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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

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


CHAPTER NINE:

 

Dun Fairfax, Willamette Valley, Oregon

March 5th, 2008 AD/Change Year 9.

 

"Hoa, there," Sam Aylward said; he could see his stepdaughter Tamar heading his way down the lane from the Dun, with her pair of little red-and-white oxen following behind pulling a two-wheeled cart. "Dinner's on its way. Steady, steady. Woah, boys."

This would be the last furrow; the field was a little under five acres, gently rolling land near the southwest part of his farm and on the boundary-line between Dun Fairfax and Dun Carson; he could see plow-teams at work over there too, now and then. Four miles to an acre, back and forth with a double-bottom riding plow that left a yard-wide swath of turned earth; they'd started on this field when the sky was just turning gray with dawn. It was an hour past noon now, and he'd driven the two-horse team back and forth the full twenty miles at about the speed of a man walking briskly, with ten-minute rests every hour. The disks ahead of the plow-blades cut into the sod of the lea-pasture with a long shhhhsshsh, and then the shares made a multiple crinkling tink sound beneath it as the thicker roots of the sainfoin parted before the steel.

There was a sweet sappy smell to the cut ryegrass and clover, beneath the rich earthy-mealy scent of the wet earth turning away from the moldboards in twin curves; the soil was just damp enough to make for easy plowing, without being wet enough to puddle and damage the tilth under hoof and share. Earthworms and grubs moved in the furrows of dark-brown dirt, and white-winged birds swooped down to feed with shrill cries. His dogs Garm and Grip were over by the fencerow, watching him work—they'd lost interest in leaping and snapping at the flock some time ago.

I daresay they'd rather be out hunting, he thought with a tired grin. Me too, you idle furry bastards!

He reached down and worked the lever that raised the business part of the sulky plow out of contact with the soil, then guided the big blocky-headed roan draught-horses onto the narrow strip of grass beside the fence and the young hawthorn hedge growing up through it, a few yards from the field-gate on the northern side. Then he slid down to the ground with a grunt, worked his shoulders and rubbed at the small of his back; riding the machine was a lot easier than holding the handles of a single-furrow walking plow, but it still wasn't anything like sitting in an armchair, either.

Not to mention the pleat-marks in the skin of your arse from sitting on a kilt, he thought, rubbing those affected parts too.

His first care was for the horses; he freed them from the traces and let them bend their heads to crop at the grass of the verge. They'd been working since dawn's first red tinge showed over the Cascades, but they weren't sweating much, just enough to make the musky, homey scent strong in his nostrils as he stroked their thick necks, a familiar counterpoint to the cake-rich smell of turned earth. It was a clear midday after several weeks' gentle off-and-on rain, sunny with a high white haze and a few clouds, but the temperature was just on the right side of brisk and perfect for outdoor work. He was glad it wasn't any warmer. You had to be careful not to overheat big horses like these Suffolks; they could keel over on you if you did, and they were still fantastically scarce and valuable. And they were good-hearted beasts, who deserved fair treatment.

Then he turned and called into the field: "Oi, there! Time for dinner! Harry! Miguel!"

The other two men were harrowing the ground he'd plowed, getting the tilth ready; this field was going into oats, and the dark-brown soil had a rippled smoothness after the disks had chopped apart the clods and mixed in the last of the grass and clover. They hadn't knocked off just because they saw him finish, which pleased him—doing the work yourself wasn't half as tiring as trying to keep a slacker's nose to it. Neither of these had that problem.

This was getting into the busy part of the year again, after the lull of midwinter. It was time to plow and plant the spring-sown crops, the barley and oats, hops and roots and truck, time for the sheep and cattle to drop their young, time for wool-shearing and time to heat up the long battle with the weeds.

"Oi! Miguel!" Aylward called again. "'arry!"

Miguel Lopez halted the two yoked oxen he'd been leading and unhitched them from the harrow, leaving it where it could take up the work again immediately; he was a dark stocky man of about thirty who'd arrived last spring as a refugee from the Protectorate along with his wife and two children. A refugee from the Barony of Gervais in particular, though he'd been born in Jalisco and come north with his parents years before the Change. The younger man out there was Aylward's cousin-by-marriage, son of his wife's youngest aunt.

He kept on, seemingly deaf...

Aylward sighed. "Oh, bugger." Louder: "All right then, it's time for dinner, Hùrin!"

Many younger Mackenzies took new names out of the old Celtic myths when they came of age and were sworn as Dedicants of the Old Religion—Harry's sister Jeanette was now named Liath. Harry himself had been hanging around Astrid and Eilir and their gang, so he'd gone the whole hog and picked a label out of the books that lot were crazy for; he waved back at Aylward when he heard the name he'd chosen, and not before. He was a little past eighteen, lanky and strong, with longish hair of a color between light brown and dark yellow, and stubborn enough to make a piece of black walnut root look flexible. He'd probably go off with the Rangers full-time soon, which was a pity since he was a good solid worker around the farm and handy with tools, but the Dùnedain did valuable scouting and bandit-suppression. He'd earned it; he was a fine shot, better than average at fieldcraft and useful with a blade as well.

And Samkin Aylward isn't going to cark at a country lad who wants to go for a soldier. At least Hùrin wasn't supposed to be some poncing elf's name...

"Hi, Dad!" Tamar called as she got closer, waving; she was fourteen just now, a gangly tow-haired girl with a round face much like her stepfather's.

Aylward waved back. Tamar opened the gate and brought her cart through; the red-coated, white-faced oxen were yearlings she'd hand-raised and almost as obedient as dogs, following her without needing to be led. The cart held two big plastic bins of water, a light-metal trough, a couple of bales of fodder for the oxen, and buckets of oat-mash with beans for the horses; the big beasts couldn't live on grass alone when they were doing hard graft like this.

The men and girl occupied themselves watering and feeding the stock. When his team had their muzzles in the buckets and were eating with sloppy, slobbering enthusiasm they washed up themselves and unpacked the lunch baskets for the humans; crusty rolls sliced and stuffed with ham and sharp-tasting cheese, pickles, covered bowls of potato salad, sweet nut-bread and a bucket of Dennis Moore Mackenzie's homebrew, which the Aylward household got in trade for their hops and barley. Aylward scooped the thick-walled glass mug full twice with water before he filled it with beer; ale quenched thirst and tasted a hell of a lot better, but the alcohol made it go through you fast. Early training had made him careful about maintaining hydration, and it stuck even in this mild wet climate.

He never discarded a good habit. They tended to prolong your life.

Tamar ate with the casual voracity of youth; the men with the solid appetite of those who burned six or seven thousand calories a day every day of the year except for the high holidays; Miguel Lopez added the reverence towards food of someone who'd worked nearly as hard and been kept hungry most days to boot since the Change.

Aylward grinned to himself. Miguel had nearly wept when Melissa took the trouble to do up a dinner in the style of his homeland, not just Mexican but specifically Jaliscan, from tortas ahogadas to sweet jericalla custard. It had been a long time for him; Mrs. Lopez was what the Yanks called an Anglo, in a fit of mislabeling that never failed to amuse the man from Hampshire. Which in this case meant mainly Irish and German, and they'd met after the Change, so she'd never had a chance to learn that style of cooking. A Protectorate peon got enough to keep going, but not much more, and the quality was even lower than the quantity.

"Where's Edain?" he asked Tamar, when the first draught of the dark brew had gone down his throat; school was only four days a week this time of year, with the farming calendar starting to creak into motion. His eldest son wouldn't be willingly inside.

Tamar gave an evil chuckle. "Helping Mom. She roped him into minding Fand and Dick and Mrs. Smith's kids while they turn the cheeses," she said.

Aylward smiled back, and the other two men laughed; for an active seven-year-old boy on a fine spring day child-minding would be purgatorial.

Miguel looked out over the field as he stretched and worked his shoulders. "Not so bad," he said with satisfaction in his voice.

"Not 'alf bad," Aywlard agreed.

Nothing skimped or shirked, he thought to himself, nodding. They'd put honest sweat into the effort, and hard-won skill, and it showed. The disked field looked as smooth and rich as a cup of chocolate.

"You know what I like about farming?" Miguel went on.

"The lying about late in the morning?" Aylward asked, mock-solemn. "The freedom from worry and care?"

All three men and the girl laughed, but Miguel went on: "It is, what's the word, straightforward. My children, I will never have to explain to them what it is their father does far away in some office. With the help of God—" he crossed himself "— we grow the food we eat. This is simple."

Then he shrugged a little self-consciously, though nobody was disagreeing, and scooped up a mug of the beer. "So, patrón, what do we do next?"

Aylward wiped his mouth with the napkin and tossed it back into the basket. "I'll take the team over to the Oak Field and give it a going-over with the spring-tooth cultivator while you two are finishing up the harrowing 'ere," he said. "Folding the sheep on it last autumn was an easy way to dung the land, but there were too many weed seeds in it for comfort. That's the price of keeping them on rough grazing."

"Didn't we do that field already?" Miguel asked.

"I want to make certain and sure. It'll be a right cockup if that couch grass comes back on us. Then tomorrow we can get the compost out on the rest of the truck plot and disk it in, and some muck from that old stack by the field-byres. The rootstock on the new cherry orchard looks good, so we can start grafting on the scions in a week or—"

The dark man nodded, listening carefully, frowning in concentration. Good, Aylward thought. Miguel wasn't just hard-working and willing; he was an eager learner on the thinking part of running a farm, the way you had to juggle time and effort and risk. He was getting ready for the time when he had land of his own. That was why Aylward always explained what had to be done, rather than just giving directions; Tamar was bending an ear as well.

His voice cut off abruptly at the sound of galloping hooves, and everyone reached for the weapons that were always within reach, buckling on their swordbelts. He and Hùrin strung their longbows and slung their quivers over their backs; Miguel picked up the spear he carried instead, since he had trouble hitting a barn as yet unless he was inside it and the doors were closed. Tamar looked startled, but she readied her own light child's bow and drifted backward a little, ready to jump to any direction her stepfather might give.

"One rider," Hùrin said, cocking his head and using keen youngster's hearing.

Despite the sobering bite of caution, Aylward grinned at the thought. He'd once caught the lad standing in front of a mirror and pulling his ears up into points with thumb and forefinger.

Harry-Hùrin had blushed every time he saw Sam for weeks after.

Not that I'm one to point a finger, he thought generously.

Back when he was Hùrin's age he'd dyed his hair blond because a girl told him it would make him look like Michael Caine, who he'd admired tremendously anyway, having seen the film Zulu—often—at an impressionable age. The color had come out more like a bright carrot orange, the girl had dropped him like a hot brick, which was more than she'd ever done with her knickers, and his father had hooted himself red-faced every breakfast for months as the botched mop grew out. Eighteen was the right age to make a proper burke of yourself, and there were worse ways than playing make-believe with your friends.

"Coming fast up the main road from the west," Hùrin went on; there was no nonsense in him when serious matters were at stake.

The rider trotted into view, reined in and around when he saw them in the field, backing up a few yards and then putting his mount at the fence. It cleared ditch and boards and spreading white-flowered hawthorn and landed with a spurt of damp clods under ironshod hooves, a goodish jump and fine riding. In the saddle was a nondescript young man with long dark-brown hair done in a queue through a silver ring, not a Mackenzie or at least not wearing a kilt; he was dressed instead in jacket and pants of plain green homespun linsey-woolsey, mottled with streaks of brown. A horn-and-sinew horseman's recurve bow rode in a case at his left knee with a round shield slung over it, a quiver over his back was stuffed with gray-fletched arrows, and a good practical straight sword at his broad brass-studded belt.

"Mae govannen," he said, which cleared up which lot he ran with, if the white tree and seven stars and crown on the shield hadn't been enough. It made young Hùrin prick up his non-pointed ears. "I'm looking for the First Armsman of Clan Mackenzie. Aylward the Archer."

"That's me," Sam Aylward said, and got the expecting someone taller look he often did from those who knew him by reputation only. "Sorry if I don't live up to the stories. And who are you?"

"I'm called Pilimór, sir."

Or Pillock for short, Aylward didn't say aloud. The young man didn't smile as he leaned over and took Aylward's hand; he looked tired and a little frightened.

"I've got a message for the First Armsman from the Hiril Astrid."

He pulled an envelope out of one saddlebag. It was a brown office type, with the little folding split tin thing for closing it through a hole in the flap, in this case covered with a blob of offwhite candle-wax stamped with the Dùnedain seal. That was a starry thing of ancient majesty dreamed up by Eilir about six months ago and set in rings for her and Astrid by a metalworker in Corvallis.

He flicked the wax off with his thumb and carefully bent back the metal wings rather than ripping the paper; nobody was going to make any more of these any time soon. Inside was a hand-drawn map of the Waldo Hills just east and north of the ruins of Salem; he recognized it at once, mainly because he'd been studying the Willamette valley with professional thoroughness since that vacation in the Cascades just before the Change, and also because he'd taught Astrid and Eilir and many another how to sketch a field map. Arrows and notes were drawn across it in a close neat hand. The message with it was short and to the point, despite the opening flourishes:

From Astrid Hiril Dùnedain, suilannad mehellyn în and well-met to Aylward the Archer, Aran Gweth Nô Mackenzie: Given by my hand at Mithrilwood, 4th March in the Ninth Year of the Fifth Age, in the Old Reckoning 2008 AD.

Three columns of Protectorate troops have crossed the border into the Waldo Hills. Troops crossing border observed number approximately two thousand five hundred of which three hundred and fifty are light cavalry, scouts and mercenary horse-archers from the Pendleton area, and the remainder regulars, one-quarter knights and men at arms, the remainder bicycle and horse-mounted infantry spearmen and crossbowmen, with heavy wagon trains including siege machinery and field engineering supplies following. Another force of roughly equal size is investing Mt. Angel and its outposts. Labor gangs numbering at least five hundred accompany the supply trains, under guard, but we have made contact with anti-Protectorate elements among them and they inform me further force of indeterminate size is preparing to embark river transports escorted by turtle boats Oregon City last night, intended to seize the bridges at Salem. Locations, composition and directions of travel of all identified enemy forces marked on attached map. The Dùnedain Rangers have kept contact with the enemy forces and will endeavor to slow them as much as possible while interdicting their supplies. A copy of this message has been dispatched to the Bear Lord at Larsdalen.

Aylward stood thinking for a moment, lips tight, looked at the state of the messenger's horse—tired but not blown—and nodded.

"Get this to Dun Juniper," he said, slipping message and map back into the envelope. "Tell the Chief and Chuck Barstow I'll be by directly, and that I advise calling up the First Levy immediately by mirror and smoke-signal, with Sutterdown as the rally-point. Evacuation as per the war plan."

The First Levy was the younger and better-trained portion of the Clan's milita, and the town of Sutterdown was the most convenient place near the border.

"Roit, Tamar. Get up behind the gentleman, drop off home, and tell your mum to have my kit and 'enry ready."

Henry was his best riding horse; he could pick up a couple of remounts elsewhere. She looked at him with a worry-frown between her brows and then made it go away, and gave him a grin and a thumbs-up as she vaulted easily up behind the Dunedan.

Good girl! he thought, with a momentary flash of warmth through chill focus as the horse went out the gate and down the laneway at a trot. This wasn't the first time he'd ridden away quickly, and she was getting old enough to know the possible consequences, but she didn't let it daunt her.

"Miguel, you see to the beasts," he went on.

Harry-no-I'm-Hùrin was already following the messenger's horse at a tireless loping trot, the kilt swirling around his knees; he was in the First Levy, of course, and was off to get his gear and bicycle.

"Patrón—" Miguel began.

Aylward sighed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Nobody doubts your guts, Miguel. But you're not a good enough bowman yet for the levy, and that's a fact. If worst comes to worst, you'll be on the walls with an ax. In the meantime... look after the beasts and the home-place for me, would you, mate?"

Miguel put his own hand on Aylward's shoulder, to match the Englishman's gesture; the First Armsman of the Mackenzies reflected that training or no, this was a man Arminger would find it expensive to kill.

"Si," he said. "I do not forget how you rescue us from the baron's dogs, take us into your house, treat us like your own. I won't let any harm come to your home or wife or little ones while I live, Sam. I swear it by God and the Virgin."

 

@@@

 

Larsdalen, Willamette Valley, Oregon

March 4th, 2008 AD/Change Year 9

 

"Yeah, the letter said potatoes. Yeah, everyone's supposed to plant an extra fifth of an acre per adult. And yeah, I know it'll screw up the rotations. It's insurance because potatoes are a lot harder to burn in the field than ripe wheat. With the spuds, we can count on not starving this coming winter, at least. You do remember what it's like to starve, don't you?"

The delegate from the town of Rickreall looked at the Bear Lord with horror in his eyes. "You mean... there's really going to be war, my lord?"

Havel curbed his impatience. "Yeah, just like I've been warning everyone for months," he said.

The Bearkiller ruler was dressed in a loose white linen shirt and the closest approach the handlooms could come to bluejeans and he had his two-year old son on his lap. He looked almost as intimidating as he did in armor, with the bear's-head on his helmet...

"I'm sorry, Lord Bear, we just didn't understand—"

"It's OK. My fault. I've got to learn to explain things more when I'm not giving orders on a battlefield. In the meantime, why don't you go around to the kitchens and get something to eat before you head home? Or you can bunk here for the night."

When the farmer had gone, Mike Havel stretched back in the recliner. His son sighed and stretched out on top of him, tucked his yellow-thatched head under his father's chin and went to sleep with the limp finality small children shared with kittens and puppies. Havel put an arm around him, enjoying the solidity of the small body, the sense of absolute trust, even the smell of cut grass and clean hair.

He'd never felt much urge to be a father before the Change... in fact, he'd been a loner to the core, happiest in the air flying, or in the wilderness. He hadn't even been able to keep a long term girlfriend, despite being extremely handsome in a rugged Scandinavian-Indian fashion—as more than one ex-girlfriend had informed him, often popping it in the middle of a long list of his personality faults expressed at the top of their lungs, things like "cold" and "not giving". Now he was not only married, but the father of three... well, four if you counted Rudi Mackenzie, which around Signe was best left unspoken even if she'd come to terms with it last year after that monumental cluster-fuck at the Sutterdown Horse Fair. Remembering that small figure standing before the killer horse still gave him the willies, too, so he banished it by hugging his son.

Got to admit, family life has its points. Hope I can do as good a job of being a father as my Dad did.

He smiled his crooked smile. Their sole dinner guest tonight was Peter Jones of Corvallis. The rest of the extended family was gathered on the verandah of the pillared yellow-brick except for the kids. They were all out there on the lawn, running and shouting as they threw Frisbees for dogs that leapt like furry porpoises breaching for a fish at vanished MarineWorld. Or in the case of the younger children, just tumbling like puppies themselves. It was a fine spring afternoon, the first three-day stretch of clear weather they'd had since last October, and the grass had just been cut; the sweet strong scent gave promise to the swelling buds of the lilacs and ornamental cherries.

Good-looking bunch of kids, he thought with pride.

There were his own twin girls, with their long golden braids swinging as they tried to body-check their cousin Billy, Eric and Luanne's eldest, from either side. The boy was a few months younger than them; he had the same hair color, but his skin was a sort of warm wheat-toast shade, which made his yellow thatch and turquoise eyes look brighter. His reflexes were something unusual too; that wicked double play generally worked for the twins, but he dropped flat and rolled away with the Frisbee in his hand, laughing as they cannoned into each other and collapsed in a squalling tangle. Not far away, his younger brother Ken was grimly trying to climb a tree, with a nurse looking a little anxious underneath—four was a bit young to get that high. Pamela's eldest played hopscotch...

No more of that oh-dear-beanbag-is-too-aggressive-for-kids horse-shit, at least, he thought, holding back the belly-laugh to avoid waking the child sleeping against him.

Out beyond the gardens columns of smoke rose from the buildings along the road to the gate, people getting ready for supper, finishing up work in the smithies and the forge, kids coming home from chores or school; sound came faint, metal on metal, a long dragonish hiss of something hot going into the quenching-bath, the bugling call of a startled horse, a faint rumble from the overshot waterwheel he could see turning in a white torrent. The sun was heading for the horizon, and the crenellations of the gate-towers showed like black square teeth barred at heaven. Soon they'd be playing taps and lowering the Outfit's flag for the night, and it would be time for the family to go in and eat as well—eight adults counting the Huttons, and twelve kids counting their adoptees.

He made a beckoning gesture with his free hand. The nanny came forward smiling and lifted Mike Jr. off his chest; she was a comfortable-looking middle-aged person with short graying hair. They'd found her living in a culvert on the trip west from Idaho; she'd been caught on the road by the Change, miles from the arse-end of nowhere in the desert, and managed to keep her own two kids alive on what she could scavenge, mostly rabbits but at least one dog. Both her boys worked in the machine-shop here.

"I'll get him cleaned up and ready for supper, Mike" she said.

"Let him sleep for an hour or so, Lucy," Havel said. "Little fellah was going at it hard today."

I'm finally getting used to having all this household help, he thought. It does simplify things considerable.

It was no novelty for the Larssons, of course; they'd been richer than God for three long generations before the Change, and Ken's first wife had been a Boston Brahmin who looked down on them—and the Rockefellers—as parvenus. She'd probably looked on Mike Havel as a monkey from the outback. Even when he was busting his ass trying to get her badly injured self back to a civilization neither of them knew had crashed and sunk like that Piper Chieftain he'd piloted over the Selway-Bitterroot. Though even when dying she'd been too genteel to show it.

OK, gentility not my strong point, he thought. I'll leave that for my descendants. They'll have ancestors. I am an ancestor.

When the nanny had gone he turned his head in the lounger and sighed. "OK, Ken, you're goddamned right. We've got to get that House of Commons thing we talked about going. As soon as this war's over—"

His father-in-law snorted and turned his single bright blue eye on him, across the table with its plate of cookies. He was a big man in his early sixties with a short-cropped white beard, a patch over his left eye and a hook in place of the hand on that side, both the fruit of an encounter between the Bearkillers and a would-be warlord and friend of Arminger's in the first Change Year, out east up the Snake River. The kettle belly he'd had before the Change was gone, and he looked tougher and fitter than he had when he climbed in to the Piper Chieftain in Boise, but he'd never pretended to be a fighting man. His mind made him far more valuable; an experienced administrator and engineer had been beyond price a dozen times. Plus he asked disturbing questions...

"When did I hear that tune before?" he said. "There's never going to be a convenient time, Mike. Not unless we make it. There isn't going to be a time when there's no emergency, either."

"OK, I said it, and I mean it. January. The Association's going for us soon, and it'll all be over one way or another by Christmas. I swear to God we'll elect... OK, call it two from every A-lister steading and strategic hamlet. On that Australian ballot thing you're fond of. Christ Jesus, it'll be a relief to have some single group I can go talk to and bargain with and settle things with! Plus it'll help put a leash on some of our A-listers who've got delusions of baron-hood."

"Give the man a cookie!"

He offered one. Havel shook his head. "Nah, don't want to spoil supper. They butchered a nice plump steer a couple-three days ago and Talli down to the kitchens says the steaks look great."

Ken's wife—second wife—Pamela snorted; she had a plate of carrot sticks beside her chair. That wasn't what kept her lean, though; partially genes, and partially the fact that she'd been a hobbyist who studied Renaissance sword-techniques before the Change, and the Bearkiller's primary blade-trainer since. She'd taught him the backsword, and a good many others, and her pupils had passed it on. Quite a stroke of luck to stumble onto her, that day in Idaho when they took in their first recruits, and not just for then-widowed Ken because they'd ended up married.

But then, if I wasn't very lucky, I'd be dead about one hundred and thirty-eight times, he thought. Don't let that make you overconfident, Marine. The dice have no memory.

"And not a word about the first early greens of the year," Pam went on, rolling her eyes and shrugging expressively, then asked rhetorically: "How do you make a Finnish salad?"

Havel grinned. "Yeah, yeah, I know—first you fry sausages in bacon grease. Then you add a dozen potatoes..."

The laugh died as trumpets screamed from the gate-towers. All the adults' heads came up; those three rising notes meant attention! And after that came the signal for urgent courier.

Havel swung erect, his hand automatically picking up the basket-hilted sword that leaned against the recliner, with the belt wound around it. They waited, watching two riders trot up the roadway and draw rein before the verandah, tumbling down out of the saddle while the guards grounded their polearms and took the reins. One of the riders had a black jerkin with Astrid's tree-stars-crown thing on it, a young woman in her late teens with reddish-brown hair plastered to her face by sweat and wind; she raked it free and bowed. The man beside her was a Bearkiller scout wearing a mail vest and a helmet, more practical for quick work than a full hauberk. An A-lister, though, a lieutenant commanding a unit of couriers who doubled as scouts and light cavalry.

His name's Smythe, memory prompted. The A-List wasn't yet so big that he couldn't remember every Brother and Sister. His eyes flicked to the horses. The one the Bearkiller scout rode was breathing hard though not blown, but the Ranger's looked as if it might drop dead any minute, head drooping, panting like a bellows, its neck and forequarters streaked with dried foam.

The Dùnedain Ranger was reeling with fatigue too as she scrabbled in her saddlebags and handed him an envelope; he didn't need to ask if it was urgent.

"I had to go far out of the way and dodge Protectorate scouts, Lord Bear," she said. "I'm sorry it delayed me."

She inclined her head towards her horse. Behind him Eric Larsson whistled softly; there was a broken-off stub of arrow standing in the cantle of her saddle. Three inches forward and it would have gone into her pelvis.

"You got it here, which is what counts," he said, taking the envelope. "If there's no verbal addition, why don't you get the horse seen to and get something for yourself?" he said.

She stumbled away, leading the horse; its dragging hooves made a counterpoint to her boots. Havel ripped the letter open and read on aloud:

"Elvish, Elvish, Elvish—meaning it's me, Astrid; Elvish, Elvish, Elvish—meaning Hi, Mike; Elvish... OK, here's the meat of it: Three columns of Protectorate troops..."

He went on to the end. "Right," he said, passing it to Will Hutton.

The black Texan's graying eyebrows shot up as he looked over the map. "Some motherfucker up north has decided it's a beautiful spring day, so let's have a war. Three guesses who."

The children sensed the adults' tension and fell silent. He took an instant to wave them into the house; the older ones shooed the protesting youngest along with them, or dragged them by the wrist. That gave time for the message to be passed around from hand to hand as well, and for him to call up the maps in his head. The river and the ruins of Salem, with the bridges; then open country north and south, the Eola Hills to the west, then more open country with the odd hill, then the Coast Range if you went far enough...

"OK," he said, his voice flat and cold. "This is the opening move. He's investing Mt. Angel, pushing through the Waldos to the edge of Mackenzie country, and to back it all up, he's going to try and rush the Salem bridges to cut the opposition in half. If he can hold them, he'll cut us off from each other. Anyone got any ideas on why the ones going south out of Molalla are carrying all that heavy gear and taking labor gangs with them?"

"Going to put up a forward base, if they can punch through to the open country north of Lebanon," Eric Larsson said. "Prefab castle, or maybe more than one, base for a campaign south of the Santiam and protection for their supply route."

"Right, that's what I thought."

He paused, weighing options. Silence lengthened as everyone looked at him.

And it's all up to me, he thought.

When he'd been a Marine in the Gulf it had been just him. Well, a Force Recon corporal had a fire team, but his biggest worry had been what was in the wadi and where to put the SAW. Semper Fi, slip in, find the position, report, maybe do some demolition, GOPLAT, VBBS, playing a deadly game with the ragheads, sometimes down to knives in the dark. Sure, they'd cut your balls off with a blunt knife if they caught you, but that went with the territory, and anyway they were such total half-hards and dipshits it was usually just dangerous enough to let you show your sisu. And let them go to Allah and the seventy-two virgin white raisins.

Fight for the Corps, yeah, fight for your buddies. For the goddamn country, too, show them nobody fucks with the US of A without ending up sorry and sore, all right and proper. But nobody was going to invade Michigan, burn down the Havel home-place and kill my family if I screwed up. Shit, I'm scared. I don't want to fight. I'm thirty-eight and a father, not nineteen and a killing-mean dick-on-legs the way I was then. I want to stay home and watch my kids play and enjoy a steak dinner and screw Signe silly tonight and go hunting tomorrow.

He smiled, hard and confident. "Arminger's an armchair general," he said. "He likes to draw pretty lines on maps and think he's Bobbie Lee. Actually it's my guess he's more on the order of John Pope. You know, the guy who said 'my headquarters are in the saddle'?"

"Headquarters in his hindquarters," Ken said, and his laugh boomed out. He'd gotten them all interested in the Civil War over the past decade; it was one of his hobbies, and damned useful.

Grant, though. Grant was always my favorite general. Havel turned his head. "OK, Will. That force they've got up around McMinneville, my guess is that they're a distraction, but they'll raid if we let them. Get over the hills, call up—"

He looked at Signe, who kept track of the intel. She answered without hesitation. "A hundred A-listers ready for duty in the steadings there."

That was the point of having an A-list; they were fully trained and always ready to muster. The militia took longer, and they couldn't be kept away from the fields forever, and the spring planting was underway... Christ Jesus, thank You this isn't harvest-time!

"Collect up fifty lances from the A-list, and say two hundred infantry from the strategic hamlets, and screen the area between the Coast Range and the Amity hills with 'em, send the rest east to me. Make it obvious you're there, and if you can make them think there are more of you than there really are, all the better."

Damn, that's not much of a force for the job, Havel thought, as the weathered brown face of the ex-cowboy nodded, hard and grim. He fought back the temptation to send more. I've got four drains in this bathtub and only one plug. Gotta remember to keep focused and put the troops at the point of maximum effort.

"You don't think they'll make a serious attack thataway, son?" Hutton

"No. Not if they're trying to do everything else at once. Like I said, armchair general." His grin grew wolfish. "Now, if I had his ten thousand men, you'd bet I'd throw every one of them in, and all on the same front. Finish up one of us, then concentrate on the others. We couldn't move around as freely to match him bridges or no, we're all defending our homes, but he's trying to do it all at the same time. The result is he's not overwhelmingly strong in any one place."

Ken Larsson nodded. "If you try to be strong everywhere, you are weak everywhere," he quoted. "Frederick the Great."

"I'll snort and paw the ground some up there, like a mean bull out to hook you," Hutton nodded, satisfied. "I'll keep 'em occupied. Maybe raid a bit, get 'em hot and bothered."

Havel nodded back. And I can rely on you to do just that, thank God, and not get a hair up your ass and decide you're going to win the whole damned war, he thought. Which is why your mad Swedish bull of a son-in-law is going to be kept right under my eye. He's a wonder when you can point him right at something that needs smashing, but a bit short on the self-restraint thing.

"Just so you don't try to fight any big engagements," he said. He looked at his mental map again. "Damn, but I wish we could have put a garrison in on those bridges at Salem. It's going to be close even if we leave tonight."

"We didn't have enough troops," Signe said. "Not in the spring planting season."

Havel nodded. Well, shit. Four drains, one plug. That was Arminger's advantage; his troops were full-timers, paid men or land-holders with bond-tenants and peons working their fiefs and fiefs-in-sergeantry. The Association's leadership wasn't getting as much out of it as he would have in the Protector's position, but the advantage hadn't gone away either.

"Right, everything's ready to roll at Rickreall?" he asked his father-in-law.

Ken nodded. "I'll leave right away, and get the stuff started by midnight. We got that whole section of the old Southern Pacific line reconditioned last year when we cleared the bridge piers at Salem. I checked it over a little after Christmas and nothing's washed out since then. Shouldn't be any problem to get to Salem by dawn if we push the horses, and once I get those beauties on the railroad bridge, I defy anything built since the Change to sail past."

"Woah, Ken. You personally?"

"I bossed the shops that made the damn things, didn't I? For exactly this contingency. Damned if I'm not going to boss them when they're going into action."

Havel pursed his lips. Yeah, he did. And the crews did the work with him. They're not A-listers. They'll do better with him there to steady them. He's not much with a sword and he's too old for a forced march, but he's got guts and to spare and he's smart.

"OK, but Pam, you take ten lances and go with him. Your job is to see he's not distracted by nasty men killing him while he's doing his job. They may try to slip some commando types past us to the bridges."

"Will do, bossman," she said, grinning the way a wolf did at a rabbit.

"Ken, tell your guy Sarducci to get the field artillery here ready to go—"

"It's ready to go on one hour's notice anyway. All we need to do is get the horses and crews together. He's the most punctual Italian I ever met. Glad we got him to move up from Corvallis; he was wasted as a university professor."

"Good; tell him to fall the engines in outside the gate. When you get to Rickreall, commandeer anything you need in the way of horses to pull the trains with the heavy stuff for the bridge, and get the militia mobilizing and following you as fast as they can, Rickreall and Dallas both."

"What about me?" Eric Larsson said plaintively.

"Oh, you and Luanne're going with me," Havel said easily. He leaned over and punched the big man's shoulder. "I'm gonna need someone to take care of the cavalry."

Eric grinned, his eyes lighting dangerously. Beside him Luanne looked dourly determined, like her father.

"We'll take the two Field Force companies of infantry from here at Larsdalen," Havel went on.

That was everyone fit to march and fight; pretty much everyone who wasn't lactating, pregnant, too old, too young, or not big enough to carry a crossbow or strong enough to work the lever that spanned it. He hated mobilizing that completely, but if he lost this fight then they were all dog-meat anyway. The tests for the militia were simple and set to take in everyone capable of being useful.

"Plus all the A-Listers here, and all the ones we can sweep up on the way. We'll muster by Walker Creek. Lieutenant Smythe!"

The scout had been waiting by the head of his horse; he looked tired, but not knocked out the way the Ranger—oh, hell, if they want to be the Dùnedain, they're the Dùnedain, and I'll buy 'em their rubber ears—was. He would be just that tired before long, though.

"Turn out your scouts. Sweep every Spring Valley steading and west to the Eola crest. Give them the rally-point and tell everyone to turn out their A-listers and first Field Force company. We'll be moving southeast from there down the Bethal Heights and Brush College roads towards Salem. Rations for three days and basic medical supplies only, keep it light, but plenty of arrows and bolts."

"Lord Bear!" the man said, snapping a salute and vaulting back into the saddle; he reined around and took off in a spurt of gravel.

Havel looked over at Angelica Hutton. She'd been camp-boss in the wandering days right after the Change, when they were heading west from Idaho, and still handled the Outfit's logistics. It was a much bigger job, but the middle-aged Tejano woman handled it with matter-of-fact competence. She'd already pulled a pad out of a pocket in her long black skirt

"Supplies?" he said.

"We have ample in reserve," she said, her voice warm and husky and soft with the Texas-Hispanic accent; she'd been born in the brush country between the Rio Grande and San Antonio.

Angelica was still a handsome woman, but you only had to close your eyes and listen to that voice to see the fiery young girl who'd eloped with the reckless roughstock-riding rodeo cowboy Will had been back then, with death-threats from her father and brothers raining about their ears.

Briskly, she went on: "It is not fancy, but nobody will starve on the beans, cheese, dried fruit and smoked sausage. Remounts, they are sufficient also."

Havel nodded. Will had quit the rodeo when his first child was born, reconciled with Angelica's family, and he'd put his considerable winnings into a little ranch in the Hill Country and a horse-wrangling business. Angelica had been his partner in that, too. Today they ran the Outfit's horse-herds, breeding program and training both mounts and riders together.

One thing's not so different from the Corps. I've got good people backing me up, folks I'm tight with.

"OK," he said, slapping his palms together. "First things first. Let's eat, we can finalize the operations orders while we do, then we'll get going."

Peter Jones spoke for the first time. "Not me, Mike. I'm going back to Corvallis and see if I can kick enough ass to get them doing something."

"Thanks, Pete," Havel said, leaving silent: For what it's worth.

As they went in under the high fanlights of the front doors, Havel was whistling under his breath. The tune was one he'd learned from a buddy in the Corps, a guy named Thibodeau who'd come from a parish west of New Orleans:

 

"People still talks about Cajun Joe

Cajun Joe was the Bully of the Bayou—"

 

@@@

 

Waldo Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon.

March 5th, 2008 AD/Change Year 9

 

Astrid Larsson hissed slightly between her teeth. This was going to be very tricky...

"Like Faramir and the Rangers of Ithilien, when they ambushed the Haradrim on the way to the Black Gate," Alleyne whispered.

His teeth showed white in the shadow cast by his war-cloak's hood, dim through the gauze mask that covered all but his gray-blue eyes. It was a cool gray morning, but last night's rain was over and the clouds were breaking up, letting long beams of sunlight spear through, turning the early spring grass bright green. His visored helm rested on the grass beside him, and as they watched the road he plucked a stem of the candy-sweet new growth and chewed on it meditatively.

Astrid nodded, returning the smile with a brief grin of her own, then turning again to the steep slope before them. It is like that, actually, she thought. Except they don't have any oliphants. Or even elephants.

She'd heard there were a couple of old zoo elephants in Portland, but they were kept for ceremonial occasions.

The Waldo hills weren't very high; more of a rolling table-land split by abrupt gullies. Most of it had been grassland with scattered oak-groves, before the pioneers came west on the Oregon Trail. By the Change it had been cleared and cultivated, with patches of forest on the higher parts, and fir and willow and alder along the small streams. Mt. Angel was on their northern fringe, and it had preserved an island of survival during the first Change Year; the rest had gone under in the tidal waves of refugees and Eaters. You still found human bones here and there, sometimes burnt and split in token of dreadful feasting. Nobody had returned since except occasional hunters and the odd bandit, and brush and bramble grew thick on the old fields, checked only by summer blazes set by lightning or campfires or branches rubbing. The field-edge they occupied now had been planted in oaks; they'd grown taller, and seeded saplings amongst the thick spiny Oregon grape and thornbush that had grown up around them. White flowers clustered on the grape-stems; the hedge-nettle wasn't flowering yet, but the stalks were already a yard high.

The horses were back a bit, under spreading trees that hid them from above, grazing hobbled among chest-high grass and brush starred with scarlet Fritillary. John Hordle came that way; Astrid was amazed again at how quietly the big man could move. Then he dropped prone and crawled up beside the leaders, in a sweet-pungent cloud of crushed herbs. He might be stealthy, but he wasn't light.

"They're coming," he said softly. "Eilir says she recognized the contact with the labor-gang and passed the signal—got too close for comfort to do it, too. Their cavalry screen should be here any moment."

Astrid nodded, looking downward. "Regular scouts?" she asked.

Hordle shook his head. "Pendleton levies, it looked like; hired light cavalry. Horse-archers. Saw the buggers myself last year, when Sir Nigel and I were east up the Columbia with the Protector's men. Fair enough riders and good men of their hands. Always ready to mix it up, but not what you'd call long on discipline."

"And they're not used to this country," Alleyne said thoughtfully. "That may be rather helpful."

Poor melindo nin, she thought, sensing the strain beneath his hard calm. He's not used to campaigning with his beloved.

Even as she pushed the glow of that word out of her consciousness, Astrid smiled. This was my idea, she thought. I know Alleyne loves me, but sometimes I think he doesn't think I'm very practical. This will convince him... if it works.

There was a short steep slope below them, falling two hundred feet to the marshy banks of Puddle Creek a few hundred yards southeast; the road came looping down from her left and ran south towards the Mackenzie territories. Ten years of neglect hadn't been kind to it. Subsidence and rushing water had cut half-moon bites out of it where culverts had been blocked and ditches overflowed; vines covered it in places; silt had drifted over in others, and young saplings were sprouting in potholes and cracks, their roots working at the foundations with the endless patience of growing things. In a few lifetimes of Men water and trees would have made it a memory and a faint trace through forest, but for now it was still passable for wheeled traffic, with a little effort. The bridge over the little stream still looked solid, though streaks of rust marked the concrete where cracks exposed the rebar within.

A clatter of hooves came from the north. Slowly, cautiously she raised the binoculars to her eyes. A dozen men rode into view, and the glasses brought them close. They rode mounts of range-quarterhorse breed, which were familiar enough. Their clothes were rough leather and homespun wool, with here and there a patched pair of pre-Change jeans, the same outfits you might have seen on the cowboy-retainers of a rancher from the CORA country around Bend and Sisters, but a little more ragged. All of them had plain round bowl helmets of steel; one of them had a horse's tail mounted as a crest in the center of his headpiece. That man also had a sleeveless chain-mail vest; the rest had cured-leather breastplates, usually strapped with chevron-shaped patterns of metal strips. Most of them carried short saddle-bows, some pre-Change compound types, more modern copies of hunting recurves; their small round shields bore the Lidless Eye newly painted. Their swords were strange, looking like a machete lengthened into a point-heavy slashing saber... which was probably exactly what the design came from.

She froze as the leader with the plumed helmet stood in the stirrups and scanned around carefully. The binoculars brought his face close, broad and flattish-looking because his nose had been squashed and healed that way, with a dark beard trimmed into a fork shape and a terrible scar that curled one lip up in a permanent sneer. He shielded his eyes with a hand as he peered eastward, then turned again to look up at her. She knew that he couldn't see her—they were too far away, and in scrub like this a war-cloak made you nearly invisible even at arm's length—but it was still a little daunting.

"Tough-looking chaps," Alleyne said softly. Speech vanished into the background noise as well.

He hadn't been out east last year; the Protector had kept him hostage while his father and John Hordle were searching the old poison-gas dump at Umatilla. They'd fooled that hard and wary man into thinking they'd found what he wanted and would work for him, and then run for it... Nigel Loring's cunning had seen that the poison gas didn't fall into Arminger's hands, but the stretch of country around Pendleton had. The Lord Protector had the whole of the Columbia's south bank now, as far east as the old Idaho border.

"There's been war in the Pendleton country almost since the Change, and a cruel war at that," she said. "They've grown up fighting, even more than we have here. That's how Arminger got them to join him, backing some of them against the rest."

"Bad bargain," Alleyne said.

"By then they hated their neighbors so much they'd take any help against them," Astrid said, between pity and disgust.

At a guess, none of the men down there were older than she or Eilir, and the time before the Change had grown dreamlike to her. War to the knife would have been all they knew, that and hunger and fear and hate.

The leader with the crested helmet called an order, swinging up a hand.

"In yrch derir," one of the Dùnedain whispered: The enemy stop.

The mercenary light horse shook themselves out on either side of the road, combing the bush and checking any patch of trees that might shelter a watcher. The leader and three others rode on towards the bridge, arrows ready on their bows. Just then two figures burst out from underneath it, leapt on horses tethered and hidden among brushes and galloped away southwestward. The mercenaries pursued, rising in the stirrups to shoot, arrows flicking out. Astrid caught her lip in her teeth as she watched; those were her folk, her friends...

They passed out of sight around a bend in the road. The leader of the Pendleton scouts threw up his arm again, sensibly calling off the pursuit, since the fleeing men might be leading his into an ambush; he had to shout to make one man stop, and clouted him across the helmet when he returned. The rider extended a fist with one finger raised, and they both laughed. Then they dismounted and looked at the support pillars, one of them climbing awkwardly down a little and pointing, holding something up for his leader to see. The figures were tiny in the distance, their voices insect-small and they argued and shouted. After a moment one of the easterners turned his horse and cantered back northwards towards the main body of the Protectorate's column.

"They found the cut-marks and the tools, then," Alleyne said. Astrid felt a warm glow below her breastbone as he went on: "That was a remarkably clever idea, letting them find incomplete sabotage. Well worth all that night-work."

A curled trumpet spoke, and the rest of the Protectorate force came around the curve of the northward road. A score of crossbowmen on bicycles came first, weaving among the obstacles on the road; they dismounted and set their machines on their kickstands, fanning out to either side of the road. That freed the mercenary horse who'd been guarding the crossing, and most of them trotted southward over the bridge to scout further on. Next came gangs of laborers in metal collars and rags, carrying mattocks and picks and shovels, some pushing wheelbarrows, all guarded by infantry equipped with shield and spear, conical helm and mail hauberks. The peons set to work on the roadway, shoving aside the rusting hulks of cars, chopping back the vegetation and filling holes with earth and rock. After that the wagons came, huge things with steel frames and twin four-wheel bogies from heavy trucks, drawn by sixteen span of oxen each and loaded high with shapes of metal and timber—a prefabricated fort, with the hundreds-strong labor force that would build it trudging in coffles beside the roadway and carrying their tools. Then there were several dozen ordinary baggage wagons loaded with food and supplies, and last of all a dozen mounted men-at-arms around a rider in a knight's plumed helmet, the lanceheads swaying bright above their heads. The horseman beside the knight carried a banner that hung from a crossbar—the Portland Protective Association's Lidless Eye, not quartered with a baron's blazon; that meant the commander must be of the Protector's own household troops.

"Didn't expect the lancers," Alleyne said, as the mercenary with the horse-tail crest cantered back to report. "Now let's see..."

Astrid felt the tension rise, and trained reflex take control of her breathing, making the diaphragm pull air down to the bottom of her lungs and release it slowly. That slowed the beating of her heart, and kept her hands steady. Words and images flitted through her mind; fire and arrows and a tall white tower like a spike of pearl and silver, tall gray-eyed men riding through wilderness and by tumbled ruins, a host of horsemen charging across a plain wracked by battle, while winged shapes hovered overhead...

"Nazgûl!"

Everyone froze. Astrid let her head drift up. The slim shape of the glider slid through the sky above, toy-tiny at about two thousand feet. None of her Rangers should be visible from there... but it turned on a wing and dove, coming down the road at a third that height. Which will be a real test of our fieldcraft, she thought.

Fingers moved in gestures of aversion among the Dùnedain, with here and there a sign of the Cross. John Hordle raised one massive fist, with the middle finger extended, but kept it below head-height.Then it was past; it flashed across Puddle Creek, swift and graceful, and soared on an updraft that rose from the slope opposite, wheeling skyward like a falcon in a gyre until it was high above. Then it waggled its wings and turned southward once again, scouting the road the column would take.

"He didn't see a thing," Alleyne chuckled. "Victory through Air Power, what?"

They all nodded, though they also knew it would be a hideous handicap to have the Protector's gliders overhead when they were trying to move larger forces than this raiding-party, spying and dropping messages to his troops.

The knight commanding the column nodded and waved his men forward. Half of them went over the bridge, and the forward labor-gangs to clear the way, while the first of the huge freight wagons inched into movement. That took a minute or two. Whips cracked as the long line of paired oxen leaned into the traces with their heads down and shoulders straining at the yokes, nostrils flaring wide and mouths open with the effort. Here and there one slipped a little on the asphalt, lurching and scrabbling and bawling in alarm. A man-at-arms barked a command, and several score of the laborers added their shoulders to the effort, and the wheels began to turn slowly. The humans fell away gasping as the big vehicle moved, building up to a steady walking pace.

Astrid felt her smile waver as the first team put its hooves on the bridge. Wait for it, wait for it, the bulk of the weight's in the wagon—

It rolled across. The next two wagons followed, each occupying one lane, and she felt sweat trickling down her flanks. They'd had to calculate the stresses roughly—

"What's plan B?" Alleyne whispered.

"Tail, caro!"

Her beloved wasn't the first to chuckle; his Sindarin was still improving, and he took a moment to realize that she'd just said Feet, do your stuff. Because if the trap failed, running away was all they could do...

The paired wagons rolled onto the bridge; she could see the man leading the first ox-team suddenly stop and look around him in puzzlement, then stare down at his feet in horror before running screaming for solid ground. The first lurch came soundlessly; they'd labored all night on the bridge pillars just below the water level, miserable work in relays as hands grew too numb to grip the saw-handles. They'd gone through an implausible number of the blades, too, which could never be replaced. But it was worth it; and if the scouts detected a little incomplete sabotage they'd stop looking before they found the real thing.

We hoped, she thought, with an enormous relief that left her stomach feeling oddly liquid for an instant. And it worked, it worked...

The scream of tortured metal was joined by the screams of the rest of the wagon crews as they pelted either way off the lurching length of the bridge, arms and legs pumping in panic flight. The next jolt was even louder, with a popping, crackling sound beneath it as the leverage of the severed uprights ripped welds and rivets loose. The bridge swayed right, hesitated for a moment and then collapsed to the left. The bellows of the oxen did tear at her heart, but there was no way to spare the innocent beasts.

Chaos boiled among the hundreds of men below as two of the giant wagons slid into the water. Astrid hit the toggle that released her war-cloak and rose to her feet with a slight grunt—she was wearing a full hauberk and gear. She filled her lungs as she rose, drew her bow and shouted:

"Lacho calad! Drego morn!" The same Dùnedain war-cry broke out from two-score throats: Flame Light! Flee night!

Arrows followed. By prearrangement, everyone was aiming at the crossbowmen at first. There were a dozen of them left by the side of the road. As many again had crossed to the other side of the bridge, but they were out of range and the swift-moving water was as deep as a tall man's chest. That cut them off from the action here. And most of the ones within range of the Dùnedain had turned to gape at the disaster unfolding as ten tons of metal and wood and two score of oxen slid inexorably into the river. The first forty shafts struck before they could do more than begin to turn back. Two more volleys were in the air before the first hit; the Dùnedain were all good with the bow, and the range was nowhere more than two hundred yards, mostly less. The light mail shirts the crossbowmen wore were no more protection than their woolen jackets.

"Yes!" Alleyne shouted as he drew and shot, using a longbow as skillfully as any Mackenzie. "Yes!"

There were sixty Association troops with the convoy. There were more than seven times that number of laborers... and as the crossbowmen fell beneath the arrowstorm, the workers turned on the soldiers guarding them in a screaming mass of fury, swinging shovels and mattocks and dragging men down with their bare hands to be beaten and stomped to death. A dozen swirls of vicious combat broke out all at once, arms and armor and skill against numbers and surprise and hate; the soldiers fought their way towards each other, the laborers hanging on their flanks like wolves. Here and there a knot stood back-to-back and beat off their assailants. More went down before they could reach help...

The Protectorate lancers had their destriers as well as their weapons, rearing and lashing out with steel-shod hooves; only two of the men-at-arms were pulled out of the saddle and pounded into bags of shattered bone and pulped meat inside their harness. The others cut their way free, with short-gripped lances stabbing and swords casting arcs of red into the morning air. One laborer died as a warhorse sank its great yellow teeth in to his shoulder and shook him like a terrier with a rat. Ten men-at-arms and the knight who commanded them spurred into the open, drawing together, getting ready to charge to the aid of the footmen in a wedge of armored muscle. That couldn't be allowed.

"To horse!" Astrid shouted with a voice like a silver trumpet, then whistled sharply. "Tolo, Asfaloth!" she called to her own mount.

Her gray Arab mare came, cantering, moving so lightly her feet barely seemed to touch the ground. Astrid caught the saddlebow and used the momentum and a skipping spring to vault into the saddle, her feet catching the stirrups easily. The raven-topped helmet hung by her bow-case. She slipped it on. The cheek-pieces that clipped beneath her chin were covered with wings, their pinions blackened aluminum; the tail-feathers that made up the aventail protecting her neck were steel of the same color, on a mail backing, and the eyes that looked out over hers were rubies. One of the Dùnedain offered her a long ash lance, but she shook her head.

"Lacho calad! Drego morn!" she called again, and then to the horse that trembled with eagerness beneath her, tossing its head and snorting: "Noro lim, Asfaloth, noro lim!"

A dozen of the Rangers were in the saddle, Alleyne beside her. They put their horses recklessly at the steep slope ahead; her Asfaloth plunged down it agile as a cat, sometimes resting her weight on her haunches for an instant and sliding, sometimes twisting to avoid a sapling or tangle of thorny brush. When she hit the level ground it was with a long bound that landed her in a hand gallop. Alleyne's heavier mount reached the flats almost as quickly; the big gelding had a steel barding-plate on his chest and simply smashed through much that Asfaloth had dodged. The other mounted Dùnedain all made the passage, though two had to struggle back into the saddle after loosing a stirrup.

Behind them the rest of the Rangers were leaping down the slope in turn, shouting their war-cry. Ahead the Protectorate men-at-arms were turning to meet the menace of their mounted foes; they had no choice, if they weren't to be taken in the rear. The laborers took heart and threw themselves on the spears that faced them in a screaming swarm, led by men willing to hold the steel in their own dying flesh while their comrades beat at heads and shoulders beyond. A helm and mail-coat and the padding beneath were good protection, but there was a limit.

Time to look to her own fight. Alleyne was coming up on her left, the long steel of his lancehead ready. Ahead the knight in the plumed helmet was coming for her, some hidden sense told her that she was the target of his lance; all she could see of his face was the eyes glaring at her from over the curved rim of his big kite-shaped shield, its black surface marked with the Lidless Eye. She shot once; the arrow struck the surface of the knight's conical Norman helmet and flipped off into the air. Divots of grass and dark moist earth shot skyward as well, as the destrier's hooves pounded at the turf and brush. The lancehead pointed at her midriff, directed over the neck of the knight's horse with unerring skill, and her smaller round shield was slung at her knee—you needed both hands for a bow.

Her right hand whipped back for another arrow and she put shaft to string in a single smooth motion; there would be time for just one more shot, and the knight was well-protected, the horse a small target with a steel chamfron covering its head and a peytral on its chest.

Two seconds, one...

The Protectorate lancer was expecting her to duck, or swerve her more maneuverable mount. He wasn't expecting her to throw herself to the right with her left knee over the bow of her saddle, hanging off the side of the horse Commanche-style. The lancehead flashed through the space where her breast had been a moment before with the driving power of an armored man and tall horse behind it, yet cutting only air.

It was a risky thing to do even for a rider of her skill, especially in armor, and for an instant she felt herself begin to slip towards the earth dashing by at thirty miles an hour beneath her before a desperate wrench of straining thigh-muscles brought her back upright. The horses flashed past each other as her left foot found the stirrup again; as it did she did she turned in the saddle, the cord coming to the angle of her jaw as she drew against the heavy resistance of wood and horn and sinew. The lancer was pulling up, screaming a curse as he tried to get his mount around and to turn the long point of his shield around behind him to cover his back, but the same weight and momentum that put terrible power behind a lancehead made a galloping destrier hard to turn. Shield and weapon, mount and rider were locked into a drive forward behind the narrow steel point.

Even with the combined velocities of the two horses she was less than twenty yards behind him when she shot. Snap of the string on the bracer, a flash of fletching and pile-shaped bodkin head, and the arrow struck the knight's hauberk over the kidney. It broke the links of the riveted mail and sank three-quarters of its thirty-inch length into his body with a solid punching impact, a dull thudding sound audible even over the thunder of scores of hooves and the screaming of men, the shrill calls of horses, the low deep bellowing of oxen. He shrieked again, wordlessly this time, dropping his lance in reflex and then toppled leftward to the ground, dragging with one foot tangled in the stirrup until his warhorse came to a halt, looking back to see what it was that tugged so at its harness. Asfaloth braked to a halt, rearing and turning in her own length.

"Lacho calad! Drego morn!"

That was Eilir's party, dashing in at the gallop from the northwards along the road. Eilir herself was silent of course, but she was the first to throw her Molotov cocktail on a load of massive timbers; it was a quart glass bottle with its neck wrapped in oily cloth that gave off a long thin line of black smoke as it smoldered. Glass shattered, and the sticky fluid within spurted out, caught fire and burned as it dripped and spattered over the dry Douglas fir wood. The flames were a fierce red-orange; the stuff was made of gasoline and laundry soap and rubber dissolved in alcohol and turpentine, until it had the consistency and stickiness of thin honey. More arched out as her team of six dashed down the line of wagons. By the time they'd pulled up near the wrecked bridge pillars of smoke and fire were beginning to rise from the wagons. Better still, burning the heavy loads of timber would turn the steel members and fasteners into twisted useless scrap, and those were a whole lot harder to replace than the shaped wood.

All that came out of the corner of her eye in an instant. If there was one thing in all the world she was certain of, it was that she didn't need to check on Eilir doing her part.

Astrid's eyes flicked over the action nearer her as Asfaloth's forehooves touched down again. Alleyne's man was down with a stub of broken lance-shaft sticking from his chest. Two of her Dùnedain riders were down likewise, dead or crippled, with their horses running free. The rest were in a melee with the Protectorate men-at-arms, horses circling and snapping as blades swung in bright glittering arcs. As she turned she saw the tall figure in the green plate-armor use the stump of his lance to break a swordsman's arm, and then cast it aside and sweep out his own long blade, bringing up the shield with its blazon of five roses. Astrid set another arrow on her string, rode close, and ended a duel with a shaft between the shoulderblades, neatly cutting the shield-strap that ran diagonally across it. At that range the bodkin came out the front of the man's hauberk and went thunk into the inside of his shield.

She'd learned combat from Sam Aylward and Mike Havel. The rest of the Dùnedain running up had graduated from those same hard schools. Or something similar for John Hordle; he ran straight into the mass of enraged horses and bright steel with a wicked grin on his red ham of a face and the bastard sword in both hands. His first stroke took a man's leg off at the knee, just in the gap between the mail of his hauberk and the steel-splint shin protector...

The fighting was over in moments, with only a whimpering left that ended as steel was carefully driven home. A dozen or so of the laborers ran up to her, brandishing their bloodied tools or weapons snatched from the fallen Protectorate troopers. She stood in the saddle and held a hand up; beside her Alleyne raised his visor with a red-splashed steel gauntlet.

"Silence!" he shouted. Quiet fell. "Listen to the Lady of the Dùnedain."

"Or listen to this," John Hordle said, hefting his great sword.

The workers were rebels, but they'd lived in the Protectorate for a long time—half their lives for most of them, from their looks. They were used to obeying armored men.

Astrid went on quickly, with the growing crackle and roar of the burning timbers in the background: "There will be soldiers here soon. We have to get you to safety. Cut the oxen loose from the harness, take as much food as you can carry, and weapons, and nothing else and follow."

They scrambled to obey, pulling sacks of hardtack and beans and filches of bacon and strings of dried sausage and blocks of cheese off the supply wagons, loading them onto their own backs or the bicycles of dead crossbowmen; the more alert stripped the weapons and gear from the enemy fallen, and drove the oxen into wild stampeding flight with shouts and spear-prods. Dùnedain guides divided the labor-gangs into parties of twenty or thirty and led them away quickly, up into the trackless hills. Her riders went after the enemy horses with their lariats.

And we must give the mercy stroke to any of the workers who are badly wounded, she thought; there were enough horses to get the Dùnedain hurt out, but that was all. It would be no kindness to let them fall into the hands of the yrch again.

Astrid herself rode down to the edge of Pudding Creek, reining in beside Eilir.

They didn't seem inclined to shoot at us, Eilir signed, resting her bow across the saddle in front of her and nodding across the creek and the wrecked bridge. So I didn't seem much point in provoking them.

"Right," Astrid said.

The Pendleton mercenaries were back, but the swift water was too deep on this spring day to cross easily, and the bridge was a tangle of twisted metal like some monstrous dish of ferrous pasta littered with whole dead oxen. They might try to get the two wagons on the far side away, but Eilir's group had carefully shot a couple of draught-beasts in each team. John Hordle came up with a dozen arrows clutched in his great right hand; each of them had a wad of napalm-soaked cloth just behind the head, the scent sharp and mineral under the fug of blood and smoke.

"Thought you'd want to do the honors, luv," he said, offering one to Eilir.

The mercenaries' leader reined in on the other side of the river, within easy bowshot, but with a white rag tied to a light spear.

"Neat job," he called, laughing. "You're that Astrid they told us about, aren't you? Or are you the deaf one? I'm Hank Bauer, Sheriff of Lonerock."

"I am Astrid, Hiril Dùnedain ," she called coldly. "Lady of the Rangers. This is Lady Eilir."

Sheriff was equivalent to baron, in the country east of the mountains. And Rancher usually meant lord or knight, pretty well, with cowboy filling in for man-at-arms.

He chuckled. "You are one mean pair of killin' bitches, I've got to give you that. The big fellah there's no slouch either, I'd guess, or the guy in the fancy armor. Pleasure to meet y'all."

"Leave this country, Sheriff Bauer, you and all your men, or you will leave your bones here. Go home to your own land and your families."

"Shit, it's better grazin' land than anything to home, just like the man said," he replied; the scar made his smile gruesome. "And we left to get away from our families, anyhow. If you're such a great fighter, girlie, why don't you come over here and make me leave? I'll give you a kiss if you do."

The men around him laughed and hee-hawed at her, calling comments they doubtless thought very funny.

"If you're such a great warrior, why don't you come over here and make me fight you?" she called sweetly. "Or send your sister, if you're scared."

"Watch out!" Alleyne said, snapping his visor down and drawing his sword again.

One of the mercenaries had pulled a light yard-long javelin out of the hide bucket slung over his back in place of a quiver. It was a long throw...

But the horseman didn't cast the weapon he brandished over his head. Instead he gave a high warbling shriek like an Indian war-cry and put his horse at the water, shrugging off the surprised snatch his leader made for the bridle. The horse hesitated for only an instant and then slid in; the gray-blue surge came to its chest, and then it was picking its way across just upstream and west of the fallen bridge.

Alleyne shouted furiously: "This violates the flag of truce!"

Hank Bauer shrugged, looked up at the white rag, then pulled it free and tossed it aside. He laughed and called through cupped hands: "Hell, you can kill the little fuck for all I care. The dumb bastard's always pulling shit like this! I'd have killed him myself weeks ago except he's my wife's cousin."

The man charging across the creek-bed was young, younger than her, with only a fuzz of yellow beard on a face that also bore a set of black painted chevrons; long blond braids swung from under his steel cap as he howled and brandished the javelin. Alleyne began to wheel his destrier, but Astrid smiled and put out a hand.

"Bar melindo," she said: My beloved. "Better I do this."

"Why?" he said.

"Because..." She frowned, not quite certain of what her intuition told her. "I think it may be useful. These men aren't lieges of Portland. They're fighting for money and plunder. And I think that all they respect is success in battle. If they respect us more than the Association...something might come of that."

His mouth quirked. "And it'll be more spectacular if you do it. You've got a damnable habit of making sense, darling. By all means—he's yours."

She suppressed an impulse to kiss him—that would not go over well with the target audience just now—and leaned down for an instant, running her left arm through the loops of the shield hanging over the bow-case at her knee. The young easterner brought his horse surging up the shallow bank of the creek and charged her, shrieking; Asfaloth turned beneath her in response to leg and balance, going from a standing start to a gallop in seconds. The distance closed with dreamlike speed, and she let him turn his horse to come in on her unshielded right side. Ten yards away he twisted back and uncoiled in the saddle, throwing the javelin hard and fast.

It seemed to float towards her. Javelins weren't much used here in the Valley... but there was a game she'd played for years...

Her backsword came free of the sheath and flicked from left to right in a long curve, the arc of its flight perfect as a song in the mind of the gods. With a hard crack the metal-tipped wooden rod flew by in two pieces, just as the dragonflies she usually practiced on did. A cheer went up from the Dùnedain still watching and another from the mercenaries on the other bank of the creek. The young man's astonishment made his voice break in mid-shriek; he was goggling at her as they passed in a blurr of speed, and she could have killed him with a single sweep of the steel. Instead she wheeled Asfaloth and waited while he drew the heavy blade at his saddlebow.

"'Chete! Give her the 'chete!" voices called from across the river, among other things, including advice on where to put it.

The man was a wild chopper; he almost killed her in the first exchange because her swordswoman's reflexes couldn't believe someone would just barrel in like that. He also nicked Asfaloth on the neck, and she felt her lips go tight in genuine anger.

Their blades struck, slid down until guard locked with guard in a skirl of steel on steel; the horses shocked shoulder-to-shoulder in the same instant. The easterner rose in the stirrups, throwing the weight of his heavier shoulders against her arm. Astrid smiled sweetly as she twisted her foot, got her toe under his stirrup-iron and heaved her knee upward sharply. The young mercenary's eyes went wide in panic; he yelled as he pitched up and to one side. Then he did something sensible, kicking his feet free of the stirrups and rolling over the crupper of his horse, dropping to the earth on the other side in a back-summersault. He landed stumbling, and Asfaloth was on him before he could set himself; the Arab mare was trained to ride men down. He dodged enough that the impact wasn't bone-crushing, but that sent him tumbling over the ground. He was sensible again, letting the sword go; you could get a nasty cut that way, particularly if only your torso was protected.

When he rose again he was weeping with rage and mortification, tears cutting streaks through the dirt and paint on his face, and losing themselves in the blood that poured from his bruised nose. He drew his bowie knife and waited.

Astrid laughed, and held up her sword, looking from the yard-long blade to the knife. "Do you want to die of stupidity?" she said, and flourished the weapon towards the stream.

The youth screamed a curse at her and hurled the knife, turning and running for the water. Astrid shifted her balance and Asfaloth gave one of her astonishing leaps, landing nearly at the edge of the creek. That let her deliver a ringing slap with the flat to the seat of his buckskin pants as he dove into the water and struck out for the other side; when he rose above the surface his face was as red as his buttocks probably were.

"Here's your wife's cousin, Sheriff," she called, as she sheathed her unblooded sword and caught the reins of the mercenary's mount when it looked like following him. "Tell him thank you for the horse. It's a fine one."

The scar-faced man was laughing as she turned; some of his companions toppled from the saddle, wheezing and holding their sides and drumming their heels on the ground in mirth. My-wife's-cousin would probably never live this down.

"He won't thank you for it, Lady," the mercenary leader said, confirming her guess, and then touched the hilt of his blade. "See you another time, without a creek in between."

"We'll let you get out of bowshot," Astrid replied.

The mercenary looked at the riverbank on her side; better than thirty archers lined it, and they could swamp his men even discounting the three who had swatches of burning oil-soaked tow tied to their arrows. He shrugged and neck-reined his horse about, calling to his men to take the Protector's crossbowmen up pillion. Then he shouted and leaned forward, and his horse leapt into a gallop southward. The others followed him around the curve in the road in a hooting whooping mass, bent on only the Gods knew what deadly mischief.

Eilir raised her longbow—she was one of the few who could shoot the unwieldy weapon from horseback. Her shaft made a long curve in the air, trailing black smoke, and went thunk into a baulk of timber on one of the wagons; more followed it, until the air over the river looked as if vanished fireworks had spanned it. The Dùnedain cheered and waved their weapons in the air as those wagons began to burn as well, adding their bitter plumes to the smoke that was making the air hot and tight in her chest.

Alleyne reined in next to her. "They're happy," he said.

"Good," Astrid replied. "We've stung the yrch, at least."

"A bit more than that," the young Englishman said judiciously. "Still, there's no denying they can shrug off a loss like this more easily than we."

Astrid flung him a smile; the way he took everything so equably was one of the wonderful things about him. She knew her own nature was more changeable.

"Not much more. Even if Lady Juniper brings off what she's planning, that would only be a start. It is like trying to shoot an elephant!"

Aha, Eilir signed, after she'd pushed her bow back through the loops on her quiver. You should remember that my most magical Mom's plans usually have a couple of little hidden wheels within the big obvious one.

 

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