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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

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


CHAPTER THREE:

 

Dun Fairfax, Willamette Valley, Oregon

December 15th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9.

 

"There," Sam Aylward—Sam Aylward Mackenzie, these days—said, as he finished smoothing the spot where he'd tooled his maker's initials into the deerhide covering of the bow's riser-grip.

He wiped down the length of the longbow with an oiled linen rag and held it up to the lantern slung from the roof of his workshop before tossing it to the man on the other stool.

"Ah, now there's a proper job of work," John Hordle said, putting down his beer-mug to slide the weapon between great spade-shaped hands whose backs were dense with reddish furze. "You could do a bit of shooting with this!"

The workshop had been a two-car garage and storage area attached to the farmhouse of the Fairfax family before the Change; they hadn't survived it long, being elderly and extremely diabetic. Now Aylward's wife Melissa had her loom over by the rear wall with a big new window cut for light, and the forward end held a bowyer's needs. There was a pleasant smell of seasoning cut wood from the lengths of yew and Port Orford cedar lying on the roof-joists overhead, and of paint and glue, leather and varnish and oiled metal from the benches with their vises, clamps and rows of tools. Everything was painstakingly neat, even the shavings carefully swept up into a box—that chore was mostly done by his son Edain and stepdaughter Tamar, who accounted it a privilege to wield a broom after he let them watch and occasionally hand him a tool.

They weren't here at the moment, since their mother had them corralled to help with dinner; Aylward was alone with Hordle and Chuck Barstow. Aylward was a stocky man going on fifty, with thick curly brown hair a little grizzled at the temples, no more than medium height but thick-armed and broad-shouldered and even stronger than he looked; Barstow was a decade younger, lean and wiry and near six feet, with a sandy beard trimmed to a point and thinning hair of the same color. Hordle was the youngest in his late twenties, towering over both the others at six-foot-seven, three hundred and ten pounds of bone and muscle with a ruddy face like a cured ham and a thatch of dark red-brown hair and little hazel eyes, built massively enough that you didn't realize his full height until he stood close. When he strung the heavy longbow, it was with an effortless flex of arm and hip.

Aylward and Hordle had the same accent, a slow thick south-English yokel drawl out of deepest rural Hampshire; Barstow's was General American, what you'd expect from someone born in Eugene in 1967 and raised there. But they all had something in common, something beyond the Mackenzie kilt and the weathered skin of men who spent much time out-of-doors in all weathers, an indefinable quality of coiled wariness even at rest, a readiness for sudden violent action that only another practitioner of their deadly trade might have caught.

"There's a few improvements over the old plain crooked stick, y'might say," Aylward said. "The reflex out at the tips makes it throw faster, and the deflex in on either side of the riser keeps it stable. More accurate, less hand-shock. A strip of raw deerhide glued on the back, to keep splinters from starting."

He grinned with mock modesty as his giant countryman examined the bow. It had a central grip of rigid black walnut root, carved to fit the hand and covered in suede-finished leather that would drink sweat and prevent slipping; just above that was a ledge for the arrow-rest, cut in so that it ran through the centerline of the bow and lined with two tufts of rabbit-skin. The tapering limbs with their subtle double curve were Pacific yew, mountain-grown for a dense hard grain, the orange heartwood on the belly of the bow and the paler sapwood on the back. He'd made it the traditional length, as tall as the user when unstrung plus a bit, and it took a hundred and fifty pounds to draw it the full thirty-two inches. Few men could manage a draw-weight that heavy; Aylward's own war bow took a hundred and ten, and Chuck's was a hundred. Hordle managed this one easily enough...

"What's this then?" Hordle said, flicking a sausage-thick finger at the inside of the stave just above the riser. "I thought you didn't hold wi' laminations?"

"I don't," Aylward said, using the rag to wipe his hands clean of the linseed-oil he'd used on the yew; it rasped a little as threads caught on the heavy callus on his hands. "Those fillets of horn are pegged into the riser and working free against strips of hardwood glued on the stave, ten inches either way of the grip. It gives it just that extra bit of—" he snapped his fingers out and back "—flick."

Chuck Barstow grinned. "And you'll be the envy of the whole Willamette, with a bow from the hands of Aylward the Archer, himself himself," he said.

Aylward snorted. "Bollocks," he said. "There's many I've trained who make bows as good as mine, and plenty more who're good as needs be, and I weren't the only bowyer around here to start with. Bowmaking isn't a master-craftsman's trade, you can learn it well enough in a few months if you're handy and have the knack, and God knows we've plenty of good yew in this part of the world. For that matter there's better shots than me among the Mackenzies, and no doubt more elsewhere."

"You could still make a good living selling your bows," Barstow said. "Those two you taught do it in Sutterdown, full-time. They've had clients come from as far away as Idaho."

"I like getting my hands into the dirt, when I'm not off on Lady Juniper's business," Aylward said stoutly. "And growing what I eat. Reminds me of growing up on the farm with Mum and Dad back in the old country." He jerked a thumb at Hordle. "Not far from where this great gallybagger idled his youth away."

John Hordle gave a theatrical shudder. "Now, my Dad owned a pub," he said to Chuck. "That's a man's life, I tell you. Chatting up the totty and tossing back the Real Ale, and none of that shoveling muck into the spreader on a cold winter's day."

"Then why didn't you stay on at the Pied Merlin instead of going for a soldier?" Aylward asked.

"Because of all the ruddy lies you told me about being in the SAS while I was still a nipper," Hordle said good-humoredly. "Ended up humping a full pack over every sodding mountain in Wales doing the regimental selection, I did. Which probably saved me life come the Change. Otherwise I'd have starved or got et, like most, instead of getting out to the Isle of Wight with the Colonel."

"Oh, I don't know," Aylward replied. "Sir Nigel always looked after 'is own. You told me he got my sisters and their kids out, didn't you? And he'd not seen hair nor hide o' me in years. From what you said, he had them set up with their men on their own farms afterwards, too, when things settled down a bit. He'd have seen you right."

Hordle nodded. "Might be, though things were just a bit hairy right then. Want to go and have a try with this?" he said, flourishing the bow.

"Always a pleasure to watch you overshoot and miss, mate. You still pluck on the release, after all these years."

The men already wore their homespun wool jackets; the workshop wasn't exactly cold, but it wasn't shirtsleeve-comfortable either. Over those the two clansmen draped and pinned their plaids, and they all put on hooded winter cloaks, woven of undyed gray wool with the grease still in it to shed water. They also slung quivers over their backs, took their own bows from where they hung on pegs, and buckled on swordbelts; Barstow and Aylward wore Clan-style short swords, twenty-inch cut-and-thrust blades modeled on the old Roman gladius, with a bone-hilted dirk on the right hip to balance it. Hordle's was more suited to his height, though not quite a full-fledged greatsword: a broad forty-two-inch blade with a long ring-and-bar crossguard and a hilt that could be used in one hand or both, what the Middle Ages had called a bastard longsword. Aylward whistled sharply as they left.

"Heel, Garm, Grip," he said, and two big shaggy dogs rose from curled-up sleep to follow them.

Dun Fairfax was busy outside, in a relaxed winter way. There were a dozen homes inside the earth berm and log palisade, besides the century-old original Fairfax farmhouse and barn, along with a fair collection of lesser buildings, henhouses and storage and pens. A chanting came from the Dun's covenstead, where the coven and the year's crop of Dedicants practiced a Yule ritual; a half-dozen more stood and admired the big carved wooden mask of the Green Man they'd just fastened over the doorway. From homes and sheds there was a clatter of tools, the rising-falling moan of spinning wheels, less commonly the rhythmic thump of a loom, a cracking as a sharp steel froe split cedar shingles from a log under the tapping of a wooden mallet. The air held farmyard smells, though nothing too rank, and woodsmoke, the smells of baking bread and cooking meat as kitchens prepared for the evening meal.

A hammer rang on steel as well in a brick-built smithy with the face of Goibniu painted on the door, and Sam Aylward grunted satisfaction.

"Glad we finally got our own smith," he said. "Pain in the arse, it was, always going up to Dun Juniper or sending for someone when something needed fixing. I tried me hand at it, but it's fair tricky."

Melissa Aylward stuck her head out of a second-story window before the three were out of hailing distance:

"Sam!"

"Yes, love?" he said, pausing and looking upward.

Melissa was a comfortable-looking woman in her late thirties, with a frizz of yellow hair surrounding a round blue-eyed face; she held their youngest in the crook of one arm, and Fand kicked her arms and legs with a determination that had increased notably as she neared ten months. Her other hand held toddler Richard Aylward back from the windowsill with practiced ease. Melissa's first husband had been on the east coast at the time of the Change, and Aylward had met her in the summer of the first Change Year.

"If you're off to shoot, remember the chicken stew will be ready by dark, and the dumplings won't keep," she warned. "If you want to eat them, not shoot them at a castle with a catapult."

"We'll be there," Sam said, waving.

"Not me, sorry, Melissa," Chuck called up. "Judy's expecting me back at Dun Juniper."

He waved northwards up the slope of the low mountain that overhung Dun Fairfax; the Mackenzie headquarters was a mile in that direction, on a broad natural ledge that nature had cut back into the hillside.

"The two of you, then," she said. "Full dark and not later!"

"I should say we will be there," Hordle said, smacking his lips as they turned away. "Your missus can cook a treat, Samkin."

He winked at Barstow. "Sam, he could burn water, himself, unless he's changed over here."

Chuck shuddered. "Tell me. I've been on hunting trips with him these ten years past, not to mention campaigning. We learned to put him on woodchopping detail fast enough."

Hordle shook his head. "Hard to remember Sam's had a life since the Change. Back in England we thought he'd be dead somewhere, and then seeing him here, a father three times over no less—gave me a turn, it did."

"Which is why you've been hanging about down here at Dun Fairfax, catching up with your old mate," Aylward said with heavy sarcasm. "And not doing your best to chat up Lady Juniper's daughter, eh?"

"And studying Sign until the brains ran out of his ears to do it," Chuck Barstow added. "Eilir's charmed. Though not as charmed as she was with young Alleyne."

"Don't know what the 'ell you grizzled old farts are talking about," Hordle said. "I was just being friendly, like."

"Hullo, Sam," a woman nodded to the men as she drove half a dozen Jersey milkers towards the old Fairfax barn, which held the cream separator and barrel-churn and the precious galvanized milk-tins all the households used.

"Kate," he replied.

A man did likewise as he pushed a wheelbarrow of straw and manure in the other direction, steaming slightly in the damp chill. More greetings came from children who played whooping running games until their parents collared them for chores, and a couple called from where they made repairs to a roof, tapping home nails to hold on fresh shingles.

"Quite the squire, eh, Samkin?" Hordle asked, a teasing note in his voice, and Barstow laughed.

"No, I'm not," Aylward said shortly. "I've got a good farm and some help with it, like more than one here. If you want squires, you'll have to go and apply at the Bearkillers. Bad enough I ended up running the ruddy army, after swearing I'd die a sergeant."

"Running the ruddy war-levy of the Clan Mackenzie," Chuck said, and smiled at Sam's snort.

Men and dogs walked in companionable silence out through the blockhouse and narrow gate, waving answer to the sentry's hail, then down the farm road that ran southward from Dun Fairfax; Aylward and Chuck made a gesture of reverence at the grave of the Fairfaxes not far distant, and Hordle nodded respectfully. A pair of ravens flew up from the gravestone, probably attracted by the offerings of milk and bread that some left there—which was ironic, since the old farmer and his wife had been Mormons, who'd bought the farm not long before the Change as a retirement place.

The settlement was in a valley that thrust into the foothills of the mountains and opened out westwards towards the plain of the southern Willamette. The snowpeaks of the High Cascades were hidden by cloud, but the lower slopes rose north and south and east, shaggy with Douglas fir and western hemlock and the odd broadleaf oak or maple; drifts of mist trailed from the tops of the tall trees. There was a scent of damp earth as they walked past rolling fields, plowland and pasture and orchard, until they reached the road that followed Artemis Creek west out towards the plain.

That was blocked by a flood of offwhite sheep for a moment, parting around the men like river-water around rocks; the heavy, slightly greasy scent of them was strong, and their breath steamed in the damp chill air. The man who watched the combined flocks of the Dun Fairfax families waved to Aylward, who made an exasperated sound and then waited as he came up, his collie at his heels. He wore sword and dirk as well, had his bow in the loops beside his quiver and a heavy ashwood shepherd's crook in his hands.

"Anything, Larry?" Aylward said to the man who'd once owned a bookstore.

"Took a shot at a coyote skulking around, but I missed," he said. His face was irregular and shrewd with a tuft of chin-beard, what people meant when they said full of character.

Then the crook darted out and fell around the neck of a ewe who'd decided to head down towards Artemis Creek.

"Back there, unless you want to hit the stewpot early, you brainless lump of fuzzy suet!" he said wearily, then went on to the men: "Otherwise, just another day with the damned sheep. Lord and Lady, but they're boring! It could be worse; I could be herding turkeys. Anyway, I wanted to talk about the Yule rites, if you had a minute, Sam."

"I'm a bit busy just now, Larry," Aylward said. "Later. And I'm only a Dedicant, any rate."

As they walked on past the sheep Chuck grinned. "And there's a sore point," he said to Hordle. Aylward snorted as the lean man went on: "Melissa's High Priestess of the coven here. She thinks Samkin should be an Initiate—High Priest eventually, too. Everyone else in the dun does, too; he's their landfather."

"Larry does a perfectly good job of it," Aylward said stolidly. "Better than I could, any rate."

"And you can't see yourself with antlers on your head dancing beneath the moon, eh, Samkin?" Hordle teased.

"Chuck's High Priest at Dun Juniper when he's not Lord of the Harvest and Second Armsman," Aylward pointed out with satisfaction. "Antlers, robe, dancing and all."

"Ooops! Sorry, mate, I forgot—no offense."

"None taken," Chuck Barstow said, laughing aloud. "I just like getting a rise out of Sam about it now and then."

"It's being raised Church of England," Hordle said, entering into the spirit. "Actually believing in anything isn't allowed."

Aylward chuckled himself, then shook his head. "When you're around Lady Juniper for a while, you can believe anything, straight up. I just embarrass easily... well, I'm still English, so it's only natural, innit? But when you think about it, how likely was it I'd be in the Cascades in March, back in '98? Or get trapped in a gully and have Herself find me before I died?"

Chuck Barstow nodded. "Juney's right about you being a gift from Cernunnos, Sam. Having you around may or may not have saved us; I think it did, starting with seeing off those foragers from Salem. We certainly wouldn't be nearly as strong without you."

He elbowed the tall form of John Hordle. "And figure the odds on you and Sir Nigel and Alleyne ending up here, too, nine years later, you scoffing cowan. The Lord and Lady look after Their own."

"He's got a point there, John," Aylward said. "It's turned into Old Boys Day here for the 'ampshire 'ogs. Must be the Gods, mucking about with the numbers."

Hordle snorted. "Mate, everyone still alive is lucky enough to have won the bloody National Lottery twice over back before the Change. For that matter, the sodding Change burned out my habit of asking why things turn out the way they do. If that can happen, what's impossible?"

They came to the pasture Dun Fairfax was using for target practice and vaulted the gate. It was ten acres, surrounded by decaying board and wire fences that were lined with young hawthorn plants in the process of becoming hedges, and studded with a dozen huge Oregon oaks. They checked carefully—you didn't want someone's cow, or worse still a child, wandering about—and threw back their cloaks to free their right arms.

"Dropping shots over the third oak suit you two for a start?" Aylward said, indicating a tree a hundred and fifty yards off.

When the others nodded he brought up his bow and shot three times in eight seconds, the flat snap of the string on his bracer like a crackle of fingers; two more shafts were in the air when the first one went thunk into the board outline of a man with a shield. All three struck; the first two within a handspan of each other in the target's chest, but the last was pushed a little aside and down at the last instant by a gust of wind.

"Well, even if you didn't kill him outright, he's not going to breed again," Hordle said, drawing the new bow to the ear and raising it at a fifty-degree angle towards the sky. Then: "Bugger!"

His shaft cleared the crown of the oak, and the target as well, by about twenty yards.

"Told you you'd overshoot with that, Little John," Aylward said smugly. "You're getting another dozen feet-per-second with the same draw."

"First try with a new bow," Hordle said defensively. "Only natural I'm off the once." The second landed a little short; the third...

"Did he miss?" Chuck Barstow said, peering.

"Not from the sound," Aylward replied. "Punched right through. Extra point."

"It does have that little extra flick. I'll get used to it."

"Over by the tree, this time," Chuck said.

Those targets were rigged to resemble men leaning out from behind the trunk, and they were hung on hinges so that they swung in and out of sight when there was any wind. Barstow shot three times with the smooth action of a metronome, and the shafts flicked hissing through the gray gloaming to land with a hard swift tock-tock-tock rhythm.

Hordle looked at the chewed-up surface of the targets. "Does everyone here practice like your kilties, Sam? It's the law back in Blighty these days everyone has to keep a bow and use it, but most just put in an hour or two on Sunday and take the odd rabbit."

Chuck Barstow grinned. "That's one of my jobs as Second Armsman, going around from dun to dun and checking that they do practice every day. I threaten them with Sam if I find out they've been goofing off. And testing to see who meets the levy standards, of course."

"Which are?"

"Fifty pound draw at least, twelve aimed shafts a minute, and able to hit a man-sized target at a hundred yards eight times in ten."

"Fifty's a bit light for a war-bow?" Hordle said.

Sam Aylward shrugged. "A heavier draw's a better draw, but fifty's useful enough—I've seen a bow that weight put an arrow all the way through a bull elk at a hundred paces, and break ribs going in and going out. Which wouldn't do a man any good, eh?"

Chuck nodded. "And that's the minimum, of course; the average is around eighty. Nearly everyone hunts for the pot these days, what with the way deer and wild pigs have gotten to be a pest, and absolutely everyone knows there's times your life is going to depend on shooting fast and straight."

Hordle grunted, drawing and loosing. The arrow whacked home, and a chunk of the fir-wood target weakened by multiple impacts broke off and went out of sight.

"Well, you've more fighting to do here than folk back in England," he said. "There's the Brushwood men, but they're not much more than a bloody nuisance unless you're up on the edge of cultivation north of London."

Aylward sighed and shook his head; he'd been here in Oregon at the time of the Change, and there hadn't been any news from the Old World until the Lorings and Hordle arrived on a Tasmanian ship before this last Beltane. It was still a wrench, visualizing southern England as a pioneer zone, a frontier wilderness where a bare six hundred thousand survivors fought encroaching brambles, hippo roamed the Fens, wolves howled in the streets of Manchester, and tigers gone feral from Safari Parks took sheep even on the outskirts of Winchester, the new capital.

"And of course there's the odd dust-up with the Moors, or the wild Irish when we have to help out Ian's Rump over in Ulster," Hordle said slyly, in the next interval in their shooting. "There's a joke for you—the Change and all, and we're still having problems with the Provos."

"Better not mention that too often among Mackenzies," Aylward said. "Half the folk in our territory here have hypnotized themselves into believing they're cousins of Finn Mac Cool. For all that they're Ulstermen by descent as much as anything, a lot of them. Scots-Irish, they call it here."

"Not me," Chuck Barstow said. "English and German in my family tree, plus a couple of Bohunks, a trace of Canadian French, and a little Indian 'way back. And Judy's Jewish—or Jewitch, as she likes to put it."

"At least you don't try putting on a brogue, Chuck. Every second kiltie these days does, or tries to rrrrrroll their r's as if they were from Ayrrrrshire."

He went on to Hordle: "We still get a fair count of plain old-fashioned bandits now and then, too, which keeps everyone on their toes. Plenty of places aren't doing as well as us, just scraping by, and east of the mountains there's always fighting, all of which gets us a yearly crop of broken men too angry to beg but hungry enough to steal."

"And you've got Arminger waiting up in Portland," Hordle said. "After Sir Nigel and I had the pleasure of his hospitality for weeks, I'd have to agree you've got a roit nasty old piece of work there."

Chuck Barstow nodded grimly. He'd lost an adopted son in a skirmish with the Protector's men only the summer past. Then his face lightened.

"Look!"

The dogs had strayed off a little while the men moved around the pasture shooting; the beasts were far too well-trained to get in front of an archer without permission. Now the three archers could hear a frenzy of barking from across the road to the south, down in the alder and fir woods that lined Artemis Creek. An explosion of wings came seconds later, and a gabbling, honking sound as a quartet of Canada geese came out of the willows, thrashing themselves into the air on their broad wings with long necks stretched out in terror. The birds had bred beyond belief in recent years; they were a standing menace to the crops... and very tasty, done right.

"You first, Chuck!" Aylward called jovially.

The Armsman held the draw for an instant, still as a statue except for the minute movement of his left arm, then let the string roll off the gloved fingers of his right hand. Snap as it struck the bracer, and then one of the geese seemed to stagger in mid-air, folding around itself and dropping like a rock.

That only took an instant, but the birds were rising fast. Aylward shot twice, the arrows disappearing in the murk as they rose, and another two of the big birds fell as if the air beneath their wings had turned to vacuum.

"Too late, Little John," Aylward taunted; the last was nearly out of sight. "Too late!"

Hordle made a wordless sound, then shot. The dusk was falling, but they could see that the goose stumbled as if it had hit a bump in the air, before circling down with a broken-winged flutter.

"Not so late as all that, Samkin," Hordle said smugly.

"Tsk, Little John. Nobody taught you to finish 'em off?" He shot as he spoke, and the bird fell limp the last hundred feet to hit the grass with an audible thump.

"Aylward the Archer!" Chuck Barstow said with good-natured mockery. "Showoff!"

A dog ran up, wagging its tail and dropping a goose at Aylward's feet. Collecting the others took a few minutes, and finding all the arrows they could.

"Sorry, little brothers," Chuck said, making a sign over the birds, when they had the bodies laid out in a row. "But we need to keep our gardens and grain safe, and we have to eat. Cernunnos, Lord of all wildwood dwellers, witness that we take in need, not wantonness, knowing that for us too the hour of the Hunter shall come. Guide them flying on winds of golden light to the Summerlands. Mother of All, let them be reborn through You."

Aylward murmured polite assent, and then they trimmed a sapling from the hedgerow and headed back towards the walls of Dun Fairfax with the stick thrust between the birds' trussed feet; four big geese came to a considerable weight.

"Good eating, these," Hordle said, smacking his lips. "Hang them for a bit, roast them with bread-and-nut stuffing, some mushrooms in it, and some bacon grease on the outside—"

"Andy and Diana would like a couple for the celebration dinner up at Dun Juniper," Chuck said. "We're having a competition next week—bagpipers from half a dozen duns."

At Aylward's shudder, he went on: "Come on, Sam, that many pipers... it'll be a sight and sound to behold!"

"So's a pig with its arse on fire," the older man said dourly, and Hordle's laughter boomed out like artillery.

 

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Copyright © 2005-2006 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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