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THE SUNRISE LANDS

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Sutterdown, Willamette Valley, Oregon

November 15th, CY22/2020 AD

 

Father Ignatius, priest, monk and knight-brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict, stopped and looked around casually as he wiped his quill pen and sharpened it with the little razor built into the writing-set that was part of his travel-kit. The writing was a combination of letters and numbers that would make no sense to anyone who didn't know the running key—it was based on a medieval Latin version of the Gospel of Mark preserved in the Mt. Angel library, and using letters based on their position in the Greek alphabet for numbers under twenty-six—but he didn't want anyone to know it was in code.

A balance of risks, he thought. If I were to write in my room, everyone would assume it was a secret message, since the light and space are so much better here.

Nobody paid much attention to him, which he'd counted on. Mt. Angel, the town and fortress-monastery that held the Mother House of his Order, was only fifty miles north of here, and the Clan and the Benedictines had been allies since the early days after the Change. They'd fought the greatest battle of the War of the Eye together, not far from his parent's little farm. He didn't remember that well—he'd been ten—but relations had stayed friendly, and a traveling cleric wasn't rare enough to be noteworthy in Sutterdown.

And he was nothing remarkable to look at himself, a dark man of middling height, slender save for the broad shoulders and thick wrists of a swordsman.

There weren't many people in the Sheaf and Sickle's common room today in any case; this was the slow season for inns, as well as being a house of grief. He'd offered to move out, but the Brannigans insisted that he stay as long as he wished—and he suspected that they welcomed the prospect of work, as a distraction.

A round dozen guests didn't begin to crowd it, even when half of them were playing darts and the rest sitting, and occasionally singing, over their mugs of cider. A low fire crackled in the big stone hearth, giving off a pleasant smell of fir-wood. One of the younger Brannigan daughters came out with a tray bearing his lunch; she looked a little haggard, but the smile was genuine as she set the bowl of stew and platter of cut bread, butter, cheese and radishes down before him.

"Thank you, my child; that smells delicious."

"Sure, and you're welcome, Father," she replied. "Call out if there's anything more you're wanting. We're serving roast beef tonight, and there's dried-cherry pie for after."

If she noticed him moving his arm so that the broad sleeve of his robe covered most of the writing, she didn't give any indication of it.

I like Mackenzies, he thought, not for the first time.

They were a mannerly folk, if less stiff and solemn about it than some would prefer, and for all their free and easy ways they didn't have the magpie inquisitiveness you'd find in one of the Association's towns, or the single-minded pursuit of either Mammon or some academic fad that grated on the nerves in Corvallis. Granted their absurd religion was silly at best and conducive to sin at worst...

If only they could be brought to the Truth, what an ornament to the Faith they would be. O Lord, may it be soon! Do not keep Your light from these good folk! Mary pierced with sorrows, intercede for them.

Still, evangelization was not his task, particularly not now; and Mackenzies were a difficult target anyway. Their cheerful eclecticism made ordinary argument about as effective as trying to wrestle with a sheepskin blanket. He signed himself with the Cross and murmured a grace over the meal, then began to eat. The stew was mutton with barley and carrots and onions, tangy with herbs—what 'savory' really meant, rather than the 'dark and salty' which often had to substitute for it. It went down well on a cold winter day, with rain that was half-slush beating against the roof and windows.

As he ate he read: The assailants were definitely Corwinites and, to a high probability, of the personal troops of the false Prophet, who are often used for special operations. Why the CUT was willing to risk provoking the hostility of the Mackenzies to kill Ingolf Vogeler I have been unable to determine; nor, I believe, do the Mackenzie leaders themselves know. Vogeler has been on the verge of death for many days but is now expected to recover.

Mackenzie physicians were excellent, and those at Dun Juniper best of all. They added magic and pagan prayers to the drugs and instruments, but that apparently did no harm.

I will attempt to gather further information when he does. My preliminary hypothesis is that he carries information that Corwin is desperately anxious the Western powers should not obtain.

He looked down, wondering if that was a little obvious. The Mother House of his order at Mt. Angel had been worried about the Church Universal and Triumphant for some time; they had missions and chapter houses throughout what had once been the Pacific Northwest apart from New Deseret, and of course the Catholic Church as a whole was also concerned. Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski had hoped that as the Prophet sank further into madness the menace would subside, but instead it had grown as his adopted son Sethaz took over more and more of the reins.

The Cardinal-Archbishop of Portland had been concerned enough to forward their reports to the New Vatican in Badia. Not that the Holy See could do much more than offer advice and comfort and prayer; it was many months sailing away, across stormy, pirate-ridden oceans and lands often hostile when they weren't empty.

Still, prayer is more powerful than armies, in the end, he thought. The sword is useless without the heart and will.

His eyes traveled on through the neat letter-combinations:

With respect to my original mission, the Princess Mathilda is still at Dun Juniper, with her retinue. She and they take the Sacraments regularly from her chaplain-confessor. No apparent change has taken place in her relationship to the Mackenzie tanist. I will—

He finished the report and the stew at about the same time, mopped the bowl with a heel of the bread, then folded the pages into the envelope, sealed it, and heated a wafer over the tabletop lantern. That he pressed across the flap—with a cunning hair plucked from his tonsured head concealed beneath it in a certain pattern—and stamped his signet ring into the soft crimson wax. There were ways to lift a wax seal and replace it, but the hair trick hadn't been discovered by anyone yet.

Or at least not that the Order knows of, he thought dryly. Paranoia was an occupational hazard of intelligence work. Many are the marvels of God's Creation, but none so marvelous as man. Or so cunning, for good and ill.

"Would you be wanting me to send that down to the station, Father?" the Brannigan girl asked, as she came back to collect the dishes.

He smiled at the musical lilt. The Benedictines still encouraged scholarship, even if their main concerns were more immediately practical these days. One of his courses in the Seminary had been on the post-Change evolution of variant forms of English, and the Mackenzies' speech was a fascinating case of the semi-deliberate formation of a new dialect. The process was continuing in the second generation, and even picking up speed.

"No, thank you, my child," he said, tucking the letter into his sleeve and picking up his sword-belt. "I'll take it down myself, and get in some practice."

Outside the dark afternoon was chilly, and the slush had turned to wet snow; even the bright colored carvings that Mackenzies loved so seemed a little dimmed in the gloom of the Black Months. The warrior-cleric pulled up the hood of his robe and walked briskly, absently telling his rosary with his left hand as he walked and keeping his footing on the slippery sidewalk. Even before he'd joined the Order he'd been no stranger to cold and hard work; his family had a farm not far from Mt. Angel, and he'd grown up with chores year-round.

Not many people were out—this was the school season for the Clan's children, and most of the adults in Sutterdown had work indoors, being craftsfolk or artists or merchants. The sounds of labor came through the walls, or opened windows that spilled yellow lamplight; the thump and rattle of looms, the whining hum of treadle-worked machinery, the quick delicate tap-tap-tap the hammer of a silversmith made, the clank of a printing-press.

Those who passed him were bundled up against the weather; most gave him cheerful greeting. There were a fair number of carts on the streets, loaded with country produce and weavor timber and hides and wool and linen thread and metalwork from the mills and foundry outside the walls. Father Ignatius took the west gate, nodding to the guards who looked cold and miserable and bored as they stood beneath the portals, then walked down to the railroad.

The old Southern Pacific tracks were bare right now; the horse-drawn trains came through only often enough to keep a strip down the center of each metal rail free of rust. The little red-brick train station still stood, though, and several new warehouses near it—full of flax and woolen cloth and huge kegs of Brannigan's famous ale, and Clan handicrafts that were almost as well-known. The letter in his sleeve would go north more swiftly, on one of the pedal-driven railcarts that carried mail and high-value goods more swiftly than anything else in the Changed world.

One of the warehouses was empty save for a few long bundles of steel rebar against one wall, wired together and waiting to be delivered to some smithy or forge, and an assortment of battered practice weapons hung on hooks. Even here the support columns and rafters had been surface-carved in a design of stylized leaves and branches, with whimsical faces peering out here and there. An elephant-headed godlet sat on a flower in a niche by the door, some protective spirit of commerce.

The dry dirt floor was broad and empty, and a dozen Mackenzies were using it for sparring; this weather was a bit much for even the Clan's longbowmen to practice their archery outside. Eight men and four women were at work, leaping and shouting in the active, foining Mackenzie blade-style as they thrust and cut with shortswords of padded wood or battle spears with rubber blades and butt-caps. Dull thunk sounds echoed as metal bucklers stopped blows, and occasionally a louder thwack and a yelp as one went home.

Ignatius hung up his sword-belt, pulled off his robe and drew his longsword. Beneath the monastic garment he was dressed in plain pants and tunic of undyed hodden-gray wool, a bit chilly in this weather, but good for soaking up sweat.

Then he began a series of forms, slowly at first to stretch and warm muscle and tendon, then faster and faster—singlehand, the two-handed style derived from old Japanese models, and then with a shield on his left arm. Soon the cloven air was hissing beneath the sharp steel as it swung in glittering arcs, his sharp barking hai! cutting through the clamor.

"Come for a rest from prayer, Father?" a big Mackenzie with a dark beard said, as the cleric stopped to shake out his arm and take a drink of water from the bucket on one of the wooden pillars.

Ignatius laughed. "It's my duty to keep my skills sharp, Cethern," he said; he knew the man, a wagoner by trade. "Prayer is a monk's rest, our joy."

For a moment he was pierced by longing for the beautiful ancient discipline of the hours behind Mt. Angel's walls, the sound of chant and bells and silence that was like a singing itself as the mind and heart turned wholly towards God.

Take up your cross, he told himself. Each of us must. Give me strength, O Lord, that I may carry mine to Heaven's gate.

"Still, any skill can be an offering to God," he said to the clansman. "Care for a bout?"

And physical activity helped the mind relax. It would be some time before he could probe deeper into the dangerous mystery of the stranger from out of the east.

 

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Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon

December 1st, CY22/2020 AD

 

I'm dreaming, Ingolf Vogeler knew. By moonlight.

Three women in dark hooded robes stood at the foot of his bed. The one in the center threw back her cowl; cool light fell across her and touched the silver crescent on her brow, and the red hair that tumbled across the shoulders of her robe. She raised her hands, palms open as if to cup the opalescent glow, her lips curved in a smile of infinite compassion. Her voice was soft as she sang; somewhere a bell chimed quietly in time to the tune:

 

"Come to me, Lord and Lady

Heal this spirit, heal this soul

Come to me, Lord and Lady

Mind and body shall be whole!"

 

Beast of the burning sunlight

Sear this wound that pain may cease

Mistress of the silver moonlight

Hold us fast and bring us peace—

 

Come to me, Lord and Lady

Mind and body shall be whole!"

 

"Mom?" he murmured weakly, though he knew she wasn't.

A hand touched his forehead. "Always, my darling one. Sleep now, and heal."

Darkness.

 

@@@

 

Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon

December 6th, CY22/2020 AD

 

"Where am I?" Ingolf asked, as his eyes blinked open.

It's been a while, he knew.

There were vague memories of heat and pain and movement, of struggling for each breath as if his lungs were full of hot sticky syrup, of voices and faces and things half-seen in dreams. His head being raised and something salty spooned into his mouth, of voices chanting and more pain, a deep stabbing ache on his left side.

Everything seemed to be very distant and remote, and he was exhausted as if he'd worked all day rather than just woken up, but he was more himself this time. He looked at his right hand; it was resting on a clean sheet of beige linen, with a checked blanket of soft wool beneath that and a pillow under his head. His arm was thin, thinner than he could ever remember it being, and his whole body felt heavy, as if his skin had been taken off and replaced by lead.

A face leaned over him. A woman's face, with a thick braid of grizzled black hair and a bold beak of a nose in a strong-boned face that had aged well; there was no resemblance in looks, but she reminded him of his mother. Her hair smelled of some herbal wash; the room of soap and warm fir-wood and sweet cedar-like incense.

"You're in Dun Juniper," she said. "I'm a healer, my name is Judy Barstow Mackenzie, and I'm looking after you. You've been very sick; your wound became infected when you were moved, and you developed pneumonia as well and nearly died. We've saved the arm and you will heal. Now drink this."

Her hand came behind his head, and he put his lips to the cup she held. It was chicken broth, hot and good but not too hot to swallow, and as he did he could feel how empty he was within.

"I have to..." he stopped, embarrassed, conscious of his full bladder, and even more of the implications of the heavy cloth pad around his hips like a giant diaper.

She smiled then. "I'm a mother and a healer and fifty-two years old; there's nothing that'll surprise me, my lad. Here."

She helped him use a bedpan, and then pulled the blankets back up. "Rest now."

 

@@@

 

He woke and ate and slept, woke and ate and slept, conscious only of the body's needs.

When he came fully to himself again it was daylight, though dim, and his head was altogether clear although he still felt no impulse to move. He was in a room not much bigger than the bed; it had a small brick hearth with a little iron door to close on the flame, and a wicker basket of split wood beside it, and a table with jugs and a basin and bottles. Aromatic steam smelling of pine and herbs jetted softly from a kettle on the hearth; a window with four panes of glass let in some light—snow was falling against it, but he was comfortably warm, and streaks of moisture trickled down the fogged glass. Bands of carving ran horizontally across walls of smooth-fitted plank, leaves and sinuous elongated gripping beasts; the floor was brown tile.

There was a consciousness of potential pain in his left arm, but no actual hurt; he spread and closed his hands several times. The hush of snowfall was in the air, but he could hear faint noises—the familiar thock... thock of an ax splitting wood, the thump of looms, the voices of children playing, the ting...ting...ting... of someone beating iron in a smithy. By the noise he judged he was in the second story of a building with thick log walls, and one in a settlement of some size but not a city or even a town.

Right across from him on the wall was a picture, made by carving a slab of wood and then painting to bring out the low relief. It was of a woman robed and mantled in blue, but he didn't think it was the Virgin Mary; for one thing she carried a flame in one hand and a sheaf of wheat in the other, and she was standing on stars and wearing the crescent moon as a crown. The carving was very fine; he could see the tenderness in her smile...

More importantly, his shete and dagger and tomahawk were standing in a bundle beside the door, wrapped about with his weapons belt, although he couldn't have lifted them to save his life right now. His own rosary and crucifix hung from the bedpost. Whatever he was he wasn't a prisoner here. There was water on the table, but he couldn't reach it. He croaked out a call, and the door opened and a head came in.

"Hi!"

Another woman, much younger than the one he'd seen, but with a look of her as if she were close kin. Around thirty, he thought; but paler and longer-faced, her abundant braided hair a light brown, with a stocky-strong build but not much spare flesh. She was dressed in a kilt and indigo-blue shirt, knee-socks and low buckled shoes, with a stethoscope around her neck; there was the same matter-of-fact competence in the way she helped him drink, listened to his chest, gave him some sharp-tasting medicine in a spoon, then took his temperature with a glass thermometer and compared it to notes on a clipboard at the foot of the bed.

"Perfectly normal, Mr. Vogeler," she said. "For three days now, and the wound's been fully closed for a while. Mother will be pleased; she had to go back in to clean it out, you see. I'm Tamsin Barstow Mackenzie—call me Tamsin. You'll be able to stand a little in a couple of days."

She grinned at him. "And walk as far as the bathroom, with help. Won't that be nice, sure and it will?"

"It will! Could I have something to eat now, Miss Tamsin?" he asked. "Lord, I'm hungry!"

"You are getting better the now!"

Then he frowned; the lilting accent reminded him: "Ah... there was a lady, her name was Saba..."

She put a hand on his shoulder. "Saba Brannigan? I'm afraid... You fought very well, but she was killed. I'm sorry."

Humiliatingly, he felt tears coursing down his cheeks and couldn't stop them, which told him how weak he still was. Tamsin handed him a square of linen handkerchief and left, long enough for him to compose himself.

When she returned her mother was with her, and she carried a tray with a bowl of soup and pieces of fine white wheat-bread and butter. The soup was chicken again, but this time with pieces of the meat in it, and carrots and noodles; there were herbs he'd never tasted before for seasoning, and he couldn't remember having anything as good—though that was probably partly because it had been so long. He ate it all, expected to want more, and found that it exactly matched what he could take. While they propped him up by turning a crank under the bed he had a chance to look at his left arm again, knowing what he'd been told.

His eyebrows went up as he really looked at the thick purple scar. Men rarely recovered from such a serious wound if it mortified. He raised the limb and worked it carefully, wincing slightly. There was a tug and pull when he stretched it, and he'd have trouble lifting a feather, but the range of motion seemed good.

I'm not crippled, he thought, with a rush of relief. Aloud he went on:

"That did turn real nasty, ma'am. I'm surprised I lived."

"So am I, with the pneumonia. You'd been pushing beyond what your body could bear, but it wasn't your time," the older woman said; this time he was alert enough that he noticed a reserve in her tone. The younger looked at her and smiled.

"Mother stayed up with you for days," she said.

Judy shrugged. "It wasn't your time to make accounting to the Guardians," she repeated. "You'll be on light solids from now on and your recovery ought to be very rapid. We'll start a physiotherapy program immediately."

When she saw he didn't know the word, she amplified: "Special exercises for the injured arm. There's scar tissue—you'll have to be careful to get full strength back."

"I'm most grateful, ma'am," he said. "To you and your folks. I hope I can do something in return."

Her gaze thawed a little. "Well, Mr. Vogeler, we would like you to answer some questions. And I think you're about strong enough to do that, soon, if not much else."

A yell came from somewhere not to far away. Ingolf started and paled; that was a woman crying out in pain. Judy Barstow shook her head. "Right on time," she said, and walked out.

Tamsin smiled at him before she followed, seeing the alarm on his face. "Childbirth," she said, and snorted. "It's Dechtire Smith. This is her third, she's strong as a plow-horse with hips like one too, but she always insists on the clinic and pretends she's dying."

"Well... it hurts," he said, relieved it was something so natural. "And it is dangerous."

Back home the men all went out and drank applejack when the midwife came, and pretended not to jump every time a shriek rang out. If it was bad enough for a real doctor, they drank more.

Tamsin nodded. "With two of my own, don't I know it hurts! But it doesn't hurt like that, when it goes well. We don't lose many mothers here, Mr. Vogeler—not one in a thousand. Believe me: that woman's not happy unless she's getting sympathy."

The brief flare of emotion had tired him, and the soup and bread were making him sleepy. He let his head fall back and slept once more.

 

@@@

 

Rudi Mackenzie bent and lifted the end of the Douglas fir onto the sledge, getting some of the sticky aromatic sap on his gloves as he heaved it up. Shouting and laughing, their breaths puffing in the cold damp air amid the drifting snowflakes and the mealy scent of them, the others bent and heaved and the whole length was on it, and it was the work of a moment to lash it down.

He turned and bowed his head a last time to the stump while he rubbed the sap off the leather of his gauntlets; they'd made the usual apology and explanation when they cut it yesterday, which should satisfy Cernunnos. The tree was to represent His member, after all. Then he whistled.

A tall glossy-black horse brought her head up sharply not far away, where she'd been nosing the snow, more for something to do than from hope of finding anything edible; he could tell she was bored by the whole business. Despite the winter her midnight coat shone, and when she trotted over she seemed to float, barely tapping the earth with her hooves.

The reins leading to her light hackamore bridle were looped up over the saddlebow. Nobody had used a bit on Epona since they met; Rudi didn't need one and it would be futile for anyone else to try. He'd had the horse since she was just under four and he was ten—that made her sixteen now, middle-aged in horse years, but even experienced wranglers usually put her at seven or eight at first sight.

"Well, you asked to come along," he said, scolding affectionately as he stroked her neck and she lipped at his hair. "You get all pissy about me taking someone else out, even your own get, and then I bring you and you sulk because it's boring."

She'd never liked seeing him working with other horses, not even her own daughters Macha Mongruad and Rhiannon. Rudi put a hand on her withers and vaulted into the saddle. He still remembered how proud he'd been the first time he could do that—she was just a hair under seventeen hands. Now it was as easy as climbing stairs... but he'd been able to ride her from the first, when nobody else could.

"We bring the Yule Tree!" he called. "On to the Hall!"

That got him a cheer; everyone here was young, from his age down to six-year-olds running around pretending to help and pelting each other with snowballs; Mary and Ritva were doing that too, and giggling like the kids they'd been not too long ago. He smiled tolerantly—until one of theirs took him on the back of the head and knocked his bonnet off into a drift. They weren't kids any more and they threw hard.

"Hey, watch that!" he called. "Not while I'm riding Epona!"

It wasn't that the big mare wasn't well trained. She'd spun under him in response to his shift of balance, moving as lightly as a deer. The problem was that she was trained for war, and fiercely protective of him besides, and didn't know the difference between a snowball and a rock meant to kill. He had to check-rein her then, and she snorted and shook her head and showed her teeth.

Epona was a genius of horse-kind, but their intelligence was of a different kind and order. You had to understand how they saw the world. He grinned at the thought; he was pretty sure that there were times when she thought he was a bumbling idiot who needed constant protection.

"Well, you were the one who was pining because I didn't take you out enough," he scolded her. "Be good!"

He kicked his right foot free of the stirrup, bent down and retrieved the bonnet. To calm her, he let Epona drop behind the rest of them; Odard and Matti were mounted too, and they all watched the shouting mob lead the two ponies pulling the sled through the snowy woods. A scramble and a push to help the team, and they were on a well-kept trail that ran east to Dun Juniper.

This forest had been Mackenzie land before the Mackenzies were a Clan, back before the Change; way back, since the family came out from East Tennessee in his mother's great-great-grandfather's time. Generations ago her great-uncle had started to tend and plant here—that was why there were so many oaks, and exotics like black walnuts, though nowadays every dun on this side of the Valley spread them from the nuts and acorns. He halted under one walnut that reared a hundred feet above the trail and made a reverence to a small shrine there; it had a stone arch and two rosebushes trained to twine together.

"This is where they died," Mathilda said quietly. "Nearly twelve years ago now."

Rudi nodded; that had been in the March of the last year of the War of the Eye, when Mathilda had been captive here. Her parents had sent a team of warriors to get her back; they had, and taken Rudi too, and killed the two Clan fighters guarding him, Aoife Barstow and Liath Dunling. He made an offering here every year on the anniversary of it, a handful of salt and wheat and a little of his own blood, to their spirits and the spirit of the tree; it had become a symbol to him that he'd be heading north soon, as part of the agreement that had ended the War.

She crossed herself and brought out her crucifix to kiss. "They fought very bravely, I remember that," she said gravely. "Holy Mary, Queen of Heaven, intercede for them, and for us all, now and at the hour of our deaths."

Odard repeated the gesture; they all sat silent for a moment in respect, then touched their horses into a canter and followed the sled.

It was already out of the trees, out onto the long lens-shaped stretch of benchland meadow that held Dun Juniper on the south-facing slope of the mountain. The snow was knee-deep, with more coming as the weather thickened. Mathilda tilted her head back and stuck out her tongue to catch the flakes on it. Laughing, Rudi did the same; even Odard joined in after a moment. They passed the tannery and bark-mill and soap-boiling sheds, not in use in this season but still giving off a strong whiff of curing leather and boiled fat. The sled had gotten ahead of them, and they leg-signaled their horses to pick up the pace, until plumes of white flew up from their forefeet.

Dun Juniper lay at the middle of the oval, hard up against the flank of the mountain, halfway between the tannery at one end and the little waterfall and gristmill at the other. It had been a low plateau once, where his mother's kin had built a hunting-lodge of great squared logs.

Rudi chuckled under his breath as he looked up at the walls looming through the snow; they were as high and strong as Sutterdown's, albeit the circuit of them was a lot less. Snow stuck in patches to the rough stucco, hiding the swirling designs of vine and leaf and flowers under the battlements.

And whenever he saw them, something deep within him said home, wherever he'd been.

"What's the joke, Rudi?" Odard asked.

"I was just remembering something my mother said. She showed up here right after the Change, and met her coven—she'd been in Corvallis, they were in Eugene. And she gave them this little speech, you know, to buck them up because they were all at sea and scared witless with it."

The other two nodded; they were all the children of rulers, in one way or another, and they'd grown up with the necessities of leadership. Rudi went on:

"And she said, It's a clan we'll have to be, as it was in the old days..."

Odard frowned. "What's funny about that? That's what happened, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he said, laughing outright now. "But she didn't actually mean it, not really. She thought it was, what are they after calling it, a figure of speech. She just meant they'd have to pull together to get through. It was the others who decided to really do that, and she says she pretty well just had to go along with it whenever they came up with something, like calling her Chief or Uncle Denni making the kilts when they found that load of tartan blankets. She says it shows how 'leading' means running fast enough to keep ahead of your people."

Mathilda joined in the laughter. "Well, my Dad did something like that too," she said.

Rudi raised an eyebrow, intrigued. She didn't usually talk about her father much, naturally enough since everyone outside Protectorate territory hated his memory. And a fair number within, too, for all that his tyranny had still saved their lives, or these days more often their parents' lives.

"Mom says he got a bunch of people he'd known in the Society together, that first day, Conrad Renfrew and the others—"

Odard and Rudi both nodded; a surprisingly large proportion of survivors had been members of the Society for Creative Anachronism and similar groups, and an even larger share of those had ended up in leadership positions. Enough so that in these latter days social climbers tended to invent Society parents if they didn't actually have them. Not just in the Protectorate, though that was where they'd been most influential, because of the Armingers.

For a while they'd been the only ones with weapons that worked, and who knew how to use them. In a world where you had to fight to take food and fight to keep it a desperate man with hauberk and helm and shield, a sword and some faint beginning idea of what to do with it, had a big advantage over desperate suburbanites with kitchen knives and shovels. Mathilda went on:

"—and after they'd talked about what was happening, and Dad had convinced them things weren't going to Change back and they had to do what he wanted or they'd all die, he said: What if a man were to take it upon himself to be King?"

Odard grinned, catching the reference; or maybe he'd heard the story before. Even when Rudi was visiting in Association territory, people tended to avoid certain subjects—after all, his blood-father Mike Havel and Norman Arminger had fought like bulldogs with a grip for ten years and then killed each other in a spectacular duel between the two armies they led, and his mother Juniper hadn't exactly been friendly with the Armingers either, to put it mildly.

He racked his brains; he'd read a lot of history, particularly of periods well back before the twentieth century—it was fun, and useful, and his teachers had encouraged him, starting with Juniper. Then the fact jiggled into place, along with a memory of his mother and himself curled up on a couch reading a heavy book with a leather cover.

Ah. That was what Oliver Cromwell said, when he was thinking of taking the throne of England, after he'd killed Charles the First. He never did, though. He just called himself the Lord Prot... well, Annwyn take it, was that where that bastard Arminger got the idea?

Matti went on: "And Count Conrad... well, he wasn't a count then, of course... said:

"Oh, hell, Norman, we'll just call you the Lord Protector. You can enter an insanity plea if the lights come back on, and we'll blame everything on you.

And Dad laughed and said: "Lord Protector? I like it. We'll call ourselves the Portland Protective Association, it'll sound more familiar to the non-Society people I want to bring in. And if the lights come back on, Conrad, I promise to take the fall."

"Odd to think of important things starting by chance, like that," Odard said meditatively. "Though... when you're reading history, have you noticed how the older stuff seems more real, somehow? The people and the things they say and do, I mean. The closer you get to the Change, the more... weird... things seem. Except things like the Society; my mother's always on about that and how her father was King of some territory by right of combat. That sounds more like real life. It's all the stuff around it that doesn't. Opinion polls, and computers, and Star Trek..."

"The RenFairs, where my mother sang as a bard, they seem to have been pretty normal," Rudi agreed. "She'll be talking about them, and it's perfectly sensible, and then all of a sudden it's... the other stuff around it, like you said. Thinking about it is like trying to grab a live fish with your fingers; it's not impossible, exactly, but it's not worth the effort most of the time. And she sees it on my face, and calls me a Changeling."

They both gave chuckles of agreement as they followed the sledge through the four-towered gatehouse; they were Changelings, which was the slang term for people born after the world was remade.

The gates were wide open—it was the middle of the afternoon and peacetime—but Rudi made a reverence with steepled hands and thumbs on chin to the posts on either side; Lugh with his spear, Brigid with her sheaf and flame. There was a pleasant smell of woodsmoke, cooking, animals, infinitely familiar and welcoming.

Inside the walls didn't look as tall, since the bottom twelve feet were built into what had been the sides of the plateau, leaving the inner surface level. The ramparts were lined with small log houses, carved and painted with themes from myth or simple fancy, and in the central area were the buildings that served the dwellers here and the Clan at large; bathhouse, smithy, stables, workshops where every craft from glassblowing to hand-printing was practiced and taught, granary, infirmary, bad-weather Covenstead, library and schools and more, divided by graveled lanes.

Just right, he thought affectionately. Not too big like Sutterdown or, Mother-of-All help us, Corvallis; but big enough to be interesting, and the woods and fields right there outside.

A crowd gathered around the sled with the big fir; most of the households had their own Yule Tree, but this was one for the whole dun and all Mackenzies too. Rudi waved to them all and swung down from Epona's saddle; half a dozen youngsters sprang forward to take the bridle, and he picked one the mare had shown some liking—or a least tolerance—for. Another proudly bore off his swordbelt and quiver and cased longbow.

The Hall itself was the largest building, its shingled roof rearing over the rest like a dragon's scaly back, green in patches with moss beneath the thickening coat of snow. The foundation had been that hunting-lodge, a big log box on knee-high fieldstone. Late in the first Change Year the early Mackenzies had doubled its size by the simple expedient of taking off the roof, adding more squared logs, and then putting the roof back, to give two tall stories and a big loft. A verandah and balcony ran around three sides, supported by pillars made from whole tree-trunks.

Of course, there had been other modifications... The pillars were carved in running knotwork and elongated stylized animals, then stained and painted with browns and golds and greens—anyone these days would recognize it as Mackenzie work; this was the original that other duns had copied. At either end the roof-rafters crossed each other and rose to face inward in gilded spirals, sunwise and widdershins to balance the energies.

Where the horizontal beams of the balcony jutted out through the pillars they were carved in the shapes of the Clan's sept totems, the heads of Wolf and Coyote, Raven and Bear and Tiger; the grinning jaws held chains that supported big lanterns wrought of glass and brass and iron. The wicks within were already lit against winter's gloom, though it was only a little past noon, and they cast pools of warm yellow across painted wood and trampled snow. There was a reason these were called the Black Months.

The crowd was already freeing the tree from the sledge; they waited for Rudi, though, as he stepped forward to shoulder the heaviest load at the base.

"The Holly King grows old!" he shouted gaily. "Soon he will fall to the Oak King, and the Sun will be reborn!"

One of the twins was back at the other end—it had to be a woman there, of course, and an Initiate.

"The Crone is carrying Winter's child," she called. "But He will be born to marry the Maiden!"

A dozen shoulders took up the tree between them. Someone swung open the big double doors and they dashed up the stairs and into the Hall itself. Inside was a great open space the length and breadth of the building, the walls carved and painted into a fantasy of leaf and flower and faces out of tales. A tub of water waited at the western end, with a screw-and-collar arrangement for holding the Yule Tree upright. He knelt with a grunt—the sapling was as thick as his thigh at the base, and this was going to be tricky. He guided the cut end into the circle with casual strength, then called:

"Now!"

All the hands on the trunk and the forked poles laid ready for the moment were teenaged at least; it was a privilege to help with this. He put his shoulder to it, boughs scraping past his face, buried in softly aromatic green needles, and pushed, taking the strain carefully as he felt the weight come onto the muscles of his back and belly—that you were very strong didn't mean you couldn't put your back out, he'd seen it happen. Rudi had been around heavy weights and their handling all his life; he could sense when it began to tilt as the others pushed...

"Easy there—Imrim! Get behind it, man!"

At last the tree was upright in the bath of water, a perfectly symmetrical shape of glossy dark green, the tip between two rafters and just six inches below the floorboards of the second story. Its scent filled the Hall as the warmer air coaxed it out, bringing a breath of the spring woods. He knelt again and swiftly spun the screws until they bit into the thick dark furrowed bark and the wood below, then put on the board cover to keep over-curious kittens or puppies or toddlers from falling in or drinking the water. When he stood again, everyone who'd helped raise it stood in a circle around the tree and joined hands, throwing them up three times and whooping.

"Well, there it is," Rudi said to the crowd. "Jack-in-the-Green's little green Jack."

Groans and hoots, and people snatched up twigs and bits of bark that had fallen and pelted him with them. He retreated with his arms over his face, begging for mercy in a falsetto voice; then he sprang forward and grabbed two fourteen-year olds and caught one under each arm, whirling them around with a back-cracking effort.

When the horseplay was finished he brushed down his jacket and plaid and went to hang them up, checking that his sword and dirk and bow had been placed properly. They had, of course; he touched the long orange-yellow stave of yew with its subtle double curve and black-walnut riser in the middle, there among the others. He remembered how he'd longed for a proper war-bow of his own when he was a kid, practicing at the butts in the meadows below with the rest of his class—Mackenzie education gave the longbow a high priority.

Well, now he had it, from the hands of Aylward the Archer himself; his own height and a handspan more, a hundred and twenty pounds of draw, throwing a thirty-two inch shaft at four to the ounce.

And it's just as much fun as I thought it would be!

He turned and saw his mother over by the hearth on the north wall, where the house-altar rested over the great fieldstone fireplace and a low blaze of split wood burned down to embers. She waved to him: come.

Sir Nigel rose as he watched, and intercepted Sir Odard and Matti. "Come, and I shall thrash you at chess, young man," he said.

Rudi caught Mathilda's eye and gave a slight shake of the head, with an apologetic shrug added to it.

"I'll kibitz while Nigel beats Odard," she said, taking it with good enough grace; it wasn't as if she were a stranger to the concept of a state secret, or ever had been. "And then I shall thrash you, Sir Nigel. If you spot me your bishops."

That left only Juniper Mackenzie and Ingolf Vogeler in chairs by the hearth set into the northern wall of the Hall. He was looking a lot better than he had; the shadow of the Hunter's wing wasn't on his brow any more, but he was still painfully thin, the skin fallen in on the heavy bones. She tucked up the soft blanket of beige wool that was around him and poured a little more of the hot mead that stayed warm in a nook in the wall of the fireplace. He thanked her with a shy smile that sat oddly on the battered warrior's face.

Mom's like that, Rudi thought proudly. She's everyone's mother, if they have a good heart and need it.

He'd complained about that once, when he was young, and she'd told him...

What was it she said? Yes: "Love isn't like money—the more you give away the more you get back, and the more you have to give."

And then she'd laughed and told him she loved him best of all, and he'd been all right again. He came over to the hearth and drew up a chair to sit, sinking into the leather cushions and enjoying the warmth of the flickering blaze.

"Glad to meet you when I'm in my right mind, more or less," Vogeler said, offering a hand. After the shake he looked thoughtfully at Rudi's long form. "Maybe we could spar a bit, when I'm back on my pins... I'd like to take the measure of a man who can take down two of the Prophet's cutters fighting in his underwear, and not get a scratch."

Rudi smiled broadly: "I'd like that, Ingolf. They say it'll be a while, though."

Sparring with the same people all the time could get boring—and dangerous. If you fell into a rut and stopped being surprised now and then you stopped learning.

The Hall was returning to normal for a winter afternoon near Yule, which meant people sitting around talking or reading or telling stories, having a beer together or making plans and arguing... but nobody would disturb the Chief and her son at a conversation, and the buzz in the background actually made them more private.

There was a plate of sandwiches on the table beside Ingolf, some honey-cured ham with cheese, some roast venison; he'd eaten only one, and one of the dried-cherry scones.

Ingolf grinned as Rudi picked up a sandwich and raised an eyebrow. "Sure. I keep thinking I'm going to wolf down half a cow, and then I get full. You know how it is when you're getting over something."

He nodded, chewing and savoring the rich strong taste of the deer-meat; he did know how it was when you were recovering from a fever or a wound. He'd had one about as bad, and on his gut, before he turned eleven.

After a moment Juniper spoke softly. "If you're well enough now, Ingolf Vogeler, it's your story I would have. Of your own will you're not to blame for what happened, but still one of my people is dead, and I must explain to an old friend why his daughter was killed in her own home. Also I am the Mackenzie, and the welfare of land and folk is something the Chief must account for at the last."

The easterner licked his lips slightly, took a drink of the mead, and spoke:

"I'm willing to tell you my story," he said, his eyes fixed on the distance. "Christ be my witness, I owe you folks my life and more. But it's... just so damned strange."

His mouth quirked. "Always told myself I was a practical type. But this has got weird stuff in it... would you believe a voice I heard in dreams sent me here?"

Juniper Mackenzie laughed, a clear peal. "Oh, Ingolf, you've come to the one place in all the world for that to be believed—though in truth, I might have thought you wandering in your wits if I hadn't had independent confirmation of some of it."

"And I haven't had the dream since I arrived. And by God, I'm thankful for that!"

Juniper nodded. "The Powers are at work here, but it isn't the first time they've touched my life, so... or Rudi's."

He gave a shy duck of the head. "Well, it's like this... the start's ordinary enough. After the war with the Sioux, I didn't want to end up a hired soldier, but there didn't seem to be much else I could do except get work as a farmhand. Not that I'm above any honest work, Sheriffs from the Free Republic of Richland aren't so high and mighty that we never touch a pitchfork or a plow-handle, not like some folk I could name but won't, like those arrogant bastards over to Marshall."

"Not welcome back home?" Rudi asked sympathetically. That would be a terrible thing.

"Not without more crawling than I could stomach," Ingolf said grimly. Then his tone became matter-of-fact.

"So some friends and I who'd fought together in the war, we got into the salvage business. Not steel and glass and stuff like everyone gets from the nearest ruins; that's low-value, and it's pretty tightly tied up most places too, you can't just go in and start mining. Not anywhere close enough to market that the cost of hauling wouldn't kill you."

"Yes, we have agreements on who can claim what here, as well," Juniper said encouragingly. "And there's more than enough steel and brass and aluminum and so forth, and will be for many an age. So as you say, it's cheap in most places."

Ingolf went on, his voice growing a bit more animated as he relived his great idea:

"What we went after was really valuable things—gold and silver, jewels, artwork that was famous before the Change, watches, machine tools that can be rerigged to run off water-power, telescopes and binoculars... the sort of thing that's been worked out of places near to areas that still have people. Well, out east where I come from, that means going further east, if you want to get somewhere unclaimed. East and south, down into the dead lands, past Chicago. I hear there are villages and farms up in parts of the Appalachians, but in the lowlands from the old Illinois line to the Atlantic it's... it's still real bad."

Rudi and his mother nodded. They'd heard the same from California, where a few explorers had gone lately, and similar things about Europe from Nigel and others. Nearly everywhere in thick-settled lands the streams of refugees from the great cities had overlapped each other; they'd eaten the land bare and then died. Except those who took to living off man's-flesh, but that was a losing game in the long run, with the fate of the Kilkenny cats at the end of it. A few of the luckiest lived until the rabbits bred back.

Some of those little groups of grisly predators barely had speech or fire, since they'd started with feral children run wild during the chaos. They were primitive in a way no human savages had ever been before, without the great store of knowledge and skill real wilderness-dwellers had. And they still ate men, when they could.

"So... we'd gotten a few good hauls, better as we went further east, but the problem was that money... well, you can rent a room and buy your beer with cash, but if you want to make a life, you need to have a place where you're welcome to settle as something more than a laborer, and that's not so easy. Most places aren't too open to outsiders buying land, and without you're protected by law all you've got is what you can carry in your saddlebags while you fight off all comers, and a man has to sleep sometime."

True enough, Rudi thought.

The Mackenzies took in anyone honest, peaceable and willing to work, and they had little in the way of internal division of rank or wealth, but that was very much an exception.

"After a couple of years, all the people left in my bunch, they were those who didn't have a home they could go to and use what they'd got. Even young as we were we were getting tired of knocking around, risking our lives and then blowing it all on a bender before some bigshot could tax it off us. Then we got this offer from a bunch of Sheriffs near Des Moines, and the new Bossman too, he'd just succeeded his father and wanted to make a splash...

An aside: "Iowa's the biggest place going out east; the land's good, and they carried a lot of people through the dying time, there are going on two million there now."

Rudi whistled slightly, and Juniper nodded as well; that was as much as the whole Pacific Northwest, according to the best estimates they'd been able to get, and on only one-fifth the area. Ingolf continued:

"So you can go for days and days, and it's all tilled land and settlements, or at least pasture, and big towns now and then, cities even, hardly any real wilderness except right along the Mississippi and in the northwestern border counties. The Iowa farmers—ranchers, they say further west, I don't know what you call them here—and the Sheriffs, they're rich as rich."

Both the Mackenzies followed the tale easily enough; being familiar with what went on east of the Cascades they mentally translated farmer/rancher and Sheriff as landed knights and barons. Usually deputy or cowboy did duty for what most in the Willamette would call a man-at-arms. The descendants of starving townsmen were generally on the bottom of the social heap, sometimes bound to the soil, outright slaves in a few of the worst places.

"We don't have lords here," Rudi said pridefully. "But I know what you mean."

"We were lucky, too, with it," his mother whispered in his ear, and then pinched it in mild reproof.

Rudi jumped a little. Vogeler plodded on, his big wasted hands knotted together, his voice and mind in a different time and place. But trapped there, knowing what was to happen and unable to warn his earlier self, watching it unfold again:

"So they made a deal with us. I had a reputation for getting the goods, and they offered to let us settle, give us land and rank, if we'd go where nobody had gone before—all the way east to the sea, and the museums and art galleries and such. They still care for such stuff in Iowa, you see, more than most places. And the new Bossman of Des Moines... they call him the Governor when they're being formal... sent along this little rat of a guy to check it all. And that would be the price of our new homes. We could all be Deputies at least. I don't much like the way they treat ordinary people there, but beggars can't be choosers."

Vogeler smiled grimly. "There was even talk of a Sheriff's daughter for me, and plenty of talk about how I was a Sheriff by blood... not that they really think any cheesehead's anything but a bear from the backwoods, that bunch. I thought they'd keep the deal, though, or at least most of it, so we signed up."

The hesitation left Ingolf's voice as he went on. "Well, it was a good deal, and like I said, we were all young. For a prize like that, we'd go to hellmouth and back, we thought. What I didn't know was who the little ratty guy, Joseph Kuttner his name was, was really working for. Neither did the Bossman who paid his wages. So we

crossed the Mississippi south of Clinton, all my bunch—we called ourselves Vogeler's Villains, same as my troop back in the Sioux War—"

 

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