Raven House, Sutterdown, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Samhain Eve, CY22/2020 AD
Nigel Loring looked around the great Hall of Raven House and arched a wry white brow as Rudi and his friends trooped out to head for the Sheaf and Sickle; people were setting up tables in a long rectangle, leaving a broad patch clear in the center.
"I think my stepson knew more about those visiting diplomats than he said. Otherwise, why dodge dinner here, after a cold day's hunting?"
"Oh, it'll be Saba Brannigan he's thinking of hunting the now," Juniper Mackenzie said. "That she might be out of mourning, you see, and more inclined to look favorably on him now that he's handsome and full-grown. Not that the poor boy has a prayer of getting between her knees; she'll always remember him as the spotty lustful sweaty-palmed fourteen-year-old she looked down on from the lofty height of seventeen. It's a woman's mystery and I know."
They shared a chuckle. Children do make life more interesting, he thought.
Juniper had born a daughter named Eilir long ago, when she was a teenager herself, before the Change. Rudi Mackenzie had been conceived in the first Change Year; and now she had two daughters with Nigel as well, the fruit of their middle-aged marriage. His own son Alleyne Loring had accompanied him to Oregon twelve years ago, and had supplied three grandchildren since with Astrid...
Juniper sighed, looking around. "Though I can't blame the boy for not wanting to sit through a formal dinner at Raven House, when he could be carousing with friends his own age. I have doubts about this place myself, sure and I do."
In theory Raven House was for the use of the local Raven sept's ceremonies. In practice the house was part of Sutterdown's generation-long campaign to get the Chief to spend more time there; they were convinced they could eventually wear her down and-or tempt her enough to get her out of Dun Juniper and into what they considered the Mackenzies' natural capital. Whatever else the Change had wrought in Sutterdown, it hadn't put an end to small-town boosterism.
"I swear, they've gone and made it fancier still," Juniper murmured.
It had been a rich man's house once, a timber baron who'd wrung his wealth out of the Cascade forests around the end of the nineteenth century. The townsfolk had added stables to the rear, and built closed passages to the houses on either hand, and cleared out most of the ground and first floors in the central block to make a single great rectangular room, with galleries overlooking it on two sides. One end held a low dais, with a pair of tall chairs whose backs were worked like the wings of ravens, with the heads looking down as hoods.
Behind it the wall was paneled in lustrous black walnut, polished until it shone with a dark gloss; inlaid in pale birchwood was the Triple Moon, waxing and full and waning, a circle flanked by outward-pointing crescents, the sign of the Threefold Goddess—the Maiden, the Mother and the Hag. If you looked closer you saw what was subtly drawn behind that, barely a suggestion in slivers of rosewood and yew, pear and rowan, a face that might be young or old or ageless...
Down at the other end was the big fireplace where they stood now, crackling with six-foot fir-logs and sweet-smelling incense cedar. Above the hearth was another great image inlaid into the wall and towering up to the high ceiling, this time in copper and gold and silver. It showed a wild bearded face with curving horns springing from its brow, forever looking towards the Ever-Changing One.
"I can't really resent it, though," Juniper said, shaking her head. "It's all done from love; and They never turn that away."
"And Sutterdown does have some splendid artists now," Nigel said meditatively, taking a sip from a glass of red wine. "As good as any at home in Dun Juniper. As good as any I've ever seen all my life long."
The image of the Horned God stared down at him, golden locks surrounding it like the rayed Sun, the full sensual lips slightly parted over white teeth. The eyes swallowed the flames until they were like windows into a moonlit forest at night, infinitely deep with rustling mystery, glinting with silvery flickers. Here in the warm well-lit room, within the strong walled town bowered among tilled fields tamed by the hands of human kind... here they still brought the breath of the wildwood, and the lonely sound of pipes heard over hills by moonlight.
"That too," Juniper sighed.
He looked up at the image and murmured a quotation. "The face of Power that says: O man, make peace with your mortality—for this, too, is God."
Her mouth quirked; she knew he wasn't easily impressed. "Skilled indeed! And who'd have thought we'd breed so many fine makers, with only as many folk as one small city in the old days?'
"Perhaps it's because they don't have great cities full of professionals and critics and academics telling them what to like, or television and books to bring it to them. It's like music, in these latter days; if you want it, you have to make your own. Athens itself in its time of greatness was a small place, after all."
"But it all makes me feel guilty," Juniper said, looking around. "We're doing well the now, but not so well that we can afford to make all this for an occasional visit by a middle-aged couple and their children."
She gestured helplessly at the rest of the room. It had been done with some cunning and by people who knew Juniper fairly well; the lower parts of the walls held books and pictures and musical instruments on shelves of wood delicately carved with running vines and flowers; above were the brackets that held four great multi-branched lamps at the Quarters, and weavings showing the ancient tales—Niall of the Nine Hostages and the Lady of Tara, Ishtar's descent into the Underworld to free her lover, Odin grasping the runes of wisdom below the branches of the World Tree.
Despite the splendor it wasn't a forbidding room; just right for music and dancing, or a ritual gathering, or for children to play in on a winter day and listen to a story, or for simply sitting by the fire reading in the comfortable chairs and sofas that surrounded the hearth, a bowl of hazelnuts and apples at your elbow and a cat curled up on your lap.
"They do use it when we're not here, my dear; it's a civic center and doesn't sit empty and sorrowing. And making you feel guilty so you'd come and use it more often was a large part of the intent!"
Just then a sound came from the vestibule that gave on the street door. An apprentice bard named Mabor—he was living with a family at Dun Juniper and studying with Juniper herself, and several others—came in. He was a young man with black hair and eyes and olive-brown skin; his father had been Mexican. Now he cleared his throat and straightened his plaid, face shining with excitement.
"Lady Juniper!" he said.
He was young, just seventeen, but his voice already had a trained singer's resonance. Mackenzies thought highly of bards, not least because Juniper herself had followed that trade before the Change, busking and playing the RenFaire circuit. Every dun wanted one trained at her hearth, and they served as heralds and messengers as well, and their songs nurtured the Craft. A little self-importantly he went on in the formal cadence that for some reason always made Juniper sigh and roll her eyes a little:
"Emissaries from abroad, bringing the word of their king. They ask audience and guesting of the Mackenzie."
"Well, they're welcome," Juniper said. Her brows rose. "Not another Cardinal, I hope?"
Nigel hid a grin. The Papal nuncio had visited when he came to reestablish contact with Oregon's Catholics, and not so incidentally put an end to the schism of the Portland Protective Association's home-grown anti-Pope. Despite being an American by birth himself, the good Cardinal had found it a bit of a strain, since while Juniper was polite to a fault she was as sincere in her fashion as the ecclesiastic was in his...
"No, not a Cardinal, Lady." Mabor drew another breath, delighted. "I am to herald the right honorable the Count of Azay, ambassador of His Britannic Majesty, William V, called The Great, Defender of the Faith, King of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, King of France and Spain and his dominions beyond the seas, Hammer of the Moors, Rex Britanniae Maioris et Imperator Occidentalis!"
Nigel's eyebrows shot up. "Good God," he said quietly.
They'd heard some news from Europe since he arrived here on a Tasmanian ship, fleeing Mad King Charles and dropping all unknowing into the War of the Eye. But no direct contact...
There were two guards in full fig by the entranceway, longbow and quiver over their backs, sword and buckler at belt, and spears with the long heads polished bright in their hands—a mistake by Sutterdown, for while Juniper loved ceremony she hated swank. Now the two snapped to attention and rapped their spearbutts on the ground.
Six of the party that entered were guardsmen, one in the full plate of a man-at-arms and the others longbowmen in chain-mail shirts and open-faced sallets. Nigel knew the gear; he'd designed the green-enameled armor himself on the Isle of Wight, that first winter while they were fighting off the hordes of starving refugees and wondering if they'd survive to the next harvest.
A tall man with a limp came through behind the soldiers; he was in riding breeches and a coat of Harris Tweed, with a plain sword-belt around it and an equally plain longsword whose hilt had sweat-stained rawhide bindings. The man was near Nigel's own mid-sixties, countenance scored by years and turned ruddy by a youth spent under the unmerciful sun of the hot countries. He still had a full thatch of hair, white with some gray, and his hard scarred face was dominated by a great beak of a nose above a wide thin-lipped gash of mouth and a knobby chin; the little finger on his left hand was missing. His eyes were dark-green, level and watchful, marksman's eyes.
"Good God," Nigel said, still quietly. "Tony Knolles!"
The last time they'd seen each other had been more than a decade ago, over lowered lances. Charles had still been King then, and Knolles still a strong supporter...
The aquiline face split in a smile—not much of one, but a great ear-to-ear grin if you knew the man, who made Nigel Loring look like an excitable Latin. Nigel stepped forward, hand outstretched; they gripped with sword-callused strength and each searched the other man's face. Nigel was suddenly conscious of how he'd gone egg-bald himself except for a fringe and his mustache, and white-haired except for a few fading streaks of yellow. For the rest he was still trim and upright, even if things creaked and moved more slowly nowadays.
"Good God, Tony!" After a moment of struggling to find words: "And a Count, no less!"
"His Majesty was badly advised enough to do me that honor."
Nigel shook his head again, hauling his wits together by main force. "My dear, an old friend and comrade in arms, Tony Knolles, who saved my life many times."
"And only tried to kill him once," Knolles said, bowing over her hand. "Lady Juniper."
"My husband has told me a good deal of you, Lord Anthony," she said. With an impish smile: "Both the good and the bad of it, sure."
Two small figures came through the crowd. Nigel went on:
"Our eldest daughter, Maude."
At twelve Maude was already nearly as tall as her mother's five-foot-and-a-bit, slender and all limbs and hands and feet, her hair a darker red, her eyes blue as Nigel's. She curtsied, solemn in her green shirt, silver-buckled shoes, kilt and plaid and feathered Scots bonnet. Knolles winced slightly; Maude had been the name of Nigel's first wife, Alleyne's mother. She'd been killed by the Icelandic mercenaries holding the Lorings prisoner on Charles' orders, during the rescue and escape.
"And Fiorbhinn, our youngest," he said.
"Hello, Lord Anthony." The eight-year-old had her mother's leaf-green eyes; her long hair was the yellow-white color of ripe wheat. She gave the English emissary's hand a confident shake.
"Fiorbhinn means Truesweet," she went on, with a wide white smile. "It's the name of a famous harp. I can play the harp already! And Mom says I have perfect pitch. She knows 'cause she does too."
Nigel smiled, watching Knolles blink, and knowing that that hard-souled man of war was instantly made a slave for life.
The visitor cleared his throat. "And this is my son Robert, Lady Juniper. Robert, your godfather."
The guard commander in the suit of plate slid the visor of his sallet up. The face within was Knolles' own, minus forty-odd years and with the nose shrunk to more human proportions, though paler and freckled and with a lock of raven hair hanging down on the forehead.
Nigel shook his hand after he made his bow to Juniper—carefully, which you had to do when the other man was wearing an articulated steel gauntlet; he marveled a little, remembering the gangly child he'd known... where did the years go?
Down into the West without returning, he thought, and added aloud: "I hope your mother's well? She was expecting when I... ah... left England."
"Mother is very well, thank you, Sir Nigel," he said, with a charming smile of his own. "And I have two younger sisters and a brother now. My brother's name is Nigel, by the way."
"Ah..." Knolles senior pulled himself together. "My credentials?"
Nigel saved him from embarrassment with a quick flick of the eyes, and he presented the ribbon-bound documents to Juniper.
She took them gravely. "Be welcome here as my guests and the guests of Clan Mackenzie, Lord Count, Lord Robert. Welcome as the voice of your king, and still more for yourself."
Then, raising her voice slightly to take in the whole party and the lookers-on: "Well, if you good people would like to share dinner, there's just time to get freshened up."
She clapped her hands as the watching crowd buzzed. "The Clan has guests from afar, bringing luck beneath our roof on Samhain's holy eve! Rooms for them! Hot water and soap! See to their horses! And tell the cooks dinner is going to be very welcome!"
Nigel saw Knolles blink as the bagpipers paced around the inner side of the tables, the wild skirling sound filling the great room. Below knives flashed as a roast pig—a yearling, with an apple in its mouth—and a smoking side of beef were reduced to manageable proportions. The other dishes came in with a proud procession of polished salvers.
When the musicians had marched out of the room—to shed their instruments and scurry back in for the meal—Juniper Mackenzie rose to her feet and lifted the silver-mouthed horn from its rest before her to make the Invocation and libation:
"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.
Then she poured out a portion into a bowl and raised the horn high: "To the Lord, to the Lady, to the Luck of the Clan—drink hail!"
Fifty voices roared reply as she drank; Nigel took a sip of his wine. Knolles senior and junior did the same, and then looked down at their glasses with identical surprised respect.
"And to the Clan's guests, come across the sea from the lands of our ancestors—may there always be peace and friendship between us—drink hail!"
As she sat, Knolles leaned close to whisper in Nigel's ear: "Whatever else I expected, it wasn't to find you playing at King of the Picts, old boy."
Nigel looked down at his ruffled shirt, jacket, kilt, plaid pinned at his shoulder with a broach of silver knotwork and turquoise.
"More the Prince Consort of the pseudo-Celts, I'm afraid. Make no mistake, Tony, Juniper is the Chief, not I. I'm one of her military advisors—armsmen, we say—in my official capacity, and that's all."
Juniper leaned forward to look around him at the Count of Azay, mock-indignation in her tone.
"Pseudo-Celts, is it? I'll have you know my mother was born on Achill Island in the Gaeltacht, no less. And my father was an American of Scots descent... mostly Scots. So... nil anon scéal eile agam."
Nigel knew that his old friend could understand the Gaelic: there's no other story, translated literally. He also knew that Knolles had learned the language for the same reason he had; the Provos had used it as a sort of code.
Both the Englishmen had commanded small and extremely clandestine SAS teams in Ulster during the Troubles, mostly in South Armagh—and occasionally, highly illegally and unofficially, across the Irish border. By her sly grin Juniper was recalling exactly the same thing, and by his snort Knolles had realized that she knew, and knew that he knew.
She went on: "And you're probably wondering—"
Then she dropped impishly into a creditable imitation of the upper-class public-school-cum-officer's-mess drawl that was the native dialect of Nigel and his friend both:
"Are all these people utterly barking mad?"
"Not in the least," Knolles said, obviously lying stoutly.
"The kilts weren't my idea," she said. "Honest. And the rest of it... sort of grew, like Topsy."
Nigel saw the other man's reserve crack a little; Juniper had that effect on people. There was a creak of dry amusement in Knolles' voice when he spoke:
"I did have thoughts along those lines in Portland... those bizarre castles! The titles, and way they dress and speak! Were they all struck on the head at birth by copies of Ivanhoe? Although the Regent, Lady Sandra... she was disconcerting, to say the least, and impressive, in a rather terrifying way. Still, how did all that happen?"
Knolles' voice was a little plaintive by the end. Nigel chuckled.
"The man who founded the Association was a history professor, you see—a medieval specialist—and one of those re-creationist Johnnies, like Alleyne. The most charitable explanation is that the Change sent him mad."
"Or that he was always an evil weasel of a man and the Change gave him the opportunity to show it," Juniper said. "It caused no end of trouble, and it didn't die with him."
"Ah, re-creationists," Knolles said. "Very useful some of them were in England as instructors, as you'll recall, Nigel. Where is young Alleyne?"
"Uncle Alleyne is married to Aunt Astrid," Maude Loring said from the other side of her mother.
Juniper amplified: "Astrid is Signe Havel's younger sister, the widow of the Bearkiller lord... the people over on the western side of the Willamette, between the Association and Corvallis. Astrid is Lady of the Dúnedain Rangers, with my daughter Eilir."
Maude's grave face suddenly broke out in a smile as she abandoned the struggle to be adult for a moment:
"If you think we're weird, Lord Count, you should meet them. They live in the woods, and they speak Elvish to each other. All the time."
Knolles blinked, obviously wondering if his leg was being pulled. Nigel gave him a grave shake of the head: It's quite true, old chap. Aloud he added:
"Although Alleyne acts as a moderating influence and so does my stepdaughter Eilir. She's married to John Hordle now. You'll remember Hordle—SAS just before the Change, promoted to battalion sergeant-major just before we... left... England."
"Ah, yes. Big chappie, carried a bastard longsword," Knolles said.
Then he harrumphed diplomatically before going on; Hordle had also put an arrow through one of Knolles' men during Nigel's escape.
"Ah, well, considering all that's gone on back Home, we're not in a position to judge. Have you been following events out there at all, Nigel?"
"In outline; news does travel, if slowly, and Abbot Dmwoski forwards some of the Church's reports to us. I know Charles died—"
"Hallgerda killed him when he finally refused to disinherit his older sons in favor of her brood, though it was never proved," Knolles said flatly.
His knobby fist clenched. "And then tried to seize power herself. Colonel Buttesthorn and I and a few others put a stop to that. And put William on the throne."
"We heard that he'd beaten the Moors. Good show, that."
Though to most here, it didn't matter much more than hearing how Prince Piotr of Belgorod and Hetman Bohdan of the All-Great Kuban Cossack Host defeated the Tartars outside Astrakhan last year, Loring thought. How one's horizons shrink...
Knolles nodded. "We and a coalition beat them—the Norlanders, the Umbrian League, the Kingdom of Sicily, the Republic of Shannon—we even had ships and men from the Cypriot Greeks. Defeated them at sea off the Canaries, then burned out the nests they'd established along the coast of Morocco, then chased them south and gave them a damned good drubbing at home. There's been the odd dust-up with Berber raiders from the Atlas since, but nothing significant."
The fierce hawk-like green eyes kindled. "Mind you, about six years ago I was with a party exploring the ruins of Marrakech, and—"
"And we heard that William called a new Parliament," Nigel said dryly.
Knolles flushed; it was for advocating that move that Nigel and his wife Maude had been put under arrest by Charles the Mad and his Icelandic ice-queen in the first place, while Knolles had still been satisfied with the Emergency Regulations.
"Yes, yes, yes, you were right, you were right, you were bloody well right, Nigel. And we've set up a new House of Lords along the old lines," Knolles went on. "Quite old..."
"Not altogether the way our ancestors did it, I hope!" Nigel said.
"Very much in the manner our grandfathers would recognize. Things have worked out quite nicely since. The capital's still in Winchester, the Icelanders and Faeroese are settling in and marrying out, their grandchildren will be English to the bone—"
His son grinned and made a gesture towards his own chest; his mother's name was Dagmar, and she'd come from Torshavn along with a flood of others from the northern isles in the earliest Change Years.
"—and we've resettled Britain—thinly—as far as the Midlands, and made a good start on the Continent."
"That's quick work!" Nigel said.
"Well, you can't move for tripping over the next generation, that's true; everyone's breeding like damned rabbits. And we've been getting a steady trickle of immigrants from the east Baltic, and from Ireland, too—easier since we're all bloody beadsqueezers again. No offense," he said hastily to Juniper.
"None taken," she said, laughing. "I was raised Catholic myself, of course, but—"she waved a hand around. "You might say it didn't entirely take."
"There's understatement of positively English proportions," Nigel said.
"You've corrupted me with your Sassenach ways, my love. Sure, and I can feel my upper lip stiffening the now."
Knolles went on: "And we've agreed to divide things with the Norlanders along the old German border, and with the Umbrian League along the old Italian one... that's a trifle theoretical, when all we've got is a few outposts along the coasts and rivers. It'll be centuries before we're back to even the medieval era's numbers."
Nigel nodded. He'd helped develop the initial appraisal and plans, and had led expeditions to feel out that vast eerie wilderness.
"That's where the King of Greater Britain and Emperor of the West comes in?"
"The Imperial title was the late Pope Benedict's idea," Knolles said. "He and the Archbishop sprang it on William at the coronation, after the Moorish War, in 2010."
"Rather the way his predecessor did with Charlemagne?" Nigel mused.
"Precisely. Benedict was there for the Church reunion talks, you see. They both preached a Crusade..."
"And the coronation was with your connivance, Father," Robert Knolles said.
Knolles senior harrumphed and poked his fork at a slice of roast beef, cut a piece, administered horseradish and took a bite. He coughed slightly after that—the sauce was nuclear-strength. Then he continued:
"Ah... well, that brings us to the reason for the visit, Nigel. We didn't know your situation here in any detail, you see, except that you and Alleyne had landed on your feet as might be expected of Lorings, and His Majesty is deeply grateful for your saving his life—"
"Several times," Robert Knolles put in, unabashed when his father gave him a quelling glance. "And setting up the contacts that put him on the throne instead of his late unlamented stepmother when the time came."
"Late unlamented?" Loring asked, with an arched brow.
The elder Knolles continued: "She shuffled off eight months ago, from the effects of house arrest, idleness, curdled venom and lashings of strong drink. And His Majesty has asked me to inform you that it pleases him to offer you... well, he's made you an Earl, you see. Earl of Bristol. With the estates appertaining thereunto, as well as your family land at Tilford, of course."
Nigel felt his jaw drop, and closed it with an effort of will. "Good God."
"He'd like you to return; earnestly requests it, in fact, and sent a ship we really can't spare all the way here to fetch you. Confidentially, he'd also like you to have ministerial rank with a roving commission, and both Houses concur."
"Father is one of the top-nobs of the Tories, these days," Robert added. "And note that His Majesty hasn't given you a continental title, godfather, nor the proverbial 'estate in France'. Good English farms, fully tenanted."
At Nigel's raised brow, the young man amplified: "In England an estate in France is a synonym for 'dubious gift', or 'white elephant', these days, sir—land that gives you a position in society and then prevents you from keeping it up. Father repented and came over to the side of the righteous, but rather late."
Knolles snorted. "Nonsense. The land at Azay is first-rate; better climate than anywhere in England proper, and there are the vineyards—"
"Bushy, overgrown vineyards, half-dead..."
"—And the Chateau—
"The ruins of the Chateau.
"Ruins? Nonsense; it never really caught on fire... not completely... and half the roof was still intact. It just... well, it needed a spot of work."
"And still does, I rather think, Father... work for my grandchildren."
"Silence, whelp. In any case, Nigel, I've got a belt, a sword and an ermine cloak for you, and a bally great parchment to go with it. Thing's festooned with enough seals and ribbons for a publican's license, too."
Nigel began to laugh, quietly at first, then whole-heartedly. Mopping at an eye with his napkin, he replied: "I'm truly sorry to disappoint King William, and you, Tony, but my life is here now. Not to mention my wife, and my daughters; and my son, and his children—a grandson and two granddaughters, so far. This is where we'll leave our bones. Give His Majesty my regrets and my best wishes for a long and prosperous reign. I thought the lad would turn out well."
He turned his head to meet Juniper's bright-green eyes for an instant; they crinkled in the face that loved his line for line, and their hands linked fingers beneath the covering tablecloth.
"Not tempted by the prospect of being Countess Juniper, my dear?"
"Chief's bad enough. I'd scandalize your William's court, that's beyond doubting."
Knolles sighed. "I thought that was the reply I'd get, as soon as I walked in. Your stepson warned me; we met outside the gates. Remarkable young fellow, even on brief acquaintance. Usually one feels an impulse to kick a man with good looks of that order, but I didn't this time."
"Remarkable young scamp," Juniper said. "He didn't warn us you were here, the creature."
Knolles hesitated. "There is one thing more, Nigel. And Lady Juniper. You haven't had much contact with the Atlantic coast of North America, have you?"
"None at all; we know more about East Asia, or even the Indian Ocean countries," Juniper said. "Scarcely even rumors from east of the Mississippi." She winced slightly. "Just enough to know that it was... very bad there. As bad as California, or what Nigel tells of Europe, or mainland Britain."
Knolles nodded somberly. Nobody who had lived through the Change as an adult would ever be quite free of those memories. It had been worst of all in the hyperdeveloped zones.
"On the American mainland, yes, it was very bad. But some islands did much better. Prince Edward Island best of all; rather as the Isle of Wight or Orkney did in relation to Britain. After the, ah, after King William came to the throne, they established close ties with the old country—in fact, they've MPs in Parliament at Winchester now, and seats in the Lords."
"William isn't repeating George III's mistakes, eh?" Nigel said, savoring the joke.
Though it wasn't like Anthony Knolles to waffle around a subject. The other Englishman cleared his throat.
"Among the places they've landed... or tried to... is Nantucket."
He shot a glance at them from under shaggy brows to see if the name of the island off southern New England meant anything to them. They both looked back soberly.
"Then the rumors were true?" Juniper asked softly. "I've talked to those who were listening or watching the news services, right at the time of the Change. To some who were listening while they flew a plane over mountains, sure! The reports were of something extraordinary going on there on Nantucket, just before—"
All three nodded. The flash of light that wasn't really light—even the blind had seen it—and the intolerable spike of pain felt by every creature on Earth advanced enough to have a spinal cord. And then the world was Changed; explosives no longer exploded, electricity wouldn't flow in metal wires, combustion engines silently died, nuclear reactors sat and glowed below their melt-down temperatures until the isotopes decayed and became inert. A civilization built on high-energy technologies writhed and died as well. There had been little time then for anything but sheer survival, but in all the years since no slightest hint had been found to account for the why of it.
Eventually a few scientists had measured the effects with what crude equipment could be cobbled together within the new limits; all they'd found was how eerily the Change was tailored, to make a generator impossible but leave nerves functioning as they always had... and that beyond the immediate vicinity of Earth everything seemed to be proceeding as normal. You couldn't even prove that the Change hadn't happened before. Prior to gunpowder, who would have known? Most of humanity put it down to the will of God, or Gods, or the devil; a stubborn minority held out for inscrutably powerful aliens from outer space or another dimension.
"A dome of lights miles high and miles across, and the water boiling around the edge of it, yes," Knolles said in a flat matter-of-fact tone. "Multicolored lights, crawling over it like lightning... that's quite definite. We've collected hundreds of testimonies, and found some eyewitness records written down right afterwards, even a photograph or two. I do not believe it is a coincidence such a thing happened just seconds before the Change."
"So what did they find, there, your Bluenose explorers?" Juniper asked.
Nigel could feel the pulse beat faster in the hand he held, and his own matching it. This wasn't just a rumor, that was proof... though of what, only the Powers could say.
Juniper went on: "Not the dome of lights, still there—that we would have heard of. They'd have heard of that in Tibet, sure!"
Knolles turned to his son. The young officer was in the red-coated dress uniform into which he'd changed when he shed his armor, but he'd also brought a small rectangular box pierced with holes from the diplomatic party's baggage. Nigel had assumed it was a gift of some sort.
Now he brought it up from the floor, and folded back the covers around it. A soft crooo-cruuuu came from it, and behind wire mesh strutted a bird, cocking its head at the light and looking with interest at a piece of bread nearby.
Juniper's breath was the first to catch. She'd been a student of the wilds all her life, long before the Change, and had read widely then and since about the life of other lands and times.
It was an unremarkable bird at first glance; a long-tailed pigeon with a bluish-gray head, the back and wings mottled gray with black patches, paler underparts blush-red at the throat and fading to rosy cream. The only thing startling about it were the bright-red eyes...
Juniper made a small choked sound, putting her hand to her torc as if the twisted gold was throttling her. Her eyes went wide as she turned to Nigel.
"Do... do you..." she stuttered, something he'd never heard before, her eyes so wide the white showed all around the pale-green iris.
"Yes, my dear," he said quietly, and pushed a crust into the cage.
Then he began to smile, joy and awe struggling with natural reserve as the bird pecked. "It's a passenger pigeon."
"What is it, my dear?" Nigel asked sleepily.
"I don't know," Juniper Mackenzie said, sitting up in the bed and reaching for her robe. "But—"
A fist knocked on the door; she turned up the bedside lamp and hurried over. Nigel was on his feet, hand resting inconspicuously on the hilt of the longsword. When she threw open the door a man stood there, white-faced and stuttering.
Nigel's hand closed on the rawhide-and-wire binding of the sword-hilt. He knew the signs of raw terror.
"Lady Juniper! Sir Nigel! There's been a fight at the Sheaf and Sickle, terrible bad. Folk hurt and killed!"
Sheaf and Sickle Inn, Sutterdown, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Samhain Eve, CY22/2020 AD
Juniper Mackenzie pushed through the door into the familiar taproom of the Sheaf and Sickle, the armsmen at her heels; Nigel was outside, seeing to the circuit of the town walls lest any killers still at large try to escape. She let out a quiet breath of relief at the sight of Rudi standing beside a table where a healer worked; the twins and Mathilda and Odard were nearby, and all five were unhurt. The smells of blood and violent death were there, mingling horribly with the familiar homey scent of the place.
"Well?" she said. "It's a slaughter this is, of my people on my land, and I'd know the meaning of it! It's the Morrigú and the Wild Huntsman we're dealing with tonight, and no mistake."
Rudi nodded and gave her an account, succinct and neat as his tutors in the arts of war had taught him; she gasped at his account of Saba's death. His mouth tightened as anger drove the grue of horror out of him. Upstairs Tom and Moira and their close kin were keening their daughter; the muffled sound of the shrieks rose to a crescendo, then died away into rhythmic moans, laden with unutterable grief, before rising again.
"I'm a warrior by trade," Rudi said bitterly. "Saba wasn't. She shouldn't have had to fight her last fight alone. First I couldn't save her husband, and then this... May she forgive me, and speak kindly of me to the Guardians."
"She's with her Raen in the Summerlands, and with all her beloveds," Juniper said quietly, putting an arm around him for a moment.
"I know, mother. It doesn't make me feel any better, much less her children."
"It isn't meant to," Juniper said, a little sternness in her voice. "That's why we keen over the dead; grief is for the living."
He nodded; they couldn't even do that, not being close enough in blood.
"I'm glad we came here, though," he said. "It would have been worse if we'd stayed at Raven House. These dirt were already here, waiting to strike; they might have gotten away over the town wall."
They glanced aside. The healer's lips were pursed in disapproval as she worked at the big dining table; far too many of the inn's guests were milling about and babbling nearby, despite it still being hours to dawn. A stranger was helping her, a monastic in a black Benedictine robe, with the loose sleeves pinned back up to his shoulders.
Most of the rest weren't making themselves useful. Some of the outlanders had even had the nerve to try and demand service from the staff. Rudi looked at Juniper, and she nodded slightly; he made a chopping gesture to his friends.
The twins pushed the crowd back—once by the simple expedient of seizing a man by the elbows and pitching him four feet into the air, to land mostly on his head—and then drew their swords and stood like slender black-and-silver statues with the points resting on an invisible line across the room, and Odard and Mathilda beside them. Nobody stepped over it; after a moment a few neighbors came to stand around them, glowering at the strangers. Some of the wiser foreigners headed back to their rooms.
That gave them space and time to go view the bodies of the assassins, laid out on tarpaulins. Juniper had never become entirely inured to the sight of violent death, but she could make herself ignore the wounds and the tumbled diminished look of a corpse when she must.
"This is a strange thing, and you're right, my darling one; these weren't bandits; they're too well-fed and they've the look of trained men."
"They were," he said grimly. "Well trained, at that."
"Nor was this any random killing, despite the wealth yonder stranger has in his baggage. Some ruler is behind this—and not one we're familiar with."
"The Association?" he said reluctantly.
Mathilda was standing out of earshot, her face still white as a sheet beneath her tan.
She handled the fight well, from what Rudi says, Juniper thought. But she's not as hard-bitten yet as she'd like to pretend, the which is all to the good. Lord and Lady preserve us from rulers who kill without regret or look on it without being shaken. Of which her mother is a horrible example...
Rudi sighed in relief when his mother shook her head.
"Not... not quite their style, and those men—" she nodded towards the bodies "—are strangers to this land."
"Lady Sandra's ruthless enough," Rudi said quietly.
"More than ruthless enough, but she has far more sense, and so do Grand Constable Tiphaine, and the Count of Odell who's Chancellor now. None of them would risk anything while Mathilda is with us. No, this is... I feel something moving here. We've had the rest we were promised, after the war with Arminger. Perhaps it's coming to an end, and the Powers sing a new song, with us as instrument and melody both."
Her gaze grew wholly human once more, but harder now and shrewd: she was Chief as well as High Priestess, the woman who'd pulled her friends and kin through the time of madness and the death of a world, and built the Clan from refugees and shards.
"It's best you know. It wasn't just an old friend of Nigel who was calling after you left Raven House and came here, and I don't think it's entirely coincidence. We'll have to learn how the threads knit."
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