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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

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


CHAPTER FIVE:

 

North Corvallis, Oregon

January 10th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

The lands claimed by the Faculty Senate of Oregon State University—in effect, by the city-state of Corvallis—began where the village of Adair had been, before the Change. The steep crest of Hospital Hill to the west overlooked Highway 99 from less than a quarter-mile away; on it beetled a small but squat-strong fortress of stone and concrete and steel with a round tower rearing on its eastern edge. The snouts of engines showed, ready to throw yard-long darts, steel roundshot and glass globes of clinging fire four times that distance.

As Michael Havel watched a light blinked from it, as bright as burning lime and mirrors could make it, flashing on the news of their arrival southward to the posts that would relay the message to the city. Most of the village east of the highway was brush-grown rubble; a few houses had been linked by cinderblock and angle-iron and barbed wire into an enclosed farmstead, with barns and outbuildings about, and a sign—"Lador's Fine Liquor and Provisions"—showing that it sold to passers-by as well. The dwellers had heard the fort's bell and turned out from field and barn with bill and spear and crossbow, then relaxed when they saw it was friendly Bearkillers, remaining to stare and comment at the size of the party and its members.

He'd brought a dozen armored A-listers along for swank—he had to keep up the Outfit's credit with the Corvallans, who were overbearing enough as it was. Their lances swayed slightly as the standing horses shifted their weight from hoof to hoof, and the whetted steel of the heads glittered in the pale sun of a winter's noon. It was one of the rare clear January days, only a few high wisps of cloud in a sky pale blue from the Coast Range on his right—he could see the four-thousand-foot treeclad summit of Mary's Peak, a rarity in winter—to the High Cascades in the far distance on his left, hints of dreaming snowfields at the edge of sight. Overhead a red-tailed hawk floated, the spread feathers of its wings sculpting the air, then stooped on a rabbit. The air was crisp and colder than usual, cold enough that the frost still rimed grass and twig and brush with white even at noon; the breaths of men and horses steamed, a light fog strong with the mounts' grassy scent. A four-horse wagon brought up the rear with their gear, and a few household staff walking beside it, and the Bearkiller's chief physician riding atop; he'd lost a foot to some Eaters soon after the Change, and loathed riding as well.

Havel and Signe were mounted and armed but in civilian garb, tooled-leather boots, broad-brimmed hats, brown serge jackets and precious intact pre-Change bluejeans, almost new, and cunningly reinforced on the inner thighs with soft-tanned deerskin. Their eldest children were with them, eight-year-old twin girls identical down to the silver rings on the ends of their long tow-colored braids and the slant to their cornflower-blue eyes; he'd left young Mike Jr. behind at Larsdalen, with the staff and nannies and indulgent grandfather and step-grandmother, since he was at the stage where he could move pretty quick but still had a toddler's suicidal lack of common sense. Mary and Ritva were excited enough to bounce up and down in their silver-studded charro-style saddles, or would have been if they hadn't ridden nearly as long as they'd been walking. They pointed and exclaimed as the drawbridge on the fort came down and the gates swung open.

Eric Larsson commanded the Bearkiller escort; he had a crest of scarlet-dyed horsehair nodding from front to rear of his round bowl helm, gold on the rivets that held the nasal bar at the front of it and the mail aventail at the rear and the hinged cheekpieces, and more on his belt-buckle and the hilt of his backsword. The metalwork of his war-saddle was polished bright, and the animal he rode was eighteen hands at the shoulder and groomed to glossy black perfection, an agile giant of Hanoverian warmblood descent. The man made a hand-signal to the rider beside him; Luanne took up the trumpet slung on a bandolier across her chest and blew a complex measure. The column of lancers reined their mounts about as one to face westward, turning their formation into a double line; then they brought their lances down in salute until the points almost touched the patched asphalt of the roadway, and back up again in a flutter of long narrow pennants.

A small party came down from the fort, four mounted figures, the metal of their armor colored an inconspicuous greenish-brown that barely showed against the thick woods of the hills behind; the McDonald Forest had been University property even before the Change, and well-cared-for. Havel recognized the one who led them, a medium-tall man with brown hair and brown eyes behind the three-bar visor of his helmet and a pair of sports glasses.

"Major Jones," he said.

"Lord Bear," the other man replied; he was in his early thirties, of medium height but deep-chested and broad-armed; he'd been a Society fighter and teaching assistant in the Faculty of Agriculture before the Change.

He saluted; Havel returned the gesture, turning in the saddle to make it towards the banner one of the Corvallans carried, its pole resting in a ring on his right stirrup. The flag was orange, with the brown-and-black head of a beaver on it, attempting a ferocious rodentine scowl; privately Havel thought it was dorky beyond words, but it had been the University's symbol for a long time and they were devoted to it.

"Welcome, Lord Bear, in the name of the people and the Faculty Senate of Corvallis," Jones said formally.

Then he stripped off his metal-backed gauntlet and shook hands, a dry firm grip: "Good to see you again, Mike. And you, Signe, Eric, Luanne."

Eric had been looking at the weapons his escort carried. "Finally got that quick-loading crossbow working, Pete?" he said.

"Yeah," the officer said. "Gear, ratchet and bicycle chain in the butt and forestock, crank inset underneath. Turn it six times, and the weapon's cocked and ready to go as soon as you pull the trigger. Double the rate of fire of the old type and you can do it lying down, or in the saddle."

Havel's crooked smile quirked. "Easy to build and repair?" he said.

"Well... we're still working on some problems with production and maintenance," Jones said reluctantly. "How's that car-jack thing your father-in-law is working on?"

"Classified," Havel said.

Jones smirked, which meant he thought classified translated as haven't got it working yet. Usually that was true, but in this case it was precisely the opposite. He wanted to spring it on the city-state as a done deal in a month or two when they reequipped everyone, to take their pretensions of technological superiority down a peg. Nobody denied they'd come through the Change unusually well, but the way they acted as if they were the last island of civilization in a world of bare-assed savages got a bit old after a while.

The Corvallan looked at their party: "Astrid and Eilir aren't along?"

"They're coming separately," Signe said. "They've got... a bit of a present to show around, you might say."

"And the Rangers are independents themselves, these days," Havel said. "Since we all agreed to give them that stretch of woods. Sort of prickly about it, too."

Damned if I'm going to call them the Dunedain Rangers, he added to himself. Bad enough I have to do the Mad Max on Horseback thing myself.

One thing he did like about Corvallis was that it was a bit less given to weird names than the rest of the present-day Valley.

"Ken's not coming?" the Corvallan officer went on, looking surprised as Havel shook his head. "Your father-in-law usually doesn't pass up an opportunity to haunt our bookstores and the Library."

"Tell me," Havel said, thinking of the bills the Outfit had paid in grain and wool, tuns of wine and barrels of salt pork; they'd had words on the matter.

I'd have gotten even madder if the stuff he dug up weren't so helpful sometimes.

Books were expensive these days, unless you were talking salvaged paperback copies of Tom Clancy or the like, and even those were getting rare and fragile in this damp climate. Real books on something useful were pricey, either because they were irreplaceable—books made good kindling and a lot of libraries had burned after the Change—or because they'd been new-printed with hand-operated presses on dwindling stores of pre-Change paper. Or on the even more expensive rag-pulp type Corvallis had started making recently. The city-state had a biweekly newsletter, all of four pages, and copies cost more than a day's wages for a laboring man.

Luanne chuckled. "We unloaded the grandkids on Ken—Mike's youngest, and both of ours. And since he and honorable step-mom-in-law Pam had the bad taste to produce two more at their decrepit ages, he's up to his distinguished wizardly white beard in rugrats. Labor-intensive work."

Jones nodded. "Tell me," he said and touched the rein to the neck of his horse to fall in beside them. "Between the kids and the farm and the weaving, I don't know how the hell Nancy stays sane when I'm out on patrol, even with Mom and the hired help."

"We do have our doc along," Signe said. "He needs some supplies."

Jones nodded proudly; Corvallis was the best place in Oregon to buy such. Havel shot a glance at his brother-in-law, and Eric's hand chopped forward. The column rumbled into motion southwards.

 

@@@

 

"OSU our hats are off to you,

Beavers, Beavers, fighters thru and thru

We'll cheer thru-out the land,

We'll root for every stand,

That's made for old OSU!

 

Watch our pikes go tearing down the field;

Those of iron, their strength will never yield

Hail! Hail! Hail! Hail!

Hail to old OSU!"

 

Christ Jesus, what an abortion of a national anthem! Mike Havel thought, behind a gravely respectful face. Just as well we don't have one. Though we use 'March of Cambreadth' a lot; at least the lyrics aren't outright stupid and it's got a great tune.

Then again, at least the city-state wasn't pretending to be something it wasn't. There were half a dozen governments in this general part of the continent that claimed to be the United States, from single small towns to one that covered most of southwestern Idaho. All of them were rather nasty dictatorships. They used 'The Star-Spangled Banner', which was not only presumptuous of them but to Mike Havel's way of thinking in extremely bad taste.

The Corvallans weren't just singing. Pompom-wielding cheerleaders led the crowd through the fight-song, their short-skirted orange and black costumes swinging as they kicked and leapt. That was fairly ludicrous too, but then, he'd thought cheerleading was dumb even back in the '80's when he'd been on the bench and the local maidens were egging on the audience for the Hancock High Wolverines. As a teenager he'd considered football the chosen sport of idiots; track and field had been what he liked, and cross-country skiing, and by choice he'd hunt or ride his Harley or tinker with its engine or even work chores at home instead of doing head-butts with behemoths. The little Upper Peninsula high school hadn't had talent to waste, though, and he'd been effectively conscripted as the fastest running back they'd had for years.

And wasn't that a complete waste of time, he thought.

Which didn't prevent him observing with interest when a pretty girl shook it hard, then or now, and there was some righteous booty here; he caught Signe raising an eyebrow at him, and smiled back at her.

"Monogamous, alskling, not blind," he murmured.

The cheerleaders looked even odder doing their leaps and pyramids in front of ranks of armored troops standing to attention. The sixteen-foot pikes made a steel-tipped forest above them, points catching the red light of sundown in a manifold glitter as the sun set over the low hills to the west; the rest stood with crossbows held at present-arms. He supposed the folk of the city had gotten used to it, cheerleaders and all.

Corvallis proper had about eight or nine thousand people inside its walls, and besides the militia battalion a quarter of them were out to see the visitors, singing along heartily and then cheering, plus people from the countryside round about. They made a huge dun mass in the open space between Highway 99, the railway, and the old Hewlett-Packard plant to the east and the Willamette river beyond, trampling up to the edge of the mulched, harvested truck-gardens. The low-slung campus-style buildings of the high-tech factory had been taken over for noxious trades not allowed in the city proper; he could smell the whiff of leather curing in the tanning pits, and see acrid charcoal smoke from the squat brick chimney of a foundry.

Mary and Ritva were quiet behind him; they were well-mannered kids. He'd been brought up that way himself, in a straightlaced rural-Lutheran tradition enforced with love, discipline and an occasional swat on the butt when necessary. He could sense their excitement at the huge crowd, though; they'd never seen any place larger than Larsdalen. And their awe at the city wall, a little to the south. It wasn't higher or thicker than the one around their home; in fact, it was pretty similar, down to the girder-reinforced boulder-and-concrete construction.

But a hell of a lot longer, he thought.

Nearly eight miles in circuit, an immense feat of labor. Two major bandit attacks and a large raid out of the Protectorate had bounced off it like buckshot off a tank in years past, but he thought the Corvallans tended to overestimate the security it gave them.

After the anthem, a delegation walked up to him. He swung down from the saddle and waited courteously; there were about two dozen of them, and they took a fair bit of hand-shaking and honored-to-see-you-sir-or-ma'ams. That was the problem: the President, the Provost, the representatives of the Faculty Senate... back right around the Change, they'd gotten a lot done here because it was obvious what needed doing, and they'd have died if they didn't do it. And the mechanisms they'd set up went on working well enough, as long as the rest of the world cooperated by not changing much either. But try to get a policy change... right now, just getting them all in the same spot at the same time was like pushing rocks uphill.

They're tired of fighting and want to relax and enjoy life, he thought. Pity the world won't cooperate.

When the formalities were over and the troops and spectators had marched off, the Bearkiller party and Major Jones walked their horses through the entry-complex. That was a little more difficult than it would have been at Larsdalen; here they'd overlapped two sections of the city wall, so that the entrance was at right-angles to it. You had to turn sharp left to get through the outer portal, go a hundred yards with walls on either side, then abruptly right again to enter the city through the inner gate. That meant that nothing longer than a wagon could come straight at the leaves of either entryway, even if someone filled in the perimeter ditch.

Eric looked up at the complex of tower and wall and sighed as the iron clatter of hoofbeats on pavement echoed back from the concrete and stone of their heights.

"Getting fortification envy?" Havel asked quietly. "Theirs is bigger and harder than ours?"

"Well... yeah, bossman. It'd be harder to get a shot at the weak point where the leaves of the gate meet with this situp."

"Nah, it wouldn't. 'Cause the gate ain't the weak spot back home. They made their gates of timber here with sheet steel bolted on to the surface."

Eric thumped himself on the forehead, a fairly loud process when you were wearing a metal-backed gauntlet and a helmet. "And ours are solid welded steel. Probably stronger than the wall."

"It'd be quicker to dig the concrete and stone out from around," Havel agreed. He made a gesture up and around. "What happened here is that someone got a bright idea out of a history book. Your esteemed father tends to do that too. Sometimes it's brilliant. Sometimes it's a waste of time."

Behind him Ritva giggled. "Dad's right, Uncle Eric, and you're wrong." Her sister chimed in, and they chanted: "So he gets to sing the I was right song."

"Silence, peanut," Havel said affectionately, turning and winking at her.

There was one more formality as they came out of the gatehouse; having their swords peace-bonded, as all edged weapons over ten inches had to be within the wall. That meant a thin wrapper of copper wire, sealed with a lead disk crimped in something which looked like a heavy-duty paper punch; that stamped the beaver-head symbol of the University into the soft metal. The wire didn't make it impossible to draw the sword, or even difficult; it just meant that it was obvious if you'd done so, and so simplified police-work.

Law here said every family had to keep their militia weapons at home and always ready, but most people walking the streets didn't bother to carry a long blade, which looked a bit unnatural to him now. Back in Bearkiller territory, a farmer plowing did it with sword slung at the hip, and a spear or crossbow or whatever across the handles. These days you didn't need it all that often, but when you did you needed it very badly indeed, and the occasions came without warning. You put on your weapons when you went outdoors, like your hat.

They turned their horses right along Monroe at the red-brick Julian Hotel—now a barracks for militia doing their wall-duty—and continued west past the white-plastered Italianate pile of the old courthouse with its central clock-tower, which provoked more rubbernecking. Mary spoke up; he flattered himself he could tell her voice from Ritva's, and was right about three-quarters of the time. Except when they were trying to fool him, which happened every so often.

"Dad, how can they have all these people in one place? Thousands of them!"

"About eight thousand, punkin. Ten times what we have at Larsdalen and a little more."

"What do they all eat? They couldn't walk out to their fields! It's too far!"

He smiled; one thing he liked about the Changed world was that nobody assumed food and goods magically appeared in shops shrink-wrapped in plastic, not even kids, and not even the kids of the big boss. Not even the people who really did believe in magic; they were farmers too. He pointed to the railway that ran across their path, along NW 6th street.

"That runs a long out into the farmlands south of here. Corvallan farmers don't make as much of their own tools and cloth as ours do—they buy it from the city-folk instead with the food they don't eat. And there's another railroad that goes west all the way to the ocean, at Newport, so they can bring in fish from there. The rails were laid before the Change, but the Corvallans keep them up. It's easy to haul wagons on rails, easier than on the roads; and they have boats on the river, and they buy from us and the Mackenzies and some of the people further south—the McClintocks, a couple of others. And some things come from even further away, cattle from all the way over the Cascades."

And let's not go into taxes and such, he thought, as the two girls nodded gravely. Sufficient onto the day. I didn't know shit about economics until experience and Ken Larsson showed me I had to.

Just then the street-lamps began to go on. They were gaslights, fed by methane from the town's sewage works, sparse and not very bright to anyone who remembered electricity. The girls and a couple of the younger house-staff near the wagon still gasped in delight as the lamplighters held their long rods up, nudged open the glass shutters at the tops of the metal standards and snapped sparks that turned into yellow flame. Near the river the buildings they showed were mostly warehouses or small factories of frame and brick; fire had gone through the riverfront on the night of the Change, when an airliner out of Portland crashed, and more later in the riots and fighting. The streets were clean, but there was a yeasty smell in the air, the sort you got from bulk storage of farm produce. Signs hung creaking above doors, advertising millers and maltsters, dealers in hops and cloth and salvaged bulk metals, leather and glassware, makers of disk-plows and reapers and sewing machines, purveyors of fine sewing thread—or as fine as you could get without cotton—and custom gear-trains, hydraulic power systems, livery stables that rented the teams for railroads, blacksmiths...

"Did you see that?" Signe asked, turning her head so abruptly that her tired horse tossed its own in protest at the shift in balance.

"What?" he said abstractedly; one of the great things about horses was that they had autopilots when it came to ambling straight ahead, so you could think about something else.

"The graffiti," she replied.

"No," he answered, surprised. Corvallis was a very tightly run ship these days; he supposed it came with all the civic spirit. "What did it say?"

"Help, I've fallen into the RenFaire and I can't get out!"

She giggled and her brother and sister-in-law smiled; Mike Havel gave a full-throated laugh. Mary and Ritva turned puzzled eyes on their elders.

"I bet that was written by someone over forty," Havel chortled.

They turned right again and into a district where most houses were a century old or more; this part of Corvallis was laid out along a grid, and the streets were broad and tree-lined. Traffic was thick as the sunlight died, another strangeness in a world that mostly went home with the sun. Bicycles and pedicabs were numerous, and ox-carts and horse-drawn wagons, people on foot still more so as men and women walked home from work. The sound of human voices and feet was louder than wheels or hooves; most ground floors were workshops or small stores, with the proprietors living over them. Street-vendors pushed barrows and cried out their toasted nuts and hot dogs in buns or toffee apples or hot cider; children ran home from school with their slates slung over their shoulders, and housekeepers came back from daily markets in chattering clumps with their full baskets; once a splendid red fire-engine pulled by six glossy Belgians trotted past. That looked like a museum-piece and probably had been until ten years ago, and it was pursued by still more children.

Feels more crowded than American cities this size ever did before the Change, Havel thought. Even in rush hour. They've built up most of the old open space and there are a lot more people per house. Well, you have to jam 'em in, when you've got a wall around them. Every extra foot of defensive perimeter means spreading your forces that bit thinner. But they aren't poor, crowded or no. Even the smelly types sweeping up the ox-dung and horse-shit into those little pushcarts look reasonably well-fed.

Lamplight from most windows shone on the sidewalks, adding to the streetlights to make the night nearly bright enough to read by. The Havel children goggled at cobblers, tailors, bakers and saddlers, shops selling books and bicycle repairs, lanterns and eggbeaters, swords and knives and crossbows, candles and vegetables, eggs and jams and hams and bacon, taverns lively with raucous singing or even more raucous student arguments that spilled noise out into the chilly air along with the odors of frying onions, French-fries, hamburgers and wine and beer, at churches of half a dozen varieties besides the two styles of Catholic, a miniature Buddhist temple and a couple of covensteads. There were doctor's offices, architect's... and once even a law-firm's shingle.

Civilization, Havel thought, grinning to himself and shaking his head. Christ Jesus, we've got lawyers again. Ten years ago we were fighting off cannibals.

"Penny for 'em, honey," his wife said.

"I was just thinking that I'm starting to gawk like a hayseed," he said. "And this place is smaller now than the town where I went to high school!"

"You are a hayseed, darling."

"I am?" he said, making his eyes go round in mock surprise.

Signe laughed. "You were born on a farm and lived on it until you enlisted in the Marine Corps. You thought Parris Island was the big time."

"My Dad worked the mines, mostly. We were close to town. The farm was just our homeplace."

"Where your family raised spuds and pigs and cooked on a woodstove. And your idea of a good time was hunting deer."

"Chasing girls and running my motorcycle were right up there. Besides, you like hunting deer too."

"I do now. Back then I was a vegetarian. And when you got out of the Corps, you went and became a bush pilot in Idaho. You, my darling, are a hayseed of hayseeds and a hick of hicks. It's why you've done so well!"

The smile died a little as she looked around at the busy brightness and rubbed an index finger on the little white scar that nicked the bridge of her straight nose. "You know, it's scary, but I'm sort of impressed myself, and I grew up in the big city."

"Portland's still bigger than this," he said grimly.

"Portland isn't a city any more," she said shortly. "It's a labor camp and a mine. The city's dead. This is alive, at least."

He nodded, then cast off gloom as they turned into a residential street overshadowed by huge oriental sycamores and lined by old homes, on Harrison near 23rd; it was less crowded, and some of the traffic was closed carriages with glazed windows, the CY9 equivalent of a stretch limo. Most of the homes belonged to the well-to-do, merchants and high officials of the Faculty Senate, with a sprinkling of the sororities and fraternities where the scions of Corvallis' elite did their bonding. A pair of the big brick houses were owned by the Bearkillers, for times like this when a delegation was in town; the arrangement was more or less like an embassy, though less formal. It would be undignified for the Outfit's leaders to stay at an ordinary inn. Staying with friends in town would be an imposition, and besides that give political ammunition to the friends' rivals.

Corvallis had what was officially described as 'vigorous participatory democracy'; Havel tended to think of it as more along the lines of 'backstabbing chaos'.

Staff from Larsdalen had gone on several days ahead to prepare the Bearkiller consulate for them, and the windows were bright and welcoming, with woodsmoke drifting pungent from the brick chimneys. Hugo Zeppelt crowded out onto the verandah and bellowed greetings as he windmilled his arms:

"It's the tall poppies! G'day, sport - good to see yer! And the little sheilas; Uncle Hugo's got a lollie for the both of you."

He was the sort who could be a crowd all on his own, a short stocky balding man with a glossy brown beard going gray. He'd been winery manager at Larsdalen from the mid-90's until the fifth Change Year, and had taken over as steward of the Bearkiller properties here partly because it ministered to his second passion, food.

"It's the Unspeakable Antipodean," Signe said with a mixture of sarcasm and goodwill. Zeppelt's Australian drawl was as rasping as ever. "Hi, Zeppo."

"Still a bit of a figjam, eh?" he laughed back at her. "And grinning like a big blond shot fox, my Lady Signe is."

"Dinner's ready, I hope?"

"Fair dinkum, no fear," Zeppelt said. "On the bloody table, and it's grouse tucker."

"Did you ever talk like that in Oz?" Havel said curiously, dismounting and tossing the reins to a groom.

"Why, that would have been superfluous considering the cultural context, would it not?" Zeppelt answered in dulcet tones.

 

@@@

 

Bathed, fed, and sitting around the table as the children were sent yawning to their bedroom, the adults relaxed over nuts, cheese, fruitcake and wine. A low blaze in the small fireplace made the room comfortable by Change Year nine standards, which meant in the mid-sixties.

"Great job, Hugo, but Christ Jesus, I may grow gills," Havel said. "I liked the smoked salmon cooked in cream and dill. And I always was partial to a good Dungeness crab. Can't get them in our territory; I wish we had a railway to the coast. Or a port at all."

"Why do you think I asked to get sent down here?" the Australian said, belching contentedly. "Chance to get a bog in with something besides roast and spuds. Those crabs're bonzer when you stir-fry them with scallions and ginger, aren't they? Got to get them fresh, though. They ship them in from Newport on the railway in salt-water tanks with little fans worked by the wheels to keep it circulating. The sea's full of them these days, so they're cheap even so."

"What about the rest of your job?" Signe asked, a little sharply; Havel could feel her putting on her CIA hat.

"Oh, everyone here thinks old Hugo's just a harmless larrikin who doesn't know Christmas from Bourke Street," Zeppelt said, giving her a thumbs-up. "They talk around me like I was cactus. I'll give you the drum, all right; the good oil, deadset."

"And?" she said.

"Someone's spreading money. Someone who doesn't like the Bearkillers, or our kiltie friends eastwards," he said, his face going serious. "They're no galahs, either. Going at it subtle, about how we're blocking trade, that sort of thing. How much everyone would make, if they had the railway through to Portland back up and running."

Peter Jones grunted. "I didn't know that," he said. "I'm not surprised, though. You think it's Portland putting a spoon in our stewpot?"

"Nar," the Australian said. "I'd be gobsmacked if it were. Someone local, I'd say, but with an eye cocked north."

Signe nibbled at a cracker covered in blue-veined cheese, and sipped at a Rogue River zinfandel. "According to my sources—"

My spies, Havel thought affectionately.

"—Kowalski and Turner were in Portland last month. Officially they were looking into getting their wool shipments from Pendleton going again now that the war there's over. Which I'd be more ready to believe if half the sheep out that way weren't dead."

Havel grinned mirthlessly. That four-sided civil war had let the Protector's men in, which gave him the Columbia valley as far east as the old Idaho border and cut the remaining independents in eastern Washington off from the Association's enemies in Oregon unless they went around by way of Boise. It would take years for Arminger's people to get the area subdued and producing, not least because they were at daggers drawn—literally—over who would get what, but when he did it would be a nasty accession of strength. And in the short run, it gave the Protector some experienced light cavalry from the victorious faction he'd backed.

"But Turner and Kowalski had several meetings with Arminger," she went on. "And his wife, and Grand Constable Renfrew, and a couple of priestly bureaucratic types. From the Chancery, officially, but I smell Holy Office. Not exactly what you'd expect for trade talks. Arminger usually hands those off. This had the scent of something political."

She wrinkled her nose to show what sort of scent. Jones winced.

"Hell, that's a pretty serious accusation," he said. "I don't like either of them, but that doesn't make them traitors, necessarily."

Havel tossed a couple of nutmeats into his mouth. "It doesn't mean they aren't, either," he said. "Signe's reading of both of them is that they'd do anything for enough money. I trust her judgment; that type're a closed book to me. Arminger I can understand—he's sort of like me, only with megalomania and bloodlust where his ethics ought to be. Businessmen I never did grok, and that means I can't really tell a good one from a bad one."

"They wouldn't want Arminger taking over," Jones said. "In his territory he and his bullyboys squeeze people like them a lot harder than the Faculty Senate, with tolls and whatnot. And I can't see either of them getting a title or setting up as barons."

"Yeah, that's bugging me, too," Havel said. "Money means more here than in Portland territory, the way the Association is set up. Land and castles and men-at-arms count for more up there, at seventh and last. So you'd expect your budding Rockefellers to keep arm's length from the Lord Protector. But something doesn't smell right. You know anything else they've been up to?"

When Jones hesitated, he went on: "Come on, Pete, this is Mike Havel talking. You know I've got nothing against Corvallis. You and I've worked together for years."

"Well... they've been active in this 'select militia' proposal," the Corvallan said slowly. "You heard about that?"

"Yup. Paying volunteers to drill more often and do things like garrison and patrol work. It makes a certain amount of sense, from Corvallis' point of view. Calling out our militia is a royal pain in the ass too, what with the lost work, but we need everyone who can walk and carry a crossbow. You've got what, thirty-two thousand people? To our twenty thousand. That gives you more of a margin. Especially since we and the Mackenzies are between you and the main threat."

"That's what they're saying," Jones agreed. "What I hear is that they'd like the select militia to replace the present setup eventually. And have individual Faculties sponsor battalions, or possibly individuals do it. It's got some appeal. Drill isn't popular; we've had peace—more or less—for the past couple of years. And there are people who'd like the extra money, too, particularly ones whose work isn't steady year-round, so they're selling it as a sort of income-spreading measure as well. I don't like it, though. It smells to me like those Economics Faculty types trying to put one over on the rest of us, somehow."

Havel grunted again, turning an eye on Signe. She shook her head. "This is where Dad would come in useful," she said. "There's probably some historical analogy... he and Arminger have read a lot of the same books, you know?"

Jones hesitated. "What exactly did you want to talk to the Senate about?" he said, and then went on: "And to quote you, this is Pete Jones, you know I've got nothing against the Bearkillers, and we've worked together for years."

"OK, couple of things. First, we want the informal alliance made formal—we want to be able to count on Corvallis when Arminger goes for us and the Mackenzies and Mount Angel. A straightforward promise to treat an attack on us as an attack on you, the way the three northern Outfits have agreed. That might actually scare him off and we could avoid the war altogether. I could use those seven thousand militia of yours real bad."

"Ouch," Jones said, shaking his head. "You know me, Mike, I'm all for it. But a lot of people would rather pretend it's your fight and not ours."

Havel's fist hit the table, and a bottle of Chardonnay wavered. "Well, Christ Jesus, that's the problem! For years now he's been needling and probing and pushing, and we've been bleeding to keep you guys safe!"

Jones spread his hands. "You don't have to convince me, Mike! He blames it all on his barons, or on bandits, or on you for fighting back when you get attacked." A hesitation: "You might have a better chance if you'd agree to let us refurbish the railway through your territory to McMinnville."

"Not a chance, in the present situation," Havel said.

"The trade would do the Bearkillers good, as well as Corvallis and Portland," Jones argued. "That's not a zero-sum game."

"It would strengthen him more than us. The bastard squeezes his farmers as hard as he can, and he uses it to keep what amounts to a standing army. If I call out every booger and ass-wipe, I can put twenty-five hundred in the field, but only three hundred and fifty of them are A-listers; the Mackenzies can raise about the same, all infantry, and Dmwoski has about fifteen hundred, a tenth of them mounted. Say five hundred more from here and there, and some people from the Bend country. Arminger can field ten thousand full-time fighting men, a quarter of them knights and men-at-arms, and he's had enough time and cadre to train them properly by now. That means he outnumbers all three of the northern outfits put together by three to two, and a lot more than that in cavalry, eight or nine to one. Those heavy lancers are hanging over us like a sledgehammer and his logistics problems are the only thing that's keeping us from being squashed—"

He picked up a walnut between the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand, his sword-hand, and pressed. The shell cracked and fragments scattered across the white linen tablecloth.

"—like that. So no way am I going to give him a rail net to take over and support his men with when he invades us."

The Corvallan militia officer winced. "All right, that's the first item. What's the rest?"

"Different view of a similar problem. The Valley's getting to have bandits the way a dead rabbit has blowfly maggots. It's worse that it was a couple of years ago, if anything."

"More to steal," Eric put in, contemplating another slice of fruitcake; he'd been mostly silent until now. "Coyotes go up and down with the rabbits. Same-same with bandits and honest folk."

Havel nodded. "OK, the problem there is that they hang out in places where there aren't too many people, which these days is most places. We've got millions of acres of forest in the mountains on both sides of the Valley, and lots of swamp and new brush country right in it, not to mention places like the ruins of Salem or Eugene. The roads are still pretty good, so they can get around, hit and run and get away. And I'd swear Arminger's giving help to some of the gangs on the sly to keep us distracted, but leave that aside for now. The problem is catching them so we can hang or chop them."

Luanne nodded. "They keep running over a border when they're chased," she said. "We and the Mackenzies and Mt. Angel, we're all pretty good about hot pursuit, but that's limited. And—no offense, Pete—Corvallis is almost as bad as the Protectorate about letting us follow up across your frontiers. By the time we've notified your people and waited for you to take over, the bad guys have disappeared."

Havel leaned forward: "Ideally, what we need is to all get together, burn out pest-holes like the ruins of Eugene, and then sweep the whole Valley, every little island in every marsh, every patch of woods, and the Coast Range and the Cascades too, hang or gut every outlaw, and patrol to keep things clean."

Jones laughed unwillingly. "Good luck, Mike," he said. "You and a couple of divisions, hey?"

"Yeah, that's not going to happen anytime soon. So what we need is a force that can go anywhere—bandit-chasers, caravan guards, road patrollers. And we've got one. The Rangers."

Jones laughed again, this time at the statement. "You mean Astrid and Eilir's little pointy-eared Elvish Scout troop?" he said. "I mean, Christ, Mike, I know Astrid's your sister-in-law, but have you ever listened to her? She makes the Mackenzie herself herself sound like the Spirit of Pure Reason."

"They're all grown up now, Pete. You know I don't bullshit about stuff like this. They're good, playing dress-up or not. They've already handled a couple of gangs that were giving us real trouble, and we—we and Juney Mackenzie and Dmwoski—have handed them that forest around the old Silver Falls State Park. What they've got in mind is places like that up and down the edges of the Valley; not good farmland, but livable, sort of a disconnected nation of, oh, call it crime-fighters and who-do-you-call types. And we've all three agreed to pay 'em, food and weapons and cloth and a little cash. You know I'm pretty tight with a dollar—or a sack of wheat. So's Dmwoski, and Juney's bunch don't like voting taxes on themselves any more than your Senate does."

Jones' eyebrows went up. "That's going to take some selling if you want Corvallis in on it," he said. "Extraterritoriality, didn't they call it? I can hear the lawyers now, screaming about how we've only just got the rule of law back and this would mean foreigners with the right of high justice on our own soil, and what if they decide some farmer out hunting is an outlaw and chop him? Hell, these days the goddamned shysters complain when we string a bandit up, out on patrol; I hoped they'd die out with the Change, but no luck, they're like cockroaches. And the Faculty Senate squeezes the pennies like they came out of their own pockets... which they do, a lot of the time."

Signe leaned forward. "Some traders from here are already hiring the Dunedain," she said. "For escort work as far south as Reading, and east over the Cascades into the Bend country and as far as Boise, as escorts. They can be sure they won't get robbed by their own guards that way, and that the Rangers know their business, even if they keep name-dropping in Sindarin and striking poses like a Hildebrandt cover illustration. Being reliable means they get top dollar."

"Which merchants, exactly?" Jones asked.

She gave names; the Corvallan's eyebrows went higher still.

"Well," he said, "maybe we can do something along those lines. It might be a good idea to start with that. It's not likely to put backs up the way the railroad and Arminger will."

Havel rose and nodded. "Talk to you again later, then. Give our regards to Nancy and the kids."

One of the house staff they'd brought down from Larsdalen came in after the Corvallan had left. "Luanne, Signe, the rooms are ready. And the juniors are asleep." She smiled. "They claim they're keeping count of the stories they've missed and they'll want them all, with interest, when we're back home."

"Thanks, Jolene," Signe said, and patted her mouth to hide a delicate yawn. "I'm bushed. Time to turn in."

"I'm sure," Luanne said, and made a rude noise; her sister-in-law returned it with a gesture.

Mike Havel snaffled a three-quarters-full bottle of pinot gris and two glasses off the dinner table, getting a glare from a kitchen-worker who didn't like the perquisites being infringed. Their bedroom was on the third floor; Signe went first, and Havel laughed softly as he admired the view. At twenty-eight and after two pregnancies she was a bit fuller-figured than she had been when they met the day of the Change, but it was just as firm in the skirt of fine dress wool.

Riding and sword-work do wonders for a woman's figure, he mused happily. Who'da thunk it?

"What's that in aid of?" Signe asked, looking over her shoulder.

"I was remembering the first time I really noticed your ass," he said. "When you were climbing into my Piper Chieftain, Change Day, remember? Those hiphugger jeans you had on... man!"

She snorted in mock indignation, sky-blue eyes alight. "I remember thinking you were a rude, crude jerk and were probably looking at my butt," she said. "And I was right, wasn't—hey!"

She yelped and jumped. Havel waggled eyebrows and fingers, leering. "I've got a license, now, alskling. And the bedroom's that way."

"I was right!" she said, and put an arm around his waist as they came up to the landing. "On all three counts."

 

@@@

 

South Corvallis, Finney farm, Oregon

January 11th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

"I miss Luther," Juniper Mackenzie said quietly as she walked with the farm's master, looking to where her wagon stood beneath an oak.

It was nearly sunset under a sky the color of wet concrete, with spatters of rain now and then, feeling cold—as if it wanted to be snow, but didn't quite have the nerve. She wore a hooded gray winter-cloak of wool woven with the grease still in, and her host a rain-slicker over a home-made parka. The damp chill made her tuck her hands under her plaid; the air held the earthy smell of wet soil from a field of winter wheat beyond the pasture, and woodsmoke from the houses. Drops spattered on the puddles the wind ruffled, and gravel crunched under their shoes.

"Seeing it there takes me back. Before the Change I'd come every year just before the County Fair started up Corvallis way, and pick up the wagon and horses, and they were always spotless and shining. I think he kept Cagney and Lacey more for the fun of it than for what I could afford to pay to board them."

Her wagon was the classic barrel-shaped Gypsy home-on-wheels with two small windows in the sides and a stovepipe chimney through the curved roof, meant to be drawn by a pair of draught-beasts. It was still very useful for traveling, although the bright orange-red triangle for "slow vehicle" on the back was no longer very relevant... Two big Percherons had hauled it here across the Valley from the Clan's territory to just south of Corvallis; they were the offspring of her old mares, and right now they were in one of the Finney barns, enjoying a well-earned oat-mash.

Edward Finney nodded. "I miss Dad too. He was one in a million."

And this was the first place Dennis and Eilir and I stopped after we got out of Corvallis, that terrible night, Juniper thought.

"He was a friend," she replied simply, remembering the weathered smiling face, tough as an old root. She brushed at an eye with the back of her hand; that might have been a drop from the slow light drizzle, or it might not.

The approach to the Finney farm was much the same as she remembered from that night, even the tin mailbox on its post. Juniper nodded towards it.

"I remember when I showed up on Luther's doorstop the night of the Change. I was still trying to get my mind around the concept—I knew what had happened, but my gut didn't want to believe it, you see—and I wondered if anyone would ever deliver mail to that again," she said.

Edward Finney snorted. "Local delivery only, these days! And I was in Salem, wondering what the hell was going on and trying to keep the children from panicking," he replied. "I'd just begun to suspect the truth around dawn on the 18th, but I didn't want to believe it. I might not have if Dad hadn't shown up. Not really believed it, not in time to do any good."

He was in his early fifties now, a middle-sized man with iron-gray hair and weathered skin and hazel eyes, his build a compromise between his father's lean height and his mother's stocky body; he'd left the farm out of high school, spent twenty years in the Air Force, and never wanted to go back except for visits. Old Luther had thought he'd be the last farmer in the Finney line... until the day when farming became the difference between starvation and life.

"The old man came in that very next day, wobbling along on some kid's bicycle, and got me and Gert and the kids, and Susan and her husband and her daughter, and herded us back out here, wouldn't take no for an answer and drove us until we nearly dropped. We'd all be dead if he hadn't."

Juniper nodded, shivering slightly. Salem had attracted refugees beyond count, certainly beyond the ability of the hapless State government to feed, and it was in those camps that unstoppable disease had broken out a few months after the Change—cholera, typhus, and in the end plague, the Black Death itself. The swift oblivion brought by the pneumonic form had been a mercy for those doomed to starve, but then it had spread through all that remained of the Pacific Northwest, save for areas like hers where rigid quarantine, hoarded streptomycin and the Luck of the Lady had kept it out. Corvallis itself had suffered gruesomely despite its best efforts.

She shrugged. "I told him what I thought the Change was when we showed up that first night. He believed us, but he never said a word about me leaving with my wagon and horses, useful as they'd have been. Just gave me breakfast and Godspeed."

The avenue of big maples leading to the farmhouse was the same as well, though winter-bare now rather than budding into spring; Ted's great-great-great-grandfather had planted them in the 1850's, to remind him of New England, after coming in over the Oregon Trail. So was the big rambling white-painted frame house that first pioneer Finney had built later to replace the first log cabin, and the additions his son and grandson had made as they prospered, down to the wooden scrollwork over the verandah and the rosebushes and lilacs their womenfolk had tended around the big parlor bow-window.

Much else had changed. A ditch and bank surrounded the steading, and on top of it was a fence of thick posts and barbed wire; not a real fortification like a Mackenzie dun, this part of the Corvallis lands had been spared outright war, but it was enough to help deter hit-and-run bandits and sneak-thieves who'd know there were ready weapons behind it. One of the silos had a watchpost on top, as well as fodder within. Off to one side rectangular beehives stood on little wheeled carts, dreaming the winter away in their coats of woven straw.

New barns and sheds had been built, and four smaller houses behind the main dwelling. Like most surviving farmers the Finneys had taken in town-dwellers without work or hope or food, to help do by hand the endless tasks machines could do no longer. Some had left to set up on their own once they learned the many skills needed; there was abandoned land in plenty, after the first terrible years were past. Seed and stock and tools weren't to be had for the asking, though. Encroaching brush made clearance more difficult every year; country life was hard for a family alone, full of deadly danger on the outlying fringes where land was open for homesteading. Some remained here and others joined them, working for food and clothes, a roof over their heads and a share in the profits that grew with more settled times and hard-won experience.

At last the Finney place could be called a thorp, its owner a wealthy yeoman who tilled several hundred acres of plowland and pasture, orchard and vineyard and woodlot, fed his folk well, paid his taxes without difficulty, and sold a healthy surplus in Corvallis. Smaller households for miles around looked to him and his like for leadership in the Popular Assembly and militia muster. He could well afford hospitality, even when the Chief of the Mackenzies arrived with a score of her clansfolk.

Tonight windows were bright with lamplight and voices spilled out of the farmhouse, and more showed where the eastern guests were bedded down in barns. One had been cleared for dancing. Corvallan country-folk weren't quite as isolated as rustics elsewhere, since they had a real city within a day's travel. Still, a visit on this scale was still a welcome excuse for sociability, and the Mackenzies were old friends here. A violin tuning up made Juniper's fingers itch for the feel of her own fiddle, and a snatch of song came clear through the slow soughing of the wet wind, as a dozen voices joined in the chorus:

 

"—I'll ride all night and seek all day,

'till I catch the Black Jack Davy!"

 

"I thought Dad would go on forever," Edward said. "He wouldn't take it easy, no matter how often Gerd and I told him too."

"It happened during harvest, didn't it?" Juniper said.

"The tail of it, end of July, the last of the wheat. We were watering a team, and he scraped the sweat off his forehead with his thumb and said: Got us a hot one this year, then stopped and said Oh, shit! and dropped down dead. At least it was quick, not like mom."

Juniper made a sign and smiled. "He was well over eighty this year, wasn't he? He told me once that after making it back alive from Frozen Chosin he swore he wanted to die on his own land, and on the hottest day of the year with sweat dripping into his eyes. There's always Someone listening when you make a wish, you know."

The farmer laughed ruefully. "Yeah, he told me that story too when I was a kid—showed me where he'd frozen a couple of his toes off, too. I think his Korea stories made me decide on the Air Force—anything but the Marines! 'Course, if I hadn't, I'd never have met Gert. Speaking of which, let's get back before she gets dinner on the table."

Juniper nodded and they turned to walk back down the row of maples; a pair of well-trained Alsatians fell in behind them. Gertrud Finney had been born Gertrud Feuchtwanger,in a small Bavarian town near a USAF base. She'd met a young airman there in 1975...

"Reminds me of my own mother, a little, she does, but don't tell her that. I wouldn't risk that dinner for anything."

Edward Finney rolled his eyes. "We've earned every mouthful. The minute she heard you folks were coming Gerd started working overtime, and conscripting everyone, worse than Christmas and New Year together. Pretzel soup with smoked pork and caramelized onions. Sauerbraten Bofflamott-style in red wine and vinegar marinade with spices, over dumplings; spaetzle, kaiserschmarn—"

"Stop, stop, before I drool down my plaid, for Her sweet sake! I had waybread and hard cheese for lunch, eaten damp!"

"How come Eilir isn't with you?" Finney said. "Hans and Simon asked," he added, and grinned; those were his two sons, just turned twenty and eighteen, who had a lively and absolutely unrequited admiration for Juniper's daughter.

"She's with Astrid, on Dunedain business." She winked at him. "To be sure, she's also with John Hordle."

"Little John Hordle? I've heard of him. He's the one put down Mack, Baron Liu's mad dog, isn't he?"

"With help. And with him is Alleyne Loring, who's a good friend of Astrid now."

Finney cocked an enquiring eye at her. "And where's Sir Nigel Loring? I've heard of him, too."

Juniper frowned for a second, then shrugged. "He stayed in Dun Juniper, said he had something to do there."

Then she shook off whatever was troubling her and went on: "And then tomorrow we can talk seriously about the Faculty Senate."

"Damn right," Edward Finney said, looking every inch his father's son, despite the stocky frame and the beginnings of a kettle belly. "Damn right. I really don't like that proposal they've got that the city should lease out the vacant lands in big lots to the highest bidder. Sure, it would cut taxes, and sure, it's just supposed to be for temporary grazing to keep the brush down, but—"

 

@@@

 

Mathilda Arminger bobbed her head enthusiastically with the beat and tapped her hands on her knees, perched on a truss of hay. The floor of the big barn had been cleared, except for the loose-boxes behind her that held the farm's draught-horses and some of the visitors' riding mounts; lanterns made it bright, in a flickery way that shifted as draughts swung them from the rafters. Juniper Mackenzie was perched on a bale she'd spread with her plaid not far away, her legs tucked beneath her, grinning and fiddling in perfect improvised accord with an scrawny middle-aged accordion-player in bib overalls and a billowy young woman wielding a tuba. The oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa beat of the polka filled the big timber-frame building, and the feet of a dozen couples thumped on the boards of the floor; fragments of straw glistened gold as they floated around the dance floor amid the scuffing shoes, and she sneezed at the dusty smell.

Not much like home, Mathilda thought; neither the tinkle and buzz of Society-style music, nor the a-capella rap and norteno which were the alternatives, nor the hoarded classical vinyl that her mother adored, even played on a wind-up gramophone. But I like it. Makes you want to jump! Home seemed more and more distant now anyway, most of the time. It had been a while since she cried quietly into her pillow for her mother.

The tune built to a conclusion and died away. The dance broke up in laughter and talk, and people headed over to the rough trestle table of planks spread with drinks and nibblements, with hot cider in a big bubbling pot suspended over a metal brazier, and root-beer and soda-water as well. Edward Finney's sons Hans and Simon attended to the beer kegs they'd brought in on their shoulders a careful forty-eight hours before, and left in their U-shaped wooden rests to settle and chill; they were big young men, bullock-muscular from hard work, much alike except that one had dark-brown curly hair and the other's was straw-colored and straight. They handled the beer-barrels with casual expertise, adroitly whipping out the spile bungson top, and knocking the taps into the corks with a few sharp blows.

Hans shouldered his slightly younger and slightly lighter brother aside and drew a frothing mug, holding it up to the light, sniffing it to make sure no secondary fermentation had spoiled it, and then taking a long draught.

Then he grinned broadly and shouted: "Das Bier schmeckt gut!" in German with an execrable American accent.

"Lots of practice there!" someone yelled, and there was more laughter as three sisters ranging in age from seventeen to six set out mugs.

Mathilda belched gently while she considered heading towards the table herself. There were some very good-looking things there, and good-smelling; Honigkuchen honey cakes, Elisen gingerbread made with powdered hazelnuts, pfefferkuchen fragrant with a hoarded package of spices whose like nobody was likely to see for a long time, fluffy Springerle with anise...

No, she thought. I'm real full from dinner. I'm really full. I'd better not.

One thing she remembered well about her father was that he always looked down on people who couldn't discipline themselves. She clutched harder at memories as they faded.

Rudi came back with a slice of cake and sat and nibbled beside her. "This is great!" he said. "I always like visiting the Finneys."

Epona came over to the edge of the box behind them, drawn by the sound of his voice; the great wedge-shaped black head bent above the wooden railing, and started to gently lip his tumbled red-gold hair. Rudi laughed, and fed her a bit of the cake; she took it from his palm with a delicate twitch of her lips.

Mathilda nodded. "And... well, nobody's being mean to me any more," she said.

The son of the Mackenzie chieftain looked at her as he rubbed a hand along the mare's jaw. "Well, yeah! Duh! It's geasa. Mom should have done that months ago, you ask me. But she doesn't like to make people do things, even when it's something good."

"Why not?" Mathilda asked.

Rudi frowned. "I think it's 'cause people aren't as happy or good when they think you're pushing them around," he said after a hesitation. "Nobody should be a bully. It comes back at you, Mom says, and always when it's the worst time. But sometimes you have to give them a push, if you're the Chief."

Juniper came back to her bale with a mug of the beer in her hand, and sat to drink and blow out a wuff of satisfaction. She caught the last of the words, and nodded.

"You do, sometimes. Just remember that the world has a way of pushing back." She took a long drink of beer the color of old honey and raised her voice: "Now, that's a noble brew, Ted. Wheat beer, isn't it, for all that it's dark?"

Gertrud Finney answered from over near the tables; she was a full-figured woman a few years older than Juniper, with dark-blond braids wound around her head, wearing a blouse and dirndl that looked as if they spent most of their time in a chest. A slight guttural south-German accent still marked her English.

"It's Hefe-weizenbock, Juney, yes, half wheat, half barley. My father and brother worked in the Aktienbrauerei Kaufbeuren, and I remember a bit. We experiment, now that we have time for it. It is not perfect, not yet."

"Not far from it, though," Juniper said, smacking her lips slightly, with what Rudi called her Chief-face peering out for a moment. "Dennis Martin in Dun Juniper would be interested in the way of making it, and Brannigan over to Sutterdown."

"Not even Abbot Dmwoski gets this formula!" Gertrud said, with a mock-ferocious scowl, shaking a finger. "Much less you heathen witches!"

They made signs at each other—the Horns and the Cross—and then raised their mugs, laughing across the barn's floor. Aoife Barstow came up to Juniper as she finished and bent to murmur in her ear. The Mackenzie chieftain nodded, looked around, and called a few names. A drummer with the bohdrans under her arms came to sit beside her, and a piper—the Uilleann pipes, not the great war-drones—and a young man known for his voice stood smiling nearby.

Juniper exchanged a few words with the other musicians and then raised her voice; the buzz of talk instantly dropped away.

"We'll be doing a piece named Donnal MacGillavry, and perhaps a final song or two, then allowing everyone to seek their beds, or their straw," she said, tucking the violin under her chin. "And if you'll clear a space for them, Aoife Barstow and Liath Dunling here will dance a bit."

The bohdran drum began, beaten slow but gradually speeding its tempo, and then the pipes behind it. The young man's clear tenor joined as Juniper's fiddle did:

 

"Donnal's come up the hill, hard and hungry

Donnal's come doon the hill, wild he is and angry—"

 

Mathilda leaned over, looking at the kilted dancers; Aoife was familiar, but the other woman was a little younger, just turned eighteen, with long brown hair in a single braid and an unremarkable round face made pretty by youth and health and happiness. She wore her shirt open a little to show a new tattoo at the base of her throat. That might have been a crescent moon, but it wasn't; it was a strung bow, the Warrior's Mark, a fashion among the younger Mackenzies when they passed the First Armsman's tests and became liable for the Clan's fighting levy, and for duties like this trip escorting the Chief. Sam Aylward himself disapproved of it, as he did painting faces before a fight, but both new customs had spread nonetheless.

Rudi thought it had come from one of the old songs or stories, but he wasn't sure; he was sure he intended to have it done himself, just as soon as he was old enough.

Mathilda whispered in Rudi's ear as the two Mackenzies unsheathed their dirks and held them overhead, the bright metal catching the lantern-light; they stood side by side, left hand on hip, weight on that leg and right toe just touching the floor, and they'd put their flat bonnets back on, with the signs of their sept totems, Aoife's raven-feathers and Liath's tuft of wolf-fur.

"Liath... I thought her name was Jeanette?" she said. "Doesn't she live at Sam's place?"

"She's his wife's youngest aunt's daughter," Rudi said automatically, leaning forward as the dancers took their first step forward. "Changed her name when she was Initiated just a little while ago—you know, the way a lot of people do, if their birth-name's old-fashioned and silly. Aoife used to be called Mary, I think."

"Oh," Mathilda said. "I think some people do that up north, too. Different stories, though, so the names are different. Arthur and Roland and Ger and Lancelot and Verranger."

Liath and Aoife bowed and twirled and leapt, their feet flashing faster and faster, the sound of them on the worn oak boards of the barn's floor like the skittering throb of the bohdrans themselves, dancing side-by-side, then face to face, then back-to-back. The audience clapped to the rhythm and roared out the chorus:

 

"Come like the white wolf, Donnal MacGillavry!

Here's tae the Chief and to Donnal MacGillavry!"

 

"Oh, no!" Rudi said suddenly, slapping himself on the forehead.

"What?"

"That's what Dan meant about Aoife falling in love again! He was bummed about it too!"

"I thought her boyfriend's name was Connor?"

"Connor Ianatelli? He dumped her and got handfasted with someone over at Dun Carson and moved there just after Yule. Didn't you hear about it?"

"Who cared about that soppy stuff? I was sooooo excited when Sam gave me that bow. A new one! All my own!"

Rudi smiled. "Well, Mom did lay that geasa on all of us, you know. So Sam had to be as nice to you as he was to me. Besides, he likes you. It's hard to tell that with Sam if you don't know him."

"So Connor got married and left?" Mathilda said; she liked to keep things straight and orderly in her mind.

"Yup. To a cousin of Cynthia Carson, a girl named... named..." He slapped himself on the forehead again. "A girl named Airmed! Her family's got a part of the new vineyard there. I remember it all 'cause Mom yelled at Aoife about it."

"Yelled at Aoife because Connor dumped her for Airmed?"

"No, 'cause Aoife was so mad she tried to cast a spell to make Airmed's toenails split and her hair fall out and things."

"Can't you witches do that?"

"Well, of course we can, we're just not supposed to, it's against the rules. Besides, Airmed's a witch too. That's really really really not a good idea, putting a hex on another witch. They can tell."

"Oh. Well, so who's Aoife in love with now?"

"Liath, of course," he said impatiently, gesturing towards the dance, and rolled his eyes upward.

"But Liath's a girl too!"

"So?" Rudi said, puzzled. "Sometimes that's the way it happens."

Mathilda looked at him. "But that's against the rules. And it's... icky."

"Why?" Rudi asked, and then nodded as he remembered. "Oh, yeah, it's geasa for you Christians, isn't it?" he said tolerantly. "Like not eating meat in Lent? It's different for us witches."

"But then why was Dan bummed about it?"

"'Cause Aoife's cool most of the time but she's a complete pain when she falls for someone, everyone knows that. You weren't around the last time, with Connor. She gets real boring; all she wants to talk about is how wonderful whoever-it-is, is, she won't do anything that's fun at all, it's all gooey-eyes and mushy songs and stuff like it wasn't just the same way the last time. And we're gonna be stuck listening to her 'cause Uncle Chuck has her guarding us all the time... maybe it'll be better this time... Oh, Lord and Lady, Liath's in the First Levy now, she'll be on guard with us too! You're my best friend, Matti, but this guarding thing is a pain in the arse. Really. I wish your folks would... oh, never mind."

"Am I?" Mathilda asked, her voice quiet.

"Are you what?"

"Your best friend."

"Well, duh, why do you think I hang out with you all the time?" he said cheerfully, giving her a punch on the arm. "It's not so Uncle Chuck can have the same boring grown-ups following us around with spears, you know. Or because you're my fostern-sister. You're cool."

They leaned back against the hay-bale, sharing their plaids as the night grew a little chilly, and passing the chunk of fruitcake back and forth for the sort of small bites you took when you were full and just eating for the taste. Mathilda felt her eyelids drooping as Juniper sang Odhche Mhath Leibh, slow and sad and sweet.

Then they came open with a snap, a wariness prickled by a change in the air. Not at anything that was said or done, or any sudden sound at first. Then she noticed a mud-splashed man in leather pants and jacket talking to Edward Finney; and the farmer's face changed. He came over to Juniper, bending to talk in whispers. Juniper's face changed as well, and she rose to walk over and crouch before the children. Rudi smiled sleepily at her, and she absently smoothed a lock of red-gold hair back from his forehead.

"Mathilda, my dear, I have news for you."

"What?" Mathilda said, feeling a sharp stab of fear draining away the good feelings.

"Your mother has come to Corvallis, child. You'll be seeing her tomorrow, or very soon."

 

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