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THE PROTECTOR'S WAR

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


CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Dun Juniper/Dun Fairfax

Willamette Valley, Oregon

March 21st, 2007 AD/Change Year 9

 

Carefully now, Dennis Martins Mackenzie told himself.

Even these days, it wasn't often he got a chance to carve a whole twenty-foot section of black walnut log in a mixture of low and high relief; he grinned, feeling himself drooling metaphorically as he prepared to take out another chip, savoring the strong, slightly oily-bitter scent of the cut wood.

This sucker would have been worth thousands before the Change, but I'm doing something better with it than turning it into veneer.

The trees weren't even native to Oregon, although they did well in the Willamette, like nearly everything else except tropical stuff. Juniper Mackenzie's great-uncle the banker had planted thousands of them in the cut-over Cascade foothills around his hunting cabin starting back around 1920, fancying himself a practitioner of scientific forestry and having the period's innocent calm about introducing alien species into an ecosystem. This one had been harvested a year before the Change, along with a lot of other mature timber, something Juniper had done as the only alternative to losing the land she'd inherited from him for back taxes. Then the timber company had gone belly-up and left the logs stacked to season while the lawyers sharpened their knives...

Dennis' stepson Terry stopped working on a prentice-piece clamped in a vise on a nearby workbench and came to look. It was getting dark, and Dennis' workpiece was surrounded by lamps; the wall of the dun to the west meant that sunset came a few minutes early. The shadowless light was pretty good, but you had to be careful about judging depth. He took the gouge and laid the sharp V against a section, tapped with the wooden hammer...

Tock. A large chip flipped away to join those littering the gravel beneath the X-shaped wooden rests that held the great baulk of hardwood.

"And that's it for today," he said in satisfaction, caressing the dark wood with its dense hard grain, feeling the strength of it through his fingertips, the gloss it would take when it was oiled and polished and varnished just right, and set up with its twin...

"It's gonna look great, Dad," the twelve-year-old said. "Maybe even better than the gateposts here."

"As good, at least, if I do say so myself, Terry," Dennis said happily.

Even after nine years he was a little self-conscious about calling the boy son, although 'blended' families like his were more common than not these days, given the accidents of survival in the Dying Time, and Terry hardly remembered his birth-father. Certainly he had the love of the wood in him, and he wasn't half-bad at leatherworking, either, which was Dennis' other trade, and had been his second hobby before the Change.

Terry was half-Vietnamese, slender and fine-featured, and he made Dennis Martins Mackenzie feel almost as much of a hairy troll as his mother Sally's slight-boned prettiness did. She seldom talked about her first husband, who'd been working late at Hewlett-Packard in Portland that March 17th, and had simply never made it home.

She had the guts and sense to take Terry and get out of Dodge before things went absolutely to hell. She is one fine lady.

His smiled as he caressed the wood with a broad hand, callused from his work and scarred by the accidents inevitable when you used chisel and gouge, knife and awl and waxed thread. The dividing channels for the knotwork were finished, running in sinuous interlocking curves and angles up three-quarters of the log's smooth surface; that left rounding the serpents and the delicate work of putting in the scales. The interlacing patterns and gripping stylized beast-mouths had their inspiration from the Book of Kells, but he'd made changes of his own—elongating the pattern, and changing the animals to coyotes and black bear...

With wood this beautiful, I'm almost sorry to do any inlay-work. Just a little to pick out the mouths and eyes of the dragons and wolves. More up top of course.

He touched the rougher wood at the log's end. That was where the face of the Goddess would go—and that was the real challenge for this piece of work. He'd spent nights and days thinking of it, while he worked on other things or just stood looking. Sutterdown wasn't using the Celtic pantheon to represent some aspect of the twin divinities of the Old Religion, the way most Mackenzies did. They wanted to be different...

Hmmmm. Yeah, the outer form is Aphrodite. But I want elements of all three Aspects here. Sally for the Mother-of-All this time. Eilir for the Maiden? Maybe Astrid, if I can get her to sit for it. Or Luanne Larsson, if I could get her over here for a couple of days. I like the way the bones of her face go, that Spanish-Indio-African-Anglo blend would be just right for the Goddess in this aspect—

"How much is Sutterdown paying you for this?"

He started out of his trance, suppressing a flash of irritation. "Hey, Chuck. Is it that time already?"

Chuck Barstow was in his brigandine and sword-belt, with twin sprays of raven feathers on either side of his round bowl helmet for ceremonial swank; privately Dennis thought he was given to wearing headgear all the time because his sandy hair was getting real thin on top, and he wore his beard trimmed to a rakish point. He was also taller and younger than the woodworker—forty to his fifty-odd, lean whipcord and gristle to the other man's broad muscular hairiness.

He wasn't fat before the Change, Dennis thought, with a trace of satisfaction at his own waistline—not exactly narrow, but without the rolls of surplus tissue he'd worn there from his late twenties until the aftermath of the Change. But then, he was a gardener by trade, not a pub manager like me, and he did all that knightly SCA shit in his spare time, too.

"Yup. The Dun Fairfax people sent a horn-call up when the party went past and the road sentry relayed it. Sam's stopped off home there, by the way."

"Damn," Dennis said mildly. "I wanted to talk to him about the latest batch of cedar for the arrowmaking shop before he got all caught up in farm work. Oh, well, it ain't a long walk and Melissa's a hell of a good cook; I'll drop by tomorrow... no, that's Ostara, everyone'll be busy. Day or two after."

He brushed chips out of his beard and off his carpenter's apron, laying down his tools. Terry hurried to help put them away in the workshop that huddled against the inside of Dun Juniper's wall beside the family cabin. Dennis grinned: Terry was a good kid, if a little serious. He grinned wider as he put on a clean shirt white shirt with bib-like ruffle, tucked it into his kilt, wrapped his plaid and belted and pinned it, and arranged the flat Scots bonnet on his head with the tuft of coyote fur at the clasp.

He'd teased Juney for years before the Change about the way she put on the Celtic thing, however much it went with her style of music, and about how her coveners were always pulling some sort of myth out of the Irish twilight—of course he'd been a cowan then, an unbeliever, and hadn't understood the symbolism. Juniper Mackenzie might have been the one who told the band gathered at her cabin that to survive they would have to live like a clan, as it was in the old days... but he didn't think she had meant to be taken quite so literally. It had been Dennis who christened it the Clan Mackenzie, and started the kilt-wearing fashion when they salvaged that warehouse-full of tartan blankets. He'd come up with a good deal else that caught on too, in the years since, and mostly she'd had to go along with it.

It drives her bananas, Dennis thought with a smug grin, and only a slight pang at the metaphor—he hadn't tasted a banana in nine years.

Chuck raised an eyebrow, obviously following the thought: "Dennis Martins Mackenzie, the Clan's very own Astrid Larsson."

"Oh, now you're getting nasty," he protested. "Astrid's a compulsive fantasist. I just have a well-informed sense of humor."

The other man grinned. "It may be a joke to you, Dennie, but have you noticed how the younger generation takes it? Like they really mean it?"

Urk, he thought. You've got a point there.

He glared at the Armsman. Chuck spread his free hand and replied:

"No offense. It's done us good, I think—looking different helped people believe things were different." A sly smile. "And speaking of Celtic motifs, how much is the covenstead at Sutterdown paying you to carve this tree? And in what?"

"Pain in the ass not having money any more, isn't it?" Dennis said with a wink. "I mean there's only so much wheat or bacon you can use and keeping fifty bushels and a sow around until you can swap for something you really want is clumsy. They offered gold, originally, but I took it in wine, instead. Lot of our people still leery about gold."

Chuck raised a brow: "Not payment in Brannigan's special ale? Juney made a song about it, after all."

Dennis mimed taking an arrow in the ribs. "Traitor! I think that blowhard Brannigan spikes his with magic mushrooms, and mine's all natural ingredients—barley malt, hops and mountain spring water. But I will admit Sutterdown's got the best vineyards in our territory, even if they're not as good as the Bearkillers'. They agreed to store it for me."

Chuck's grin was honestly admiring. "Lost none of your innkeeper's instincts, I see," he said, laughing and leaning on his spear. "The longer they keep it, at their expense, the better it gets."

"Since it's a red blend that's mostly pinot noir and less than a year in the wood, yeah, pretty much. And running the Hopping Toad was fun, sorta, but it was just my eating job. Wood and leather, that was where I got my kicks. Well, I like brewing, too. Anyway, it ain't strictly Celtic like the ones here; some of the knotwork, yeah, but the faces are Classical as much as anything. Everything's an aspect of the God and Goddess, right?"

He looked down at the wood, smiling, and touched it lightly with his fingertips again. "It's all gonna look damn good, if I say so myself."

"Sutterdown ought to be concentrating on getting their damn town wall finished," Chuck grumbled.

He wore two hats in the clan—Lord of the Harvest, which translated as Minister of Agriculture, and Second Armsman, which in peacetime meant going around chivvying people to keep their training and defensive works up to scratch.

"No rest for the Wiccan," he went on with a sigh, settling his helmet and heading for the gates.

And he puns, too, Dennis thought with a wince, and set about closing up shop.

Dun Juniper was bustling with preparations for the Chief's homecoming and the big pre-Ostara dance by the time he and Terry had swept up the chips for the kindling box and dragged a tarpaulin up to cover the workpiece. Terry's mother Sally was over in the Hall, helping with the decorations and cooking—her usual jobs were principal of the Dun Juniper high school and Lore-Mistress for the Clan as a whole, overseeing the schools and Moon schools, but the kids were off for the day.

Dennis decided that the best contribution he could make was to go up and lean on the battlements and watch the sun set and Juniper and her party arrive; if he didn't someone would find him real work to do. There were ladders at intervals between the cabins built up against the wall. He went up one with the ease of long practice and emerged puffing on the fighting platform, surprised as always at how high things looked from there.

Higher outside than inside, of course; Juney's cabin—the core of the Hall—had stood on a little oblong plateau jutting southward into a larger hillside bench. The steep slope around its edge gave the walls fifteen feet more height on their outer surface.

In the summer of Change Year One the growing clan of the Mackenzies had put up a log palisade around Dun Juniper. Then they'd had a couple of practical examples of how well that style of fort could burn, and nobody had grudged the work of renovations next year... much. They'd used the murus Gallicus as a model, the Gallic Wall of the old continental Celts. It was a crib-cage of horizontal squared logs, each layer at right-angles to the one below; the gaps between the logs were filled with fitted rock and rubble before the next layer of timbers was spiked down, until the wall was as high as you wanted—thirty feet, here—and an outer layer of mortared fieldstone concealed the ends of the horizontal logs. There were U-shaped towers half again as tall at the corners, plus a pair facing each way to bracket the gate, and they'd improved on the Celtic original by working cement and rebar into the rubble as the wall went up.

Add a solid coating of waterproof stucco from an abandoned building-supply warehouse over the outside, give the fighting platform a pavement of re-melted road asphalt six inches thick and it was weathertight and low-maintenance, too.

Hell of a lot faster and easier than building a real stone wall, he thought, putting an elbow on one of the waist-high embrasures that alternated with the seven-foot merlons along the platform; the merlons each had an arrow-slit in the middle. And remembering how much sweat it cost us, that's saying something. Stronger than stone alone if someone comes calling with a battering ram, too.

"Which the Lord and Lady forbid," he murmured, and made a gesture as Sally and Terry came up the ladder he'd climbed; she had infant Maeve on her back in a carrier, and eight-year-old Jill scampered up behind her, confident as a squirrel on ground she'd climbed over all her life.

The girl pointed upward with a cry of delight. A flight of swans went by overhead, their V headed westward towards the distant river.

 

@@@

 

Juniper Mackenzie looked up at the swans as they went overhead, flying down from the mountains to the river; here at the top of the road she was near level with them for an instant, close enough to see their snowy feathers turned ruddy by the light of sunset. Their voices floated down, majestic as the slow beating of their great white wings, sad as the sunset. Then they were past, shadows against the greater shadows in the west, where crimson and gold castles towered above the trees and slowly faded towards blue-black as the first stars shone.

She felt a song moving, a stirring behind the breastbone, the music weaving with the words; not the fiddle or guitar for this, but the harp Denni had made for her over the winter; she could forgive a great deal of his foolishness for that. Her lips moved, singing in a half-whisper, with a hum to carry the tune:

 

"Where does the wild swan wander?

On lonely shores where salt foam tumbles

No roof but leaves, above a bed of moss

By silver streams that shun the homes of men.

So flies my heart over mountain rock:

My brother the deer, my sister the wolf;

To run alone in the cold gray wet of autumn

With the harsh tapping of twigs

And the flutter of wind-stripped leaves..."

 

She stopped, confident that she had the beginning of it at least. To work the rest she needed solitude and quiet—which in her position were unfortunately hard to get.

Damn! I never wanted it! All I wanted was to help my loves survive. I could see what must be done, and one thing led to another...

"Sorry, friends," she said, noticing that the column had halted; and feeling once more the chill, chafing discomfort of soaked clothing. "Didn't mean to keep you here cold and wet!"

"Sorry?" a woman said, laughing, tossing back long yellow hair darkened with the rain despite her slicker; Cynthia Carson Mackenzie, commanding the escort now that Sam had dropped off at his home at Dun Fairfax down in the little valley below. "Sorry?"

"We're sorry we won't hear the rest of it, Lady Juniper!" Astrid said.

I like the words, Mom, Eilir signed; she read lips well. A lot.

"Then you'll all hear the rest, though not today. And now let's go see if there's a hot bath and a dry robe, and what's on the hob for dinner!"

Mom... it's Ostara eve. You can bet there's something special!

They pressed their tired horses up to a trot, out westward onto the broad bench in the side of the mountain that held Dun Juniper, away from the creekside path up from the head of the valley. The level land beyond ran east-west, an oval nearly a mile long and half a mile wide at its broadest point, making an interval of rolling meadow between steep tall forests upslope and down. The graveled road wound through the spring flush of green meadow dotted with huge Oregon oaks; some from the days when her father's line settled here fresh out from East Tennessee a century and a half ago; more planted since—along with maple and walnut—by her great-uncle Earl, who'd prospered in town and bought back the family homestead as a hunting-lodge and played at forestry.

She thought of the strange solitary childless old man and smiled fondly; he'd loved her in his way... probably... although she'd seen little of him, even when the family visited in the summertime. Willing the property to a teenager with an illegitimate deaf daughter had astonished the family nearly as much as it surprised her, but by then a whole generation of potential heirs had predeceased old Earl. Maybe he'd laughed from the Summerlands as she buckled down to make a modest success of her music, as much to hold onto the land as to keep a roof over her and Eilir's head. And she had—just, if you counted selling some of the timber occasionally to make up shortfalls. They'd been doing well enough right before the Change...

And if only he could see it now! she thought.

The first blue camas-flowers starred the meadows; they'd turn to sheets of color by April or May, and twinberry glowed dull gold, Henbit reddish-purple. Cattle black and red, horses squat and powerful or tall and long-limbed drowsed behind plank fences or young hedges of white-flowered hawthorn, some raising their heads to watch as the riders went by. The Mackenzies kept their best breeding-stock here, the precious Suffolk Punch stallions, Arab and Quarterhorse saddle-breeds, fleecy square-set Corriedale rams, Jersey and Angus bulls. There were fewer fields than in the first desperate years; most of the grain came in now from more fertile lands they'd acquired westward in the Valley proper. But some brown plowland showed the green shoots of potatoes or the blue-green of oats, and a stretch of old gnarled apple trees painstakingly brought back into bearing with more new-planted, all showing the first creamy froth of flowers.

The little waterfall off to her right leapt down the steep mountainside into a pond fringed with reed and willows, larger now that they'd put up a turf-covered checkdam. The waterwheel below it was still just now, without the querning sound of grain being ground or the ruhhh...ruhhh of the saw; the wood of the mill-house walls silvery with age—they'd rescued it from a tourist-trap. A furrow from the pond watered acres of truck-garden and berry-bushes.

And westward Dun Juniper itself, still like a dream that might vanish and leave only Uncle Earl's lodge. The white walls grew solid enough as they neared, silver and then stained reddish with the dying sunlight behind it; spearheads glinted on the battlements, and the banners flew, and a few first gleams of lamplight showed through arrow-slits in the towers. The heavy boom... boom... of Lambeg drums came from above the gates, and the squeal of bagpipes, and the little figures of people growing until she could identify one or another—probably the whole four hundred or so who dwelt within.

"Is é do bhaile do chaisleán," Juniper murmured.

"What's that, Lady Juniper?" Astrid asked.

"Very freely translated: A woman's home is her castle!" Everyone in hearing chuckled. "And never were words more true!"

The road kept going westerly, through the flowerbeds just outside the Dun—her secret guilty indulgence in the fruits of power, although they were useful for ceremonies, too—and then one branch climbed along the side of the rise to the gates, exposing any attackers' defenseless spear-arm side to missiles from above. The people there were throwing things; flowers, in fact, or little braided grass figures of the Green Man, for luck. She waved and grinned; being Chief might be a pain in the fundament some of the time—much of the time—but Juniper Mackenzie knew how to work a crowd, by Ogma the Honey-Tongued!

She halted at the top of the laneway, amid an iron clatter of horseshoes on the small flat area paved in flagstone that spread before the entry. The gate was closed—had been closed so it could be symbolically opened again. Its frame was heavy timbers close-fitted into a solid baulk a yard thick, but the surface on both sides was quarter-inch sheet steel, painted bark-brown. This last winter they'd had the leisure to get a little playful with it, and Dennis had directed a project that laid on designs in copper; Astrid and Eilir had done the drawings. At first glance it was just more of the swirling abstract knotwork, the bronze bolts which held the facing on part of it, but when you looked closer the patterns running down the middle sprang out at you.

The Triple Moon above, waxing and full and waning, like a circle flanked by crescents; below that a man's face, wildly bearded and surrounded by a halo of curls, with horns springing from his forehead.

Juniper halted her horse and swung down from the saddle, not without a groan—riding for hours in cold rain did middle-aged joints no good—and thumped the side of her fist against the gate. It felt like striking a cliff of living rock, and she called up:

"It's Juniper Mackenzie, Chief of the Clan by the Clan's own choice, asking for the gate to open!"

Denni and a few others had tried to get her to refer to herself as the Mackenzie, the way a lot of other people did. She'd drawn the line there, successfully for once.

Inside someone shouted, and there was a long rumbling quiver as the great horizontal beams were drawn back into slots in the tower walls on either side; there were vertical ones as well, but they weren't used except in emergencies. Then came a rhythmic shouting, as teams pulled back on the gates. Each had a heavy truck wheel built into its middle and the end where the leaves joined, and they rolled back easily enough.

Chuck and Judy Barstow walked out through the gateway, between the shaped and painted pillars—the God as Lugh of the Sun on the left, with his spear and sun-disk and head wreathed in carved holly; the Goddess as Brigit on the right, with the flames of wisdom and the sheaf of abundance, crowned with rowan. Judy—once Maiden of Juniper's Singing Moon coven and now High Priestess of her own Wolf-Star—poured wine from the pitcher into the long silver-mouthed horn Chuck held; that had started out as one of a pair over the bar of a Western-themed place in Sisters. Then he handed it to her.

"Welcome home, Lady Juniper," he said, smiling warmly. "A hundred thousand welcomes to the Mackenzie!"

Juniper nodded to him, and took the horn; she'd rather have had hot chocolate with a marshmallow—lost paradise!—or mulled mead, but wine would do well enough. She raised it overhead in her right hand, then poured a few drops before the image of Lugh, holding it expertly with the curling tip over her forearm:

"Shining Sun, God of the skillful hand and piercing mind, strong Defender, Wise in Council, gentle Father, we thank You for guidance on this journey in the works of hand and word and heart. May this place be rich with Your gifts of knowledge and of craft."

"Blesséd be," came a hundred other voices, murmuring on the heels of her own.

She drank. The wine was strong and mellow; when you gave to the Gods, you gave your best. Then the libation to the Mother-of-All; and here Denni had been guided, for while the God's image was beautiful, the carven eyes of the Goddess rendered here always seemed to lift her beyond herself:

"Goddess of the ripened corn, Lady whose flames are the warmth of wisdom, You who inspire the poet's tongue, Mother gentle and strong, whose womb is source of all things, we thank You for the protection of Your arms while far from hearth and loves. May this place be a sanctuary of Your compassion, to nourish all who enter in perfect love and perfect trust."

"Blesséd be."

Another long sip, like the spirit of berries and fruit and the autumn earth, and she passed the horn on to the others, for each of them to make the thanks-offering and take a swig. A four-footed figure burst through the legs of the crowd inside the gate; her old mutt Cuchulain, limping and dim-eyed, but still determined to claim his mother/pack-leader/comrade. She bent to thump his ribs and push aside his usual attempt to sniff under the kilt, and then straightened.

"And the Lord and Lady witness, if we're going to have that dance tonight I need a bath. We old ladies get cranky and creaky without a good hot soak."

 

@@@

 

"What of the bow?

The bow was made in England:

Of the true wood, of yew-wood

The wood of English bows

So men who are free

Love the old yew-tree

And the land where the yew-tree grows!"

 

Sam Aylward sang the old ditty softly; his bass voice was still rough as a rasp, and he warbled out of tune now and then—music had never been his strong point. The sheep never seemed to mind, though, here or back on his father's farm, and it did seem to make them a little less flighty. It was hard to tell for sure with sheep; they were near as brainless as a new-minted lieutenant fresh from the drill-fields of Sandhurst.

"Come on, Dolly, let's get the little bugger born and you comfortable," he said, interrupting himself, then went back to the work and the song. "You should have done this a month ago like the rest of your woolly mates. Breeding out of season, shame on you."

His broad hands moved with surprising gentleness, as the ewe bleated and struggled in the straw of the sheep-shed he'd built at the highest point in the big plank-fenced field. Fingers traced the leg; the joint went the right way this time, which meant it was the front legs, the ones which should be facing this way, at last. He reached in to make sure that it wasn't twins, and the ewe gave an indignant wiggle.

Most of the breeders could drop theirs out in the pasture, in this gentle climate, but he preferred to have them dry and out of the wind on a raw afternoon like this. The rain had barely stopped when he arrived, beneath a sky colored like old iron and darkening towards the early spring nightfall. He'd arrived home soaked, and then it was out to check on the last of the flock to deliver with no more than a quick word to the wife. The weather had turned nasty the last half of their trip back from Larsdalen, though now the clouds were breaking open to show belated blue sky in the west.

As well I did check.

No single family here at Dun Fairfax had very many woolies, so they managed them as a single flock to save time and work—and Larry Smith, the shepherd, had been off after a couple of strays; Dolly and the lamb both would have died if Aylward hadn't been there and pitched in.

It was turning dark; the cries of a flight of swans went by overhead, and outside his eldest son Edain was romping with the dogs. His stepdaughter Tamar was waiting not far away, crouching in the straw with her arms around her knees and singing along with him as he worked, and doing a much better job of carrying the tune:

 

"...so we'll all drink together

Drink to the gray goose feather

And the land where the gray goose flew!"

 

"All right, girl, keep her steady," he said. "Firm but gentle, now."

Tamar knelt and held the ewe's head and forelegs while he grasped the lamb's feet and began a steady pull; his grating bass and the girl's clear contralto sounded together over the frantic bleats as the nose came free.

 

"What of the men?

The men were bred in England:

The bowmen—the yeomen—

The lads of dale and fell.

Here's to you—and to you—

To the hearts that are true

And the land where the true hearts dwell!"

 

"There we go, Dolly old girl!"

The newborn came clear of the birth-canal in a final slippery rush; not much blood, he'd gotten the legs turned in time, though only just. The ewe lay panting for a moment, tongue out.

"I knew you could do it," he said encouragingly, stripping off the birth-sack to make sure the lamb didn't suffocate and toweling it down with an old burlap sack.

Edain came in as he finished, all over mud as might be expected of a healthy six-year-old; luckily he wasn't wearing much but a singlet and his kilt which left a lot easily-washable skin exposed, and he crouched to watch with his damp sun-streaked fair hair plastered to his forehead.

Dolly was exhausted—this was her first lamb and a hard delivery—but she had plenty of strength to turn and sniff her offspring before licking it clean; it got to shaky legs and butted at her udder, feeding naturally and not needing a helping hand as they sometimes did. Which was as well; hand-rearing a lamb its mother rejected was a royal pain in the arse. He put down a little grain and hay for Dolly, who had the lamb tucked in against her now.

Tamar brought over the big tin bucket of water and the towel and washcloth and a chunk of strong-smelling home-made lye soap.

"There you go, Dad," she said, and wrinkled her nose slightly.

"It's a messy business, girl," he said. "And that's a fact."

She nodded undisturbed. A farm-girl didn't grow up squeamish, and she'd lived two-thirds of her lifeime in the Changed world. She was thirteen this year, a gangling girl on the edge of adolescence, all legs and knees and elbows, with a shock of yellow hair and blue eyes and a round cheerful face. She might have been his own as far as looks went; there was even had a trace of Hampshire to her talk now, for all that her blood-kin had been farming around Boone's Lick and thinking about the Oregon Trail while Aylward's great-grandfather froze his toes off in the Crimea. He supposed that in a few more years he'd be beating off the boys with a stick and grumbling that none of them seemed worthy of her.

He stripped off the canvas apron, stained with the blood and fluids that gave the air a tang of iron and copper under the smells of wet turned earth and straw and manure. Beneath it he wore only kilt and boots, showing a matt of grizzled brown hair on his chest and the ugly white scar-tracery left by bullets, blades, arrows and grenade-fragments on his muscular stocky body.

Plus Arabic letters on his stomach, where someone had started to spell out the name "Abdullah" with a red-hot knife. The last letter trailed off, fruit of a terminal interruption.

I wonder what happened to Colonel Loring? he thought, not for the first time; it had been his old commander who provided the interruption... hand over the mouth, Fairburn knife through the kidney. Well, if anyone survived, it would be Sir Nigel Loring... not that it's likely anyone much in Britain did survive.

He grew conscious of his childrens' gaze, shook himself free of the brown study that had gripped him for a moment and bent over the bucket with busy hands. Tamar's mother Melissa was finicky about what she let in the door, too. Tamar and Edain sat on a stall-partition and swung their feet as he washed, filling him in on what had gone on around home and at school and Moon School while he was away with the mission to the conference at Larsdalen. Tamar was beginning algebra, which she didn't like, archery practice, which she did—

At that point Edain sprang up and took an axe-handle, holding it out vertically in his left hand with the arm parallel to the ground, the strengthening exercise for the bow-arm.

"We do that at school for a whole hour every day now!" he boasted, beaming, a gap showing where two of his milk-teeth had gone recently.

Tamar rolled her eyes. "Just the same way you showed me, Dad," she said with the heavy patience of thirteen for six.

"That's the way to raise children," Aylward said with grave approval in his tone. "Good lad."

He'd been the one who got Lady Juniper to put that in the curriculum for all the Clan's schools, back in the second Change Year. Edain dropped the ashwood and went to examine the lamb, poking it with a finger and earning a suspicious look and bleat from Dolly.

"And what else?" Aylward asked.

What else for Tamar turned out to be herblore, and the use of the spinning wheel, which she could take or leave, plus the usual chores. And making colored eggs to be buried around the hamlet for the sake of the crops, and practicing the Ostara dances.

Aylward nodded tolerantly at her enthusiasm; he gave the predominant local religion the same grave formal courtesy he'd always extended the Church of England, but neither moved him much. Melissa was the High Priestess of the Dun Fairfax coven now, though, and strong for the whole business—also slightly irritated her husband had never become more than a Dedicant. She'd have preferred him as an Initiate at least, and preferably her High Priest.

Can't see meself prancing around under the moon with antlers on me head, he thought with a grin, then spat as the expression let some of the harsh soap into his mouth. Larry Smith had that job here at Dun Fairfax, and looked, in Aylward's considered opinion, a right pillock in the role. I must admit, it's a good religion for farmers. The festivals all make sense that way.

He'd seen Juniper's faith spread through the Mackenzie territories and beyond over the years like fast-growing ivy over a wall. Starting with the core group of coveners and friends who'd gathered at her cabin days after the Change, and out from there as they took in refugees—

One recently retired English soldier caught out on a hunting trip, for instance...

—and then became the seed-crystal of order and survival in this corner of the Valley. Now Tamar's generation was growing up, and to them the whole thing was as natural as water to a fish. Their children would probably forget that their pre-Change ancestors had mostly been Christians.

Lady Juniper's charisma hurts not a bit, too. She's come close enough to convincing me more than once, just by being what she is, not by preaching.

"I wish I could have come with you to Larsdalen, Dad," Tamar went on. "It must have been so cool with all the Dun Juniper people. You know, back when I was just a little girl, right after the Change, Lady Juniper gave me a candy bar? I can remember it clear as anything, when I went out in the road and asked her if she was a witch? And now we're all witches. That was right before the battle, when those people chased us out of Sutterdown and she called the Dark Lady to help us."

"I remember that, poppet," he said

It had lost nothing in the retelling since; watching fact grow into legend and legend become myth in a few short years had been eerie, and the original skirmish had been weird enough. He splashed his face repeatedly to get the lye soap out of his eyelids, and then stuck his whole head in the bucket, coming up blowing before he scrubbed vigorously at his curly brown hair with the towel.

"I was at the battle meself, remember. And you haven't reminded me about the candy more than a thousand times."

His smile took any sting out of the words. Inwardly:

And that put the plums in the pudding, beating back that probe the Protector sent. Herself going wild like that, running at them screaming like a bloody banshee and everyone following just as stark raving bonkers... And the Reverend Dixon dropping dead after the battle, too, he was her only rival in the faith-will-save-us brigade around here. If she'd been a Buddhist, we'd all be spinning ruddy prayer wheels by now.

He shook off memory: a chalk-pale blood-spattered face, eyes showing white all around the rims, red hair bristling like a fox's crest, and a voice that had echoed down from his head into his gut...

Edain took up the axe-handle again, this time wielding it like a sword—or a six-year-old boy's conception of how you used a sword, tempered by watching the real thing fairly often.

"When Lady Juniper called the the Lord 'n Lady 'n they smote the wicked!" he said with bloodthirsty enthusiasm. "She's great. She sings real nice, too."

Baraka and to spare, she has.

"And Dad was a hero. I'm gonna be a hero too!"

"I'll teach you better than that," Aylward snorted. "Heroes run themselves onto spearpoints. I won, is what I did. Now come here, young'un."

He held the squirming boy by the neck while he did a quick daub-and-wipe with the towel. "There, that's got the worst of it off."

When he'd pulled on his shirt and jacket Tamar hopped down and proudly took up her light bow; he picked up a spear leaning against one of the poles that held up the lean-to roof of the open-fronted structure. It was six feet of smooth ash-wood, with another foot of steel on top, ground down from a leaf-spring to a knife shape that tapered to a vicious point along two razor edges, and he politely declined Edain's offer to carry it for him. One thing he'd gotten into the boy's head good and proper—via a few smart smacks on the backside—was that he didn't touch a weapon without permission. Of course, Edain craved the day when he'd be able to walk abroad with dirk and bow like his elder sibling, rather than just shooting at the mark under close supervision.

He balanced the spear over one shoulder as they all left the long shed, and whistled up his dogs—a big Alsatian and an even larger shaggy mutt, both rescued as pups. They'd been lying outside the shed, eyeing the sheep wistfully but far too well trained to do any bothering. The herd looked apprehensive; sheep didn't really like either men or dogs, and these had the comically naked look woolies always had right after shearing. At least there weren't many nicks or cuts this year; everyone had finally learned how to use hand-shears on a wiggling sheep held clamped between the knees.

"Garm, Grip," he called, and they fell in behind him with eyes alert and tails wagging, accepting an ear-ruffling from Tamar and an arm around each neck from Edain. "We're off home, mind. No chasing rabbits. Heel."

They followed the humans down the gentle slope and towards the gate—he cocked a satisfied eye on the hawthorn seedlings he'd planted along the fences here and elsewhere; they where growing fast, already chest-high, glowing with their early-set white flowers, scent a faint cool sweetness. By the time the planks had rotted out, they would be good cow-tight barriers that needed no sawn timber to repair; he'd learned how to lay, stake, pleach and ether a hawthorn hedge when he was about Tamar's age. His hands remembered, and others were learning.

Me Dad didn't get a tractor until I was Tamar's age, either. The house never did have running water, just a hand-pump. Until that sodding burke of a stockbroker bought it for a weekend place. .

That made him smile again; the same mix of stubborn conservatism and sheer poverty that doomed his father as a farmer had given the younger Aylward a set of archaic skills which were coming in very handy indeed post-Change.

The laughing-stocks of Crooksbury, we were... but this Aylward's laughing last.

A collie wagged its tail as they opened the gate, but stood alertly until they'd hitched the wire to close it again. A little further along the fence a man leaned against a post with resigned patience, his bow in his crossed arms and a spear propped beside him.

"G'night, Larry," Aylward called, while the dogs exchanged sniffs.

"A good night as long as it doesn't rain, Sam," the shepherd said with a brief wave, then turned back to his charges.

He had his supper in a cloth-tied bundle at his feet, and a good thick coat and rainslicker, but Aylward didn't envy him, the more so as a kilt was a bit drafty at times, even with drawers beneath. The fashion had taken strong hold, though. Everyone teased you if you didn't wear one most of the time, and teasing was no joke living close with the same faces every day.

"I'm shrammed already," Smith grumbled.

Got that word from me, Aylward thought, with a wave and a nod. At least he got it right. It was a cold and shivery night. And I'm headed back to a hot dinner and a nice warm kitchen.

Dun Fairfax had been built around a century-old farmhouse left vacant by the Change—the owners been elderly Latter-Day Saints, and very, very diabetic—to be a base for those who worked this stretch of the clan's land. The graves of the Fairfaxes stood on a slight rise not far from the gate, well-fenced and with a stone marker. Juniper Mackenzie had gone to some trouble to get Mormon rites said for them; several of the residents also made small offerings now and then, from courtesy and because the supplies in the old couples' barn and basement had helped to keep the proto-clan going for crucial months. He didn't know what they'd think of becoming the tutelary spirits of a Wiccan farming hamlet...

The Mackenzies had added twelve more homes, ranging from log-cabins to frame buildings built from salvaged materials to what the Yanks called a double-wide, that last hauled in by a four-hitch of Suffolk Punch draught horses. Then they'd enclosed it with a ditch, bank and log stockade, plus a square-set blockhouse over the gate; the circuit included the old Fairfax barn, more sheds, storage and workshops, and room enough to drive all the livestock in come an emergency. The whole was in a west-tending valley with Dun Juniper perched up the slope to the north.

The high peaks to the northeast were touched with pink by the setting sun, and tall ranks of Douglas fir stood north and east and south where the rolling bottomland crinkled upward into high hills or low mountains. From here he could see down a swale in pasture, over a fence and a trickle of creek, up through an apple orchard with the buds just burst, and past the truck-gardens that surrounded the dun to the pointed logs of the palisade itself.

The original farmhouse was his—he held sixty-four acres from the clan, a good little bit of a farm, the biggest in this settlement—and it had been built on a rise; that and its own two-story-and-attic height left the top of it visible from here over the wall.

As he watched a lantern came on behind a window, showing soft yellow flame through glass and curtains, and then another and another. No other lights flickered within eyesight, though Dun Juniper was just up the slope to northward. The chuckle of Artemis Creek a little to his south was loud tonight, full with the spring rains and the beginning of snowmelt on the heights; underneath it he could hear the low humming moan of a spinning wheel, rising and falling and then abruptly cutting off as someone laid it by for the night. An owl dropped out of the woods to the north and soared over his head to the pasture beyond, on the lookout for field-mice and rabbits.

He laughed softly as he took a deep breath of the fir-scented air down from the mountains; it mixed with the damp grass, a whiff from the pigpens, woodsmoke and cooking from the dun. Edain's patience broke, and he ran on ahead; the dogs looked for permission before dashing off in pursuit.

"What's funny, Dad?" the Tamar asked, putting her free hand in his.

"Well, luv, I was just thinking that it's an ill wind that blows nobody good."

Or even an ill disaster-beyond-all-reckoning that didn't leave someone better off.

No fault of mine the Change happened—it came as near as bugger-all to killing me too, slow and nasty. But all I've ever liked doing is soldiering, hunting and farming; and here I get to do all three as much as suits me—with chick and child thrown in, which I never expected. None of that frabbling with the bank and the prices and regulations that broke Dad, either; we eat what we raise, or trade it straight-up for what else we need. And when I fight, I do it for my own family and friends and the land that feeds us.

He'd taken the Queen's shilling before he was old enough to vote, gone where she sent him and fought whoever the officers told him to fight, and given it all he had. The whys and wherefores weren't rightly any of his business; he was a soldier, and it was his trade.

Defending his own was...

Sort of... direct-feeling. More personal, like.

"Where does that song about the yew-tree and the bows come from, Da?" Tamar asked as they walked along; she was getting old enough to be curious about the family history. "I mean, not just from England?"

"God—" he caught himself and added "—and the Goddess know, girl. I learned it from my grandfather. Tough old bugger—must've been eighty as I first remember him and still strong as an oak root; I was the youngest of four, the rest all girls, you see, and my Dad married late. We Aylward men do. Granddad fought in World War One, he did. Came back limping."

She nodded understanding, walking along beside him in the gathering dusk. "Yes, I know, Dad. But the song?"

"Well, he said he'd got it from his grandfather, who got it from his—who fought bloody Napoleon if you can believe it—who got it from his, and I don't know how many more generations. Tell you the truth, it's what first got me interested in bows as a nipper."

She gave him a puzzled look: "You were a soldier over in England, Dad. Didn't you always shoot a bow?"

"That was before the Change, remember. We used guns."

"Oh," she said with a shrug, obviously dismissing a time that distant.

Never heard a firearm set off, probably, and doesn't remember cars or the telly much, he thought, shaking his head a little. And to Edain, they're fairytales, like Robin Hood to me, or Jack and the Beanstalk.

"But that's cool about the song, though," she went on generously; Aylward hid a grin.

They walked up the graveled way to the blockhouse. The gateway through the man-thick palisade logs was open; it was just wide enough for a two-horse wagon, built up of heavy timbers covered in bolted-on steel strapwork. The forging was crude—Aylward had turned his hand to smithing a little, but was no expert—yet immensely strong. The villager on gate-guard duty for the night was just lighting a lantern and hauling it up a flagpole before climbing the steep plank stairs to the platform under the parapet.

"Cheryl," Aylward said, nodding. "Seen a young hooligan go by?"

"Hi, Sam, Tamar. Edain went up the street in a rooster-tail of mud a couple of seconds ago," she replied, settling her steel cap with a sigh and going up with a lunchbox in one hand and her bow and quiver in the other.

That was one more reason you couldn't live alone on your land; there had to be enough to trade off chores like guard duty that needed doing the clock 'round.

The laneway between the cottages within was graveled too; chickens pecked about in it until a couple of children shooed them off towards their coop, and ducks and geese up from the pond—they had a good strong perennial spring here. Dun Fairfax was a well-to-do settlement, with all its draught-work done by horses rather than oxen; one nickered off in the stable-sheds built up against the inside of the palisade; there were ten of the beasts, including two mounts of his that doubled for riding and light farm-work. Keeping a riding-horse was a bit of a luxury, but necessary for his other job as Armsman; the rest of the families all had at least one bicycle, and it was going to be yet another pain in the arse when those started to unfixably break down.

He passed various neighbors with a smile and a nod; Katherine Doors came by from the big pre-Change barn where all the households kept their milch-cows along with the communal straining-tub, barrel-churn and cream separator; two big plastic buckets of milk rode at either end of a yoke over her shoulders. Several interested cats followed her, noses and tails up as they traced the swaying of the pails and hoped for a spill.

"This is working a treat, Sam, just like you said it would," she called, tapping the fingers of her steadying hand on the smooth garry-oak stave he'd carved for her. "Saves a lot of work."

"You're welcome, Kate," he said.

Everything's relative, he thought silently. Those buckets must weigh eighty pounds, together. But it was saving a good many trips back and forth. At least Dun Fairfax had piped water to everyone's kitchen.

He circled the old two-car garage of the Fairfax house, now a spinning-and-weaving room. What had been the backyard of the house was his wife's herb-garden, with roses trained up against trellises on the walls, and a bordering edge of dahlias and peonies; Edain waited with the dogs, suddenly a little apprehensive as he looked down at the state of his shoes and kilt. Man and girl walked down the brick pathway to the kitchen door, savoring the good cooking odors that came out the opened window, and stamping to get the mud off their soles. The leather went splat on the wet brick and Tamar suddenly started kangaroo-hopping down the path, giggling as she landed, her bow held over her head in both hands, and her brother joined her.

"Boots! Boots, all of you!" his wife Melissa cried, sticking her head out a window; she was a comfortable-looking woman in her late thirties, with a halo of yellow-brown curls just touched with the first gray strands. "I cleaned the floors for Ostara while you were gone and I'm not doing it again!"

Aylward snorted. Wipe yer web feet, ninny! he heard, remembering his mother's voice when he came in from the fields with his father.

"And watch out for the hob's milk!"

His mother had put out a bowl too, come to think of it—ostensibly for the barn-cats, though, rather than the house-hob, but the moggies around here wouldn't mind who got the credit for emptying it.

"Edain! That kilt was clean this morning! You were supposed to be with your father, not rolling with the pigs! Get to the bathroom and clean up this instant. And don't you aw, Mom me, you young hooligan!"

Melissa's own mother was speaking in the background; Aylward groaned a little inwardly at that. Eleanor was...

Not quite stark raving bonkers; but not quite normal, either, since the Change.

"Why potatoes with the meat again, dear?" she asked Aylward's wife. "Wouldn't some nice steamed rice be pleasant for a change?"

Melissa growled, and he heard something heavy slammed down on a counter:

"Mother! Yes, I'd like to use rice. And coffee and chocolate. But we don't have any! We don't grow any. We don't know anyone who grows any!"

Eleanor's voice went on as if she hadn't spoken: "And all this butter with the vegetables, and cooking with all this cream, it's a little heavy, isn't it? You've got to watch your figure, with the baby coming. It's so difficult to lose weight again afterwards."

Tamar glanced at him and rolled her eyes as he waited for a second with his hand on the latch, mouthing silently:

Grandma's nutsoid today and it's making Mom nutsoid.

Melissa's voice rose and something slammed on a counter, even harder this time:

"I got up at five o'clock this morning to milk the cows, including Kathy's cows because she carried the milk for me. Then I helped make breakfast for eleven people. Then I spent the morning working in a five-acre garden. And collecting eggs and feeding our chickens. Then because I'm pregnant, I got to sit down all afternoon in the garage, weaving so we'd have clothes next winter, and in the intervals I can look after Richie and help get dinner for twelve ready, and if I weren't pregnant I'd have been out planting potatoes! And this is the easy part of the year! I need every calorie I eat! And if you can't help, get out of the way!"

He heard the sound of feet rushing off, and Melissa's half-guilty sigh. Tamar and Aylward obediently used the scrapers and brush kept beside the door, then went in and let the spring bang it closed, blinking a little at the bright lamplight and buffing their soles one last time on the interior rug mat. His wife waved from the direction of the stove where she was stirring the soup, and he turned to put his spear in brackets above head-height. His bows hung there too, and the belt with his sword and dirk and buckler, and the rest of the household's weapons—you had to be careful with your killing-tools when there were toddlers about.

"Sorry," Melissa said to him over her shoulder from the huge cast-iron woodstove with its attached bread-oven and water-heater.

It was the envy of Dun Fairfax. Compared to an electric range, it was primitive. Compared to cooking over an open hearth...

"Not your fault she's barmy, luv. She forget the Change 'appened again?" Aylward said.

"She remembers, when she wants to," Melissa said, then made herself relax, with a visible effort. "Sorry if I was sniveling about things. But if I can adjust to this, why can't she? And when she gets like this, it makes me remember, and I don't want to."

"It's all what you're used to. Easier for me, considering the way I was raised."

Melissa laughed. "I should count my blessings, then. Dinner's nearly ready. Everyone should be down in a moment."

He'd knocked down some partitions to make the kitchen larger; it had plenty of room for a table that seated twelve, with benches on either side, a seat at each end for him and his wife and a lantern slung from the roof above. Right now a braided equal-armed straw cross hung not far from it, for the Ostara blessing—the images of the Lord and Lady over the hearth were year-round. A high-chair stood beside one of the seats; Richard Aylward came stumping across the floor, chubby arms outstretched.

"Daaaada!" he caroled. His father swept him up; he wiggled delightedly, then stretched his arms out to his half-sister. "Tama-tamaaar!" Then to the dogs, who stood looking up at him, giving tongue-lolling grins full of the mild benevolence of canines faced with puppies or infants, wagging their tails:

"Gri'-gri-gri!" which might do for either of their names.

"Well, I can see who you prefer, Dickie," Aywlard said, setting the boy down. "Romp away, then." The two-year old said his favorite word—no!—and then fell to with a will.

"How did the last lambing go?" Melissa asked.

Tamar played with her brother and the dogs on the floor. Edain came back in, his light hair sticking up in three or four directions, despite last-minute attempts to slick it down with his fingers, then joined them.

"The delivery went well enough, love," he said, wandering over. "After I turned the lamb. Fair bollixed up to start with, it was, and no mistake."

A small wooden keg rested in an X-trestle of boards on the counter, with mugs on shelves above; he took one down and tapped himself some beer. He'd paid Dennis up at Dun Juniper for it with hops and barley, since the man had the true brewer's knack and Aylward didn't.

"Want one, love?"

"Later, thanks, when I can sit still and enjoy it. The ewe's OK?"

"Dolly's fine, and the lamb should live. Larry shouldn't have had to deal with the whole flock, not this time of year, not the way it's grown. He's well enough with a birthing ewe, but Tamar will learn the way of it better, I think. We might put her and, mmm, young Hickock to work helping him when school's out for summer."

She grinned over her shoulder and whispered. "Not matchmaking, are you?"

"Lord and Lady forbid!" he answered, equally quiet. "Though she and Billy Hickock get on well enough. Give it six or seven years, though."

The rest of the household came in, from the other rooms or from work outside, and busied themselves setting out the cutlery and butter and bread and beer amid a cheerful crackle of conversation about the day's work and gossip and the Ostara dance that would be held in the big threshing-barn after supper. There was Eleanor, over her temper now, Aunt Joan—a nice enough old bird, and unlike her older sister fully functional thank God—and the aunt's two children, a boy named Harry about eighteen and a girl called Jeanette a little younger; also two unrelated young men from Sutterdown and their wives, working for him to get experience while they saved up to start and stock their own crofts; one of the wives had a new baby and the other was expecting, but not as far along as Melissa.

Not a bad crew, he thought. And very helpful around the farm.

As the First Armsman he could call on the other households to fill in for him when he was called off on duty by the Chief, and they could deduct it from their dues to the Clan in turn. It wouldn't even cause much resentment, given how the rest of them had leaned on him for teach-and-show in the early years, when they were learning the farmer's trade. Still, he preferred to manage from his own resources as much as he could—nobody liked having to neglect their own land. The last of the spring plowing was still to do, barley and potatoes to plant...

Though all the youthful energy makes me feel me own age now and then, right enough.

He snaffled off a roll from a pan Melisssa had just taken out, tossing it in one callused hand until it was cool enough to eat; it had been a long time since bread and cheese in the saddle at noon, and the steaming-fresh wholemeal was good enough to eat without butter. She smiled sideways at him while she held the oven door open and prodded the meat, then stood and gave him a kiss; a little awkwardly, since she was six months along.

"That's ready... make yourself useful then, Sam," she said. "We're supposed to eat it at the table, you know."

The main dish was a roast of pork; the Smiths had slaughtered recently, and everyone swapped around to even out the fresh meat. He lifted the pan out and set it aside to stand for a few minutes before he carved, while Melissa made the gravy; the side-dishes were potatoes roasted in the juices, and winter vegetables—boiled parsnips and carrots in a butter sauce, sauerkraut from the crocks in the cellar, and a dried-apple pie with whipped cream for desert, since he'd finally managed to track down a hand-cranked beater whose owner felt like swapping for a bow.

He brought the great pot of soup to the table first, nose twitching, and ladled it into the bowls handed up. It was potato-and-cream, with bits of onion and densely-flavored chunks of bacon that had been cured over applewood in an old Aylward family recipe.

Melissa seated herself at the other end of the table, and said the blessing—another advantage of Wicca, he'd found, was that you could shove off things like that on the lady of the household. He put his spoon to the soup, and lifted it—

"Sam! Sam!"

"Oh, bugger," Aylward said, at the shout and the sound of a fist pounding at the door; then he blew on the soup and swallowed hastily.

Larry Smith stuck his head in, the fog-beads in his chinbeard glistening. "Sorry, but something took one of the sheep, one of yours—a wether. I didn't hear anything, but Lurp—" the collie "—started barking. There's blood-sign but I couldn't pick up any tracks. It's down in the corner of the field, by the road."

"Bloody hell," Aylward sighed. Then: "You did the right thing."

Larry had been a bookseller before the Change, but he was a fair tracker; he'd actually hunted deer a fair bit even then, and more since; the former was surprising to an English way of thinking, but the Yanks had a lot more woodland than old Blighty. That meant there probably really weren't any obvious tracks.

"It could be anything, dogs or a big cat or some human dinlo," Aylward said.

Men were least likely; it would be bold bandits who went this deep into Mackenzie territory, and such wouldn't settle for one sheep. They'd go for horses and cattle, more valuable and easier to drive off, and for bicycles, tools, cloth, stored food.

Or it might be a trap meant to draw us off and then raid the dun.

"Get—" he thought, mentally crossing off the stumble-footed, feeble and incompetent, women pregnant or nursing, and a few steady types to keep an eye on things here "—yourself, Bob, Alice, Steve, Jerry, and Carl. Full kit, but spears, not bows. It's going to be too dark to shoot worth shiite and I wouldn't want to tangle with a cat in the dark without a nice big cat-sticker. Double guard on the wall and everyone else can kit up too, just in case. Meet me at the gate."

Larry nodded, turned and dashed back out. Aylward turned. "Wally, you come with me. Shane, Deirdre, Allison, Nancy, you kit up but head for the walls with the others—it might be a trick. Lively!"

"Probably just a hungry dog gone wild," he said to the rest at the table. "But we have to check."

A few of the youngsters on the verge of adulthood looked mutinous about being left out of the search party, but they knew better than to complain openly—this was something that came under his authority as an Armsman, and he didn't tolerate indiscipline.

Someone did mutter plaintively: "Does this mean the dance is off?"

He pulled on his arming doublet, still wet and smelly, and swung his brigandine down from its hook on the wall; the accordion pleat in the leather along the left side let you put it on over your head like a jersey, and then tighten it and strap the catches. Then his sword-belt, a bow—he took down and strung his hunting weapon, an eighty-pound popper, better suited to this work than the great war-bow—plus quiver and spear; he left the cheekpieces of the helmet pushed back for a moment.

Melissa and a few of the others had been busy cutting and buttering bread and slicing meat while those he'd named armed themselves. She wrapped the bundle in a cloth and put it into the haversack, then clipped that to the rings on the back of his brigandine and handed him a piece of the pork—the outer cut of the roast with some of the crackling, his favorite.

"You be careful, Sam," she said.

Wally and he knelt and bent their heads briefly as she made a sign over them and went on:

"Through darkened wood and shadowed path

Hunter of the Forest, by your side

Lady of the Stars, fold you in her wings

So mote it be!"

Then: "I'll put the soup back on to keep hot."

"Thanks, luv," he said.

He gave her another kiss, longer this time, nodded to his children, then stuffed the meat into his mouth as he turned to the door, dogs eager at his heels.

There were tendrils of mist outside, thickening even as he watched. Which would combine with the darkness to make tracking through the woods a total joy...

Could be worse, he thought, chewing on the savory slice. Could be raining.

 

@@@

 

Juniper perched on her carved oak and walnut chair cross-legged and made the fiddle sing, swinging into the quick jaunty beat of Mi ni Nollage, with the bohdran and the flute accompanying her, and a guitar backing up her flourishes, and the sweet wild tones of the ullean pipes behind it all.

Lanterns and candles lit the ground floor of what had been her great-uncle's lodge and her home, before they rebuilt it and added the upper story and loft; now it was one great high-ceilinged chamber a hundred and twenty-five feet by thirty, surrounded by verandahs on three sides and with doors to the new kitchens flanking the hearth in the middle of the north face. The walls were packed with people in their festival best, and more hung through the windows, leaving an oval clear in the middle of the room; all the adults and adolescents who lived in Dun Juniper were making merry tonight, plus many guests from other parts of the Clan's holdings, and a few from outside it. Cedarwood logs crackled in the big stone fireplace, scenting the air.

"Well, come on, you cowards!" she called to them all. "The music's for dancing to, isn't it? We're tapping our feet on the earth to waken Her from sleep!"

The last set had been youngsters doing a lively jig—Chuck and Judy Barstow's adoptees, Mary and Daniel and Sanjay, plus their friends, all in their late teens and enthusiastic. This beat was faster and more complex, though; she looked around the room as she fiddled, to see who'd attempt it.

It's changed a good deal and no mistake.

The logs of the walls had been smoothed and carved in colored running knot-work and faces over the years since the Change—the Green Man peering out through a riot of branches, stag-antlered Cernnunos, goat-horned Pan; Brigit and Cerwidden and Arianrhod and more. In the wood around the upper band and over the hearth were set the symbols of the Quarters; comfrey and ivy and sheaves of grain for North and the Earth; vervain and yarrow for Air and the East; red poppies and nettles for the South and Fire; ferns and rushes and water-lillies for West and the Waters.

Eyes shone in the light of pastel candles and lamps set in wrought-iron brackets, hung tonight with ribbons in the same colors, plus baskets of colored eggs. Wreaths of flowers were on many heads, and woven-straw crosses hung from the ceiling—equal-armed, Brigit's crosses, for the Wheel of the Sun. A shout of laughter rose as the Jack-in-the-Green came prancing through. That was young Dave Trent, although you weren't supposed to remember his name tonight; he wore a tight green body-stocking sewn all over with vines and leaves, a snub-nosed grinning wooden mask with gilded carved leaves for hair, and flourished a vine-stock wand. The way he handled it made phallic symbol entirely plain to the slowest perceptions, and so did his early-Elvis pelvic gyrations. Then a mob of girls and young women tried to grab him—or touch the wand, which was lucky, especially if you wanted to conceive—and he bounded out with comically exaggerated terror and a goat-bleat that Juniper matched with a long note on her fiddle before swinging back into the tune.

The tables had been taken out with the last of supper, but the doors to the kitchens were still pulled back, and trays came out laden with pastries shaped like rabbits with raisins for eyes, dried-fruit confection and slices of cake, along with mugs of herb-flavored mead and Dennie's foaming beer and glasses of wine. Hands sought hands...

I'd be guessing we're going to have a fine crop of new Mackenzies come Yule... Well, it is a fertility festival, is it not? she thought with a wide grin. The young God rises ready and randy to wed the Maiden!

Happy shouts came through the wide-open front doors as someone leapt over one of the fires for luck; the night was cool, but the body-heat and the blaze on the hearth and the lanterns kept it warm enough in the hall that the breeze from outdoors was welcome. She heard the stepping of feet in time to the music, scuffing on the ground and tapping up the stairs and over the floorboards of the verandah, and cried greeting with the rest as Astrid and Eilir burst through the door and out into the open space, making someone taking a shortcut to the jakes dodge aside.

They were both in kilts and singlets and light dancing shoes with jeweled buckles, their hair done up in braids under the feathered Scots bonnets, and long staffs in their hands. Eilir loved dancing, taking her cues from the movements of the musicians and her partners and from vibration felt through the soles of her feet; and Whoever had presided over Astrid's cradle had filled with extra physical grace the portion of her that should have contained common sense.

Ah, the Dance of the Spears, Juniper thought as they went across the floor in file, their feet flashing in unison, twirling the long poles like batons in blurring arcs, left hand on hip...

Sweet Goddess! she realized, almost but not quite startled enough to lose the beat; then she didn't dare alter a note.

Those weren't props; they were real battle spears, seven feet of stout ashwood and sharp-edged steel, as deadly in reality as the legendary Gae Bulg of the Sedanta was in story. One slip—or even one bad stroke of her own fiddle-bow throwing the dancers off their stride—

The tune went faster and faster, and they switched to a face-to-face posture; mock-combat, synched to the rhythm, and a ting! as steel met steel and crack! as wood met wood, leaping, whirling, feet blurring as fast as the silver arcs of the spearheads. Across the room her eyes met the wide, appalled and unbelieving gaze of Chuck Barstow, who'd practiced with edged weapons for years before the Change and every day after it. The crowd gasped; now the two were whirling the spears wrist-over-wrist like quarterstaves as they danced, moving them in huge figure-eights and then leaping into the air and letting the momentum pirouette them completely around one last time, kilts flying up to show the strong slender thighs. The spears slowed as they each went down on one knee facing Juniper, the polished heads out and nearly touching the floor as the music crashed to its finish.

The two young faces grinned up at her, sweat-slick and happy, and the crowd were up and cheering and stamping. Astrid and Eilir handed the spears off to their friends—

Accomplices! Juniper thought, torn between pride and fury.

—and stood, arms around each other's shoulders, free arms waving as they turned to take the applause. Rudi dashed out to hug his sister, and the two of them grabbed him and tossed him up between them, throwing him nearly to the ceiling.

A sudden pang took her heart as she looked at them; could life offer them better than this moment? Eilir her heart, and Astrid who she loved nearly as well.

Certainly there's more and better; they're at the springtide of their lives, she thought. Loves and children of their own, and the wisdom of age, and then the Summerlands...

Though there were likely to be problems there. They weren't lovers, as many assumed—in fact, they found the thought inexpressibly funny, and Eilir had been dragging the odd boy into the bushes these four years past.

It would be easier if they were, Juniper thought. They're everything but that to each other, which leaves little enough room for a man, or at least a man you'd want.

For a moment a thought moved in her, formless as roiling cloud, and she closed her eyes: then her will gave it words and purpose. She murmured beneath her breath, moving her hands in certain symbols:

"Sweet foam-born Cyprian, send them each the love that will be best for them. As the Young God rises to wed You in this season, to each send him, send him on the wings of Your wind, send him on the tides of Your sea." Then, surprising herself: "And for me also. By Your Cauldron, by the spear of the Hornéd Lord, by the joining of the two that brings all creation, so mote it be!"

She could feel the spell-prayer leave her like a dart cast into a tempest; feel it born up by winds that smelled of apple-blossom and fresh-cut hay and somehow also of musk and heat. Laughter sounded in her ears, proud and fond.

The thought barely had time to bring unease when there was a buzz of comment from outside, and the sound of the gate-horn. Seconds later a youngster ran into the Hall, panting and disheveled and slightly damp; she stopped to take a deep breath and smooth down her kilt and plaid before she came to Juniper in the high seat and shyly dipped knee and head, pulling off her bonnet.

Why, it's Melissa's Tamar! Juniper thought. Must have run all the way up from Dun Fairfax.

It wasn't that far, even counting the way the hidden direct path wound back and forth up the hillside, but it was steep and awkward in the dark.

"Lady Juniper," she said. "My Dad, he's sent me with a message. Private message."

The girl was fairly bursting with the importance of her mission, and Juniper smiled indulgently.

"Is i an eoma nua tú a fheiciáil, Tamar. You're as welcome as the first shoots of barley, and every Mackenzie has a right to speak to the Chief."

She signaled the other musicians to keep going, laid down her fiddle and bent a little to let the girl whisper in her ear; more dancers moved out onto the floor, and the bustle built back.

"He says you should come. Come with Chuck, he said, and no more others than you must. He's found something you need to see."

 

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