulled in the team, set the brake lever—they couldn't be expected to lean into the traces on an upslope for long—and waited until Dennis trotted back to her, his face alight.

"What is it?" she demanded.

"There are people there," he answered. Alarm rammed through her, but he went on:

"I recognize a couple of them, though, seen them with you. Chuck Barstow—I'd know that silly hat he wears anywhere. And a couple of others; come see for yourself."

A surge of hope ran through her, shocking, like a cold electric jolt.

There's no real refuge from what's happening with the world; and what refuge there is, is in other people. An added joy: And Rudy might be there.

He'd been leaving on a trip down to California, to San Jose and Silicon Valley; a surprising number of Wiccans were in software.

But maybe his flight didn't leave before the Change and he made it up here already!

"It's the Singing Moon," she said aloud; poor Sally would be bewildered. "Or at least some of them. They'd know the way; I should have expected it; Goddess, I halfway did, as much as I dared. Chuck or Judy would have thought of coming here, at least, and we were supposed to have a meeting, the night of the Change—I was to drive in. They had further to come, but probably had to hide less on the way."

She flicked the reins and released the brake; another bit of steep climb, a turn to the left, and they broke into the open.

A long stretch of rolling upland meadow opened out to either side, new grass rippling green and thick-streaked with early blue camas and rose-pink sorrel, dotted with big white-oaks; forest-shaggy hills dark with conifers rose steep to the north. Off in the distance to the right a small waterfall went in spray down a rock-face, formed a pool surrounded by willows, then lazed across the open plateau in a series of curves before vanishing from sight.

"Those people are your, umm, coven?" Sally asked, as they rattled down the rough track towards the cabin.

Eight adults and more children were running towards them, waving and shouting; Eilir was hopping up and down as she greeted them, and Cuchulain doing his usual barking wiggle at the familiar scents. Juniper scanned their faces, easy to recognize despite the distance.

"They're most of it," she said. "Chuck, Judy, Diana, Andy, Susan, Dorothy, Karl and Dave—and their kids—but all those children in the green blazers? I don't recognize them! Nor the wagons they all rode in on!"

Parked in front where the laneway curved by the house and trailed off to the right were...

Juniper blinked. Now, that is a covered wagon, is it not? she thought.

And strapped to its sides were a variety of historic junk, including an old-fashioned walking plow. The coveners had just begun unloading bales and sacks and boxes from inside when she arrived. Another was beside it. Eight horses grazed under a tree, big glossy-black beasts, and a dozen cattle of various breeds and...

"Well, Lugh love me, it's a pig!" she said to herself. A big sow, to be exact, with some half-grown piglets near it.

The cabin stood on a U-shaped rise in the center of the plateau's northern side, separated from the wooded ridge behind by a gully. It was a long low structure of Douglas fir logs squared on top and bottom, all resting on a knee-high foundation of mortared fieldstone and topped by a steep shingled roof that covered a verandah around three sides. Smoke trickled from the big central stone chimney; there were sheds and a barn of similar construction, and a gnarled and decrepit orchard on the south-facing slope below.

"That's all yours?" Sally said; she sounded impressed.

Not unreasonably, since there were three thousand square feet on the ground floor, plus the attic loft where she'd set up her loom and had a space for private Craft working.

"It is mine, and a monster that's swallowed every penny I could earn in upkeep these last ten years," Juniper answered absently. "Great-Uncle Earl built it to impress his cronies in Calvin Coolidge's time. And he may have been trying to bankrupt me with his will! At least I won't have to sell off the timber to pay the taxes and keep the roof tight any more..."

She felt a huge grin break free as her coveners came closer, and she stood up on the seat of the wagon despite the lurching and jolting, holding to the curving roof with one hand.

"Welcome!" she shouted. "Oh, Cead mile failte! A hundred thousand welcomes!"

Hands reached up to catch her as she dove down from the seat; for a long ten minutes there was only hugging and babbling and shouts of glee.

When that died down enough, she looked around. There were Chuck and Judy Barstow, he a gardener for the city of Eugene, she a registered nurse and midwife; Diana and Andy, who ran a health-food store and restaurant there... eight of them in all.

"Where's the others? Where's Rudy?" she said.

Her friends looked at each other, and their smiles died.

Chuck Barstow finally spoke, his voice gentle:

"We couldn't find Jack or Carmen or Muriel; we left a message at MoonDance. I hope they show up later. Rudy... Rudy's flight was a thousand feet up at six-fifteen. Andy and I were at the airport to see him off. He's dead, Juney."

She gave a sound somewhere between a moan and a grunt, feeling winded, as if something had punched her under the short ribs and made it physically impossible to breathe. Dennis gave her an awkward pat on the back, and Eilir snaked through the crowd to embrace her; she'd liked the funny, skinny little man as well, even after he'd become her mother's lover.

"Blessed be," Juniper murmured after a moment. "May he rest in the Summerlands, and return to us in joy."

"So mote it be," everyone replied.

Then she took a deep breath, and wiped her hand across her eyes.

I'll grieve later, she thought. Right now there's work to be done.

"Where did you get all this stuff?" she said, waving at the wagons and the livestock; there were chickens and ducks and geese, as well as the quadrupeds.

"At the museum's exhibit—Living Pioneer history, where else?" Chuck grinned.

The plumed hat looked a little incongruous over the workaday denim and flannel; he usually wore it with a troubador's costume at the RenFaires, or his knight's festival garb for Society events. He was wearing his buckler slung from his belt over his parade sword, too...

Which is perfectly good steel, she remembered with a shiver. Like the one I'm wearing.

He went on: "The exhibit was mostly abandoned when we got there, right after the Change... all gone off to try and find their families, I suppose, poor bastards. It was chaos and old night in Eugene by then. So we just... liberated it, you might say, having as good a claim as anyone else. The rest of the livestock the same—some we bought, from people still taking money."

"You saved lives by doing that," Juniper said. "Ours to start with; we'll use the tools and do it in time. It'll come back to you threefold, remember. And the children? Not that I'm objecting... but it's going to be very tight for food before harvest."

She made a quick calculation. The Fairfax's stores would easily have been eighteen months' eating for three, without stinting; for...

Good Goddess gentle and strong, twenty-eight including those children!

... it would be about three months, carefully rationed. Of course, they could eat the livestock if they had to, even the horses... the chickens would yield something...

"They were on a school bus," Andy Trethar said. "All the way from Seattle to Ashland, and returning when the Change hit. And... well, we just couldn't leave them."

Chuck cut in: "Juney, Diana and Andy had just taken a delivery for their store, which we brought along, and we picked up everything we could along the way, and we cleaned out a garden-supply place that had a lot of seeds... We only got here a couple of hours ago ourselves, you understand."

"Well, every mouth comes with a pair of hands," she said stoutly.

Though many aren't very large or strong hands, in this case, she thought. But we'll make do—for a start.

Rudy had always been on at Andy and Diana for carrying too much inventory at the MoonDance, tying up their scanty capital. That looked as if it was going to be a very fortunate mistake.

Lord and Lady, we're probably better off than anyone else within a hundred miles!

Chuck bent close: "And you don't know how glad I am to see you here," he half-whispered. "I'd just about run out of charisma by this point. People are getting really scared. You're the High Priestess; give 'em some oomph, Goddess-on-Earth."

Juniper swallowed, then planted her hands on her hips and raised her voice to address them all. At least she had a good voice, experience with crowds, and had long ago lost all tendency to stage fright.

"Another hundred thousand welcomes, my darlings," she said. "But listen to your High Priestess now. We've got a lot of work to be done, and not much time to do it in. Here's what I think—that it's a clan we'll have to be, as it was in the old days, if we're going to live at all—"

 

 

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