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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

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


CHAPTER SIX:

 

Corvallis, Oregon

January 11th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

The fort on the eastern bank of the Willamette guarded the twin bridges running into Corvallis town, but the ground around it was open save for a small lake and a few woodlots, cultivated fields that had been part of the University's experimental farm, and more that had once been a golf course. In midwinter all that was fallow ground, dusty-green pasture, or the lumpy dark-brown of plowed furrows, patches of it covered by a drifting ground-mist that turned distance to shadow and trees to looming shapes.

A small stone monument outside the gate listed the names of those who'd died defending the desperately needed crop in that first dreadful year. Lieutenant Sally Chen remembered those days; sometimes much better than she wanted to, late at night; remembered the cramping hunger in her belly as her bones poked through her skin, and the cry of bring out your dead... She'd been a first-year student then, and used a sharpened shovel in the scramble to keep refugees and foragers off the fields of grain and vegetables and the hoarded livestock; helped bring in the harvest too, often with her bare hands or a kitchen knife. She'd also fought in the internal battles, carefully not commemorated, with those who wanted to fall in with the State government in Salem and its insane plan to put all the food in one pot and try to carry everyone through. When that civil war was over—and the plague victims had been buried in mass graves north of the Hewlett-Packard plant—there had been food enough for the survivors in the city and its surrounding territory to keep eating until next year's crop... just barely.

Beyond the river was a thin strip of settled land about two farms deep, with grainfields and orchards and defended homesteads, and then mostly vacant brush-country to the notional border with the Mackenzie territories along old Highway 99E; and more of that beyond, because the first Clan duns were well east, past the old I-5 interstate. In between were old ruins and new wilderness, growing up worse every year in bramble and weeds and sapling trees save where wildfire preserved grassland; the central core of the Valley had taken the worst damage in the aftermath of the Change, and what people remained still clung to the bordering mountains.

Chen spent much of her time under arms patrolling that budding jungle, keeping it a little less unsafe for traders and travelers, which was less boring than sitting here watching the road, but also less comfortable. Now she sat on a bench in the fort's courtyard across from the open east-gate and took a bite of the sandwich her eight-year-old son had brought over from home; smoked pork and sharp-tasting cheese on black bread, with mayonnaise and chopped pickled onion...

Pweeeeet!

The whistle of the speaking-tube brought her on her feet with a sigh; just standing around in armor all day was work, and unlike the shop you didn't have a pair of shoes or a set of harness to show for it afterwards. She looked up, then walked over to the stand and pulled the cork out of the funnel on the bottom end of the tube. The striped fabric of the hot-air balloon a thousand feet above was a looming shape in the fog, a gaudy black and orange against the pale gray of the sky when wisps of mist blew aside and gave her a view. The mooring-rope climbed in an ever-steeper curve from the heavy winch to the gondola, and a rubber hose ran beside it.

"What've you got, Hillary?" she shouted into it, then put her ear close to listen.

"Mounted party on the highway, armed—I can see some lanceheads. About twenty riders, with two two-horse wagons. Coming at a walk."

Chen looked out the open gate; nothing there but roadway stretching out into the mist; then she scratched her head under the brim of the helmet with her free hand and took another bite out of the sandwich. Twenty armed riders with only two small vehicles didn't sound like merchants; you'd never make a profit on it. She knew that well, since in civilian life she ran a leatherworking business with her husband and brother and sister-in-law, as the marks of awl and thread and needle on her hands bore witness. They'd taken small shares in several caravans buying hides further to the east, and checked on the costs to make sure the accounting was honest.

Chen looked around the small courtyard that held the winch. The fortress was a solid square block of stone and concrete about the height of a two-story house with round towers at the corners, and a wet moat without; one of the minor hardships of being stationed here was the everlasting slight stagnant smell, except when the spring freshets from the Willamette changed the water.

"Keep an eye on them," she called into the tube, and then took another bite. Her next remark went to the courtyard in general: "Turn out, everyone: wall-stations. But not the gate, not yet.

Booted feet pounded up the steep staircases as someone beat on a triangle, and hastily-donned helmets showed along the crenellations of the battlements. The drawbridge was worked by counterweighted steel levers, which made it easy to close quickly; they had to be cranked down, but that was usually less urgent.

"And load the engines," she went on, a little less distinctly as she finished the heel of the sandwich.

A series of deep chrunk-tunng sounds came from the catapults and bolt-throwers, as valves were opened. Water from the reservoirs in the towers flowed into the hydraulic bottle-jacks built into the war machines, pushing back against the coil-springs and throwing arms until they were cocked and locked with the trigger mechanisms. Those engines could cover half a mile around the fort with showers of forged-steel darts and globes of homemade napalm. Or at least they could when visibility was good, which right now it wasn't.

"Now let's see what we've got," she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin and tossing it into the lunch-basket.

She dusted off her metal-backed steerhide gloves, settled her swordbelt and picked up the glaive that leaned against the stone of the inner wall. That was much less cumbersome than a pike in the strait confines of a fortress interior; five feet of ashwood with a heavy pointed length of steel like a giant kitchen-knife on it, and a hook welded to the base of the thick straight back of the blade. Then she walked out onto the drawbridge over the moat, careful not to step beyond the edge of it. The counterweights could snatch it up quickly, and she'd slide down to the bottom on the inside with nothing lost but dignity. That would leave plenty of time to close the steel-shod gates and drop the portcullis.

Not that she expected trouble. Enemies or bandits would have to be insane to attack here; the fort was strong, and it had a garrison of thirty, and there was another just like it where the bridge met the city wall on he west bank of the river, and the city itself could muster near two thousand defenders almost at once if the call to turn out in arms came. It was probably just some Mackenzies, or possibly travelers from east over the Cascades... though the passes would be difficult, this time of year. Or it might be Bearkillers, though they'd be more likely to come from the north, past the border station at Adair.

She scowled slightly, and absently snapped down the triangular three-bar visor of her helmet and peered out into the fog. Mackenzies were all right, she supposed—sort of bizarre in varying degrees, but all right. Bearkillers... well, they weren't cut-throats and thugs like the Protector's men, but they were almighty hard-boiled, and their A-listers were often outright arrogant. They made her glad Corvallis had avoided developing a landed aristocracy of the type that seemed to be growing up like mushrooms on cowflops in most places.

Leaning on the shaft of the glaive she waited. The lookout in the balloon didn't say anything more, so the riders were still coming on, and she hadn't recognized them. Her second-in-command came up, a long-hafted war-maul across one mailclad shoulder as he stroked his square-cut brown-yellow beard with his free hand. He was also her next-door neighbor, a house carpenter, a member of their regular Friday-night bridge club, and they'd been in several classes together back in 1998.

"What the hell do you think it is, Sally?"

"Jack, I keep telling you, it's Lieutenant, Lieutenant Chen or ma'am, when we're on duty!"

A grin. "OK, ma'am, what the hell do you think it is?"

"Damned if I know, Jack," she replied.

"Hey, when we're on duty that's sergeant Jack to you, bitch," he said, and they both laughed.

A moment later Chen shoved her visor up for a better look at what came looming out of the fog. "Mud lun yeh!" she said, startled into swearing in Cantonese for the first time in many years. "What the fuck?"

 

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"Erainnath Dùnedainon nelmet, Astrid a Eilir!"Astrid Larsson called, reining in where the roadway met the fort's drawbridge.

Her Arab mare Asfaloth tossed its wedge-shaped head, and its long mane flew silky, wound with bright ribbons as the slender legs did a little dance-in-place. Astrid raised her right hand high, palm-out in the gesture of peace.

"Ennyn edro hi ammen!" she cried.

"But darling, the gates are open," Alleyne Loring murmured.

"Greetings, Lady Astrid, in the name of the people and Faculty Senate of Corvallis," the militia officer said; or at least Eilir thought so, even though uncertainly made the movements of her lips less crisp than the deaf woman would have preferred.

That's irritating, she thought. Lip-reading is hard enough even when people enunciate properly!

There was wonder in the Corvallan's eyes as she looked down the row of mounted Dùnedain, with a brace of baggage-carts bringing up the rear. The column of twos had halted with a single surge and stamping, and the Rangers sat their horses nearly motionless... except for wondering eyes on the watch-balloon overhead.

"Mae govannen," Astrid said graciously. "Or in the common tongue, well-met."

Eilir smiled to herself at the way the militia soldiers' eyes were bugging out; Astrid had laid herself out for Yule presents, and the entire column of Dùnedain was wearing the new black tunic-vests with the silver tree, stars and crown, while Eilir herself held the banner with its cross-staff. They'd also agreed that if the Rangers were to be a thing they lived rather than did in their spare time they should look more alike, and not like Bearkillers or Mackenzies on holiday. The pants felt strange on her legs, and she missed her kilt and plaid, but she supposed she'd get used to it again... and they'd also agreed they could wear what they liked when visiting their kinfolk.

I used to think this was goofy, she mused, rolling her eyes down at the tunic for an instant. Of course, I did always think they were sort of cool as well, and it looks less goofy with us all dressed this way.

The Larsdalen artisans had done them well, and the meshmail-and-nylon lining was very comforting, when you didn't have time for real armor.

Dread Lord and merciful Mother-of-All, I don't even really remember what it was like when nobody was trying to kill me.

There were three men with the column not in the new... well, Alleyne had called it the national costume. Alleyene himself was in his suit of green-enameled plate armor, with his visor up but the heater-shaped shield with its five roses on a silver background on his left arm, and a long lance in his right, the butt resting on a ring welded to his right stirrup-iron. John Hordle wore a green mail-shirt, and an open-faced sallet helmet pushed up until it rested on the back of his head, with his bow and long sword worn crosswise across his back; the cob he rode had a goodly share of Percheron in it, which was only fair considering that he weighed more than Alleyne did riding armored cap-a-pied in steel.

Sir Jason Mortimer was in the pants and quilted gambeson he'd worn under his armor, complete with old bloodstains, and cuffs that ran through a ring on the pommel of his saddle securing his right hand; he looked frowsy and disheveled, even apart from the way his shield-arm was in a sling. Nobody had hurt him, and his wounded shoulder had been competently tended, but they hadn't been all that considerate either; he'd spent Yule locked up in a storage shed near Mithrilwood Lodge, with a lump of salt pork, waybread, water, and a bucket for his necessities.

They'd made him empty the bucket himself, too.

"Ah... Lady Astrid..."

The militia lieutenant was floundering, but she knew who she was talking to. There weren't many in the Valley who'd fail to recognize Astrid and Eilir together. Then she visibly pulled herself together, shifting her glaive into the crook of her left arm.

"What's the purpose of your visit to Corvallis, Lady Astrid?" she said politely. "And who are those with you?"

"We come to speak the truth before the people and Faculty Senate; what other business we have in Corvallis is our own. And those with me are the Ohtar and Roquen of the Dùnedain Rangers," Astrid said loftily.

"Ah..."

Well, when you're with Astrid, things are never dull, Eilir thought, delighted. Then she signed to Little John: Have pity on the nice lady with the glaive, excessively biggish boyfriend, and translate. I doubt she knows Sign or Sindarin.

"That's squires and knights." the big man said in his bass voice. "I don't suppose you speak Elvish, ma'am?" he added, his little brown-amber eyes twinkling.

"Ah, where were you planning on staying?" the militiawoman said, blinking again. "You understand, such an, ummm, imposing force—"

All the riders had helms and some sort of body armor besides their swords and bows; four carried long horseman's lances as well.

"We're staying with Master William Hatfield," Astrid replied, pulling a folded letter from her saddlebag and handing it down. "Or at least leaving our horses and gear with him; he stands surety for us. And our prisoner."

"Ummm," the lieutenant said, a variation on her previous nonverbal placeholder as she read. The: You can't keep prisoners in Corvallis! she obviously wanted to say died silent.

"Errrr... I know Bill Hatfield. OK, I suppose... Who is this man?"

Alleyne cut in. "He's Sir Jason Mortimer, from the Protectorate. He won't be hurt on Corvallan soil," he said. "Or at all, really. We captured him in company with bandits; leading bandits on a raid, in fact."

"You're going to accuse him before a court, or the Faculty Senate?" Chen said sharply.

"We're going to show him to the Senate, yes," Alleyne replied.

Everyone looked a little gloomy at that. Sir Jason had resolutely refused to cooperate, and the Dùnedain didn't go in for the toenails-and-burning-splints forms of persuasion. Which wouldn't work here anyway. If he kept his mouth shut, there went most of the public-relations effect of capturing him in the first place.

Maybe we should just have chopped his head off anyway, Eilir thought. Though of course...

"We're also going to arrange his, you might say, repatriation with the Association's consul here," Alleyne went on.

Meaning we're going to squeeze him until his eyes pop out, Eilir thought happily.

Running an embryo nation had turned out to be unexpectedly expensive, with endless things they needed to get; and besides, by rights they should have whacked the man's head off with the rest, who were only his tools after all.

Besides, the way the Association works, Liu's widow will have to cough up to help him.

In the end it would all come out of the people who worked Mortimer's lands, but he probably took as much as he could from them anyway. The payments on the ransom would have to be subtracted from his own income, unless he wanted his peasants to die, revolt or run away in despair. Bad as they were the Protectorate's nobles had learned that you couldn't skin the sheep if you wanted to shear it next year, and there was more work than hands to do it everywhere these days.

The rest of the formalities took only a few minutes, not much longer than required to peacebond their swords. Few of the Rangers had visited Corvallis before; they stared about them in wonder as they crossed the northernmost bridge. Fog covered the water, but the current made odd swirling patterns in it, and Celebroch moved uneasily under her, feeling the toning of the swift water against the pilings through her hooves. Barges and boats and booms of logs for timber moved beneath, dim and half-seen; a few sported tubby masts and gaff sails, and more were tied up along the waterfront. Eilir ran a soothing hand down her mount's neck, and again when they passed through the inner gate and the city wall and the Arab mare shied at the bustle of the crowded street.

The Stone Houses, Astrid signed. Fallen from their former greatness, aren't they?

Eilir looked at her, slightly alarmed; it was possible—not likely, but possible—that her anamchara would decide that this decayed city needed a princess or two to lead it back to greatness, and you didn't need three guesses to know who'd be in that role. And she just might pull it off... she'd brought off crazy schemes before. Perhaps she could have brought off the ones Eilir had talked her out of, as well.

Or maybe they'd just have gotten us all killed, Eilir thought, searching for inspiration. Help!

"Little do they know our labors in the distant wilds, that keep them safe," Alleyne said before she could sign, and Astrid nodded.

Phew! Eilir thought. She was always one for going off on tangents, but it was all a lot less scary and more fun when we were younger and less powerful.

Their destination was just right of the gate to which the bridge led, tucked into the northeastern corner of the city wall and separated from it only by the paved strip around the base, the pomeramium kept clear for military use. Parts of the complex looked like they had been something on the order of a car dealership before the Change, and more timber-frame buildings had been run up on a parking-lot to add space; a house had been tacked on as well, probably moved from somewhere outside the walls and rebuilt here.

A group of men waited under a sign that read Hatfield & Hatfield. Will Hatfield was a wiry man in his forties; he smiled broadly and waved as the Dùnedain column drew up before his complex of warehouses, stables and workshops.

"All's ready," he said; his eyes narrowed as they saw the captive knight. "Including a nice tight room for your little pigeon there. Harry, Dave, see he's stowed away."

Eilir unlocked the handcuffs. Two tough-looking young men in rough clothes helped Sir Jason Mortimer off his horse, and then frogmarched him away. They didn't carry weapons, strictly speaking—their belt-knives had blades under ten inches long. That was enough, and they also had axe-handles thonged to their right wrists. The city bylaws said nothing about carrying a stick.

Hatfield was a wholesale merchant who dealt largely in hides and leather, a growing business as the pre-Change plastic equivalents finally wore out, with a sideline in tallow and wool and hemp and other goods. The actual tanning was done outside the walls, but the big shadowy spaces of his warehouse were still pungent with the smell of leather, the greasy lanoline scent of the wool, and the fatty-beefy smell of tallow, with beeswax and horses and half a dozen other goods beneath. Eilir took a deep breath; it was the smell of faraway places and happenings.

I wouldn't like to live in a city, she signed to Hordle. But it's nice to visit once in a while.

The woods can get quiet, he replied, then winked. Although there are ways to make them lively, eh?

Hatfield handed Astrid a key to the padlocks that secured the space he'd turned over to the Dùnedain. He waved aside her thanks. "You saved my life that day over in the mountains," he said. "Not to mention a wagon-train full of goods I couldn't afford to lose."

Astrid smiled with regal courtesy, and greeted his family likewise; his wife was a competent-looking person with cropped black hair and ink-stained fingers, with a six-year-old girl clutching at her leg and peering out shyly from behind it. His son was just into his teens, and he looked at the Dùnedain with awe.

"Mae govannen sinome—" he began, and stumbled through a clumsy greeting in Sindarin.

From the stiff way he shaped the words he'd learned strictly from books; the Ranger version had become more like a living tongue, and they'd had to make up a good deal to fill in the irritating gaps—words for "sexual intercourse" and "to pee", for instance.

Astrid's face blossomed into a smile, and Eilir knew wryly that she'd made another slave for life; she answered in the same language, then shifted into English:

"I know your father to be a brave man and a good friend," she said to the boy. "It's good to know his son is a scholar of the ancient tongues as well!"

Much of the covered space was loose-boxes for horses, and there was enough room for their mounts and a little to spare. Hatfield and his staff helped with easy competence, and his son practically flew around running errands, but the Dùnedain saw to their own horses. Her Celebroch and Astrid's Asfaloth went into one on their own; they got along well, being sisters themselves, dappled-gray and beautiful, accepting the wedges of dried apple the two women fed them as only their due after the currying and rub-down.

Got that youngster under your spell, Alleyne signed a few minutes later, his blue eyes laughing, as they walked out into the street. And really, you know, the languages aren't all that ancient.

He might make a Ranger, someday, Astrid replied. Or at least a Dùnedain -friend. And who's to say they're not really ancient? Are dragons and rings of power any stranger than the Change?

She turned to the assembled Rangers. "All right, how many of you know how to handle money? Really, I mean."

About a third raised their hands, some uncertainly; the confident ones included all the few Dùnedain from the city and its lands. The Rangers had all been twelve or younger at the Change, and few of them remembered using currency at all well. Money had only come back into circulation in the last couple of years, starting with Corvallis and the Protectorate. The Bearkillers had their own mint, but the Mackenzies hadn't bothered; neither folk made much use of coin as yet.

"Everyone gets two silver dollars each," Astrid said. "You can get a room and your meals for longer than we'll be here on one, at a good tavern. Two is the price for a pretty good horse, or a sword. So be careful while you're shopping! You should have some left over when we leave. And remember, you're on best behavior. The honor of the Dùnedain Rangers is in your hands! Not to mention our secrets; use Sign or Sindarin if you have to discuss anything confidential."

One of the Dùnedain grinned; he was all of eighteen, and newly promoted to ohtar. "Besides, Sindarin's great for wowing the women. All you've got to do is look into their eyes and whisper something like I lempë roccor caitaner nu I alta tasar and the townie girls go all weak in the knees."

A girl about his own age thumped him on the top of the head. "Telu e-gass," she said. "You're using The five horses stand under the willow-tree as a make-out line?"

Telu e-gass was another compound of their own coinage, added to the Elvish stock. It translated roughly as asshole.

Astrid snorted: "What part of best behavior didn't you understand, Dathar? And nobody goes off on their own—pairs of anamchara together at least. We'll meet each morning at Hatfield's."

They nodded solemnly, and Eilir pulled the pouch out of her jerkin and handed over the dime-sized coins; about three-quarters bore the beaver-head of Corvallis, and the rest a mix of the snarling bear-mask of Mike's Outfit and Arminger's lidless Eye. Those made her palm itch, but it was good silver and you couldn't avoid using it, since the Protectorate had been minting money the longest and made the most. Everyone coined to the same fineness and standard weight, anyway.

Eilir cocked an eye upwards. Between the clouds, the fog and the short winter day, it took experience to estimate the time. Then she looked at the signs of the eating-houses that congregated along lower Monroe Street. The smells were appetizing, and included the scent of frying fish.

Anyone else feel like lunch first? she signed.

"A good idea," Alleyne said. "Never bargain on an empty stomach."

 

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"That was a good bacon cheeseburger," Astrid said over her shoulder. "I hate to admit it, but sometimes I just get tired of roast venison."

Tired of food? Eilir signed ironically, making her eyes go round; she'd had pizza lavishly strewn with dried shrimp.

They all laughed as they headed up 14th on their way to Polk; deer were abundant in Mithrilwood... sometimes too abundant. So much so that salt pork stewed with lentils and dried onion was a relief occasionally.

"Even the Fellowship got tired of lembas," Alleyne said. "I liked the grilled chub with herbs, personally."

"At least in winter the deer last long enough you can trade for something else before it goes off," Hordle rumbled. "I take a good deal of fueling up, I do. It's not 'ealthy for me to go off me feed."

Since he'd just put away three platters of crab-cakes, several pounds of what he insisted on calling chips rather than French-fries, and vegetables on top of it, nobody argued. The four of them had also shared a green salad, a scandalous luxury in January, when the winter-gardens were giving out; some of it came from the old University greenhouses, and it had cost as much as the rest of the meal together.

Astrid and Alleyne went first down the crowded sidewalk. Eilir watched with tender amusement as Astrid's hand moved out towards Alleyne's, drew back, then darted out and gripped his fingers. Her own arm was tucked through John Hordle's—which took some arranging, even though she wasn't a short woman by any means. Their eyes met, and Hordle's rolled up. She knew exactly what he was thinking:

Seven months, and they're just up to holding hands in public?

Eilir scowled at him and then gave her silent giggle; it was sort of funny, when you thought about it. And sweet and sad at the same time.

Amusement died when they came up to the old brick-built Victorian house that housed the consulate of the Protectorate, and alertness replaced it. A banner hung from the eaves to just over the door, night-black save for a flame-wreathed lidless Eye in gold and crimson.

Something's up, she thought.

The building usually made do with the discreet plaque reading Portland Protective Association to keep from provoking the citizenry. The four-horse carriage that had just drawn up outside it was unusual as well, very like a Western stagecoach except much fancier and with pneumatic tires, with brass and lacquered leather and glazed windows with sashes drawn across them, and a different blazon on the doors—a blue-mantled Virgin Mary standing on a submissive-looking dragon.

Even after what must have been days of travel in the wintertime the vehicle still had a subdued dark gleam, and the horses looked reasonably fresh. The outriders were four men-at-arms in full fig; conical helmet with nasal bars that splayed out to cover the mouth over mail coifs, knee-length short-sleeved hauberks with the skirts split up the middle for riding, plate or splint protection on shins and forearms; the destriers had steel chamfrons on their heads and peytrals to protect their chests. They'd diplomatically left their lances somewhere else, their swords were peace-bonded, and their four-foot kite-shaped shields were slung diagonally across their backs from left shoulder to right hip by the guige straps, point-down like a country-singer's guitar in the old days. They swung down and let grooms lead their mounts away to the stables behind the house, taking position around the carriage facing out with their arms crossed over their chests, standing with a relaxed alertness like so many hunting dogs.

Two footmen had been riding on the back of the carriage, blue with the chill despite warm woolens. They leapt down and opened the door facing the sidewalk and swung down the folding stair. A young maidservant in double t-tunic and long embroidered tabard stepped down, a light suitcase in her hand, an elegant pre-Change French type surfaced with ostrich leather and closed with a built-in combination lock. Another woman followed her, dressed in Portland's idea of male civil garb and wearing a sword at her belt, which was more than a little odd in Association terms, and carrying a lute; she handed that to the servant when she saw the Dùnedain. The bundle slung over her back was probably a crossbow in a zippered nylon bag. Her plain dark t-tunic had long sleeves that flared below the elbow; from the way it moved, Eilir suspected a mail lining, and a sheathed dagger strapped to her right forearm; she was in her early twenties, blond hair cut in a pageboy bob, with eyes the pale gray of the sea on an overcast winter's day, graceful features as hard and watchful as the guardian warriors.

Look at her wrists and the backs of her hands, Eilir thought, conscious of a quick professional appraisal directed at her. Look at her eyes, look at the way she moves. That's a fighter and a very good one.

Then a third passenger left the coach...

Astrid forced her hand back from the hilt of her sword and rested both hands on the broad heavy belt that cinched her waist; she stood there bristling quietly with her face a beautiful calm mask, something that would make anyone who knew her well nervous. Alleyne raised an eyebrow, and John Hordle muttered an oath; the passenger was someone they'd both met, when they came into Portland on the Pride of St. Helens last spring.

Sandra Arminger! Eilir thought.

 

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"Why, it's Roquen Astrid, Hiril of the Dùnedain!" Sandra Arminger said with a smile.

She stepped out of the carriage, bundled in a long shimmering ermine traveling cloak and holding the skirts of a rich cotte-hardi aside; the woman with the sword handed her down.

Her voice was warm and pleasant as she went on: "And her anamchara the Kel-Roquen Eilir Mackenzie! We meet at last! Mae govannen, ndek!"

Astrid grew conscious that she was about to hiss in sheer fury, and made herself take a deep breath and let it out slowly. It's just like her to know the elven-tongue, she thought. This means we'll have to be careful while she's around, because we can't tell how much of it she knows. Damn!

"Lady Sandra," she forced herself to say. "We had business at the consulate here, but we'll come back later."

Sandra Arminger's eyes were a dark brown just short of black, steady and clever and watchful. Her smile seemed to reach them, but with a secret amusement, as if she was always laughing at some secret joke at everyone else's expense; she was a good deal shorter than Astrid or Eilir's five-eight, doll-like before Hordle's hulking mass, but not in the least intimidated as she went on:

"Lord Carl is a very competent man, but if you wish to discuss the unfortunate Sir Jason Mortimer... yes, I've heard about that... it'll save you time to talk to me. And Sir Alleyne, Master Hordle, how nice to see you again, even if you were naughty the last time."

She shook a finger at them. "You took me in completely! Not many men can say that. I look forward to our conversation."

"You're doubtless tired from your journey," Alleyne demurred. "Tomorrow is also a day."

"Not in the least, Sir Alleyne—"

"That's plain Mr. Loring." he said. "My father's the baronet."

"As you will. The roads are still good, even the I-5, now that it's mostly been cleared of obstructions. I'm perfectly fresh."

So that's how she got here, Astrid thought.

"And I changed out of my traveling garb before we got here."

The old interstate wasn't much used, since the center of the Valley held few folk these days south of the Association's territory, but over the years the various communities had pushed the dead vehicles aside, often in the course of salvaging useful parts like the springs and tires. It would be a very bold bandit indeed who'd attack Sandra Arminger with her household knights around her.

She probably had more than that, Astrid guessed. Another carriage, spare horses, more men-at-arms and some mounted crossbowmen. Left them at a hidden camp outside the settled zone before she came on to Corvallis.

Two days would be ample to cover the eighty miles between here and Portland. It was a bold move, but not foolhardy, if she had important business here. Alleyne looked at her and raised a brow. Astrid glanced at Eilir, and got an almost imperceptible nod, and the same from John Hordle.

"Thank you," Astrid said. "There's no point in wasting time."

Sandra inclined her head. "Ivo, Ruffin, Joris, Enguerrand," she said, and the men-at-arms came to attention without moving. "See to things. Tiphaine, with me."

The consul was a lanky blond man in his thirties with a face that showed no expression at all, and a knight's little golden spurs on his boots, who stood aside with a little bow as Sandra swept past, and nodded to the Dùnedain.

Funny names, Astrid said in Sign behind his back.

Mom said it's Court fashion in the Protectorate, Eilir replied. Taking names out of old books.

Silly, Astrid answered, and then blinked as John Hordle bit his lip and fought a laugh down into a wheeze. What are you laughing at? Never mind.

Lord Carl bowed them through into a conference room, and left silently at a slight movement of Sandra Arminger's fingers.

The room had been remade in Association style with a tapestry on either side of the fireplace, but there were bookshelves flanking the bow window that looked out over a winter-sere garden and a huge oak where a few dry yellow leaves yet clung; lilacs tapped their bare fingers on the glass. A long table of some polished reddish wood ran down the center of the room, with pens and ink, writing paper and blotting paper and little silver cups of fine sand to dust across when you were finished writing. Fire crackled in the hearth, shedding grateful warmth on the raw winter's day; the room held the scent of burning fir-wood and of wax and polish and a sachet of dried roses on the mantel. Astrid was suddenly conscious that her boots might have been a little cleaner after tramping through the streets, and mud earlier that day, and that it had been two days in the saddle since her last cold-water bath or change of underwear.

"Do be seated," Sandra said, stripping off her fur-lined gloves.

Astrid ground her teeth; she hadn't planned on asking for permission. The maidservant handed the gloves and heavy traveling cloak to another and then took three steps backward and stood waiting, with her hands folded in front of her with fingers linked, and her eyes cast down. Briefly, she wondered why the girl didn't run for it; perhaps she had family back up in the Protectorate, or possibly Sandra Arminger was smart enough to treat her personal staff well.

Probably, not possibly. Don't underestimate an enemy!

The servant pulled humble obscurity over herself like a cloak of invisibility. The woman in the dark tunic and breeches didn't; behind her ruler's right shoulder she stood silent and immobile with her hands folded inside the wide sleeves of her black tunic, pale eyes looking nowhere in particular... and she was as easy to ignore as a spearpoint pointed at your nose. All four of them gave her a single long considering glance and then stopped looking at her, but Astrid could tell everyone kept her location in mind.

Refreshments were offered and—politely—declined. Sandra Arminger warmed her hands on a goblet of mulled wine that smelled of expensive spices. She did look tired, and not only because she was fifteen years older than Astrid. There were dark circles under those piercing eyes, and she sighed in relief as she sank back in the comfortable cushioned chair; she wore no jewelry apart from the silver-link band around her linen headdress, and a simple chain bracelet bearing an odd-looking coin.

"I always enjoyed Society events before the Change," the consort of Portland's ruler said. "But there are times when I miss being able to slop around in sweats... not to mention just getting into a car and going somewhere, especially after a trip like this. God alone knows what it'll be like when the roads and bridges have washed and worn away. But I know you youngsters aren't interested in hearing us decrepit fogies talk about the good old days."

She held out a hand, palm-down over the table. The maidservant took a book from the shelves and slid it forward under her fingers. It had a black-leather binding, and gilt-stamp letters on the spine beneath the Lidless Eye. They read: Fiefs of the Portland Protective Association: Tenants In Chief, Vassals, Vavasours and Fiefs-minor in Sergeantry. That meant among other things that the maidservant wasn't just a maidservant; she could read at least, which a lot of people her age in the Association's territories couldn't. Sandra flipped the book open, then turned two pages over to find precisely the entry she wanted:

"The mesne tithes from Sir Jason's manor of Loiston—"

She raised a brow at them, and they all nodded to show they were familiar with the Association's terminology. Mesne tithes were what a fief-holder paid his own overlord for seizin of the land, part of which would be passed on to the Lord Protector by the tenant-in-chief.

"— amount to eight hundred silver dollars yearly, or fifty-seven rose nobles in gold," she went on, running a finger down a list of figures. "That's notional, money of account. Most of it is paid in kind, and he's assessed to maintain three crossbowmen, three spearmen, and two mounted men-at-arms for the war-levy of Barony Gervais. Besides his own service in arms and eighty days castle garrison duty for a man-at-arms and three footmen annually in time of peace, and the usual boon-work from his tenants for roads, bridges and fortifications."

She looked up at Astrid and raised a brow. The younger woman made herself refrain from licking her lips by an effort of will, feeling more than a little rushed. She'd expected to come into these talks with all the advantages. It wasn't working out quite like that, somehow.

"We'll turn him over when his steward sends us five years' yield," the Lady of the Dùnedain replied curtly. "In cash or equivalents in cloth, horses, tools and provisions of types and quantities to be agreed. We won't release him until the ransom is paid in full."

"Five years mesne tithes?" Sandra said. "Oh, come now. The standard ransom in the Protectorate is two, for men captured in a private quarrel, and this was private war, not one between realms."

"I'm not interested in how you pay each other off," she replied firmly. "Five years."

Sandra put her elbows on the arms of her chair, steepling her fingers together and tapping them gently on her lips. That let the brow of her wimple shadow her face while she thought.

"How's this, then," she said after a moment. "Make it two and a half years, and I'll pay the entire sum to you in cash right away. That'll save you a good deal of trouble, and spare you Sir Jason's company, which frankly I always found tedious myself."

Silence ran heavy for a moment. Then Astrid went on: "We wanted to make the ransom heavy to send a message," she said. "We don't want your yrch trespassing on our land. Three and a half years."

Sandra laughed softly. "My dear girl—" at Astrid's expression, she modified that: "My dear Roquen Astrid, I don't intend to make him a gift of the money. Rest assured that he'll pay back every barley-grain of it. If it's any comfort to you, the humiliation of paying me will be even greater. Shall we say three years?"

"We should have taken his head with the scum he hired," Alleyne said, his voice quiet and cold. "That would teach others not to attack us on our own ground."

Sandra sipped at her goblet. "You killed his brother-in-law and liege-lord," she pointed out. "It's only natural for him to be a bit ticked."

I killed his brother-in-law and liege lord, Eilir signed. While he was trying to kidnap or kill my brother Rudi on our own land. Rising thrust that cut the femoral artery, not to mention the testicles. He should have worn a metal cup under the hauberk.

Sandra's eyes flicked to Astrid and she made a questioning hmmmm? Astrid translated the Sign without being in the least convinced of the Portlander's ignorance. Sandra shrugged:

"Well, well, at that point you'd already kidnapped my daughter on my own land, and Eddie... Baron Liu... was trying to get her back, with your brother as a wergild," Sandra said, and for a moment something showed behind her eyes.

Then she smiled charmingly. "These chains of grievances go in both directions. For example, you also killed Katrina Georges, Mathilda's tutor who I sent along to be with her in her captivity."

"That was me, actually," Astrid said. "I shot her in the back with a broadhead after we Dùnedain disposed of your ambush party. She was killing a Mackenzie with a sword at the time, as I recall. Some tutor."

"She was Mathilda's physical-education tutor," Sandra chuckled, and the glacier eyes of the young woman behind her chair shifted to Astrid, going slightly wider and then narrowing. Arminger's wife went on:

"And Tiphaine Rutherton here was a good friend of Katrina's; they were both members of my Household from shortly after the Change. I don't doubt she'd like to pay you back for killing her friend. Wouldn't you, Tiphaine?"

"Yes, my liege," Rutherton said, her voice as unemotional as water running over polished stones. Heat radiated from it. "Very much, in fact."

"So you see, there's a certain symmetry to all this. But back to practicalities. If you take my offer, you get the money immediately. Otherwise you'll be negotiating with dowager Baroness Liu, Sir Jason's sister. I don't think you'll do better, and things may well drag out. Lady Mary would have been pleased if Sir Jason had succeeded, but right now she's rather annoyed with him—for failing, and for embarrassing her politically in the process. I'm rather annoyed with him, which is why I'm making this offer. The debt will hold him like a choke-chain on a disobedient hound. I'll even make him lease out the hunting rights on his woodland to help pay it, which will grieve him no end, since he dearly loves to pursue the boar."

Her smile invited Astrid to share in the hapless Sir Jason's woe. The Dunadan had to make a conscious effort to reject that complicity and the momentary warmth it brought. She glanced around at the others instead, reading their expressions as her own qualified yes.

It really would be more convenient. They'd have the gold, the distilled yield of two hundred people working two square miles of good land for three years, and they'd have it right here, in the Valley's best-supplied marketplace, or at least the best for tools and clothing and weapons. And they needed more trained warhorses, which were hideously expensive whether you spent money or your own time. Everyone was buying them.

So why is she making things convenient for us? Astrid thought. Perhaps she's afraid he'll talk... and there's no reason at all to relieve her anxiety. Then aloud: "I presume you're here for the meeting of the Faculty Senate or something like that?" she said.

Sandra nodded.

"So are we," Astrid went on. "So we'll hand him over on Sunday, when everything's finished. We have a use for him until then."

Sandra's expression remained the same, but Astrid didn't need the sudden pressure of Alleyne's foot on hers beneath the table to realize that the dart had hit.

"I'd really rather have him now," Sandra said. "If it's all the same to you."

"Is that a condition for paying the ransom?" Alleyne asked, a sharp note in his voice.

"No," she replied easily. "Not at all; if you want to keep seeing Sir Jason's scowling face that long, you may. As long as he's in reasonable health when you hand him over, you'll have the money—one hundred and sixty rose nobles in gold, or any mix of gold and silver you wish at the usual exchange ratios."

"Agreed," Astrid said promptly, and at Sandra Arminger's nod the four rose and left.

 

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"That one is formidable," Sandra Arminger said softly, speaking to the snapping flames in the fireplace. "Quite mad, that's beyond doubt, but formidable. And she will grow more so. All of them will. If they live. This would be a great pity."

"My lady—"Tiphaine began, going to one knee, naked eagerness on her face.

"No," Sandra said, and there was iron in her voice. She turned in her chair so that she could see the younger woman. "If she, either of them, or the men, were to die just now... You will do nothing that could link me to an assassination in Corvallis while the peace lasts, do you hear? Do you?"

Tiphaine bowed her head. Sandra went on in more friendly tones: "But there is the matter of the egregious Sir Jason. Something must definitely be done to ensure he isn't the star of their little PowerPoint presentation to the Faculty Senate."

The other woman nodded, though the computer reference went over her head, then froze as Sandra extended a finger almost to her nose:

"Listen to me, Tiphaine. I took you and Katrina in after the Change, trained you, and found you work you liked better than breeding heirs for some oaf in an iron shirt. I kept your little secret from the priests, or at least from official notice. His Holiness wouldn't approve of your... lifestyle choices, if he knew about them. "

"I am my lady's grateful and faithful servant."

"Yes, you are," Sandra agreed aloud. To herself:

And the younger generation can say things like that and not seem silly at all. It's distinctly weird sometimes, like living in a dream... focus, woman, focus! This isn't a game and the stakes are very high. Mathilda—

She leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair. "But so was Katrina. Your dearly departed girlfriend failed me, Tiphaine. You'd better not."

"No, my lady." Tiphaine's tongue touched her lower lip briefly. "There will be nothing to link any... events to you. If necessary, I will retreat rather than risk exposure. I'll work alone. Or possibly with Joris... no, he's good, but he doesn't take orders well."

"I'm glad you noticed that; I think our good Joris has a self-esteem problem." At Tiphaine's raised eyebrow: "Too much of it, and largely unjustified. And an excess of entrepreneurial spirit. As to the ladies of the Dùnedain... eventually, we may arrange for you to settle your scores."

She smiled to herself as a red flush chased pallor across the face of the young woman in black. When Tiphaine rose and bowed and withdrew, she turned to the maidservant.

"These people who bottle up their passions..." She made a tsk sound between her teeth. "Now go and see if my bath's ready, would you, child? And tell Lord Carl that I require his attendance at dinner and conference with his intelligence officers afterwards. We're going to need something a bit more subtle than head-bashing for what I have in mind."

 

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