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THE SCOURGE OF GOD

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


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Near Pendleton, eastern Oregon

September 20th, Change Year 23/2021 AD

 

BD fanned herself with one dangling end of the loose sun-turban she wore over an inconspicuous steel cap. A quarter-mile ahead of her eastbound wagon-train on Highway 84 was a baulk of timber studded with blades, mounted on old truck axles with modern spoke wheels. And besides the ten men behind it on foot with pikes and crossbows, a round dozen or more armed cowboys waited to either side.

It all looked tiny in this huge landscape, beneath a sky blue from horizon to horizon; the weather was clear and dry, typical for fall hereabouts. And just on the comfortable side of warm, also standard, but the wind was from the east and it held the slightest hint of autumn beneath the acrid scent of dust. But no view with that much edged metal in it was particularly friendly.

Tía Loba?” the head of her guards said, as some of the cowboys cantered forward and flanked them to either side, just within bowshot.

“Keep calm, Chucho,” she said. “We’ll just walk on up to them and have a talk.”

The slow creak and clatter and bounce of wagon-travel went on, and the figures around the barricade grew from dolls to men.

“Woah!” she said, pulling on the reins, just as they barked out: “Halt!

Dobben and Maggie were well trained, once they woke from their patient ambling daze; the big half-Suffolk lead pair came to a stop inside six paces, the rear pair had to halt perforce, and she pulled and locked the brake lever. The four other carts behind them came to a halt as well, and the six guards reined in beside them.

They were just far enough away that the easterners would have to come to her if they wanted to talk without shouting, which was what she’d wanted. Silence replaced the clop of shod hooves on the freeway’s broken asphalt, silence and the long hiss of the wind through the rolling fields on either side. You couldn’t see Pendleton proper from here—it was down in the river valley about six miles further east—but you could just make out the rounded heights of the Blue Mountains on the horizon.

“And this used to be a tourist spot,” she muttered to herself.

BD looked around casually, wiping her forehead on the tail of her turban and checking for more armed men. Northward was a reaped wheatfield with some of the shocks of grain still standing in yellow tripods, but elsewhere the long swales around had long since gone back to arid wilderness. Pale bleached-brown bunchgrass studded with the olive green of sagebrush rippled in waves; a flock with a mounted shepherd and his dogs and guard llamas drifted south of the road, moving slowly through the middle distance. Further off some pronghorns danced, and a pair of buzzards swept in and perched on the tilted shape of an old telephone pole not far away. It moved slightly under their weight.

I hope that’s not an omen, she thought. And of course, this was the Oregon Trail before it was Interstate 84. Not all that different from the way it looked when some of my ancestors came through in ox-carts.

Footmen and mounted archers alike scowled at her party, and there were two flags flying from a post by the road. One was the expected blazon of the local rancher—the Circle D in black on light green. The other was the white-on-red cowboy and bucking bronco of the Associated Communities of the Pendleton Emergency Area.

What everyone else calls the Pendleton Round-Up, BD thought. Or, alternatively, ‘those Pendleton sheep-rapers’. But they usually don’t bother with the flag. Pythian Apollo witness I am getting too old for this.

She was just short of sixty now, and getting a bit gnarled. People said she was tough as an old root, but...

Yeah, tough as an old root, and stiffer. People age faster these days, she thought. I spent the past generation heaving loads and hauling on reins, not behind a keyboard. It’s time to sit by the fire and tell the grandchildren stories.

Then, smiling to herself: Who am I kidding? The Powers gave me my marching orders back at Dun Juniper last Lughnasadh, and Apollon confirmed it.

Her guards closed up around the lead wagon; they and the wranglers were her own people from the Kyklos, mostly unofficial nephews—or in one case, a niece-by-courtesy. They favored Japanese-style armor, another legacy of hobbyists-turned-deadly-serious right after the Change. The outfit included flared helmets and armor of metal lozenges laced together, and they carried naginatas, five-foot shafts topped with curved swordblades. Quivers and asymmetric longbows rode across their backs, and katana and wazikashi at their belts.

They were also bristling a little at the show of force. Young men...

“Woah, everybody,” BD said, loudly, carefully not touching the naginata that rode in a scabbard behind her, or an assortment of concealed weapons on her own person. “Let’s be sensible here; it’s good for business.”

She climbed down from the seat and rubbed at the small of her back, looking deliberately nonthreatening as possible; she was in shapeless linsey-woolsey pants, belted tunic and boots, practical traveling garb. An expert could probably catch the mail vest beneath, but that was just a reasonable precaution traveling in lands without much law. Peering at the cowboys, she saw a face she knew, and got out her glasses to confirm it.

“Hey, Rancher Denson!” she called; Sandy Denson was an old customer. “What is this? Another shakedown? If you people don’t stop this shit, nobody will come this way at all, and then where’ll you be?”

The rancher walked his horse over, followed by some of his retainers. They were certainly loaded for bear; Denson’s long reddish beard splayed down on a mail shirt of the short type that cow-country fighters wore if they could afford it, and the men behind him fairly bristled with weapons and bits and pieces of armor. One had an arrow on the string of his recurve and they were all scowling.

Twenty cowboys, she thought. Hmmm. That’s a quarter of the riders Denson can bring to a fight. Enough to cut into the Circle D’s usual routine. It must be fairly serious. Plus those other guys look like Pendleton City militia.

“This isn’t a transit fee, BD,” Denson said, using the local terminology for ‘shakedown’. “The Bossman says he’s heard you westerners may be getting ready to invade. We’ve been called up to guard against spies and infiltrators.”

“Hey, Sandy, you know me,” BD said. “I’ve done business with you and I did business with your father.”

She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the pony drawn on the canvas tilts of her wagons, scuffing along amid puffs of dust.

“The Plodding Pony service is neutral. I carry stuff, I buy, I sell. Everybody benefits. And I’m not exactly hiding or sneaking around here. Also I’m old enough to be your mother. Do I look like Jane Bond?”

That went past him; he’d been about nine when the Change happened.

“Do I look like a spy?” she amplified.

“You’re from the Willamette. Your bunch—“

“—the Kyklos.”

“—yeah, the Kyklos, you’re part of the Corvallis Meeting,” he said, but his frown relaxed a bit.

Unexpectedly, one of Denson’s cowboys spoke, a gangling youngster with a scatter of spots.

“She’s an abomination, a woman doing a man’s part,” he said. “And flaunting herself shamelessly in man’s garb. The Ascended Masters say—“

Denson turned in the saddle and extended a finger into the skinny youngster’s face.

“George, it’s a free country and you can take up that half-baked stuff if you want, but if you feel like preaching, you do it on your own time, understand? And not on my land. I’m the Rancher here on the Circle D, and I happen to be a Presbyterian, which I’ll thank you to remember.”

“All right.”

What did you say, boy?” he barked, raising his quirt. “Let me hear that again.”

“Yes, sir, Rancher Denson, sir,” he added sullenly.

“That’s better. Now apologize to the lady.”

The young man stared at the horizon. After an instant he ground out: “Sorry, ma’am.”

Denson nodded. “You get on to Pendleton and see about those horseshoes I ordered. Git.”

He turned back to BD, ignoring one of the older hands cuffing the young man on the back of the head and muttering a curse.

“Sorry, BD. We’ve had some odd preachers coming through last couple of years. George there never did learn to look in a horse’s mouth before he bought it.”

“Hell, Sandy, if he can get excited about my flauntingly shameless old legs, and in these saggy-assed pants at that, either the boy’s not getting enough or I’m really flattered.”

The rancher relaxed with a grin, and several of his men laughed; George flushed under his tan and hunched in the saddle, turning his mount and flicking the end of his long reins to either side. The quarterhorse took off in a spurt of gravel.

“Did you hear anything about an invasion, BD?” his employer said.

“Not offhand, but I’ve been on the road for weeks; I’m out of Bend this time. It doesn’t sound very sensible to me, though. Nobody’s bothered you all this time, why start now? And usually the Meeting can’t agree on the right time of day for dinner, much less invading hither and yon. What would be the point? To steal your oh-so-rare and valuable wheat?”

Actually I got off the railway in The Dalles only three days ago, she thought. Special express pedalcars. And for once the Meeting did agree on something, and without talking about it forever plus three days, either.

None of that showed on her face; a trader and a Priestess both had to learn self-control.

Denson took off his helmet, which had a llama-hair crest, and scratched at his scalp.

“Nothing personal, but from what I remember and what Dad said you people left us to rot back when, with everyone against his neighbor and gangs of refugees from the cities and whatnot,” he said.

“Hard times all over, the first year or two,” BD said shortly.

And a hell of a lot harder for me than you, Sandy, she added behind a calm face.

At 6:15 pm Pacific Time, March 17th, 1998, BD had been driving southbound on I-5 in Portland, a mile and a half north of the Terwilleger exit, and she’d been pushing forty. Denson had been a child, and a child on a ranch with more cows than people, far enough from the cities that they had enough food to take others in, rather than fighting over scraps or shivering with cholera as they lay dying in a ditch.

More than half the human race had died in the year after the Change; in North America it had been closer to nine-tenths. But this area probably had more people now than it had then—certainly it did outside the city of Pendleton proper.

Denson went on: “Then that son-of-a-bitch Arminger comes and tells us he’s going to pacify the place, which meant handing the ranches out to his cronies here and his gangbanger thugs from Portland. I do remember that. Then you make his troops leave and we had another round of fighting. Thank God that Bossman Carl finally got things under control.”

BD restrained herself from arguing with the spin he put on the last twenty-two years of local affairs; getting into a political dispute was never good business... particularly if you were spying. Though Bossman Carl Peters wasn’t as bad as he might have been—for one thing, nobody could exert enough control here to be a real tyrant.

“Look, Sandy, can I do business here or not? I’ve got my expenses to meet, you know. If I have to turn around and go home, the sooner I find out the better. And I’d appreciate a letter from you telling me to go home, so I can claim act-of-the-Gods and not have to pay nondelivery penalties to the shipper.”

Denson looked harassed. “Hell, BD, I know you... but you are from Meeting territory and... well, you’ve got armed guards with you.”

“Well, by the Gods, I should hope I do!” she said, letting a little temper show. “You know as well as I do how many Rovers and road people and just plain old-fashioned bandit scum are running around between here and the Cascades. I travel with this many guards in CORA territory, too, when I’ve got valuable cargo—and I don’t do bulk freight.”

At his bristle, she went on: “Come round and look at my load and then tell me if I’m hostile to Pendleton, Sandy. Yeah, and those pikemen are from the Bossman’s townee militia, aren’t they? Have one of them over too.”

He dismounted—a bit of a concession, since interior ranchers and their followers generally saddled up even if they were just going from their front doors to the outhouse. The townsman in the steel-strapped leather breastplate and kettle helmet came over as well; his round dark face was frankly hostile, and his little black mustache twitched.

Both their faces changed when she pulled out a claw hammer and opened the first of the flat crates that made up half her cargo. The lid came up with a screech of nails, and...

“Jesus!” the rancher said, taking up one of the swords and giving a few expert cuts that made the cloven air whine. “Now, that’s the real goods!”

“Yeah, I’m delivering them to Murdoch and Sons, on consignment from Bend,” she said. “See the Isherman stamp on the boxes?”

The WSIS—for Weapons Shop of Isherman and Sons—was branded into the cheap pine boards.

She waved an envelope. “All the paperwork’s in order. Now, if I was a spy for someone trying to attack you, would I bring weapons in that your Bossman can buy?” she said reasonably.

I might, just to disarm—snork, snork—your suspicions, she thought. And there aren’t enough in these wagons to make much difference to an actual war. It’s not as if I’m hauling in a battery of field artillery, after all. You guys are short of that stuff.

“And the barrels have mail shirts, by the way,” she went on. “Good light stainless steel with riveted links, none better, in the usual assortment of sizes. Plus helmets... it’s all in the invoices.”

Even the militia officer was impressed; Pendleton had never developed the sort of semi-mechanized arms shops that were common further west, where water-power was easier to come by. Mail shirts were expensive everywhere, but more so here.

“The Bossman will be interested,” the militiaman said. He extended a hand. “Captain da Costa, Carlos da Costa.”

“Beatriz Dorothea,” she said. “But everyone calls me BD.”

BD shook with a firm squeeze and met his eyes squarely—also tricks of the trade. She’d heard of him, if not met him before; his family had a tannery and saddle-and-harness-making workshop. She told him:

“Tell Bossman Carl to talk to Murdoch; I’m just hauling this stuff for a fee plus commission.”

Then she hesitated, as if making a painful calculation. “If you need some yourself, Sandy, I suppose...”

The rancher looked tempted; a landholder out here always had to be ready to skirmish with his neighbors and outfitting his cowboys well was important in keeping them loyal. Under the militia officer’s eye he shook his head.

“No, thanks. I can afford what we need, and we make most of our own gear on the ranch anyhow. But you’re doing us all a good turn, BD, and I appreciate it. Want to stay the night at the ranch-house and have a steak dinner, and huevos rancheros and a shower before you head in tomorrow?”

He looked hopeful. Without any prying eyes but his own sworn men he might well ‘accept’ a gift she could write off as a cost of doing business. BD caught his eyes and let hers slide a little towards the militiaman; that would be excuse enough. And...

Well, Sandy’s not exactly a guest-friend, she thought. That was a sacred bond. But I have eaten his bread and salt beneath his roof. I’d rather not do it again when I’m here with... well, sort of hostile intent. It’s for their own good, really... but that won’t help Sandy or any of his people who get in the way of an Associate’s lance or a Mackenzie arrow or a Bearkiller backsword.

“I think I should head straight in, with this cargo,” she said. “But I’d appreciate it if I could send the wagons and teams right out again and keep them on the Circle D for a little while? Prices at Pendleton livery stables inside the wall are atrocious.”

“Fine, and stay as long as you want coming out,” Denson said generously.

“I’ll get a permit!” Captain da Costa said. “You’re right, Doña Dorothea, a load this important should go right into town! Just you wait there and I’ll fetch the paperwork—”

The last was said over his shoulder as he walked back towards the barricade.

“Who’s he?” Denson asked idly, sighing regretfully.

He jerked his head at the man sitting beside the driver of the second wagon, a great hulking hunched figure with a shock of shiny-black hair.

“Oh, that’s my cousin Hugh,” BD said. “He’s simple but there’s no harm in him, and he’s certainly useful to have around when there’s heavy lifting to be done. Those boxes weigh a fair bit.”

At the Hugh the big man gave a vacant grin and wiped his nose on the back of his hand; there was a thread of drool slowly making its way down from the corner of his thick-lipped mouth.

“Here, Hugh!” BD said in an admonishing voice.

She handed him a handkerchief and he made a stammering cluck and used it, clumsily.

Captain da Costa returned with his form; behind him his men pushed in careful grunting unison, and the barricade rumbled aside.

“Just show this at the gate, Doña.”

“And the Bossman is putting on a ‘do’ tomorrow night,” Denson said. “All the Ranchers and town bigwigs... Hey, why don’t you come? Murdoch will be there, too.”

Da Costa nodded vigorously again. “You’re a public benefactor, Doña,” he said. “I’m sure Bossman Carl would be delighted to see you.”

“I’ll be there,” BD said. But he may not be all that delighted about it at all.

 

@@@

 

Seven miles was more than an hour’s travel at preserve-the-horses wagon speeds. That gave her enough time to take in the surroundings thoroughly without making it obvious.

“Oh, my, Oh, my,” BD murmured, as they passed the ruins of the old State Hospital and swung south. “Ares is on hand.”

There were tented camps outside Pendleton; most of them were sited so they weren’t in view from I-84, but she could catch glimpses of them. Most of them were the casual affairs a Rancher and his retainers would make when they were away from home, remarkable only because there were so many. But it was getting on for sundown. Campfires showed there in the rising ground south of town, adding to the smoke-and-outhouse scent of the town in general; and some of them were suspiciously regular, laid out in neat rows, or in one case a complex system of interlocking triangles.

Pity I can’t use my binoculars, she thought. But that would be a big I Am A Spy sign.

She laughed a little sadly as they turned north on an overpass still labeled Exit 209 in faded, peeling paint, where the old John Day highway had approached town. Around them were the usual messy sadness of ruined suburbs that surrounded most still-inhabited towns; burnt-out houses or buildings torn down for their materials, truck-gardens and livery stables and smelly tanyards and plain weed-grown wreck with bits of charred wood or rusty rebar poking up through it.

Tía Loba?” her nephew-guardsman asked.

“Chucho, that underpass over there used to dump cars onto Frazier, because Emigrant was one-way.”

His dark young face looked puzzled, and he pushed up the brim of his helmet to scratch with gloved fingers.

“You could enchant a road so that it only went one way in the old days?” he asked. “You are pulling the leg of me, Tía. Flying I believe, the pictures that moved I believe, but not that.”

“Changelings!” she muttered with a shrug.

“Oh-ho,” the man who was not BD’s simple cousin Hugh said.

Traffic had thickened as they approached the gate, and slowed. Now the reasons were obvious. Chucho dropped back tactfully; he knew that ‘Hugh’ was not as he seemed, and had carefully avoided learning any more.

Pendleton had been divided by the Umatilla River before the Change. Afterwards it had shrunk, in fighting and chaos and as people dispersed to the surrounding farms and ranches, but there had been no total collapse. Now it had four or five thousand people, in a rectangle on the south side of the river perhaps two-thirds of a mile long and a third wide. The inhabitants had built a wall with towers, out of concrete and rubble and rock around a core of salvaged girders; so much was unremarkable, although the construction was more recent and cruder than many, with rust-pitted iron showing on the surface.

What the pseudo-Hugh was looking at were a cluster of men examining the gate and its heavy valves of metal-sheathed timber.

BD had never seen the gear they wore, but she’d heard of it, and seen sketches by agents and far-traveling merchants. Armor of steel hoops and bands to protect the torso and shoulders, fastened with a complex set of brass latches; high boots; rounded helmets with neck-flares and hinged cheek-pieces and short cap-bill pieces over the eyes. All of them carried broad short stabbing swords, worn high on the right side of their belts... except for the man with a transverse crest on his helmet, who had his on his left hip. He also bore a swagger-stick or truncheon of twisted vine-stock, tapping the end into his left palm. Closer and BD could see that he had a red kerchief tucked into the neck of his armor.

Boise regulars, she thought. United States Army, as far as they’re concerned. Sixth Regiment, from the shoulder-flashes.

There was plenty of time to watch the commander with the vinestock pace about examining the gate and the two square flanking towers, since the usual evening crush of wagons and carts was trying to get through—and moving more slowly than usual, as the guards checked them with extra care. The strangers in the odd armor weren’t shy about getting in people’s way, either.

“Christ, civvies!” their officer said. “It’s thick and it’s solid, and that’s all you can say for it. You could bring a covered ram right up to the gate!”

“Fubarred,” his companion with the sergeant’s chevrons on the short mail sleeve said. “Looks like they based the design on an illustration from a book of faerie tales my mother used to read to me, Captain.”

The officer reached out, a slight smile on his hard clean-shaven face, and playfully rapped the swagger-stick on the man’s helmet. The steel went bonk under the tough wood of the vinestock.

“That’s Centurion, sergeant. The rank structure’s been modernized.”

“Yessir, Centurion. Glad President Martin got around to it, sir. It’s a wonder we... or someone... didn’t take ‘em over before this if this is their capital. Lewiston has a lot better defenses and it wouldn’t be a pimple on Boise’s ass.”

“Considerations of high policy, soldier—and stick to business. It’ll be a lot better with a couple of eighteen-pounders and some heavy darters up top, on turntables and with steel shields. We’ll put the lifting triangle right there and—“

The line inched forward. The gate-keepers were militiamen, ordinary shopkeepers and craftsmen taking the duty in turn with their homemade armor over normal working clothes. One of the Bossman’s personal guard was there too, besides the usual clerk to collect the customs dues—yet another local term for ‘shakedown’. He was a big young man in a hammered-steel breastplate and helmet with ostrich plumes, above tight red-dyed pants and elaborately tooled thigh-boots turned down to the knee; she guessed that someone had been looking through an illustrated book when they designed the outfit.

Or possibly the cover of a bodice-ripper, she thought wryly. Or maybe that book of faerie tales. If he had pointed ears and whiskers, he’d be a dead ringer for Puss in Boots.

A small mustache of the type Pendleton men favored was fiery red as well, naturally so judging from his milk-white-and-sunburn complexion. He took the letter and read it through slowly, moving his lips, then went and examined the opened box in the wagon.

“All right!” he said. “Fan-fucking-tastic. Go right on through, ma’am! I’ll report this to the Bossman’s House. No, you fool,” he went on to the clerk. “Weapons imports are duty free for the duration of the emergency.”

The Boise centurion looked up from a sketch-book. “Weapons?” he said.

Strolling over he looked into the crate and took one of the swords out. It was a straight longsword in a plain sheath of black leather over wooden battens, with aluminum at chape and lip; he drew the thirty-inch blade and looked down the edge, then hefted it to test the balance.

“Not bad. This is well-made equipment, for its type.”

“Yeah, it is,” the Bossman’s guard said.

He didn’t bother to keep the hard note out of his voice. There was a badge on his shoulder that had three intertwined capital R’s, but despite the appearance it wasn’t a Rancher’s brand... exactly. That stood for Registered Refugee Regiment. Technically the man was a Registered Refugee, roughly equivalent to a slave in Pendleton, except that the men of the Regiment belonged to Bossman Carl Peters. Who had either come up with the idea on his own or gotten it out of some book on Middle Eastern history; its members had privileges ordinary freemen could only envy, and were correspondingly unpopular with townsmen and ranchers both.

They were fanatically loyal to their benefactor and the two hundred of them were a major reason the current incumbent had managed to survive and hold onto power far longer than any previous overlord here.

The young man went on: “And they’re for the Bossman. Our Bossman, His Honor Carl Peters. Any problem with that, straight-leg?”

“None at all, lieutenant, none at all,” the centurion said; he didn’t seem at all put out by the unflattering term for a regular. “Our leaders are all in alliance to serve America, right?”

Which would have been more tactful if he hadn’t used the tone a man would humoring a boy. BD left them talking with strained politeness as they went through into Pendleton proper. It was darker inside the walls; the streets were straight and fairly wide—especially Emigrant, down which they traveled—and the potholes had been repaired with packed gravel or remelted asphalt. But the town had been built up, two or three-story structures of adobe or salvaged brick and wood-frame standing cheek-to-jowl with others that had been kept unaltered for a century or more to preserve Pendleton’s Old-West atmosphere before the Change. And...

‘Hugh’ was up walking beside her wagon now; his six-foot-seven was tall enough that they could talk quietly even with her sitting on the driver’s seat and him hunched over and lurching. You tended to forget how tall he was until he came close, because he was even broader in proportion, built like an old-time high-rise, square from shoulders to hips.

“Lot of men in town,” he said, in a voice with a soft drawling burr.

There were; young men, mostly. Many of them were ordinary cowboys from the ranches of northeastern Oregon, but some were in uniforms of mottled sage-and-gray cloth, or coarse blue-green. Every second building seemed to house a saloon or eating-house or some combination on its ground floor, or to have been converted to such; the air was thick with the smell of frying onions and grilling meat, and sweat and horse-manure and piss and beer and the sour tang of vomit, loud with raucous guitars and pianos and voices singing or shouting. And every building had the Pendleton flag flying, which was unusual.

As the sun dipped behind the walls behind them the dark grew thick; Pendleton didn’t run to streetlights, even lamps at crossroads like Sutterdown’s, much less the sophisticated methane gaslights of Corvallis or Portland. The yellow glow from windows made it possible to steer the wagons without running over anyone... if you were careful of figures collapsed half-off the sidewalks.

They came to their destination, a compound taking up half a block, with a discreet Murdoch and Sons, Importers over the main gate and a blank twelve-foot wall all around the perimeter, not quite a fortification, but a real deterrent in the sort of factional squabble the city had had before the current Bossman took over.

The building just before it had a large sign reading Working Girls’ Hotel, and it was in the ornate stone and terracotta style of long ago, a century or more before the Change. Some of the girls were leaning out of the upper windows wearing very little, and shouting invitations that sounded more than usually tired and frazzled. Just as the Plodding Pony wagons passed, a figure catapulted out through the swinging doors and sprawled in the dirt of the street with a thud. He’d come with a boot in the buttocks, and lay for a second sobbing with rage and frustration and the raw whiskey that made his movements vague and tentative.

“Woah!” BD shouted.

Her not-cousin grabbed at the team’s bridles. Together they kept three tons of Conestoga and sixteen hooves from rolling over the prostrate figure.

The man tried to get up again; it was Rancher Denson’s cowboy George. He lay for a moment with horse-dung in the fuzzy sheepskin of his chaps, and then rolled aside to dodge the saddle, saddle-bags, bedroll, quiver and cased recurve bow that were tossed after him. He clumsily scooped the arrows back into the quiver and used the saddle to push himself partially erect.

“I want my money back!” he screamed from one knee, fumbling at his belt for his shete. “And my horse!”

A thick-set woman in a sequined dress came to the doors and leaned out. A massively built man loomed behind her, a classic whorehouse bully in a tight crimson shirt and expensive bluejeans, belt with a silver-and-turquoise buckle and tooled boots with fretted steel toecaps, his eyes flatly impassive and an iron rod in one fist. He pointed with it, and the cowboy let the hilt of his blade go. It was the woman who spoke, in a harsh raw voice:

“Kid, at your age if you can’t get it going after twenty minutes with the Buffalo Heifer, you need a doctor, not a whore.”

There were grins and laughter up and down the street as she went on:

“And you didn’t have enough money to pay for what you gambled anyway. Be thankful we didn’t keep the rest of your gear for kickin’ up a fuss. Next time leave the sheep alone for a while before you come into town, rube.”

The young cowboy staggered on past, the saddle flung over one shoulder. BD caught his gaze for an instant; it was sick with an unfocused rage that must be eating at his soul like acid, and she winced slightly in unwilling sympathy.

And some of the strangers were looking around them entirely too alertly for soldiers whooping it up before action. The crawling sensation between her shoulderblades didn’t go away until they’d swung the wagon train into Murdoch’s courtyard.

“Welcome, BD!” Murdoch said.

He was a middle-aged balding man, heavyset in a way rare nowadays, with thick brown muttonchop whiskers whose luxuriant curls compensated for his bald spot. He also wore what Pendleton currently regarded as a respectable businessman’s evening dress—a good imitation of pre-Change copper-riveted levis tucked into tooled boots with pointed toes, fancy belt with ceremonial bowie knife, ruffled white shirt, floppy string tie, a cutaway tailcoat in good brown homespun, and a waistcoat embroidered in gold thread, with a watch and chain as well. The formal felt Stetson with its band of silver conchos was in his hands, and he looked as if he was not crushing it with an effort of will.

“Good to see you, BD, good to see you,” he burbled. “Let’s get the cargo into place!”

Grooms had led the teams away. Workers appeared and began unloading the wagons, and a steward led the Plodding Pony employees to a bunkhouse. BD stopped her chief guard with a hand on the arm.

Tía?” he said.

“Don’t get settled in, Chucho,” she said quietly. “Just water and feed the horses, load some oats, then hitch up. Tell the gate-guards and the people at the barricade out on 84 that you’re heading for the Circle D, but don’t turn off at Denson’s place. Keep going west; push the horses as hard as you can without killing them.”

He nodded, unsurprised. They were working for the Kyklos and the Meeting, and they were getting paid for it... but the family business could do without losing its capital assets, too.

And I like Dobben and Maggie, she thought. I’ve traveled a lot of miles staring at those equine rumps.

‘Hugh’ helped with the crates, slobbering and grunting but heaving two at a time up onto his broad stooped shoulders. When the last of them was stacked, Murdoch made a production of giving his day-laborers their pay, with a little extra for the ones who worked for him regularly.

“You boys get on home to your families,” he said. “And Sim, tell the house staff they can go home early. With my wife and the boys off visiting relatives, I can shift for myself tonight.”

One of them grinned at him, a youngish man. “I’m goin’ next door, patrón,” he said.

“It’s your money now that I’ve given it to you, Stan,” Murdoch said. “Remember, tomorrow’s a holiday—time off for the Bossman’s speech. See y’all at the House!”

They left, swinging the big entry doors of the warehouse closed. Murdoch’s smile ran away from his face as they did, and he checked the lock on the smaller entry door beside it, moving confidently in the darkness, as a man did when he was intimately familiar with a place.

“This is bad tradecraft, letting two agents know each other’s identities,” he said in a voice that was much colder and had less of the twanging local accent when he turned to face them. “All these years we’ve been doing business and I didn’t know you worked for the Lady Regent until I got that message—“

With not for, Ben,” BD said patiently. “I’m a perfectly genuine businesswoman. I just do... things on the side sometimes.”

And pull yourself together, Ben. It’s hard enough to control my own nerves without having to deal with other people’s.

“And maintaining your cover isn’t going to be important soon,” she went on. “Or do you want to be here when the trebuchets start throwing thousand-pound rocks and bundles of incendiaries over the wall? Even Sandra can’t make sure a siege-engine doesn’t drop a boulder or a jug of napalm on your head.”

He was silent for a moment, fiddling with an expensive incandescent-mantle lantern; then it lit with a hiss, and a circle of yellow-white light drove the dense blackness back.

“No,” he said quietly. “That’s why I got my family out on the train to Walla Walla last week. But I’ve... been here and in this character for a long time. Since the War of the Eye. I keep slipping mentally and thinking I am my cover. And... I’ve got friends here. My wife was born here, and so were my children. I don’t want to see Pendleton wrecked ‘in order to save it’.”

“Going native?”

A sigh. “No, not really. It’s not such a bad place...”

“If you don’t end up sold to the woolen mills, or the Working Girl’s Hotel, or worse,” BD said. “Besides, hopefully we can make things a lot easier on the ordinary people. I’m not a great fan of the PPA but even they don’t do that sort of thing.”

Any more, she tactfully left unvoiced, and went on aloud:

“That’s what this mission is all about, at least as far as I’m concerned. Plus the strategic stuff about keeping the Prophet and Boise at bay.”

Murdoch nodded. Then he started as the big man beside BD straightened, took the soft pieces of rubber out of his cheeks, spat on the concrete floor, and pulled a pillow from under his coat. Suddenly he seemed much bigger... and not simple at all. And when he took off his gloves, the auburn fuzz on the backs of the great spade-shaped paws was a horrible mismatch for the raven thatch on his head.

Murdoch’s eyes bulged. “You’re—“

“John Hordle, at your service,” he said, in the rich accent of rural Hampshire, still strong after a generation here in the western lands.

“You’re Little John Hordle! The one who killed Big Mac!”

“The very same. That disguise works a treat, even if you ‘ave to drool an’ slobber a bit. A bit undignified, innit? Still, it’s worth it. Not so easy to hide, when you’re my size.”

Murdoch nodded. “Come on, then.”

“You know,” the big man said as they walked towards the office that was partitioned off from the floor of the two-story warehouse, “Back when I was a nipper in ‘ampshire growing up around the Pied Merlin—me Dad’s family’s pub—I always fancied the Wild West. Clint Eastwood an’ all them old shows on the tellie. Shame to have me romantic notions ruined, innit?”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the doors and the courtyard, and the street beyond:

“Or maybe it was different before the Change, the first time?”

“Not much,” BD said. “Except they had guns so it was louder, and there wasn’t a city wall, so it might have been less crowded. There were forty saloons and sixteen bordellos here back when it was a real cow-town with about two thousand people.”

“It’s the mobilization,” Murdoch said defensively. “The town’s bursting at the seams right now—it’s worse than the Whoop-Up. And you saw the foreigners?”

“Yes. The Boise men I recognized, but...”

“CUT,” Murdoch said grimly. “Not just the wandering preachers, we’ve been getting them for years, but soldiers and officials out of Corwin.”

“When?” Hordle said.

“A few of them two weeks ago, then the rest just the last three days; and it’s not just troops, there are high officers of both them and the Boiseans quartered at the Bossman’s House. The Cutters are acting in concert with the Boise people. Carl Peters invited them in, but...”

“But the bugger has forgotten the saying about the camel’s nose. Quick work on the villains’ part, though,” John Hordle said. “And we’re not before time, eh?”

Murdoch put the lantern down on a desk for a moment, and then stepped to the rear wall of the office where a picture hung.

“I could let you down with the winch,” he said. “But that section’s closed off from the rest on the inside. This part doesn’t officially exist—“

The picture was a Remington print was set in an ornate frame—Coronado’s March, all desert and dust and lances and armored Conquistadores. BD glanced at it, then suddenly realized...

You know, down in the southwest, something precisely like that might be happening right now and that could be a photograph of it.

She shivered slightly and set the thought aside. If you’d lived through the past couple of decades, you got used to things like that; you also got used to pushing them away when they hit you again.

There was a click as the merchant-spy’s fingers explored the frame of the print, and then a section of wall the size of a small door swung open. He led them into the staircase beyond; the temperature fell as they descended through dirt held back by boards and then into a broad tunnel of coarse light-textured volcanic rock like hard dense pumice.

The lantern left a moving bubble of light in darkness Stygian enough to make the night-time streets seem like noonday, showing ancient posters and even dust-choked storefront windows. There was a cold smell of abandonment and mouse droppings, like an old house where nobody had lived for a while.

“Welcome to Underground Pendleton,” Murdoch said, a little nervous as he went on: “Dug by the Chinese.”

“Chinese?” Hordle said.

“There were a lot of Chinese workers here once,” Murdoch said; he seemed to have a perverse pride in local history, even the more questionable bits. “They dug tunnels so they could get from one part of town to another. It’s easy, the rock’s soft and cuts like cheese.”

“Why not use the streets?”

“Because the local Anglo-Saxons had a habit of shooting them on sight for no particular reason besides a dislike of Chinamen,” Murdoch said.

“I’ve ‘eard of the underground economy, but this is ridiculous,” Hordle said. “Roit useful for what we’ve in mind, though. You said there was tunnels, but this is a bloody maze, mate.”

“Then they used part of it for illegal businesses, and then for tourists before the Change,” Murdoch went on. “It’s all shut up now, too dark and stuffy to be useful. Officially I just have some storage chambers down here... but your people have been going over the plans and... ah, here we are!”

He came to a stout door and knocked three times quickly and three times slowly before opening it, letting out light and warmer air and a pleasant smell of burning pinewood. The chamber was brightly lit, by lamps and by a small hearth built into—or dug out of—one wall; Hordle blew out his lips in an expression of relief at the score of figures seated within around a long plank table, with the remains of a meal scattered about.

The burble of Sindarin conversation died away as the door opened, though several waved to BD as to an old friend. BD understood the Elven-tongue well enough, since she’d been hiring Dúnedain Rangers for caravan security for years, and it was the language they usually spoke among themselves. She’d been working with them as long as they’d existed, in fact, though to listen to some of them you’d think their grandparents had stepped off the boat from Numenor, having quietly skipped the Fourth Age somehow.

Sometimes she shuddered to think what the generation born in steads like Stardell Hall in Mithrilwood would be like, raised by crazed Changelings with their heads full of romantic yeast.

And they make me feel old, she thought.

Hordle and Alleyne Loring were the eldest of them all at forty. Astrid Larsson and Eilir Mackenzie were thirty-six; and they’d been the founders of the Dúnedain. The rest of the party were in their late teens or their twenties. All of them were in Dúnedain working gear—black leather and wool, mostly, and soft-soled elf-boots, but with the tree-stars-and-crown blazon on their chests done in dark grey, rather than silver-white. One of the nearest was a striking woman in her thirties with bowl-cut hair that was naturally the color that dye had given Hordle’s own brown curls, and leaf-green eyes the same color as her mother Juniper’s.

Hello, luv, Hordle Signed to the black-haired woman; she looked up with a smile from a litter of maps.

And aloud, since the three bright lanterns hung from the rocky ceiling and the firelight gave ample light for Eilir’s lip-reading skills:

“Well, dear, I’m ‘ome.”

No, you’re in a cave under an enemy city full of thousands of people who’d like to kill us all, Eilir replied; she was still smiling, but there was a bit of a bite in the gestured speech. Our children are back home in Stardell wondering where the hell we are and when we’ll be back.

Hordle winced.

“No problem with the weapons, John?” Alleyne Loring said, mercifully changing the subject.

He spoke English for Murdoch’s sake, in an accent as British as Hordle’s, but of the manor-and-public-school variety, and smoothed his close-trimmed yellow mustache with a finger.

“Dead easy.” A deep chuckle. “No better way to smuggle weapons than in wagonloads of... weapons! No problem getting our lot in?”

“You’re the last, old chap. They’ve tightened up their security, but they’re still not stopping harmless unarmed wanderers in ones and twos.”

“You’d better get the gear unloaded and get ready,” Murdoch warned. “I don’t think the Bossman will send his people over for his weapons tonight, but I’m not absolutely sure he won’t... and there are more men in town than you expected.”

“Cutters. And Boise regulars,” John Hordle said, repeating the details that Sandra Arminger’s spy had given him. “Seems the Bossman got an attack of the nerves and decided ‘e needed some friends.”

“Tsk,” Alleyne Loring said. “He forgot the origins of England.”

Murdoch and BD looked at him, and there was a grim smile on his handsome fine-boned face as he went on:

“The first English in England—two outlaw chiefs from Jutland named Hengist and Horsa and their merry, hairy band of pirate cut-throats—

“Sound like lads after me own heart,” Hordle observed.

“—were invited in by a chief of the Britons named Vortigern. The Romans had withdrawn, and Vortigern had a problem with the Picts kicking up their heels. He decided that the obvious thing to do was hire some Saxons to fight the Picts for him rather than go to the dreadful bore and bother of doing it himself.”

“What happened then?” Murdoch asked.

The smile turned wolfish; for a moment it was easy to imagine him in a bearskin tunic, leaping out of a Dark Age warboat with a seax in his fist.

“Shortly thereafter the Jutes and their Saxon and Anglian relatives had England, and the Britons had... Wales. Despite all King Arthur could do. And Vortigern made that mistake despite a late-Roman definition of rapacity: He could teach piracy to a Saxon.

A tall woman who’d been sitting with her legs crossed and her hands resting on her thighs opened her eyes and swung her legs down from their lotus position. Her head came up, crowned with white-blond hair in a tight-woven fighting braid, and she met Murdoch’s eyes. The Association spy shivered a little in that pale gaze, the hyacinth-blue pupils rimmed and shot with silver threads. She stared silently for a few seconds, and the man who Pendleton knew as an importer squirmed.

BD sympathized; people meeting the Hiril Dúnedain for the first few times often had that reaction. She’d known the girl... woman... since she was fourteen, and still felt that way sometimes herself.

“We aren’t expected at the Bossman’s feast,” Astrid Larsson said. “But I do think we’ll drop in anyway.”

Alleyne smiled. “Crashing the party, rather like thirteen dwarves coming by unexpectedly for tea.”

“But even less welcome and more troublesome,” his wife said. “And if there are emissaries from our ultimate enemies there... so much the better. We’ll spend tomorrow going over the details, but with luck and a little effort we can skip the war and go straight to the victory, which is always the best part anyway.”

Hordle rapped his knuckles on the wooden table. Murdoch muttered and retreated, banging the door behind him.

Alleyne made a tsk sound and dropped back into the Elven-tongue. “You shouldn’t spook him, my love, just because he works for Sandra Arminger. He’s on our side now. The whole Portland Protective Association is. And he’s been quite cooperative.”

“We’re fighting the same enemy at the moment, bar melindo,” she said. “That isn’t exactly the same thing as being friends, darling.”

A dozen of the Rangers filed past and trotted up the stairs to fetch the gear. BD stepped aside as they left and nodded to the four leaders, then stepped over to look at the documents on the table. One was the blueprints of the Bossman’s House. The other was a map that showed Pendleton, the modern town, in considerable detail. Across it—underneath it—lay a network of dotted red lines...

“Well, that’s imaginative at least,” she said, as the details of the plan leapt out at her. “It’s going to be tricky, though. Particularly the ‘getting away alive’ part.”

And I’m glad I sent my people out of town!

Eilir nodded and replied in Sign: Don’t worry. Murdoch has really done a very creditable job with these tunnels since the end of the war. The last war, I should say.

“Just like Sandra Arminger to have a literal mole here, burrowing away for the last twelve years,” Astrid said dryly, and they chuckled. “She isn’t called the Spider for nothing.”

A clatter of footsteps, and the Dúnedain returned with boxes and crates and barrels carried on their shoulders, or slung between them by the rope handles. A little brisk hammering opened them, and men and women crowded around.

“Ah!” John Hordle said, seizing his four-foot bastard longsword and running his hand along the double-lobed grip. “Felt naked without this, I did. A big bloke’s not worth buggery without ‘is bastard.”

Which sentence sounds absolutely indescribable said in Sindarin with a Hampshire yokel burr, BD thought with a mental groan.

Meditatively, glancing at Astrid, Hordle went on: “Aren’t we supposed to be generals? Sitting around map-tables looking important, while the younger generation do the work? This is too ‘ands-on for my taste, now I’m forty and a dad and sensible.”

Astrid smiled and spread her long-fingered hands. “Are there any among our people better suited to lead this endeavor, my brother?”

“No, I suppose not,” Hordle grumbled, shrugging into a mailcoat covered in dark green leather and cinching it with a broad belt.

BD stretched her own back with a silent groan. Her mail vest was light, but she’d worn real armor now and then, and detested every minute of it. Hordle was probably so accustomed to it that he didn’t even notice. It was like the sword; he didn’t feel natural without it.

“But I thought we came here to fight a battle?” he went on plaintively, turning his head slightly so that he could wink at Eilir unobserved; she giggled silently. “There’s a murdering great army out there west of town, thousands of them sitting on their arses with nothing better to do than eat and scratch themselves, and here we are doing their work.”

“The best battle is the one you win without fighting,” Astrid said serenely.

Hordle rolled his eyes and spoke to Alleyne Loring. “I hate it when she gets all profound like that!” Then to Astrid. “And you put Tiphaine d’Ath in to look after the troops.”

Astrid’s smile was slightly cruel now. “That was her punishment. Do you imagine there’s anywhere in the world she’d rather be than here, right now, John? And when the bards make their song, they’ll sing of us, while Tiphaine gets three lines saying she looked after the troops well enough while we were gone.”

The smile grew broader, and unexpectedly she giggled like a schoolgirl. “She’ll be snarling about that when she’s ninety.”

“Let’s hope the song doesn’t say she gallantly avenged our ‘eroic deaths instead,” he replied.

“I intend to die heroically of extreme old age and general debility, in bed, with my great-grandchildren gathered around weeping,” Alleyne said crisply. “BD, you should have something to eat and get some sleep. It’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.”

BD did, with John Hordle pitching in beside her; there was cold roast beef and pungent kielbasa and fried chicken, bread and butter and hot pickles, tortillas and beans, tomatoes and radishes, with sharp cheese and apple tarts to follow. She’d been too worried to be hungry up until that point, despite the eight hours since lunch; suddenly she was ravenous, and constructed several sandwiches as massive as her dentures could handle. Anyone who didn’t think wrangling wagons all day was hard physical labor had never done it. Hordle ate enormously but neatly as he joined in the planning session.

When BD finished she tapped the small keg by the door for a mug of the beer. So did John Hordle, but apparently it didn’t make him feel sleepy; of course, he was a generation younger, in superb condition, and had a hundred and sixty extra pounds of mass to sop it up. There was bedding down in the other end of the chamber; she wrapped herself in blankets and sheepskins, and felt herself fading swiftly. As she did she overheard Astrid:

“Besides, it is not by force of arms alone that we will prevail in this war. We keep the enemy’s attention on us and that helps Fr... ah, Rudi and the others.”

“Inspiration’s one thing. Plagiarism is something else again,” Alleyne said in a severe tone, and the four laughed.

BD sighed and prayed: Oh, Apollo, guard your priestess! Artemis of the Hunt, let me not be the prey! And look out for Rudi and the others too. They’re going to need it.

 

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