A Meeting at Corvallis
|Author:||S. M. Stirling
|Series:||Emberverse I: Book 3|
Alternate History (Fantasy)
|Avg Member Rating:||
In the tenth year of The Change, the survivors in western Oregon have learned how to live in a world without technology. But a confrontation between the forces of those who would rebuild the world peacefully and the feared Protector, who will use whatever means at his command to extend his power, threatens to plunge the entire region into open warfare.
December 10th, 2007/Change Year 9
Norman Arminger--he rarely thought of himself as anything but the Lord Protector these days--stared at the great map that showed his domains, and those of his stubbornly independent neighbors; it covered the whole of the former Oregon and Washington, with bits of the old states of Idaho and northern California thrown in.
Winds racing out of the Columbia gorge howled amongst the empty skyscrapers, and drove rain that spattered audibly against windows hidden by tapestries shimmering with gold and silver thread. The map covered one wall of what had been the main hall of the city's old public library, built in Edwardian times with a splendor of gray-veined white marble and brass inlay. That and the easily adapted heating system were why he'd picked it as his city palace, back right after the Change, and he'd had workmen busy with it ever since.
Then he turned on his heel and walked to the larger of the two thrones that stood on the new dais at the foot of the staircase; his left foot automatically knocked the scabbard of his longsword out of the way as he sat. This hall was the place he'd first unsheathed it in earnest nine years ago, and where he'd first spilled a man's life with the steel. The chairs were massive gothic fantasies in jewels and precious metals, gold for his and silver for his consort's; the materials had been salvaged from luxury stores and worked up by Society-trained artisans. The long stair behind them was black marble carved in vinework, rising to a landing and then splitting in two, curling up to the second story and the gallery that overlooked the throne-room.
Outside day's gray light was fading into blackness under clouded heavens, but the great room was brilliantly lit, by gasoline lanterns of silver fretwork hanging from the galleries around it, and by a huge chandelier salvaged from a magnate's mansion in the center of the ceiling thirty feet above. That burned a spendthrift plenitude of fine candles; their wax-and-lavender scent filled the chamber, overlaying metal polish and cloth and the sweat of fear from the crowd of well-dressed courtiers, clerics, advisors and officials. It was silent except for the occasional creak of shoe-leather or crisp ripple of stiff embroidered cloth from the tapestries, quiet enough that the faint whisper of flame from the lights was audible; the shifting glitter of flame shone on the thrones, on the jewelry and bright clothes of the courtiers, and on naked steel...
Spearmen stood like statues about the walls, their mail hauberks gleaming gray and the heads of the seven-foot spears bright; their big kite-shaped shields were flat matt black, bearing the same sigil of a red cat-pupiled eye wreathed in flame that stood on the great banner hanging from the ceiling to the landing behind him. Three household knights stood in a line before each throne. They wore black-enameled mail; the golden spurs on their boots and the bright steel-sheen of their swords were the only color about them, besides the Eye on their shields. The weapons rested ready with the long blades on their shoulders; their eyes moved ceaselessly behind the splayed nasal bars of their conical helmets. There were discreet crossbowmen along the second-story galleries as well.
After a moment the woman seated in the other throne reached out and touched his arm. Arminger nodded--Sandra and he had played good-cop/bad-cop very effectively for years--and spoke:
"You may rise, lord Molalla, and approach the throne."
The three kneeling figures stood; a man, a woman and a boy about nine. The trumpeter beside the throne raised his long brass instrument and blew a simple tune, two rising and one falling note. The herald cried:
"The Lord Jabar Jones, Baron Molalla! The Lady Phillipa! Their son, Lord Chaka! You are bidden to approach the Presence!"
The knights before Arminger's throne stepped aside in perfect unison as the three approached, swinging like a door. Then they swung back and turned, which put them--and their ready swords--within three feet of the petitioners. Sandra's guardians remained facing outward, like iron statues with living, hungry eyes.
Jabar Jones--Baron Molalla--was a big man, an inch or two over Arminger's six-one, and similarly broad-shouldered, though unlike his overlord he'd added the beginnings of a paunch, despite being a little younger than the Lord Protector's mid-forties. His cannonball head was shaved and the color of eggplant save for a few dusty-white scars. He'd been a gang-leader before the Change; Lady Phillipa was a Junoesque redhead of a little over thirty, and came from the other major element among the Protector's original cadre of supporters, the SCA... these days known as the Society.
The Society's notion of clothing, or 'garb' as they called it, had prevailed over the years, at least for the Portland Protective Association's upper classes, as had many of their notions. Phillipa wore an elaborate wrapped and pinned headdress of white silk that surrounded her face and fell to the shoulders of her long blue gown. The dress was what they called a cotte-hardi; jeweled buttons ran up from the belt of gold chain links to the lace at her throat, and down the long sleeves. For men garb had worked out to loose trousers, boots, linen shirt, belted thigh-length t-tunic and flat hats with a roll of fabric around the edge and dangling cloth tails; the only exceptions in the room were servants, clergy of the Orthodox Catholic Church in their long monastic robes or colorful dalmatics, and some foreign guests.
Arminger's clothes were the same, but in black silk, and he added silver plates to his swordbelt, a gold chain around his neck that supported an eidolon of the Lidless Eye on his chest, and a niello headband to confine his shoulder-length brown hair. That was receding a little from his high forehead; the features below were harshly aquiline, lines graven from nose to mouth, and the eyes an amber hazel.
Molalla wore no swordbelt. That was a political statement just now, as was his willingness to promptly obey the summons to court--some would have thought raising the drawbridges in his barony more prudent, though that was a counsel of desperation. The way his wife's eyes occasionally darted to Sandra Arminger's face was probably political appraisal by Phillipa, too. The women had been friends. She evidently didn't find the stony calm on the face of Arminger's consort very reassuring.
The way the guardian knights stood within arm's reach behind them wasn't reassuring either. It wasn't meant to be.
"You may speak," Arminger growled to the man.
"My lord, I have petitioned to be allowed to explain my error before this--"
"You're lucky I didn't let you come near me until now, Jabar," he said. "I was waiting until I could be sure I could control my temper. I'm not a forgiving man by nature. My confessor and His Holiness Leo tell me it's my greatest fault."
A ripple of chuckles ran through the court, except for a few of the clerics. Arminger grinned inwardly, behind an impassive mask
Actually, I was wondering what Strongbow or the Conqueror would have done, he thought.
The Norman duchy and its offshoots from Ireland to Sicily and the Crusader principalities had been his area of study, back when he'd been a scholar, before the Change. Playing at knights had been his recreation, a way to live a little of the life those civilized Vikings knew. But the contacts that had given him had proved crucially useful in his rise to power. Society people-- at least the less squeamish of them--had been very handy as a training cadre in pre-gunpowder combat and a dozen other skills, but there were problems... what had been their slogan?
Silently, he mused to himself: "Recreating the middle ages as they should have been."
They were perhaps the only people in all the world who'd felt vindicated when the Change killed all high-energy-density technologies between the earth's surface and the Van Allens in a single instant of white light and blinding pain.
I'm more interested in the reality. With some refinements, of course. Showers and flush toilets are technologies I approve of. At least for me.
"My lord Protector," Molalla plowed on, sweating as he trudged through a speech obviously memorized in advance and probably written by his wife. "I sent the Princess Mathilda back on a well-guarded train as soon as the outposts reported a Mackenzie raid out of the Table Rock wilderness, thinking they'd be safe in Portland before the enemy could penetrate the lowlands--and I sent my own son along. My own younger brother commanded the escort, and was killed in the ambush on the railroad. I admit error, and I beg your mercy for it, but I claim innocence of any malice or disloyalty. Would I have done either if I hadn't thought it the safest course for the Princess?"
Sandra spoke, her voice soft and careful: "But it wasn't safe, lord baron, as guarding them in your keep would have been. Raiders could ambush a train--which they did. They could not storm a castle, which they didn't even try to do. And while the Mackenzies released your son at once, they did not release my daughter! For more than half a year, she has been captive among the Satan-worshippers."
A heavy silence fell. The burly black nobleman opened his mouth, and then closed it.
Wise, Arminger thought.
The whole past spring and summer had been a series of disasters. The Mackenzie raid, the failure of his attempt to salvage something useful from the old chemical-warfare dump up the Columbia at Umatilla--those damned Englishmen who'd come in on the Tasmanian ship had been responsible for that, suckering him completely--and then the rescue mission for Mathilda had crashed and burned spectacularly. If it hadn't been for the way the Umatilla expedition had extended the Association's influence into the Pendleton country, it could have been a dangerous blow to his prestige. As it was, land for new fiefs would keep discontent to a minimum.
When he spoke it was to his steward. "Why is Baron Molalla unarmed? Bring his sword at once; it isn't fitting that a trusted vassal should appear without a weapon."
A man came up with the long blade, the belt wrapped around the scabbard and showing a buckle bearing the barony's sigil, a rampant lion grasping a broad-bladed assegai. Molalla donned it; his face stayed impassive, but sheer relief suddenly put a beading of sweat on his forehead, glittering in the candlelight. Servants handed sheathed daggers to his wife and son.
"Use it well in my service, and in the interests of the Association," Arminger said.
He noted how Phillipa's eyes sought Sandra's again, and how her face relaxed slightly at the consort's smile and nod.
Easy enough to see who's got the political brains in that family, though Jabar's a good fighting-man, Arminger thought.
Chaka was looking at the Association's overlord worshipfully, too. Arminger suppressed a sudden wave of murderous fury at the thought of Mathilda lost among the fanatics; they wouldn't harm her directly, but every moment she was exposed to that poisonous brew of superstition and make-believe was one too many.
And if you screw up again, Jabar, all three of you are going to spend your final hours hanging from iron hooks on the wall outside!
He smiled instead of snarling the threat. It wasn't necessary; the baron and his family bowed and backed six paces away, among a crowd that didn't avoid them like plague-carriers any more, but Phillipa was looking extremely thoughtful. With an effort of will Arminger thrust gnawing worry aside; he couldn't afford distraction, and could do his daughter no good if he was crippled. Instead he made a gesture. Another trumpet-blast echoed.
"Lord Emiliano Gutierrez, Baron Dayton!" the herald called. "You are bidden to approach the Presence!"
Emiliano was in his thirties as well, a stocky brown-faced man in fine white linen and gleaming satin. He grinned as he bowed, and met the Lord Protector's eyes, ignoring the naked blades ready behind him.
Men who can be intimidated easily aren't very effective servants, not as fighting men, Arminger reminded himself. Irksome, since intimidation is so much fun, but there you are.
"Lord Emiliano, I'm hereby appointing you Marchwarden of the South, to replace the late Lord Edward Liu, Baron Gervais." He waved aside thanks. "Just see the damned Bearkillers and kilties keep to their side of the border."
Another trumpet blast: "Lady Mary Liu, dowager baroness Gervais! You are bidden to approach the Presence!"
A slim blond came forward, sinking in a low curtsey; she wore mourning ribbons around her headdress. The knights did their deadly pavane.
"Lady Mary, I'm taking the Barony of Gervais into personal wardship pending the majority of your heir, but I'm making you my steward for it until your son comes of age," he said. "You may appoint a garrison commander from Baron Liu's following. Please inform me before you make a public announcement of exactly who."
"Thank you, my lord Protector," she said, in a high reedy voice.
Liu's widow didn't have a prescriptive right to rule her husband's personal holding until the heir reached twenty-one. In strict form the land reverted to the Association, and the Protector could have given her a manor as dower house, or apartments at court, installed his own administrator and commander and collected the mesne tithes from the barony and its subordinate knight's-fee manors for himself. That would have given him the income for more than a decade; Liu's eldest was only eight. But Eddie had been one of his personal hatchetmen, and a good one, until his final failure. Besides which, Mary would probably do a pretty good job of it; she knew the place first-hand, and in the long run it would help to have Eddie's kids grow up there.
Though she's not going to appoint her brother garrison commander. Sir Jason's too much of a hothead. A pity, since he's intelligent otherwise.
As a gesture, giving her the Chatelaine's job would help keep the rest of his baronage sweet, if he had to take action against Molalla. They were developing an irritating attachment to the minutiae of the law, and an even more irritating sense of collective solidarity about their privileges. Step on one, and the others all squalled like scalded cats. He was stronger than any individual noble, but not more powerful than all of them put together.
Less formally, he went on: "Mary, Eddie was a good man, and a friend of mine. I won't forget that he died trying to rescue my daughter from captivity. And you can take it as a promise that I'll see those who killed him pay for it. I'll see that they pay in full--and to the inch."
Mary Liu's blue eyes flared for a moment; she'd grown up in a Society household before the Change, and was only twenty-eight now. He'd noticed that the younger generation took certain things very seriously, particularly those with that background. What their parents had dreamed, they lived.
"I'll rely on that promise, lord Protector," she said. Her fingers curled into claws. "If you take the Satan-worshippers alive, I'd appreciate your turning them over to mycourt for sentencing and execution rather than the Church and the Holy Office. We... I have some experts as good as any of His Holiness'."
Sandra Arminger chuckled, and Arminger laughed aloud. "That's the spirit!" he said, as the crowd applauded. He rose, and caught the eye of two at the rear of the crowd; the merchants from Corvallis. A flick of the head said later.
"And now, dinner," he said; Sandra's fingers came down to rest on his arm, and he turned to lead her up the great curving stair.
Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon
December 12th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9.
The girl drew carefully, using the shoulders and body as much as the arms. The yew bow bent...
"Bull's-eye!" Mathilda Arminger whooped as the shaft thumped home in the circle behind the wooden deer's shoulder.
"Not bad, Matti," Rudi Mackenzie said. "Not bad!"
It was late afternoon going on for evening, and overcast. The sudden chill and wet mealy smell in the fir-scented air that meant snow coming soon, rolling down the heights from the wall of mountains eastward. Rudi finished another round of practice and then looked up and stuck out his tongue; sure enough, the first big flakes came drifting down, landing with a gentle bite and a somehow dusty taste. Snow was rare in the Willamette, where winter was the season of rain and mud, but Dun Juniper was just high enough in the foothills that it could get heavy falls sometimes, though they rarely lay for long. This would be a big one, by the way the air tasted and felt.
The two children were the youngest in the crowd at the butts; they'd both been born in the first Change Year, and were shooting up with a long-limbed gangly grace. Rudi was the taller by an inch or two; the hair that spilled out from under his flat bonnet was a brilliant gold tinted with red to her dark auburn-brown, and his eyes somewhere between blue and green and gray to her hazel, but otherwise their sharp straight-featured faces were much alike as they began to shed their puppy-fat.
"Willow!" one of the assistants called to a round-faced girl of ten. "Don't hop and squint after you shoot. It won't help."
The girl flushed as classmates snickered and giggled; she shot again, then did the same up-and-down-in-place hop as before, squinting with her tongue between her teeth and the wet turf squelching under her feet. Today Chuck Barstow Mackenzie, the Clan's Second Armsman, had dropped in to observe. Which made everyone a little nervous despite the fact that he lived here, even if it wasn't as momentous as it might be at some other dun. Now he silently reached over and rapped her lightly on the head with the end of his bow; she flushed more deeply, hanging her head.
The rest of the crowd at the butts ranged from nine or so to thirteen, children of Dun Juniper's smiths, stockmen, carpenters, clerks, schoolteachers and weavers, and of the Clan's small cadre of full-time warriors. Their work was overseen by a dozen or so elder students in their later teens, walking up and down the line offering advice and helping adjust hands and stance, and four Armsmen oversaw them; archery was very much part of the Mackenzie school syllabus, and much more popular than arithmetic or geography or even herblore.
"And Otter, Finn, don't laugh at Willow," Chuck added. "She shoots better than you do most of the time. Someday you'll have to stand beside her in a fight, remember." He cocked an eye at the darkening clouds. "All right, it's time to knock off for the day anyway, everyone unstring. Carefully!" he added, keeping a close watch on the process, as did the teachers and their helpers, lest cold-stiffened fingers slip.
There were a couple of quick corrections to those doing it wrong. Rudi braced the lower tip of his bow against the top of his left foot, stepped through between the string and the riser, and pushed down against the bow with his thigh while his right hand held the upper part of the stave steady. That let him slide the string out of the grooves in the polished antler tip--carefully!--with his left hand. There were the inevitable throttled yelps and a few tears from those who'd let go too early or put their stave hands too far up, and so pinched their hands between string and wood even through the gloves, but no real accidents. Even a light child's stave could be dangerous if the wielder let it get away from them, and the tip of a grownup's war-bow would rip through flesh and bone like a spear when it slipped just wrong. That was why you always kept it pointed away from your face when stringing or unstringing, something he'd learned years ago.
"You're getting pretty good, Matti," he said.
"I always had a bow," she said. "Not just here."
"Not a bow like that, I bet," Rudi said, grinning.
"Yeah!" she said enthusiastically. "It's great. We heard about Sam's bows, even, you know, ummm--" she didn't say Portland "--up north."
The longbow was one of Sam Aylward's; the First Armsman made Juniper's son a new one every Yule as he grew, and last year's was about the right weight for Mathilda. It was his bowyer's skill as much as his shooting that made him known as Aylward the Archer.
It's funny, he thought. She learned some things up there--she can shoot pretty good. But not how to look after her own gear. Weird.
They both wiped their bows down with hanks of shearling wool, slipped them into the protective sheaths of soft oiled leather, laced those tight-closed and slid them home in the carrying loops beside their quivers. By the time they'd put on the quiver-caps--getting wet didn't do the arrows' fletching any good--the snow was thick enough to make objects in the middle distance blurry, turning the faint light of the moon above the clouds into a ghostly glow. The thick turf of the meadow gave good footing, but the earth beneath was mucky, with a squishy slippery feel.
Most of the mile-long benchland that held the Mackenzie clachan was invisible now from here at the eastern edge; the mountain-slope northward was just a hint of looming darkness. They could hear the little waterfall that fell down it to the pool at the base that fed Artemis Creek and turned the wheel of the gristmill, but only a hint of the white water was visible. Rudi cocked an ear at it, humming along with the deep-toned voice of the river spirit in her endless song, and enjoying the way the snow muffled other sounds; the wind in the firs, the sobbing howl of a coyote--or possibly Coyote Himself--somewhere in the great wilderness that surrounded them, creaks and snaps and rustles under the slow wet wind's heavy passage.
The teachers and their helpers chivvied everyone into order on the gravel roadway, counting twice to make sure nobody had wandered off into woods and fields. Aoife Barstow hung a lantern on her spear and led the way; she was Uncle Chuck's fostern-daughter, a tall young woman of about twenty with dark-red braids, and a figure of tremendous prestige with the younger children. She and her brothers Sanjay and Daniel had been on Lady Juniper's great raid against the Protectorate just after last Beltane, when Mathilda had been captured; Sanjay had died on a northern knight's lance-point. Aoife had not only killed the knight who did it; she'd cut off his head and waved it in the faces of his comrades, shrieking and possessed by the Dark Goddess the while.
Gruesomely fascinating rumor had it that she'd wanted to bring the head home pickled in cedar oil and nail it over the Hall's front door, the way warriors did in the old stories, but that Rudi's mother had talked her out of it. Chuck mounted his horse and trotted along, quartering behind them and to either side to make sure nobody straggled.
"School's over until after Yule!" a boy named Liam shouted as they walked, which got him a round of cheers.
"I wouldn't mind school, if it were all like this," someone else said.
"Yup," Rudi said. "Even arithmetic and plants aren't so bad. It's that classwork about things before the Change. Boring!"
"Yeah," Liam nodded; he was several years older than Rudi, but far too young to really remember the lost world. "Presidents and atoms and rockets and all that hooey."
Chuck Barstow caught that, and reined in beside them. The other children grew a little silent, but Rudi grinned up at the middle-aged sandy-blond rider; Uncle Chuck had been as much a father to him as any man.
But Lord Bear's your real body-father, he thought, then let his mind shy away from the knowledge. He wasn't sure what he thought of that at all, and he'd only learned it for sure last year at the Horse Fair.
"What about King Arthur and Robin Hood and Niall of the Nine Hostages and Thor's trip to Jotunheim and A Midsummer Night's Dream?" Chuck asked.
"Oh, that's different," Rudi said confidently; there were nods of agreement from those within earshot. "That's more like real life, you know? Those are the cool stories. They mean something. They're not just weird names like Liam said."
For some reason Uncle Chuck gave a snort of laughter at that, and rode away shaking his head. "People that old are weird," Liam said.
Rudi nodded thoughtfully. Of course, there weren't all that many really, really old people around at all. They'd mostly all died the year he was born. Uncle Dennis was fifty-eight, and the oldest person in Dun Juniper by a decade. There were only six or seven people here older than Mom, who was forty.
Then he called out to the leader of the little column: "Aoife," he said. "Do you think all the old folks are weird? I mean, you're grown up but you're not old--not real old."
"Thanks!" the woman who'd turn twenty-one in a few months said.
The lantern wavered a little as she looked over her shoulder, and paused to brush snow from her plaid. "Not really, sprout," she went on. "I was... just a little older than you are now, at the Change. I remember riding in cars, you know? And TV and lights going on when I pushed a switch... sort of. We were in a school bus when the Change happened, Dan and Sanjay and me; I can remember that. But I'm not really sure if I'm remembering all the rest of it, or just remembering remembering or remembering what the oldsters told me."
That got a chuckle; but then he thought her face went uncertain and a little sad in the white-flecked dimness: "And it gets more that way all the time; more like remembering a dream." More cheerfully: "But they do go on about it a lot, don't they? Even Dad."
There were more nods and mutters of agreement.
"Hey, I heard that!"
Chuck's voice came out of the snow-shot darkness. Rolling eyes and sighs were the younger generation's only defense against tales of the days before the Change. There wasn't much point in talking about it among themselves.
"Let's have a song!" Rudi said instead.
That brought enthusiastic agreement; it usually would, among a group of Mackenzies. They passed a few moments arguing over what tune, which was also to be expected. At last, exasperated, Rudi simply began himself and waited for the others to join in:
"The Greenwood sighs and shudders
The west-wind wails and mutters--"
There were a few complaints, but the song matched the weather, and most of the youngsters took it up with bloodthirsty enthusiasm:
"Gray clouds crawl across the sky
The moon hides her face 'til the sunlight dies!
And man-kind soon shall realize
The Bringer of Storms walks tonight!
No mortal dare to meet the glare
Of the Eye of the Stormbringer
For he is the lightning-slinger
The road wound along between the muddy reaped potato fields and truck gardens covered in mulch of wheat-straw and sawdust and spoiled hay; a whiff of manure came from beneath. A rime of ice was forming in the puddles along the water-furrow from the pond that watered them in the summer; they tramped on over the plank bridge, then past fenced and hedged pastures, and other fields where the stems of the winter oats bowed beneath the wet snowflakes. The stock were mostly huddled in the shelter of board sheds, and the herd-wards forked hay for them down from the stacks or walked their rounds. They had thick cloaks and jackets and knit vests and leggings, and booths to take shelter from the worst of the weather; they and hunters in the woods and unlucky travelers were the only ones who'd sleep outside walls this night.
The song wasn't one he'd have picked if he were going to be rolling in a sleeping bag beneath a tree. Not out where wolves and bears and tigers and woods-fey roamed--the fey could be friendly or unfriendly, and were usually tricksey--and where a stranger met might be anything from an outlaw to a wood-sprite or godling in disguise.
But it was a fine tune when you were heading back to stout gates and bright fires and a good supper. Rudi filled his lungs with the wet chill air and bellowed out:
"Upon his shoulder ravens
His face like stone engraven
Astride a nine-hooved starken beast
He gathers the fruit of the gallows-trees!
Driving legions to victory--
The Bringer of War walks tonight!"
The kilted children poured up the sloping road to the Dun in a chattering mass, eager for home and supper. It took a bit longer than usual for the wall to loom ahead of them out of the swirling white; the rough surface of the light-colored stucco was catching the snow now, obscuring the curving flower-patterns painted beneath the crenellations of the battlements. The great gates were three-quarters shut, and the snow had caught on their green-painted steel surfaces too, making little white teardrops where the patterns of copper rivets showed the Triple Moon above--waxing, full, and waning--and the wild bearded face of the Horned Man beneath.
One of the gate-guards yelled down: "What were you trying to do, Chuck, feed the little twerps to the Wild Hunt? It's as dark as a yard up a hog's arse out there!"
Chuck Barstow put a hand on his hip and looked up as his horse's hooves struck sparks from the concrete and fieldstone of the square before the gate. "They're not going to catch their deaths from a wee bit of snow," he called back. "They might from missing when someone's coming at them with a blade."
The tunnel-like entrance was flanked on either side by god-posts of carved and painted wood hewn from whole Douglas fir trunks thicker than his body; the Lady as Brigid with her wheat-sheaf and crown of flames on one side, and the Lord as Lugh of the Long Spear on the other. Rudi made a reverence with palms pressed together and thumbs on his chin as he passed, a gesture as automatic as breath, feeling the warm comfort of their regard, like his mother's smile. Everyone else made the gesture as well, except Mathilda and a few other Christians, mostly the children of foreign guests. The schoolroom crowd broke up, waving and yelling and promising to get up early to build snow-forts on the open ground below the north wall, where the wind usually piled deep drifts. As the last of them passed a dozen adults on guard-duty hauled in grunting unison, and the gates shut with a hollow boom and a long rattling, thunking sound as the bars slid home. In the same instant great Lambeg drums sounded from the tops of the four towers of the gatehouse, a deep rumbling thunder; the dunting of horns went through it, and the screech of pipers hailing the departing Sun.
Then they were through into the familiar interior of Dun Juniper, their hobnailed brogans crunching on the gravel roadways. The walls enclosed a smooth oval of several acres, originally a low plateau in the rolling benchland. Lanterns shone from the towers along the wall, and from the windows of the log-built homes that lined the inner surface of the fortification; their light gleamed on the carved and painted wood of the little houses; most were done in themes from myth or fancy, a few left defiantly plain as if to tell the neighbors so there. Smoke rose from chimneys to mingle with the white mist of the snow, as the resin scent of burning fir-wood mixed with the homey smells of cooking and livestock; the clachan had six hundred souls within the walls, more than any other Mackenzie settlement save Sutterdown.
Folk walked briskly about the final tasks of the day, from penning the chickens to visiting the communal bath-house. Voices human and animal rang, and hooves, the buzz of a woodworker's lathe, the last blows of a smith's hammer, hum of a treadle-driven sewing machine, the rhythmic tock...tock... of an axe splitting wood.
It had all been the background of his life, as were the dogs that came and butted their heads under his hands. The two armed Mackenzies who unobtrusively followed weren't.
"Oh, Aoife, Dan, do you have to?" he asked; at least today it was friends of his. "Can't I even go pee by myself? It's like being a little kid again!"
"Yup, we do have to follow you around, sprout," Daniel said unsympathetically; he was tall and lean like his sister and only a year younger, with shaggy tow-colored hair and a mustache on his upper lip that stayed wispy despite cultivation and spells. "I've got better things to do myself, you know, and Aoife would certainly rather be somewhere else with someone else since she's in luuuuuuuuve again--'
His sister snorted and made as if to clout him with the buckler in her left hand; the movement was slow and symbolic. A real strike with a two-pound steel disk was no joke.
"-- but it's Sam's orders, and Dad's, and Lady Juniper's. You and the Princess here get a guard, every hour of the night and day."
Mathilda pouted at little at the title--she'd tried to insist on it when she first arrived at Dun Juniper after her capture last spring, and found that to be a mistake, like talking about the splendors of the palace in Portland or Castle Todenangst. That reminded him of how she'd arrived, and what had followed from that. His fingers rubbed at his side through his jacket, where the giant's sword had wounded him that August night. Mathilda's voice was small as she leaned close and said:
"Does it still hurt?"
"Nah," he said, smiling, remembering how she'd sat by his bedside through the long days of pain, reading out loud or playing checkers or just being there. "I heal quick."
"I'm sorry, Rudi."
"Well, you didn't do it, Matti," he replied cheerfully.
"Eddie was always nice before... well, nice to me. And Mack, I thought he was just sort of big and, well, stupid. Dad just sent them to rescue me. He and Mom are scared for me. They didn't mean to hurt you."
"Mack was big and stupid," Rudi said. "And he was a bad man, Matti. He did mean to hurt me." He put an arm around her shoulders. "I know you didn't."
"You want to go and visit Epona?" Mathilda said hopefully.
He hesitated; Epona was the good thing that had happened last summer, the horse that nobody but he could ride... Rudi sighed. There wasn't time, and he didn't have the excuse anymore that the mare would only let him groom or feed her--she'd relaxed a bit about that.
"Oh, come on, let's go get dinner. I'm clemmed," he said instead.
The center of Dun Juniper held the larger, communal buildings; school, bad-weather covenstead, bathhouse, armory, library, stables and workshops, granaries and dairy, brew-house and storehouses. The heart of it was the great Hall. It loomed bright through the thick-falling snow, fire-light and lantern-light red and yellow through the windows and on the painted designs graven into the logs. The ends of the rafters that supported the second-story galleries were carved into the heads of the Mackenzie totems, Wolf and Bear, Dragon and Tiger and Raven and more; their grinning mouths held chains that ended in lanterns of wrought brass and iron and glass. The high peaked roof of moss-grown shingles reared above like the back of a green scaly dragon, and the rafters at each end of it crossed like an X, carved into facing spirals, deosil and widdershins to balance the energies. The two children and their escorts paused on the verandah to stamp and kick the mud and sticky wet snow off their brogans and brush it off their plaids and jackets and caps.
Through the big double doors, and into a blast of light and sound, warmth and smells; woodsmoke, damp wool clothes drying, leather, meat and cabbage cooking, fir-wood and polish and soap, bright paint and carving seeming to move on the walls. The great stone hearth across the room on the north face of the Hall was booming and roaring, and a group around it were laughing and finishing a song as they threw in chunks of timber:
"Oak logs will warm you well, that are old and dry;
Logs of pine will sweetly smell, but the sparks will fly;
Surely you will find
There's none compare with the hardwood logs
That are cut in winter-time, sir!
Holly logs will burn like wax--you can burn them green
Elm logs burn like smoldering flax, with no flames to be seen
Beech logs for wintertime, and Yule logs as well, sir--"
He genuflected to the altar on the mantle there and signed the air with the Horns for the Hall's tutelary guardians, and his bodyguards did the same. The long tables were up as well, set in a T this day with the upper bar on the dais at the east end of the Hall, and people were bustling in and out of the doors on either side of the fireplace that led to the kitchens. The western end of the Hall held the great Yule Tree, not yet decorated, but fragrant with promise and Douglas fir sap. Rudi waved to friends as he took off his coat and flat Scots bonnet and plaid, hanging them on pegs; by now Mathilda attracted fewer glares and more smiles than she had right after he got hurt, but she was still a little subdued and stuck close to him. Few dared to be unfriendly when he was around, or when his mother was watching.
One of the glares was unfortunately from Aunt Judy, who hadn't forgotten how her fostern-son Sanjay died last summer.
Well, neither have I, Rudi thought. Everyone had liked Sanjay, who was smart and funny and brave. But it wasn't Matti's fault! And that was a whole year ago, or nearly! Aoife and Dan aren't mean to her! And Uncle Chuck doesn't look at her like that either.
They hung up their bows and quivers and knives in the children's section. Rudi sighed as he watched Dan and Aoife stow their weapons with those of the other grown warriors. Shortswords and dirks and bucklers swung on their belts from oak pegs; spears were racked in gleaming rows with their bright rune-graven heads high. In pride of place were the great six-foot war-bows of orange-hued yew, the terror of the Clan's enemies and the guardians of Mackenzie freedom and honor, each flanked by its well-filled quiver of shafts fletched with the gray goose-feathers.
He knew that the time to wield one would come for him, just as his voice would break someday and he'd start being interested in girls as more than friends. But while that was just knowledge without much impact, the yearning for a war-bow of his own was a burning need.
Lady of the Ravens, please don't make me wait forever! he thought.
There were some foreign gear there as well, from Lord Bear's territories on the western side of the Willamette Valley; long basket-hilted backswords and short thick recurve horseman's bows hung up in harp-shaped saddle-scabbards. Rudi looked up at the top table; yes, a big blond young man in his late twenties and a woman a little younger, brown-skinned and frizzy-haired; there were others at the lower tables who must be their escorts, all in pants, and jackets with the red bear's-head on the shoulder.
"Hi, Unc' Eric, Auntie Luanne!" he called to the pair, and they waved back over the gathering crowd.
Mom was talking with the Bearkiller couple when he hopped up on the dais and walked over to make his respects and greet her. She stopped to give him a grin and a hug, then pulled back a little.
"Well, it's sopping you are, mo chroi!" she said, green eyes twinkling.
"Just a little snow, mom," he replied. He saw Mathilda out of the corner of his eye, a plaintive look on her face, and whispered in his mother's ear.
"And would you like a bit of a hug too, my fostern girl?" Juniper Mackenzie said.
She got one, and a kiss on the forehead; the Lady of the Mackenzies ruffled both their heads before she sent them off to their end of the high table. Nigel Loring was there at his mother's right hand; he nodded solemnly to Rudi as he passed, then winked. Rudi grinned back at the English guest; besides saving his life last year, and becoming his main tutor in the sword and horsemanship, Sir Nigel was just plain fun. He knew a lot of stories, too.
Those Hall-dwellers on kitchen duty brought out bowls and platters and set them out, then sat themselves. Most families in Dun Juniper had their own hearths, but there were always a fair number eating in the Hall, besides the Barstows, Trethairs and others who lived there; guests like the Bearkillers, or people from elsewhere in the Clan's territories come to learn craft skills or the share the holy mysteries or do a hundred types of business. Even a wandering gangrel could find a meal in the Chief's Hall in return for a little wood-chopping or other chores; after all, any such could be the Lord or Lady in disguise. Though it was hard to believe a lot of the time, since they were always smelly and often mad.
"We start to decorate the tree tomorrow," Rudi said. "Nine more days of the Twelve, and then it's Yule."
"Christmas," Mathilda said, nodding. "But the twelve days come after Christmas."
Rudi grinned; he liked explaining things, and the grownups had been really careful not to say anything at all against Mathilda's religion, or even tell her much about the Craft. That didn't apply to him, of course; it was one of the few advantages of being a kid.
"No, this is Yule, Matti. That's the shortest day, the twenty-first this year. On the First Day we go out and find the tree and cut it, on the Second Day we bring it here, and Third day we put it up; for the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, you know? And the Tree is the Holly King's... well, you know. Then we've got nine days for the rest, cooking and making presents and getting ready for the Solstice Vigil. Mom says we stole the Twelve Days and changed them round 'cause the Christians stole Yule and messed it up."
"We did not!" Mathilda said, then hesitated. "At least, I don't think so. What do you decorate it with?"
"Oh, all sorts of things. Old-time stuff, and strings of popcorn, and little carved sprites, and, oh, lots of stuff. It's fun."
"We didn't decorate our own Christmas tree at home, but it was very pretty," Mathilda said. "We always had Christmas at Castle Todenangst. I'd come down in the morning, and open the presents with Mom and Dad."
Rudi frowned. "But decorating it yourself is half the fun!"
They loaded their plates from the platters and baskets as they spoke; corned beef, chunks of grilled venison with a sauce of garlic-laced yoghurt, mashed potatoes with bits of onion, fresh steamed kale, boiled cabbage and glazed carrots and fresh brown bread and hot cheddar biscuits and butter. Mathilda slipped a sliver of the beef to a big black tomcat crouched under her chair; he bolted it and then went back to glaring around with mad yellow eyes. Saladin had come as part of the ill-fated diplomatic mission from Portland last Lughnasadh, and the other Hall cats hadn't accepted him yet... or vice versa.
Juniper Mackenzie stood, and the hum of conversation stilled. She raised both her hands in the gesture of power and blessing before she spoke, her strong soprano filling the Hall, half-song and half-chant:
"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."
Most of the crowd joined in the final Blesséd be; then they waited politely while the Christians said their grace. The two Bearkillers at the top table crossed themselves and murmured words: Bless us, O Lord... So did Mathilda, in another fashion--Catholics who followed Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski at Mt. Angel used a slightly different rite from the Orthodox Catholic Church of the Protectorate's Pope Leo.
Juniper went on: "And special thanks to Andy and Diana and everyone working the kitchens, who managed to produce what looks like a great dinner right in the middle of preparing for the Yule feast."
The Trethairs stood and bowed as everyone clapped. Rudi's mother took a silver-rimmed horn of wine from its rest--that had started its life as one of a pair of longhorns over a Western-themed bar in Bend--and poured a small libation in a bowl. Then she raised the horn high over her head and cried:
"To the Lord, to the Lady, to the Luck of the Clan--drink hail!"
"Wassail!" fifty voices replied, raising their cups and drinking with her.
Rudi dutifully sipped at a tiny glass of mead, watered for a youngster's strength; he preferred the cream-rich milk in the waiting jug, but the proprieties had to be observed. The hum of conversation began again, along with the clatter of cutlery. Rudi poured himself milk and a glass for Mathilda, spread his napkin on his lap, and ate with the thoughtless, innocent greed of a healthy nine-year-old after a day's hard work in cold weather and with a holiday in prospect.
"Blueberry tarts for dessert!" he said happily. "With whipped cream and honey."
Copyright © 2006 by S. M. Stirling
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