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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

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


CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

Corvallis and area, Oregon

January 12th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

"Matti!" Sandra Arminger said, holding out her arms.

"Oh, puh-leeze," Astrid muttered under her breath. "Raica pedeth!"

No, Rudi Mackenzie thought. She really means it. Yeah, she's showing it off, too, for those guys—his eyes went to the Corvallan officials, who were looking uneasy—but she's really sad and upset too.

It was odd, the way other people had trouble telling each other's feelings. They were pretty obvious to him, most of the time.

Mathilda ran to her mother. They were in a seldom-used public room, some sort of meeting place in one of the town government's buildings, empty except for windows and chairs and a table, gloomy, dead light-fixtures still in the particle-tile ceiling, with a bare fusty smell of stale linoleum and dead insects. Rudi didn't like it; he'd grown up in buildings made of honest logs and planks, and preferred the feel of wood. He stood a little closer to his own mother.

This old stuff is creepy, he thought, shivering slightly, and focused on the people instead.

Sandra Arminger's cotte-hardi and headdress made a splash of silver and pearl-gray and white, the silk and linen and wool warm despite the restrained colors. Mathilda's sumac-red jacket and plain kilt were a contrast to it as she hugged her mother. For a long moment they embraced, and then they spoke together in low tones. When the girl turned to beckon him her face was wet with tears.

"Hello, young lord," Mathilda's mother said, after he'd walked over and bowed.

She extended a hand, and he took it and kissed it courteously, bending a knee slightly; it was polite of her to treat him like a grown-up. When he looked up their eyes met; hers were dark and deep, like wells full of cleverness and hidden thought; Rudi could feel them probing at him, as if she could see inside him, or was trying to. He smiled, and saw her mouth quirk up at one corner in response.

"Lady Sandra," he said formally. "I'm happy to meet you."

"My daughter tells me you've been a good friend to her," the woman said.

Rudi's smile grew into a grin, and he put an arm around Mathilda's shoulders for a momentary squeeze. "Sure!" he said. "Matti's cool. We're best friends."

"Ah!" her mother said, and her eyes warmed, losing a little of that knife-keen look. "Now isn't that nice? She needs a friend, being so far from home. Could we talk a little more?"

He bowed again and withdrew; Astrid and Eilir and Juniper stayed by the door, well out of earshot; his mother gave him a little nod at his enquiring look, and he went out through the door into the corridor. That was a little better, even if it was dark except for one smelly lantern. Aoife and Liath were there, leaning on their bows.

"Can I go outside?"

The two young warriors of the Clan looked at each other; Sandra Arminger had come with only her one bodyguard, and Astrid and Eilir were in there with her, and it was all very official and above-board, with the Corvallans ready to be very angry at anyone who broke the peace. The meeting had been set up on the sixth floor, just to make any dirty business impossible, with a sheer drop smoother than the city wall, and taller. Nobody was going to be jumping out of windows.

"Yeah, I guess so," Aoife said.

"These big old buildings give me the creeps," Liath said. "I feel like I'm smothering. I wish the townees would tear them all down."

Rudi cocked his head, distracted for a moment. "That's what I was thinking," he said. "But isn't your house an old building? Sam's place."

"Not like this," Liath said, and shivered slightly as she looked around.

"Yeah, it never feels bad there when I'm visiting," Rudi acknowledged.

"It's an old old building, if you know what I mean. It was always a farmhouse, and that means it belongs to the Mother."

He nodded; that made sense. Aoife went on: "Let's go outside, then. We can wait in the court."

She stuck her head through the door and spoke something quietly. Then they went down the dark echoing metal stairwell; on the lower floors they passed a few Corvallans, busy about the town's business—the more easily accessible parts of the building were still in use, and they had a more living smell as well, wool and the hot metal of stoves and candle-tallow. At the bottom of the stairs was a swinging metal door with Exit painted on it in flaking red paint.

Silly, Rudi thought. What else would it be? Did people in the old times have to read before they knew what a door was?

They might have, at that. From the stories, they'd been very very odd back then, in the old times. It also said an alarm would go off; he chuckled at an image of someone standing there blowing a trumpet or a horn every time it was opened, or a big brass bell ringing. That probably wasn't what the sign meant, but then the old stuff was often incomprehensible or dumb or both.

I'm glad I live now and not then, he thought, taking a deep breath of the fresher air outside. It still had more smoke and the smell of more people than he was accustomed to. Even Dun Juniper could get stuffy and give him a closed-in feeling, but you could always run out into the meadows. And I'm glad I don't live in a big city like this, either. You'd have to walk and walk to get to the fields and woods!

There were new watering-troughs and hitching-posts around the asphalt square that filled the hollow of the L-shaped building. Horses were tethered there, and Lady Sandra's carriage—and enough City guards to outnumber her escort of men-at-arms very thoroughly, just in case. The Association warriors stood in a group, with their shields slung over their backs and their hands resting casually on the peace-bonded hilts of their swords. They carefully didn't look at the Corvallan crossbowmen standing behind them, and the crossbowmen carefully didn't point their weapons anywhere near them—but they were spanned and had a quarrel in the groove. Rudi grinned to himself; it was like two groups of big unfriendly dogs watching each other from opposite ends of a lane; most times they'd just run up and down barking at each other, and then go back and flop down and pant as if they'd done something important.

The rest of the guards were leaning on their glaives and talking with each other—he could hear a couple complaining how this special call-up was cutting into their regular everyday jobs and hoping it would all be over soon. Now and then their armor would rustle or clank; most of them were wearing brigandines or chain shirts, but a couple had sheet-steel breastplates and tassets.

A pair in lighter gear were grooming their horses and tending their tack. They looked up and brightened as Rudi walked over towards them. People usually smiled back at him—that was only natural, since he liked most people he met, so why shouldn't they like him? His own smile had a little extra calculation; the two were looking at Aoife and Liath, and hoping to strike up a conversation. Witch-girls had a reputation for being friendly, and this raw windy day was beyond boring. Rudi didn't intend to be bored; he seldom was, and never when there was a horse to investigate.

"That's a good horse," Rudi said, after everyone had exchanged names. "Is it yours?"

He had some dried fruit in his pouch; he offered it carefully in his palm, and the big bay gelding bent its head to eat, the hairs on its lips tickling his hand.

"Yup, Blockhead here's mine. The city rents him from me when we're called up together. My folks have a farm outside the Westgate, and I think he's glad to get a change from pulling a cart."

"Can I help you curry him, Walter?" Rudi asked.

"You know how?" the young man said.

Aoife and Liath laughed. "Oh, brother, you put your foot in there," Aoife said. "This is Rudi Mackenzie you're talking to."

"Aren't all you guys called Mackenzie?" he replied.

His partner winced and tried to whisper something to him as Aoife snorted and looked down her nose. Liath cut in:

"I'm Liath Dunling Mackenzie," the younger woman said patiently. "My friend here's Aoife Barstow Mackenzie. The little goblin here is Rudi just-plain-and-simple-Mackenzie—the Chief's son. Like the Chief is Juniper Mackenzie full stop herself herself."

"Well, excuse me!" the guard said, smiling and making an elaborate bow. He offered the currycomb. "Go right ahead!"

"I can't handle the top parts without something to stand on," Rudi said. "I bet this fellah here really can canter for miles—look at those legs and the chest."

Walter Szekler looked at him, pale brows rising. "Blockhead's not the fastest horse in town, but he's a stayer," he said respectfully.

They all talked horses and tack while the work went on. It was nice to talk with the Corvallans, and in a way it was a relief nobody was older than Aoife—even his own mother tended to go on about the old days far too much. Someone bought a jug of sweet heated clover tea from a passing street vendor, and they passed it around in mannerly fashion, pouring from spout to mouth without touching lips to the tin and giving it back to the seller's little wheeled cart when they were finished. Then the door opened again.

It was Mathilda, by herself; she looked up and waved at a window before walking out with her hands tucked in her armpits. Rudi went over to her.

"You OK?" he said.

"Sure," she replied with patent falseness. "They said I could come out here while the grownups talked. I didn't like the way their voices sounded"

"Were they yelling?" Rudi asked, frowning. Mom doesn't yell very often, but it's scarey when she does.

Her lip quivered again, but she mastered it. "No. It was worse than that. All quiet, but I was frightened."

Oh, that's worse than yelling, he thought. "I feel bad about it too," he went on aloud, blinking his own eyes and rubbing at them with the back of his hand. "I wish our folks weren't all mad at each other. It makes me feel rotten, like I'd eaten something bad. If we can be friends, why can't they?"

Mathilda nodded. "Me too. I mean, we're never going to be enemies, are we, Rudi?"

"Never! Not for anything, Matti."

"But if I go back home, we'll never get to see each other again," she pointed out. "Not for years and years and years, until we're grownups ourselves. And there may be a war."

They stood and looked at each other for a moment, knowing that the quarrels of the adults could do that. Then Mathilda's face lightened.

"We could be anamchara. Then we'd never be enemies, not all our lives."

"Yeah!" Rudi said enthusiastically. Then more seriously: "It's a big deal, being soul-friends, though, Matti. We'd have to share all our secrets, all our lives long, and fight for each other, and all that stuff. If you die in a foreign land, I have to give you your rites, and you for me. Even if our clans are at feud, we have to help each other. It's serious."

Mathilda nodded. "That's why we should do it. Then nobody could ever make us fight." Then she hesitated and a tiny frown appeared. "I don't know... my confessor wouldn't yell at me, would he? Mom just now said I shouldn't do anything that would make the Virgin cry."

Rudi didn't say that no Aspect of the Lady would cry about people swearing friendship; it wouldn't be tactful. But... Mom says you've always got to be careful when you ask the Mighty Ones for something. They may give it to you. Decision: This is a good idea. Really.

"Nah, it's not a witches-and-Christians thing, not really. Not rùn, not a whadyacallit, a sacred mystery. Mom says that over in Ireland they used to swear the oath of anamchara even after they became Christians themselves. You wanna?"

"Then let's do it!"

"You sure?"
She nodded vigorously. "We'll have to get away from all these people... how long? Mom said it'd be half an hour until she was through talking."

"That's plenty of time. And we'll need some stuff. I know!"

He strolled over towards his bodyguards again. "Liath," he said quietly.

Aoife and the two Corvallans were looking at a hoof and discussing the shoeing; the horse snorted and swished its tail, but it was a good-hearted beast and stood patiently on three legs. Liath stood back a little; she was less outgoing than Aoife, who had enough self-confidence for three ordinary people and always had.

"Yeah, sprout?" she said, then bent down when he beckoned.

Rudi could smell the herbal wash on her braided brown hair, and the linseed oil on the chain-mail collar of her arming doublet; her smile was open and friendly. They got along well, and he'd known her off and on for most of his life, she having been part of Sam Aylward's household until just lately; she and Aoife were talking about handfasting, though most thought them too young. He hadn't know her quite as well as he did Aoife, who'd lived in the Hall at Dun Juniper all his life...

But Aoife is a lot more strict about things. Better not to ask her; she'd be all questions.

He spoke quietly, not quite whispering: "Liath, could you get us some stuff? This is real important to Matti and me."

"Sure. What?"

"Oh... ummm... a couple of candles, three cups, and could we borrow your warpaint kit? I know you've got it along. And two blessed wands."

Liath's brown eyes went wide. She darted a look at Aoife and licked her lips. "Are you sure about that, Rudi?" she said seriously.

She's thinking she should tell Aoife, Rudi thought, and pushed at her with his will. "Well, duh, would I be asking if I wasn't? C'mon, Liath, this is real important."

She looked at Mathilda then; the girl nodded, her lips compressed into a line of determination, dark circles of worry and stress under her eyes. Rudi shifted from foot to foot.

"Please, Liath. We've gotta do it now, before the grownups get everything messed up."

"OK. But if you get me in trouble—"

"Don't worry. Mom'll understand."

Liath sighed. "OK. But keep it quiet, sprout."

She strolled over to her own mount and made a show of checking its feedbag. Then she took a few small cloth-wrapped parcels from her saddlebags. Most Initiates on a long trip would have the basics for casting a Circle or spellwork with them. They sidled to the edge of the paved strip and waited until no eyes were on them; Liath leaned casually against the wall with her bow in her crossed arms, one bootheel up against the stucco, whistling as the wind scuffed dried leaves across the asphalt, and then Rudi vaulted into the open window.

Mathilda followed with something of the same eel-quick efficiency. The room within was empty and looked as if had been deserted all their lives; the window on the other side was lodged open, and there was a rain-stain and a scattering of old leaves across the floor.

"What do we do?" Mathilda asked, a little breathless.

Rudi had the words memorized; such things came easily to him. Mathilda knew a lot less than most Mackenzies would, of course, though it wasn't a secret rite reserved for Initiates.

"Do we have to mix our blood in the cup and stuff like that?"

"Yeah," Rudi said absently. "Sorta. We've got to mix our blood, but we mix the drink in the cups..." He closed his eyes and breathed out, feeling for what was right in this time and place. OK, this will have to be a little different 'cause Matti's a Christian... "OK... you've got your crucifix with you, right?"

Mathilda pulled the silver-and-diamond amulet from under her shirt and jacket. "Now, here's how we'll do it—"

Twenty minutes later they knelt facing each other. Matti lifted the cup to his lips; it was cold tea from Liath's canteen, acrid and pleasant.

"I drink deep from the cup that the Goddess offers to the Lord," he said, then took the cup from her and held it for her.

"I drink deep from the cup that Mary held for her son," Mathilda replied, her eyes solemn in the candlelight; the early winter night was coming.

They lit the candle between them from the other two, each holding one flame to the wick, and spoke the words together. Then they picked up their knives and each nicked the back of the other's right wrist; the touch of the steel was a gentle sting, and Mathilda concentrated with squint-eyed care as she made the tiny wound. His own hand moved in a single small swift flick. They pressed the cuts against each other, the thin hot trickle of blood mingling as their wrists locked in the chilly damp air of the room as the chant went on:

"... I am your brother—" he paused a little so Mathilda could say sister "... your parent and your child. I will teach you and from you I will learn. I am the shield on your shoulder, the sword in your hand, the lamp that lights your feet. By earth and air, by fire and water, by the blood we share and the steel that shed it, we are one soul! All my wisdom and all my secrets I will share with you, as long as this life endures. Until we meet in the world beyond the world, so mote it be!"

"Amen," Mathilda added and signed herself, kissing the crucifix before she dropped it back around her neck.

"Oh, dear," his mother's voice said. "Oh, dear. Oh, dear."

Both of the children looked up, shocked from exultation back into the dying light of common day. Juniper Mackenzie and Sandra Arminger stood in the doorway, with Liath and Aoife and the dark-clad blond bodyguard in the background. The bodyguard looked amused; Liath looked as if she wanted her vital functions to stop right then and there; Aoife was scowling like a summer thunderhead.

"Oh, dear," Juniper said again.

The two mothers shared a look. When the Lady of Portland spoke, it was with crisp assurance.

"Oh, shit."

 

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"What's their problem?" Tiphaine asked the barkeeper casually.

The Suds and Spuds was a respectable tavern-bar near the riverside part of the city wall, but not fancy. A long room held tables and booths, a bar, a kitchen in the back and rooms upstairs; blackboards listed prices. And rather astonishingly there had been a four-piece chamber ensemble playing until a moment ago, students performing for food, beer and what tips the audience could afford. She herself was dressed like a local, of the same class as the laborers and roustabouts and carters who made up the clientele, or like a farmworker in town for a day—there were plenty of such, with a meeting of the Faculty Senate due soon, which was the story she'd given when she rented a room.

An equivalent riverfront place in a Protectorate town would probably be named the Slut and Brew—there was a well-known dive in Portland called exactly that—and conducted accordingly, with more noise and worse smells and without the clean sheets.

"Them?" the barkeeper said, polishing a glass and looking at the two men. "They got fired, and they're not happy about it. Wouldn't have pegged them for whiners, but you never know." He set the glass down and wiped the bar down with the rag. "Didn't you hear about the murder at Hatfield's? Man got his throat cut while those two were supposed to be guarding him. It's a three-day wonder. You want a beer, or what?"

Tiphaine nodded, and the man took a mug down and filled it from the wooden barrel as she grabbed a handful of pretzels from an orange plastic bowl on the bar. He slid the chipped mug over to her and she sipped; it was passable, and coolish if not cold. The two men were definitely Harry and Dave, looking sullen. There was a fair crowd in, and some of them were listening to the two of them holding forth:

"—not even any severance pay, and our rent due next week. And Dave here is getting married this spring. It wasn't our fault. How are we supposed to keep a roof over our heads?"

"There's this thing called saving, and some of us do it every payday," a stevedore said, getting a general laugh. "Anyway, even this time of year you can get something, work on a salvage crew in Albany, whatever. It may not pay as well as what you had, but you blew that off, didn't you?"

Tiphaine leaned an elbow on the bar, standing with one foot on the brass rail. Her hair was up under a woolen cap, which was believable enough, since even with a woodstove the place wasn't what you'd call hot. Lady Sandra's traveling gear had included a selection of contacts to turn her eyes an unremarkable brown. With a little artfully applied padding under her clothing and subtle differences in stance and walk it was unlikely anyone would connect her with the Association's consulate.

"I heard those loonies who live in the woods and think they're some sort of fairies cut that guy's throat," she said aloud. "The hired swords, the Rangers. Knocked you guys out and just killed him, like that—"she snapped her fingers. "Hell of a thing you should get the boot because Hatfield's weirdo friends like killing people. And collecting their heads. I heard they've got boxes full of heads, right here in town."

That got the conversation going again; of course, unless you were on the road, the main reason for coming to a tavern rather than staying at home of an evening was to schmooze and gossip. The noise level went up as the pro- Dùnedain, anti- Dùnedain and the more numerous who-they-hell-are-they-anyway factions started exchanging ill-informed opinions, louder and louder. More people were coming in, too, as the sun went down.

Eventually she used the noise and crowding to sidle over to where Harry and Dave were sitting in a booth along the back wall. They were still nursing their first beers, and the waitress had been giving them the hairy eyeball as space got more scarce and time passed.

"Mind if I join you?" she said. "Wendy Madigan's my name."

They looked at her surprised, but shook her hand and gave their names. When the waitress came around again she looked at Tiphaine with raised brows. "Another for me," she said. "And get my friends here a shot of vodka each, with beer chasers. What've you got to eat?"

"Fish stew, or mutton and barley," she said. "Bread and fixings come with it. Five cents all up. Or you can have a side of French-fries for an extra penny."

"I'll have the fish stew," Tiphaine said; it smelled all right, and the price was modest enough to suit her cover. "You guys? It's on me."

"Sure," Dave said; he looked to be the brighter of the two. "And you're doing this 'cause you like our faces or something?"

"Nah, I need the town news," she said easily. "My folks and I work in a dairy, a little place near Philomath, up Woods Creek, and they sent me in with a wagonload of butter on the railway. Everyone'll want the latest when I get home."

The two men looked at each other. Then they began to talk.

This could be an opportunity, she thought, as they took turns to pour out their grievances while she spooned up the fish stew... which wasn't bad, chunks of white chum salmon, onions, carrots, and potato; the bread was good, if a little rougher than the white variety the Lord Protector's court ate.

Trouble is, I'm not entirely convinced. Something not quite right. A little too smooth.

These two were too coherent and sure of what they were about. Most people told a story with a lot of umms and aaahs and disagreements, even if they'd seen the same thing—especially if they had. Nothing was more unreliable than human memory, and when she went in after Sir Jason she'd shot these two full of enough babble-juice to confuse a Dominican.

Their story is too much like a story. They're not bewildered enough at what happened to them. Smells wrong.

"You guys going to testify at the hearings?" she asked, when they'd run down.

"Ummm... I don't know," Dave said. "Hatfield's got a lot of pull with the Economics Faculty. Might screw up our chances of getting another job."

Hmmm. A perfect opportunity to bribe them to badmouth Hatfield and the Dùnedain possibly too perfect. Decision firmed. They're bait. Someone's keeping an eye on them, most likely, which means they're keeping an eye on me.

"Well, I hope things turn out all right for you two," Tiphaine said. "I hate to see the high-and-mighties putting the boot into a couple of working men."

She left an extravagant nickel tip for the waitress and went back to the washrooms, sitting in a stall thinking hard until the room was empty save for her. Then she opened the window at the rear; it was a tight fit, being small and high up on the wall, but she hopped up on a sink, wiggled through and came to her feet in the alley. Something scuttled away from her...

"Ms. Rutherton," a voice said.

 

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Eilir watched the Association warrior come out of her crouch after a quick flickering examination of her surroundings. High blank walls on two sides; Alleyne and Astrid at one end of the alley, John Hordle and her at the other.

Tiphaine smiled and pulled off her knit cap. "You can't possibly hold me prisoner," she pointed out. "And disposing of my body in a walled city... not easy. So I'll walk out to the street now, and if you try to stop me... why, I'll start to scream. People are odd in Corvallis; if you scream, they run towards you instead of away."

"We don't plan to kill or capture you," Alleyne said. His mouth was slightly pinched—he didn't like this part. "We're here to offer you something you want very badly, in return for telling the truth to the Faculty Senate."

She laughed at him. "What exactly do you have that I could want?"

Eilir felt John Hordle shift beside her. She took time out to nudge his ankle; this was no time to improvise.

"Me," Astrid said, standing forward a little. "My oath to meet you with any weapon you choose, in the wilderness, right after the Faculty Senate finishes its meeting."

Eilir could see a flush wash up Rutherton's neck and face, and her nostrils flared. "You mean that?" she said, tilting her head to one side. Then: "Yes, you do. And I suppose your boyfriend there would be waiting to kill me, after I won?"
"No," Alleyne said. "The deal includes two horses, a hundred and sixty rose nobles, and free passage to wherever you please, so long as it isn't Bearkiller or Mackenzie land."

"Corvallis," she said. "Or there's always the Yakima towns, or Boise..."

Astrid shook her head. "That's all moot, because I'll kill you," she said. "But you'd have the satisfaction of trying."

Tiphaine Rutherton closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and smiled a hungry smile. "Agreed. Knives, fought estrappado," she said, and turned on her heel. Astrid and Alleyne had to turn sharply as she pushed between them without another word.

I have a bad feeling about this, Eilir thought. And not just because the Association fighter had specified a knife duel with left wrists tied together. Quite bad.

 

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Sandra Arminger dusted the surface of the letter with sand and waved it gently back and forth to dry for an instant. "My complements to the noble Faculty Senate, and this is my reply," she said. "I'm most pleased to comply with their request."

The messenger bowed his head and took the page from her hand, then carefully slid it into a leather-bound folder. When he had left Sandra sat toying with the lower edge of the peplum pinned atop her wimple, twisting the sheer fabric around a finger where it fell over her shoulder. The flames burned blue and red and gold over the coals in the fireplace, and one of the consulate cats brushed around her skirts before jumping to her lap and curling up for a nap; papers and books littered the table.

Tiphaine Rutherton stood by the side of the fireplace, as relaxed as the cat, with her hands in her sleeves.

"I find this rather odd," Sandra said carefully. "You don't think anything can be made of the men this merchant Hatfield had guarding Sir Jason, now that they've been dismissed?"

"No, my lady," Tiphaine said. "I don't think they were really dismissed. They were bait. The other side is trying to turn the situation to their advantage."

"Ah, that would be young Signe," Sandra said. "Clever girl! She's been quite annoying."

"And that's why I slipped away after sounding the two laborers out. You did emphasize that discretion was of the essence."

Sandra's eyes narrowed as she lifted the letter the messenger had brought.

"Yes, I did, didn't I?" she said. "But now the Dùnedain have requested that you be there when the Foreign Relations Committee meets. Some of the Corvallans are very annoyed at all this commotion in their orderly little city. The political situation is quite delicately balanced... and it is very important that Corvallis stay neutral when we move against the Bearkillers and the Mackenzies and those annoying schismatic monks at Mt. Angel. Which will happen soon; the Lord Protector would prefer it be after the next harvest at the latest."

"My lady, they were expecting something to happen, but not the way I approached. None of them saw my face, when I... attended... to Sir Jason. They did hear my voice, so they know it was a woman. I'm the obvious suspect, but they have no proof. All they can do is swear that a dark-clad, masked woman trounced the four of them and fled... and that sounds pretty unlikely."

"Did you, by the way? Trounce them, that is. I know you're very capable, but..."

"Well... no. I managed to get away from them, though, which wasn't easy. Told second-hand, it sounds pretty much the same thing, and that's useful."

"It does, and it is," Sandra said. "I'm not annoyed with you, child. Simply a little puzzled. At least we've taken Sir Jason off the board. He was deplorably impulsive."

Tiphaine's calm face snarled for an instant. "He was a pig!"

Sandra chuckled. "Well, yes, but if we were to stick knives in all the pigs on the Association's rolls, we'd have a lot of pork and very few living noblemen," she pointed out. "At any rate, at worst we can convince the noble Senate and public opinion here that getting mixed up in a messy business like this is bad; at best, we can shift the blame onto our enemies. Well done."

She extended a hand, palm-down. Tiphaine went to one knee and took it, kissing the knuckles formally and then rising to leave with a bow. Of course, in strict form she ought to have curtsied, but unless you were wearing a skirt that wasn't really practical.

Odd, Sandra Arminger thought idly. I spent most of my youth in jeans, but even to me a woman in pants is starting to look vaguely indecent. Habit is lord of us all, I suppose.

She picked up the quill pen—she found them more aesthetically satisfying than the surviving resevoir types—and brushed the swan-feather meditatively across her lips. The cat on her lap blinked its eyes open and rolled on its back, reaching for the feather with both paws; she teased it until it decided to jump down and groom.

Ordinarily she didn't like improvising on this scale, but Jason Mortimer's ill-timed raid had left her with no alternative, and the damage control had worked. Granted, there was that absurd ritual the children had gone through...

Which seems to have been their own idea, unless that Mackenzie woman is much better at deception than I am at penetrating same, she thought. Still, it may be inconvenient. Matti doesn't seem to have changed much in one way; she's still very self-willed... well, not surprising considering her parentage. I'm not surprised she's fallen under the boy's spell; he's quite charming. Now, something could be made of that, perhaps?

Schemes spun their way through her mind; it was dangerous to have a rigid plan for an unpredictable future, that made you too like to try and force events back onto a track rather than adapt to them, but you did need to prepare for contingencies. Yes... that might be quite useful.

"But why do I have this sense that something is eluding me?" she asked herself softly. "It all seems to be proceeding as well as could be expected, yet..."

 

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Bowers Rock State Park had lain on the south bank of the Willamette north of Corvallis, where the river turned in an S-curve to avoid low hills; now it was just another piece of uninhabited riverbank, and upstream were islands and more serpentine reaches. It had been swampy even before the Change; since then entropy had undone the works of men far faster than they'd been built, as floods burst levees and dams, silt and leaves and slumping lands clogged drains and culverts. Sloughs and disused gravel pits dotted the area; dead reeds rustled in the cold wind from the north, and tossed the branches of fir and alder, cottonwood and oak, a long creaking groan beneath the whistle of the air. The natural levee along the river was densely grown with tall trees and brush; elsewhere many trees were dead as encroaching wetland killed their roots, with fresh saplings growing on spots of slightly higher ground and tangled brush nearly everywhere. The air was heavy with the chill silty smell of standing water and vegetable decay, and the air was thick with moisture turning bit by bit into ground fog, kept to tatters and patches by the stiff breeze.

Sam Aylward grinned to himself as he knelt behind a bush. He was cold, and one thigh ached a bit where an Argentine bullet had broken it in '82, and his shoulder would stiffen up if he didn't watch it, and he could have been home playing with Fand and Edain while dinner cooked. He should be leaving this sort of thing to the youngsters he'd spent the last decade training, too. Yet this was a chance to use a hugely difficult set of skills that he didn't want to rust; everything hurt more, but he could still do it. Nobody had seen the small party of Mackenzies as they filtered slowly in from the eastward, not unless you counted deer and feral cattle.

Although this is just the roit bit of bush for one of those sodding tigers to den up, he thought; they bred fast, and a lot of the older ones were still maneaters when they got the chance. Even then a corner of his mind had time to curse the sentimental idiots who'd turned so many loose from safari parks and zoos after the Change. Haven't seen any pugmarks yet though...

His eyes scanned the ground ahead, where a clump of oaks and Douglas firs occupied a higher hummock. That's where the idle bastards should have put a sentry, up one of the trees in a blind, with a pair of binoculars. They hadn't, he was pretty sure of that, and there weren't any lookouts covering it either. He was close now, close enough to smell the woodsmoke, though he couldn't see a plume.

He made a soft clicking sound with his tongue, impossible to filter out of the background unless you knew what you were listening for. Then he moved forward from clump to clump, pausing every fifty paces with the ghillie cloak around him like a shaggy twig-sewn blanket. A crackling branch off to the left made him halt motionless, even as he winced inwardly. That was the price you paid for working with strangers... but then man had done the right thing by stopping.

After a moment he moved forward again. Stories to the contrary you couldn't move through brush or forest without making noise. The saving grace was that the forest made noise of its own all the time, and if you froze when you put a foot wrong the sound would vanish into the background, especially when there was a nice lively wind like this. A head might come around when they heard a crackle, but if they didn't see movement or hear anything else right away, they tended to let it go. You couldn't investigate every noise that might be someone.

Slow and careful, that's the ticket.

He made another careful sound as he eeled into the slightly higher ground that bore the trees, one that would announce that he was where he'd intended to go. The surface here wasn't exactly dry, but at least it wasn't outright bog. A fallen alder gave shelter to the west, thick with young seedlings growing about the nurse-tree's rotting trunk.

Well, well, he thought as he slowly raised the binoculars to his eyes and moved his thumb on the focusing screw. Isn't that interesting? The Colonel was right.

A half-dozen large canoes were drawn up in a slough that gave off the Willamette. Willows trailed drooping branches on them, but the camouflage netting on the frames that spanned their hulls would have made them hard to see in any case; otherwise they were voyageur-style boats, aluminum versions of the type Canadian fur-traders had used in the old days. He'd used similar craft on wilderness trips before the Change, and in training with the SAS—though apart from the Falklands and a spell in Ulster his active service had mostly involved extremely dry deserts full of homicidal lunatics.

Still, you never know when training will come in handy. You can get better than a ton in one of those things. Paddle slow and at night, lie up by day, and you could get from here to Portland without anyone the wiser, or at least to the falls at Oregon City, which is much of a muchness. Not many folk living right by the river these days.

Ragged men unloaded wicker baskets and poplar-wood boxes from the canoes. Others loaded cargo, mostly in sacks; part of it was prisoners, bound and with bags over their heads, which was an excellent way of keeping captives disoriented and passive. Aylward whistled silently through his teeth, then handed the binoculars to the man who'd crawled up beside him.

As he did so he kept counting the number of fighting men down there. Two dozen at least, all up, he decided regretfully. Not a chance.

It was with even more regret that he grabbed Major Peter Jones by the collar of his camouflage jacket and touched the point of a dirk to the inner angle of his jaw when he showed signs of leaping up and advancing on the canoes with drawn sword. The Corvallan wasn't quite angry enough to try and fight him, and they moved backward with commendable stealth.

"Those were Protectorate soldiers!" Jones snarled quietly, when they were back where they'd left the horses.

Aylward nodded as he tightened a girth and bundled up his ghillie cloak to strap behind the saddle. "Right you are, mate," he said. "Some of them. The rest were your common-or-garden bandit shites."

"And you've known about this?" Jones said.

"More or less suspected," Aylward said.

"We've got to do something!"

"We're not going to go charging in with four archers and you against that lot," Aylward said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "They've got six to our one, and about half of them looked like they had hauberks on. Mother Aylward didn't raise any of her kids to be bloody fools."

"Why didn't you tell us before?"

"We tried to, didn't we? It was always 'no proof, no proof, no bloody proof, you kilties are just trying to get us fighting Portland, oh dear, oh dear'. Colonel Loring was the one suggested we stake out this location—he's had the time to think about it, you see, and he always did have a fine eye for ground, and for putting bits of this and that together to get a picture."

"They're stealing people," Jones said, incandescent with anger.

Aylward nodded. "Stands to reason, short of labor as everyone is, and the Protectorate's not going to get many volunteers. At a guess, the border barons started hiring bandits to catch runaway peons and bond-tenants. Not a big step from there to buying replacements, and who's going to listen to one more poor unfortunate bugger in a labor gang?"

"The Faculty Senate is going to hear about this!"

A grin split Aylward's square Saxon face. "That's the point of this little walk in the woods, innit? Hopefully they'll listen to you."

 

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Corvallis, Willamette Valley, Oregon

January 14th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

"It's indecent," Juniper said.

"What, the kilt?" Nigel Loring said, glancing down as they strolled arm-in-arm between the booths. "I admit that my knobby knees aren't much to look at, but I wouldn't say they were actually obscene—"

"That so much is going wrong, and I'm still so happy," Juniper replied, prodding him the ribs with a finger.

He laughed. "My dear, if I were any happier, I'd be dead and in heaven—and on a related topic, I soon may be, at this rate. I'm not a young man any more."

"Dá mbeadh cuinneog ag an gcat, ba mhinic a pus féin inti," Juniper said with a wicked grin. "If the cat had a churn, it's often her own face would be in it. And you know what they say about Witch girls..."

Eilir snorted and freed her arm from John Hordle's for a moment to sign: Oh, get a room, you two! It is indecent, at your age!

Juniper stuck her tongue out at her daughter. "Ní bean níos sine ná airíonn sí. A woman's no older than she feels. I'm feeling sixteen again, so why shouldn't I act it? Or Nigel, who can put many a sixteen-year-old boy to shame, let me tell you."

Nigel flushed and grinned at the same time. Astrid, Alleyne and John Hordle developed an intense interest in the plank-and-plywood booths that filled what had once been a parking lot, beneath old broadleaf trees. With so many in town for the meeting of the Faculty Senate business was brisk; the sheds sold winter crops in this season—kale, Asian greens, turnips, endives, chicories, dried beans, fennel, carrots, parsnips, strings of garlic and onions. And plucked and gutted chickens, eggs, tubs of butter, big round cheeses...

"Hi, Juney!"

"Bob!" Juniper said to the stall-keeper, where he stood amid his produce. "Merry met! In from the farm, I see. Where are Karen and Danny and Karl?"

"The family's all hard at work, since we got a dairy herd and a barrel churn," the man said; he was middle-aged, with a graying beard. "You don't own cows, cows own you. Here, try this."

He smeared butter from an opened bucket on a heel of bread before handing it to her. Before the Change she'd have been astonished at the rich intense taste of it; now that was normal, and she mostly noted that it was perfectly fresh and only lightly salted.

"That's good, as good as any we make at Dun Juniper. If I lived here and didn't have cows of my own, I'd certainly buy from you."

He looked at the golden torc around her neck. "New Mackenzie fashion... or just ring around the collar?"

"I'll have you know this torc is an engagement torc! Meet Nigel Loring, my fiancé."

"Congratulations!" Bob said, enthusiastically pumping their hands. "I heard about Sir Nigel getting in...when's the happy day?"

"Beltane's best for a handfasting, but we may not be able to wait past Imbolc."

"Here, all of you have one of Karen's rolls, and a slice of ham to go with it. Mr. Pig smoked up pretty well this year, if I do say so myself."

Juniper savored a bite; the salty brown taste of the cured meat complemented the crusty bread and fresh butter wonderfully, and somehow it was even better on a raw January day with rain threatening from a low iron sky.

"Nigel, this is Bob Norton. He and his family actually moved back from Silicon Valley and started a little farm up in the Coast Range foothills southwest of here two years before the Change. I used to buy eggs from him at the old Farmer's Market when I was passed through Corvallis." With a sly smile: "Back then, they were something special."

The farmer grinned and nodded towards the well-worn pile of cardboard egg cartons as he shook hands with the Englishman:

"All free-range, grass-fed, with those nice orange yolks... just like everyone else, nowadays. I thought the farm would be a nice hobby place for the kids to grow up on while I did technical writing to pay the bills. Then—wham! I've been a cautious man ever since."

The because I used up a lifetime's luck right there didn't have to be spoken. Juniper went on: "I hope you can come to the handfasting. It's open-house."

After a moment's wait while a woman bought two broilers and half a large round cheese, Bob replied. "If we're not all dead by then, of course. I'll be voting, though... what was all that about a murder?"

"Knife-work in the dark by the Protector's people," Juniper said grimly. "To shut their own man's mouth, whatever else you may have heard."

"About what I figured," Bob said. "Bastards. Good luck! I'll be voting for you, no doubt about that!"

Eilir stopped to order a dozen of the hams sent to the Mackenzie guest-house for the Dùnedain to take with them when they left town; Bob's knowledge of Sign was rudimentary, but enough for bargaining, which she did with cheerful ruthlessness. Then they bought mugs of mutton soup rich with barley and dried mushrooms at a stand by the road; Juniper looked up in surprise at a deep accented voice ordering another.

"Not 'alf bad," Sam Aylward said, raising the steaming mug to his lips. He winked at her. "Congratulations, Lady, Sir Nigel."

Juniper touched her torc, then threw her arms around the stocky Englishman and hugged him hard—more symbolic than anything else, since he was wearing his brigandine.

"Thank you, my old friend!" she said. "Thank you, thank you for helping! It's the loveliest surprise present I've ever had."

A flush went up the thick corded neck and square face. "Well, I hope I can do more than a little carpenter's work for you two," he said gruffly.

A bell rang, a slow steady tolling. The crowds around the booths began to thin as people streamed westward, across 26th street and up the stairs to Gill Coliseum, where Corvallis held its public assemblies; many of the stallholders closed up and headed that way themselves. Juniper felt her stomach tighten, then forced it to relax as she drew a deep breath down to her diaphragm. There was no hurry; foreign dignitaries didn't have to hustle in, or elbow for a seat in the bleachers, either, though she remembered doing just that at basketball games before the Change. Instead she made herself drain the mug, and then use the spoon to hunt down the last barley around its bottom.

"Let's go," she said at last, after she set it down on the counter.

She looked across the street, where two lines of armored troops with glaives waited, making a line up the stairs and under the columned entrance.

It's just another entrance and just another stage, she told herself, taking another deep breath. And it's a performer you've always been.

 

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Mike Havel sat. "Here we go," he muttered, the sound lost under the shuffle and rustle and whisper of the crowd seating itself likewise.

The interior of the coliseum was huge—it had been proudly hailed as the biggest basketball stadium west of the Rockies at its opening in 1949; when the seats were full they held over nine thousand, half of the adults in the whole territory of the city-state. Today there were less than half that, but the delegates voting proxies represented everyone. The western wall was mostly glass, letting in pale cold light tinged with gray; concrete arches spanned the roof high above. More of the militia ringed the inside of the basketball court, which had been covered in rolls of broadloom; at the eastern end was a dais with tables and chairs. The four foreign delegations were grouped before it, with the Bearkillers on the right, the Mackenzies on the left, and the Dùnedain and Sandra Arminger's party between.

He looked over at the Rangers and nodded in friendly fashion. Eilir grinned back at him, with an urchin cockiness he'd always liked. Astrid, as usual, looked smoothly regal and not quite human in her black and silver outfit. Beyond them at the Mackenzie table Juney appeared relaxed and confident... well, she always did, when the pressure was on; she'd gotten over stage fright a long time ago. Sir Nigel Loring was beside her, doing his Imperturbable Englishman.

But I think I catch a bit of a glint in his eye. He likes people to underestimate him, that one.

A herald—or whatever they called them here—came out on the dais. Silence fell, and then she shouted:

"All rise for the noble Faculty Senate!"

They all filed in, wearing their mortarboard hats and academic robes—the later were fur-trimmed, and probably fairly comfortable in the vast unheated space that smelled of chill concrete and, very faintly, of locker room and disinfectant. Everyone did stand, including the foreign delegations. Havel looked casually over to the Portland Protective Association's envoys before they all sat down again. A couple of clerical nonentities in robes and tonsures with their pens and briefcases, plus the consul—Lord Carl Wythman, Baron Kramer, a dangerously smooth hard-case who he hoped to have the pleasure of hanging someday. And Sandra Arminger, looking as I-picked-your-pocket-and-you-never-knew-it satisfied with herself as she had when he saw her in April of the first Change Year, with her bodyguard Tiphaine Rutherton standing behind her.

And preparing a nasty surprise.

Signe opened her folder and smiled, very slightly, a closed curve of the lips. She was looking forward to this, and had a nasty surprise of her own in store. Calm-faced, Havel made a tsk sound within. His wife was an excellent fencer, but if she had a fault with the sword, it was relying too much on outsmarting her opponent. That worked.... sometimes. Sometimes you had to remind her that the object was to ram a yard of sharpened leaf-spring through someone, not leaving them blinking and rubbing their heads in amazement as you turned a double summersault in mid-air with a fiendish laugh and came down on both sides of them simultaneously.

I've got great confidence in her, he thought. The problem is, I've also got great confidence in Sandra over there... and she's years older and miles more experienced than my beloved better half. I'd never try to match wits with her. Smash her skull like a pumpkin, yes: get all subtle and wheels-within-wheels, no.

The President stood. "We are met to consider troubling matters relating to our relationships with our neighbors," he said. "Therefore—"

Havel let the words flow over him; mostly politician's chatter. His mouth quirked: his sister-in-law Astrid hadn't talked to him for a week when he'd told her why he stopped reading The Fellowship of the Ring.

She just hadn't wanted to hear that the Council of Elrond was a classic committee meeting, and a badly managed one at that.

Signe was taking in every word. When she tensed he stopped thinking about modifications he'd like to make in the Outfit's logistics train in the event of a full mobilization and focused once more.

The President of the Faculty Senate was looking at him; as far as appearances went Thomas Franks was a pleasant balding old buffer in late middle-age, and plump in a way you rarely saw anymore, but his eyes were extremely shrewd. Nobody who'd brought so many people alive through the Change and its aftermath could be stupid, to begin with, and he'd been uncomfortably sharp in any number of negotiations since.

"—and lay the foundations for a lasting peace," Franks finished. "Lady Sandra, you may speak."

"Let it please the noble Faculty Senate," she said. "The Portland Protective Association wishes for nothing but peace."

"Yeah," someone shouted from the audience. "A piece of this, a piece of that—"

"Silence there!" the Senate's presiding officer shouted. "Silence, or I'll have the Provost clear the room! We have free speech here!"

"Thank you, Mr. President. We've been beset by lawless attacks and raids from the so-called Clan Mackenzie and the groups in the Eola Hills known as the Bearkillers. They've even kidnapped my daughter, and held her a prisoner—yes, even here, in your city, a city ruled by law. And they've done murder here, taken a distinguished Associate of Portland and murdered him on your own soil!"

A murmur went through the crowd. Juniper Mackenzie raised her hand: "Point of order, Mr. President. Mathilda Arminger isn't being held prisoner. She's being treated exactly as my own son; in fact, I laid a geasa to that effect on the whole Clan, which means—"

"I studied anthropology, Lady Juniper," Franks said, dryly. "Nevertheless, you are preventing her from going home, are you not? And you did seize her by force? In the course of a raid on Association territory?"

"We did that, and set free over a hundred folk who fled under our protection," Juniper said stoutly. "Some of them have settled here. The raid was launched in retaliation for repeated violations of the truce between the Clan and the Portland Protective Association. The sworn testimonials are before you, Mr. President. Mathilda fell into our hands by accident, if you believe in accidents. She's a lovely child and it has been a pleasure to guest her."

Franks turned his eyes on Sandra Arminger. She rose to reply: "We categorically deny any intentional violations. There may have been criminals using our territory—are there no bandits based on yours? In fact, many of the alleged 'violations' of Mackenzie territory were in fact cases where our forces tried to pursue criminals—"

"Escaping serfs, you mean!"

"Lady Juniper, please let Lady Sandra finish."

"—pursue criminals over very nebulous borders in uninhabited territory. Only to be viciously set upon!"

Andrew raised a hand. "I don't think that in particular is any business of ours," he said. "Nor is this the place to hash out your differences. Lord Bear?"

Havel rose. "Short form, we agree with Juney... Lady Juniper. The Protector's men probe and snip at us whenever they get the chance and they do it with his knowledge and encouragement. As for criminals, we're perfectly ready to cooperate with anyone to put them down. We just don't include poor bastards with iron collars on their necks in the deal. Any of them who make it onto our land are free men and women and they're going to stay that way."

Another murmur went through the great hall. Franks sighed and nodded to Sandra Arminger. "Mr. President, as you said there's no point in hashing over these stale allegations. More to the point, I wish to make a personal appeal: I want my daughter back."

The President winced slightly, and then glared at Juniper Mackenzie. He couldn't afford to alienate the Clan; too much Corvallan trade went that way, both with the Mackenzies and over the mountains via Route 20 through their land. On the other hand, that put him in a cleft stick; if he pleaded diplomatic immunity for Juniper and her party, he risked Portland's anger.

"Mr. President, we're perfectly willing to return Mathilda to her parents," Juniper said. "As part of a general peace, to be sure."

"We're already at peace!" Sandra snapped.

"You had an odd way of showing it, sending assassins to Sutterdown Horse Fair and attacking my camp in the night, killing my people and wounding my own son near to death!"

"Parents are entitled to rescue their children from kidnappers—"

"Ladies!" Franks said; that had the advantage of fitting both the old etiquette and the new. "Lady Juniper, what do you mean by a general peace? Don't you have a treaty with the Association? We do, and we've been reasonably satisfied with it."

"With all respect, Mr. President, you don't have a frontier with the Protectorate. We do, and we've not had six months without an incident—which is one way of describing some lad down with a crossbow bolt through his belly, or houses burned or stock stolen. What we want is an agreement that doesn't depend on Norman Arminger's word or the goodwill of his barons, the which are worthless and nonexistent respectively."

"I protest!" That was Lord Karl. "Mr. President, is a friendly power to be insulted before you?"

Havel stood again. "Norman Arminger is no man's friend," he said; the Protectorate baron flushed. "So what we're proposing—and Abbot Dmwoski concurs—is that we need a general agreement on collective security. Everyone agrees to treat any attack on any one of the Willamette Valley outfits as an attack on all and to send their forces to repel it."

He grinned. "We're perfectly willing to have everyone gang up on us if we invade the Protectorate. It would help if some of the rulers around here weren't murderous warlord bastards—"

Lord Karl shot to his feet. "And the Bearkillers are a democracy, Lord Bear?" He bore down on the title with sardonic relish.

"Hey, we're ready to elect a House of Commons if you do," Havel said. "In fact, we're thinking of doing it anyway."

"Thoughts are worth their weight in gold," the Protectorate noble said.

"OK, how's this: we'll let anyone in Bearkiller territory who wants to move to the Protectorate do it—they can if they want to, we don't go around sticking iron dog-collars on people—and you do the same on your own side of the border. We'll call it 'voting with their feet'. Let's see who's got how many people after a couple of years. Hell, a fifth of our farmers are refugees from that shitheap you guys run."

The baron flushed; the penalties for a peon or bond-tenant trying to leave an Association fief were fairly gruesome, assuming they survived recapture.

Sandra Arminger intervened, her voice full of sorrow: "Then you're holding my child to political ransom?" she said.

Juniper's eyes narrowed. "I prefer to think of it as rescuing her from an unwholesome environment," she snapped.

Sandra's lips tightened, the more so as laughter rose in the background. She turned to the dais: "Mr. President, I appeal to Corvallan law."

"Yes, there are matters of law involved," Franks said. "Now... Lady Astrid? You represent an independent state now, I understand?"

"Mae govannen, lords of the city. I speak for the Dùnedain Rangers. We hold Mithrilwood in trust for all honest folk; we fight evildoers and dangerous beasts, and we guard caravans, and we fight the minions of the Lidless Eye. Who are in league with bandits and evildoers."

Sandra rose, swift and graceful. "Mr. President, do we have to listen to someone who's so obviously mentally... challenged? This isn't the Third Age of Middle-Earth, after all."

That got a laugh too. Mike Havel cocked his head at the sound; judging by that, he thought there was probably a claque at the heart of it, paid to guffaw at the crucial places. Not that it wasn't funny, when you thought about it.

"No," Astrid said calmly. "This isn't the Third Age."

Hmmm. I notice she's not denying it's Middle Earth. Still, I suppose in a sense it is.

"But," she went on, smiling very slightly, "Good and ill have not changed since then, and it is the part of every one of us to discern them, whether in the Silver Wood or here in your city, Mr. President."

Beside him Havel heard his wife choke slightly, and whisper: "Oh, Jesus, you... you little dork!"

"Then you might explain the boxes full of heads," Sandra Arminger said dryly.

"Those were bandits," Astrid said simply. "They attacked us in Mithrilwood; they were led and guided by Sir Jason Mortimer. Unfortunately, he's dead now too."

"Very unfortunately," Sandra said, her voice pawky. "Or fortunately, if he had a different story to tell. The severed heads aren't inclined to speak much either. This is hearsay—"

Franks cut in. "And this isn't a court, Lady Sandra."

"He's dead, all right," Astrid said. "We were keeping him to speak here, and an assassin came in the night, over the roof; clad all in black, so we didn't see her face, but she was very quick, and we did hear her voice." Her eyes went to the relaxed shape behind the Protectorate's table. "The voice of that woman there. Where were you on the night Jason Mortimer died, Tiphaine Rutherton?"

The blond woman smiled. "Me? I was curled up with a good book at the consulate, Lady Astrid," she said. "Isn't enough you see elves, without adding ninjas?"

That got a laugh that was mostly genuine; for the first time, Astrid looked startled and worried. Right, Havel thought. That was too convenient to be real. Damn, but it would have been nice to do a Perry Mason!

Sandra Arminger caught the byplay, and smiled a small secret smile. Franks rapped sharply on the wood of his lectern. "I repeat, this is not a criminal court, or a court of any sort," he said shortly. "I have to say, Lady Astrid, that you're not helping your cause by bringing these feuds into Corvallis."

"It's not we who are doing that," Juniper said. "Mr. President, I draw your attention to the codebook we captured this spring from the late Baron Liu, the Association's Marchwarden of the South. We've decoded it—"

"Made it up?" Sandra Arminger murmured, loud enough to be audible on the dais; her skeptical expression could be seen from much further away.

"—and it shows plans to attack Corvallis and Newport. Sir Nigel Loring here can tell you how the Protector tried to force him to salvage nerve gas from the old Army storage dump at Umatilla to support this attack. We've had copies of the coded plans and their plain intent printed up and distributed."

"This entirely fictional attack," Sandra Arminger said, raising a hand in a brushing-away gesture. "Really, Mr. President! Secret codes, ninjas, weapons of mass destruction... need we take any of this seriously? We could instead focus on facts. It is a fact that the Bearkillers and Mackenzies are deliberately blocking the trade routes between Corvallis and Portland, despite the natural unity of the Willamette Valley. It is a fact that... Ms. Larsson and her friends... have graduated from playing harmless games in the woods to chopping heads off wholesale, and dragging people in chains into your city. And it is a fact that the Association wishes to end this anarchy and open the railway between Corvallis and Portland once more, to our mutual benefit."

Franks knocked on the podium before him again to still the murmurs that swept through the bleachers. Havel scanned them; then his head snapped to the entrance. Another Mackenzie...

Sam Aylward Mackenzie, he thought. Looking like a fox in a henhouse. And the good Major Jones, as well. Kreegah, tarmangani!

Jones curtly ordered the guards to stand aside; he and Aylward walked forward to stand before the dais.

"I hope there's some good reason for this interruption," Franks said sharply, as the militia officer saluted, with his helmet held under his left arm.

"Mr. President, members of the noble Faculty Senate and the Popular Assembly, there is," he said grimly.

Havel grinned like a shark as the Corvallan began to speak, an expression Signe echoed. Sandra Arminger rested easily in her chair, elbows on the arm-rests and steepled fingers under her chin. When Jones was finished, the rumble of the crowd had taken on a distinctly hostile air...

"Lady Sandra, do you have any explanation for this?"

"Several, Mr. President," she said easily. "Starting with the fact that anyone can wear a blazon or a surcoat or a helmet of a particular type. Major Jones doesn't have any of these supposed Protectorate men-at-arms with him, does he? Any documentary proof? It's scarcely our responsibility if bandits are operating on Corvallan territory; we of the Association have our problems with the scum as well."

Jones scowled and clenched the hand that rested on his sword-hilt into a fist, but Aylward tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear.

"I can only report what I saw, Mr. President. But as a citizen, I do say that this—combined with the affidavit of Brother Andrew of the Mt. Angel border patrol, strongly supports Lady Astrid's argument that the Portland Protective Association, or elements in it, are acting in cooperation with the bandit gangs. In this case, I saw Corvallan citizens being kidnapped as slaves with my own eyes."

"But apparently did nothing about it," Sandra Arminger put in.

Ah, that was a mistake, Havel thought. This time the growl from the audience was ugly; Jones was a popular man, and too many people knew him personally for a slander to have much effect.

Astrid rose, and spoke in that beautiful cool voice: "We Dùnedain Rangers spend our time in the wilderness, fighting bandits and maneaters. Some of us have died fighting them."

And she didn't mention the orcs of the Dark Lord. That must have taken real discipline!

"We guard caravans—" she named a few Corvallan merchants who'd hired them "—and nobody has complained that we didn't do the job properly. Our work benefits everyone in the Valley, and beyond."

Havel came to his own feet. "Mr. President, I and my Outfit have always been friendly to this city. We and the Mackenzies and Mt. Angel have all found it worthwhile to help the Rangers, the Dùnedain Rangers, in their work. They're doing things we don't have the time for. Leaving aside the bigger issues, we'd like Corvallis to do likewise. It's only fair to chip in, since you're getting the benefits."

Several of the guards around the rim of the old basketball court began to thump the butts of their glaives on the floor. Someone shouted Vote! and others took it up, until the great building echoed and rang with the thunder of the chant: "Vote! Vote! Vote!"

 

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"Well, we didn't get the alliance we hoped for," Juniper said.

"No," Mike Havel replied. "But we will. Not right away, but we will. Ms. Arminger played a weak hand pretty good, but I think she knows it too. Astrid and Eilir got their bunch recognized in Corvallis, and that's a start. Plus I think that codebook made a lot of people real thoughtful. Every bit of weight on our side of the balance counts. And the Protector took a heavy public-relations hit."

"Not so bad a one as I'd have liked," Juniper observed. "Alas, would that it were like a story, where you capture the enemy's secret plan and they're undone at a stroke."

"No, Arminger's bitch played defense very well," Signe said. "And you saw that bit at the end of the coded sequence—he's read the list."

Juniper chuckled unkindly; then her voice grew sober. "There's one thing that's bothering me, then, Mike, Signe. If Sandra knows the Corvallans will ally with us eventually... what will her husband do when she tells him?"

Mike Havel looked at his wife. He could tell the same thought was running through both their minds.

Well, shit. He'll strike before that can happen, is what.

Signe scowled over at the Protectorate party; an attendant was draping a spectacular ermine cloak around Sandra's shoulders, a waterfall of shining black-streaked white fur that swung to her ankles. It must be heavy, but there was a coach drawn up to spare her the effort of walking in it; the space immediately outside the entrance was kept clear for the VIP's.

"I wonder what went on there—" Havel began, and then stopped as Tiphaine walked towards the Dùnedain party. "And wouldn't I like to be a fly on someone's head there!"

 

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"So," Astrid said, sneering slightly. "Bauglannen i gos? " Which meant 'you chickened out, neener neener', more or less. "Didn't like the thought of that knife-duel?"

"Not at all," Tiphaine said, with a smile of amusement copied from Sandra Arminger, and none the worse for that. "I'm going to kill you, all right. But you haven't suffered enough yet."

She turned on her heel, throwing a final word over her shoulder: "I don't know if I'll be able to bring myself to kill you, in the end—because by then, it's going to be a relief."

 

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