Cover Map 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

THE PROTECTOR'S WAR

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


CHAPTER TEN:

 

Near Amity, Willamette Valley, Oregon

May 12, 2007/Change Year 9

 

Michael Havel reined in and aside, dead weeds and new grass crackling under Charger's hooves. The big gelding halted in the lee of a house that was deserted but still standing, a large frame bungalow with a small red-painted barn whose walls showed gaps; someone's dream-place in the country, its shattered windows gaping like eyes weeping for broken dreams. Young saplings from the ornamental trees had overrun lawn and garden, providing welcome cover. Beside him Will Hutton flung up his right hand clenched into a fist inside its mail-backed leather gauntlet, and the little column of mounted Bearkillers came to a halt with a sway and a surge—the heads of their long lances safely hidden from anything beyond the crest-line ahead as well as well. This was about as far north as the Outfit patrolled regularly and well beyond the settled zone, but nobody would take too much notice of the horse-soldiers—except to keep well-hidden, in some instances.

Lancers have a lot of punch, but they're not what you'd call inconspicuous.

Hiding still had its uses—this operation was one—but visibility wasn't equivalent to death, the way it was when he'd learned the pre-Change art of war.

Though hiding armies is still a good idea, and easier than it was, no radar or sensors beyond Eyeball Mark One. But when the actual killing starts, you have to run right up to the other guy to noogie on him and he can just stand there giving you the finger until you do. It still feels weird.

Havel and Hutton and Signe dismounted, with Eric Larsson and his wife Luanne, handing off their reins. The patrol got their mounts into the shelter of the building. A very good eye might see the trail they'd left cross-country from some distance, but the rolling land made that unlikely. So did the combination of shaggy second growth and forest that covered a lot of it.

Havel nodded to the patrol commander and went walking forward with the others, then stooping; finally they went to their bellies as they came to the ridge ahead. That was no knife-edge crest, just a long low swelling that rose perhaps fifty feet above the level of the countryside and well below the Amity Hills to their west. A sagging board fence grown up in brush and vines marked it, and a few tall firs; they crawled into the undergrowth carefully, pushing forward with helmeted heads and armored shoulders against the thick spiky growth. An occasional muttered curse sounded as a thorn or twig slipped between the rings of chainmail and through the quilted padding beneath.

Then they all uncased their binoculars and pushed back their bowl helmets—the nasal bar made using field glasses impossible unless you did that—and looked through the last screen of tall grass and brush towards the north. There was a burned-out farmhouse not far down the slope, snags of wall reaching up through rampant vine and brush. The ruin stood in a clump of trees; those that lived at all were half-dead from the heat of years past, their bare limbs stretching towards the overgrown mound with their other sides in leaf, quivering in the mild breeze from the north. A broken-down barn stood beyond, and after that neglected fields running down to a creek lined with trees; beyond that was another stretch of burgeoning wilderness; the edge of the Protectorate's plowland and pasture was out of sight at the north end of this stretch, what used to be called the Dayton Prairie.

Two roads ran north-south down the lowland to his right, the easternmost crossing the river on a bridge still intact; someone had gone to the trouble of clearing off the vehicles from that one.

"And that's where the Crossing Tavern is," he said. "Just this side of where Webfoot Road crosses the creek."

"Where the innkeeper's feeding travelers to Crusher Bailey's gang for a cut of the take. The ones who won't be missed too bad," Will Hutton replied grimly.

"Let's not jump to conclusions, Unc' Will," Signe said. "Crusher's gang is working this area, but we don't know their MO and we're not sure the innkeeper's in it with them. My people haven't been able to find out anything one way or another."

Havel pulled a grass-stem and stuck it meditatively between his teeth, enjoying the fresh sweetness and inhaling the welcome smell of new spring growth crushed under the rings of his hauberk.

My darling wife has come a long way, he thought, grinning inwardly. She was a vegetarian before the Change, and now she's head of the CIA, as well as a mean hand with a backsword. Well, we probably suit a lot better than I would with Juney Mackenzie—that woman's conscience can make you feel real uncomfortable.

"You been able to find out what the hell the Protector is doing up the Columbia?" he said.

"He's back, but not with most of the troops," she said. "Haven't been able to find out what he was doing. He just ordered a task force together and sailed out of Portland, leaving the Seal with his wife. Then he got back two days ago, headed straight out of Portland west with an escort, and while he was on the road there Sandra called out a hundred crossbowmen and fifty knights and their banners and sent them east over the Willamette—towards Molalla, remember? Arminger went after them hot-foot. Must be something important going on over there. Those visitors of his were involved."

"Can you guess at anything?"

"Well, his daughter's staying with Molalla. The guy was a Blood before the Change, name of Jomo, but he's more sensible than a lot of Arminger's baronage. Firm supporter of the Protector, worse luck."

"Well, whatever's going on over there, it does make it the perfect time to take care of Crusher Bailey," he mused.

He looked carefully at the road-house that stood just south of the creek and the bridge, nearly hidden by the trees. He'd never been up here himself, not this far eastward at least; no sense in giving the Protector a free chance at a coup de main. There was a fair amount of traffic on the road; the Protectorate and the other Valley communities were formally at peace despite the occasional skirmish, and everyone benefited from trade in the meantime. He could see individuals on foot, mounted on bicycles or on horseback, carts of wildly varied construction ranging from wooden replicas of nineteenth-century models to cut-down pickups, small herds of sheep or cattle...

The ridge they were using for cover was the last easternmost outlier of the Amity Hills, themselves the northern fringe of the Eolas; none of the heights were over a few hundred feet, but in sharp contrast to the flat open land ahead and to his right. For a while he examined the territory, and the wisp of smoke rising from the sheet-steel chimneys of the way-stop.

"It's on the south bank of... Holdridge Creek, right?" he said.

Hutton nodded. "That runs east into Palmer Creek, an' that goes north to meet the West Fork and join the Yamhill at Dayton, then that hits the Willamette past the big east-trending bend."

The Texan pointed slightly north of east: "That bit there, though, the sloughs over a couple-two miles thataway, they're a lot worse than they were before the Change, comparin' the maps to the first-hand look I had last week. Swamp and nothin' but. Braided channels and islands, all shifted around. What roads an' bridges there were are damn near all gone and we couldn't tell which wasn't yet, not without being pretty noticeable."

Eric whistled agreement; he'd been on that downriver scouting mission too, drifting along disguised as a bargeload of grain.

"No shit!" he said. "Part of that area was a State park, wetland preserve. Lordy—" a trick of the tongue he'd picked up from his Texas-born father-in-law "—but it's wet now! A duck could drown in there if he didn't know the pathways."

"Yeah, and the bad guys can hide out in it," Havel said. "They do know ‘em."

Signe chuckled. "It's like the Debatable Land," he said.

"Que?" Havel said.

"Something my esteemed stepmother mentioned. Pam says a long time ago there used to be this stretch of ground between England and Scotland, they both claimed it, and neither one would let the other put in its laws and sheriffs. So there wasn't any law—not even as much as the rest of the border had—and outlaws made their home there."

"Sort of like the Hole-in-the-Wall gang," Hutton said meditatively.

Will Hutton had been a noted wrangler and horse-tamer before the Change, with a small ranch in Texas and customers for his horses all over the Western states; a delivery had caught him in Idaho that March nine years ago. He'd never graduated high school, but he was widely read in Western history and anything to do with horses.

"Yeah," Havel said. "Only this Crusher Bailey bastard's a lot nastier than Butch and Sundance, and too many of his hits are around here. His gang's not going to go on raiding our people and stealing our cattle and horses. Now that I've eyeballed the terrain, I say we go with the plan. The Protector's barons are having some sort of kerfuffle over on the east side of the river, a problem with raiders or something like that—less chance they'll try to interfere right now. There won't be a better time."

Signe sighed. "Yeah, and Arminger still has some of his cadre at Bonneville, after the whatever-it-was he was doing up the Columbia. Let's get moving, then."

"You sure you want to do this, sis?" Luann Larsson—nee Hutton—said. "I thought you were..."

"Lost it," Signe replied shortly. "It was only a month along, anyway."

Eric grumbled in turn as they turned and slid down towards the Bearkillers waiting in the swale. "I still say you should let us do it, bossman."

Havel snorted. "It's not so easy to get known by sight without pictures or TV, but there still aren't many six-foot-two blond guys with wives who look like Luanne wandering around the Valley. You two are both pretty well known by name and general description this close to Larsdalen. People would be a lot more likely to twig if they saw you side-by-side."

Oregon had been a pretty whitebread state before the Change, particularly outside the cities... and the survivors had tended to be rural folk. You saw the odd Oriental around, some blacks and rather more Hispanics, but all were few enough that they stood out. Some contrasts would just attract the eye and prompt the memory; Luanne's chocolate-colored features were a compromise between Hutton's blunt face and the strong-boned Tejano-Mexican comeliness of her mother Angelica, all the more striking next to her husband's Viking looks. It was a pity; they wanted a woman along on this because it tended to disarm observers a little, and Luanne's skill-set would have been perfect. Signe would do nearly as well, though, with a little cosmetic work.

"You just want all the fun," Eric said.

He grinned as he spoke, but his eyes flickered to his sister in momentary unease; this would be dangerous in ways that a straight-up fight wasn't.

Havel shrugged. "It beats reading and annotating reports on sugar-beet production and having meetings about management of the mint, but then so does getting nibbled to death by giant cockroaches."

 He did feel a bit guilty about taking over this mission—it was really a job for an NCO—but...

Time I got away from home for a little. Maybe I'll be appreciated more that way when I get back! And anyway, the Pentagon's ruins and bones. We're back to kings leading from the front.

"And we have to do it smart," he said. "Riding in with our lances all shiny and bright, they'll just run away again—plus the Protector's men might object; like Eric says, they claim this area too. We don't want to start that war just yet. So... let's waddle and quack like decoy ducks. Might be fun, at that."

"So you admit it's an abuse of rank for personal gratification," Eric said.

"Shut up!" Luanne said, then snorted and rolled her eyes. "Signe's got her an actual reason to do this, since her fellah's going, but will you please stop volunteerin' to get me kilt, husband? Men! It's like you're fighting over the right to muck out the stables!"

"It's a dirty job, but—" Havel and Eric began in unison, then grinned at each other. Luanne turned to her father and threw up her hands in exasperation:

"Idiots, every one, starting with Dumb Blondie here. I make an exception for you, Daddy."

Hutton shook his head. "You're too easy on me, honeypie. When I was Eric's age, I was still ridin' roughstock at rodeos and it don't come no more stupid than that; the brains kick in when you get past forty and slow down a bit. You should be gettin' to your years of discretion soon, Mike, if you live that long."

Ouch.

 

@@@

 

They'd hidden the decoy material several miles back, in an overgrown orchard just south of the Amityville—Hopewell road, with an observer in a tree up on Walnut Hill to make sure nobody was snooping. A group of senior apprentices waited there, and they helped Havel and Signe out of their war-harness. You had to be a bit of a contortionist to shed a hauberk by yourself; the slow fall of white blossom in the mild wind made it more pleasant than usual.

Signe looked at herself in the mirror; her naturally wheat-gold hair was now a dark glossy brown, and she brushed off a few pink petals clinging to the damp locks and sighed: "Well, Miss Clairol still works. Long dark hair and short blond roots after this."

"You look a lot more convincing as a brunette that I would as a blond, sis," Luanne smiled; then she turned to Havel and snapped open a makeup kit. "Let's get to work on the bossman."

When she'd finished he took the mirror and looked at himself. His bowl-cut black hair was now cropped until it looked like a home-made crewcut just growing out; she'd stained the distinctive white scar that ran from the corner of his left eye up across his forehead, which made it much less noticeable, and covered the little brand-mark between his brows. Luckily he had a naturally dark complexion and took the sun well—probably a legacy of his Anishinabe grandmother, given that the rest of him was a mix of Finn, Swede and Norse—so the stain went well with his usual weathered tan. Contact lenses salvaged from an optometrists' in Salem turned his pale gray eyes brown-black.

The clothes were what a pair of well-to-do stock farmers from east of the Cascade mountains might wear; tough pre-Change hiking pants with cargo pockets and a couple of neatly repaired rips, check cotton shirts, boots, broad-brimmed hats, duster-style leather jackets that fastened with toggles across the left side of the torso, sewn with links of chain on either shoulder to offer a little protection from a downward blow Their plain round shields were unexceptional, and so were the Bearkiller-style backswords and powerful recurve bows in saddle-scabbards; that type of equipment was made over much of Oregon these days, not just in the Outfit's territory, and anyway smiths in Larsdalen and Rickreal had a nice sideline in selling blades and fighting gear.

All was not quite as it looked. The leather coats were of much thinner material than they appeared, and were lined with light chainmail made from fine steel wire, with an under-layer of nylon; the hats held what Pam called ‘secrets', steel skullcaps concealed by the crown of the Stetsons.

Havel's flat Upper Midwestern vowels were at least a bit different from the way a native of the Valley spoke, and Signe could sound like someone from the Bend country at need. The fifteen loose horses actually were from over the mountains, ranch-bred of good working-Quarterhorse stock; the type was a steady export of the eastern slope. The last element of their ensemble was a light but sturdy two-wheeled cart, also genuine—it came from a shop in Bend owned by someone who'd made equipment for rodeos before the Change—drawn by a single horse between shafts, and bearing bundles and bales covered by a tightly-roped tarpaulin, as well as a little surprise cooked up in the elder Larsson's workshop-laboratory. The driver was a tow-haired teenager, a military apprentice named Kedricks picked for his wits and ability to keep his mouth shut, with his bow slung on the frame beside him, along with a spear in a holder and a hatchet and long knife at his waist. Everything was in good repair, but appropriately dusty and battered, the way you would be after weeks on the road.

Signe exchanged a brief embrace with Eric, then hugged Luanne and Will Hutton too. "Don't worry, sis, Unc' Will. I'll keep Mike out of trouble."

"You do that, honeypie," he said gruffly. Then to Havel: "Take us about an hour and a half to get into position."

"I don't expect they'll try and jump us at the inn or on the road there, there's too much traffic. More likely to try something tomorrow, north of the crossing," Havel said. "Crusher's too smart to crap where he eats, or we'd have strung him up by now. He's been working this stretch for more than a year."

"Got me a rope ready and a tree all picked out," the Bearkillers second-in-command said grimly. "That big one back to the tavern would do right nice."

 Hutton hated bandits with a cold passion; three Idaho amateurs had jumped him just after the Change, and they'd figured out what had happened to firearms before he did; plus they'd been survivalists of a particularly nasty breed, the Aryan Brotherhood. They would have killed him and raped his wife and daughter and then probably killed them if it hadn't been for Michael Havel and Eric Larsson stumbling onto the scene, fresh out of the wilderness where their plane had crashed.

A mirror flicked a signal from atop Walnut Hill, the all-clear. Havel swung into the saddle—a plain cowboy-Western type, not the more specialized military models the Bearkillers been making the last few years. Signe got the herd moving; she'd grown up around horses, at Larsdalen and the family ranch in Idaho, and she was still better than he was at handling the beasts en masse.

He leaned over to speak a last word to Hutton. "Just get in place on the north side of Holdridge Creek and keep a sharp eye out for the signal," he said. "We'll take it slow to let you have time to do it without drawing attention to yourselves, and there's plenty of cover. We'll come on in the afternoon, or next morning, depending on what we find at the Crossing Tavern. If they jump us anywhere, it'll be between there and the Protector's border, so they can hide the horses in the marshland. The reports are pretty conclusive that nobody gets snagged at the Tavern itself."

Of course, if they blow our cover, they might make an exception.

Hutton nodded and gripped his hand for a moment; Havel waved to the others and followed. As he went he turned and looked over his left shoulder at the Amity Hills; at Walnut Hill, in particular.

Would it be worth keeping a permanent lookout there? he thought.

The hilltop posts were useful for keeping an eye on things—he'd scavenged telescopes and binoculars everywhere they could be found—and lights and mirrors let them flash a message quickly. But building them high enough to be useful was expensive in labor and materials, and each required a crew who could be doing something else...

Like plowing this land, he thought.

They were down from the low rolling heights, cutting eastward across open fields. There had been farms in the hills—undulating country you could call hills only by contrast to the flat alluvial Valley floor—and even more orchards and vineyards, but more forest than anything else. The lowland was all cleared except for the banks of the odd stream and small woodlots, or had been before the Change; and this close to the high ground it was all naturally well-drained, unlike the bottomland further east. Right now it was tall green grassland getting shaggy with brush, spots half blue with May's camas-flowers. Ready for the plow, but the trees were starting to encroach and the orchards to degenerate into pathless thickets. In a few decades it'd be twenty-foot trees and heavy brush laced together with feral grapevines as thick as your thigh; in fifty, dense mixed woods. He'd grown up working-class of a deeply rural sort in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and he knew what it was like to take down a big tree with axe or a crosscut saw, and to get the roots out without dynamite or a powered winch.

The problem is that there just aren't enough people around—to do that, or anything else. So my grandchildren will have to bust their asses... or...

"Signe?" he said. She glanced over and he went on: "Didn't you tell me once most of the Willamette was grassland when the pioneers arrived? Looks like it's growing up in forest pretty quick now."

She nodded. "That was the Indians. They used to set fires in the autumn to kill off brush and saplings, so there was a lot of prairie and oak-meadow. Grazing for deer and elk, and plenty of camas-root in the prairies. This would all be solid forest otherwise."

"We might do some burning," Havel said. "Be sort of dangerous, though... have to do it after wheat harvest and be real careful the fires didn't get out of control..."

He made an exasperated sound between his teeth. Running a country, even a little one, turned out to be a lot like being a juggler, only you couldn't help dropping an egg now and then—if you were lucky, you got to pick which one went ker-splat.

And eggs don't scream when you fumble them. And to think I wanted this job... OK, let's be honest in here where it's private: I still want this job. I like making things happen instead of having them happen to me, and I'm pretty good at it, which is good for everyone. And I will purely and surely do whatever it takes to win a fight, which is just what we need with Arminger around. I just don't like some parts of it much.

Signe loped her mount back a little west and waved her coiled lariat at a horse visibly thinking of straying, helping to keep the herd bunched until they crossed an overgrown ditch and swung onto Webfoot road, turning north. The beasts saw no particular reason not to stop and take a drink from a pond or eat a little of the succulent new grass now and then, but they were reasonably used to doing unreasonable things because humans told them to, and the lead mare was well trained.

Still, I get daydreams about just being a rancher or a farmer myself, he thought. Just honest work to put food on the table and lay something by for the kids. But someone has to run things, or momma-threw-away-the-baby-and-raised-the-afterbirth types like Arminger and Crusher Bailey will do it.

He glanced eastward; about half a mile thataway you could see why the little county two-lane called Webfoot had gotten its name, but big parts of the swamp looked new, too. There were dead trees in it, their roots killed out by standing water.

"That must have happened when the Keene reservoir broke," he said. "Damn, but I hate to see things get run down that way."

"Hey, Mike, remember you're not Lord Bear today, and staggering along carrying the Outfit on your shoulders," Signe said, reading his mind with disconcerting ease; that happened more and more often as their marriage accumulated years. "You're Mr. Brown from Cottonwood Ranch, and it's a fine spring day with the sun shining and no cares in this world. Except getting our skulls crushed by Crusher Bailey, or our bodies shot full of arrows, but Mr. Brown wouldn't know about that."

"Yeah, life is good for Mr. Brown," he said, grinning back.

There really was a John Brown of Cottonwood Ranch, and they'd met fairly often at conferences—he was one of CORA's movers and shakers, and the Central Oregon Rancher's Association was as close as the country east of the Cascades had to a government nowadays, not that that was saying much.

"Not that the poor man would appreciate it," Signe replied, and they both laughed.

The rancher was also a serious chill-dill-pickle-up-the-butt worrier, which made Signe's comment sly as well as to the point. He'd always liked her sense of humor.

We get along pretty good most of the time, he thought. Which makes it more of a contrast when we don't.

He relaxed a little and took a deep breath; it was only slightly seasoned with the dust and smell of the horses. Under the rumble of their hooves was a deep quiet; the sough of wind though the grass and an occasional roadside tree, a rookery of pigeons sitting on a section of telephone wire still standing, small animals flashing across the road; once he glimpsed the flicker of something bigger along a field boundary. He guessed at a buck from the brief glimpse of a black-tipped tail, but possibly a feral cow. Wild game was coming back nicely the last few years with all this rich edge-habitat land to feed off. In a way the ghastly outbreak of plague in the refugee camps back in Change Year One had been fortunate—there hadn't been time to strip every living thing from the Valley lands before the Black Death finished what starvation began, with assists from cholera and typhus.

And keep focused. This isn't like riding out to find some deer or wild pigs. We might get attacked before we reach the tavern.

The land went by slowly; you didn't push horses past walking pace when you were taking them to sell and wanted them in prime condition at the end of the trip. Distances which had been a quick run to the mall before the Change meant hours of walking, now.

I wonder when we'll stop comparing things to how they were before the Change? he thought idly.

Then, with wry honesty: Never. I was a man grown by then and I'm always going to be a stranger in this world. Signe and Luanne do it less than I do, they were teenagers, and Ken does it more—he was past fifty. Astrid less than any of them, but then, she was just fourteen and never really touch down much on Planet Consensus Reality anyhow. Our kids will probably think we're lying through our teeth about the old world and get bored as hell with our stories.

The sun crept by overhead, getting on towards afternoon. Two big carts went by them southbound drawn by eight yoke of oxen each—car-wheeled, but with new-made frames of timber and metal, both loaded with tall pyramids of PCB pipe lashed down with rope; no doubt the tubing was ripped out of a derelict town or Portland itself and was headed out to repair someone's plumbing system. The oxen were red-and-white Herefords, not the best for the work but passable, plodding along with splay-footed patience along the cracked and potholed asphalt. The drivers walked beside the wagons, spears in their hands, and not looking too badly off—even a sadistic son of a bitch like Arminger couldn't afford to make everyone in his territory miserable. The wagoneers weren't looking too worried, either; but then nobody was likely to pick a fight over half a ton of plastic pipe.

Only governments stole on that scale, and Crusher Bailey hadn't quite gotten up to the robber-baron level.

Two lighter carts came by, each drawn by a pair of mules; Signe called a question, which was in character, and the driver told them what they carried: shelled filberts, nut-oil and smoked salmon—the runs were improving on the Columbia since the dams at Bonneville and The Dalles broke, but not very far up the Willamette as yet. The rest of the cargo was salvaged goods from the dead cities, fine fabric and cutlery and edge tools, plus aspirin, antiseptic ointment and Tums, things you rarely saw anymore. Not surprisingly, that wagon had more guards, mounted ones. They looked more alert than the spearmen guarding the load of pipe, and also looked like they were Protectorate men-at-arms; gleaming oiled chain or scale hauberks covering them neck to knees, big kite-shaped shields slung over their backs, conical nose-guarded helmets on their heads and long double-edged swords at their belts, lances in their hands with the butts resting in rings riveted to their right stirrups. The morning sun shone liquidly on the metal of their armor, and their eyes were hard and wary, constantly moving.

Back right after the Change, Arminger had mistaken dressing men up in military gear for the much more difficult process of turning them into real fighters, but experience had taught him and his new-made lords better since.

Maybe they're moonlighting, Havel thought, eyeing the men-at-arms narrowly. Or possibly someone, Baron Emiliano for instance, has an interest in the shipment and lent them to whoever organized it.

Northbound traffic was mostly beef cattle and some sheep, together with oxcarts loaded with sacks of grain or potatoes, butter and cheese in tubs. Their horse-herd swung wide around the slow-moving obstructions, and once nearly came to grief with a herd of yearling shoats that used the distraction to evade their minders and make a break for the river swamps; from childhood experience, he suspected pigs were smart enough to know why people kept them around and act accordingly. A horse-drawn wagon passed them northbound; the dozen guards walking beside it looked like University people—the pikes half bore were the more complex sixteen-foot takedown model the Corvallis militia favored, and the other six carried longbows or crossbows. That many guards meant a valuable cargo; from a quick look he thought it was beeswax in blocks, expensive and valuable for half a dozen purposes, starting with candles that didn't stink and drip as much as tallow dips, and small kegs of honey.

He and Signe took their horses around the ox-wagons, and well off the road for a while when the horse-drawn wagon came up behind them; perfectly sensible, if you didn't want animals inconveniently bolting. He dismounted and faced away from the road, taking up one of Charger's hooves and holding it between his knees as if he was getting a stone out.

If anyone can recognize my ass, I deserve to get caught, he thought, smiling down at the perfectly sound hoof; luckily, Charger was a good-natured horse.

When they got moving again, Signe unslung a small guitar and began strumming and singing—

 

"Run softly, Blue River, my darlin's asleep

 Run softly, Blue River, run cool and deep—"

 

Havel joined in, his bass more tuneful than it had been before the Change; if you wanted music these days, it had to be live, and practice helped even if you had little natural talent. He liked Country, but his tastes ran more to Kevin Welch or Bob Schneider tunes; and he'd developed a taste for the Cajun sound, zydeco, while he was in the Corps. On the other hand, he could take Johnny Cash. The Huttons' tastes had been influential, and they tended to really old-fashioned Country—some of their stuff was so old that it sounded a lot like Juney Mackenzie's songs.

At least it beats that sixties boomer crap Ken loves. I shouldn't have let him build those wind-up phonographs; if I have to listen to a scratchy Sympathy for the Devil or We are Stardust one more time... oh, well, the records will wear out eventually and he hasn't figured out how to make more.

Singing on the road was perfectly normal these days, too; it wasn't as if you could plug a Walkman into your ear any more. It had been surprisingly difficult for townie types to realize that life didn't come with a sound-track. Up ahead to the right was a fair-sized vineyard along Palmer Creek; some of it had died off near the water, but the rest of it had been painstakingly restored, pruned and cultivated, leaves bright against the old gnarled brown-black trunks. Then there was a patch of woodlot, green shade flickering above them; the Crossing Tavern had a sign there, nailed to an old telephone pole. It claimed, fairly implausibly, that the owner had certificates of protection from the Brigttine monks, from Mt. Angel twenty miles away across the Valley, from the Protector, from the Bearkillers, and from the independent town of Whiteson all together—he knew the one about the Outfit was a bare-faced lie. Below that were the services offered, and the terms of barter. The series of boards ended with one that read:

Mastercard and Visa accepted.

No, just kidding.

Havel barked laughter. "I do hope the owner's not in on it," he said. "I'd hate to hang a man with a sense of humor like that, bandit or not."

"I wouldn't," Signe said grimly.

Deadlier than the male, Havel thought silently.

He pulled his recurve bow out of the case and set an arrow on the string before he entered the woodlot, his eyes wary amid the firs and cottonwoods and bigleaf maples. Havel had been a crack shot with a rifle—particularly a scope-sighted Remington 700—but it had taken years of dogged practice to make him more than passable with a horn-and-sinew composite bow shot from horseback. Signe was better than he was, Luanne could beat her, and Astrid Larsson could beat anyone in the family; she'd been an archery enthusiast before the Change. Some of the Outfit's younger generation looked to be downright uncanny.

Just beyond was what had once been a large building of some sort, probably a gas-station-cum-convenience store; there was no way to tell for sure, with signs down and the way it had been modified. The building had originally been shaped like a long T lying on its side with the narrow end pointing at the road. New construction had turned it into a narrow E with the three arms facing westward towards him, using the former parking lot as a floor. Some parts one-story and some two; the walls were a double layer of cinderblock with rubble and concrete between, and the windows had heavy steel shutters pierced by arrow-slits. It looked untidy, but immensely strong; there was a small greenhouse of plastic sheeting on metal arches, and a mature orchard—cherries, by the froth of pink blossoms, and apples in the next field just showing white; off behind it were paddocks and a big truck garden covering several acres, with more orchard on the other side of Holdfast Creek.

The Bearkillers' intel said the place had started out in the first full Change Year, someone who'd managed to survive God-knew-where-and-how settling and claiming the area together with his extended family. He'd made a living the first little while off the truck he grew and foraging, but mainly by rigging a hand-pump and selling the fuel from the gas station's underground tank, essential for lighting and half a dozen other uses. Then he'd branched out into a rest stop, as people began moving around once more.

A suspicious number of whom don't make it through these parts...

There were horses and cattle in the paddock nearest the building, unhitched wagons, saddles resting on a rack by the door, and a few folk walking about. A makeshift tower three stories tall held a watcher, who began beating on a piece of sheet metal as Havel came out of the trees, louder than the clang-ting! of a smithy somewhere in the background.

Several more people came out at that, one of them holding a pre-Change compound hunting bow, immensely valuable while it worked and impossible to repair or replace when it didn't any more. A woman flanked him, with a polearm—a long curved cutting blade on a four-foot shaft, a naginata. The younger man on the other side had a spear and a bowie knife, and a double thong with an egg-shaped lead ball in its soft leather pouch, held deftly in his right hand—a sling, David-and-Goliath type. There was a family resemblance to all three, stocky and big-boned—the sort who'd have been overweight before the Change—with strong black hair and beak noses and bony faces.

Havel carefully returned arrow to quiver, slid his bow into the saddle-scabbard and held up his hands in sign of peace. "I'm traveling in horses," he said, jerking one thumb towards the herd behind him. "Name's John Brown; got my wife Anne with me, and a boy who works for us."

The man in his thirties stroked his bushy black beard and nodded, looking them over and considering their gear. Several more people, probably customers or employees, came out of the heavy metal door—it looked as if it had been salvaged from a warehouse—and stood watching.

"Welcome," the proprietor said. "I'm Arvand Sarian, and I keep the Crossing Tavern."

There was a slight guttural accent to indicate his fluent English wasn't his native language, but he didn't look Mexican and the accent wasn't Spanish, or anything Havel had met when posted to the Gulf. He also looked past Havel as Signe bunched the horses up; one of them made a half-hearted bolt and she turned her mount in pursuit with a sharp whistle, the lariat whirling over her head. Then the noose shot out and settled neatly about the fleeing mare's head; it submitted meekly as she led it back to the others. Sarian's shaggy eyebrows rose slightly; the eyes beneath were small and so black you couldn't see the line between pupil and iris.

"You're not Bearkillers," he said. "Not from Mt. Angel, or Corvallis either. And certainly not Mackenzies!"

Havel shook his head. "We're CORA folks," he said. "Cottonwood Ranch, south of Sisters. Came over 20 as soon as the pass opened, with a horse-herd and them carrying packs; hides, tallow, wool. Sold most of it in the Mackenzie country and Corvallis. I had this lot left, and heard the Protector's man north of here was buying, so I sent the rest of my hands back and brought ‘em up. The Bearkillers didn't object but they weren't what you'd call friendly."

"Baron Emiliano is buying horses, yes," Arvand said, his voice neutral.

"Well, we'd like to stop a spell. See to our horses' shoes, if you've a farrier, rest up, groom ‘em, have a meal better than trail rations... maybe stay the night."

Arvand nodded. "What have you to barter?" he went on briskly. "Or I'll take gold or silver—coined, if you have them."

"Coined?" Havel replied; he'd heard about it, but the character he was playing likely wouldn't.

"The Protectorate has a mint now, and the Bearkillers a new one, just opened, and I hear Corvallis is going to start one too. Or I'll take it by weight, or any of the usual trade goods." He looked aside to the younger man, probably a son or brother: "Aram, help the lady with her herd—the paddock by the north wall."

"I've got some precious metals, a little," Havel said, nodding thanks. "Or I can trade—" he nodded to the cart "—from what I picked swapping up for the horses. I've got windup alarm clocks, Swiss army knives, needles and pins, sewing thread, combination padlocks, fishhooks and synthetic fishing line, eggbeaters, sausage-grinders and such-like. And some Fruit of the Loom underwear and good hiking socks, still in the plastic."

Arvand beamed at him; those were light high-value goods.

And I wouldn't have told you about it all, if this were on the square. Just the thing a bandit would love to steal, to go along with the horses. But go ahead, think I'm stupid.

They began to dicker. That went briskly, and Havel had an obscure sense that he'd been skinned afterwards, even though the price wasn't unreasonable. He and Signe turned over their horses to Arvand's workers—half of them had that same family resemblance—and went in through the tavern's front doors, their saddlebags over their shoulders after politely declining an offer to lock them up in a strongbox; he bustled in ahead of them.

Havel blinked as he strode into the main room. Places like this had been springing up at natural stopping-points over the past couple of years, as the simple scramble to survive lifted a little and men began to learn or relearn, a little, how to live in the Changed world. A few things were ordinary; a big common room with a fireplace and a bar, tables and booths, stairs to rooms above, a kitchen that served as a barrier between the inn proper and the quarters of the owner and his family and retainers. This one was bigger and tidier than most, although neither people nor clothes nor boots could be as clean now as in the lost days of washing machines and cheap abundant soap and no manure-producing animals close to the house. It didn't stink here, though; it smelled of cooking and wood smoke, and the food looked to be more than the usual bread with stew from a pot kept eternally bubbling on the hearth. Not that he didn't like a good savory stew, but it wore if you were traveling a lot—especially when ‘savory' translated as ‘thick and brown'.

Better lit than most, too. Christ Jesus, they've even gotten a blackboard menu up! The shishkabob look tempting, but...

"Double bacon cheeseburger with fries," he said, when the innkeeper had led them to a booth and a waitress poised. There was even catsup... doubtless homemade under the lying Heinz label, but he suspected it would be good.

"Me too," Signe said eagerly.

The other surprise was the rugs—not on the floor, which was clean-swept asphalt still bearing faint yellow and white stripes, but hanging from the walls, the only ornaments except for some not-quite-Russian-looking religious images. The colors of the rugs were deep and rich, wine-reds and blues and purples, in patterns that combined geometry with stylized flowers and animals; they reminded him of some the Larssons had had in the Big House from before the Change. A couple of them had unusual combinations of colors, paler and more delicate. He recognized the ones weavers in the Bearkiller territory and its neighbors had produced from wild indigo, safflower, berries, and some new to him as well.

"Those for sale?" he asked Sarian.

"My friend," the man said, smiling whitely and stroking his curly black beard; it fell halfway down his chest. "My friend, the only things not for sale here are our land, our weapons and our women. I sell food, I sell lodging, I buy and sell horses and tack and doctor horses and have them shod, I trade bulk grain and foodstuffs, and I sell the goods people trade to me for these things... and I sell rugs, yes."

Havel pointed at the carpets with the colors of home-made dyes. "Looks like you make them, too."

"My aunt, rather, and my wife, and some girls they've taught. Just this little while, but it is a tradition in my family, in the old country." He grimaced. "I came to America from my homeland not long before the Change—we lost everything in the war there, when we had to flee Baku. I fought with our army until we won, but then there was no making a living. So, we build up a little business here, brought over some of my relatives, and then—poof!—the whole world goes crazy. At once I saw that Portland was doomed."

"You got out with the rugs?" Havel said.

The majority hadn't realized what was happening until far too late, and had then fled the fires and fighting in panic with nothing but what they had on their backs; most hadn't gotten twenty miles before they just laid down and died, of hunger and thirst and sheer heartbreak, although you found bones along every road even now. The others... well, a lot of them had been eating each other by then, and not long after that the plagues started.

"We had bicycles and we made a cart of them, to pull, you understand, with all the supplies we could gather. I had a restaurant... The rugs we hid after a day or two on the road. We lived in the woods for many months—from hunting, the supplies we had, and a few cows and pigs and chickens we... found. Then I come here when the worst was over, see it is a good place when things get better, and—" he glanced around, pride in his eyes.

"What's your price on the rugs?" Signe said, sounding genuinely curious. "New and old?"

"More for the old than the new. The new are good, very good, but we are still... what's the word, experimenting with dyes. And we need more alum, to fix the colors."

Sarian glanced aside at Havel. He shrugged in turn: "Anne knows cloth better than I do. Bargains good, too."

Which is true enough. She's got a better natural head for logistics than I do.

The food came, and glass steins of beer; the latter was as cold as you could get by keeping the barrels in a cellar. The waitress also had a little scale, and looked at the scraps of silver with a practiced eye as she weighed them. He ate the hamburger with appreciation; the food at Larsdalen was excellent, of course, but he spent a lot of time in the field. The fresh tomatoes must be among the first of the season, started under glass and then planted out, and they were delicious, the onions pungent and strong, the lean ground beef a meaty delight set off by the rich tang of the cheese and the smoky-salt bacon.

Food often tasted better since the Change... when it was fresh, particularly. Out of season you got things dried, pickled, canned, smoked or salted, if at all, and hoped like hell nothing went dangerously and undetectably bad. At that, the Willamette growing season was longer than most places; diets got a lot more monotonous east of the mountains, or further north.

Sarian nursed one stein of beer as he had carpet after carpet brought over. At last they settled on a price for half a dozen, six of the new and six of the old.

"There'll be a good market for these back home," Signe said.

Which was true for their assumed characters and their real ones both. There were plenty of A-listers prospering enough to want to spruce up their fortified farmhouses, not to mention some Bearkiller traders and craftsmen doing very well. And no doubt the rugs would be popular with wealthy ranchers in the Bend country too; not only were they pretty, but hung on a wall they'd do wonders with cold drafts in the high-country winters now that central heating was mostly a nostalgic snow-season memory.

Signe got a deal that would leave us a profit if we were who we're pretending to be, and I still feel obscurely certain we've been took. Again. I'd hate to buy a used car from this guy!

"Good," Havel said, as the three of them shook on the deal. "We'll pick ‘em up on my way back."

"Chicory?" the waitress said—she'd been the one with the naginata. "Or more beer? There's wine and brandy and whiskey available too."

"One more beer," Havel said. "Chicory's just enough like real coffee to make you miss it more."

"Bring it along, John," Signe said as she put down her napkin and rose. "I'm not going to let anyone put their hands on our horses without I look ‘em over first."

"You said it, honey."

The farrier's forge was in what had been the repair bays of the gas station, which was a clever use of space; one bay had a frame and winch-worked hoist for shoeing working oxen, ending in a big canvas belly-band—unlike horses, cattle couldn't stand on three legs, so you had to hoist their weight off their feet before you could get at the hooves. The smith himself didn't look like one of Sarian's relatives; he was pale, with brown hair and beard and a thick pelt likewise on his broad chest, freckles on his muscular arms; he was in jeans and steel-toed boots and a new-made leather apron and arm-guards, otherwise bare above the waist. His wife had the innkeeper's stamp, though, and he dropped a word or two of the guttural-throaty language the Sarians talked among themselves into his conversation with her as she pumped the bellows.

Signe watched him work and nodded to Havel, satisfied. He wasn't surprised. The big brick hearth with its metal smoke-hood, the double-punch cylinder bellows, the workbenches and rows of tools and four specialized anvils, all argued for competence. So did the abundant store of blank horseshoes on pegs. The way the farrier handled the job he was on confirmed it, and the customer led his mule away with a satisfied smile.

"Like you to have a look at my drove stock," Havel said to the smith; Sarian observed with his arms crossed on his chest. "Our riding mounts are fine, and the cart-beast, we had them done in Corvallis, but the others've come a long ways on asphalt. We'd like the ones who need it trimmed and new-shod before we sell ‘em."

"Be glad to—" the smith began, then stiffened.

Havel had heard the hollow booming clock-clop of hooves on the pavement of the bridge over Holdfast Creek just north, and the more solid crunching sound as they reached earth once more. Two men had ridden into the E-shaped front yard of the Crossing Tavern, on horses that looked shaggy-ungroomed but healthy and fast. Both wore bicycle helmets covered with straps of bent steel; one had a short sleeveless scale-mail shirt that looked a little small for him, the other a vest of braided rawhide picked out here and there with metal—cheap gear, but much better than nothing. The bigger of the two had bib overalls on under the armor, and he carried an odd weapon with the head resting on his right hip. The business end looked as if it had started life as a rock-breaking sledgehammer, but someone had sawn a couple of inches off each side of the head to bring the weight down to something reasonable, and then filed the metal striking surface crisscross until it was a series of small pyramids, like a giant meat-tenderizer.

Which is exactly what it is, Havel thought; the head was mounted on an ashwood shaft a yard long, with a hide-wound grip. Have to be a strong man to use that, though.

The two dismounted and led their horses over to the smithy. The man with the hammer was strong, Havel's height but broader, his torso a rectangular block the same width from wide shoulders to hips with arms as thick as the blacksmith's. He also had a bit of a kettle belly, and spare flesh elsewhere; not something you saw all that often these days, and his hair was as red as Juniper Mackenzie's, though it had started to fade back from a high forehead. The face below was broad and cheerful-looking, with small blue eyes and tufty eyebrows and a squashed-potato of a nose, a few broken veins there and on the cheeks. The face of someone ready with a joke and to knock back a few with friends, a smiler; there was a broad one on his face now as he listened to something his companion said.

That man was smaller and wiry, despite a certain family resemblance, and a bit older than his companion. He wore jeans and a checked shirt that were solid and untattered, which meant he was reasonably affluent; so did the good hiking boots. He had a hide bucket slung over his back like a quiver, but it held short spears instead of arrows, each about a yard long and tipped with narrow metal points. One of them was in his hand, and he rolled it over his knuckles and then twirled it with fingers alone, tossing it up and catching it, all without looking at it—his eyes were fixed on the travelers, particularly on Signe. He smiled too when she glanced around at him, revealing several missing front teeth; his mouth had a long parallel scar across the upper lip, as if someone had tried to grab it and slash it off and nearly succeeded. Two big knives completed his ensemble, not on his belt but strapped to his thighs.

"We need our horses done," the man with the javelin said. He looked at Havel. "Out of the way, you. We're regular customers."

The bigger man with the hammer made a soothing gesture at his companion. "The lady's first in line, little brother," he said. "We've got time. Those your horses in the paddock, ma'am?"

"My husband's and mine," Signe said distantly, nodding towards Havel.

"Those are some fine animals," he said. "They'd fetch a good price a bit north—Baron Emiliano wants some remounts for his crossbowmen."

Havel hitched his thumbs into his swordbelt. "You interested in buying?"

The big man shook his head. "Carl Grettir isn't that rich, nor are his friends. Good luck with the Baron; he's a hard man and he'll drive a hard bargain."

There's always something strange about people who refer to themselves in the third person, Havel mused thoughtfully, watching as the two men handed off their horses and went inside. Signe blinked and seemed to be mentally searching for something, then shrugged and shook her head.

"You know," the Bearkiller leader said to Sarian, "if you put in a small water-race from that dam there—" he pointed northwest to where a pre-change earthwork dam made a pond about a thousand yards away "—you could have a mill too, with an overshot wheel. That would be mighty useful, and not just for grinding grain. We've got one like that on the ranch, but we had to build quite an earth dam for it. It's drier, where we live."

The innkeeper shook himself a little, as if casting off some bitter thought. "Yes, Mr. Brown, it would be useful," he said. "And if there were a mill as well as a tavern, more settlers might come, a wainwright's shop, livery stable—a town, and farms around it. But I could not protect that many; I keep the peace within bowshot of my house and my bridge, and no more. Also I haven't enough hands to build such. And most of all, it would attract attention. I will not build up just for some warlord to take."

If this guy were in the Outfit's territory, I'd see he got loaned what he needed to expand, Havel thought, as he dipped his head to acknowledge the point and Sarian walked off. I may be a warlord, but by Christ Jesus I'm not a stupid warlord, and I heard the fable of the goose and the golden eggs a long time ago.

The tavern's smith was honest as well as competent; the seven horses he picked for re-shoeing were the ones that actually needed it. Havel and Signe hung around, and weren't the only ones. He'd expected that; in any small community with a blacksmith, the forge tended to be a center of gossip as well as work, particularly before summer got really hot. Most of it was the usual dead-boring crops and weather—and weather in western Oregon was just too consistent to get very excited about, nothing like the Midwest where he'd been raised. People were curious about happenings east of the mountains, but not to the extent of being troublesome, since it was too distant to really affect their lives. There was more speculation about the Protector's intentions; everyone dreaded the prospect of another war. Havel suppressed a grin to hear himself described as a brass-assed son of a bitch, but honest. There weren't any Mackenzies present; when the discussion turned that way there was a mixture of superstition, dread, bewilderment and liking—the Clan had helped a lot of people pull through the second and third Change Years, mostly by loaning them seed-corn and arranging deals for stock with the ranching country to the east.

Nobody mentioned Crusher Bailey until the two disguised Bearkillers brought up bandits in general, which was natural for their persona of outsiders traveling through strange territory. Probably the locals had been subconsciously afraid that talking about the man would make him more likely to appear.

"Yeah, muy malo, that one," a traveler from Gervaise said. "Likes to break your knees and legs and leave you to die, I hear."

"I hear he sells people... up north," a woman declared.

Travelers from the Protectorate looked uneasy, or shrugged. "He certainly sells stock and stuff there," one of them said, spitting into the hearth; it made a sharp fissst sound. "Or his fence does, he doesn't show his face there. Baron Emiliano ought to get off his ass and do something about him, or the Bearkillers ought to. There'd be more trade on this road, and less wasted on guards, if he were gone."

"The Protectorate and the Bearkillers probably won't let each other take care of it," another commented. "Dog-in-the-manger stuff."

The spitter spat again. "Useless bastards, for all their armor and swords," he said, which was sufficiently ambiguous about who precisely he meant that he wouldn't get in trouble for it back home in the Protector's territory. "Goddamn it, what is this, America or Guatemala?"

"After the Change, you doorknob?" the woman said, and got a wry chuckle. "It's fucking Braveheart country now."

"Always preferred Rob Roy, myself," someone else said. "More realistic—and don't we know it, nowadays?"

The people who'd been adult at the time of the Change settled in to the ever-popular rhythm of a ‘remember that scene' conversation, and the younger ones tried to change the subject.

 

@@@

 

Havel took a cup of the chicory the next morning as he sat yawning in his booth; the effect might be psychosomatic, but it did help pop the eyelids open. Signe looked disgustingly fresh; she'd slept like a baby. Apprentice Kendricks had too, but he was sixteen and sleeping on the floor hadn't bothered him.

Everyone's gotten less finicky about privacy, Havel thought. But there are still limits.

Sarian came over to them after the waitress had dropped off their plates—bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, sausage and home-fries. Havel cocked an eye up at him as he ate; the stocky, bearded man seemed to be hesitating, torn, as his guest mopped his plate with a piece of toast.

Which on short acquaintance I'd say is not his usual MO. I'd peg him for a can-do sort, Havel thought.

Decision firmed behind the heavy bearded face. He looked around, and bent over to speak quietly:

"I would go right now, friend, if I were you. Or wait until more are leaving, so you can go together."

Havel opened his mouth to ask a question, but Sarian shook his head and turned away.

"Aha," Signe said, lifting a spoonful of fried pickled green tomatoes onto her plate. "Now that was interesting, bossman."

Havel nodded. "And I think we should do precisely the opposite of what he advised. Take your time with breakfast, and we'll head out alone. If people are bunching up that way, the road'll be temptingly empty."

"And we'll be trailing a broken wing," Signe grinned back, but there was a tightness around her mouth.

Sarian didn't come to say goodbye as they left; a serious breach of good business sense, with a newly-won and valuable customer. Havel whistled silently as they left the Crossing Tavern's northernmost perimeter, marked by another set of signs nailed to a telephone pole. It was comforting to know that Will and the patrol would be hanging on their left, just out of sight to the west.

It was six miles to the edge of cultivation around Dayton, at the north end of the Dayton Prairie; two hours travel at the gentle walking pace they were using, much less if you pushed your mount. The grass and quick-growing bush were tall on either side of the road, turning most of the abandoned cars and trucks into mounds of vegetation; now and then bits of a burnt-out building showed above a similar hillock.

He frowned at the cars as the herd rumbled and clattered along, Charger's hooves clopped slowly, insects buzzed, and small fleecy clouds drifted through deep blue sky. In Bearkiller territory the dead vehicles hadn't just been pushed aside; they'd all been dragged off and systematically stripped of everything useful—particularly the leaf-springs, invaluable for swords and knives and edge-tools of all sorts; they'd stored the surplus in old buildings, greased for protection, supplies sufficient for generations of smiths.

Then they were in a section where the fields had burned last fall, and the new grass was only knee-high, shot through with blue camas flowers. What had been a small store of some sort stood by the side of the road not far ahead to the left, and a line of willow and alder and oak on the right showed where Palmer Creek swung close. The two Bearkillers pretending to be ranchers cantered about, using shouts and waving lariats and occasionally the whirled end of a rope to remind the horses that spreading out through the rich meadow wasn't on the agenda for today.

"Heads up," he said softly, as seeming chance took them closer together.

Adrenaline dumped into his bloodstream like a jolt of electricity in the old days, and he seized control of his breathing. Movement...

Two mounted figures... and three more behind them, and a dozen on foot. He looked right; sure enough, half a dozen more coming out of the fields there, angling in towards the road behind them. He reached into a saddlebag for his field glasses—carrying a pair of binoculars around was a rather too obvious way for someone of his pretended identity to invite robbery—and leveled them, turning the focusing ring with his thumb.

Aha.

"It's the guy from Crossing Tavern, the one with the cut-down sledgehammer," he said. "Three guesses... why waste time? It's Crusher Bailey, all right."

Grinning now as he waved and whooped his men on, and the grin looked less friendly and less fake than his expression back at the wayside inn. The horse-herd was nervous, tossing their heads and turning back and forth as shouting humans closed in from three sides.

"Why am I not surprised?" Signe said. "Wait a minute... Crusher... didn't he call himself Grettir?"

"Yeah?"

She slapped the heel of her palm on her forehead. "That's what I was trying to remember! Dad told me about it ages ago, when we were kids and he was reading us those old squarehead stories." At his glance she went on: "It's what Grettir means in Old Norse. Crusher. You know how those Viking guys all had nicknames, Iron Fist or Blood Wolf or Skullsplitter or whatnot? There was a saga hero named Crusher—Starkad, Starkad Grettir."

"Big chuckle, ha, ha, a bandit with some education," Havel said. "He's probably going to try to get us to surrender, which gives us an opportunity. Kendricks! Ready!"

The apprentice threw back the tarpaulin that covered the back of the two-wheeled cart; below was a complicated piece of machinery, most of which consisted of coil springs from the suspensions of heavy trucks, all screwed down tight. In the middle of it all sat a rocket-shaped projectile. Kendricks flicked open the top of his lighter, an old-style model with a wick, alcohol reservoir and little steel wheel that ground against a flint. A quick motion of his thumb, and a pale blue flame topped it.

"Wait for it," Havel said without looking around. "Wait for it..."

His right hand went over his shoulder for an arrow. Crusher's men were behind them, spread across the road, and getting closer to the right; Bailey himself was only fifty yards away ahead and northward, rising in the stirrups to cup his hands around his mouth and shout across the milling horses.

"Now!"

Kendricks touched his lighter to the stub of fuse on the side of the finned dart and then jerked a lever. There was a huge metallic crunnng—WHUNNNG! as the springs uncoiled, and the dart vanished skyward in a streak too fast for the eye to follow. At the top of its trajectory two seconds later there was a muffled fump as the little parachute deployed, and orange smoke billowed out a thousand feet above the surface of the Willamette.

Explosives didn't explode any more. Lower-speed combustion, for example the type in a smoke flare, still worked like a treat.

Crusher Bailey had no leisure to watch. Even as the apprentice worked the machinery Ken Larsson had made, Larsson's daughter and Mike Havel drew their recurve bows to the ear. Horn and sinew and the thin sandwich of yew-wood between them creaked as the curved staves bent into smooth C-shapes, and the long shafts slid backward through the arrow-rests. Havel's bow drew at a hundred and ten pounds, and he'd worked with its like most days since the Change; Signe's was lighter, but she was an even better shot.

Whap-whap, as the strings slapped the inside of their left forearms; the chainmail and leather absorbed most of the force, but not as well as the metal bracers he was accustomed to; they'd have bruises, if they survived the day. The broadheads twinkled as they blurred downrange, the curve of the fletching twirling them like rifle-bullets. They covered the fifty yards to the bandit chief in less than a second.

Bailey had excellent reflexes, and he was moving even as the two Bearkillers raised their bows. He threw himself flat on his horse's mane as Signe's shaft went through the space his chest had occupied an instant before. Then he screamed, as Havel's sliced across the outside of his left thigh; screamed and threw himself out of the saddle and onto the ground. The man behind him jerked as Signe's arrow went through the space where Crusher had been and thumped into the center of his chest, smashed through the shirt of braided rawhide, through his breastbone and into his spine. Then he slid boneless out of the saddle—a shaft thrown by these heavy recurves would cut the best chainmail like cloth at close range, and it ignored anything less.

Plenty of people carried saddle-bows these days, but not many had that sort of eye-punching accuracy from horseback, or could drive a shaft so hard. That required constant practice.

Shit. I wanted Crusher.

The highbinder was lying in the long grass, hidden from Havel by the same horse-herd that prevented his men from charging right in, and he was screaming orders.

As the two adults shot, Hendricks had been busy too: he snatched up his bow with one hand, and flicked the carriage-whip across the cart-horse's back with the other.

"Make for the ruins!" Havel shouted.

The boy did just that, yelling and whacking the beast across the rump; the cart drove off the road, one wheel bouncing high and nearly throwing it over, then heaving and jouncing through the meadow. Havel turned his horse with thighs and balance and shot again, at the bandits who'd swung onto the road south of the ruins. A man screamed and began hopping around, waving an arm with an arrow through it, but things came back at the two Bearkillers as well—the unpleasant whhht of a crossbow bolt, and the whickering whissst-whissst of arrows. Most of the bandits carried blades or polearms, but at least half a dozen had missile weapons as well.

"Go!" Havel shouted, and leaned forward as he clamped his legs to Charger's sides.

Signe followed suit. The superbly trained warhorses broke into a gallop from a standing start, leaping the roadside ditch and breasting the tall grass in the field beyond. Havel turned in the saddle and shot three more times in the thirty seconds it took to reach the ruined building; two misses, and one hit a horse in the shoulder. The beast screamed, a huge hurt sound of bewildered, uncomprehending pain; that was one of the manifold evils the Change had brought back into the world—Humvees didn't shriek in agony when they got shot up.

They pulled up their mounts and got out of the saddles in a hurry. Signe slid to the ground like a seal down a wet rock, or like someone who'd been riding for fun since she was six. An instant later she had the two horses inside the gutted building; their eyes rolled and they snorted at the slippery linoleum under the layer of debris and dirt and sprouting weeds beneath their hooves, but they obeyed. Hendricks snatched things out of the cart and dove after her. Havel turned, saw the bandits trying to push their way through the crowd of horses from three directions, deliberately set himself in the archer's T.

The arrows punched out in a steady rhythm, whickering away in smooth shallow arcs blurred with motion; the bright midmorning sun glinted on their sharp-edged heads.

Snap.

A mounted man took one in the shoulder and started to shriek; he slid out of the saddle, then clutched at it as his feet touched the ground—if he went down here, a large herd of horses would walk all over him.

Snap.

The next shaft sank up to its fletchings in that horse's neck. The beast bugled in a gurgle that sprayed blood out of its mouth and nostrils, glittering drops flying into the air, and half-bucked, half-staggered away. The wounded man dropped flat as his support was torn away, and then screamed again as the dancing hooves of the panicked horses came down on him—each with a thousand pounds behind it.

The scream was brief, and Havel barred his teeth in a snarl of satisfaction.

I don't enjoy killing people, he thought. Really, I don't. Correction. I do enjoy killing bandits. People had done what they had to do to get through the Dying Time, but nowadays there was plenty of honest work to hand. Crusher's men were jackals who attacked the weak and robbed, raped and killed because they liked it. Hanging's too good for these scum.

None of the bandits he could see were more than a hundred and fifty yards away, and at that range the hornbow was about as effective as his old Remington 700.

Snap.

A bandit staggered into view; he'd been bumped by one of the horses he pushed aside to get to the west side of the road. That put him less than fifty yards away. The arrow struck just above the bridge of his nose, and he pitched backward.

The mounted outlaws had all dismounted in a hurry. That gave them a little cover behind the horse-herd, but the horses protected the disguised Bearkillers for a little while too. A glimpse of movement to the south, and he pivoted smoothly on his heel, drew and shot.

Snap.

This time he was close enough to hear the wet thick smack as the point struck; the bandit was bent over as he ran for cover, and the steel lashed into him just below the floating rib on his right side. It hammered down and through, burying itself in his pelvis. He dropped sprattling to the pavement, screaming for his mother and letting his longbow skid into the ditch.

"Die slow, you son of a bitch!" Havel said, scanning for another target.

Whuppt.

The crossbow bolt went past too fast to see, but he could feel the ugly wind of it between face and bowstring as his hand went back for a new shaft.

"Get the fuck in here, you maniac!" Signe shouted.

Havel started out of the killing haze and obeyed, rolling through the empty window nearest him; the light mail in the lining of his long leather coat protected him from the jabbing spikes of glass still in the frame. The inside of the cinderblock building was bad footing, dirt and weeds and rubbish over linoleum, with fallen shelves and racks of videocassettes ready to tangle your feet. Signe was fumbling with the lock of the door, which was metal with a hollow core; Havel reached out and turned the deadbolt himself, twisting with all the strength of his hand and wrist. It shot home with a grating squeal of rusted steel.

A quick look around showed that there were only two windows, and both had shutters that were made up of squares of steel strapwork; the fragments of glass had paper glued to their backs. As Havel grabbed one of the toppled racks he saw why—the garish cover of the videotape showed something highly unlikely involving two women, a dog and a piece of electrical apparatus. He saw a few more covers as others fell from the steel shelving; some made the first look rather tame.

"Didn't think I'd make my last stand in a porno-video store," he grunted.

He and Signe grabbed one of the heavy metal racks and slammed it up behind the door, then added a half-dozen more, shoving at them until they were a tangled mass.

"Last stands aren't my inclination anyhow," Signe replied, as they put another in a corner where the sky was visible between the bare stringers of the roof, to serve as a ladder. "But I wouldn't mind killing Crusher Bailey from one."

Havel nodded. "Kendricks, get up there and tell us what you can see," he said.

He considered the interior of the video store as the youngster scampered up the framework, squirrel-agile. Havel sneezed once as dust flew up, smelling of old rusty metal and rat-droppings and weeds and very faintly of rotten meat. There was a counter and cash-register close to the door—the drawer of the register lay smashed open, mute inglorious testimony to someone being stupid enough to steal money right after the Change, of all useless things. The two small windows looking out on the parking lot and the road were the only openings here, but a door gave out on the other side of the open space; probably to a storage room and office. Signe was thinking on the same lines; she stuck her head through and looked around.

"Windowless," she said. "Just one door, and it's solid with a bar across the inside, it'd be easier to smash through the wall. Nothing here but some bones." A moment later, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. "Burned bones, human ones. And split for the marrow."

"Let's block this too," he said, and they heaved another set of frames over the connecting door. "Cinderblock doesn't have much strength."

Then they took station next to the windows. The bandits were driving off the horses, heading for the trees along the creek two long bowshots to the east; through his binoculars he could see hints that there was a camp there. Havel took a mirror on a collapsible rod from his belt and snapped it open, using the glass to check angles he could not see from the window without sticking his head out.

Well, here's a distraction from our domestic problems, and no mistake, he thought. OK, two behind the pickup, another two behind the planter, and a third pair behind the bed of the overturned SUV. They'll all have something to shoot with, they're there to keep us pinned down while the rest get read to storm the place.

"Anything?" he called up to Kendricks.

"No sign of Lord Hutton," the teenager said. "But I think I see bandits moving in the field behind the store—there's a big old propane tank about twenty yards out, and some trees. Lot of bush, too."

"Oh, hallelujah," Signe said quietly. "Lordy, but I'll be glad to see Unc' Will and Eric and the rest. Weren't they supposed to be here by now?"

"Yeah, but..." Havel grinned at her. "I still live," he quoted.

"Wasn't that Tarzan's saying?" she asked, flashing a smile back at him. "The ape-man'll save my rosy-pink ass?"

He'd been a Burroughs fan in his youth, and he'd gotten a set to read to their daughters, something Signe and he did together as often as not. It was a partial antidote to Astrid's fixations, at least, to which the young seemed appallingly vulnerable.

 "John Carter, alskling," he replied, wondering if she was as nervous as he was. Hutton should have been here by now. "It was the finest swordsman on two worlds who said that."

"Ah, the guy from Virginia who made it with the big Martian bug and produced an egg? You'd be more likely to have a fertile mating with a cabbage!"

"Well, granted, Dejah Thoris was... what did Ken call it? Oviparous? But that doesn't really make her a bug. Or at least I hope not."

"It lays eggs, it's a bird, a bug or a gator—careful! That one's got a crossbow!"

Kendricks ducked and yelled. A bolt slammed into the rusty metal roofing near his head and stood quivering in a stringer. Havel and Signe stepped up to the windows and shot. The crossbowman dove back behind a flat-wheeled trailer cart that bore a powered water-ski and had for nine years. He gave a yelp of fear and they could see bits of him moving behind his cover, enough to know that he was spanning his crossbow.

"Uh-oh," Kendricks said. "Lord Bear, they're bringing stuff back across the fields."

Havel used his mirror-periscope once more. They were; planks, boards, and a set of bicycles; the whole party disappeared from his view as they angled behind a truck that blocked the way. They kept coming until they were right up against it, too; he could see their feet below the body, far too close for comfort.

That was close enough to hear snatches of conversation, as well as hammering and knocking.

"... pile stuff out back and burn them out," someone yelled. "That's quicker. I don't like that flare thing they sent up for shit."

"This meat's more tender raw than roast," in the booming genial tones of Crusher Bailey. "We don't have all day, and we don't want to send up a big signal fire of our own. There's only one man, and a boy and the girl."

"Christ, Crusher, look what they did to Sumter! That's a world of pain. We got their horses. Let's split! If I wanted to be a fucking soldier, I'd have joined the monks or gone to Portland."

A jeering note from them bandit chief: "Didn't know you were a girl too, Willie. Goddamnitt, didn't you hear what they had in that cart? That's the price of three hundred horses! With that much, we could buy our way in to half a dozen places and live easy."

"How do we know they've really got all that stuff?"

"'cause the innkeeper told me, and as long as we can squeeze him, he'll come across right. Now shut up and get to work, or you'll find a world of hurt a lot closer than that door."

There was a thud and a yelp, and Bailey's voice went on: "If this many of us can't take three fucking farmers, we're in the wrong business. We'd have the whole Valley laughing at us once it got around. Move it!"

Interesting, Havel thought. Suddenly conscious of his thirst he uncorked a canteen and drank, leaning over to pass it to Signe. The innkeeper is feeding Bailey information but he's not doing it voluntarily.

"Sorry I got you into it this deep," he said.

"Didn't hear myself saying no," she replied. "Things should have worked smoother than this." Then she took a quick look out the window and set the canvas-covered plastic bottle down: "Uh-oh."

I know what uh-oh means, Havel thought. It mean's we're screwed, usually.

"Siege cat," Signe went on.

"Well, shit," Havel sighed, and used his mirror. "No, make that two siege cats."

The siege cat was a big square of double-thick plywood, mounted on a timber frame with wheels, a trail for pushing and steering, and slots to shoot through; it looked as if the bandits had had it ready, needing only to be put together. Another just like it followed out behind.

"Pretty fancy, for bandits," Signe said. "I really hope Unc' Will shows up soon. He was supposed to shadow us close."

Havel studied the mantlets-on-wheels. "They're not sturdy enough for real siege work against a fort. But they'd do fine for storming a farmhouse, say. Plenty thick enough to stop an arrow. They probably cart them ‘round whenever they're away from their base."

This is starting to look rather bad. There were twenty or so of the outlaws, not counting their dead and wounded. Individually none of them were much of a much, but ten to one were very unpleasant odds. Maybe I should have stayed home. Signe sulking is better than Crusher Bailey crushing. Where the hell is Will? He was supposed to keep us under continuous observation!

"You six, keep their heads down!" the bandit chief yelled. "Let's go!"

Arrows and crossbow bolts whined and zipped through the open windows; more slammed and tinged off the rafters where Kendricks sat—until he fell, with a grunt and a sharp cry of pain, a bolt through his clavicle. A roar of triumph went up from the bandits; then a scream of pain, as Havel popped up from below the window and shot. A man hopped out from behind one of the siege cats, shrieking and shaking one foot with an arrow through the boot. One of Signe's punched into his chest and he fell.

Havel ducked back again as an arrow sliced the leather over his shoulder and exposed the wire-mail beneath; the sensation was like being whacked—hard—by a wooden rod. There was just too much flying through the slatted bars of the shutter to stand up and draw; he duckwalked over to Kendricks and checked the wound instead. The bleeding didn't look too serious, internally or externally, and the boy had thumped his head on something coming down and was half-conscious. All he could do was arrange him on his back and shove something under the back of his head.

Probably for the good he's knocked out. That'll dull the pain and he couldn't do anything anyway, with that. He'll be months in bed, if we live.

"Mike!" Signe said. "They're getting close!"

He moved back; the shooter behind the cat was uncomfortably accurate, and they would have a view of the interior when it was shoved right to the window, so the only safe spot would be plastered against the wall between the window and the door. Then both cats were up against the windows, blocking them and leaving the interior of the porn store lit only by the triangular patch of light from the broken corner of ceiling. He dropped his bow, swept out his backsword, tugged at the leather strap that held his targe over his back and slipped his forearm through the loop and grip as it swung down. Signe was doing the same; they waited on either side of the door. Behind them the horses moved, shifting and rolling their eyes at the noise and stink.

"Well, it's been a lot of fun," Havel said, making himself grin at her in the dimness.

"We still live!" she shot back; from the sound, it was only half a joke.

"Axes! Axes!" Crusher Bailey's voice called. "Shooters ready for when the door comes down! Let's have the lobster out of the shell!"

Metal beat on metal, and the door sagged. "First after you with the woman, Crusher!" someone shouted.

The door fell, half-in and half-out of the opening. Someone used the hook on the back of a guisarme to haul it back; it fell flat on the steps with an echoing crash, and Havel squinted against the flood of brightness. A blast of arrows and bolts came through, smacking into the plaster of the interior wall and standing like bristles, or punching through into the corridor beyond, but they would be shooting blind. The room would be very dark from the outside.

The shafts were intended to drive the defenders back from the opening; a first bandit ran in, shield up—and ran straight into the metal racks propped up over the space where the door had been, screaming a curse as his arms tangled in them. Havel danced in and thrust through an opening, a motion as precise and swift as the flicking of a frog's tongue. The point ran into the man's throat with a series of crisp popping and rending sounds, felt up the hilt as much as heard. Signe's sword flashed past that one's shoulder at the next, an overarm highline thrust that slammed the spring-steel point under the brim of a helmet hammered out of sheet metal. It grated and crunched against facial bones, and she freed it with a jerk.

Then they both stepped aside as more arrows came through—many bounced off the frame of the racks. Hands used that cover to drag the bodies out, and the rocking door that made the footing uncertain. There was plenty of blood to keep it slippery.

"Guard my left!" Havel said.

The bristling heads of a dozen polearms came next, spearpoints and heavy glaives and crude guisarmes with hooks, probing for the frames to push the obstruction back, but that meant the bandits were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and blocked their own bowmen. Havel and Signe stepped neatly in from the sides of the doorway; he broke one spearpoint off with a smashing blow of his shield's metal-rimmed edge, and thrust at the hands gripping another in the doorway, making one bandit drop his polearm with a clatter and a cry of alarm. Signe chopped at others, and wood splintered under her edge. Havel pressed in closer to strike at the men rather than the weapons, but that meant the bandits could see him too. Points probed for him from the second rank; they drove him out of sword-range amid a volley of scatological curses and vicious threats, and the others heaved to move the piled racks.

Havel snarled and skipped free as they tilted and rocked back into the room with a jangling crunch and screech. A bold thief came through under the spearpoints, stooping and holding his shield over his head, sword ready.

"Haakaa Paalle!" The war-shriek filled the dusty room, and Signe echoed it.

"Shit, Bearkillers!" someone shouted, panic in his tones.

The bandit ignored it and thrust underarm with his double-edged weapon; Havel caught it on his blade, let the swords slide together until the hilts locked, and then twisted it with all the strength of wrist and shoulder. The thief's eyes were blue in a stubble-cheeked face. They flared wide, with pain and shock at the raw strength of the arm opposing his. The outlaw sword flew free, and Havel whipped his hilt up and across like a set of huge brass knuckles. Bone cracked and the man wailed, dropping as he pawed at his face. Havel knocked a spearpoint aside with his targe and another with his sword, stamping down with a spurred heel; the moaning cut off abruptly. A thrust struck him in the stomach, not hard enough to penetrate the mail beneath the leather, but winding him. He snarled, chopped sideways with the edge of the targe and cut backhanded with his sword into a neck. Blood sprayed into his face, salt and iron, but there were just too many of them—

Then there came a thunder of hooves from outside, and a huge ringing battle-cry: "Saint George for England! A Loring! A Loring!"

 

@@@

Cover Map 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Copyright © 2004-2005 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com