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THE PROTECTOR'S WAR

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


CHAPTER NINE:

 

Dun Fairfax, Willamette Valley, Oregon

March 21st, 2007 AD/Change Year 9

 

"Where's it to, Larry?" Aylward said.

"Over this way, by the road."

The Dun Fairfax party rose out of the mist like waders from water as they went up the low rise in the center of the pasture, then sank again as they walked down towards the fenceline, the vapor rising up shin and thigh and torso like an impalpable gray sea. Aylward waited for an instant before he descended into it, straining his eyes against the gathering dark, but there was nothing to see. The spearpoints of those ahead of him were last to disappear, right after the spray of raven-feathers at the clasp of a man's Scots bonnet. The air was cool and clammy-wet against his skin, perfect for carrying smells. Garm and Grip were getting excited at the scents, quivering-eager but too well-mannered to bark out of turn.

"Around here," the shepherd said as they slowed and the fence loomed out of the fog like a darker shadow in the gray-black.

"Just a bit of light, then," Aylward said.

Then as the shutter of the bullseye stayed open too wide and too long, glowing through the mist:

"I said just a bit, Larry!"

"Sorry, Sam."

"You can close the shutter now."

Aylward went to one knee, leaning on his ash-wood spear, and touched the bloodstain. The tacky, slightly lumpy feel was unmistakable when he put his fingertips to the wet ground and rubbed thumb over forefingers; so was the smell when he brought them to his nose. When the moon broke free of a cloud the ground had the black glistening look that blood-crimson took on in low light.

And I know that look, now don't I just? I know it bloody well. His smile was grim.

This edge of the pasture was down near the southwest corner; just over that was the road out into the Valley proper, with Artemis Creek running along its southern side. There was a dense belt of trees along the running water, a narrow strip of grassy field, and then the steep forested hillside, covered in Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Night and the damp air brought out the scents; turned earth from the field of spring-planted barley just west, and stock and woodsmoke from behind them, an intense sap-laden forest breath from the south, chilly and wet and green.

It also made his left thigh ache a bit, where the Argentine bullet had broken the big bone back in '82, and his right shoulder as well—he'd spent days with it dislocated, lying at the bottom of a ravine, before Juniper Mackenzie stumbled over him back just after the Change. He'd recovered full function, but it still hurt in damp cold weather.

Well, you were forty then and forty-eight now, he told himself. Not a lad anymore; old flesh doesn't heal like young. Learn to like it; when you're hurting, you're not dead. Aloud he went on, pointing south towards the road:

"That's where they've gone. Over the lane, over the water, and up."

"You think it's people?" Larry Smith asked.

"Stands to reason, doesn't it? There's blood, lots of it, but no bits of wool or skin like an animal would have left. Someone cut that wether's throat, let it bleed out, and then ran off with it. They'll not go straight down the road westward, because that leads into open country—my oath, that's probably the direction they came from. And Dun Juniper's up on the slope to the north. So they'll go south, up the hill, before they work back towards the lowlands. That's if they've any bloody idea where they are at all."

He looked around. Even the men close to him were simply darker patches in the misty night. Once over the river and among the trees, it would be like standing inside a closet—except that in a closet you didn't have to chance a branch taking your eye out, and you generally weren't in the company of men carrying razor-edged blades on the ends of awkward poles.

"Everyone, be careful with the stickers, all right?"

He was glad he'd told everyone to kit up. The brigandines were twenty-five pounds of inconvenience each, but they didn't make any noise and they'd be extremely helpful if someone did accidentally run his spearhead into a neighbor. Plus they'd be very helpful if it came to a tussle. Any mixup would be at arm's length; even Sam Aylward couldn't shoot well in pitch-dark.

"Spread out so you're just in touch, and please, don't any bloody fool get lost, right? And keep it quiet."

"Aye, sor," someone said, in an excruciating Mummerset growl. "As ye wish."

Aylward snorted quietly to himself as he wiped his hand on a clean patch of grass and dried it on his kilt. One thing the post-Change, Oregon-version Clan Mackenzie had in spades was bad put-on British accents, most of them sounding like they were out of old pirate movies by way of Monty Python, and the closer you got to Dun Juniper the more of them you heard.

Although I'll grant that Lady Juniper herself can do a perfectly authentic County Mayo brogue when she wants to. And of course I'm an 'ampshire 'og of the purest breed—seven hundred years of Crooksbury farmers.

The imitators, though... He supposed the others had caught it from the re-enactors and Renaissance Faire types who'd made up much of her original circle. What they'd all end up sounding like a few generations down the road when the soup had had some chance to simmer didn't bear thinking about...

He turned to the dogs, whistling softly. "Garm! Grip! Take the scent. Seek, boys. Seek!"

The dogs were more dark shapes weaving in and out of the mist, but he could hear their interested snuffles. Then they stopped, muzzles to the ground; he moved up between them, watching their black nostrils quiver over the grasses that bent down under the beads of moisture that condensed on them. Garm growled low in his broad chest, and they began to move purposefully to the south.

"Slow, boys. Slow!"

He'd hunted the dogs long enough and trained them well enough that they knew not to leave the humans behind. The boards of the fence loomed up out of the dark, and there was a clatter and someone's mild curse as they climbed it, cut off by a sharp shush! A little more light glimmered on the graveled road; the white dust and rock seemed to glow, and the drifts of fog moved with a breeze from the west. The group halted at his sssst!—they weren't SAS troopers by any manner of means, but he'd been training the clan in general and this lot in particular for nine years now, and the most of them hunted for the pot on their own quite frequently. The dogs cast about again, zigzagging across the road with concentrated attention, then moving off eastward; after a moment they doubled back and halted where a trail took off from the road and plunged through the creekside trees.

Now isn't that interesting? he thought. Whoever it was missed the trail down to the water, then turned back and got it. Right... straight down to the river, eh, boys?

They all moved down through the brush, breath and feet loud in his ears. "Larry, let's have the light again for a second—the rest of you keep your sodding boots back, will you?"

There were tracks this time, amid the mud and trampled ferns of the creekside. Aylward grounded his spear and crouched, his hand pointing to direct the light.

"Well, cor' stone the crows," the Englishman said mildly. "It's a tribal migration, it is."

He turned to the others. "They stopped here."

"More than one?"

"Six at least, mate," Aylward said, indicating tracks with the point of his spear. "Eight, more likely. What's more, a couple of them were youngsters—see the bare footprint there? Six-year-old or thereabouts. There's four different sets of shoes, only one without holes in 'em."

There was a murmur from the others. A thought struck him. Aylward cast his mind back; yes, there was just enough time, given that Lady Juniper and party had stopped overnight at several duns and for a whole day in Sutterdown despite Ostara being so close. Herself had stayed with the local Baptist minister, Reverend Jennings, at that. Pointedly driving home a point about toleration of the suddenly-minority faith.

Separation of Covenstead and State, was the way she'd put it.

Coming cross-country from the spot east of Salem, there was just enough time...

"I think I may know who this is," he said slowly. "But I could be wrong. On the one hand, they have kids with them. On 't other, they could be bandits or even Eaters. So let's be careful, shall we?"

The water was nearly to the waist and snarling-cold as they crossed the ford, snowmelt from the high mountains to the east, enough to numb his thighs and feet and set at least one set of teeth chattering. There was nothing to be done about that; the dogs didn't seem to mind at least, porpoising up on the other bank and shaking themselves vigorously in the murk. One advantage of kilts was that you could hold them up out of the wet, and the merely-damp wool cloth felt good went he let it go again on the other side and it swung down to his knees.

"That settles it," he said, when the dogs picked up the scent again. "If they were regulars at sheep-lifting, they'd have waded upstream to break their trail. They just went across and scarpered."

"Wade upstream? In this?" stuttered the one whose teeth had chattered; he was rail-thin, an ex-architecture student who'd wandered in years ago.

"Better to be cold than caught, Carl-me-lad," he said. "And they won't be far. Not carrying that weight of mutton, and hungry with it. And with children. It's getting cold, too. They'll figure nobody'll be after them, and stop to cook it and eat. Now quiet."

They moved on through the woods and up the steep slope at an angle, a dense forest of tall candle-straight trunks, Douglas fir and Western Hemlock interspersed with brush and yew, the weed-tree of the understory. There was a method to it; you didn't try to hurry, or be absolutely silent—that was impossible. Instead you stopped after you'd made a noise, waited for a second or two, then went on again. A forest at night was full of noises if you knew what to listen for, creak and crackle and vegetable groaning, the drip of moisture from that afternoon's rain, the clicks and whirrs of dark's creatures, the whoo-whit! of an owl, the far-off yipping of a coyote. Footfalls and the occasional crackling of a branch could fit right in, especially if the ones listening weren't woods-wise.

The dogs whuffled, coursing back and forth—faintly contemptuous of how slow humans were, he sometimes thought. The slope grew steeper, and he carefully used the metal spike on the butt of the spear to anchor himself.

Soon.

Garm and Grip froze, a little ahead of him and to either side, their noses pointing like the sides of a triangle. All he had to do was draw the lines out into the night; he even recognized where he was, a bit where the angle of the slope went from forty-five degrees to a more comfortable twenty or so for a brief space. For getting to know the lay of the land even the best scouting didn't equal living it for years and hunting over it regularly.

His ssssst! froze everyone in place. He left the spear and eeled forward on his belly for a dozen feet, and his dark-accustomed eyes caught light—low, reddish, more reflected off overhead branches than seen directly. He took a long deep breath through his nose, and caught the unmistakable scent of roasting meat. When he went backward Larry Smith and Alice Dennison were waiting close enough to see his hand signals, and to pass them on. He waited while the clock in his head ticked, and wiped his hands on his kilt to make sure they wouldn't be slippery when he grasped the ashwood of the spear.

"Now," he said, in his ordinary conversational voice—whispers carried further.

He stood and walked forward, the spear grasped like a rifle-and-bayonet combination. His teeth skinned back a little; he'd used the bayonet, in the Falklands—that had been his first taste of action.

The figures seated around the low fire were intent on the meat grilling across the coals; the little spurts of fire when a drop of fat fell and hit them illuminated faces. Two men, shaggy-bearded; a trio of women... no, one was a girl, sixteen, seventeen at most. Two older kids huddled together under a scrap of canvas, holding it over their heads to make an improvised tent with the open end towards the fire, while two infants lay wrapped like papooses between them.

Proper lot of gallibaggers, he thought, looking at their scarecrow rags and gaunt faces.

The yearling sheep had been butchered with some skill, and a rack of ribs rested above a net of green branches; the kidneys and liver were on sticks, and almost ready. Everyone in the little party watched the food with a dreadful single-minded intensity, the youngsters whimpering now and then.

Until they heard the footsteps, and saw light breaking off the honed edges of the spears. The children shrieked, but the adults and teenager sprang up—an improvised spear, an axe, branch-clubs, stones, the girl with a good knife.

"Hold it!" Aylward barked. "Nobody do anything bloody stupid, and nobody needs to get hurt. Drop the stickers. Throw down! Now!"

He watched the adults count the spearheads, and turn to see that they were ringed around. The man with the hoe-spear slumped in despair as he let it fall; there were thuds and thumps as the others followed suit. The girl, he noted carefully, sheathed her knife rather than following the letter of his instructions.

"Look, mister," the fair bearded man said. "Look, please..." Then anger burst into his voice: "What harm have we ever done you?"

"You're eating our sheep," Aylward observed.

"Our kids are hungry, goddammit!"

"Ours aren't," Aylward said. "One of the reasons they're not hungry is that we don't let people steal our sheep... Wait a bit, though. Were you lot up north a couple of days ago? Running away from a right nasty little sod who calls himself Baron Liu? Keeps company with a big bugger called Mack?"

The man gaped at him, and the others clutched each other. "How'd you know?"

One of the others grabbed at a crucifix and whimpered. Aylward grinned at that. There were enough rumors about Lady Juniper's people in the free sections of the Valley; he supposed it was natural the Protector should be spreading propaganda about them in his bailiwick, and using his puppet Church to spread the message. Enough of his subjects ran off as it was. Telling them tales about the Wicked Witches would be a cheap way of keeping them home and working.

"Because I was there, you dozy burke!" he said genially. "If you'd just stopped after that, we'd have seen you right. We're the Mackenzies. If you'd asked for help, you'd have gotten it."

That seemed to frighten them more, and the women clutched at their children.

"You shouldn't believe all you hear," Alice Dennison said. Then: "By Cernunnos and the sweet Lady, Sam, these folks aren't a threat to anyone but that sheep, and it's dead already."

The teenager spoke. "Jeff, Miguel, we shouldn't believe anything the Protector or the Baron or their tame priests told us."

That seemed to get home, but these people had been afraid so long that it had become a habit, and one probably hard to break.

"Right," he sighed, and grounded his spear.

Then he reached back into his haversack and pulled out the bundle Melissa had made up for him. "This is ready to eat. Have your cruncheon on me."

He tossed it, and the cloth-wrapped food fell at the teenager's feet with a thump. She didn't waste any time, and when the others saw the bread and meat, and the roast potatoes and twist of salt his wife had packed, their resistance crumbled. The other members of the Dun Fairfax party followed his example. The adult fugitives looked as if they felt like crying as they crammed roast pork and cheese and hard-boiled eggs into their mouths; the children stopped crying as they were fed.

"Careful there," Aylward said. "Don't do yourself an injury."

One of the women nodded, and made the children slow down—by main force, mainly. The teenager had been pacing herself from the start. She had striking light eyes, and they met his levelly.

"Do you know the Queen of Witches?" she asked.

"Yes, love, but she wouldn't be overjoyed to hear you call her that," he said. "Lady Juniper's good enough. Sam Aylward's my name."

"Aylward the Archer?" one of the men asked, sounding incredulous.

"I shoot a bit now and then, yes. And you're not four miles from Dun Juniper right now, and herself's in residence."

That got attention, even through the food. The two men looked at each other, but the girl didn't hesitate; instead she stood up and approached him, holding out a squarish bundle wrapped in coarse cloth.

"I took this from the castle," she said. "Baron Gervaise's castle. From the office. I was part of the cleaning staff."

Ah, Aylward thought, taking it and stripping off the container. Probably his bar bills. On the other hand, it might explain why he was out after this lot personal-like.

Larry Smith stepped up and shone the bullseye on the pages. His eyes opened wider, and Aylward gave a long whistle. The text was in some sort of code, but the maps were plain enough.

"Alice," he said, rewrapping it. "You know your way back?"

"Hell, yes, Sam."

"Get back to the dun, then. Send someone to Lady Juniper and tell her to come—to bring Chuck, and no more else than she must, and come quickly. We'll get these people back to my place," he concluded. "And everyone, don't chatter on about what you've seen. Alice, you hop to it!"

Alice nodded, tossed her spear to her husband and went downslope in a controlled fall. Aylward looked at the quasi-prisoners and sighed as he stuffed the documents into his haversack. Garm and Grip had discovered the guts and head of the sheep, and looked up at him questioningly, waiting for permission. Aylward used the blade of his spear to crack open the skull for them, and they dove in noisily as he stabbed the steel into the earth to rough-clean it.

"All right, you two go first," he said to the male refugees. "And we'll carry the kids, ladies. Someone pack up the meat from that wether. No sense in letting it go to waste."

 

@@@

 

The direct way down the steep scarp to Dun Fairfax was rough, twisting back and forth through the darkened forest; it had been a logging road, long ago. That was why most traffic took the longer U-shaped route westward along Artemis Creek, then north with it and so onto the bench that held Dun Juniper, even though it tripled the distance. But the horse knew this trail, and Juniper Mackenzie did as well from long years before the Change. She still took it slowly, as mist curled between the great trees, flattening the sound of hooves; the moist air beaded on her hooded cloak, and more dripped from branches over the trail. Tamar clung, perched behind her with her arms around Juniper's waist, and three more horses followed; she'd pulled the tail of the cloak around the girl to give her a little extra protection. It was made of unfulled wool—with the natural grease left in the fiber and then the thread hard-woven—and it shed water nearly as well as a pre-Change rain slicker. Those were getting worn and brittle and hard to find, and weren't nearly as good at keeping you warm. It did smell rather strongly of lanolin, though, particularly when it was wet.

Wet wool, wet horse, wet me, Juniper thought, as the fog drank the dull sound of hooves on soft dirt, and moisture dripped on them as steadily as rain. Just when I'd gotten comfortable again. This had better be good, Sam!

Under that went a chill. She knew it would be. Sam wasn't the sort to start at shadows... unless something important was doing the shadow-casting.

They came out of the woods, and Tamar hopped down lithely to open the gate in the plank fence that edged the Dun Fairfax farmlands. Then she trotted along beside Juniper's horse, one hand gripping the stirrup-leather to ease her pace, tireless as a yearling deer. The gates of the dun were abustle, with people standing about and dogs barking and lanterns burning bright; the hum of conversation rose as the riders from Dun Juniper drew near.

Juniper stood in the stirrups and held up a hand: "Merry met," she said, and then waved down the greetings. When silence fell, she went on: "I know you're all fair ruptured with curiosity, Mackenzies... but as a favor to me, could you keep it quiet for a wee bit?"

"That means keep your sodding mouths shut," Sam said as he came out of the gate, genially enough, but with an edge to it.

There were murmurs at that; the folk of her clan tended to be talkative, and to love argument and assembly and debate—it had become as much a mark of a Mackenzie as shooting skillfully with the bow. Probably they'd caught it from her original core group of coveners and re-creationists, who could talk black into white and up into down, and loved to do it. Plus it was entertainment to replace TV.

On the other hand, they also tended to take what she said seriously, sometimes excessively so. The little crowd broke up as people went back to their homes—doubtless to hash over the events of the evening, but at least they weren't getting in the way. Most of them would delight in keeping the news within their own dun, too, and hug a secret close until they couldn't bear it any more.

Sam whistled sharply, and several of his household people came up to collect the horses as the visitors swung down.

"Started with a missing sheep," he said quietly to her as they walked towards his house. "And from there—"

"Hmmm," she replied when he was done. "Let's go see."

"And they're frightened at the name of you, Lady Juniper. But most anxious to see you, as well."

"Not the first time it's been like that."

"Not a bad bunch. They made it out with Baron Liu chasing them, after all."

"Thanks to Eilir and Astrid," she said quietly, looking over her shoulder at the pair in question. As well try to keep water from flowing downhill as keep those two out of it. "But I see your point."

"Plus some little things... they've been eating short for years and running hard on next to nothing for days now, but we didn't have to stop them from rupturing themselves. Thanked us polite-like when we used the bolt cutters on those dog-collars."

Juniper nodded, and took off her cloak to shake free the moisture before she walked into the warm, well-lit space of Aylward's hearth-room and hung the garment on a peg; there was a mat underneath to catch drips. Then she made a gesture with one hand and bowed her head towards the family altar over the fireplace.

Melissa Aylward smiled as her kin cleaned away plates and bowls. "Merry met and welcome to our home, Lady of the Clan," she said, and extended a plate and cup.

"Merry met and thanks, Lady of the Hearth," Juniper replied, taking a cookie and popping it into her mouth—she wasn't hungry, but symbolism was important. The hot mead was soothing, though.

Melissa grinned then, and said less formally: "Sam's always bringing home something that needs cleaning up and feeding, Juney."

"A big softie, under that gruff shell," Juniper agreed.

The children Sam had mentioned were being born off by members of the household, to be bathed—and deloused—and tucked into beds; several of the younger were already lolling-limp into sleep by then, between the warmth and full bellies. Others of those who lived here had suppressed their natural curiosity and scattered off to the rest of the big farmhouse. That left only Sam, her, Chuck, Eilir and Astrid apart from the two refugee couples and the teenager. She looked at them...

Something. Something important. The worm biting its tail, things yet to be casting their shadow through the circles of time...

The power-points of her body flaring in an electric tingle, a cool wind blowing through her mind, a hint of a star-shot darkness that glowed with an inner light... she damped down frustration at the uncertainty of it.

Even to her most beloved child, a mother doesn't reveal all her mind—she can't, because the child can't grasp it yet. How then does the Divine speak to us? In song and myth, dream and vision, like a serpent in a bed of reeds, coil upon counter-coil.

The dark Hispanic-looking man gulped at her green-eyed stare. "Ojos garzos," he said softly, and crossed himself. "The eyes of wizardry."

Juniper shook herself back to the waking world, and remembered discussions she'd had with Jose and Carlita over platters of camarones al mojo de ajo.

"Si," she whispered in his tongue. "Si, garzos, pero para el bien, no el mal. Bruja, si, bruja de los buenos—Sacerdotiza."

He inclined his head. "Queen of Witches."

Her smile grew wry as she swept aside the tail of her plaid and sat, tossed her bonnet on the table and ran her hands through unruly red curls where the first gray threads had made their way this winter past.

"Yes, but that doesn't mean what you think it means. Look, let's be practical, shall we? First, you don't have to worry about the Protector or Baron Liu any more. You're free of them now. We'll find you food and decent homes. And work, but work for yourselves—rely on it—and land of your own eventually. We don't turn anyone away who's running from those... I won't call them swine because it would be an insult to that noble beast the pig, sure."

One of the women buried her face in her hands and began to weep. Juniper suppressed an impulse to give her a hug—more likely to scare than not—and signaled Melissa to lead her away; she'd probably feel better close to the children anyway. The others seemed to slump where they sat.

"We made it," the dark man murmured. "Before God, we actually made it." He crossed himself again. "Even at peril of our souls, it's worth it."

Juniper sighed. "First, Mr... Lopez, isn't it?" He nodded. "We've got freedom of religion here; and we'll help you pass on to the University people, or the Bearkillers, or the good monks at Mt. Angel, if you prefer. Frankly I've been sort of embarrassed at how many people here have taken up the Craft, but there are still Christians among us... why didn't you head for Mt. Angel, by the way? It's closer."

"I think of that first, but too many dam' soldiers in the way," he said frankly. "Those hijos, they kill us all slow, they catch us, even the ninos."

Sam grunted agreement. "The Protectorate's got continuous cavalry patrols along there—and the border's well-marked."

Miguel nodded; he was a stocky brown-skinned man with shaggy hair so dark that it had blue-black highlights. "Si. So Jeff—" he indicated his lanky Anglo companion "—say we should go west first, then turn south before the river, around Salem. Nobody go near there much, too scared. Territorio bandido. Some of the bandidos, they do things for the Baron, too, but we figure we hide better than from soldiers."

"That was wise of you," Juniper said.

She flicked a hand, and Astrid and Eilir sat down on the benches across from the fugitives; Chuck went and poured mugs of beer for everyone, then resumed his stance a little behind Juniper, watchful without being tense—this might be a trick. With four of the most formidable warriors in the Willamette Valley at hand to protect her, Juniper didn't feel particularly threatened. She didn't want the fugitives to feel pressured either, and wasn't sure whether having Chuck behind her in full fig was a good idea, but he certainly thought so and she didn't want to argue about it.

Instead she teased the story out of the three of them. Miguel Lopez had actually been a resident of the town of Gervaise before the Change and had managed to survive hiding near it, which was a rarity; his family had arrived a few years before from Jalisco in Mexico, migrant farm-workers like many in that town. He'd moved around hiding from Eaters and refugees and the plagues—living mainly on a pickup load of cracked oats, livestock feed his family had hidden in a woodlot—come out late in the first year, and started a small place of his own, before the Protector's man arrived.

"We didn' fight much," he said bleakly. "Too many of them. And they promise to protect us against Eaters and bandits, get us seed and tools, at first it sound pretty good. Then—" He touched his neck where the collar had left raw patches and callus.

His friend Jeff Lawson had been a high-school student in a Portland suburb—and as he confessed, lucky to end up in one of the Protector's labor-gangs rather than driven out to die with so many others. He'd come to Gervaise as a group sent to help construct the castle, and stayed as a general worker around the place.

"But I wasn't going to take it forever," he said. "And then there was Crystal."

That, evidently, was his sister, who was sixteen or so and strikingly pretty, with wide blue eyes and long tawny-colored hair; she looked a little younger than her age, and she was shorter than Juniper would have expected from her brother's six feet.

She'd have been about seven or eight when the Change came, Juniper reminded herself. Probably undernourished since, which would limit her growth. And she can't be as much of an innocent as she looks, or she wouldn't be alive, no matter how much her brother tried to help her.

"She was working in the castle," Jeff said. "That bastard Mack, he started sniffing around her."

He flushed and his hands clenched into fists on the table. Juniper raised an eyebrow, though she'd heard rumor and reports. Henry couldn't speak; it was Miguel who went on:
"Malo, that one. Bastardo. He don't just bother girls, he hurt them. The Baron, he don't dive a damn."

Why am I not surprised? Juniper thought.

So far it wasn't an unfamiliar story; they'd had hundreds of similar refugees. But...

"But Crystal brought us something," she said softly. "Something important. Important enough for Baron Liu to come after it in person, with such a small escort, as if keeping it all quiet was important to him. Very important."

Sam handed her the papers. They were bound, making a bundle about the size of a hardcover book, but the spine was held with steel post-and-clamp fasteners, allowing leaves to be removed or added. She riffled quickly through it; mostly columns of numbers, written in a small neat hand—someone from Arminger's own chancery, at a guess, and they might be able to identify who from the fist.

"Sam?" she said.

"I'd wager it's an Altendorf substitution code," he said. "The numbers'd refer to the pages, to lines, and then letters within the lines. They're a right nightmare to decode if you don't have the book, because if they're careful they don't even give things away with word frequencies—"the" and "and" and bumf like that. I'm no code-breaker, but I do know enough to recognize that."

He leaned over and turned the book to the back pages. Her lips shaped a silent whistle; those were maps. Maps of the central and southern Willamette, and the coastline—one of Newport was very detailed, with all the post-Change corrections, and that was the coastal town closest to Corvallis. It had a good pass over the mountains, too. A final fold-out map covered the whole of western and central Oregon as far as Umatilla, with copious notes in the same frustrating columns of numbers.

No convenient arrows and dates. Pity the buggers aren't that stupid. All this tells us that they're up to no good.

And there was a printed sheet of numbered paragraphs in the back cover of the booklet. There always was, in the Protector's publications intended for his overlord cadre.

Number One read: If I capture my worst enemies, I will not stand over them gloating and boasting and telling them all the details of my secret plans and then keep them alive for torture in an escape-proof dungeon. Instead I will just kill them instantly.

For the first time the girl spoke, in a soft shy voice. "I was in the Baron's office, hiding in a closet—I knew we were going to run that night, and I wanted to steal some of the new silver money." A flash of anger: "He owed us all of it and more!"

Then she licked her lips. "And then the Baron and... and Mack came in, and they talked, and he put this in the desk, and locked it. When they left, I came out and took it."

Juniper's eyebrows went up. "I thought he locked it?" she said.

Crystal smiled, and reached into her blouse—she was wearing something like a housedress cinched over culottes, ragged with her trip through the brush but looking as if it had started out much better than what the others of her party wore. When her hand came out, it held a small sack of soft leather, held closed by a thong threaded into eyelets around the top. That chinked with a musical and—literally—silvery sound as she dropped it on the table.

"I had a copy of the key. He put it down where I could reach it, weeks ago, and I had Jeff copy it."

Jeff grinned sheepishly; it made him look more his real mid-twenties age. "I sort of learned how in shop class," he said.

Juniper sipped her mead and thought. Then Crystal cleared her throat. "When the Baron was talking... he said something very strange." Juniper nodded, and the girl went on: "He said it all depended on the Tayz Maniacs."

"Tayz Maniacs?" Juniper said, puzzled.

"And the Brits."

Brits I understand, but what are... wait a bit. Take out his accent and his sense of humor so-called. She'd always had a good ear for regional patterns of speech, and Eddie Liu's was purest New Yawk, without even a trace of Cantonese; his mother had been American born of remote Polish ancestry. What would it sound like if Liu said it?

"Tasmanians?" she said. "But that... what would he mean by that?

 

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