Larsdalen, Willamette Valley, Oregon
March 21st, 2007 AD/Change Year 9
Mike Havel screamed the ancient war cry of his ancestors as he pounced—or the war cry of about half of them, if you subtracted the Norwegians, Swedes and Anishinabe-Ojibwa from the Finns. The backsword blurred in a glittering arc, a running cut that started with the point forward, made a wide looping flourish around the head and slammed down with the advancing foot. It was a very powerful attack, but a bit slow.
Unless you had the strength and reflexes to do it very, very fast...
The surface of his opponent's targe was there, precisely sloped to shed the steel with minimum transfer of force—which didn't mean no transfer; the armored figure went back a quick sliding step to avoid being rocked off balance. A weapon just like his licked out in a economical underarm stab; he beat the blade aside with his own, flicking the parry from the wrist and then a double-cut to both sides of the neck. Backswords were about a yard long, single-edged with a basket hilt to guard the hand, suited alike to a swift thrust or a solid smashing cut.
"Haakaa Paalle!" he shouted again, driving his opponent back ten feet in three seconds, the point darting at knee and sword-arm and neck.
That barking shriek meant hack them down!, and the Outfit had copied it from him. Four centuries ago the same war-cry had rung out behind the banners of Gustav Adolf, the Lion of the North, on battlefields from the Baltic to the Danube, from Russia to France. So had the Church's special prayer: From the terrible Finns, good Lord deliver us! Now the Bearkillers had made it as dreaded in post-Change Oregon as it had been when the Suomi swarmed out of their forests to lay half Europe in ashes.
The two fighters were toe-to-toe, moving in a complex dance of movement too blurring-fast for an observer to follow unless they were already expert themselves, a crashing skirling tingggg of steel on steel and thwack of sword on shield and the occasional duller sound of a blade making contact with armor.
At last he locked the other's sword with his, hilt-to-hilt. For a moment they strove, legs churning like stags; then he got room for a buffeting slam with his shield. The other armored figure went down with a crash, and he slid forward catlike to present the tip of his sword before her face.
"OK, you're still getting better," Pamela Larsson—nee Arnstein—gasped. "I admit it."
"Nowhere to go but up," Havel replied. "You're the one who did this shit before the Change, step-mom-in-law."
She shoulder-rolled back to her feet. He was panting too, in a controlled fashion, lungs working like bellows. He'd been drilling hard for hours before he started a round of practice bouts; the Bearkillers usually did, on the assumption that you weren't going to be lilly-fresh when the manure hit the winnowing fan. And actually fighting in this Renaissance cut-and-thrust style with fifty pounds of gear on you was brutal physical labor, worse than cracking rocks with a sledgehammer, plus with an opponent at Pam's level you had to go to ten-tenths of capacity every second. The slightest holding-back meant defeat.
"Besides which, I'm starting to slow down a bit," Pamela said. "Hell, I'm forty-one now, Mike, and it was a real struggle getting back into shape after the last baby. I don't think I've got much left to teach you."
Signe Larsson looked over from where she'd been practicing lunges at a leather target hanging from a timber frame, with an apprentice pulling on a rope to make it swing unpredictably. The point went home with a hard crack every time, aimed at a spot six inches behind the man-shaped rawhide cutout.
"You still beat me most matches, Pam. Mind you, I've had three babies to your pair since the Change," she said. "Granted, the twins were a twofer time-wise, but the principle's the same."
"You're twenty-seven," Pamela said. "You recover faster. I'll keep teaching you—unlike your maniac of a husband, you're not a third again heavier than me and strong enough to bend horseshoes with your hands. Whacking great bruises distract you from the finer points of swordplay. Also childbirth's easier on you because you've got better hips for it than I do."
"You calling me wide-assed, Oh Wicked Stepmother?"
"Compared to my skinny backside and snake hips, you've got the Great Butt of China," Pamela said, grinning as she pulled off her practice helmet. "Or Sweden."
The helm had a mask of thin steel rods across the face, rather than the simple nasal bar of combat gear. The face beneath it was slender like the woman's long whipcord body, olive-skinned, with a beak of a nose and large hazel eyes; sweat plastered a lock of dark brown hair with russet highlights to her forehead.
Mike Havel let one of the apprentices help him out of his armor—you could do it yourself, but it was slow and awkward; putting it on was much easier, since gravity helped there. Then he stripped off the sopping gambeson and leaned back on a bench with his back against a rough board wall, a towel around his neck and a mug of cold water in one hand, feeling the heat come off him in the cool damp air like a horse steaming after a hard ride. He'd built what Pam called the Salle d'Armes in the same style as a timber-frame barn, to give the maximum open space; the high roof of the giant building was watertight, but the plank walls of the let in a lot of light and weather, and the floor was packed dirt—this was where the garrison and apprentices did a lot of their advanced-skill training in winter.
Bitchin' cold sometimes, too, he thought with satisfaction, fondling the ears of a hound that came over and laid her head in his lap.
"Good dog, Louhi," he added, as she slapped the ground with her tail.
There was very little point in learning to fight unless you made the training conditions as realistic as possible, and the enemy—the dirty dog—often refused to meet you at a convenient time and place. Right now the weather was good, and so most of the action was in the broad fields around the building, lit by a high hazy blue sky; only the foot-fencing and unarmed-combat classes were inside. On the bright-green grass beyond riders galloped by targets, loosing arrows from their stiff recurved bows, or used sword or lance; sometimes at rings suspended on ropes, or trying to pick wooden pegs out of the ground, or at straw figures—that served to train the horses out of their fear of charging home, too. Mock mounted combat was done under careful supervision, riders hammering at each other as the mounts circled and snapped; the training was as much for the horse as the rider.
Not far away a section of newly-mustered military apprentices were starting to sweat their way towards the coveted A-list status; stretching, tumbling and running courses in weighted armor, working out with free-weights, or practicing stances before some tall mirrors. A dozen more staggered in from the ever-loathed cross-country run in armor and pack; that included a trip up and down the steep scarp behind Larsdalen, popularly known as 'Satan's Staircase'. Havel grinned nostalgically as he listened to the distance-muffled scream of the training-cadre instructors:
"... stop puking, Apprentice Latterby! You can puke on your own time! You make me want to puke, the way you'll bring disgrace on my beloved Outfit! You idle little maggots aren't home on Daddy's manor any more! Bearkillers can fight on horseback, on foot, or while we fucking swim, and we don't get tired. The enemy gets tired and then we kill their sorry ass. Move! Move!"
It took him back—back to Parris Island, in fact; he'd managed to acquire several other graduates or Camp Pendleton alumni as part of his training staff.
It'll be interesting to see how performance goes when everyone's the product of the Apprentice program. They've already lots of motivation; getting on the A-list means climbing into the top drawer. You can throw anything at these kids and they'll still kill themselves trying.
There was a damp earthy smell of pine-wood sweating tar, old sweat, horses, leather and metal; the noise was booted feet on dirt, hoof-fall from outside, the clash of metal and wood, grunts of effort—it all reminded him of a very martial health center, the sort they'd improvised in the Iraqi desert back in ninety-one, waiting for the dance to start. By now it had become homey, almost comforting.
A little stir went through the watchers as two men came in. Havel looked up, dipping another mug of water from the plastic barrel fastened to one of the Salle's posts.
"Hi, Ken," he said, nodding to his father-in-law. "Eric," to Signe's brother.
Father and son made their greetings. Eric Larsson straddled a bench, elbows on knees. He was Signe Larsson's twin and as tall as their father, three inches over six feet; broad-shouldered and long-limbed, but rangier in build than his male parent. Much like Havel, in fact, but scaled up—a tiger to the Bearkiller bossman's leopard, and with a similar smooth ease of movement. Scars showed as white lines in his short blond beard, or as seams against the tanned skin of hands and neck. When they'd met just before the Change, the younger Larsson had been a sullen jock teenager... but even then, he hadn't known the meaning of 'quit'.
I thought he'd turn out to be a dangerous man, Havel thought, reading the calm blue eyes. We could have used him in the Corps. A natural for Force Recon. Well, he's had a lot of pounding on the anvil to test the metal since the Change. All that does not kill us, makes us stronger, as Conan said... that was Conan, wasn't it?
"We scouted up north around McMinneville, as per plan," Eric went on. "While Will took a troop into the Amity Hills, visiting and distracting any attention headed our way—"
Havel grinned. "Good news there, if you haven't heard. The Brigttine monks have decided to tell Arminger's pet Pope in Portland to go to hell, and get square with Abbot Dmowski. Your father-in-law sort of persuaded them."
Proving Will Hutton is twice the diplomat I'll ever be, he added to himself
"They've got a good little fighting force and some useful farms and craftworkers and they're right between us and the enemy," he went on aloud.
"That is good news," Eric said, but his face stayed grim. "The word from McMinnville itself is worse than we thought, though."
"It is a new castle? Not just an earthwork fort?"
"It's a fucking nightmare—bad as the one at Gervais, and bigger. South of town."
"Just north of the Yamhill river, on the road by the old gauging station, I'll bet?"
Eric looked mildly startled. "Yeah, Mike. How'd you guess?"
"It's where I'd put it," he replied absently, his eyes hooded in thought as he called up terrain and distance. "Kills two birds with one stone; plugs the gap between the Coast Range and the Amity Hills, and gives them a base that's perfectly placed to launch raids on our farming country down south at Amityville and Rickreal; it'll be staring right down our throats. On the good side, it probably scares the bejayzus out of those idiots in Whiteson. Neutrality, my ass... they'll have to make up their minds now, or at least as soon as the walls start to rise."
Signe cleared her throat. "Careful how you go at the neutrals, Mike. Honey and vinegar and all that."
Havel shrugged and grinned. "Yup. I can control my natural disgust with their yellow-bellied wavering, you bet." He turned his head back to her brother. "Details?"
"They're working on the foundations now, but you can see the outlines. It's concrete again; no more of those telephone-pole motte-and-bailey specials that burned so nice. Ferroconcrete. Accent on the ferro. We got close enough to see that they're stacking I-beam as well as rebar; they must have a couple of hundred workers on twenty-four-hour shifts. Josh—"
That was Josh Sanders, an ex-lumberjack and ex-SeaBee and their expert on field fortifications.
"—got detailed sketches and extrapolated what the finished product will look like, based on the way they're digging and standard Protectorate practice. Says he'll debrief tomorrow, he's working up his notes."
Ken Larsson nodded and held up a sheaf of papers covered with pencil drawings. "I think Arminger's working from historical models."
"Hand 'em over, hubbie dear," Pamela said. She flicked through the pages. "Oh, yeah. Kerak des Chevaliers, I'd say, maybe Shobak." At their blank looks she sighed and went on: "Late Crusader types, from the Middle East. Add in a bit from Harlech and Edward I's other Welsh castles, and modern touches like barbed wire. As good as you're going to get for pre-gunpowder fortifications. Or post-gunpowder, in our case."
"Nice to have an expert," Havel said, smiling crookedly.
"Hey, bossman, remember I was a veterinarian."
"At a zoo," Ken Larsson put in. "And still are, in a manner of speaking."
Pamela thumped him on the shoulder and went on: "The historical stuff was my hobby, like prancing around with swords. The Protector's the guy who was a real gen-u-wine history professor."
"The Demon Professor... from Hell," her husband said. "We would get one who specialized in medieval history, too. It gives him entirely too many clever things in his bag of tricks."
"Where's he getting all the materials?" Eric asked, giving his father and stepmother a quelling look. "The concrete alone—"
His sister spoke up; she handled the intel files. "There were at least two big bulk freighters in Portland loaded with cement, according to what we've got from travelers and debriefing refugees," she said. "And another in the Columbia, and God knows what in Seattle, which he's been scavenging lately—incidentally, he controls everything from the Columbia to Tacoma now, too, which means quite a few cement factories with their stockpiles of finished product—like the one down here where we get ours. Not hard to haul the building materials on the railways, now that he's got them cleared of dead locomotives. There's a Southern Pacific branch line in through McMinneville and he's done better at keeping up the bridges than we have."
Eric rubbed at his beard. "Now that you mention it, we saw a couple of big trains—horse-drawn, and oxen. Didn't get close enough to see the loads under the tarpaulins, that could have been anything. I just though it would be grain and such. And little handcarts on the rails too, you know, the ones with a couple of guys pumping at levers, like you used to see in old movies. Zipping along real fast, too, faster than a horse—faster than anything I've seen since the Change."
"Clever," his father said, and tapped his hook absently on the sketches. "And Portland's a big asset. You know, back before the Change, the United States produced about a hundred million tons of steel a year, and imported more. And lots of it went into buildings, or other uses where it'll last a long time; Portland was a fast-growing town, plenty of skyscrapers—millions and millions of tons, just in those alone. Considering that we've mostly gone back to using a few pounds of metal per head every year rather than thousands, it'll last a long time. We're so fixated on the Change that all we associate with cities is death and chaos. But if you can get at it, today a big city's a mine. Steel mine, glass mine, copper mine, asphalt mine... you name it, high-quality metals and alloys already smelted, plus gears and shaped stuff. And that gravity-flow water system in Portland gives Arminger a lot of hydraulic power; he's rigged up machine-tools to run off it. It gives him manufacturing capacity."
"So Arminger isn't short of materials," Eric said. "He's still doing a lot of this building. It must cost something fierce in terms of other things he can't do."
Well, my brother-in-law has absorbed basic logistics, Havel thought.
"Notice what he and his barons've been buying, during this latest so-called truce?" he said aloud. "Food, mostly. That lets him pull workers out of the fields and build up a reserve." He called up a mental map. "With McMinneville, that gives him a string of castles east to Dayton, St. Paul, then down to Woodburn-Gervais, then over to Yoder. Plus all the smaller works, and what he's been doing in his HQ. A bit south of the old Yamhill-Marion county line. Defense in depth and he can screen the full width of the Valley, it counterbalances our advantage with the way the Eola and Waldo hills pinch in towards the river around the ruins of Salem."
Pamela nodded. "When a country's fully castellated—" she paused "—I mean, when it's got lots of castles, war turns into a series of sieges; even without camp-fever, that'd be no fun at all. Unfortunately, we don't have anything comparable, apart from Larsdalen and Dun Juniper and a few other spots. And that city wall the University is putting up—if they ever get it finished. Our A-lister steadings and most of the Mackenzie duns, they're a lot smaller, about like his second string. And we know he's got a good siege train now."
"There's Mt. Angel," Kenneth Larsson said. "I'd hate to have to try and storm that."
"Yeah, although that's geography as much as fortification," Havel said. "The abbey's on a nice steep three-hundred-foot high hill to begin with, besides what they've put in in the way of walls."
Ken Larsson looked at his eldest daughter. "What news out of Portland?"
"Nothing unusual that my people can detect. There's a rumor he's going to announce that his daughter Mathilda is his heir, some big church ceremony with his Pope laying on a blessing; she's over with Baron Molalla right now, has been for six months— some fosterage thing."
Eric snorted. "And I can see that bunch obeying a nine-year-old girl," he said.
"I can see anyone obeying Sandra Arminger as Regent, if our dear Lord Protector kicked off early," Signe said. "She's got a following there, particularly among the Society types who think the gangers need to be scraped off their shoes, and she scares a lot more. Scares me sometimes! Besides, I doubt he plans on dying anytime soon, which is a pity, and there's a matter of Mathilda's marriage when she's of age—that is going to be one highly courted debutante."
"Given up on having a son, has he?" Havel said meditatively.
"Pretty well. It isn't like he hasn't tried—he's the 'if it moves, screw it, and if it doesn't move, shake it' type but none of them's ever caught. Maybe he had the clap sometime."
"Hmmm," her father said. "Is it certain young Mathilda—he must have named her after Mathilda of Flanders, what a thing to do to a kid—actually is his?"
"Certainly from her looks," Signe said. "I've seen portrait pictures taken at her birthday last October and it's unmistakable. Pity, we might be able to do something with it if it weren't."
Havel shrugged. "Hopefully he won't have a successor anyway. Is he mobilizing?"
"Nope, not beyond the usual," Signe said. "Mostly he's been spending a lot of time with those Australians—Tasmanians, actually—who showed up in Portland before Gunpowder Day. I haven't been able to get any of my people close to them, though. Odd... it'd be nice to hear what's going on in the rest of the world, but why is he putting so much effort into them, with a big war brewing?"
"Maybe he's decided to just defend what he has?" the elder Larsson said hopefully. "After all, he's got most of western Washington, and the Columbia valley nearly to the Dalles. Going on for a couple of hundred thousand people, too. That's the biggest, well, country anyone's put together on the whole West Coast between Acapulco and Alaska, as far as we know. Biggest single political unit this side of New Deseret, probably."
Havel shook his head; everyone else except the elder Larsson echoed him.
"Nah, Ken. Wishing don't make it so. That string of castles are meant as a base for attack—they're a lot more than he needs for defense, or even holding down the countryside, and like Eric said it's costing him a lot. It's the shield to his sword, it lets him use small garrisons for cover and put the maximum numbers into a field-army. He's got more full-time troopers than anyone else but he doesn't have a big militia he can call out when the balloon goes up."
Signe nodded. "Plus he's just not the type to stop; and besides, the Willamette's the best farmland around and he hasn't got more than a third of it. Plus we're the only real opposition this side of Pendleton and the Yakima; the rest, it's just odds-and-ends, little villages and a few towns that made it through, and the ranchers over in the Bend country. If it weren't for us at his back, he could snap it all up as far as Idaho and south to California—that's empty, but a lot of it would be worth resettling eventually. He's gobbled up everything he can without taking us on directly, so now he's going to do that."
"And he's bigger but we're growing faster these last few years, which is likely to make him sort of impatient," Ken acknowledged. "Not least because we keep getting escapers from his territories."
"I'd want to run away too, the way he squeezes his people," Eric scowled. "I saw more of that than I like to remember, up McMinnville way."
"Which is how he can do all that building," Havel said. "You can build big without machinery; that's how the Pyramids got made. But it costs." He contemplated the map in his mind's eye for a moment longer and went on: "Not to mention keeping all those soldiers drilling year-round. Hmm... There's still a gap in that chain of forts. Just east of the river—the French Prairie."
"Foundations," Ken said. "The subsoil there's like jelly, and getting worse. I wouldn't want to put in anything with a forty-foot curtain wall and towers. Chancy."
In a fake-British accent he went on: "But the fourth time, it stood!"
Pamela snickered, but the younger Bearkillers gave him blank looks.
He threw up his hands: "Christ, didn't any of you people watch Monty... oh, never mind. Anyway, that area was half swamp in the old days and it's going back that way."
"Damn it, if he put as much effort into keeping up the levees and drains as he does into soldiers and forts, he wouldn't need to try and take away our land!" Eric Larsson snapped.
"To be fair, I don't think there are enough people left in the Valley to keep the old drainage system up with no power-tools, and even without it there's more land than we can cultivate anyway," Signe said. "Not that I want to be fair to Arminger. I doubt any of the people on our side do."
Havel growled with exasperation. "That's the problem. We don't have a 'side'. Arminger has a side. What we've got is an alliance of four major and twelve smaller... university-run city-states, theocracies, clans, village republics, whatever-we-ares... trying to fight a single dictatorship. A damned loose alliance, at that. The only way we can do anything collectively is for all sixteen of us to sit and argue until it's unanimous. You know the definition of a committee? The only form life with more than four legs and no brain."
"Makes you miss the good old US of A," Kenneth Larsson said. "Gridlock and all."
"I always did," Havel replied seriously.
"How come you never pushed to start it up again, then?" Eric Larsson said curiously. "I mean, you never let us use the Stars and Stripes or anything when anyone suggested it."
"Because that country's dead," Havel said, an edge in his voice. "It died the night of the Change. I met a guy in Europe once who said the basic thing about Americans was that we'd never had a Dark Ages, just the Enlightenment. I've got news for you: the Dark Ages arrived, in spades, March 17th, nine years ago. Flying Old Glory would be... disrespectful. Like someone digging up their mother and using the old girl's skin for shoe-leather. I may have lost my country but I'm not going to desecrate its grave."
Eric winced: his mother Mary had been injured when their Piper Chieftain crashed in Idaho the day of the Change, and then was killed by bandits in a rather gruesome fashion not long after. The other Larssons glared at Havel.
"Sorry. Tact not my strong suit." He sighed and rose. "OK, we'll get the reports circulated and have a Staff Council meeting day after tomorrow. Christ Jesus, but I hate annotating reports and holding meetings!"
Ken Larsson relaxed and chuckled. He'd been a businessman, and the son and grandson of wealthy magnates, while the Havels had all been miners since they arrived from Finland in the 1890's—and got their unpronounceable Myllyharju changed to something the Czech pay-clerk found easier to write. When they weren't feeding the steel mills they enlisted in the Marines, or went logging, or worked a hardscrabble farm they'd bought around 1900. All very worthy and salt-of-the-earth, but...
"Welcome to the executive suite, my proletarian son-in-law," he said. "Ain't it grand?"
Havel snorted. "C'mon, Signe. I need a bath."
And now I need a shower, he thought several hours later, lazing with his hands behind his head and feeling the same vague longing for a cigarette he'd had at times like this since he quit in 1992.
The master-bedroom of Larsdalen still showed the influence of poor Mary Larsson, Ken's Boston-Brahmin first wife; the pale wood of the windowframes and the furniture, the light graceful lines and perhaps a lingering odor of patouchli. They'd made changes; Signe's collection of stuffed animals and horse-prints, a few of her own paintings, bookshelves, and the stands holding their armor and weapons. He didn't like sleeping with the hilt more than arm's-reach away.
He watched as Signe went through into the nursery to check on Mike Jr., who was napping, then watched appreciatively as she walked back in, honey-pale curves dappled by the evening light through the west-facing windows, sleek as a leopardess. The Big House was comfortable enough for walking around in the buff; Ken Larsson had rerigged the central heating system to work on wood fuel.
"So, how's the big fellah?" he asked.
"Sleeping like a baby, which is sort of appropriate."
Havel chuckled. She went on: "Got to get his rest, if he's going to be Lord Bear II. Or even just help one of his sisters be Lady Bear... that sort of sounds funny, you know? Like Goldilocks."
It wasn't anything he said in the silence that followed...
"One of them is going to be Lord Bear II, right, Mike?"
He stretched. "A little early to be thinking about that, isn't it, alskling?" he said casually. "I'm not planning on retiring anytime soon. And the Outfit will have some input too, hey?"
"And what about your bastard?" she suddenly hissed.
I would really have preferred this subject not come up when I was naked, Havel thought. It's sort of a psychological disadvantage.
With the thought, he swung out of the rumpled bed, belted on a bathrobe and went over to the sideboard—another innovation—to pour himself a stiff bourbon. Then he turned, leaning back with his arms crossed.
"OK, Signe, you want the lowdown on it, yeah, he is my kid. At least, it's possible—I can't swear who Juney was seeing about then, but his looks do make it highly probable, you bet. I'm not denying it. I was willing to let it pass, but I'm not denying it. Not here in private, not to you. I won't make it public unless you insist."
Two spots of red had appeared on Signe's cheeks; the flush spread downward in a way he found distracting even now, as her chest heaved.
"Is that all you've got to say?"
"No. In the whole time since the Change, I've been with exactly two women, you and her—and with her, it was exactly once. Run the timing, alskling. That was in goddamned April of Year Zero. We weren't married. We weren't involved. "
"That was because—"
"Yeah, I know. I was there when we came back and killed the Three Stooges from Hell, right? But the fact remains that we weren't involved. Yes, if I'd been screwing around, you'd have a right to want to carve my liver out. But I haven't been; not by any reasonable definition. You're the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with."
"But little Rudi makes it a bit awkward, doesn't it?"
"Yes. Kids have a habit of doing that."
He tossed off the drink, considered getting another, and decided not to—he'd had relatives who tried to solve problems that way.
"But I can't exactly have him killed, now can I?"
Signe opened, her mouth, closed it, then stalked to her clothes, pulled them on and walked to the hall doorway.
"Fixing things is your problem," she snapped, then slammed the door behind her.
Well, shit, Havel thought, looking after her. Guess I didn't grovel hard enough.
She'd be all right in a while.
I hope, he thought, with an unfamiliar hollow feeling under his breastbone.
Copyright © 2004-2005 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>