December 12th, 2007AD/Change Year 9
The presence room had been built for intimate conferences when the library was remodeled into the Lord Protector's city palace. It was small and comfortable, with a new fireplace flickering, Oriental rugs glowing on the floor, and walls lined with well-filled bookshelves and good pictures—mostly Old Masters, including a couple of Maxfield Parrish originals scavenged from as far away as the ruins of San Francisco, plus a fine modern carving of Christ Crucified done half life-size. Rain beat against the night-dark windows, but within was warmth and the light of gasoline lanterns; those were a rarity these days, but brighter than the natural oils or alcohol that were the alternative. The maids in their uniforms—a white tabard over a black t-tunic and a long loose undertunic down to the ankles, and silver-chain collars around their necks— set out trays of small pastries with the unthinkable luxury of real coffee as well, in a Sevres pot suspended over a spirit lantern on the mahogany table.
"Leave us," he said, leaning back in the leather-upholstered chair.
They bobbed curtseys and scuttled out. The guards followed at his nod, with a stamp of boots and crash of metal.
Arminger grinned to himself as he watched the two Corvallans, the tall horse-faced blond woman and short thickset brunette man, twitch their noses at the scent from the coffeepot. Master Turner was a fixer and backer of budding enterprises, a sort of neo-medieval equivalent of a venture capitalist and the closest thing Corvallis had to a banker; closer every year as trade and handicraft flourished. Mistress Kowalski had made handlooms and spinning wheels before the Change for the handicraft market and still did—in a large workshop with dozens of employees—renting the equipment out to poor families, supplying the raw materials, and taking payment in thread and cloth. In Europe in the old days they'd called it the putting-out system; evidently she'd reinvented it on her own initiative. The two had joint interests in flocks of sheep out on shares with farmers, and in mills for breaking flax and finishing cloth.
Both had influence in the city's Faculty Senate through their clients and debtors, and through business connections with other budding magnates. Those still called their get-together and steering committee the Faculty of Economics, but it might as well have been the Guild Merchant.
"You've met Conrad Renfrew?" Arminger said to the two visitors from the city-state. "Grand Constable of the Portland Protective Association, Count of Odell, and Marchwarden of the East, as well."
They murmured my lord Count together. "Mistress Kowalski, Master Turner," the Constable replied, in a voice like gravel and sand shaken together in a bucket.
Kowalski frowned suddenly, and looked at Arminger's commander more closely: "Lord Count, didn't we meet before the Change? At a tournament... Was Renfrew your Society name?"
The Grand Constable was a thickset man built like a barrel, with a shaved head and bright blue eyes in the midst of a face hideously scarred. The two from Corvallis looked at him a little uneasily, but they didn't show much fear despite his reputation. Arminger nodded to himself; they'd be useless to him if they did. Although if they were going to be afraid of anyone in the room it ought to be him, with Sandra a close second.
"No it wasn't, Mistress Kowalski," Renfrew rumbled. "Yes, I think I remember the occasion. But I've put all that behind me. The time for playing at things is past. We don't have the luxury of make-believe any more."
Arminger cut in; pre-Change connections in the Society could be a sore issue these days, considering how badly its survivors had split between his followers and the rest. Not to mention that if he remembered correctly that particular tournament had been the Day of the Ox, about which memory he had mixed emotions himself.
"You know Lady Sandra, of course."
She gave each of them a nod as she sat, adjusting the skirts of her cotte-hardi and smoothing back her headdress. Both were in fabrics rich but subdued, in shades of dove-gray and off-white, the jewels silver and diamond with a few opals.
"And this is Fr. McKinley."
McKinley was a lean young man in his early twenties in a coarse black Dominican robe with a steel crucifix and rosary at his belt. He also had a quill pen and blank paper, and took unobtrusive notes; the priest-monk was Pope Leo's man, of course, but he and the Holy Office of the Inquisition also reported directly to the Lord Protector.
It was best to remember that Leo's Dominicans took their nickname—the Domini Canes, the Hounds of God—quite seriously.
Sandra poured coffee with a smile of gracious hospitality: "Sugar? Cream?" she said
Arminger added a small dollop of brandy to his; it was the genuine product of Eauze, the crop of 1988 and aged in black oak, recovered from a warehouse in desolate Seattle by his salvagers in '05. From what he'd learned from the Englishmen who'd arrived last spring, and the crew of the Tasmanian ship that brought them, there wouldn't be any more even if traders crossed the waters again. France was a howling wilderness, without even the tiny fringe of survivors that King Charles the Mad and his junta of Guards colonels had brought through in the British Isles. The English and Irish would resettle it in due course and prune the abandoned vines, but he doubted they'd ever rival the French as vintners and distillers.
"There's more coffee where that came from; it's fresh-roasted bean imported by sea, not pre-Change leftovers," he went on. And our own brandy's passable, and will get better as we master the knack. In the meantime...
He poured small glasses of the amber liquor. "Do have some of this as well. Genuine Armagnac, Larissengle, nearly twenty years old and quite marvelous."
Carefully he did not sneer at the way the pair's ears pricked in trader's reflex when he mentioned the coffee. There was no more point in despising a merchant for being a merchant than a dog for being a dog.
Not that you don't kick a dog if it gets out of place, he thought. How did the poem go? Ah, yes:
Gold for the merchant, silver for the maid;
Copper for the craftsmen, cunning at their trade.
Good! Laughed the baron, sitting in his hall;
But iron—cold iron—shall be master of them all!
"The coffee's from Hawaii," he amplified. "Kona Gold, and none better in all the world."
"Hawaii survived?" Turner said in amazement. Then, hastily: "Lord Protector."
"Not Oahu, that was toast, but the Big Island did; not too many people, a lot of farms and ranches, and they didn't get too chaotic so they made the best of what they had. And Ni'ihau."
Or so those Tasmanians told me, he thought. I suspect their folk at home will be a bit peeved with me when they find out what happened to the Pride of St. Helens; and they and the Kiwis on South Island came through amazingly well. It's a good thing they haven't anything I want to trade for.
Those Antipodean islands were among the few places where there hadn't been a collapse or mass dieback in the aftermath of the Change; he supposed it was having scores of sheep per person, and not having any unmanageably large cities.
Taking the ship was a just payment for them bringing the Lorings and their pet gorilla to Oregon, and the trouble they caused me.
"And the Hawaiians are ready to trade sugar and coffee and citrus fruit and macadamias for... oh, any number of things. Wheat and wine, for instance. Dried fruit. And timber, they don't have much suitable for shipbuilding themselves. Smoked fish too, perhaps... but all that would be more your line of work than mine. We rulers keep things stable and safe for the traders and makers."
Or the smart ones do, he thought. Some of my new-made nobility apparently can't grasp the parable of the goose that laid the golden eggs.
He had the Tasmanian ship, the Pride of St. Helens, safely docked at Astoria, and he was training his own crew from fishermen and surviving yachtsmen. There were still enough people who remembered coffee fondly for it to be a valuable trade. The two merchants looked at each other; Corvallis had its own outlet on the sea at Newport, and a railroad and highway link across the Coast Range that the city-state had kept up. They were probably wondering if they could find a hull big enough for a Pacific voyage themselves.
"Salvage goods?" Turner asked hopefully. "Since there weren't any large cities on the Big Island."
"No, I don't think so. They have enough sailing craft of their own to mine the ruins of Honolulu and that had all the usual assets." Arminger stopped to consider. "On second thought, there might possibly be a few things; medical supplies, perhaps. Definitely cloth. It's getting hard to find any pre-Change cloth in useful condition here, and it would rot faster down there in the tropics."
"That's the sort of thing we should be exploring," Kowalski said. "Instead of wasting our slender substance on fighting each other."
"My sentiments exactly," Arminger beamed.
Everyone nodded and murmured agreement. Arminger grinned like a shark behind his smoothly noncommittal face. He'd spent the previous decade snapping up every surviving community too weak to stand him off, and claiming all the intervening wilderness.
Perhaps I was a little too enthusiastic reducing the surplus population back in the first Change Year, he thought. More labor would be very handy now, and dead bones are useful only for glue and fertilizer. On the other hand, I needed to ride the wave of chaos.
"Did you have anything more concrete to discuss, my lord?" Turner said.
"Oh, very much so," Arminger said. "As you know, I've been having... difficulties... with the cultists and bandits that lie between Portland and Corvallis. Why, they've even kidnapped my daughter!"
"Terrible," Kowalski said; she even seemed sincere. "I have children of my own, and I can imagine how you feel, my lord Protector, Lady Sandra. Those people been very uncooperative with us, as well."
Sandra smiled, very slightly, under an ironically crooked eyebrow. She'd found out the way the Mackenzies had forced the pair into something like a fair deal for millwork—water-powered machinery to full and scutch and slubb wool and flax—and markets for Mackenzie produce in their territory. The Clan and the Bearkillers had also gotten together to preserve the bridges in Salem, the old State capital, which gave a route across the Willamette that wasn't controlled by Corvallis.
"Ah... my lord... you do understand that there are plenty of people in Corvallis who feel that having, ah, buffers between us is a good idea. Particularly people on the Agriculture and Engineering Faculties."
"But of course," Arminger said.
That translated as the farmers and the craftsmen, more or less. Oregon State University had been the core that organized survival in the little city, and its Faculty Senate still governed the place—as much as anyone did. Everyone there affiliated with the Faculty closest to their daily occupation, though the town had gone to great lengths to keep the teaching functions active as well.
"Still," the lord of Portland went on, "I'm sure you can see that disunity—and especially the anarchy that bandit gangs like the Bearkillers and the so-called Clan Mackenzie spread—are bad for everyone. We're all Americans, after all! The Association has been the main core of survival and order on the west coast—the only large one between Baja and Alaska. Its expansion throughout the central and southern Willamette could only benefit everyone, and then it would soon include the Bend country as well."
He smiled slightly at their hunted expressions; that was more than they'd bargained for. And while they were influential in Corvallis, they didn't rule it. A rumor that they'd sold the city out to him would be disastrous for their reputations.
His wife took up the tale: "But of course the Association is a decentralized organization. We've incorporated a number of independent communities through agreements with their own leadership."
Which translates as made deals with and gave titles to local warlords and strongmen, my love, Arminger thought.
She went on: "We realize that Corvallis has developed its own system, and a very successful one too. We don't want to incorporate the city directly, or even the lands it holds beyond the city walls."
"You don't?" Kowalski blurted in surprise. Turner glared at her and made a placating gesture to his hosts.
"Not directly," the Grand Constable said. "No fiefs, no castles, no bond-tenants. Besides, frankly, your militia is too well-equipped and too numerous for us to be comfortable about fighting it head-on. Not while the Free Cities League in the Yakima is hostile, and we have the Pendelton area to pacify."
"Plus," Arminger said, "and quite commendably, you in Corvallis came through the bad years with much less damage than most areas. That means, however, that, ummm, the old habits of mind are still entrenched in your city's territories. It would be difficult to introduce new ones as we did up here during the chaos."
He made a spare gesture with one long-fingered hand. "As you know, I've drawn a good many precedents from my pre-Change studies in medieval European history; they suit our times, and they've generally worked well. Let me explain another medieval idea, the concept of the autonomous, self-governing chartered free city; that was a way of accommodating urban life within a rural world. You'd have a, as it were, constitution, guaranteed by the Association, confirming your autonomy and your own laws, but—"
When the Corvallans had left, Renfrew poured himself more of the brandy. The three of them lifted glasses in salute.
"Do you think they'll buy it?" the commander of Portland's armies said.
"Why not, Conrad?" Sandra replied, nibbling a flaky pastry centered on hazelnuts and honey and sweetened cream. "We actually mean it, for a wonder, this once."
"More or less," Arminger said. "More or less."
A maid came in to clear the table; she smiled at their laughter, glad to find the overlords in so merry a mood.
Larsdalen, Willamette Valley, Oregon
December 12th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9.
"Hold them!" Michael Havel shouted. "Hold them!"
The long pikes bristled out, a sixteen-foot barrier in front of the line. Horses reared and bugled as the charge stalled before that hedgehog menace, giant shapes in the gray misty light of the winter afternoon. Breath snorted white into the fog from the great red pits of the destriers' nostrils, and eyes rolled wild in the faces concealed by the spiked steel chamfrons. Mud flew from under their hooves, and squelched beneath the infantry's boots. Pikes stabbed for the horses' unprotected bellies; the peytrals of their barding only shielded the chests. There was a hard sharp crack as a hoof shattered the ashwood haft of a pike, and curses as splinters flew and the foot-long spearhead pinwheeled away. Clods of earth flew into the air; riders leaned far over in the saddles, hacking at the points or thrusting with the lance. Wet oiled chainmail gleamed with a liquid ripple.
"Now forward!" Havel shouted, when he saw that the charge was thoroughly stalled, and the lancers at their most vulnerable, tangled and unable to maneuver. "Push of pike! Hakkaa Paalle!"
Trumpets blared and drums thuttered in the wake of that huge crashing shout. The line of pikes advanced, jabbing with two-handed thrusts at the mounts and riders; the wielders' faces were set and grim under the wide brims of their kettle helmets. A horse slipped on the treacherous footing and crashed over as it tried to turn, adding its high enormous scream to the racket of voices and the scrap-metal-on-concrete din. The formation grew uneven as it surged forward, leaving wedges of open space between the files; Havel cursed as two riders pushed their mounts through a gap in the wall of weapons, striking down left and right at helmets and shoulders.
The fifth and sixth ranks had glaives and glaives rather than pikes; seven-foot shafts topped with heavy pointed blades for stabbing and chopping, and a cruel hook on the reverse. Havel held one himself. He dodged a slash, and his weapon darted out. The hook caught on mail beneath an armpit; he braced his feet and hauled, and the rider came off with something halfway between a screech and a squawk, and then an almighty thump as armored body met sodden, muddy turf.
He reversed the glaive with a quick expert flick and drove the point down to menace the rider's face. The fallen lancer wheezed and raised one fist, middle finger extended.
"OK!" he shouted. "Time out! Time out!"
It took a minute or two for flags and trumpets to pass the message. The huge noise died down, leaving only the bellows panting of humans and horses, and a few moans or screams from the injured. Havel grounded his glaive and reached a hand down.
"You all right, honey?" he said as he hauled her erect.
Signe Havel grinned up at him, unbuckling her helmet and shaking back long wheat-colored braids. Her cornflower-blue eyes sparkled in a long oval straight-featured face; it would have been Nordic perfection except for the slight white line a sword had nicked across the bridge of her nose.
"You mean, apart from the bruises and contusions? You betcha." The last was in a parody of Havel's flat Upper Midwestern accent.
"Wimp," he said, deliberately exaggerating his U.P. rasp. "Real women wear contusions like they were a corsage." Then, louder: "All right, everyone gather 'round!"
The infantry company did, and the forty A-lister cavalry. Stretcher-parties carried off half a dozen with injuries bad enough to need the medicos; that was a pity, but sweat shed in training saved blood, and to be useful it had to be at least a little dangerous. The occasional broken bone or concussion was well worth it. At that, it was easier to practice realistically with pre-gunpowder weapons than it had been with firearms, in his first incarnation as a fighting man, which had been as a Marine; Force Recon, to be precise...
Fortunately none of the valuable and exhaustively-trained warhorses had been seriously hurt; destriers were expensive, harder to train than humans and a lot less likely to recover from a broken limb.
The hale survivors of the exercise gathered around—bloody noses, sprains, bruises and incipient shiners didn't count as serious these days—panting as they cooled off in the rain-swept pasture, legs and bodies thickly plastered with mud. It wasn't raining, not quite, but it had been fairly recently; what they were getting now was weather that couldn't quite make up its mind, between fog and drizzle and a possibility of snow.
The infantry were farmers and artisans and laborers, militia who drilled in the slow parts of the agricultural year and fought when he called them out. Their equipment was a little varied and a lot of it home-made, though everyone had some sort of metal helmet, and at least a brigandine or chain-mail shirt for armor; some of the more affluent had breastplates hammered out of sheet steel, and plate protection on their shins and forearms and long metal-plated leather gauntlets. Good steel was abundant in the Changed world, salvaged from the ruins; it was the time of the scarce skilled craftsmen that made armor expensive.
The cavalry were A-listers, full-time warriors and the elite of the Outfit, uniformly kitted out in knee-length chain hauberks, greaves and vambraces of plate or steel splints on leather, round helmets with nasal bars, hinged cheek-pieces and mail-covered neck-flaps, and two-foot circular shields. Their weapons were lance, recurved bows made of laminated horn and wood and sinew, and long single-edged swords with basket hilts; the shields were dark brown, with the stylized outline of a bear's head in crimson. His own helmet had the tanned snarling head of a bear mounted on it; he'd killed the beast himself, shortly after the Change, with an improvised spear. From that, a great deal had followed.
A great deal including the Outfit's name, though that was Astrid's idea, as usual. Aloud: "All right, Bearkillers. What would have been different if this was for real?"
"We'd have crossbows on our flanks, Lord Bear," one of the infantry said, a stocky freckled young man with shoulders like a blacksmith—which was what he was—leaning on a glaive. "When the charge stalled in front of the pikes, we'd have shot the shit out of them, killed a bucketful and made the others easy meat. Armor's not much help at close range like that."
Havel nodded. A hard-driven arrow or crossbow bolt was just too damned dangerous to use in a practice match even with a padded blunt head, and having people standing around shouting Twang! Twang! as they pretended to shoot was sort of silly. Instead the referees had tapped on a certain percentage of the mounted troops with their batons, often starting furious arguments, while the missile troops were off shooting at targets.
"Hey," one of the A-listers said. "If this were for real, we'd have been using our bows and that line of pikes would have been a lot more ragged before we hit it."
Havel nodded again, but added: "Yeah, Astrid, that's true. But we're practicing to fight the Portland Protective Association, and the Protector's men-at-arms don't use saddle bows. Sword and lance only, and they rely on their own infantry for missile weapons. OK, we'll say that cancels out."
He didn't add: And there aren't many who can use a horse-bow like you, either. It was true—everyone on the A-list was a good competent shot, but Astrid was a wonder. Your ego doesn't need any stroking, however.
Astrid Larsson pouted a little as she leaned her hands on the horn of her saddle. "I suppose so."
She was twenty-three to her sister Signe's twenty-eight, with white-blond hair and huge blue eyes rimmed and veined with silver. They gave her face an odd, nearly inhuman quality despite its fine-boned good looks. She was intensely capable when it came to anything involving horses or bows, a fine swordswoman, and in Michael Havel's view just one hair short of utter-raving-loon status. Unlike many, she'd been that way at fourteen, before the Change and its aftermath.
"Lord Bear," she added, confirming his thought.
And she stuck me with that moniker and this damned taxidermist's nightmare on my helmet, he thought. Plus that shield...
Hers wasn't the standard outline of a snarling bear's-head that was the blazon of the Outfit. It had a silver tree instead, and seven stars above it, around a crown. Her helmet was even stranger-looking, with a raven of black-lacquered aluminum on the steel, wings extending down the cheekpieces and ruby-eyed head looking out over the nasal bar.
It's all those books she reads, those giant doorstopper things with dragons and quests and Magical Identity Bracelets of the Apocalypse.
She'd been obsessed with them when he first met her, and the ensuing decade had made her worse, if anything. He wished, very much, that she'd only been weird about archery and horses, but no such luck.
Not to mention she's become so popular and influential among the younger and loopier element. I can't really clamp down on it because that Ranger outfit she and Eilir put together are too fucking useful, dammit! OK, so she can be the Elf-Queen of the goddamned woods if that's the way she wants to play it.
Aloud he went on to the audience: "Here's the important thing. As long as that line of pikes stayed solid, the lancers couldn't get anywhere near you infantry types. And when they got crowded and stalled, they got tangled up bad. A lot of them would have died before they could disengage—which incidentally they'll have to practice more. Charging's easy; retreating without getting your ass reamed is a lot more difficult. So—it's official. The infantry wins today!"
Everyone cheered. The younger A-listers looked a bit sullen as they did, but their fighting morale didn't need bolstering; if anything, they tended to be a little reckless and cocky. It took serious effort and native talent to get onto the A-list, and the fact that their families were usually the ruling class of the Outfit, more or less, didn't hurt in the self-esteem sweepstakes either. An occasional ass-whupping by the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil did them good, in his opinion; that was one reason he'd been fighting on foot in today's match.
"Certainly, Lord Bear," Astrid said again. "But once some gaps opened up, we could get in past the pikepoints."
Havel nodded vigorously, then removed his helmet and handed it to a military apprentice—a teenaged aspirant to A-Lister status—and ran his hands over his bowl-cut hair. That was straight and coarse and still crow-black in his late thirties, a legacy of his Anishinabe-Ojibwa grandmother. The high cheekbones and slanted set to his gray eyes might have been from her, or from the Karelian-Finns who made up most of the rest of his ancestry; the sharp-cut features were startlingly handsome in a harsh masculine way, emphasized by the long white scar that ran from the corner of his left eye and across his forehead. He stood just under six feet, and his lean frame moved with a leopard's easy grace under the fifty pounds of armor and padding.
"Yeah, good point," he said to his sister-in-law.
He gave the militia a glare, and they shuffled uneasily—which produced an alarming volume of clanks and clinks, among two hundred people in metal protective gear.
"This field's pretty level; if you can't advance over it without breaking front, what's going to happen on a battlefield, maybe with grape-vines or fences, and people shooting at you? Or if you have to do something more complicated than pushing straight ahead? You let a pike-wall get ragged, and the Protector's knights will be all over you like flies on cowshit. One-on-one, they'll slaughter you. Keep drilling until the formation's always tight, and you slaughter them. It's as simple as that. Understood?"
"Yes, Lord Bear!"
"I can't hear you."
"Yes, Lord Bear!"
"All right, that's enough for today. Fall in, and we'll see if the barbeque's ready."
That brought more cheers, and more cheerful ones; the padding around the blades of weapons was stripped off and tossed into a light cart, and everyone wiped their faces, scraped off the worst of the mud, and straightened their gear. The apprentice brought him his horse Gustav; he swung into the saddle easily enough, despite the weight of hauberk and weapons. The infantry company formed up on the roadway that led westward from this stretch of pasture; an officer gave a shouted pikepoints... up! and fall in! and the long shafts rose, like an ordered bare forest. The footmen went first, as the victors of the contest, swinging off with a good marching step; the A-listers followed along, looking fairly glum at first.
Except for Astrid, and the young man riding by her side. Alleyne Loring wore different gear, a complete set of jointed steel plate topped by a visored sallet helm, what Havel had thought of as King Arthur armor when he was a kid, the type beloved of Victorian illustrators. The Pre-Raphaelite look was emphasized by the fog that clung to hollows and treetops round about, making a fantasy of the rolling fields and woodlots. The armor was actually late-medieval in inspiration, fifteenth-century or so, but manufactured post-Change out of high-strength alloy steel stock by jury-rigged hydraulic presses in southern England.
Havel grinned like a happy wolf. Alleyne was also young, only a few years older than Astrid, and six feet tall, blondly handsome, dashing, charming, from a far-off foreign place and in the process of saying—
"Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar, vanimálion noastari..."
"Onen i-Estel Edain—"Astrid replied in the same liquidly pretty tongue, which sounded a little Finnish but wasn't; Havel understood not a word of it.
My languages being limited to English, a bit of Ojibwa, rudimentary Finnish and some Arabic cuss-words I picked up in the Gulf, he thought. None of the Tongues of Middle-Earth included in the package.
"You're looking like the coyote that met the rabbit coming 'round the rock," Signe said.
"Thanks to those Tasmanians—poor bastards—and their world survey voyage I think we may finally have gotten your little sister hooked up," Havel said. "And out of our hair."
She punched him on the shoulder. Since he was wearing a hauberk with padded gambeson beneath that was mostly symbolic, but her voice was only a little defensive as she went on:
"Astrid's been... useful."
"And a lot less trouble since she started up that Ranger outfit out in the woods. But she's still trying to trick us all out in costumes from those books she likes. She makes Norman Arminger sound as everyday as a dental hygienist."
"Granted she's a flapping wingnut, but a handy wingnut to have around. A lot of stuff we've done wouldn't have been nearly as popular if we hadn't had her to slap some cool antique name on it and give it some style. It kept those Society types we recruited happy too, they love fancy titles and playing dress-up. Useful... and if they're here being useful to us they're not up north being useful to Lord Protector Arminger, who was one of their own after all. Besides, this lords-and-ladies stuff... once it stops sounding so silly it sort of grows on you."
"And fungus grows on your toenails if you aren't careful. Yeah, she's useful, and also a goddamned pain in the ass. For a while I thought she'd probably settle down with Eilir, who's sensible, sort of—"
His wife shot him a look; the sisters had quarreled all their lives, but he liked the way they closed ranks. "Astrid isn't gay."
"Nothing so convenient or conventional. She's an elf instead," he said dryly.
Signe grinned. "I think she's settled on being a, what's the word, Numenorean instead of an elf."
"I thought it was Dunadan... or is it Dùnedain? I forget which."
"Dùnedain is the plural..." She smiled wickedly as he mimed clutching at his head. "Dunadan is the word for Numenorean... in another language."
"Another invented language? Christ Jesus, didn't the man have anything else to do with his time? Trimming the shrubbery, visiting the pub? How many of them are there?"
"Let's see... the Common Speech, the Black Speech, the tongue of the Rohirrim, Halfling dialects, Quenya elvish, Sindarin elvish..."
"Stop! Stop! Anyway, why... whatever... instead of an elf? Hell, I've got to admit, she looks like one."
"But elves don't get cooties on campaign, or smell. Or have monthly cramps, which she does, bad. Anyway, Eilir's just her best friend."
"Alleyne there will do even better, nothing like kids to calm you down. Someone who shares her interests—"
"Is nutbar about the same stuff?" Signe clarified helpfully.
"Na, he just likes the books; he's not goofy over living it all out. He's a pretty regular guy, once you get past that Jeeves-old-chap-fetch-me-a-biscuit accent. But liking the books'll help him keep her from doing a swan dive into the deep end. Christ Jesus knows nobody else ever had much luck at that! Foreign prince—well, son of a baronet— exotic, great warrior. It's a natural! And I get a first-rate fighting man on my side, too; he can king it off in the woods with her in between wars. Win-win situation."
"You haven't said anything about it to her."
"Christ, no! That'd be the best way to spoil things."
"Well, maybe you're learning after all," Signe said, and touched an ear when he started to reply.
They were leaning together and speaking quietly, and the rumbling clatter of hooves, the crash of boots and the thrrrrip-thrrrrip-thrrrrip of the marching drum covered it. Still, she was right. Another time would be better for chewing over family matters.
Not that there's much difference between family stuff and politics any more, he thought. Or between either and the military side of things.
"Aaron wants to visit Corvallis and see if he can get more medical supplies," Signe went on.
"Aaron just wants to find a cute young thing," Havel answered. Aaron Rothman was chief physician of Larsdalen; he was very competent, but had his quirks. "He's been itching for some social life since his last boyfriend left him."
because you're the unrequited love of his life, darling. You did save him from the cannibals."
Havel laughed. "Saved all of him but his left foot," he said, which was literally true; that band of Eaters had gone in for slow-motion butchery to keep the meat from spoiling.
The road curved westward towards the distant Coast Range, dark-green slopes whose tops were covered in gray mist that merged into the low clouds. The broad shallow valley on either side was a patchwork of dormant bare-fingered orchards, peach and apple and cherry, with fleecy white sheep grazing beneath, grainfields showing wet red-brown dirt between the blue-green shoots of the winter wheat, and pasture dotted with garry oaks and grazing cattle. Workers and herdsmen waved at the troops as they passed, but this close to Larsdalen there weren't any of the usual walled hamlets or fortified A-Lister steadings that dotted the other settled parts of the Outfit's lands; the folk who tilled these lands dwelt inside the Bearkiller citadel. Horsemen and plodding wagons and bicyclists swerved to the side of the road to let the troops pass, and gave cheerful greetings to their friends and relatives as they did.
He took a deep satisfied breath; he was fairly happy with the way the exercise had gone, and happier still with the way the half-dormant farmlands promised good crops next year. And the way that his folk all looked well-fed and warmly clad in new homespun, drab wadmal, or wool and linen and linsey-woolsey colored in yellows and browns, greens and blues by the dyes they'd learned to make from bark and herbs and leaves. The air was heavy with the musty smell of damp earth and vegetable decay; this season in the Willamette Valley was more like a prolonged autumn with an occasional cold snap than the brutal Siberian winters of the Lake Superior country where he'd been raised. He'd always liked autumn best of the four seasons, although he missed the dry cold white snow-months that followed. Sometimes he'd gone on week-long trips then, cutting school and setting off through the birchwoods on ski, with a bedroll and rifle on his back...
The valley narrowed as it rose towards the crest of the Eola Hills, where they broke in a steep slope towards the lowlands around the little town of Rickreall. Orchards gave way to vineyards spindly and bare with a few red-gold leaves still clinging, and more littering the ground. The vines had been there before the Change, when this area was the Larsson family's country estate; great-grandpa Larsson had bought it back a century ago, when he made his pile out of wheat and timber. The big pillared brick house beyond would have been visible then...
Now the narrowing V was blocked by a steep-sided earthwork bank covered in turf, with a moat at its base full of sharpened angle-iron. They'd started on that late in the first Change Year, right after the core of the Bearkillers arrived on their long trek from Idaho; he'd been flying the Larssons to their ranch in Idaho on that memorable March 17th, and ended up crash-landing in a half-frozen mountain creek in the Selway-Bitterroot National Wilderness. Which had been a stroke of luck, nerve-wracking it had been at the time to have the engine cut out over those granite steeps.
"What's that saying Juney uses?" Havel asked. With a grin: "Pardon me, Lady Juniper, herself herself."
"Something pretentiously Gaelic which boils down to saying a man's home is his castle," Signe said, a very slight waspish note in her voice.
"Yeah, but it's true in English too," Havel pointed out, looking pridefully ahead. "We've got a hell of a lot done in a decade, considering we can't use powered machinery."
A wall topped the mound, thirty feet high and built like a hydro dam; rocks the size of a man's head and bigger in a concrete matrix, around a hidden framework of welded steel I-beams salvaged from construction sites in Salem, the old State capital thirty miles northeastward. Round towers half as high again studded it at hundred-yard intervals as it curved away on either side to encompass the whole of the little plateau that held Larsdalen.
Gotta get the inner keep finished before spring, he reminded himself. Work on fortifications was another thing that they did in wintertime... Although there's always fifteen different things we should be doing with every spare moment. Everything done meant something else nearly as urgent sidelined; one thing that seemed universally true in the Changed world was that all work took a lot longer or cost more or both.
The gate where road met wall was four towers grouped together on the corners of a blockhouse, with his flag flying high above each. The drawbridge was down, but the outer gates were closed. They were steel as well, a solid mass of welded beams faced on either side with quarter-inch plate and probably impossible to duplicate now that the hoarded oxyacetylene tanks were empty. The surface was dark brown paint, but this year for swank they'd added a great snarling bear's-head in ruddy copper covered in clear varnish, face-on to the roadway with half on either leaf. The Mackenzies had something similar on the gates of Dun Juniper, though they used the Triple Moon and the head of the Horned Man.
Trumpets blared from above. Astrid brought her Arab forward on dancing hooves, throwing up one hand in greeting.
"Who comes to Larsdalen gate?" the officer of the guard called down formally.
"The Bear Lord returns to the citadel of the Bearkillers! Open!"
"Open for Lord Bear!"
"Oh, Christ Jesus, how did we let her get away with this bad-movie crap?" Havel said—but under his breath. "And now everyone's used to it and they'd be upset if we insisted on a plain countersign."
"She's the only theatrical impresario in the family," Signe said, also sotto voice. "Every time we did something new, she was there to tell us how to manage the PR. Don't sweat it. After all, she's not home much any more."
"Ah, well, names are funny things," he said with resignation. "Someone has an impulse and then you're stuck with them. That's why I've got a Karelian pedigree and a Bohunk moniker."
They both chuckled at the old family joke; back in the 1890's one Arvo Myllyharju had arrived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, fresh off an Aland Island square-rigger and looking for a job in the Iron Range. The Czech pay-clerk at the mine had taken one look at the string of Finnish consonants and said: From now on, your name is Havel!
His great-grandson remembered. Though will it make any sense to our kids? he wondered. Finland might as well be Barsoom, to them, and Michigan about the same.
There was a solid chunk... chunk... sound as the heavy beams that secured the gates were pulled back, and a squeal of steel on steel as the great metal portals swung out, salvaged wheels from rail-cars running along track set into the concrete of the roadway. Winches grated as the portcullis was raised, and the dark tunnel behind suddenly showed gray light at the other end as the identical inner portals went through the same procedure, to reveal a cheering crowd lining the way. The gates were normally kept open anyway in daylight, during peacetime; this was for show. Signe and Havel reined in beside the gate, saluting as the infantry company went by, followed by the lancers. Feet and hooves boomed drumlike on the boards of the drawbridge and echoed through the passage.
Havel looked up as he followed; there were flickers of lantern-light through the gratings in the murder-holes above, and a scent of hot oil bubbling in great pivot-mounted tubs.
"Always thought we could save some effort with those," he said. "Sort of wasteful, all that cooking oil, and burning all that fuel, when all it does is sit there and simmer."
"They've got to be kept hot," Signe said.
"Yeah, but we could do French-fries in 'em. Maybe onion rings too..."
Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon
December 15th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9.
There was a chorus of giggles from the sixteen-year-olds preparing their choir at the other end of the great hall. One of them sang, in a high clear tenor:
"It's the end of the world—as we know it!
It's the end of the world—as we know it (and I feel fine)!
The rest of them took it up for a moment. Sir Nigel Loring put down his book and looked up with mild interest from his armchair beside the big fireplace on the north wall, sipping at the last of the honey-sweetened chamomile tea. It wasn't quite as vile when you got used to it, and the dried-blueberry muffins that stood on the side-table were quite good. Flames played over the glowing coals, red and gold flickering in an endless dance.
I quite liked that little tune the first time around, for some reason, he thought, relaxing in the grateful warmth and the scent of burning fir-wood as firelight and lamplight played on the colored, carven walls. But that changed with the Change. And these... infants! They were six-year-olds then. All they know is that it scandalizes their elders.
Juniper Mackenzie—since the Change the Lady Juniper, Chief of the Clan Mackenzie, which nowadays meant ruler secular and sacred though most of the southeastern Willamette—hopped up onto the dais to put her head above the youngsters. Loring smiled at the sight. There was a crackling energy to the slight figure; she was a short slim woman just turned forty, with a little gray starting in her vivid fox-red hair, pale-skinned and freckled with bright leaf-green eyes; the fine lines around them were mostly from laughter. Besides the tartan kilt and saffron-dyed shirt of homespun linsey-woolsey she wore a belted plaid pinned at the shoulder with a gilt knotwork brooch, a flat Scots bonnet with three raven feathers in the silver clasp, and a little sgian dubh knife tucked into one knee-sock. She gave a mock-scowl as she stared at the youngsters with her hands on her hips, and they shuffled their feet and looked abashed.
Behind her loomed the Chief's chair, a thronelike affair carved from oak and maple and walnut, the pillars behind ending in stylized raven's-heads for Thought and Memory and arching to support a Triple Moon. Juniper went on to her crowd of kilted adolescents:
"Perhaps you'd rather not do a Choosing at all, then? Or is it that you don't want it to go perfectly?" That got her appalled looks and a babble of apologies. "Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile, remember. People live in one another's shadows. This comes only once in your life; don't spoil it for your sept-siblings or your friends. Now, we'll be starting with the opening song."
The man in the chair beside Loring's chuckled quietly. "That got their attention, the little bastards," Dennis Martin Mackenzie said. "At sixteen you're wild to stop being a kid, which is one thing that hasn't changed since the Change."
"This is practice for some rite of passage?" Loring guessed.
"Yeah, chosing a sept. We divvied up the Clan into septs when it got too big for just a bunch of us hanging out at Dun Juniper here, and it's become sort of important. You figure out what your totem animal is, and that means you're in one of the septs. Fox, Wolf, Raven, Tiger, Bear, Eagle, whatever."
He chuckled again. "We had this guy insisted his totem was the Tyrannosaurus rex. Saw it in his dream-quest, he said. Took quite a while to talk him out of it."
Nigel choked off a snort of laughter; he didn't want to be caught mocking the customs or religion of his hosts. Dennis cocked an eyebrow nonetheless, and there was a dry note to his voice:
"Yeah, I thought the whole thing was sort of loopy myself. It's not part of the Craft, strictly speaking. Andy Trethair came up with the idea; he and Diana always did like that shamanistic stuff and they were part of Juney's original Singing Moon coven before the Change. The rest of us just went along, mostly, but these days the youngsters... well, they take it real serious."
"Far be it from me to object," Nigel said. "Just before I left England—"
"Escaped from Mad King Charles, you mean," Dennis said.
Loring shrugged; that was a fair enough description. "By then King Charles was doing some rather eccentric things... making Morris dancing, thatched roofs and smock-frocks compulsory, for example."
Juniper signaled to the musicians; a bohdran and a flute, a set of uillean pipes and a fiddle. The tune began softly, a rhythmic stutter with the wild sweetness of the pipes in the background. Then the music swelled and she raised her voice in an effortless soprano that filled the Hall without straining; she'd been a professional singer before the Change, of course. One hand went up as she sang, and the teenagers followed suit, first with the fingers spread and then held together
"What is the difference 'tween feathers and hair?"
The handprint of a human or the paw of a bear?
We all roar with laughter, we all howl with tears,
Show our teeth if we're angry, and lay back our ears!"
The youngsters came in on the chorus:
"A passion within you
Whispering what you want to be
Take a look in the mirror
What animal do you wish to see?"
Then louder, as they all joined in:
"We each meet our animal... in its time and place
And gazing into those eyes... we see our own face
It'll teach us and guide us if we but call its name
For under the Lady's sky we're animals all the same—"
"Here, try this instead of that lousy tea," Dennis went on, pouring from a pot that rested on a ledge in the hearth. "You were out in the cold and wet most of the day, and it's getting dark. And since I brew the stuff... What's that old saying about the time for the first drink?"
"The sun's over the yardarm is the phrase," Nigel said aside to Dennis, keeping his eyes on the Mackenzie chieftain as he sipped at the hot honey-wine.
The contents were mead, dry and smooth and fragrant with herbs. He worked the muscles of his left arm, his shield-arm, as he drank. The break where the greatsword had cracked the bone of his upper arm still hurt a little; he suspected it always would on damp winter days like this. It would take work to get full strength back, but the bone had knit and it could take the strain of a heavy shield and hard blows once more. He'd spent the morning sparring and beating at a pell-post with his practice sword along with some other adults, in the open space under the northern wall. During occasional rests he'd watched while the children built their two snowmen and adorned them with antlers and feathers, constructed two snow-forts and named them oak and holly before fighting a ferocious snowball battle-to-the-death.
"And... ah, yes, I remember now."
"Remember what?" Dennis said.
He was a big man, probably fat before the Change and burly now. Hands showed the scars and callus of a wood-carver and leatherworker; besides that, he ran the Dun Juniper brewery and distillery. His face was wreathed in brown hair and beard, except for the bald spot on the crown of his head, and he was going grey in his late fifties. That made him half a decade older than the slight, trim figure of the Englishman sitting across from him, smoothing his silver-shot mustache and blinking blue eyes that were just a trifle watery from an old injury. They'd spent a fair amount of time talking since Loring had arrived at Dun Juniper seven months before.
"Why I liked that little ditty the youngsters were singing a moment ago," Nigel said. "About the end of the world. I was convalescing then, too. In a hospital... a rather, ah, private one... and someone kept playing that tune. It was the sort of place where you had armed guards outside the sickroom door."
"That made you like the song?"
"Well, I didn't die, you see," the Englishman said, with a charming smile. "And after having a Provo shoot me with an Armalite and blow me up to boot, that put me in rather a good mood. The tune brings back that feeling of sweet relief."
"What happened to the Provo?" Martins asked curiously.
"Nothing good, I'm afraid, poor fellow," Nigel replied.
His accent was English, in an old-fashioned upper-class manner shaped by Winchester College, the Blues and Royals, and the Edwardian-gentry tones of the grandmother who'd raised him. His mother had broken her neck when her horse baulked at a hedge, not long after his father had vanished leading a jungle patrol against Communist guerillas in Malaya.
Just now the smooth mellow voice had a sardonic note as well.
"You killed him, I suppose? Or what do the SAS call it, slotting?"
It wasn't a question Dennis Martins would have asked before the Change, when he was a pub manager in Corvallis and Juniper was a musician who sang Celtic and folk on gigs there, and on the RenFaire circuit and at Pagan gatherings. It seemed natural enough to Dennis Martins Mackenzie of Dun Juniper, a man who had survived the death of a world, and now lived in another where you took a bow or axe along whenever you went beyond the walls.
"Killed him? I wouldn't go that far. I simply stabbed him in the spine and kicked him out through the window. It was either the knife, the broken glass or the fifteen-foot fall headfirst onto concrete which actually killed him, I should think."
Most of the time Nigel Loring's face bore an expression of mild, polite amiability. Just then something different showed for an instant, in the closed curve of his slight smile. It reminded you that this was a good friend, but a very bad—as in 'lethally dangerous'—enemy, who'd been a fighting man long before the world was broken and remade that March afternoon in 1998.
Since Dennis was a Mackenzie now, and hence a friend of the Lorings, he went on slyly: "Does Juney know you picked up Erse because it was so useful to the SAS in South Armagh?"
"Nach breá an lá é?" Nigel replied.
"I suppose that means 'I deny everything?'" Dennis said.
"More on the order of: Isn't it a lovely day?"
"And aren't the walls vertical," Dennis laughed. "Unless snowy and cold counts as lovely in the Emerald Isle."
Nigel chuckled. "Though in fact Ms. Mackenzie still despises the Provos with a passion, despite her Irish mother. Or because of her. It's Ireland's misfortune that the sensible people never quite manage to dispose of all the different varieties of lunatic. Even the Change hasn't changed that, I'm afraid; it must be something in the water, and it affects the English too when they travel there. Celts do much better here—appearances sometimes to the contrary."
He touched his knee as he spoke. He'd arrived last spring as a refugee with the armor on his back and one change of clothing in his saddlebags. These days he dressed in a kilt like nearly everyone else in the Mackenzie territories—the knee-length pleated féile-beag, the Little Kilt, not the ancient wraparound blanket style—and a homespun shirt of linsey-woolsey. The tartan was like nothing that the Highlands had ever seen, mostly dark green and brown with occasional slivers of a very dull orange. Handsome enough, if subdued, and excellent camouflage in this lush wet land of forest and field; quite comfortable as well, but you had to remember to keep it arranged properly. His legs were well-proportioned and muscled, particularly for a man his age, but he didn't think his graying shins were the most aesthetically pleasing part of him, not to mention the scars.
"You could at least have used the real Mackenzie tartan, if you were going to put everyone in pleated skirts," Nigel grumbled.
The other man grinned. "Hell, I only came up with the idea 'cause we'd found a warehouse load of these tartan blankets, and because I knew it would torque Juney off when she got back from the scouting thing she was doing, and found it was a done deal—pardon me, torque off Lady Juniper," he said, nodding towards the eastern end of the Hall where the dais stood. "I started the Lady Juniper bit, too, and it drove her crazy."
"Why would the kilts annoy her?" Nigel asked. "They're very easy to make, and quite practical in this climate, which I can assure you from much dismal training-maneuver experience is far milder than the Highlands of Scotland. She looks quite convincing in that getup as well, and she has a suitable accent, when she wishes—though Irish rather than Scots, to be sure. Still, the Scotti came from there, originally. And there's the religious aspect, of course."
"Yeah, but I was always teasing her about the Celtic stuff she put on to go with her music before the Change," Dennis said. "Sort of a running joke, you know? And the way her coveners—I was a cowan back then, didn't believe in anything much—were always making like Cuchulain or Deirdre of the Sorrows or whatever and raiding the Irish myths for symbols the way the old Erse stole each other's cows. So when the first bunch of us got here right after the Change, and she said we'd have to live like a clan to survive, I was the one who pushed for all this stuff 'cause I knew she hadn't meant that literally. There wasn't much to laugh at back then, and it was fun."
He looked around. "I didn't expect it to catch on this... emphatically."
"It certainly has," Nigel observed, matching his glance.
The Englishman had heard the building's story from Juniper. Her great-uncle the banker been the single wealthy exception to the modest middle-class rule of the Mackenzies, and he'd bought the site of the ancestral homestead and the forest around it as a country hunting-lodge; her parents had visited every July as far back as she could remember, and later more than once she'd spent a whole summer here, just she and the old man, walking the woods and learning the plants and the beasts. It had been the last of the childless bachelor's many eccentricities to leave the house and land to the teenage single mother she'd been, more than a decade before the Change.
The lodge had been built in the 1920's of immense Douglas fir logs on a knee-high foundation of mortared fieldstone; originally it had been plain on the interior and divided into several rooms as well. The budding Clan Mackenzie had ripped out the partitions when they put on a second story late in the first Change Year, leaving a great wooden box a hundred feet by forty; on the north side a huge stone hearth was flanked by two doors leading to the new lean-to kitchens, and on the other three walls windows looked out onto verandahs roofed by the second-story balconies.
And it certainly isn't plain any more, he thought.
Over the years since the great logs that made up the walls had been smoothed and carved, stained and inlaid and painted, until they were a sinuous riot of colored running knot-work that reminded him of the Book of Kells, crossed with Viking-era animal-style and a strong dash of Art Nouveau. Faces peered out of that foliage, the multitude of Aspects borne by the twin deities of Juniper Mackenzie's faith; the Green Man, stag-antlered Cernunnos, goat-horned Pan; flame-crowned Brigid with her sheaf of wheat and Lugh of the Long Hand with his spear, Cerridwen, Arianrhod and silver-tongued Ogma, Apollo and Athena, Zeus and Hera, Freya and one-eyed Odin, blond Sif and almighty red-bearded Thor.
Beneath the high ceiling were carved the symbols of the Quarters; over the hearth comfrey and ivy and sheaves of grain for North and the Earth; vervain and yarrow for Air and the East; red poppies and nettles for the South and Fire; ferns and rushes and water-lilies for West and the Waters.
A few people were doing touch-up work on it all, on ladders propped against the wall. Winter was the slack season for farmers, and so time for maintenance work these days, and for leisure and crafts and ceremony. There were others here, reading or playing at board-games, three in animated discussion over the plans for a new sawmill at another dun, and a circle of younger children listening rapt to a storyteller in a corner.
"I'm off," Dennis said to the Englishman as the practice group around the dais broke up, rising and giving a nod to Juniper Mackenzie as she approached—and a wink to Nigel. "I've got apprentices doing practice-pieces to check on and then Sally'll have dinner ready. 'Night, Juney."
"Tell Sally we need to talk about the Moon School schedule tomorrow, Dennie," Juniper said, then: "And how are you today, Nigel?" She sat and stretched out in a leather armchair, feet towards the fire on a settee.
Sir Nigel Loring picked up his mug with his left hand; it was thick white ceramic. His fingers tightened on it until the knuckles whitened and cords stood out in his forearm, and then relaxed.
"Your healer seems to be correct," he said. "Full function is returning."
Slowly and painfully, he added silently to himself; he'd never been a whiner. Old bones didn't mend as fast as young, and that was all there was to it. And he was fifty-three now, even if a very fit fifty-three.
"Judy Barstow knows her business," Juniper said, and nodded. Then she smiled: "Or Judy Barstow Mackenzie, to use the modern form"
He could see sympathy in the bright green eyes; her voice held a hint of her mother's birthplace, Achill Island off the west coast of Eire, running like a burbling stream beneath her usual General American. Her father's heritage had been mostly what Americans called Scots-Irish, and it showed in the straight nose, pointed chin and high cheekbones; so did the very slight trace of Cherokee that side of her family had picked up in the mountains of Carolina and Tennessee before they made the long trek over the Oregon Trail.
"And the headaches?" she went on.
"Fewer as the weeks go by, and not as bad; the herbal infusion works wonders. Ye gods, but that man was strong! What was his name?"
In two strokes the greatsword had buckled the tough alloy steel of his helm, ripped the chin-protecting bevoir right off his breastplate, and cut through the sheet metal and strong laminated wood of his shield to break his arm while he lay semi-conscious on the ground, trying to protect Rudi Mackenzie from a death as unstoppable as a falling boulder.
"Mack," she said. "Although I've heard that was a nickname—for the truck."
Juniper Mackenzie's usual expression was friendly; more sincerely so than his own, he thought. Just then it changed for an instant, and you could see the fangs of the she-fox behind her smile. She glanced over to another corner, where a nine-year-old with copper-gold locks to his shoulders was playing chess with a black-haired young woman in her early twenties. They looked up for an instant from their game and waved at their mother and the Englishman. He felt himself give an answering grin; young Rudi was irresistible, and his sister Eilir charming in her slightly eerie way.
"Mack wasn't so strong as you and your son Alleyne and John Hordle put together," Juniper said. "Since he was trying to kill my son, I would consider that a fortunate thing, so. I won't forget whose shield it was covered Rudi."
Her hand tightened on his shoulder for an instant, and he covered it with his as briefly before she leaned back, arranging her kilt and plaid gracefully and then taking one of the muffins from the plate beside Nigel's chair. They were made from stone-ground flour, rich with eggs and thick with dried blueberries and hazelnuts; one steamed gently as she broke it open and buttered it.
"And if one has to convalesce from a broken arm and a cracked head, this is as good a spot as any," he went on with a smile, waving his mug. "And as good a season of the year."
With the summer's wealth stored and the next year's wheat and barley in the ground; supporting a guest too weak to work or fight was no hardship. The Great Hall of Dun Juniper was comfortably warm in the chill rainy gloom of the west-Oregon winter, too, not something you could count on in a large building after the Change in a place like the Cascade foothills.
Or in a large British building even before the Change, he thought mordantly. But the Yanks always were better at heating. Snow beat at the windows with feathery paws amid December's early dark, but the great room was bright with firelight and the lanterns that hung from the carved rafters.
"The winters weren't the Willamette's strongest selling points," Juniper said. "Though with my complexion, I find them soothing. At least I don't turn into a giant freckle!"
"I like your climate. The tropics wear after a while—" she knew he'd had plenty of hot-country experience in his years with the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment before the Change "—but this is homelike enough for comfort and just the right bit milder."
Juniper laughed, and waved a hand around the great room and its flamboyant decoration. "Now, this I don't think you'll find homelike."
He found himself laughing with her, although he'd been a rather solemn person most of his life.
"I grant it isn't what you'd find in Hampshire, even after the Change."
He recognized the symbolism of her faith and he could interpret most of it, partly from his readings in ancient history, partly from occasional contact with practitioners of the Craft—some had been on the Isle of Wight, the main enclave of British survivors, and a few had even managed to hide out in the New Forest to be discovered by his scouts in the second Change Year. And his son Alleyne had been a re-creationist before the Change, one of those who played at medieval combat, and the odd Wiccan had overlapped with that set.
Extremely odd, some of them, he thought with a smile.
Then he raised his gaze to the brooding, feral face of Pan, and the smile died. The heavy-lidded eyes were shadowed as they stared into his, given life by the flickering firelight. They brought with them a hint of green growth and damp moldering leaves; the dark scented breath of the wildwood, and the fear that waits to take the souls of men who wander too far beyond the edge of the tilled tamed fields.
That isn't just good carving, he thought.
It reminded him of medieval art in ancient churches; not the style or the imagery, but the raw power of bone-deep belief. The Wiccans he'd known in England before the Change had mostly seemed at least slightly barmy to him, when they weren't play-acting. He didn't know what Juniper and her friends had been like before the modern world perished, but they weren't putting it on now. Not in the slightest.
Juniper's green eyes twinkled, following his thoughts with disconcerting ease; she linked her fingers around one knee and considered him with her head tilted to one side.
"It wasn't like this when I inherited it from my great-uncle, that good gray Methodist," she said, her tone mock-defensive. "We didn't have much to do but carve, those first winters after the Change, and it was useful with so many new Dedicants, sort of a visual training aid. At first it was just me and my coveners and a few friends like Dennie. Then we had to help other people, get the farms started again and make tools and save the livestock, fight off the bandits and Eaters and... It all just sort of... snowballed."
"I had the same feeling of riding the tiger in directions unpredictable over in England, my dear," Nigel said. "I've seen it elsewhere. While things were in flux, one strong personality with luck and, hmmm, baraka, could set the tone for a whole region, like a seed-crystal in a saturated solution. As Charles and I did in England, until I fell out with His Majesty."
Juniper shivered very slightly as she looked around. "And as I appear to have done hereabouts."
"I should think you'd be glad to see more come around to your way of thinking?" he probed gently.
"The Craft never did hunt for converts the way the Religions of the Book do; we waited for those who were interested to seek us out; when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Then suddenly there were so many..."
"Are you sorry?" Nigel asked.
She thought for a moment, then shook her head. "No... no, I'm not really sorry. The old world was dead the instant the machines stopped working. The new one needs a strong belief, a hearth-faith to strengthen folk through hard times. That's helped us make as good a life here as human kind can live nowadays, I think. Or it would be if there weren't robbers and hostile neighbors, sure."
"It's certainly taken on your, ah, coloration, your Clan Mackenzie." He nodded at her pleated kilt and the plaid pinned at her shoulder with a silver brooch. "Symbols become important at a time like that."
"That was Dennis!" Juniper protested, laughing; then she grew grave. "Do you remember that flash of light and the spike of pain, when the Change came?"
"Indeed I do," he said. "It was the middle of the night in England and I was asleep, but—"
Inwardly, he shivered a little at the memory. He'd woken shouting, with Maude's scream in his ears. The pain had been over in an instant, but it was as intense as anything he'd ever felt, even when the RPG drove grit into his eyes in the wadi back in Oman, and he'd thought he was blind for life.
Every human being on earth—and every other creature with a spinal cord—had felt the pain and seen the wash of silver fire. Half London had been screaming. The sound had come clearly though the window, in a place where the throb of machines was absent for the first time in centuries. Then the beginning of the city-consuming fires had broken the utter darkness... The failure of everything electrical and of all combustion motors had been obvious within an hour. It hadn't been until troops under his command tried to put down rioters and looters next day that it had become apparent that explosives didn't work either, starting with CS gas and baton rounds and moving up to live ammunition.
Juniper shook herself, casting off dark memories of her own; anyone who'd survived had them. "I've wondered whether that moment, the white light and the pain, didn't do something to us. To our minds, you see."
"Hmmm," he said. "That's an interesting thought, though. My wife—Maude—said something similar to me once..."
Her fingers touched the back of his hand, lightly, for an instant. "I wish I could have met her," Juniper said gently. "From the shape of her man and her son, she must have been a very special lady."
He drank the last of the mead to cover his flush. "She wouldn't want me to brood."
Juniper made a tsk! sound. "Nigel, grief's nothing to be ashamed of. It's the tribute we pay our dead, but they don't ask more than we can give."
He looked up and met her eyes, and felt an unwilling thaw at the concern he saw there. "That sounds... familiar somehow. Is it a quote?"
She smiled. "Something mother said to me once." A shake of the head. "I do think that moment at the Change may have changed us, too, though. There was so much madness afterwards, and so swiftly."
"I'm afraid there's no way to test it. And while Johnson did say that the prospect of being hanged concentrates a man's mind, the prospect of imminent inescapable death can certainly drive people mad, especially if the laws of nature are mucked about with at the same time."
They were both somber for a moment; nine in ten of human-kind had perished in the year that followed. Then they shook it off; those who couldn't had joined that majority long years ago. Despair could kill you just as surely as hunger or plague.
Instead they chatted of small recent things; the new artificial-swamp waste system he'd help install here at Dun Juniper, Rudi's progress with the sword—which Nigel privately thought was alarmingly swift for a boy his age—and then fell into a companionable silence until the trestle tables were set up for dinner.
There aren't many women I've felt comfortable just sitting by, except Maude, of course, he thought; then he caught that disconcerting twinkle again. Or ones who could read me that quickly.
Copyright © 2005-2006 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>