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THE PROTECTOR'S WAR

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


CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Salem, Willamette Valley, Oregon

March 17th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9

 

Juniper Mackenzie scowled slightly as she looked down at the pilings of the bridge that ran over the Willamette and into Salem's Center Street—the ruins where Salem had been, rather. The piles and the spaces between them were thick with rubbish; logs, brush, general trash, wrecked cars and trucks and campers. Now the spring water was foaming high over that barricade, water blue-green and then surging white in the bright noon sun, throwing waves half the distance up to the deck of the bridge, and spray high enough to strike her lips with the chill wet smell of it. The roaring power of the spring freshets made the pavement tremble beneath her feet and the ponded-back water spread, flooding streets on both banks and covering the low islands just upstream where the waste ponds had been.

It also brought more rubbish tumbling down to join the growing dam every day, and the vehicles made the assemblage too strong for the water to just push downstream. One of the few sensible things the State government had done in the brief months between the Change and its own total collapse had been to get the stalled cars off the main roads in and around the State capital. Otherwise the number and nature of its manifold idiocies had surprised even a former unwed teenage mother who'd kept and home-schooled her profoundly deaf daughter in the teeth of welfare officers, bureaucrats and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all; they'd disregarded how much in the way of useful metal and springs and formed parts an automobile had in it, and also the cargoes in the trucks.

Except the food, she thought. Even they weren't that stupid.

So those on the bridge had just been shoved over the side, including one eighteen-wheeler full of perfectly good blue jeans. Perhaps not a great fault, when their other mistakes had denied so many who might have survived any chance of life, but...

Rudi looked down through the railings and then solemnly up at her. "The river-spirit's angry, Mom," he said. "Really angry, 'cause She's all tied up with stuff. We oughta quiet Her."

She put a hand on her son's small hard head. "That She is, mo chroi. We should also get that wreckage out of the way, come summer, and free the waters."

"That's what I said, Mom," he replied, looking as if he'd like to stamp a foot but too well-mannered for tantrums.

And sometimes I get a bit of a chill at the things you say, my heart, she thought, beneath her chuckle.

She remembered presenting him to the altar in the nemed, at his Wiccanning near nine years ago. And the words Someone had spoken through her:

 

Sad Winter's child, in this leafless shaw—

Yet be Son, and Lover, and HornÉd Lord!

Guardian of My sacred Wood, and Law—

His people's strength—and the Lady's sword!

 

Perhaps it was her imagination that he was... sensitive to things. But perhaps it wasn't, too. The Gods knew, but they hadn't told Juniper Mackenzie, High Priestess or no. Not yet.

"Nothing I can do about that, sure," she muttered to herself, looking down again. "The bridge, now... if we don't clear the piles the next time a dam breaks—" and several of the upstream ones had already, as locked spillways and lack of maintenance took their toll "—this bridge is going to go bye-bye, taking the other and the rail bridge with it. And that will be a royal pain in the arse."

Then they would have to go miles out of their way south to cross the river, and back north again on the other side to get to Bearkiller territory, which meant an extra day's travel on bicycle or horseback and four to six with wagons. Or hiring people from Corvallis to do it, at vast trouble and expense. So they should fix the problem before the—utterly irreplaceable—bridges went down. The problem with that was that it would take hundreds of workers a month of hard graft and considerable danger to life and limb, plus scarce equipment like winches, and there were a dozen other things more immediately important to be done between now and the harvest, and why should her clansfolk bear all the burden of doing something that would benefit everyone in the Valley?

That's what they'd say—or yell loudly—at the clan assembly, and she hadn't let the system become an autocracy. More of a town-meeting anarchy, tempered by the fact that most survivors of the Change Years tended to outbreaks of hard common sense now and then...

Deal with that later, she thought, and raised her head to look east.

You could see the snowpeaks of the High Cascades from here, floating on the eastern horizon with a tattered veil of cloud streaming from their tops, blue and white and disturbingly lovely over the corpse of the city. Fire-scorched, the forelorn pride of the Capitol stood off to the right, with its bearded, axe-bearing pioneer atop the drum-shaped dome. Little else that was human remained in the old State capital except bare-picked bones. Whatever could burn had gone up in the great fires, and the quick-growing lowland brush and vines crawled over the blackened rubble, spreading out from park and lawn, roots prying at concrete and stone with the long slow strength of centuries. For the rest, roaches and rats had multiplied beyond belief, then eaten each other and died in a ghastly parody of the human dwellers' fate.

Or the fate of not-quite-all the dwellers.

The Mackenzies had halted here because on the bridge nobody could sneak up on them; it would be otherwise in the narrower streets. The city wasn't altogether dead; nor were the only folk to be met those using the bridges or scavenging for useful goods. She grimaced at memories of her own, clutching hands and mad screaming-grinning faces and breath stinking of shreds of human flesh caught between rotting teeth.

Eaters aren't the problem, not any more, thanks be to the Lord and Lady. Perhaps a last few skulking solitary madmen remained, but the shambling terror of the cannibal bands was mostly a memory of the Dying Time now, passing into folklore.

No, the real risk around Salem this ninth year of the Change is from plain old-fashioned bandits, who are a lot smarter and better-armed.

As travel and trade revived a bit and farms grew worth raiding there were always those who thought stealing easier than working; and there was little law in the Valley now save what communities like hers enforced within their own bounds. That the bandits would leave your stripped carcass for the Goddess' ravens instead of eating it themselves wasn't much of a consolation to the victims. Nor was the prospect of being sold for a slave in some of the less civilized areas if captured; ironically enough, places that had fought to turn away refugee hordes in the months after the Change were now nearly as desperate in their desire for more hands to do all the things machines had once accomplished.

She also strongly suspected that the Protector slipped the reiver bands help to distract the southern valley while he prepared for war; it was just the sort of thing Arminger and the Portland Protective Association would do. Some of the outlaw gangs used the taller buildings in Salem as bases for bicycle-born raids, with their binocular-equipped lookouts lurking about the top-floor windows like maggots hiding behind the empty eye-sockets of a skull. It was a lot harder for pursuers to run them to earth here in this stone-and-steel wilderness, too, so that noose and blade could put an end to them.

And to think I was strong against capital punishment... to be sure, I'd never seen people killed by bandits, then. Plus Salem plain gives me the willies.

The physical stink of death was long gone, but surely Earth herself bore the memory of despair and terror, in the place where so many had passed untimely to the Otherworld. She thought Eilir felt it too, and Rudi more strongly than either—though he simply set his lips and endured it, with composure beyond his years.

"So, Sam," she called to the First Armsman of the Mackenzies, and nodded towards the ruins; he'd picked her escort, and ridden with it. "Fast and loud or slow and cautious?"

"About equal risk, Lady Juniper," he said.

Sam Aylward's voice had a slow south-country accent from deepest rural Hampshire, a yokel burr as thick and English as clotted cream. An adventurous life in the SAS and sheer chance had landed him in Oregon when the Change came, hiking the mountain paths. She'd stumbled across him while she was hunting for the pot, lying trapped and injured after a tumble into a ravine in the Cascades above her cabin.

Cernnunos sent luck to him and us both that day, she thought, watching him nod thoughtfully, his grey eyes narrow as he scanned the ruined city. Praise and thanks, Lord of the Forest!

"I'd say go for loud and fast," he concluded, running thick fingers though short curly brown hair now showing a few streaks of gray; he'd been just turned forty the year of the Change, and newly retired from the British Army, traveling on an unexpected inheritance. "There's no bandits in he middle Valley that'll tangle with this many of us, if they know the odds."

The square Saxon face was calm as he waited for her answer, the thick-armed, barrel-chested body utterly at ease. He looked slow, to someone who hadn't seen him move when speed was called for.

"Fast and loud, then," she said. "We'll go down Center, turn south out of town on 24th, go past Turner and Marion... We can make Lebanon before nightfall, if the horses all hold up. But lunch first."

A packhorse carried food in two large baskets strapped to its cargo-saddle; round loaves of good brown bread still slightly warm from Larsdalen's kitchens, butter, hard cheese, sausage salted and dried and smoked until eating it was like chewing rather tasty steel-belted radial tires. Plain food, but riding long hours was hungry work, and most of them remembered times when this would have been better than a feast.

She drew the little sgian dhu knife from its sheath in her right boot-top—eating with a ten-inch fighting dirk like the one at her belt was not advisable, unless you really disliked the shape of your nose—and sketched a figure on the surface of a loaf, chanting:

 

"Harvest Lord of the ripened grain—

Corn Mother of the fertile field—

Blesséd be those who share this bounty;

And blessed the mortals who toiled with You

Their hands helping Earth to bring forth life.

 

Everyone present was a Dedicant at least; many echoed her, and they all joined in the final: Blesséd be before pitching in.

Mom? Eilir signed, with her mouth full. Remember when you used to busk at the State Fair in Salem before the Change, and we'd go to that Jaliscan place on Silverton Road? Lord and Lady, but those shrimp in garlic butter!

Ah, that was fine indeed, mo chroi! Juniper replied.

Carefully, she did not wonder what had happened to Jose and Carlita. If you didn't know someone's fate by Change Year Nine, the probabilities ranged from a quick death to something really bad. Eilir's face fell a little, probably at a similar thought; she got up to join the other youngsters but stopped for a second to say:

Mostly that all seems like a dream, the old days, as if it was just a story someone told me. Other times just for a moment, it's this that doesn't seem real.

Juniper smiled and ate in friendly silence, listening to the water's roar and the wind's whisper, watching Eilir and Astrid and their friends chaffing at each other; watching a young man take the time to groom his horse, and a girl pick wildflowers growing in cracked pavement, weaving some into the mane of her horse and tucking one behind her ear. Aylward munched stolidly, his eyes never leaving the road they'd take, scanning methodically. The horses bent their heads to piles of cracked oats and alfalfa-pellets, and drank from buckets hauled up from the river.

At last he dusted crumbs off his hands and raised a brow at her. She nodded at his unspoken query.

"Right, you lot." He turned to the rest of their party, who'd repacked the panniers and stood by their horses. "Gear up and string bows, if you haven't already."

Gearing up meant stuffing the flat beret-like bonnets in a saddlebag and putting on helmets, round steel bowls with hinged cheek-pieces that clipped together under the chin. They were already wearing their brigandines—rows of small metal plates riveted between the layers of a double-ply jerkin, the outer layer green and carrying the clan's sigil, the crescent moon between branching antlers. Many wore padded arming doublets underneath them, with short mail sleeves and collars attached. All the adult Mackenzies also bore short broad-bladed swords in the Roman style on their left hips and long fighting dirks at their right; hooked over the scabbards of the swords were round steel bucklers the size and shape of soup-plates, ready to be snatched up by their single handgrips.

But you didn't string a yew longbow until you had some prospect of using it. Wooden bows tended to 'follow', to develop a permanent weakening bend, if left strung too long. Even the reflex-deflex models Sam had taught them to make, with their subtle shallow double curve heat-treated into the staves—archery and hunting had been his hobbies for decades before the Change.

Juniper watched with fond pride as Eilir pulled her longbow from the carrying loops beside the quiver slung over her back. Then she put the lower tip's nock-piece of polished antler against the outside of her left boot and stepped through between string and stave. That let her brace the riser-handle against her right buttock; she pulled down sharply with both hands as she flexed her body against the heavy resistance of the seasoned wood, using one hand to slide the cord's loop up into the grooves of the polished elk-horn tip. The movements had the easy, practiced grace of an otter sliding down a riverbank.

That left her with a smooth shallow curve just under six feet long, D-section limbs of oiled and polished yellow yew on either side of a black-walnut riser-grip; forty-five arrows jutted over her right shoulder, fletched with gray goose feathers and armed with a mixture of delta-shaped broadheads and narrow six-sided bodkins designed to punch through armor. Juniper bent her own bow as well; it had a fifty-pound draw, which was the lightest in the group. Aylward's was more than twice that; she'd seen him put a shaft right through a bull elk's ribs and have it come out the other still going fast... and once knock an armored man off a galloping horse at two hundred paces.

Lord and Lady, it doesn't even disturb me to think about that any more, she thought with a slight mental shudder. Not that I was ever really a pacifist, but...

She cut a last section of sausage so that Rudi would have something to worry at, cleaned and sheathed the knife and swung into the saddle with a creak of leather, tucking up her kilt into a comfortable position—you wore good woolen boxer-style underwear anyway—and signaled to the bannerman.

He put the horn to his lips again and blew, a dunting howl of jaunty defiance.

"Ill-doers flee! Friends take heart! The Mackenzies are riding!" she called, a great high shout in her trained singer's voice, and the horses clattered down towards Center Street.

 

@@@

 

Eilir Mackenzie rubbed the fingers of her right hand on the tooled leather scabbard of her dirk as she rode; tracing the intricate interwoven patterns was her equivalent of whistling idly. It was pleasant to ride out on a bright spring day after being pinned so long in the Hall at Dun Juniper by the wet gray gloom of a Willamette winter. Not that the dark months were all bad; there were the great festivals of the Year's Wheel, and making things, sports and storytelling, visits and books and games to pass the time; raw chilly days hunting in dripping woods and long drowsy evenings to follow lying on sheepskins before the hearth roasting nuts and sipping hot cider; and of course chores.

So winter has its points, but spring's like throwing open a window when a room's gone fusty and stale.

She looked over her shoulder at Salem for a moment as the dead city faded in the living horsemen's wake, then turned back with a slight shudder. It was good to get out of there, too. Her mare Epona kept to the same walk-trot-canter-walk cycle as the rest of the group, but she did it with a high-tailed, arch-necked Arab grace that only Astrid's Elessar could match; the horses were twins, silky-maned and dapple-gray. The feel of the great muscles between her thighs was like coils of living steel, longing to run...

They'd needed less than an hour to clear the built-up section and reach open country southeast of the last outskirts, only the occasional vine and creeper-grown mound showing where a burnt-out farmhouse house had stood, with flowers and rose-bushes lost among weeds. The hearing members of the Mackenzie party—everyone except her—were probably having their ears numbed and attention distracted by the rumbling, clattering, clopping beat of hooves on the asphalt.

She wasn't, and noticed something odd out of the corner of her eye, movements in the roadside thickets. They were level with a peach orchard gone wild; thin spindly volunteers sprung from fallen fruit, and a tangle of whiplike unpruned branches starred with a first pink few blossoms. A streak of red fire blurred out of it...

That fox broke cover and went across the road before the rabbits did. And none of them paid any attention to us. Game's gotten less wary, but not that much less wary. They were both running from something. Or somebody.

Nobody honest lived around here; too close to foragers and Eaters in the early years, and too solitary now. Her eyes probed the fields as she emptied her mind and let the patterns show themselves.

The lush fruit of the Valley's rich soil and reliable rains gave the land a disheveled dryad beauty. The stretch east past the old orchard was bushy and overgrown—weeds and grass that rose stirrup-high or better, a new growth of yarrow rank and tall through last year's dead brown stalks, shrubby Oregon grape with spiny holly-like leaves and clusters of yellow flowers. It had been cultivated for flower bulbs before the Change; amidst the strangling invaders early tulips and iris pushed up forlorn in crimson and blue; darting swarms of rufus hummingbirds hovered around their blossoms. Patches of waving reeds showed livid green amid a buzz of gnats and swift predatory dragonflies; that was wetland returning as ditches were blocked and field drains silted up and the untended levees along the Willamette and its tributaries broke down.

An abandoned tractor near the road was already a mound of blackberry vines and Golden Pea starred with pale-gold blooms, with only the regular curve of the rear wheels and the shape of the square cab showing the hand of man. Patches of wood left along creeks and field-boundaries before the Change now sprouted thick fringes of saplings, young trees as tall as her own five-eight or higher. There were red alder and black cottonwood, fir and pine and oak, spreading out as the skirmishers of the triumphant forest's march. The fresh spring leaves fluttered like the banners of a conquering army; maroon trillium bloomed in the shade beneath their feet, bright orilachrium coins scattered beneath the victor's feet.

More small animals ran across the road. Birds went by overhead. They'd bred back fast, but there were still a few too many to be chance; she spotted tree swallows flying in swooping curves, grebes, scruffy-looking jays... And everything going north-to-south.

Eilir made a sharp clicking sound with her tongue. Astrid Larsson turned in the saddle. Her pale brows went up as Eilir's hands moved. Then her eyes narrowed, startling blue rimmed and veined with silver.

Can you hear anything unusual that way? Eilir signed. North?

Astrid's long narrow head turned, flicking the rope of braided white-blond hair across her back. Nope, she signed. Too noisy right here. Come on!

The two young women reined their horses aside, down through the roadside ditch and into the field north of the road; a skull hidden by rampant goldenrod crunched under an ironshod hoof. Elessar and Epona were agile as cats and just as smart, and they could tell something a little unusual was up, their nostrils flaring and ears swiveling radar-like. Eilir kept her eyes busy. Her friend ostentatiously closed hers as she took off her helmet to rest on her saddlebow, frowning in a pose of concentration.

Even under her gathering anxiety that made her smile a little. Astrid was her oath-sworn anamchara—soul-sister and best friend—and had been since they met when the Bearkillers came west over the Cascades late in the first Change Year. She was her own age to the month—fourteen then, twenty-three in a few days. And they'd put together the Rangers, who even the Bearkiller and Mackenzie elders had conceded were useful over the last year or two. She was just plain totally cool to hang with, too. But there was no denying...

Astrid's a bit of a flaming goof at times.

'Self-dramatizing' was the way Mom put it.

Like that vest.

It was good supple black leather, sleeveless and thigh-length. And lined with tough nylon, with a layer of fine chain-mail between; so far, so practical, if she didn't want to wear the whole elaborate panoply of an A-list Bearkiller on a ride through—mostly—safe country, and the color went well with her dark-brown pants and boots. But what she'd put on it wasn't the stylized snarling bear's-head of Mike's Outfit; it was a white tree topped by a crown and seven white stars.

Not to mention the helmet.

It had a good steel pot underneath, but it was also covered with a raven built up from individual feathers of black-lacquered aluminum, the wings covering the cheekpieces down to her chin, and the eyes were genuine rubies salvaged from a jewelers' shop. Yes, it looked even cooler than the white tree and stars and crown; she was a stylish goof even at her worst. And yes, Astrid had chosen the Raven sept when she was adopted; Eilir and her mother were Ravens themselves. But Raven wasn't just the sept's totem and tutelary spirit. It was the bird of the Threefold Warrior Goddess Badb-Macha-Neman, the Morrigu Herself. Seriously big mojo, not to be invoked lightly; and the Gods had a tendency to show up in the Aspect you called. As within, so without.

Astrid had been the one who insisted on calling their gang the Dunedain Rangers, too.

She really ought to find a boyfriend and get her nose out of the Tolkien. Yeah, it's a great story, none better, I love it too, but she needs to relate to the real world more. Plus she's still a virgin, sweet Lady Arianrhod witness and pity her.

After a moment Astrid spoke and signed: "Yes. I do hear something, I think. Dogs—a lot of 'em."

Feral pack? Eilir asked, following both—she read lips well. Then, since Astrid preferred the term: Wargs?

There were a lot of dogs who'd managed to avoid going into the pot in the Dying Time, outliving their masters, or been turned loose before people got really hungry, and by now they'd had several generations of descendants, mingled with coyotes. There weren't any actual wolves this far south and west—yet—but the dog-packs still in business were real survivor types, big and fierce, and they'd gotten used to eating man-flesh in the bad times. That made them a lot more dangerous than real wolves, though more to children or individuals caught alone than an armed group.

"No," Astrid said/signed, her hands moving fluidly above the saddlebow. "No, they sound more... organized than a warg pack, sort of. And they're not just barking. It's more of a belling sound, like hounds. Like the ones Mike keeps for hunting."

The rest of the Mackenzies had passed on another few hundred yards, long bowshot; heads were turning back to look at them. The two put their horses up to a hand gallop—Arabs had jackrabbit acceleration, too—then jumped them over a section of wire fence still standing, overgrown until it was like a shaggy hedge, landed in a spurt of gravel, and reined in beside Juniper. The Mackenzie chieftain smiled for a second at the casual display of horsemanship; then it died as she saw their faces.

She frowned when Eilir explained, and flung up a hand. The loose column came to a halt, riders facing alternate directions, looking hard and listening as they fingered bowstrings. First one and then another waved and called that they'd heard the dogs too.

"Should we push on southeast?" Juniper said thoughtfully, looking down at Rudi's excitement. Then: "No. The University and Mike and Mt. Angel all agreed this is Mackenzie land, even if we're not using it much at the moment."

The extremely-theoretical western border of the clan's territories ran along I-5, south from Salem to Eugene, and east to the crest of the Cascades; eastern Linn and Lane Counties, and a chunk of southern Marion. Most of it had been too close to the cities, and now it was empty and reverting to wilderness; the Clan's cultivated land and people were in the southeastern part tucked up against the foothills, ending at an outpost in the ruins of Lebanon.

Grimly, the Chief of the Mackenzies went on: "That's someone's hunting pack. Let's see who's on our land without our leave, and what it is they're hunting. I suspect it isn't deer."

We Rangers should scout it out, Eilir signed; Astrid nodded vigorously.

Another hesitation, and then: "Be careful, mo chroi, and you too, Astrid dear. Don't be long, and come right back when you've learned something."

I'm always careful, Mom, Eilir signed, and the Chief of the Mackenzies winced.

"Rally the Dunedain!" Astrid called.

Four others fell out to join them, three young Mackenzies and Reuben Hutton. Astrid pulled her own bow from its saddle-sheath and laid an arrow in the riser's cutout shelf; her weapon was in the Bearkiller style, shorter than the Mackenzie longbow—a recurve horse-archer's model built up of sinew and wood and horn, glossy with the lacquer that waterproofed it. You could carry one of those ready-strung and they were a lot easier to use from the saddle. She let the reins fall on Elessar's neck, turning the horse with knees and balance.

"Check your gear," she said to the others. None of the Rangers was over twenty, and their faces were gravely attentive or excited or both. "Everyone check your anamchara's, too."

Besides her bow, Astrid wore a Bearkiller-style sword—single-edged, as long as her leg, and basket-hilted—and had a round shield about two feet across slung at her saddlebow over the bowcase, with the bear's-head sigil on its elk-hide surface. Marcie and Donnal and Kevin were kitted out much as Eilir was. Reuben Hutton was a Bearkiller himself from an A-list family, with the blue mark between his brows and the full panoply on his back, armored from throat to ankle. In a minute or two they were ready.

Astrid led the way; the others spread out behind her in a blunt wedge. The road vanished quickly behind them; field and meadow followed for half a swiftly cautious mile, with nothing more startling than the odd pheasant breaking out of the grass at their feet. Then they splashed through a flooded field with black muck and sparkling droplets flying up from the horses' hooves amid a yeasty smell of vegetable decay, over a deep creek by a small decrepit bridge with water flowing over its sagging middle, and into a ten-acre woodlot. Luckily it was mature timber, the lowest branches mostly higher than a rider's head if you ducked and wove a little; then they were up to the edge of a broader clear stretch, more than long bowshot across—four hundred yards or better.

Eilir let her binoculars drop for a second. Careful, she signed. Let's take a look first.

The Rangers all knew Sign; it was a requirement for initiation, and many younger Mackenzies learned it anyway, useful as it was for war and the hunt. They stopped a horse's length inside the wood's edge; that way undergrowth hid you from anyone out in the light, but you could see out from the shadows. First she scanned the tangled growth of the field for fenceposts and gaps—the chest-high growth could hide tangles of barbed wire or abandoned farm equipment, both mortal risks to a horse's legs. Then she did a broader sweep...

A sounder of feral pigs headed towards them, making the tall grass and weeds sway against the westerly breeze. Luckily they split around the silent party of riders as soon as they scented them; swine had come back fast because they were clever as well as tough and prolific. Something else came bounding behind them, half-glimpsed, also mainly a waving in the tall grass and reeds—

Watch out, Astrid signed. That may be the boar.

It wasn't. Eilir had only time enough to recognize the rushing black-striped golden deadliness before it was past, vanishing in the wood's depths. Bows were half-drawn, and Reuben managed to get his ten-foot lance leveled with a strangled yell. Horses crow-hopped in belated panic...

Before the Change, private American enthusiasts had owned more than half the tigers in all the world. After the Change a lot of the obsessed owners—and you had to be an obsessive in the first place to keep a cat that weighed three hundred pounds and up—freed the beloved pets they couldn't feed. It turned out that tigers were opportunists when feeding themselves; which in plain English meant they turned maneater with ease and joy, almost unnoticed at first amid the great dying. The Willamette's burgeoning mix of swamp and prairie and forest was ideal country for tiger, too. Without firearms they were a standing menace to flocks, herds, isolated farms and anyone who traveled alone.

Worse every year, too, Eilir thought disgustedly. They breed like... well, like cats.

"If those guys with the hound-pack are after Sher Khan there, more power to them," Reuben said; there was disgust in his expression too as he swung his lance back upright and checked his bowcase. "Those things are fucking dangerous."

Quiet! Sign only, and wait, Astrid said. One tiger wouldn't have caused all the disturbance Eilir saw.

They didn't have to wait long. Eilir stiffened as she scanned the opposite woodline.

People coming, she signed, then made a broader pulling gesture that meant bows ready in their own code.

The two Bearkillers stayed in the saddle, but edged their mounts a little more back into the shade; they were equipped to shoot from the saddle, of course. The others slipped down and dropped their knotted reins—another requirement for the Rangers was the ability to train a horse to stand stock-still without being tethered. Eilir reached over her shoulder for an arrow and stepped behind a tree, checking to see that everyone else had too. Their gear was all green and brown save for their kilts and plaids, and the Mackenzie tartan was the same colors with dark blue and a very little orange added; it made excellent camouflage.

Eilir barred her teeth as the newcomers darted out into the sunlight, running and stumbling and looking over their shoulders. There were four adults, two couples. Both women were carrying infants, and the men had older children piggyback; a teenage girl ran with a burlap sack clutched to her chest. The youngsters limited their speed severely, and so did their staggering exhaustion, sweat runneling down the dust and dirt on their faces despite the cool fair day, chests heaving. The children were crying, but their mouths kept shut. They and the adults were ragged, patched pre-Change clothing torn anew by the brush they'd forced their way through, bleeding scratches adding to old scars.

All four of the adults had steel collars riveted around their scrawny necks, hastily wrapped in bits of cloth with rough raw spots and calluses beneath. Both couples looked enough alike to be peas in a pod, save that one pair and their children looked Anglo-fair and the other mixed, the man Hispanic of a darker kind, Guatemalan or Mexican.

Eilir's eyes met Astrid's.

Well, this is the sort of thing we made that oath about, she signed.

"Yup. 'Protect the helpless' and I've never seen a clearer case," Astrid replied.

Her dreamy eyes looked thoroughly alert now. "OK, I can hear the hunting-horn too and it's not a Bearkiller or Mackenzie one. Those people are out of the Protectorate or I'm an orc. So are the ones chasing them. Who are orcs."

Eilir turned to Marcie. Get back to the Mackenzie and tell her we've got trouble. No estimate on their numbers, but we're going to have to cover these people one way or another.

The younger girl nodded, sprang into the saddle and flicked her mount into motion, galloping with her head bent low over its neck.

The refugees looked up; they'd probably heard the sound of the hooves that Eilir could feel as a fading vibration under the leaves and fir-needles of the forest floor. They cried out in mindless despair and halted as Astrid rode out into the sunlight. The three clansfolk walked beside her horse, Eilir on her right, Donnal and Kevin on her left.

"Look, it's OK!" Astrid called; she gestured broadly, calling them forward. "This is Clan Mackenzie land—keep going south, we Dunedain will hold them off!"

The teenager looked more alert than the others. At the clear female voice she darted forward again, breasting the tall grass and weeds with difficulty. The others followed like water through a broken dam; Eilir could smell them when they came closer, a rank feral odor. The children were barefoot, the girl wore some sort of light shoe; the others had only sneakers, cracked and worn and held together with thongs and rawhide patches, or bundled rags. The darker man had a woodchopping axe in his right hand; he kept it ready as he sidled around them, and his companion likewise gripped a hoe with the head bent forward and sharpened to make a crude spear. The children watched the armed and armored strangers with huge frightened eyes.

Trying to question them would be useless—even if they knew how many were on their tracks, they'd been beaten into mindlessness by fear and exhaustion. It would take hours to get anything coherent. Eilir fought down another surge of anger; one of the children was the same age as her brother Rudi, and they were being hunted with dogs, and they cowered at the sight of a sword or bow.

She needed control now. Breath in. Suck it down into the diaphragm, then let it slowly out to carry away rage and fear and worry. Breath out. Ground and center, ground and center. The metallic taste in her mouth lessened, and the fluttering under her diaphram. The buckskin that covered the grip of her longbow drank sweat and stayed steady under her palm.

"Go! Run!" Astrid snapped, and the refugees did, faster than they had, a little hope lending strength to their legs.

"Here come the dogs," she went on, with a tightening of her lips.

The animals were almost as invisible as the pigs had been, and more so than the tiger; just a massive waving in the grass, a glimpse of whiplike tails lashing in the pleasure of the hunt, and tan-and-white patched hides. Occasionally a floppy-eared head came up...

But not all were hounds. Five were huge mastiffs, shaggy gray-furred creatures heavy as men, with long legs and great square heads like barrels. Barrels that split open to show wet yellow teeth like knives. Mastiffs were sight-hunters, and these had been trained to follow human prey, to follow and to kill. Now they charged, like hairy orcas rising out of the chest-high sea of grass at every bound.

"Shoot!" Astrid snarled.

She loosed first, having a better vantage-point from the saddle. A mastiff's leap turned from a thing of grace to a broken cartwheel, and the young woman reached back over her shoulder for another shaft.

But the dogs were fast. Eilir waited until hers was close, then drew as Sam Aylward had taught her—throwing the left arm forward and matching it with a twist of gut and torso that put all the muscle of her body into the effort as well. She needed that; the stave had been made with Sam's own hands, a birthday-present a year ago. It was tillered for her full growth, a war-bow and not a hunting tool, with a draw just under eighty pounds. She'd punched shafts through chain-mail with it on the practice field.

A smooth breath out as she drew, until the triangular broadhead she'd filed from a stainless-steel spoon touched the riser's arrow-shelf, and the kiss-ring on the string brushed her upper lip at precisely the right spot.

Hold the draw, until the unseen line met the next leap—

The bow surged a bit as the string snapped against her bracer, but Aylward's bows had little hand-shock. The arrow was a flash, a blurred sweet streak that had to meet the white triangle at the base of the mastiff's throat fifty yards away...

Got him! she thought with cold glee, as the big animal somersaulted backwards and disappeared. You're not going to tear open any more kids, you son-of-a-bitch.

She was already wheeling and setting another shaft. Kevin had brought his beast down too, a clean hit slantwise from the left shoulder and out at the right hindquarter, the arrow speeding off into the grass after razoring a path through heart and lungs and guts. The mastiff twitched and fell, an almost comical look of surprise in its eyes. Donnal had taken the fourth but didn't have time for another shot. Instead he went diving forward under the fifth big mastiff's leap, as it spread its paws to knock him down and open his throat to the killing grip. It landed ten feet behind him and had barely started to spin in place when three more arrows struck it—Reuben's first, through the neck; Astrid's into the body behind the shoulder; and Eilir's smashing home in the spine above its hind legs. That dropped the animal limp as a sack of flour.

Eilir blinked, suddenly conscious of the sweat running down from the foam-rubber padding of her helmet and into her eyes, and the dryness of her mouth.

"Here they come," Astrid said. "I can see riders, and hear them—there goes that stupid trumpet again."

Down! Eilir signed.

"Good idea," Astrid replied. "Look, everyone, we've got to give those people all the time possible—and hope the Mackenzie gets here quick, too. I'm going to try talking. Reuben, you stay back there unless I call you. You may have to cover our retreat."

The three Mackenzies dropped to one knee. That put their heads well below the feral growth in the open field; it also nerve-wrackingly cut off Eilir's vision of what was happening. Astrid let her right hand fall down by her side, and Signed in an abbreviated warrior version of the visual language that they'd worked out for situations like this.

Three riders. Servants make dogs quiet.... More. Bossman. Two men-at-arms. Four mounted crossbowmen.

Uh-oh, Eilir thought. Two-to-one is long odds if it comes to a fight! Then, brief and heartfelt along with the Invoking gesture: Dread Lord, Master of the shining blade; Dark Lady, raven-winged and strong, Chooser of the Slain, be with Your people now. Grant us luck and victory. So mote it be!

Astrid waited, her face calm under the raven-crested helm. Eilir could see her cock her head slightly, listening, then stand in the stirrups to shout back:

"Only the two of you, if you want to parlay! You're on Mackenzie land!"

Her hand went on: They come. Bossman, one man-at-arms. Wait...

The old field was four hundred yards wide; it would be a while before riders could see the crouching archers. Eilir used the opportunity to switch off the broadhead shaft for one with an armor-piercing bodkin point, an arrowhead made like a miniature metalworker's punch. Those had a pip on the nock, so you could tell the type by feel.

Up.

They rose smoothly, shafts knocked and fingers on the strings, but with the arrowheads pointed down. That didn't matter much, except as a symbol—they could all draw, aim and shoot in under three seconds.

Eilir noted that the two riders only checked for an instant, not long enough to make their horses do anything but miss a half-stride; her eyes went first to the tiny figures of the crossbowmen. None of them had snuck off to work his way around the flank, and none had dismounted so that they could use their weapons better. Possibly they were being honest; more probably, they hadn't been told what to do if the situation altered, and weren't going to chance acting on their own. That was the Protectorate for you.

The two riding forward...

One was huge. Not far short of seven feet and broad enough to look squat, the bulk heightened by a long hauberk of stainless-steel washers riveted onto leather backing, with steel-splint protection on his forearms and shins and metal-backed gloves. His helmet was bullet-shaped, only a T-slit in front to show glimpses of crude thick features, and it had a tall plume of black-dyed ostrich feathers waving from its point. A greatsword was slung over his back, the genuine article with a two-foot hilt, a big ball pommel and a four-foot blade as broad as Eilir's palm; a war-hammer was thonged to his right wrist and rested across his saddlehorn, a forged steel shaft a yard long with a serrated head. His horse was in proportion, a German warmblood that must weigh in near a ton, eighteen hands high if it was an inch but long-legged and probably fairly agile, of a type used for dressage before the Change. It was an entire stallion with a savage barbed bit in its mouth.

Uh-oh, she thought. I think I remember him. In jeans and a t-shirt, that time. The night the Change happened, when we were in Corvallis and the 747 crashed. Which means the little guy has to be—

The bossman was different, a slender man of average height in civilian garb; a jacket of embroidered yellow silk, black trousers and boots, a broad-brimmed hat with a curling feather at the side. He had the Protector's sigil on his shoulder—a red cat-pupiled eye on a black background—and another device over his chest, in a circle like a Japanese mon, but the symbol was a Chinese ideograph. The sword at his side was a Chinese type as well, a curved dao heavier towards the tip of the broad blade. He halted his mount—an excellent quarter-horse gelding—and leaned his hands on the horn of his saddle. His features were thin, and might have been handsome except for the crooked teeth that his slight smile showed; there were a scattering of acne scars across his nose and high cheekbones, and his slanted eyes were an incongruous blue as bright as Astrid's.

Yup, that's Eddie Liu. Gangbanger, thief, murderer, rapist and general scumbag, she thought. What a pity we can't just kill him now, except that it'd start the war early and Mom wouldn't like that at all.

He'd come up in the world, since that evening in Corvallis. Now everyone knew him as Marchwarden Liu, overseer of all the Protectorate's southern flank, and Baron Gervais—lord of that town and the surrounding countryside. The Protector's hatchetman on this border, and a close confidant, which said all you had to know. A rat to Protector Arminger's hyena; and it was a little surprising he was here himself. Unless he just thought chasing people with killer dogs was great sport, something entirely possible.

"Parlay," he said.

He raised an empty hand and then waved over his shoulder. The crossbowman raised their weapons, showing them unspanned, and slung them over their shoulders on the carrying-straps. Scowling, Astrid made a gesture and dropped her shaft back into the quiver. Eilir and the other Mackenzies did too; that added a full second to their response time, but you had to abide by the formalities.

"There, now we can talk like civilized people. Hey, it's Astrid 'the Elf' Larsson, ain't it?" he said genially, with a nasal east-coast, big-city accent. "Or is it a hobbit these days?"

"Numenorean, actually... this week," Astrid answered calmly.

You go, girl! Eilir thought. Astrid continued:

"Could I ask you what you're doing on Mackenzie land, Baron Liu?"

"My charter from the Portland Protective Association says this is part of the Southmark," he said. "Part of the Barony of Gervais, at that. So I can do what I damn well like on it."

"We say differently."

"Yeah, I sorta thought so," Liu said. "We can talk about exactly where the border is later. Maybe with your brother-in-law, or the dummy's old lady. Right now I'm looking for some people who owe me. They skipped out on the vig. Bad for business."

"You're not going to find them," Astrid said. "I suggest you turn around and ride away. We Bearkillers have sort of severe penalties for enslavement and the Mackenzies are even more hung up about it."

"Hey, who's talking that slavery shit? They can split as soon as they work off the debt. Or whoever I sell the debt to, sort of like a mortgage, right? Society would fall apart if people didn't pay their debts."

Astrid spat into the long grass.

Liu chuckled. "Hey, what's with the attitude? Here I am, doing my... as the Lord Protector says... civic duty peaceable as anything, and you come on my land, hang with escaping criminals, steal my property, and then you go and kill my dogs. I liked those dogs."

"And I bet Mago there raised that snake from an egg," Astrid said dryly.

Eilir gave a silent chuckle; she'd watched that tape with her mother before the Change. To her surprise, Liu smiled in recognition as well; it was a disconcerting, and very unwelcome, momentary link. She flushed, and let her fingers move, suggesting what the Baron could go do with his pet troll or vice versa.

Another surprise. Liu raised an eyebrow and chuckled, obviously understanding what she'd said in Sign.

"Nah," he said. "Mack and I are just good friends." Eilir scowled, conscious of having lost points. "I've heard about you and blondie here. You found the Ring of Power in her Crack of Doom yet, or are you still having fun looking?"

The giant's shoulders shook; he boomed out a laugh as Astrid bridled and Eilir scowled harder. Liu went on:

"We met before, didn't we? Back around the Change, you and your momma."

Yes, Eilir thought. You were robbing a jewelry store and attacking a cop under cover of the big fire where the 747 crashed.

She signed: We beat you and your friends up and chased you all off, as I recall. I always wondered how a nice town like Corvallis had festering boils like you and Big and Stupid there on its butt.

"We were just passing through, sort of doing some business with a few of the students there. I do remember Chico, though. He was a friend of mine."

Eilir winced—inwardly, this time—at the memory of her mother standing incredulous in the flame-shot darkness, the hickory axe-handle in her hand and the dead ganger at her feet.

Liu's mocking eyes slid back to Astrid. He looked her up and down and his gaze settled on her helmet. "Did you notice you've got your head up a crow's ass?"

"Better that than up my own, like you, Baron Liu," Astrid said sweetly, and the Protectorate noble's composure showed a crack or two, letting the banked hatred and bloodlust show just a little.

"Yeah, it's been fun chatting, but I've got a debt to collect, so take your girlie-toy soldiers in their miniskirts and get the fuck out of my way. Please. Wouldn't want some of you cuties to get hurt."

Eilir looked at the crossbowmen again; they couldn't get into any fight in time. Her gaze went back to the hulking armored figure sitting his horse in stolid silence. Mack—he'd been named for the truck before the Change, she heard—was another matter. He was only fifteen feet away, and if he managed to get among them at arm's length before they shot him down it would be like trying to fight a tiger with your fists. He wasn't just three hundred-odd pounds of armored muscle; unless rumor lied he was fast with it, and skilled. Liu used him like an elephant-sized Doberman on a choke-chain, ready to be loosed at any target, as well as personal insurance. That hauberk was a problem as well, the washers were nearly a quarter inch thick and as likely as not to shed even a bodkin point. Getting a shaft through the T-slit of the barbut-helm was...

You'd have to be dead lucky, as Sam would say. And how I wish he was here!

The giant moved in anticipation, his armored fingers clenching on the grip of the war-hammer. Liu smiled a nasty smile. He wasn't wearing armor, unless there was light mail in the lining of his jacket, but Eilir had learned even before the Change that, myth to the contrary, bullies were not necessarily cowards. Arminger's protégés most certainly weren't; he tested them thoroughly first. The tales of those testings were gruesome. Of course, they also tended to have a lively sense of self-interest...

"That isn't a parlay, Liu. That's a threat." Astrid smiled again. "Check," she said, and pursed her lips in a way that told Eilir she was whistling.

Hooves thudded on the soft ground of the woodlot, like muffled taps on the soles of her feet. In the instant that Liu and his bodyguard were distracted by Reuben's exit from the woods all four of the other Rangers whipped their hands to their quivers and set arrows to string. The distant crossbowmen had orders for that; she could hear their shouts as they spanned their weapons, dropping the hooks over the strings and winding the cranks.

Reuben changed the odds considerably; he wasn't nearly a match for Mack, but he was a big young man, a trained A-list fighter of the Bearkiller Outfit, fully armored and with a ten-foot lance in his fist. And while Mack's washers might turn one hastily-aimed shaft, four wasn't nearly as good a bet.

Uh-oh, Eilir thought. Liu isn't looking as defeated as he should. And it isn't just his crossbowmen coming up—

"Check and mate," he said

His eyes went to the woods behind them and then went wide—nearly bulged—in surprise. Whatever he'd expected there, it wasn't what he saw. Eilir took a step back and to the side, so she could keep her aim clear and dart a glance behind. There were a lot of figures moving there, all of them in kilts. One carried a bundle of Protectorate-model crossbows, raising them mutely into view and then dropping them. Another prodded four men forward; they were stripped to their ragged underwear, and all were wounded; one was on an improvised travois of poles and had a seeping bandage across his belly. The Mackenzies waited with their bows up, a shaft to the cord and ready to draw, except for Juniper Mackenzie.

She came mounted, the crescent Moon on the brow of her helmet, and a white compressed look about her mouth that her daughter recognized—the look she had when duty drove her to something distasteful.

Such as ambushing ambushers in the woods, Eilir thought, and fought down a silent giggle of relief. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Astrid blow out her cheeks for a moment in a gesture that made her look younger and less stern-warrior-elvish.

Liu's narrow blue eyes swept back and forth, obviously calculating odds, which weren't good. Four archers were a serious risk. Twenty-four longbows shooting every five seconds weren't just a risk; they were an arrowstorm in the making. Sam Aylward stepped up beside Juniper's stirrup, his war-bow in his hands and his face mild and calm.

"Baron Liu," he said courteously, inclining his head slightly. "My lord, I hear your man there is very strong. Is he strong enough to live with a dozen arrows through his chest, do you think?"

He politely didn't mention what the same shafts would do to the man in the cloth coat. Juniper rode out, stopping to Eilir's right—careful not to mask her shot. Behind Liu the other man-at-arms and the crossbowmen were coming up, close enough to see faces. They'd been busy, loading short heavy bolts into the arrow-grooves when they'd bent the thick spring-steel bows back and hung the spanning cranks at their waists. Now they slowed and faltered, as they saw who awaited them.

"Go," Juniper said. "Take your men, leave our land, and go."

Her eyes were fixed on Liu, and Eilir gulped slightly at the look in them. The Lord and Lady had ten thousand thousand aspects, and meeting some of them was... stressful. Liu felt it too, but he snarled with the courage of a cornered rat, and Mack raised his iron club. It was the crossbowmen behind who looked most rattled; some of them were clutching crucifixes or muttering prayers as they realized who it was they faced.

Juniper Mackenzie.

The Witch-Queen.

"Go," Juniper said, and stood slightly in the stirrups, her eyes unmoving, hands raised upright and palms out, arms making a V, face pale as milk.

"Go, or I will call on the Dread Lord, and curse you in the name of the Devouring Shadow. You and all with you. And that curse will follow you to all the ends of Earth, run you never so fast. So mote it be!"

Uh-oh, Eilir thought. Mom's in Maximum Spooky mode. She really means it. Juniper Mackenzie didn't even swear at people, normally; she took the Threefold Law and the perils of ill-wishing far too seriously for that. On the other hand, there's the self-defense exception... and on the arrows-and-swords level, the fact that we now outnumber them four to one won't hurt...

Liu backed his horse, wrenching at the bit with a savagery that made it squeal, stabbing a glance at his men to judge their mettle as the prisoners stumbled forward. Several of the mounted crossbowmen were zealously helping their friends to mount behind them or hitching the poles of the travois to a saddle, thus making it impossible to fight.

"I'll get you for this, bitch," he spat.

Eilir grounded her bow and leaned it against her shoulder; the motion caught Liu's attention, and her hands moved:

You keep saying you'll make us pay, she signed, grinning. But you never do it.

 

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