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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Dun Juniper, Cascade foothills, Western Oregon

August 20th, Change Year 23 (2021 A.D.)

 

“Yet another of the things I learned after the Change,” Juniper Mackenzie said with a rueful chuckle.

She spoke quietly and kept her face grave as the solemn young men and women of the escort fell in with bow and sword and buckler, steel caps on their heads and the moon-and-antlers sigil of the Clan blazoned on the chests of their green brigandines. It was the least she could do, since they’d been called away from field and forge and loom for this.

“My dear?” her husband Nigel replied.

He stood trim beside her in kilt and plaid, feathered bonnet and green jacket, ruffled shirt and silver-buckled shoes, erect as a boy despite the sixty-three years that had turned him egg-bald and washed the yellow of his mustache to white. The twisted gold torc of marriage around his neck was the twin to hers.

“When I busked at the RenFaires and Society tournaments in the old days I sang of knights and kings and princes, of battles and captivities and rescues, but never a word about how much time Arthur and Gawain and Lancelot probably spent sitting ‘round a table—”

“Round or not,” he said, with that slight smile that made his face look young for a moment, like a tow-haired schoolboy from Puck of Pook’s Hill bent on mischief.

“—arguing who paid what to who and who was responsible for doing the other thing. Attending meetings. It’s not so much being Chief I mind, or even goddess-on-Earth, it’s being a bureaucrat.”

Sir Nigel Loring chuckled; he had been a leader of men before the Change—lieutenant-colonel in the Blues and Royals and before that the SAS. Then one of the powers behind the throne after the Change, helping save a remnant of civilization in England before Charles the Mad had driven him into exile.

“And dealing with bumpf,” he said, using a rude word for paperwork he’d taught her.

She sighed and quieted her mind as they stood for a moment in the open gateway of the fortress-village that was her home, letting the grateful heat sink into her bones and fill her tired body with an animal contentment.

“There are times I feel old indeed,” she said. “Old and overworked.” Then: “Well, the job doesn’t grow easier for the waiting.”

The day was drowsy with warmth as the sun sank towards the thin blue line of the Coast Range on the western horizon; a last few bees buzzed homeward, and a flock of western bluebirds went over, like a chirring flutter fashioned from bits of living sky. The world was a wonder greater than any magic she’d ever made, and she had her place within it.

Ground and center. War may be coming, but it isn’t here yet. My son is over the mountains among enemies, but no harm’s come to him that I know. Plan for the future, yes, but live every moment as if it were forever, because it is. There is only Now. Ground and center...

She sighed and blinked leaf-green eyes that were a little haunted even in times of joy, for they had witnessed the death of a world.

A few weeks ago the long mountainside meadow below Dun Juniper had been crowded with the tents and bothies of her clansfolk, come for the Lughnasadh rites and the games and socializing that followed—starting with shooting the longbow and on down to prize lambs and enormous hand-reared beets and Little League softball games. Now they bore the tents of outland visitors, and their hobbled horses grazed the lush green meadows; they and their followings were too large to all guest within the dun’s walls... and with some, it was more politic to keep them separate.

Largest was the great striped many-peaked pavilion that flew two banners. One was easy to make out; it was the crimson-on-black Lidless Eye of the Portland Protective Association, and not often seen on Mackenzie land. The other grew clearer as they approached and the wind caught at the heavy dark silk, a blue-mantled Virgin Mary standing on a depressed-looking dragon with drooping ears.

That was Sandra Arminger’s personal banner, and Juniper suspected it was a joke in a subtle way; her household guards stood beneath it. Well-born young men in black armor of articulated plate and mail, graceful and arrogant as cats... though much better-disciplined, and under the eye of a grizzled veteran who bowed and bent the knee to the Mackenzie chief and her spouse with punctilious Association courtesy. He had the golden spurs of knighthood on his boots.

“Lady Juniper,” he said. “Sir Nigel. You are expected, and most welcome. Bors, Drogo, announce our noble guests.”

Even so there was an indefinable bristling from the men-at-arms, and the same from the kilted Mackenzie armsmen behind her. A few of them touched the yellow yew staves of the longbows slung over their backs beside the quivers... perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not.

“Silence in the ranks,” Nigel Loring said quietly, and it subsided.

Juniper looked over her shoulder. How young they are! she thought. Changelings...

They’d been children when the new-made Clan fought the PPA in the War of the Eye twelve years ago; few had been so much as toddlers at the Change, many not even gleams in their parents’ eyes.

“Sacred is the guest upon our soil,” she said softly, and saw them blush and shuffle a bit; the new world was all they’d ever known. “To even think them harm is geasa so long as they keep the peace. Even if we were at feud with them, the which we are not.”

They touched the backs of their hands to their foreheads at that, and then managed to smile in friendly fashion at the household men of the Regent. One of those held the flap of the tent open. They went through, into the stillness of an anteroom hung in gray silk, and then into the main chamber. A ripple ran thorough the two-score of guests, everything from elaborate curtseys to casual waves.

She looked around, nodding. This being a formal occasion and she fifty-three, she’d decided to forego the kilt and wear a tartan arsaid, a long cloak wrapped around the waist like a skirt and then pinned at her shoulder with a broach of silver knotwork, over a shift of linsey-woolsey dyed in saffron and embroidered at the hems. Her belt was linked silver worked in running patterns, and she had a diadem with the crescent Moon on her forehead. Even so, she felt a bit underdressed compared to some of the guests.

And this whole pavilion is so Sandra, Juniper thought. She’s gone camping... with a palace wrapped around herself, so.

The ground was covered in softly glowing not-quite-oriental rugs, and the walls with tapestries, both made in the workshops of Newburg and Portland; flowers and vines, lords and ladies hawking or hunting boar and tiger or dancing stately pavanes in pavilions out of dream. Lamps of fretwork in gold and silver and carved jewels hung from the peaks of the ceiling. The light folding furniture was inlaid with mother-of-pearl and rare woods. A prie-dieu and icon of the Virgin stood in one corner; Juniper made a gesture of respect to the Madonna and Child there.

“You can tell the economic pyramid up north comes to a demmed sharp point,” Nigel drawled under his breath, echoing her thought.

“And that we’ve been married so long we’re starting to finish each other’s sentences,” Juniper replied. “Even the unspoken ones!

A minstrel wearing a great hood with ridiculously long liripipes and tippets elaborately decorated with foliated dagges strummed a lute and sang softly from a corner:

 

Her only will I sing

Who, challeng’d by the Boy

Or bids him wing or crowns him King

In courtesy and joy.”

 

Serving-girls in tabards and double tunics were carrying around trays of drinks and nibblements, salty cured sturgeon roe on crackers and bits of caper and smoked salmon and goose-liver paste—what Sandra insisted on calling canapés—and pyonnade, fabulously expensive because the main ingredient was candied pineapple shipped in from Hawaii or the Latin countries.

Juniper grinned as she accepted a glass of white wine from the Lady Regent’s demesne estates and a little sausage on a toothpick. She’d heard that when she was being informal Sandra Arminger referred to this sort of thing as faculty fodder. Her gossoon of a husband Norman had been a medieval history professor, of all things—specializing in the Norman duchy and its offshoots—as well as a Society fighter before the Change. After March 17th, 1998 he’d branched out into warlording, conquest, torture, murder and general wickedness, with the gleeful relish of a man at last living out the dreams of his heart.

Though it’s true he saved many a life in that first year, if only so they’d be alive to serve him.

“Speak of the devil’s widow,” Juniper murmured beneath her breath.

Sandra came towards her, hands extended, the silk of her pearl-gray cotte-hardi skirts rustling, her face framed by an elaborately folded noblewoman’s wimple of white satin confined by a net of diamonds and platinum. The buttons from waist to high lace collar and down the long sleeves were carved from old ivory and mother-of-pearl.

“Juniper, dear, it’s wonderful to see you again,” she said with a smile. “And to visit your home at long last.”

For the rest she was no taller than Juniper, and her face was quite unremarkable except for the care which made her look younger than her mid-fifties... and the depth of thought in her brown eyes, like a shifting complex pattern at the edge of sight, never quite glimpsed.

They exchanged the air-kiss of peace; Nigel bowed over her hand.

“I like your little twelve-bedroom pup-tent,” Juniper said. “It takes the rough out of roughing it, sure and it does. Though a little heavier than a sleeping bag on a trip, I’d think.”

Sandra chuckled. “Getting in touch with nature or back to the land always struck me as more a matter of wallowing in the dirt with the bugs. And the railroad runs most of the way here now.”

Which was a point; horses could pull fifteen times more on rails than on the best road.

And why do I suspect Sandra would have brought the pavilion just the same even if she had to have it carried on the backs of porters?

There were two grandees with her. Juniper was glad to see she hadn’t brought any of the ordinary Protectorate nobility along—the Stavarovs in particular gave her the crawls. But she could tolerate Conrad Renfrew, Count of Odell and now Lord Chancellor of the Association. He was a thickset, shaven-headed man in his fifties, with a face made hideous by old white keloid scars. His arms of sable, a snow-topped mountain argent and vert were in a heraldic shield embroidered on the breast of his t-tunic.

“I never managed to haul as much freight this way during the Protector’s War,” Renfrew said, grinning like something squatting on a cathedral’s waterspout. “Even with an army of two thousand men to feed. The logistics were hell.”

Nigel gave the man who’d commanded the Association’s armies in the War of the Eye a nod of wary respect.

“We didn’t expect you to besiege Sutterdown so quickly,” he said.

Renfrew chuckled. “I didn’t expect you to corncob me by looping through those damned mountains and cutting our siege lines at Mt. Angel and beating Lord Emiliano’s army.” A pause. “Though he was a complete idiot, granted. Most of those jumped-up gangbangers never did learn a war isn’t an enlarged drive-by.”

Juniper shivered slightly, remembering the earth shaking as the knights charged into the arrowstorm, and the sound of the horses screaming, louder and more piteous than men in their uncomprehending agony.

“Their sons, however, have learned better,” Tiphaine d’Ath said. “Conrad and I have seen to that.”

The woman in her thirties on Sandra’s left was in what the PPA considered male dress, which was a rare thing in the Protectorate. And she was a baroness in her own right rather than by marriage or inheritance, which was still more uncommon, her arms of sable, a delta or over a V argent self-chosen. Before the Change she’d been Collette Rutherton, a Girl Scout and up-and-coming junior gymnast of Olympic potential at Binnsmeade Middle School in Portland. Sandra had seen her potential.

And took the girl under an elegant, bat-like wing. Better to be Sandra’s girl ninja and hatchetwoman than starving or being eaten by cannibals or dying of plague in those camps around Salem, I suppose.

Together she and Conrad were the Regent’s right hand, and a portion of the left.

Both sides exchanged equally courteous murmurs in a protocol that sounded ancient and was no older than the Change, cobbled together out of novels and remembered stories and playful Society anachronisms turned deadly serious. She knew Nigel found it all hilarious, despite his poker-face; his family had come to England in the train of William the Conqueror.

Sandra clapped her hands twice. The minstrel fell silent with a final stroke of his fingers across the strings, and the buzz of conversation died.

“Thank you all for your company, my lords and ladies,” she said. “And now, if you will forgive us...”

The heads-of-state and their closest advisors went through into an inner room with at table clad in white damask; servants set out a cold collation. Juniper took a chair near Sandra’s and waited politely while Abbot Dmwoski of Mt. Angel spoke:

“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Half the people around the table joined in as he signed himself with the Cross; Eric Larsson the Bearkiller war-chief did, for example. His sister Signe Havel made the sign of the Hammer over her plate as Juniper spoke:

 

Harvest Lord who dies for the ripened grain—

Corn Mother who births the fertile field—

Blesséd be those who share this bounty;

And blessed the mortals who toiled with You

Their hands helping Earth to bring forth life.

 

“I’m Church of England, myself,” Nigel Loring added dryly, and there was a general chuckle. “All this sincerity gives me hives, rather.”

Dmwoski shook his finger at him. “And the Anglicans have returned to Holy Mother Church,” he said in mock reproof.

“Taken it over, in fact, from all I’ve heard, Padre,” the Englishman said. “After Alleyne and John and I left, of course.”

Juniper bit into a sandwich, shaved ham and a sharp Tillamook cheese on a crusty roll. The bread was made from hard eastern wheat, and fresh—almost warm—which meant the Regent had managed to drag a portable bake-oven along with her...

John Brown of Seffridge Ranch and the Central Oregon Rancher’s Association spoke first. “I suppose Juney’s told you all, her son Rudi and the, ah, Princess Mathilda—“

He sounded a little uncomfortable using the title; terminology was different over east of the Cascades, away from the influence of the PPA and the Society for Creative Anachronism. They used the old-time words there, even if ‘Sheriff’ and ‘Rancher’ meant pretty much the same as ‘Count’ and ‘baron’ these days.

“—and the others were at my place back around the beginnin’ of May. Went east with my son Bob and some hands and a big herd of remounts I was selling to the Mormons, and got into a scrap with some Rovers. Haven’t heard much of them since they headed east with the Deseret folk.”

Tiphaine d’Ath cleared her throat and went straight to the reports of the battle at Wendell, flashed westward by the chain of heliograph-stations in the PPA that ran from castle tower to mountain outpost down the Columbia and over the whole of the Association’s territories.

“And there are rumors that one or more of the late General Thurston’s sons have been intriguing with the Church Universal and Triumphant.”

“Place might as well be one of our baronies,” Renfrew said with a gargoyle grin at the tale of treachery and sudden death.

“And the Princess Mathilda, Rudi, Mary and Ritva Havel, Baron Odard Liu and the others were definitely there—guests of General Thurston before then, for about a week, and with him during the battle,” she continued, leaning back with a nod to the Regent.

And a certain knight-brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict was there with my daughter,” Sandra added, giving Dmwoski a slow look. “A Father Ignatius, I believe.”

The head of the Order’s warrior monks spread strong battered hands a little gnarled with the beginnings of arthritis.

“My lady, he did not conspire with Princess Mathilda when she planned to... ah... abscond.”

Sandra snorted. “Plausible deniability, your eminence? Casuistry? Jesuitical casuistry?

The prelate winced; the Benedictines and their militant post-Change offshoot had never been all that fond of the Society of Jesus. And Mt. Angel was independent, but tiny next to the PPA...

Sandra raised a that point to me finger and went on: “He certainly seems to have strongly suspected she and Odard were going to run off and join Rudi on his... his quest. And he just happened to turn up and join her when she absconded from Castle Odell.”

The Count of Odell looked abashed. Dmwoski replied calmly:

“Yes, and now he is with her, with sword and counsel. Would you rather he was not there to help?”

“I do so hope his help doesn’t include the last rites,” Sandra said pleasantly. “And I would rather Mathilda was safely in Castle Todenangst or in the palace in Portland.”

Her voice was calm; you needed to really know her to hear the deadly seriousness beneath.

“It was fated, probably,” Astrid said.

Faces turned towards the Dúnedain leaders. There were four; Astrid Larsson and her husband Alleyne, Nigel’s son by his long-dead English wife, Juniper’s own eldest daughter Eilir, and her man John Hordle—universally known as Little John, from his massive size. The same ship had brought the two younger Englishmen and Sir Nigel himself to Oregon, back during the war...

Astrid was the senior, the one who’d founded the Rangers with her anamchara Eilir, when they were both teenagers. She was as tall as Tiphaine, and as lithe and slender-strong with a face framed in a long fall of white-blond hair; her great turquoise eyes were rimmed and veined with silver as well.

“Why fated?” someone asked.

“That brought the number up to nine,” she said. “Nine is the... canonical... number for a Quest.”

There was a moment of silence, as everyone wondered whether she was serious or not; you could hear the capital letters in her voice. Juniper didn’t doubt it for a moment, and wouldn’t have even without that momentary exalted look, as if she was being carried beyond the world of everyday to the realm of legend and hero-tale.

I love Astrid like a daughter, and her children are a delight, but Nigel is right. She is, quite definitely, barking mad.

“And nine is a very practical number,” Astrid went on. “Just enough to keep a good watch and be able to fight off a band of bandits or win a skirmish with a patrol, but not so many they stand out like an army to anyone looking.”

But she’s also quite functional, Juniper told herself. Though it’s a good thing she’s had Eilir around all these years. And Alleyne, to be sure, and John has enough common sense for three, as well as enough bulk.

“We know that Rudi and the others survived the battle,” Juniper said. Thank You! she added silently, not for the first time.

Half the people around the table nodded. Dmowski looked troubled at participating in augury, even second-hand... and Sandra a little angry.

Pardon me if I don’t find hints seen in a pool of water too reassuring,” she said dryly.

“My lady,” Tiphaine said, and then whispered in her ear.

Sandra looked grudging, then nodded. Juniper met the Grand Constable’s cool gray eyes for a moment, and then the younger woman looked away. Tiphaine had been there twelve years ago when Raven came to her son in the light of common day, and Juniper thought it had shaken the cynicism she’d learned from her mentor a little. Not Sandra’s of course; that would take more than the Change itself.

“And the Prophet certainly seems to take the whole business of the Sword seriously,” the Regent said thoughtfully. “Of course, he’s likely as insane as his stepfather.”

“Insane but dangerous,” Tiphaine said; Juniper thought her eyes flickered to Astrid for a moment.

“Which means we may be facing a coalition between Boise and Corwin,” Nigel said. “If Martin conspired with them against his father...”

“Boise has a damned good army,” Tiphaine said. “Good infantry, and a good siege train. The Prophet has a hell of a lot of good, experienced light cavalry. Put them together...”

“We have a problem,” Juniper said.

Almost enough of a problem to make me forget to worry about Rudi. Almost, but not quite.

“We need to start positioning ourselves,” Tiphaine said. “The interior didn’t suffer nearly as badly as coastal Oregon did in the Change. Say a million each in the United States of Boise, the Prophet’s baliwick, and what’s left of Deseret. Even with immigration and natural increase, they outnumber us heavily.”

A silence fell. Sandra struck into it:

“We must hang together, or be hung separately, as Franklin said.”

“The Church Universal and Triumphant usually crucify people but the principle’s the same,” Conrad added, in a voice like gravel in a bucket.

Edward Finney spoke for the first time, running a hand over his iron-gray hair and scratching the back of his neck; it was a gesture his father, old Luther, had used too, though he’d been taller and skinnier than his son.

“Look, I’ve got some pull in the Popular Assembly, well, a fair bit of pull. But I can’t just tell them to do something. A lot of the farmers listen to me, but there’s the Economics Faculty, the town unions... guilds, they’re calling themselves now... and the Faculty Senate... and I’ll be telling them things none of them want to hear, if we’re talking about another big war.”

“You can give them a bit of a push,” Juniper said.

She looked over at Sandra’s slight cat-smile. A white Persian jumped up on her lap, looking disgruntled from its days in a box on the way here. The Regent toyed with it and commented in a neutral voice:

“We should, as my commander-in-chief says, position ourselves. Specifically, Pendleton needs to be brought into the Meeting. Then we’ll hold the Columbia as far as the old Idaho border.”

Wait a minute!” Finney said. “What’s this we? You agreed not to meddle there after the War!”

“And we’re certainly not going to let you take it over again and divide it up into fiefs and build those goddamned castles there,” Rancher Brown said. “That isn’t right, not on free American ground. Those ff... foolish things are like nails driven into the map.”

Sandra raised an ironic eyebrow. Juniper knew the thought behind it; if the interior ranchers didn’t build castles it was mainly because they couldn’t afford it.

“Pendleton’s a bleeding sore, a disgrace,” the Association’s Regent said. “It has been since right after the Change. They harbor river-pirates and they let bandits and Rover gangs fence their loot there and sell them weapons and gear. And they’re deep in the slave trade. Pardon me: that’s compensated relocation of registered refugees. With accumulated welfare charges.

Brown shrugged, unable to contradict her. Astrid and her party nodded unwillingly; the Dúnedain did caravan-guard work and bandit-suppression far into the interior, and knew the truth of what Sandra had said.

Edward Finney looked unconvinced; that was a long way from Corvallis, and he wasn’t one of that city-state’s far-traveling merchants.

“They were unlucky,” he said. “They had that civil war, right after the Change, and...”

“No, they weren’t unlucky,” Sandra said. “They were very lucky indeed; they had more food than people to eat it, when the machines stopped.”

Most of the people around the table had been adults in that year of terror and famine and plague; and the others had been in their teens, old enough to remember much of it. A silence fell for an instant, as memories opened and bled.

Sandra drove the point home: “Then they threw it away fighting each other. By now they’ve acquired any number of bad habits.”

But your arse is so sadly grimy and sooty, said the kettle to the pot, Juniper thought mordantly. Still, you have a point. The problem is, dear Sandra, that you always have at least three purposes behind any one statement.

Aloud, the Mackenzie chieftain went on diplomatically: “They were unlucky in their lack of leadership,” It was even true, if not very relevant. “Sure and it would be a good deed to clean it up... and Sandra has the right of it this far at least, that we can’t let an invader from the east get their hands on it. The CUT have been active there; missionaries and such.”

Nigel nodded fractionally beside her; they’d talked that over last night.

Signe Havel uncrossed her arms and leaned forward; if she and Juniper had never been friends, she’d always been a frank enemy to Sandra and the Association. Norman Arminger had killed her husband Mike Havel; that he died first by about twenty minutes didn’t reduce her personal dislike one little bit. Her voice was sharp.

“But nobody else in the Meeting countries will let the Portland Protectorate Association annex the area again. Nobody liked you snaffling off the western half of the Palouse back three years ago, Lady Sandra. It gave you too much leverage on the Yakima towns. We’re certainly not letting you get your hands on Pendleton.”

Sandra spread small, beautifully manicured fingers, silently letting everyone remember that the Palouse was in those hands. And that meant it was a buffer between the Meeting countries and the Prophet. Aloud she continued:

“But Pendelton is defenseless to anyone above the twenty-thugs-on-horseback level, and if either Boise or Corwin take it, they’ll have access to the navigable Columbia. Which leads to Portland, which is our collective doorstep, not merely my home.”

“And Corvallis isn’t going to authorize the Protectorate to take the area,” Finney snapped. “We host the Meeting and I don’t think many would disagree with us.”

“It seems we’re all forgetting that there is such a thing as the Meeting,” Juniper said.

Someone snorted. She nodded, conceding the point but not the argument; the Meeting was much better at stopping things happening—like wars or trade tariffs between its members, or forced labor or slaving—than at actually getting everyone who attended to do anything positive in concert. It was rather like the old UN that way, paralyzed by mutual jealousies and suspicions, although the Dúnedain did enforce its resolutions when they could.

“I don’t think there would be an objection if someone other than the Portland Protective Association alone were to undertake the task of putting Pendleton in order,” she said.

Sandra’s eyes narrowed. “We’re the only ones with access and the necessary troops... except the CORA, and...”

It was Brown’s turn to wince. The Central Oregon Rancher’s Association was another organization that had a lot of trouble getting its members to do anything but defend themselves. Sometimes against each other, over stock or water rights or sheer cussedness. Each rancher was the law on his own land, as long as he didn’t make his cowboys want to pick up and leave.

Tiphaine leaned forward to whisper in Sandra’s ear again. Her murmur was very quiet, but Juniper’s daughter Eilir had been deaf from birth. Lip-reading was a skill she’d learned in order to teach, like Sign.

My Lady Regent, I don’t think this is the time to play Evil Bitch Deathmatch Hardball.

Sandra shrugged. “I do tend to let the game of thrones become an end in itself,” she said. With a little malice: “And so do you intend to have your archers leave their crofts and march two hundred miles over the mountains, Juniper dear? And to stay and rule badlands full of Rovers and Indians and ranchers who are a great deal less civilized than our friends of the CORA?”

That is a point, Juniper thought ruefully.

Mackenzies had few full-time fighters, unlike the Protectorate. And the clansfolk had no desire at all for outland conquests; to start with, there was plenty of good land closer to home waiting for the plow.

“I was thinking we’d all send troops,” she said, feeling slightly sick at what necessity made her say.

The waste of war; the blood of our best, and crops not grown, cloth not woven, land not brought back under cultivation, and what we do grow and make taken and destroyed like some ancient sacrifice while our children go without. But it is necessary. And we’ve had twelve years of peace, more or less. Best not to ask too much of the Powers.

Conrad snorted. “And who will run this collection of odds and sods we all contribute? The Meeting? An army run by a committee? A committee of... how many members does the Meeting have now? Sixteen? A committee of sixteen who have to agree unanimously before they wipe their... noses? Oh, please. Why not just have the troops cut their own throats? It would save time, trouble and expense.”

Signe made a small grunting noise of unwilling acknowledgment, and Eric Larsson laughed aloud. They both had the little scar between the brows that was the mark of the Bearkiller A-list; that elite required its members to study military history as well as mastering sword and lance, horse and bow. Nigel’s face kept the relaxed calm he used as a mask in situations like this, but his wife could feel how he radiated motionless agreement.

Juniper patted his knee under the table and went on: “And in command... the Dúnedain Rangers. Everyone trusts them, and there aren’t enough of them to get delusions of superpowerhood.”

Sandra looked blank for an instant, then gave Juniper a glance of coolly irritated respect. Juniper sighed as the Regent stroked the Persian cat. It was going to be a long evening.

And Rudi... my son, my son, where are you now?

 

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