Dies the Fire | Chapter 10 of 13

Author: S.M. Stirling | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 15305 Views | Add a Review

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A room on the new second floor of the Chief's Hall held the clinic. Juniper Mackenzie swung her feet down from the stirrups and over the edge of the table; her voice was almost a squeak: "I'm what?" she said.

"Pregnant."

"Are you sure?"

The room was still a bit bare; glass-fronted cabinets, rows of medicines and instruments and herbal simples, anatomical diagrams, and a well-laden bookshelf. It smelled of antiseptic and musky dried wildflowers and fresh sappy pine. Judy finished washing her hands—the stainless-steel sinks had come from the kitchen of a Howard Johnson's ten miles northwest—and turned, leaning back against the counter as she dried her hands on a towel and spoke tartly: "Look, Juney, I'm not a doctor and I've felt inadequate often enough trying to do a doctor's job here, but I am a trained midwife and I can recognize a pregnancy when I see one!"

"I simply can't believe I'm … " Juniper said, letting the sentence trail off weakly.

"Pregnant," Judy said with sardonic patience. "Preggers. Knocked up. Expecting. Enceinte. In the family way. Have a bun in the oven. Providing a home for someone back from the Summerlands—"

"I'm familiar with the concept! I thought I was just missing a period because I'd lost weight—how could this have happened?"

Judy's voice dropped into a sugary singsong she never actually used with children: "Sometimes, little girl, when the Goddess and the God fill a man and woman's hearts, so that they love each other very much, they show their love by—"

"Oh, shut up, you she-quack! What am I going to do about it?"

"You want a D and C? Pretty straightforward at this stage."

"No," she said, firmly and at once, surprising herself a little; her mind had apparently made itself up without telling her. "No, I'm definitely keeping it."

She looked around the room. It was bright and cheery, morning sun bright on fresh-sawn wood and paint, but the only personal touch so far was a watercolor Eilir had done for Judy back before the Change. It showed the Goddess as the Maiden of Stars; the features were done in a naif schoolgirl style, but held an enormous benevolence.

I never thought there would be any child but Eilir, she thought. But it seems You had other ideas … 

"Not much doubt about who the father is," Judy said. "Not unless there's been a miracle—and you're not a virgin, not Jewish, and that legend's from the wrong mythos anyway."

"No," Juniper said. "No doubt at all. But let's not be spreading the parentage abroad, shall we? It could be … awkward down the line."

"Well," Judy said, briskly practical, starting a new page in the file on the table. "It isn't your first time; that's good. How did Eilir go—apart from the measles, that is?"

"She was premature, eight months and a bit, but otherwise fine; seven pounds and no problems, no anesthesia and no epidural, three hour delivery. No morning sickness, even. I was just sixteen, and didn't realize what was happening until about three months in."

Judy's brows went up. "Well, that's an old-fashioned Catholic upbringing for you."

"Speaking of my mother, now that I think back on it, I remember her saying that I was easy, but a bit early, too."

"Likely to be a genetic factor with the premature birth, then," she said. "Have to check carefully later."

"I'll just have to make him feel welcome, I suppose," Juniper said, smiling a little and putting a hand on her stomach.

"He?"

"Suddenly … I've got a feeling."

Judy wrote again: "Now, we'll put you on the special diet and the supplements—thank the Mother-of-All and the Harvest Lord we aren't quite as short of food as we were! Apart from that, pregnancy isn't an illness and a first-trimester fetus is extremely well cushioned, so there probably won't be any problems; you won't have to start being really careful until the fourth, fifth month unless something unusual happens. Report any spotting, excessive nausea—"

Juniper nodded, listening … but half her mind was drifting over the mountains eastward.

Mike, Mike, we didn't plan on this! How are you faring?

Chapter Twenty-two

"Something's happened here," Michael Havel said thoughtfully, lowering the binoculars and looking at the rising smoke in the distance.

The June wind stroked his face; it was that perfect early-summer temperature that caresses the skin the way a newly laundered pillowcase does at night.

Even better if I didn 't have to wear this damned ironmongery and padding, he mused absently—in truth, he'd gotten so used to it that he only noticed it when he consciously thought about it.

"Pretty country otherwise," Signe said. "Lovely colors."

He nodded. Acres of blue flowers nodded among the rippling tall grass along the fringe where hills gave way to flatland, sprinkled with yellow field-daisies; this area of upland plain in western Idaho had been called the Camas Prairie once, when it was the hunting ground of the Nez Perce bands.

His horse shifted its weight from hoof to hoof, tossing its head and jingling the metal bits of its bridle, eager to be off and doing.

"Quiet, Gustav," he murmured, stroking a gauntlet down the arch of muscle that made its neck.

Most of the rolling lands southwestward were green with wheat or barley rippling in the breeze, with field peas or clover, save where a patch of fallow showed the rich black soil. Distant blue mountains surrounded the plain on all sides, giving it the feel of a valley; small blue lakes and little farm reservoirs added to the impression, but there were occasional gullies or creekbeds below the general level. He couldn't see any cattle from here, but a herd of pronghorns ran through a wheatfield, bounding along at better than fifty miles an hour with their white rumps fluffed—something had spooked them.

He handed the glasses to Signe and leaned his hands on the saddle horn, cocking his head slightly to one side. There was a rustling chink of chain mail as his helmet's rear aventail slid across the shoulders of his hauberk. He had good distance sight, but hers was about the best he'd ever run across. To the naked eye the pillar of smoke was distant, and the cluster of buildings at its base barely visible where they nestled under a south-facing hill.

"I can't see anyone moving either," Signe said at last. "I'm not sure I can see people at all. They should be out fighting the fire, if there's anyone there at all. But … I don't like those crows and buzzards. See the clumps?"

That could mean plague, he thought. Trying to burn the bodies, and then the last survivors crawling away to die … but I doubt it. That's a farm, not a town; they wouldn't have enough people for that.

"We'd better scout it, cautiously," Havel said.

With people so afraid of sickness, news spread even more slowly than it had right after the Change. It was doubly difficult to keep informed, and doubly needful.

"Luanne and Astrid?" he asked.

They were still the best riders, bar Will, and they rode light; it was unlikely anyone could catch them. Plus Astrid was still their nearest approach to a good mounted archer … and it was his observation that when girls were told to go take a look at something and come back, they were less likely to get themselves into unnecessary trouble by pushing on regardless.

"I wouldn't send them together," Signe said.

There was a smile in her voice. Havel looked over at her, and there it was, framed by the round helmet with its bar-nasal in front and curtain of chain mail to the rear.

"I thought Astrid thought Luanne was, ah, radical cool," he said.

"She did," Signe said; now she was grinning. "But not anymore."

"Que?"

"Astrid caught her making out with Eric behind the chuckwagon two nights ago, which was disgusting—and I see her point, you know? The thought of someone making out with Eric … that is disgusting. Anyway, then Luanne told her how she'd understand when she was older and her figure developed—a real low blow. So now Astrid's not talking to her anymore."

Havel made a strangled sound. "I don't know if she's worse when she's pretending to be an elf, or when she's relapsed into being a real human teenager. I do know—"

The young woman finished his sentence for him:"—that Gunney Winters never had to face this sort of problem in the Corps. They wouldn't have taken Astrid at Parris Island, though, Mike."

"We'll do the scout ourselves, then. Get Will."

"You're the bossman."

She reined around and cantered off. Havel looked after her briefly; the rest of the outfit were waiting a quarter mile back, wagons—there were a lot more of them now— stopped on alternate sides of the narrow ribbon of road, with outriders on the edge of sight, others working at the horse and cattle herds to keep them bunched, and some folk on foot by the vehicles.

Half old-style cattle drive, half gypsy caravan, half small-scale Mongol migration, he thought wryly.

Then he turned back to look at the long country ahead, thinking. He was uneasy, and he'd never liked that when he didn't know precisely why. Presently hooves thudded behind him, and he nodded over his shoulder.

"Will."

"Mike?" Will Hutton said. "You called?"

"Well, first thing, Luanne and Astrid have decided to spend the afternoon together making armor links, to teach them to enjoy each other's company more."

Hutton grinned. Making the rings was about the most unpopular chore in the Bearkillers: not particularly hard, just tedious, frustrating, finicky detail work with dowel and pliers, wire cutters, a little hammer and punch, and roll after roll of galvanized fence wire.

"What do you think of that place just behind the ridge-line for a camp?" Havel went on, pointing.

"Fine, if you want to stop this early."

They all looked up to estimate the time; it was about two o'clock. Pre-digital mechanical watches had become a valuable type of trade goods, along with tobacco and binoculars and bows.

Hutton went on: "Flat enough, good water and firewood, good grass, good view. You don't want to try and make Craigswood today?"

Havel shook his head. "I'm not easy about what I can see from here," he said. "I want to find out more before we're committed."

"Nice if we could do some trading here, at Craigswood or Grangeville, or just pick up stuff," Hutton observed. "There's a lot of things we could use, or are gettin' short of, not to mention more remounts. Some training we could do easier if we stopped for a week or two, as well."

"That all depends," Havel said. "See that line of smoke there? Looks like a farm or a ranch house where something got torched, and nobody's moving, but you can see it's been worked since the Change—fresh-plowed land, and spring plantings. We're going down to check. Have Josh and a squad keep an eye out from here, out of sight on the reverse slope. If things have gone completely to hell in this neighborhood, we may have to take another detour."

Will nodded and reined his horse about, gliding away at a smooth trot.

Christ Jesus, I was lucky there, Havel thought; he didn't think he could be as good a chief-of-staff and strong-right-arm, if their positions were reversed.

"Equipment check," he said to Signe, and each gave the other's gear a quick once-over.

They were both in full armor. That was Bearkiller practice anywhere not guaranteed safe, now that they had enough chain hauberks for the whole A-list. He looked at the bear's head mounted on his helmet for an instant before he put it back on and buckled the chin cup.

Well, it doesn 't smell, and it makes good shade on a sunny day, he thought.

He'd gotten used to the way the nasal bar bisected his vision, too.

Plus bear fur won't make the helmet work any worse if someone tries to hit me on the head.

He told himself that fairly often; it beat admitting that he just didn't want to deal with one of Astrid's sulks. They both pulled their bows out of the leather cases and fitted arrow to string.

We're mounted infantry with cavalry tastes, he thought to himself. But if we keep working at it harder than anyone else, then we're going to have a real advantage.

They put their horses down the slope, slowly until they were in the flat, then up to a walk-canter-trot-reverse rhythm, their eyes busy to all sides. The horses were fresh, and the day was pretty; at least until they came to the dead cattle.

"Very dead," Havel muttered.

Hacked apart, and the bodies rubbed with filth, and a chemical smell under the stink made him suspect poison, which a couple of dead crows confirmed. He looked beyond them to the fields. The wheat was a little over knee-high on a horse, with the heads showing—harvest would be in another five weeks or so—but great swaths of it were wilted and dying.

"Roundup," he said. Signe looked a question at him.

"See how the wheat's wilted in strips? Someone went through spraying weed killer on it, Roundup or something like it. The stuffs available in bulk anywhere there's much farming and it acts fast."

Her face had gotten leaner and acquired a darker honey-tan, but it still went a little pale. Havel nodded. Wasting food like this was the next thing to blasphemy.

The dirt road joined a larger one, and they slowed down as the drifts of dirty-brown smoke rose ahead. From the clumps of squabbling crows, he knew there were bodies of men or beasts in the fields to his right. Men probably, given what had been done to the cattle; the way they didn't fly away also told him that the feast hadn't been disturbed.

So did the coyote that sat looking at him with insolent familiarity, and then trotted off unconcerned. Havel suppressed an impulse to shoot an arrow at the beast. It had already learned that men weren't to be feared as much as formerly … 

But if men are less the wolves will be back soon, you clever little son of a bitch, he thought grimly. Try pulling tricks like that with them, trickster, and you'll regret it.

When they came to the sign and gate they were coughing occasionally whenever the wind blew a gust their way, but the smoke smelled rankly of ash, not the hot stink of a new fire.

"Clarke Century Farms," Havel read. "Homesteaded 1898."

The first body close enough to identify was just inside, tumbled in the undignified sprawl of violent death; a fan of black blood sprayed out from the great fly-swarming wound hacked into his back with a broad-bladed ax, where the stubs of ribs showed in the drying flesh. There was already a faint but definite smell of spoiled meat.

Someone had taken his boots, and there was a hole in the heel of one sock.

A dog lay not far beyond him, head hanging by a shred of flesh, its teeth still fixed in a snarl. The bodies hadn't bloated much, although lips and eyes were shrunken, but that could mean one day or two, in this weather; the ravens had been at them, too. In the field to the left was a three-furrow plow that looked as if it came from a museum and probably did. A stretch of turned earth ended where it stood.

One dead horse was still in the traces before it, and a dead man about four paces beyond, lying curled around a belly-wound that might have taken half a day to kill him. Two of the big black birds kaw-kawed and jumped heavily off the corpse when Havel turned his horse to take a closer look.

"Crossbow bolt," he said, when he'd returned to his companion. "Looks like it was made after the Change, but well done."

They passed another pair of bodies as they rode at a walk up the farm lane to the steading, near tumbled wheelbarrows.

The main house hadn't been burned; it stood intact in its oasis of lawn and flower bed and tree; a tractor-tire swing still swayed in the wind beneath a big oak, and a body next to it by the neck. There was laundry on a line out behind it. The smoldering came from the farmyard proper, from the ashes of a long series of old hay-rolls, the giant grass cylinders of modern fanning, and from where grain had been roughly scattered out of sheet-metal storage sheds, doused in gasoline and set on fire.

The oily canola seed still flickered and gave off a dense acrid smoke. There was a wooden barn as well, gray and weathered; a naked man had been nailed to the door by spikes through wrist and ankle. He was dead, but much more recently than the rest, and he was older as well, with sparse white hair.

Written above his head in blood was: Bow to the Iron Rod! There was a stylized image underneath it, of a penis and testes.

Signe was hair-trigger tense as they rode up to the veranda; she started when the windmill pump clattered into the breeze. Water spilled from the tank underneath it, which looked to be recent—probably the windmill was an heirloom, only brought back into use since the Change.

"Wait here," he said, returning bow to case and arrow to quiver.

He swung down and looped his reins over the railing of the veranda. His horse bent its head to crop at the longer grass near the foundation.

"From the look, whoever did it is long gone. But stay alert."

Havel drew his backsword and lifted his shield off the saddlebow, sliding his left forearm into the loops. There was a scrawled paper pinned to the door with a knife—inside the screen, so it hadn't blown free. Printed on it in big block letters with a felt-tip pen was: FOR REBELLION AGAINST DUKE IRON ROD!

Underneath it was a logo, a winged skull, human but with long fangs.

"And I suppose the Lord Humungous rules the desert, too," he muttered; it didn't seem like simple banditry. "What the hell is going on here?"

Then he nudged the door open with his toe—it was swinging free, banging occasionally against the frame, and went through with blade ready and shield up.

There was no need for it. He blinked at what he saw on the floor of the living room, glad he hadn't sent Signe in— she'd toughened up amazingly, but he just didn't want this inside the head of someone he liked. He made himself do a quick count as he went through the rooms of the big frame farmhouse; there was no way to be precise, without reassembling everyone. Nothing moved but some rats, although he saw coyote tracks; probably one of the scavengers had gotten in through a window.

"That's where the women and children were," he said grimly as he came out.

Signe swallowed and nodded; she didn't bother to ask what had happened to them.

Havel went on: "I make it at least twelve adults, and quite a few kids. Say six families, give or take."

He looked around at the steading. This had been a large, prosperous mixed farm; probably the owners had called it a ranch, Western-fashion. Judging from the stock corrals and massive equipment that stood forelorn and silent in its sheds, it was something on the order of three square-mile sections or more—six hundred and forty acres each. That was typical for this area, which grew winter wheat and barley and canola and other field crops and ran cattle.

Before the Change, that would have meant one family and occasional hired contract work, but … 

"Probably the farmer's family took in a lot of townspeople," Signe observed. "Relatives, and refugees."

They'd seen that pattern elsewhere, once the nature of the Change had sunk in.

"Yesterday?" Signe went on. "Day before?"

"Dawn yesterday," Havel agreed, narrowing it down a little more. "They had food cooking on a wood range and the kids were mostly in PJs."

Signe winced. "The bandits ran off most of the stock, looks like. I suppose we should look for anything useful, but—"

"But I'm not going into the buzzard business, until these folks are buried," Havel said for both of them.

Signe's head came up, looking back the way they'd come. A light blinked from the ridgeline there, angled from a hand mirror. They both read the Morse message. Not for the first time, Havel blessed the fact that Eric had been an Eagle Scout; he'd been full of useful tricks like that. He even knew how to do smoke signals.

Twenty-plus riders bound your way approaching from southeast on section road.

Signe took a mirror out of a pouch on her sword belt and replied, then looked a question at Havel.

"We'll meet them out by the gate," he said. "If they look hostile, we can run—tell Will to have everyone ready. I don't think we'll have to fight; whoever did this wasn't planning on coming back anytime soon, in my opinion."

When they halted at the junction of lane and dirt road, she said quietly: "I hate this kind of thing, Mike. I hate seeing it and I hate smelling it and I hate having to think about it later."

He leaned over in the saddle and gave her mailed shoulders a brief squeeze; like hugging a statue, but as so often with human beings it was the symbolism that counted.

"Me too," he said. "But I hate something else worse— the sort of people who do this shit."

"Yes!"

He glared around. There was no reason why people here had to die. It was far away from the cities and their hopeless hordes, and for the first year or so there would be more food than people could handle—plenty of cattle, more grain than they could harvest by hand from last year's planting. They weren't short of horses, either, and with some thought and effort they'd be able to get in hay and sow a good grain crop come fall; nothing like as much as they usually planted by tractor, but more than enough to feed themselves and a fair number of livestock.

It was security that was the problem: without swift transport, or more than improvised hand weapons, without phones and radios to call for help … 

Light winked off metal in the distance where the road came over a rise, revealing movement.

Which is why I had all our gear done in brown or matte green, he thought, with pardonable pride.

He unshipped his binoculars and focused; two dozen, all right, all men and riding as if they knew how. The one in the forefront had a U.S. Army Fritz helmet, and a couple of the others did as well, or crash-helmet types. Several wore swords, Civil War sabers probably out of the same sort of museum that had yielded the three-furrow plow; the others had axes or baseball bats, and two had hunting bows.

Mr. Fritz also had a county sheriff's uniform, and a badge … as they drew closer, he saw that several others had badges as well, probably new-minted deputies. The sheriff was in his thirties, the other men mostly older—no surprise there, either. The average American farmer had been fifty-three before the Change.

"They look righteous," Havel said. "Signe, take your helmet off, but keep alert."

She did, and shook back her long wheat-colored braids; that tended to make people less suspicious, for some reason. He turned his horse's head slightly to the left, and kept his bow down on that side with an arrow on the string, not trying to hide it but not drawing attention to it, either.

"Afternoon," he said, holding up his empty right hand when the riders came near.

The sheriff looked at them, giving their horses and gear and faces a quick, thorough once-over; he was a lean hard man with tired blue eyes and light-brown hair going gray at the temples.

"You're no bikers," he said; his men relaxed a little too.

"Jesus Christ!" one of the riders muttered to a companion. "It's King Arthur and Xena the Warrior Princess."

"Shut the hell up, Burt," the sheriff said. "What's going on here?"

Havel pointed up the laneway, then back over his shoulder.

"Our outfit's passing through. We saw the smoke from that ridge back there, and thought we'd take a look. Someone killed everyone at this farm, burned their grain stores and canola and hay, killed some of their stock and ran off the rest, and I think sprayed Roundup on their standing grain. It's real ugly in there. Signed by Duke Iron Rod, whoever or whatever he is."

Several of the men cursed; one turned aside, hiding tears. The sheriffs long face seemed to acquire some more lines.

"We're too late," he said. "Henry, you go check."

A fist hit the pommel of the sheriffs saddle, making the horse sidestep. "They hit three farms this time, and led us by the nose from one to the other! Now they're headed back."

He shook himself and looked at Havel. "You're passing through? You look a lot better fed and armed than most of the road people we see."

"Thought we might stop and feed our beasts up a bit, if you can spare the grazing. And we can trade," Havel said. "We've got a farrier and smith, a first-class horse man, an engineer, couple of construction experts, a leatherworker, a doctor and a really good vet. Plus some weapons— swords, arrows, shields, armor."

He held up his recurve, twanging the string after he dropped the arrow back in its quiver.

"Plus the ones who made this, and our armor." That raised some eyebrows. "So we won't be begging."

"Say!" one of the posse said, nodding towards the image on their shields. "Aren't you the Bearkillers?"

As Havel nodded, he turned to the sheriff. "Bob Twofeather told me about 'em, remember? They were up on the Nez Perce rez for a bit. They helped with those guys who'd gone crazy and started cutting people up."

Havel nodded. "That was us. We went over to Lewiston, nearly. Once we heard what was happening there we decided to turn back and try crossing into Oregon a little further south."

Everyone flinched a little at that; the Black Death scared even the bravest. Havel took off his own helmet.

"Yeah, you're the Bearkiller jefe," the man said. "They call you Lord Bear, right? Got the scar killing a bear with your knife, was what I heard."

Havel shrugged, mouth twisting a bit in irritation at the fruits of Astrid's imagination. And it was worse than futile to go around correcting every urban legend, like the one about the bear … 

It's a rural legend, actually, he thought with mordant humor. Amazing how they spread with no TV. And anyway, it's helpful psyops.

Aloud he went on to the sheriff: "I could bring down some of my people, help you with cleaning up. We don't have the sickness. And you're welcome to share our fire tonight. We should talk."

The sheriff thought for a moment and then nodded decisively. The man he'd sent to the house returned, pale-faced and scrubbing at his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Kate Clarke's missing," he said, which brought more curses and clenched fists. "The rest of them are all there."

"Right," their leader said. "Louie, you go get the doc and tell him I need a bunch of people checked over to make sure they're clean."

He turned to Havel as his rider galloped off southwest-ward. "No offense."

"None taken. We're careful too."

"I'm Robert Woburn, county sheriff. Since the Change."

"Mike Havel," he replied. "Boss of the Bearkillers."

They moved their horses shoulder-to-shoulder, and he stripped off his right-hand glove for a quick hard shake. The back of the glove was covered with more ringmail, leaving only the palm and the inner surface of the fingers plain leather.

The sheriff turned to his men: "We'll get these people buried, and then the rest of you can get back to town and tell everyone what's happened. No use in trying to catch them now. I'll stay here and bring these folks in tomorrow; it'll take all day with wagons and a herd. Henry, you tell Martha I'll be late, but I'll have some guests tomorrow. Jump!"

Chapter Twenty-three

Duke Iron Rod—even he seldom thought of himself as Dave Mondarian anymore—rolled off the woman. She was the new one, taken in the latest raid, but she'd stopped screaming and fighting by now. Pretty, though, and young—eighteen or thereabouts, healthy farm-girl type.

"Get out," he said, yawning and stretching and scratching. "Go do some work."

She'd rolled over onto her side; his broad hand gave a gunshot slap on her butt and she rose obediently, stepping into the briefs and belting on the short bathrobe that was standard wear for the new captures. It made them feel more fearful and obedient; and besides, it was convenient.

"Wait," he said, and stood to piss in the chamber pot. "Take that, too."

"Yes, Duke Iron Rod," she said, and scurried out.

I don't care what the Protector says, Iron Rod thought. Duke's fine, but nobody is going to call me grace.

He heard a smack and yelp from the next room; that was Martha, his old lady from before the Change. She liked to keep the new bitches in line.

"Don't make her spill it!" he shouted, pulling on his black leather pants. "You'll clean it up yourself if she does!"

Gotta get the plumbing working, he thought, as he stamped his feet into the heavy steel-shod boots. Pots smell and they're a pain in the ass.

The problem there was that this place was on top of a hill—it was a lot easier to defend from a height, but without power-driven pumps it was also hard to get water up here. The hand pumps on the first floor worked well enough for drinking and washing water, but not to run the toilets on the upper stories, according to the plumbers. Since they didn't change their tune after he hung one of them off the walls, they were probably telling the truth.

The rooms he'd chosen for his own were in the west corner of St. Hilda's, on the fourth floor; this one still had a window, although there was a pair of heavy steel shutters ready to swing across it and leave only a narrow slit. One of the new crossbows was racked beside it, and bundles of bolts, and a half-dozen short spears for throwing.

He liked standing there, or even better up in one of the bell towers, and looking out over the land that he was making his. A white grin split his face as he thought of that: Even fucking wheat-country looks better when it's your very own private Idaho!

Today he went out into the outer room of this suite; it was fixed up with tables and sofas, as well as more weapons racked on the walls and his armor on a stand. It was full of the good smells of food, too, and his stomach rumbled. Martha had breakfast waiting; a big beefsteak with fried eggs on top, and hash browns and coffee. It all still tasted a little funny, except for the coffee, and the cream in that was different too. He supposed it was because it was all fresh country stuff, right from the farms or the cows.

When he'd wiped his mouth he looked at Martha; she was a tall rawboned woman with faded bleach-blond hair, a couple of years younger than his thirty-eight.

"You gotta get the girls working on keeping this place cleaned up. The doc says we'll all get sick, otherwise, especially the kids."

"Then stop the boys crapping and pissing in corners 'cause they're too lazy to go downstairs or look for a pot!" she said. "Or tell 'em to go live in the stable with the fucking horses!"

He liked the way she stood up to him—had in the old days, too, even after a beating; she'd stabbed him in the foot, once, when he knocked her down, put him on crutches for weeks.

"Yeah, I'll work on that," he said mildly.

It was a warm day, and he didn't bother with a shirt. He did pick up his great sword in its silver-chased leather sheath, buckling it across his back on a harness that left the hilt jutting over his right shoulder ready to his hand. The weapon was a favorite of his, a present from the Protector like a lot of their new gear; it had a winged skull as a pommel, and the two-handed grip and long double-edged blade suited his style. The knife he tucked into its sheath along his boot was an old friend from before the Change, though.

Then he went out into the corridor. "Moose, Hitter," he said to the men on guard, slapping their armored shoulders in passing. "Go get some eats, bros."

They were old-timers from the Devil Dogs; not too bright, but loyal as dogs. Pleased grins lit their faces as they clanked away.

The place did smell a little gamy as he walked down to the staircase. On the floor below, big arched windows looked down from the corridor onto the courtyard. Iron Rod threw one of them open—the air outside was fresher.

The block off to the east had been the church; it had the two towers, and big doors gave in onto it. From the rear, two wings ran back to enclose the court, ending in a smooth curtain wall.

They used the church as the main dining hall these days; his followers were spilling out of it right now, except the ones nursing hangovers. The big hairy men were loud and happy this morning, after a successful raid; he'd have to give them a couple of days off, before he got them working on weapons practice again, and riding. They were good guys, tough and reliable, but most of them weren't what you'd call long on planning.

Iron Rod was; he'd made the Devil Dogs a force to be reckoned with in Seattle's underworld over the last ten years, made those washed-up old geezers in the Angels back off, and the gooks and greasers and niggers respect him. The drug trade was competitive; you didn't stay in business long—or stay breathing—if you couldn't think ahead and figure the angles. He'd come through the automatic-weapons anarchy of the crack epidemic still standing because he thought with something else besides his fists and his balls.

Another man approached along the gallery, and Iron Rod watched him with the same instinctive wariness he would have a brightly patterned snake.

Baron Eddie Liu wasn't one of Duke Iron Rod's gangers. Neither was the huge figure that followed him, dressed in rippling armor made from stainless steel washers on leather, faceless behind a helmet with only a T-slit for vision and carrying a heavy war-hammer over his shoulder. Even among the Devil Dogs he was impressive.

Those two were the ambassadors from Portland, the Protector's men … from what he'd heard, Liu was one of the Protector's roving troubleshooters.

And he's smart, too, he thought, watching the slender figure in the dark silk shirt, black pants and polished boots and fancy chain belt.

But this ain't Portland, Iron Rod thought. This is my turf now.

Then he turned to the archway, raised his fists and bellowed, a guttural lion roar of dominance and aggression. All eyes in the court turned to him. He knew he cut a striking figure; as huge as any of his followers, with thick curly black hair falling down on massive shaggy shoulders and a dense beard spilling down the pelt of his chest.

Unlike most of his men he was flat-bellied, though—had been before the Change, too. Muscle ran over his shoulders and arms like great snakes wrestling with each other; every thick finger bore a heavy gold ring, and two gold hoops dangled from his ears. The face between was high-cheeked, hook-nosed, the eyes brooding and dark.

"Devil Dogs!" he shouted. "Dog-brothers!" That brought a chorus of howls and barks and yipping.

"Devil Dogs rule! We beat these sorry-ass farmers again! We took their food and their cattle and their horses, we burned their barns, we fucked their bitches!"

A roaring cheer went up and echoed off the high stone walls of the courtyard.

"Pretty soon, we'll have Sheriff Woburn hanging from a hook!"

There were half a dozen set in the walls now, between the towers and over the old church doors, taken from a slaughterhouse and mounted in the stone. All were occupied at present, but he'd clear one for Woburn, when they caught him. A wordless howl of hate went up at the sheriff's name, hoarse and strong.

I got a serious jones for Woburn, the Devil Dog chieftain thought. Worst I've had since those pissants ran us out of the Sturgis meet back in '94.

"The prairie is mine! All bow to the Iron Rod!"

A chant went up, falling into a pattern: "Iron Rod! Iron Rod! Duke! Duke! Duke!"

Most of them hadn't known a Duke from a Duchess and thought both were country and western stars, back before the Change. He'd been fuzzy on it himself until the Protector's people explained, but he liked the sound now.

When he turned from the window, Liu and his troll were there, which he liked rather less; so was Feitman, the Devil Dogs' own numbers man, a skinny little dude in black leathers with a shaven head and receding chin. He also carried two knives, and he was as fast with them as anyone Iron Rod had ever seen. The boys respected him, despite the time he spent with ledgers and books, and with computers before the Change.

"We just wanted to say good-bye," Liu said.

He was skinny too; some sort of gook, although he had bright blue eyes. You didn't want to underestimate him, though.

"The Protector's going to be real pleased with the progress you guys are making," he said. "And with the horses, provided we can get them down the river and past the locks."

Iron Rod grunted. Then he spoke: "Something I've been wanting to ask."

Liu made a graceful gesture.

Fag, Iron Rod thought, then shook his head. Nah. He'd made quite an impression on the girls here. And even if he was a fag, he'd still be dangerous as a snake. Watch him careful.

"What I'd like to know is why the Protector is giving us all this help over the past couple of months," Iron Rod went on.

And it had been a lot of help; weapons, armor, some skilled workers and a couple of instructors. Surprisingly, those had been even more useful than the swords and scale shirts; disconcertingly, they'd stayed more afraid of the Protector than of Iron Rod, even behind his walls and among his men.

Most useful of all had been the advice on how to take over this turf, and how to run it afterward.

"He's not exactly giving it all away," Liu said, his left hand on the hilt of his long curved sword—a bao, he'd called it.

"We're getting the cattle and horses—those'll be real useful, and they're sort of scarce west of the Cascades right now. When you're set up here, you'll send men to fight for the Protector on call, like we agreed. And you'll want to buy lots of stuff from Portland; we'll take a rake-off on that."

Iron Rod nodded. "Yeah, yeah, but that's all sort of, what's, the word, theoretical. And does the Protector trust me that much?"

The blue eyes went chilly. "Nobody stiffs the Protector, man," he said, in a flat voice the more menacing for the absence of bluster. "Nobody. Not twice, you hear what I'm saying?"

Iron Rod wasn't afraid of Liu, or his master; he wasn't afraid of much. He was good at calculating the odds, and he blinked as he thought.

"Maybe," he said. "My word's good on a deal, anyway. It's the Protector's angle I'm trying to figure."

Liu looked at him with respect—he'd always been polite, but Iron Rod knew that his appearance made people underestimate his brains. That was useful, but it was still pleasant to see the gook's opinion of him revise itself.

"It's what the Protector calls strategy," he said. "We want to get rid of all the old farts anywhere we can—the sheriffs, the mayors, army commanders, all the types who think they can run things like they did before the Change. Those wussies in Pendleton, they look like they might cause us a lot of trouble in times to come. With you strong here, and you being the Protector's man, we'll have their balls in a vise."

Iron Rod nodded somberly, looking westward. He wasn't worried about Lewiston or Boise; the plague was finishing off what the Change had left. Craigswood and Grangeville he could take care of himself; if he left anything standing there, it would be because it was useful to him. Pendleton—the main center of eastern Oregon's farming and ranching country—hadn't been hit nearly so hard; they were getting their shit together, and it might be a real problem later.

"Yeah," he said. "I can see that. Tell the Protector, anytime he wants to take them on, once we've settled our accounts here—"

He put out a massive hand and slowly clenched it into a fist, as if squeezing a throat.

"First things first," Liu said. "You gotta take care of Woburn, and then build the rest of those little forts, like the Protector said, and get men to put in 'em and keep the farmers working. You know what the Protector says. There are only two ways to live now; farming, and running the farmers. We're working on that back west of the mountains right now."

"Yeah, yeah," Iron Rod said; it was a good idea and he was going to do it, but he didn't like being hectored. "Don't get your balls in a twist, bro. Woburn'll be hanging from a hook pretty soon, and I'll pickle his deputies' heads in vodka before the snow flies."

Liu shuddered. "One good thing about Portland, it doesn't snow much," he said.

The great steel-clad figure behind him rumbled agreement.

"Pansies," Iron Rod said, grinning. He'd been from upstate New York, back when. "Say, one thing—you're Chinese, right?"

"Right. Born in New York, father from Guangzhou— Canton to you round-eyes."

"How come the blue eyes, then?"

Liu grinned back. "Hey, my momma was a Polack. Ain't you never seen West Side Story?"

 

Oooof, Juniper thought, straightening up for a second and rubbing at her back. Then: "Oooof!" as it twinged her, reminding her she was thirty—thirty-one at next Yule—not eighteen, and that she'd been working from before dawn to after sunup since the grain started coming ripe two weeks ago.

Harvest would come just before I'd be off the heavy-labor list, she thought.

So far all pregnancy had done for her was give her a glow and an extra half-inch on the bust.

It was a hot day; July was turning out to be warm and dry this year in the Willamette, a trial for the gardens but perfect for harvesting fruit and grain. The cool of dawn seemed a long time ago, although they were still two hours short of noon.

Ahead of her the wheat rippled bronze-gold to the fence and its line of trees. Cutting into it was a staggered line of harvesters, each swinging a cradle—a scythe with a set of curving wooden fingers parallel to the blade.

Skriiitch as the steel went forward, and the cut wheat stalks toppled back onto the fingers, four or five times repeated until the cradle was full; shhhhkkkk as the harvester tipped it back and spilled them in a neat bunch on the ground; then over and over again … A dry dusty smell, the sharp rankness of weeds cut along with the stalks, sweat, the slightly mealy scent that was the wheat itself.

Birds burst out of the grain as the blades cut, and insects, and now and then a rabbit or some other small scuttling animal. Cuchulain and a couple of other dogs went for them with a ferocity so intent they didn't even bark; they'd all grasped the fact that they had to supply more of their own food by now, as well as working to guard or hunt.

Each of the dozen harvesters had a gatherer behind him; Chuck Barstow was the first, over on the left-hand end of the line, with Judy following behind him, and Juniper was binding for Sam Aylward at the far right-hand position; those were their two best scythesmen, and it helped to pace the others.

Not to mention pacing the binders, she thought, wheezing a little; the thick-bodied ex-soldier cut like a machine, muscle rippling like living metal beneath skin tanned to the same old-oak color as his hair.

Planted by tractors, cut by hand. The last wheat planted with a tractor this world will see in a long, long time.

The thought went through idly as she scratched and stretched again, feeling the sweat running down her face and flanks and legs.

Aylward also worked in hat, boots, a kilt and nothing else, and looked disgustingly comfortable, relatively speaking. Juniper was running with sweat too, but she wore loose pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a bandana under her broad-brimmed hat; the sun would flay a redhead like her alive if she didn't. Every bit of cloth in contact with her skin was sodden, and it chafed. Unlike some, she didn't find the Willamette's rainy, cloudy winters a trial.

So I bundle up, Lord Sun, despite the heat and the awns sticking to me and itching in every place imaginable including some I'm still shy about scratching in public, she thought. It's very unreasonable of You.

The damned little bits that broke off the heads and floated to stick on your wet skin and work their way under your clothes were called awns, according to Chuck. They were a confounded nuisance any way you took it.

She rubbed at her back again, and looked over her shoulder, mostly to stretch—something went click in her spine, with a slight feeling of relief. Much more of this twenty-acre stretch was reaped than wasn't, and it was the last field—two ox-drawn carts were already traveling across it, with workers pitching up sheaves. The Willamette had surprisingly rainless summers, and you didn't have to leave the sheaves stooked in the field to dry except for the seed grain.

The sight was a little bizarre; the carts themselves were flatbeds, each with two wheels taken from cars and vans, drawn by converted steers under hand-whittled wood yokes.

Juniper shook her head; you had to get used to that sort of contrast, in the first year of the Change. She took a swig of lukewarm water from her canteen, moved her bow and quiver and sword belt forward a dozen paces and Aylward's likewise, and bent to work again.

Grab an armful-sized bundle of stalks as the cradle had left them, move them forward, grab and move, grab and move, until you had enough for a sheaf—a bundle as thick as you could comfortably span with both arms. Then you held it in front of you, grabbed a handful just below the grain ears, bent the straw around the whole bundle at the middle, twisted and tucked the end underneath to hold it … and then you did it all over again, and again.

So this was what the phrase mind-numbing toil was invented for, she thought. I wonder how many others are making that discovery!

At that, most of them were doing about half what the books said an experienced worker could finish in a day. She tried not to think again, mentally humming a song instead. It was easier if you could get into a semitrance state, where time ceased to flow minute-by-minute. Gradually her hands and legs and back seemed to move of their own volition.

A heartbreaking share of the grain in the valley wasn't being harvested at all, going to waste from plague and fear and lawlessness, something that made her stomach twist to think of.

Then someone called out; she stopped in midreach and looked up, shocked to see the sun past the noon mark.

"Blessed be!" she said, and many more voices took it up; there were shouts of sheer joy, and some of the younger harvesters managed an impromptu bit of dancing.

They weren't nearly finished anymore; they were finished. Everyone grouped around her in a circle; she wiped a sleeve over her face and gathered up the last of the wheat. First she tied it off as she had the others; then she went to work shaping it, with legs and arms and a twist of straw for a mouth.

"Hail to the Goddess of the ripened corn!" she said, laughing and exhausted, bowing before the sheaf. "We thank You, Mother-of-All, and the Harvest King who is Your consort."

Later they'd take the dolly back to the Hall; and then there were the rites of Lughnassadh next week, when the Oak King gave way to the Holly. But for now they all admired the Queen Sheaf as it was carried across the field towards the southeast corner and shade on the end of a scythe-shaft.

"Go us!" someone yelled, and everyone took it up for a moment, pumping their fists in the air. "Go us! Mackenzies rule!"

"Do you realize," someone else said reverently, when the chant had died down, "That from now on we can eat bread every day?"

"In the sweat of our brows," Juniper said, grinning and wiping hers.

That got a chorus of groans. But it's true, she thought. And the bread is very, very welcome.

They all picked up their tools and weapons and followed the Sheaf to the southeast corner of the field where an oak and a group of Douglas firs cast a grateful shade. There were four big aluminum or plastic kegs of water on two-by-four X-trestles as well; she drank, washed face and hands, peeled off bandana and shirt, poured several cupfuls over her head, drank again ... Heat seemed to radiate away from her, like a red-hot poker cooling, as if her hair was flame in truth.

"Dinner!" someone cried.

Eilir drove the delivery cart, which was one of her chores; two-wheeled, with a single ex-cow-pony between the shafts. The soup came in two cauldrons, one double-walled aluminum, the other thick pottery; both types held the heat well. After they ate, they could help the loaders get as much of the cut wheat as possible out of the fields today.

Congratulations! Eilir signed, as eager hands unloaded. What a beautiful Queen Sheaf! Now we can get back to work on the palisade!

Bits of straw and grass and twigs flew in her direction; she giggled and held her buckler up in front of her face to protect herself from the mock attack before she turned the cart with a deft twitch of the reins and trotted off.

Juniper ambled over and raised the lid on the pottery container, full of Eternal Soup—but a considerably richer variety than spring's.

"Well, blessed be," she said. "Onions, carrots, peas, all still recognizable. Wild mushrooms. Turnips. Potatoes."

There were chunks of mutton, too, not yet boiled down to stock; she addressed them in a tone dripping with sympathy: "Blessed be—is that the G-L-L I see? Greetings, Goddamn Little Lamb! You've gone completely to pieces. I'm so sorry … actually, I'm sort of happy to see you like this!"

Everyone laughed at that; even Sam Aylward smiled, though it looked as if it hurt.

Goddamn Little Lamb was—had been, until day before yesterday—the stupidest of the ewes in the clan's painfully acquired little flock; which was saying something, since they'd discovered that the hardest part of raising sheep was keeping them from killing themselves. They might be near-as-no-matter brainless in every other respect, too stupid to walk through an open gate, but in self-immolation they showed boundless ingenuity.

GLL had come close to taking several inexperienced shepherds with her while she threw herself off high places, nearly hung herself on low-lying branch forks, tried to poison herself on unsuitable vegetation, and finally succeeded in drowning herself as she attempted to reach some floating weeds in the millpond, got bogged in the mud, and sank nearly out of sight. Eilir had gone in with a rope to pull the carcass out … 

The good part in herding sheep was that you usually didn't have to slaughter them yourself; all you had to worry about was getting to the body before the coyotes did.

Besides the soup there were baskets of—

"Oh, smell that smell!" Chuck said, reaching in for the bread under the towel.

The loaves were round, mushroom-shaped as if they'd been raised and baked in flowerpots—mostly because Diana and Andy had found that clay flowerpots did make excellent containers for baking, and there were a lot of them available. The loaves had an eight-spoked pattern cut into their dark-brown tops; the sides and bottoms were honey-brown, with just the right hollow sound when flicked, and the coarse bread made from stone-ground flour was fresh enough that it steamed gently when torn open by eager fingers.

Every bit as good as they baked at MoonDance, Juniper thought happily. A bit crumbly—they were using soft white t winter wheat—but very, very tasty!

There was butter too, now that they'd gotten more milkers; creamy yellow butter in Tupperware containers, strong-tasting and rich—the mill turned a big barrel-churn as well as grindstones. The first cheeses were already curing in the damp chill of the springhouse beside it. Juniper anointed her chunk of loaf with a lavish hand, watching it melt into the coarse brown bread.

People settled down to concentrated munching; it seemed like a long time since this morning's oatmeal and fruit. Juniper felt an inner glow when she went back for a second bowl and realized that there was enough for everyone to eat until they were full, at an ordinary field supper rather than a special occasion.

That hadn't happened much until the last few weeks.

How many times did I get up from a meal with my stomach still clenching, and have to go right back to work? she thought. Far too many. Being that hungry hurts. Goddess Mother-of-All, Lord of the ripened grain, thank You for the gifts of Your bounty!

There was even a basket of fruit, Elberta peaches, their skins blushing red amid the deeper crimson of Bing cherries. She snaffled two of the peaches and a double handful of the cherries; most of the fruit crop was being dried and pressed into blocks or turned into jam or otherwise preserved, but they were so good fresh from the tree. The juice dripped from her chin onto her throat and breasts, but there was no point in being dainty; the bathhouse awaited anyway, and the harvesting crews got first turn.

Chuck looked over at her. "Got one of those deep-wisdom Celtic sayings to lay on us, your Ladyship?" he grinned.

She threw a peach pit back at him. "Indeed and I do.Nil anon tóin tinn mar do thóin tinn féin."

"There's no hearth like your own hearth?" he said. "Hey, no fair, that's not relevant!"

"Close but no cigar," she said, waggling her eyebrows and leering. "This one sounds a lot like that, but it actually means: There's no sore ass like your own sore ass."

That got a universal, rueful chuckle. "Hey, what about a song?" Judy asked.

"Well, I'm not playing today," Juniper said, with a pang. "Not until my hands are in better shape." That brought groans of disappointment, and they sounded heartfelt.

It's different, in a world where all music has to be live, she thought. I'm good, but am I as good as everyone says, these days? Or is it just that there's no competition?

Although Chuck and a few others were gifted amateurs, come to that.

Surprisingly, Sam Aylward produced a wooden flute and began to pipe; Chuck grinned and started to tap a stone on the back of his scythe-blade for accompaniment; someone else beat a little tambourine-shaped hand drum they'd brought along this morning—songs were a lot more usual on the way to work than afterward.

She recognized the tune at once, cleared her throat and began, her strong alto ringing out in the slow, cadenced measure of the song's first verse:

"Let me tell the tale of my father's kin
For his blood runs through my veins—
No man's been born
Who could best John Barleycorn
For he's suffered many pains!"

Then a little faster:

"They've buried him well beneath the ground
And covered over his head
And these men from the West
Did solemnly attest
That John Barleycorn was dead!
John Barleycorn was dead!
But the warm spring rains
Came a'pouring down
And John Barleycorn arose—"

It was a very old tune, and popular:

"And upon that ground he stood without a sound
Until he began to grow!
And they've hired a man with a knife so sharp
For to cut him through the knees—"

More and more joined her, but then the voices jarred to a sudden halt.

A haunting huu-huu-huu from the west brought heads around; that was the alarm from the mounted sentries, blowing on horns donated by slaughtered cattle. Everyone felt uncomfortably exposed here; the valley floor was dead flat and the road net was still in good shape; with bicycles raiders could strike from anywhere. Horses were faster in a sprint, but men on bicycles could run horses to death over a day or two.

Aylward laid down his flute and rose as smoothly as if he hadn't spent the hours since dawn swinging a twenty-pound cradle scythe, usually with half a sheaf of wheat on it. He picked up his great yellow longbow and strung it the quick, dirty and dangerous medieval way—right foot between string and stave, the horn tip braced against the instep from behind the anklebone, hip against the riser, flex the body back and push the right arm forward and slide the cord up into the nock at the upper tip.

Juniper used the more conservative thigh-over-riser method for her lighter weapon, and then relaxed slightly at the next horn call.

All around her people paused as they reached for jacks and bucklers and spears and quivers.

Huu-huu-huu, huuuuu-huuuuu, repeated twice. Three short and two long meant friendly visitors, not attacking bandits, in the current code.

The sentry rode over the ditch and into the field from the western edge, raising Juniper's brows again; it was Cynthia Carson Mackenzie, with ends of blond hair leaking past the metal-and-leather cheekpieces of her bowl helmet. She was in jack and full fig—longbow and quiver across her back, buckler hooked over the scabbard of the shortsword at her belt, and spear in her right hand. That also held the reins of a second horse.

"Where's Ray?" Juniper asked as she pulled up.

Sentries never operated in groups of less than two, and it was her brother's mount the blond girl was leading, with the stirrups tied up to the saddle. The usual patrol was three, and three threes to make a squad; mystically appropriate, and solidly practical.

"He's with the others," Cynthia said. "We thought you'd better come quick, Lady Juniper. It's Sutterdown—they're here, by our … by the old Carson place."

"Someone from Sutterdown?" she replied.

She took a moment to put her shirt back on; Sutterdown was a straitlaced community these days. Then she slung her quiver over her back on its baldric and thrust her strung bow through the carrying loops beside it before she buckled on her sword and dirk.

"We told them no visitors until the sickness passes out there."

"No, not just visitors. The whole town, and a lot of others. Lady, you'd better come."

"Coming, coming," Juniper said, alarmed. "Sam, get the word out."

Anything out of the ordinary was likely to be a threat. Not while we're getting the grain in, please! she thought, as she put a foot in the stirrup, swung aboard, and took the reins.

Have they gotten hit by the plague, Goddess forfend?

That wouldn't make them up stakes and head for Mackenzie land, though. Nobody let in anyone who might be infected; and anyway, from what she'd heard, Sutterdown had been singularly fortunate—which in turn was fortunate for Clan Mackenzie, since Sutterdown and its associated area neatly blocked off the rest of the Willamette and made a buffer against the Death.

They cut across the laneway opposite, through a field in shaggy pasture with a couple of dozen recently acquired and painfully thin ranch-country Herefords gorging themselves in it, and then along a dirt-surfaced, tree-lined farm lane in grateful shade to the old Carson place.

The laneway from that gave out onto a paved local road; the house was on a slight rise, brick-built, a hundred and twenty years old, and until recently it had been bowered in century-old maples and oaks and ash trees.

Those had been cut down and a square was pegged out about the farmstead, where the ditch, mound and palisade would go when they had time after the harvest. Juniper regretted the trees—they'd been beautiful, and had stood so long—but you couldn't leave cover near someplace you intended to live. In the meantime it was their border post and base for the frontier patrols.

Juniper's eyes widened as she saw the crowd filling the road beyond the house. There were at least a hundred people there, both sexes and all ages, and a round dozen vehicles, horse- or hand-drawn; all of the men and a lot of the women were armed, mostly with improvised weapons of various sorts, spears made from fitting knives to the ends of poles, pruning hooks, axes, machetes, a scattering of bows and crossbows—and Aylward-style longbows they'd bought in the past few months. Few had any body armor, or worthwhile shields.

They also looked thinner and dirtier and more ragged than her clan on average, and a few were bandaged; some of the bandages seeped blood. She recognized individuals from Sutterdown, and the farms about that centered on it.

If they've run into a bandit attack they can't handle, that's bad. That's very bad.

The area between her lands and Sutterdown had been tranquil—by post-Change standards—not least because both communities were fairly well organized, and acted together against reivers and Eaters.

Most of them rested quietly, except for the crying of children. There were five armed Mackenzies strung across the road, spears or bows in their hands. Three of the Sutterdown folk stood arguing with the guards, trying to come closer and then flinching back at shouts of warning. It didn't look like a fight brewing—they wouldn't have brought their families along if they were going to try and run the clan off the disputed Smith land—but she didn't like it at all. They knew about the quarantine regulations; and had their own, for that matter.

"Stand back there, and we'll talk," she called as she reined in; the horse's hooves rang hollow on the asphalt.

Juniper dismounted; no sense in towering over the men waiting for her and putting their backs up even more. Men were strange about things like that, even the best of them—which these weren't.

"Sheriff Laughton," she said, nodding in greeting as polite as you could make without coming close enough to shake hands; he was a middling man of about her own age, in a long leather coat covered with links of light chain sewn on with steel wire.

"Dr. Gianelli." Slight and dark and balding, glaring at her.

"Reverend Dixon." Heavyset before the Change, sagging now, and glaring twice as hard as the doctor, in a black business suit and tie that fit him like a flopping sack. There was a mottled purple look to his face that might be anger, or might be ill health, or both. Judy would have prescribed a regimen of herbs and meditation to control choler, and willow bark to thin the blood.

"We need to talk to you, privately," the preacher said abruptly, stepping forward; he had a Bible in his hand, with a golden cross gleaming on the cover and his finger inside it marking a place.

One of the Mackenzies leveled his spear and prodded the air six feet in front of the Sutterdown man with a growl. The bright whetted steel and the tone stopped the cleric as if the point had been at his chest. The spearman spoke: "That's Lady Juniper, to you! The Mackenzie gave you your titles! Show some manners, cowan. You're on our land."

Juniper held out her hand soothingly, making a patting motion at the air. "Ray, let's be tactful. Manners work both ways."

Then she turned back to the Sutterdown leadership; as she did so she stripped the glove off her right hand. One of the flaps from a burst blister had been bothering her. She bit it off and spat it aside, then caught the odd looks directed at her.

"We're just finishing up our harvest?" she explained, puzzled. The Sutterdown folk would be too.

"You're harvesting, personally?" Sheriff Laughton said. "Lady Juniper," he added hastily as the guards scowled.

"I'm the clan's leader by the clan's choice," she said shortly. And to Anwyn with your stupid rumors about the Witch Queen.

Aloud she went on: "I'm not their master. Everyone takes a turn at the hard work here. And what brings you here on this fine day, with all your people?"

Dixon took a deep breath. From what she'd heard, he was the driving force who'd held Sutterdown together, persuaded and shamed and tongue-lashed and sometimes outright forced people into cooperating and doing what was necessary; a strong man, if not a good one, and very shrewd. The fact that he was here asking for help showed that.

"We were attacked," he said bluntly. "Not by the ordinary sort of trash, road people and Eaters—we could deal with them. By about a hundred men, organized, with good weapons—much better than ours."

All three flicked their eyes to the improvised militia among the crowd on the road, and then to the near-uniform, purpose-made equipment the Mackenzie warriors carried.

Dixon cleared his throat and continued: "They hit us just before dawn, killed six of our people who tried to resist, ran us out of town. They claim—their leaders claim—to be from Portland and say they've come to settle and govern the area, and they made demands."

"Demanded that we give them a third of our crops, and every family send someone to work for them one day in three!" Sheriff Laughton said indignantly.

The doctor took up the tale: "Said they'll burn the town and all the farms if we don't obey! They say they work for … what was it, the Portland Protective Association? And said their leader is the baron of this area."

"The Protector, that was who they talked about mostly," Dixon said. "Perhaps ... ah, we should have taken your warnings about this Protector more seriously. But we didn't expect anything this early in the year."

Neither did I, Juniper thought, feeling an inner chill. But farmers are most vulnerable when the crops are ripe. A band of Eaters would be less of a threat.

Eaters tended to be self-destructive and usually more than half mad, and they also died of disease faster than anyone else, naturally enough—a case of catching whatever you ate had. They were like wildfire: hideously dangerous, but inclined to burn itself out quickly.

"We need your help … Lady Juniper," Dixon said.

The last came out as if he had to force it; for herself, she didn't care, but she couldn't let an outsider scorn or disrespect the clan. Reputation mattered these days; it might be the margin between being left in peace and attacked.

"I'll need to talk this over with my advisors, and put it to the clan's vote," she said. "I'd be inclined to help you, gentlemen; it's what neighbors do, and these people are likely to be a threat to us, too. But the plague … you understand why we've been very isolated since the outbreak."

The doctor spoke: "None of our people have the plague," he said, and the others nodded vigorously. "I swear it."

He looked around. "I can … I can reassure you on that, Lady Juniper. If we could talk privately."

Decision firmed. "That's as it may be. I'll have to ask you to scrub down and change clothing at least, before we can go up to the Hall. Ray, show them where."

They'd got the bathrooms in the old Carson place functioning, if you didn't mind hand-pumping and toting wood for heating.

"It shouldn't take long."

"Yes, Lady Juniper," he said, scowling and signaling them towards the farmhouse with the point of his spear.

"And Ray?"

He looked at her, then flushed and hung his head when she shook an admonishing finger; his face looked very young then.

"Be polite. And see that drinking water's brought out for all these folk and their beasts; they're our neighbors and friends, not our enemies. Aithnitear car í gcruatán; a friend is known in hardship. Threefold, remember?"

When the Sutterdown men had gone, Juniper turned to her escort; Cynthia had the best horse and was the best rider besides.

"I want … Judy, Chuck, Dennis, Diana, your father, and Sam, ready for a private conference at the Hall, and fast," she said.

She looked out at the fresh refugees. Curse it, these are people who were doing all right until today! They had crops harvested, they were going to make it!

"And tell Diana to throw together what ready food we can spare, load a wagon and have it brought down here— we can push it out to them. Eternal Soup ought to do, and maybe some bread and dried fruit. Git, girl!"

Cynthia left in a thunder of hooves. Juniper spent the time pacing and thinking, and once sent out a rider with more orders. Other members of the clan trickled in to take over making sure that the people of Sutterdown didn't surge past the notional line that marked the boundary, and the scouts went back about their business. One emergency didn't mean that another might not pop up.

When the three Sutterdown leaders came out they were in plain dark sweatsuits, though Dixon still grasped his Bible. The wagon arrived promptly at about the same time; Diana had probably diverted something meant for the harvesters, or a party of herd-watchers.

Juniper turned to the men: "We'd like to leave the food on the road, and then have your people share it out. It's not much, but … "

"Thank you very kindly," Laughton said, sincerely.

After the spring and summer past, giving away food was something people took seriously. Even Dixon nodded. He'd been accused of many things, but never of taking more than his share, or letting anyone under his authority do so either.

"And if you'll follow me?"

They perched in the buckboard, one of the ones her clansfolk had liberated from a tourist attraction; it was odd how long that idea had taken to spread. Juniper took the reins and flicked them on the backs of the team. She took the long way round—the fewer people who knew about the other way up from the back of the old Fairfax place, the better.

She could feel them gawking as she drove past the mill, working now and roofed, although the walls were still going up; past the truck plots and potato fields and watering furrow; past haystacks, past archers practicing on deer-shaped targets and others who used sword and buckler on posts or wooden blades on each other; past a hunter, coming in with a brace of deer slung across the packhorse that walked behind her jaunty bow-crossed shoulder.

The Mackenzie clachan, she thought wryly. I wonder what Great-uncle Earl would think of it nowthat respectable small-town banker, who left the place to me, of all people? Or any of the other Mackenzies?

Such a trail of their generations, in the Old Country and the long drift westward over mountain and forest, prairie and river. Bad and wicked, a few, feud-carriers and cattle-lifters. Some heroes—her favorites were the two sisters who'd been lynched in North Carolina for helping the Underground Railroad. A scattering of backwoods granny-witches and cunning-men, as well. Plain dirt farmers, the most of them, down all their patient plowing centuries— living in the homes they built and eating from the fields they tilled, until they laid their toil-worn bodies to rest in earth's embrace.

She glanced over her shoulder at the three men from Sutterdown, and felt all those ancestors behind her.

They didn't often walk away from a neighbor's needand never backed down from bullies!

When they came to the Hall with its half-completed palisade, Laughton burst out:

"How did you get all this done? There aren't that many of you, and I swear nobody could have worked harder than we have!"

The curiosity seemed genuine. Because of that, Juniper answered frankly: "Apart from the favor of Brigid and Cernunnos? Well, mutual help. You people are trying to live mostly with each family on its own, like they did before the Change, but without the machinery and exchange that made that possible."

"We get by," Laughton growled, then flushed and waved a hand around. "Sorry. You obviously do better than 'getting by.'"

Juniper nodded. "Our clan work together and live close, so we can take turns on sentry-go, or support people doing one thing most of the time … or throw nearly everybody at a job that needs doing, like the harvest, with only a few to cook or keep an eye on the children."

"Sounds like communism," Dixon growled.

"It's more like tribalism, Reverend, with a bit of kibbutz thrown in," she said, keeping her voice neutral. "Call it common sense, for now. Things may be different in a few years … or not. And if you'll excuse me a moment, I need to freshen up while my advisors arrive."

She pulled in before the Hall, finished just before the wheat came ripe; Dennis had already started stenciling the designs he wanted to carve into a lot of it, particularly the tall pillars that supported the wraparound second-story gallery and the new roof.

Eilir came out and took the horses.

It's all ready, Mom, she signed, looking at the three men in the wagon with a mixture of curiosity and distaste. Want me to lay out some ceremonial stuff for you? Scare them green, that would!

Thanks, but I'm trying to get them in a mood to cooperate! she replied. A plain brown around-the-house robe … oh, and just for swank, that moon pendant Dennie and Sally made for me.

She dropped to the ground, and winced a little as that jarred into the small of her abused back. It was almost a pity in some ways that they'd reverted to peasant attitudes about early pregnancy. There wouldn't be time for anything but a quick sluice-down, either.

And they're going to make me miss my soak, too, she signed. We old ladies are wont to get irritable and cranky when we miss our soak … Show them up to the room and get 'em the refreshments, my child of spring.

The loft bedroom-office-sanctum was one luxury she'd allowed herself when the Hall was put back together. It still brought her a surge of slightly guilty pleasure as she climbed up the steep staircase from the second-story corridor to join the waiting Sutterdown men.

The attic space under the steep-pitched roof was brightly lit by the dormer windows on two sides and the bigger one in the eaves. Dennis had pitched in to furnish it; there were hanging bookcases, a long trestle table for conferences or paperwork that could be folded out of the way, shelves for her Craft tools and for the neatly rolled futons and bedding that she and Eilir used, and a little iron wood-stove for winter. Her old loom was set up at the far end.

A big desk held a mechanical adding machine they'd salvaged, and a manual typewriter. There were filing cabinets as well, map boards, all the necessities of administration, which she loathed even as she did her share. And a cradle Dennis had made for her, ready for later in the year, carved all over with knotwork and intertwining beasts.

She was amused to see that the Reverend had a reflex Juniper shared, whenever she went into a new house: checking the bookshelves. You could tell from the slight tilt of his head.

The bulging eyes were probably because of the selection, though. Here, besides books like Langer's Grow It!, Livingston's Guide to Edible Plants and Animals, Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living and of course Seymour's Forgotten Arts and Crafts—their most valuable single work—the shelves held references useful to a High Priestess.

Eight Sabbats for Witches—a slightly outdated classic— and the more modern Spellworking for Covens, just for starters. Dixon's face was getting mottled again.

She tried to see the room through the eyes of the Sutterdown men. Judy's cat had managed to get in, for one thing. It was a big black beast with yellow eyes, and it was glaring at Reverend Dixon, who stared back in what he probably didn't know a cat would regard as an insult and challenge.

"Out, Pywackett!" she said, and slung the protesting beast down the stairs, closing the doorway after her.

Then there was a lectern, the top covered with a black cloth that had a golden pentacle-and-circle on it; Dixon would probably guess, rightly, that the square shape beneath was her Book of Shadows. Her personal altar stood below the north-facing window in the eaves, with candlesticks and chalice and ritual tools and small statues of the Lady and Lord. A few prints were pinned up on the log walls, and a ceramic tile she'd bought back in 1986 that showed elk-headed Cernunnos playing on a flute as he skipped through an oakwood surrounded by skyclad dancers … 

Well, by the Cauldron and the Wand, if they want to beg our help they're just going to have to take us as we are, she thought, and sat at the head of the table.

Eilir had set out plates of fresh-cut bread, butter, cherry jam and small glasses of mead—they didn't have much yet—along with a big pot of rose-hip tea; she was glad to see that even Dixon had sampled the refreshments.

Because now he's a guest and I can't lose my temper with him.

The food scents went well with the beeswax-paint-and-fresh-wood smell of the building; rather less well with the sweat-and-cows aroma of several of the clansfolk, who'd come straight from the fields without bothering to hit the bathhouse. She hoped they'd remembered to use the wooden boot-scraper at the front door. Keeping clean was hard work these days.

"Let's get going," she said when the last person was seated and the strained attempt at chat ended. "This is one of those no-time-to-waste things, so we'll have to put aside our cherished tradition of talking everything to rags. You're all up to speed on what our neighbors have told me?"

She looked around, checking the nods. "Subject to the voice of the clan assembled, is everyone agreed that if the information proves to be true, we can't tolerate a big bandit gang making its headquarters next to us? Worse, one that tries to set itself up as overlords, and has ties to the Protector in Portland."

Another chorus of nods; everyone had heard a little of what was happening there, and even by the standards of the fifth month after the Change, the stories were gruesome.

"Then the first order of business is what Dr. Gianelli said about guaranteeing against exposure to the plague."

Everyone's ears perked up at that; the silence grew taut.

Gianelli licked his lips. "I said that would have to be in private, Lady Juniper."

She looked at him, her green eyes level under the hood of her robe, which she'd drawn up to cover her damp hair.

"This is private," she said. "These are my advisors. And I'm not a dictator here, unlike some places I could name. Something that important can't stay between the two of us; my people expect to be informed, and listened to, when decisions are made. And I'm not going to expose my clan to the Death on just a hint from you, Doctor."

Gianelli looked down at his hands, then clenched them into fists. He was an olive-skinned man in his thirties; when he went pale the blue-black stubble stood out vividly.

"Streptomycin," he said, still staring at his hands and spitting the word out as if it were a blow.

Judy Barstow gasped. The other Mackenzies looked at each other uncertainly.

"That's an antibiotic, isn't it?" Juniper said.

Judy nodded, a quick hard jerk of the chin. "It's a specific against Yersinia pestis, if it's administered early," she said. "A good prophylactic at low doses, if you take it a couple of days before possible exposure, but it can damage your kidneys if you continue for more than a month. It's also valuable against a lot of other bacteria, and it keeps indefinitely in powdered form at room temperature. We ran out of it two months ago—I could never locate more than a couple of doses."

Her calm broke. "How much have you got!"

Gianelli went on in a monotone: "Bulk powder from my hospital in Albany in sealed packages. Twelve thousand adult doses."

Crack!

Her palm slammed the doctor's head to one side; the arm rose again for a backhand as she leaned far across the table. Sam Aylward had Judy by the shoulders before the second blow could fall, forcing her back into the chair.

"Bastard!" she spat at the Sutterdown doctor, fighting against the great callused hands; there were two red spots on her cheeks, as bright as the print of her palm on his.

"Bastard! I lost one of my patients, one of our children, and you had—you weren't even using it!"

Gianelli looked up again, ignoring the imprint of the hand on his cheek. "It was all I had! It's like food—I can't give it to everyone who needs it, or it'll all be gone in a week, and then everyone will be as bad off as before! The other antibiotics, most of them need refrigeration. I had to save it!"

He buried his head in his hands, and the rigid brace went out of his shoulders. "The hospital … there were so many … so many, and I couldn't do anything, we didn't have any food, and the head of administration killed himself and I took the box and I ran, I ran … "

"Quiet," Juniper said.

She heard what Judy was muttering under her breath— in this context, there was only one reason for calling on Three-Fold Hecate—and reached aside to lay a finger across her lips.

"Don't say that, Maiden," she said, in her High Priestess voice.

That seemed to startle Judy out of her anger somewhat, or at least back to control. "Don't think it, either. Not if you want to stay under my rooftree."

Her eyes flicked across the three men. "As I said, neighbors help each other. We'd all be better off now if we'd cooperated more before. It has to be mutual, though. So if we're going to help you, you have to help us."

"We're willing to share the medicine," Dixon put in.

"Excellent. We'll want enough to protect any of our people who go out to fight, and then half the remainder." Her tone made it clear that the statement wasn't a question or a request.

All three of them nodded; not that they had much choice. Inwardly, she felt a single cold knot relax for the first time since she smelled the death pits outside Salem; with five or six thousand doses, they could stop any plague outbreak among the Mackenzies cold—and possibly protect some other communities she knew of, combined with preventative measures.

"And if we're going to fight and win where you lost, we insist on being in command of our joint muster," she said.

More nods, a bit slower this time, and glances at Aylward and Chuck.

"And good neighbors don't preach hatred against each other."

Now Dixon sat rigid, glaring at her, and the doctor and the sheriff exchanged worried glances. Juniper went on: "We don't cast spells of bane and ruin against you. I'd appreciate it if you'd stop doing so against us, Reverend. Times are difficult enough as it is without wasting effort on counterspells."

Dixon's face went still more blotchy. "I cast no spells!" he spat. "I pray to the living God!"

Juniper took a deep breath. "Let's put it another way: We both believe in the power of prayer. If a group of people get together to chant and ill-wish someone, it has a way of working regardless of the details of the ritual ... and then of bouncing back on the ill-wishers, which has already happened to your town, no?"

She raised a hand. "Or let's discuss it in purely secular terms. You're an influential man, ruler as well as priest— and believe me, I've come to understand what that means, however much I didn't want to. If you go on inciting people to regard us as evil Satanists worthy of death, and quoting Exodus 22:18 or Galatians 5:19 as if they applied to us—"

"It is the Word of God—"

Judy slapped the table with a crack like timber breaking and barked: "They're mistranslations, you nitwit, as anyone who knew more Hebrew or Greek than King James's so-called scholars could have told you. M'khasephah means someone who malevolently uses spoken curses to hurt people, which we're specifically forbidden to do by the Wiccan Rede, and pharmakia means a poisoner. If you want to preach against suffering a poisoner to live, go right ahead!"

"Spiritual poison—"

"Shut up!" Juniper said. Then, more calmly: "Whatever the origins of the phrases, keep repeating them and eventually you'll produce a community which hates us and attacks us physically. In which case, why should we fight for one enemy against another?"

Laughton cut in: "We have freedom of religion in Sutterdown, Ms … Lady Juniper."

"And we Mackenzies do too," she said, nodding towards John Carson. "Our livestock boss here is a Presbyterian. Some of our clan are Witches, some are unbelievers, some are Christians of various sorts."

The latter two a rapidly diminishing proportion, I admit, she didn't say aloud. That would diminish the force of my point.

"We don't call anyone evil because of their faith. There are many roads to the Divine. We'd just like you to promise to reciprocate, as a demonstration of goodwill."

Dixon looked out the windows, then back at her.

"You'll take my promise?" he said, sounding surprised.

"I don't like you," Juniper said bluntly, meeting his eyes. "But I've never heard that your word isn't good."

The silence stretched; then he nodded. Juniper returned the gesture with an inclination of her head.

"Chuck, rumors are probably flying. Tell everyone we'll have a clan meeting after supper to thrash things out, and an Esbat tomorrow night to call for the Lord and Lady's aid, and would welcome any other variety of prayers as well. We'll need all the help we can get."

The moon wouldn't be full or dark for the Esbat, but that wasn't absolutely required, just customary and preferred.

"We'll also send out scouts to get our own information. Sam, handle it, and get us ready." He nodded silently. "John, we'll need pretty well all the saddle-broke horses."

"Not bicycles?" he said.

"No. Horses are faster over the distances we're talking. And a wagon team at least. Diana, Andy, supplies. And whatever we can spare for the Sutterdown folk, until this is over; slaughter some stock if you have to. Judy, as far as getting our people protected against the plague, and for casualty care … "

When she was finished, she leaned over the table to shake hands with the town's three leaders. Dr. Gianelli looked drained, as if he'd had some noxious cyst lanced; Sheriff Laughton was relieved, like a man drowning who'd been thrown a spar. And Dixon, as usual, looked full of suppressed fury.

You did help neighbors. It wasn't necessary to like all of them.

Chapter Twenty-four

"Lord Jesus, Mike, these were a bad bunch did this," Will Hutton said quietly; his face was grayish.

They bore the last of the bodies out of the Clarke farmhouse wrapped in blankets. They could each carry one easily; neither corpse weighed more than fifty pounds. They'd found these in an upstairs bedroom. It looked as if they'd tried to hide under a bed, and been dragged out by the ankles—a small leg had been severed at the knee.

One still had a stuffed toy bear in a cowboy outfit in his hands when they found him; Havel had wrapped it with the body.

"Bad as I've ever seen," the Texan went on as they carried them out to where the gravediggers labored. "Bad as those crazy men north of Kooskia."

"Worse, Will," Havel said. "More of them, and better organized."

He didn't add: And dead is dead; it doesn't matter much what happens to the body. Hutton was a more conventional man than he, and Havel wouldn't willingly offend him.

And the skin between his shoulders crawled a little at the memory, anyway. It reminded him a little too much of stories he'd heard Grannie Lauder tell, stories of wendigo and mischepesu. Only those had been stories, something for a kid to shiver over while he sat on the floor in front of the fire. This had been unpleasantly real … and in the Changed world, who could tell what was real, anyway? Maybe there were man-eating spirits in the winter woods, now.

He didn't want to talk about that, either.

"Glad it's still coolish weather," he said instead.

The Clarkes had a family graveyard, in a patch bordered by pines and willows near the crest of the low hill to the west of the homestead. The first headstones marked Clarke were dated before 1914, but these would be the last of that line, he supposed.

More than twenty fresh graves doubled its size, and spadefuls of the wet black earth were still flying up; two Bearkillers helped stand guard, and another six helped Sheriff Woburn's posse dig, their armor and weapons draped across their saddles. The horses all grazed nearby, hobbled, rolling now and then. There was no point in keeping them out of the wheat.

Woburn called one of his men over, turning his back when he drew up a corner of each blanket so that only the two of them need see the faces.

"That's little Mort Williams, all right," the man said. "And Judy Clarke, old man Clarke's great-granddaughter, her parents came back from Lewiston right after the Change. Jesus wept."

"I don't doubt Mary did," Hutton said quietly, crossing himself; he'd become a Catholic to make peace with his wife's relatives, but it had taken.

"This the Devil Dogs' work, all right," Woburn said with frustrated anger leaking through the iron calm of his voice. "Worse than ever."

"Devil Dogs?" Havel said.

They stood back from the graves. He'd kept the gruesome work of wrapping the bodies for himself and Hutton while the younger Bearkillers dug. Sheriff Woburn had done the same, pitching in with the disgusting task, which put him up a notch in Havel's view. He'd always respected an officer who was willing to share the unpleasant bits.

"Devil Dogs, the bikers," the lawman went on. "It's the gang's name. They broke away from the Hell's Angels years ago—thought the Angels had gone soft. Bunch of them were holding a meet at a motel south of Lewiston when the Change came. Iron Rod's their leader, I don't know his real name."

"Duke Iron Rod?" Havel enquired.

Woburn's face went crimson. "That's new the last little while. He's trying to extort protection money, I mean payments in food and supplies, from the ranchers and towns. Bastard's claiming to be Duke of the Camas Prairie!"

Havel's brows went up. Have to get the details on this, he thought. Doesn't sound right. Or … if it's our good friend Arminger prompting, it does sound right.

They'd seen plenty of petty theft and one-on-one violence in the first weeks after the Change, and hit-and-run banditry on an increasing scale since, plus what Ken Larsson and Pam Arnstein and Aaron Rothman called incipient feudalism—strong-arm rule. That was mostly by local bossmen, though, and the more unscrupulous ranchers taking advantage of homeless, desperate city-dwellers and travelers as cheap labor.

This didn't quite make sense, not on a purely local basis.

He stood back respectfully and bowed his head with his followers when Woburn pulled a Bible from his saddlebags and began reading a service. He'd fallen away from the Lutheran faith of his ancestors himself, but he'd been raised among believers.

When the rest of Sheriff Woburn's little posse had ridden off towards their homes, Havel gave a short sharp. whistle.

The two Bearkillers who'd been riding sentry turned and moved the horses back towards the others. Those got each other into their gear—you could wiggle into a hauberk alone, but it went faster with help—saddled their mounts, and formed up in a column of twos. One at the rear led a packhorse with their picks and shovels.

"Got 'em well trained," Woburn remarked. "How many men—"

Signe Larsson looked at him in the act of putting on her helmet, then settled it and clipped on the chin cup. Gloria Stevens, the other woman present, snickered.

"—well, troopers, do you have?"

"We've got around a hundred adults now," Havel said. "Carefully picked. Not all of them have the heft or the inclination for a stand-up fight or to go along when we ride out like this, but things being the way they are, I try to give everyone some weapons training."

Including even utterly hopeless cases like Jane Waters and Rothman, he thought. But let's not talk about that now. Aloud he went on: "You may not plan on having the fight at home, but … "

Woburn nodded. "Yeah, the other guy sometimes has plans of his own, the dirty dog. I can see why you'd want all your people to know how."

"Your Kate Clarke would probably have wanted to know how, yesterday morning, for example," Signe said, then dropped back into the column.

Woburn winced a little and looked at the horses, changing the subject: "All well-mounted, too."

"We've done this and that here and there, helping people out with jobs or problems," Havel said neutrally.

And liberated some stock left wandering, or plain looted it from people who tried to attack or cheat us. Plus there's no better judge of horseflesh in the world than Will, with Angelica a close second.

"We take payment in tools, food and animals, mostly. Lucky this part of the country isn't short of livestock. And as I said, we've got a really good horse trainer."

Woburn didn't seem concerned to be alone among armed strangers; that made him stupid, suicidal or brave, and Havel thought he was probably the last. He was also keeping his eyes open.

"All this weird old-time knights-in-armor gear still looks funny to me," he said. "I mean, I have problems taking it seriously."

Havel shrugged and drew his puukko. He handed it to Woburn, who tested the edge automatically, raised his brows in respect, and handed it back. Havel pressed the blade to his mail-clad body and then ripped it down from shoulder to waist, just beside the diagonal line of the bandolier that held his quiver. The steel cut a bright line along the little interlinked rings with a rattling click.

"Point taken," Woburn said.

On a man in cloth, that would have worked like a chain saw on wood. Not for the first time, Havel thought how much of a survival advantage it was to be mentally flexible in this Changed world.

Woburn sighed. "I know up in my head that guns don't work anymore, but there are times when"—he patted the vintage saber at his saddlebow—"this doesn't seem real. Plus there's no time to learn how to use it properly. Some of our people have been sewing washers or pieces of metal on coats and dusters. Or making jackets of boiled steer-hide."

A scowl: "A lot of Iron Rod's men use scales fastened to canvas backing, too, recently."

"I've seen gear like that," Havel said. A lot of it in Portland, to be precise. "It's heavier and less flexible than chain mail, though. We can sell you some armor, and more importantly we can take some of your people through the whole process of making it."

It was past four o'clock when they passed the Bearkiller sentries; some of them were carrying lances as well as swords and bows, which impressed Woburn. Havel hid a smile as he returned their fist-to-chest salutes; so far, only the unanimous verdict of Will's cavalry manuals kept him trying with the damned bargepoles. They were as hard to manage on horseback as archery!

The Bearkillers' camp was in a clearing just back of the ridge where the lane led down to the prairie; the grassland there covered several acres, interrupted by scraggly lodge-pole pines and some aspens. The afternoon sun gilded the tall grass, and cast blue shadows towards the east. A scent of woodsmoke and cooking came from the hearths, and the cheerful sound of children playing, the tink … tink  … of metal on metal, the rhythmic lock of axes splitting firewood.

More of the wagons' loads had been taken down than was usual for a one-night stopover; Havel wanted Sheriff Woburn impressed, and it had been easy enough to send orders back from the sacked farmstead.

The tents were pitched in neat rows, one per family with more for the single men, single women and outfit purposes; each had a fire in front of it and a Coleman lantern hung from the peak. A latrine trench was behind a grove of aspens, and a canvas enclosure for bathing stood beside a wheeled metal water-tank, another Ken-and-Will joint project; it was built so that a heating fire could be kindled in a hearth at one end. A woman was tossing chunks of pine into the fire, and a valve hissed on top as the water came to a boil.

"Helps avoid giardia," Havel said.

Woburn nodded; the nasty little parasites were endemic in Idaho streams, including the "purest" mountain brooks.

"Pretty piece of work," he said.

Havel nodded gravely, grinning to himself. He wasn't quite running a Potomekin village setup for the good sheriff, but he was putting the best foot forward.

"Lord Bear," one of their more recent recruits said, taking the reins as Havel and his guest swung down out of the saddle.

Havel felt his teeth gritting. Breaking people of calling him that was probably more trouble than it was worth, and most seemed to like it better than "Boss." Giving Astrid a sound spanking for coming up with the idea was almost certainly more trouble than it would be worth … but it was so tempting, sometimes!

He steered Woburn past the portable smithy—they had a real blacksmith now, freeing up a lot of Will's time—the arrow-making operation, the armor-assembly area from which Astrid and Luanne had been reprieved for awe-the-locals purposes, and on to the bowmaking benches.

Interesting, Havel thought. When he's actually working, our Bill looks almost trustworthy. The problem is you have to stand over him to keep him working.

Right now he was opening the insulated hotbox and checking a bow-limb curing there, the half-S shape secured between plywood forms with metal screw-clamps; the box reduced the time needed for the glue to set hard from a year to weeks, at the cost of a slight loss in durability. An assistant had a hardwood block clamped in a vise; he was shaping the riser into which the limbs would be pegged and glued, roughing out the shape of the pistol grip and arrow-shelf with a chisel. Shavings of pale myrtlewood curled away from the tap-tap-tap.

Havel nodded towards the pots of glue, planks of osage-orange wood, bundles of dried sinew, pieces of antler, and a box of translucent lozenges sawn from cow horns.

"We'll always have those materials."

"You've been thinking ahead," Woburn said respectfully.

They passed the school, taught open-air by Annie Sanders when there was time, with a folding blackboard and students from six to twelve. Reuben Waters, Billy's eldest, made his typical entry—Annie dragged him in by one ear, with occasional swats to his backside along the way. She thought the Waters kids were salvageable, and they did seem a bit brighter than their parents.

Astrid galloped her horse past a deer-shaped target— and the arrow flickered out to go thump behind the shoulder. Others were on foot, shooting at Frisbee-sized wooden disks rolled downhill, or at stationary man-shapes; the shooters were crouched, kneeling, walking, as well as standing in the classic archer's T.

Luanne was on horseback too, picking wooden tent pegs out of the ground with a lance as she galloped. It made a dramatic backdrop for Will's horsemanship class with its jumps and obstacles.

Hope she doesn't dig in and knock herself out of the saddle while our guest is watching, Havel thought. She's the only one we've got yet who doesn't do that all the time!

Those just starting with the sword were hacking at pells—posts set in the ground, or convenient trees—or slicing pinecones tossed at them. He didn't have anyone riding the wooden hobbyhorse just now, learning to swing a blade from the saddle without decapitating his mount—it was essential, but he had to admit it looked so … 

Dorky, he thought. There's no other word that fits.

Except for Astrid and a few other fast-growing teenagers, all those at weapons practice were working in chain mail, to get used to the weight and constriction and sweat-sodden heat of it. That was only marginally more popular than the regular exercise sessions wearing the stuff, jumping and running and tumbling and climbing ladders.

My sympathy is underwhelming, you poor little darlings, Havel thought. Try humping an eighty-pound pack through fucking Iraq.

Pam Arnstein had one of her fencing classes going for the better students, with Signe as her assistant.

"The targe"—she insisted on using the fancy term for small round shield—"is not there for you to wave in the air! Keep it in front of you. Remember it's a weapon like your sword—weapons are kept face to the enemy. Pivot the rear foot as you move—heel down, Johnson! Passing thrust—passing thrust—cut—cut—forehand—backhand— at the man, not at the shield! Stay in line, in line!"

Impatiently, she called Josh Sanders out from the double line of pupils. Havel watched with interest as she drove the brawny young man down the field in a clatter and bang of mock combat.

"Right, try it again … better. Now free-form! I deflect your cut with my blade sloped behind my back, and make a crossing attack, stepping forward to cut in turn to the hamstring … so."

"Ouch!" He stumbled and recovered.

"I knock your shield out of line … so. The body follows the sword, remember. Swords first, foot just a fraction of a second behind. Then I thrust to the face … cut to the neck—no, don't block with the edge of your targe, you'll get it sliced off. With the surface—that's why it's covered in rawhide. Good parry, now I'm vulnerable, hit me with it—"

Crack! as leather met leather.

"Sorry!" he blurted, as he knocked her off her feet and onto her back.

The sixteenth-century European blade styles featured a lot of bodychecking, throws, kicks and short punching blows with the pommel of the sword or the edge of the shield, too. The brutal whatever-works pragmatism was precisely to Havel's taste.

"That's the first completely correct move you've made today," Pamela said as she rolled erect again. "You've got the advantage of weight—so use it. There aren't any bronze or silver medals in this sort of fencing. Win or die!"

Havel inclined his helmeted head towards the practice field. "Like you said, Sheriff, it's not just finding or making the weapons, it's learning how to use them."

"Doesn't look like what I remember of fencing," he said, shading his eyes. "Watched the Olympics once."

Havel nodded. The motions were much broader and fuller, with all the body's coordinated strength and weight behind them. He went on aloud: "One of these cut-and-thrust swords will blast right through an épée parry and skewer you front to back, or gut you like a trout. We were real lucky to find Pam Arnstein—that's our instructor there."

Ken Larsson was working on a drawing pinned to a folding draughtsman's table nearby, looking up occasionally at the sword practice; Aaron Rothman rested his peg leg in a canvas recliner nearby.

Havel introduced them, and the elder Larsson went on: "Pam was a stroke of luck. She's our vet too, and doubled as our medico until we found Aaron here."

He grinned and jerked a thumb at the doctor, who was starting to look just skinny again.

"Lord Bear's Luck, some call it," Rothman said. "And believe me, I was glad to get a share of it!"

I really wish people wouldn't say that, Havel thought. The dice have no memory. You've got to earn your luck again every morning.

Four Bearkillers were passing by with a quartered beef carcass in wheelbarrows, heading for the cooking fires and the chuck wagon. Arnstein looked at Havel, who nodded. She halted them, and had the hindquarters hung on hooks hoof-up beneath a tree while she laid down the practice lath, unhooked the wire-mesh screen from the front of her helmet and took up her battle sword.

A whistle brought the novices' practice to a halt; Signe flashed Havel a smile as she helped chivvy them into place, sheepdog style.

"This part's popular, for some reason," Havel said, as they walked over; Sheriff Woburn was looking puzzled. "But it has to wait for a butchering day. I've got to admit, it's sort of cool to do."

He raised his voice. "Gather 'round, those who haven't seen this demonstration. And those who want to see it again."

A few of the neophytes looked as puzzled as Woburn. The rest grinned and nudged each other as they shoved the others closer to the hanging meat.

"Now, watch closely. And keep in mind that this"— Havel drew his sword, and tapped one of the hanging quarters lightly—"is the ass-end of a nice big cow. Range heifer, about seven hundred pounds. Bone and muscle and tendon, just like us, except thicker and more of it. Pam, do the honors on Cheek Number One."

Pamela poised motionless, then attacked with a running thrust, right foot skimming forward and knee bending into a long lunge. The point of her saber hardly appeared to move; it was presented at the beginning of the motion, and then six inches of it were out the other side of the haunch of beef. She withdrew, twisting the blade.

"Examine that, please," she said.

The novices did, one of them gulping audibly as he put a finger in the long tunnel-like wound. The tall wiry woman grinned as she went on:

"While not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, it's more than sufficient to let out a lot of blood. And now if you'll back off slightly—"

She reversed to her original left-foot-forward stance, poised for a second with targe and point advanced, then attacked again; this time she cut backhand with a high wordless shout, foot and edge slamming down together as if connected by invisible rods and hips twisting to put a whipping snap into the strike.

The blade slanted into the meat with a wet thwack! and a great slab of flesh slumped down; they could all see where her saber had cut a deep pinkish-white nick into the surface of the butchered steer's legbone. Flecks of meat spattered into the faces of the closest onlookers.

"And that, ladies and gentlemen, could be you," she said, panting slightly. "Which is why there's no prize for second place." There were a few more shocked faces among the grins.

Pamela went on: "Lord Bear will now demonstrate what happens when someone hits you hard with a backsword, instead of a light cut like that."

Havel slipped the shield off his back and onto his arm, standing with left foot and arm advanced. Then he screamed and pounced and struck in the same motion, steel whirling in a blur of speed, long blade at the end of a long arm in a looping overarm cut.

"Haakkaa paalle!"

A wet cleaving sound sounded under the shout, and a crackling beneath that. When the beef haunch swayed back, they could all see that the steel had sliced through eight inches of hide and meat to make a canyon gape several feet long, and split the heavy legbone beneath— lengthwise. Chips and dust lay in the marrow at the bottom of the cut, shattered out of the bone by the violence of the impact.

A chorus of whistles and murmurs went through the ranks of the novices, along with a dabbing at faces.

Havel spoke: "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we don't bitch and moan about how hot and heavy and uncomfortable the armor is."

I may have to grind away to get good at archery, but it seems I've got a natural talent for this.

"Supper's at seven," Havel said; Woburn was looking suitably impressed. "Why don't you look around for a little while? Ken can answer any questions you have. I've got to get out of this ironmongery and there's some business to attend to."

As he turned away, a thought struck him: If this Duke Iron Rod really is in with Arminger, how many other people are fighting the Protector right now?

 

Angelica Hutton was just putting a Dutch oven full of biscuits into the embers in one of the fires behind the chuck wagon when Havel arrived, his hair still damp from the bath. There were a dozen working there, amid a cheerful clatter and chatter that didn't disguise the size of the task or the efficiency with which it got done.

"Jane, remember to get the tortillas into that warmer the minute they're done," she said, her voice friendly but a little loud and slow; then she wiped her hands on the apron she wore over her Levi's and shirt.

The smile died as she and the Bearkiller leader walked aside: "Mike, that woman!" she continued; speaking under her breath, but clenching her fists beneath her chin and making a throttled sound of wordless exasperation.

"Specific problem?" he said.

"She is … no, she is good-hearted, and not even lazy if you tell her everything she is to do, but I have met mesquite stumps with more brains! She speaks of nothing but TV shows and the days when she was a cheerleader."

You could believe that more easily these days; Jane Waters didn't look shapeless anymore—she was even pretty, in a blowsy, faded-rose way.

"And she is a natural … what is the old English word.I saw it in a schoolbook of Luanne's ... no, not slut, that means puta, right?"

Havel nodded, and the Tejano woman went on: "Slattern, that is the word. She cannot even cook; not at all, I do not mean fancy things. Before the Change her children ate from McDonald's and Taco Bell every day! Or from cans and frozen pizza."

"Not everyone can meet your high standards, Angelica," Havel said, grinning. And oh, for the days when even poor people could get too much of the wrong sort of food! "I wanted to check on supplies."

"Y bien," she said, pulling a list out of a pocket. "We've got enough meat, I ordered a steer butchered this afternoon—it arrived a little worn, no?"

He smiled and made a placating gesture.

"If we stop anytime soon, I want to try to make dried and smoked sausage; there is plenty of jerky, but it is boring even in a stew. So we must have spices—sage, garlic. For the rest, we need some sacks of salt, badly. We are short of flour, and potatoes, and down to the last of our beans, rice, and oatmeal. We need vegetables very badly, dried or canned, also fruit—it is not healthy, to live so much on meat and bread, even with the vitamin pills. Shortly we will need clothing, particularly boots and shoes, and especially for the little ones … "

Angelica went through her list; then she darted back to make sure her assistants weren't spoiling anything.

After a quick check she began beating on a triangle. Everyone gathered 'round their mess hearths by squads and families, as youngsters carried the food around; tables were too much of a bother to drag along on the move, but they had good groundsheets so you could sit down dry and reasonably comfortable around a fire—most were leaning against their saddles, cowboy fashion. Shadows closed in around the fires and the first stars appeared in the east.

Woburn bit into his burrito, then looked down at it with surprised pleasure as the tangy carne asada hit his palate, cooled with sour cream.

"All right," he said to the Bearkillers' leader. "You've got a real slick operation here, Mr. Havel. Now, you were hinting that you could do something about the Devil Dogs."

"That depends," he said. "They've got some sort of base, right? A hideout you can't come at, or more likely they've forted up someplace you can't take."

"They're at St. Hilda's," Woburn said, respect in his voice.

Havel's ears perked up at that; he saw that Ken Larsson's did, too. It was one of the big Idaho tourist attractions; you couldn't live in the state and not know about it.

He held up a hand for a moment, and turned his head to Will Hutton; the various bosses-of-sections were eating around Havel's fire tonight, as usual when there was serious business to discuss.

"Will, St. Hilda's is a Benedictine abbey over by that butte. Near the top of it, in fact."

He pointed southwest. A wide cone with gentle slopes dominated the rolling plain, visible many miles away; right now it was silhouetted against the westering sun as the long July evening drew to a close.

"Built like a fort," he added. "I saw it a couple of times before the Change."

"Me too," Ken said. "Literally like a fort, Romanesque Revival. Nineteen-twenties construction; ashlar stone blocks, a hard blue porphyry, and walls over three feet thick at the base. Four stories in a block around a courtyard, with two towers on the front—both nearly a hundred feet high. Interior water source, too. Not surprised some bandits took it over. It's the closest thing to a castle in the state, after the old penitentiary in Boise."

Woburn nodded. "When the Change hit, the Devil Dogs stole real bikes, mountain bikes, and then horses, and looted a bunch of wilderness outfitters; after that they started raiding for supplies. That was bad enough. Then in May, they changed their operations. Got a lot of good weapons from somewhere, and then they hit St. Hilda's."

"What happened to the Sisters?" Hutton said, concern in his voice.

"They killed some of them and threw out most of the rest; Mother Superior Gertrude is staying with me. And since then they've been using it as a base. They've been giving us hell—well, you saw it."

Havel looked at Signe, and she opened a plastic Office Max filing box. It was filled with neatly labeled maps in hanging files; she pulled out the west-central Idaho one, tacked it to a corkboard, and propped it up where the command staff could see it.

"How many?" Havel said. "Organization? Leaders? What's Iron Rod like? What weapons, and what's their objective, if it isn't just loot?"

Woburn looked at the map. "There were about fifty to start with," he said. "Twice that now—they've been recruiting from the—no offense—road people."

Havel smiled thinly; road people was what settled folk around here had taken to calling the wanderers, those stranded on highways by the Change and others who scoured about looking for food. They were a natural breeding-ground for brigandage, not to mention for transmitting disease, and neither well-regarded nor very welcome.

"None taken. We're going somewhere, not just wandering around aimlessly looking for a handout or what we can steal."

"I can see that," Woburn said, looking at the map, and then the purposeful activity about him.

He tapped his finger on the map: "Anyway, there's near a hundred fighting men, plus ... well, they had some women with them to start with. There are more now— some kidnapped. Some men they've taken and are using as slave labor, too."

Havel nodded; he'd seen similar things in embryo elsewhere, but not on this scale … yet.

"I presume you've tried smoking them out," Havel said. It wasn't a question.

Woburn flushed in embarrassment. "Yeah. You understand, things were total chaos right after the Change, and then we were all working as hard as we could to salvage bits and pieces. People around here are real spread out, and without trucks or phones it took us weeks to get any organization going at all. First we knew was when they started hitting farms—or hitting them up for tribute and ransom."

"Then you got a big posse together, and they handed you your heads," Havel guesstimated.

Woburn looked aside a bit. "Yeah. Two hundred men, and we had an I-beam for a battering ram, and some extension ladders."

Havel winced slightly, picturing how he'd have managed the defense.

Woburn nodded: "Thing is, they've made the place into a real fort. They filled all the windows on the lower two stories with rebar grates and then bolted steel plates over the inside and outside and filled the holes with concrete—the Sisters were doing a construction project and there was plenty of material. Steel shutters with arrow-slits in the upper windows. They'd cut down all the trees around, so there wasn't any cover for us, and they poured boiling canola oil down on us from the top … we lost twenty dead, and six times that number injured, a lot of them real bad."

"And that was the last time you could get that many together," Havel said.

"Well … yeah."

This time Woburn's look had an element of a glare in it. Havel looked at Ken Larsson, and the older man spoke thoughtfully, tugging at his short silvery beard.

"Either they've got someone very shrewd in charge, or they have an implausible number of construction workers in their ranks. Something odd there. Starving them out, perhaps? Or catching parties of them on the move?"

Woburn snorted. "There's no communications! What men I can scrape together end up running from one place that's been raided to another. If we get a big bunch together, they just retreat into the fort and laugh at us until we go away—we can't keep up a siege, everyone's needed on the farms. That place is stuffed with stolen food."

Havel nodded. "And they can see you coming, since they hold the high ground. And they probably hit the farms of your supporters, and probably some farmers and ranchers are already paying them off or slipping them information and don't get attacked."

"I don't blame them," Ken Larsson said, wincing at the memory of what he'd helped bury.

"I do!" Woburn said; his face flushed with anger. "The Devil Dog honcho, Iron Rod—he's started calling himself Duke of the Camas Prairie, the bastard! You saw what his scum did!"

Havel nodded politely. Behind the mask of his face he thought: And they're getting stronger, while you get weaker. If things go on the way they are, you'll all be on your knees to Duke Iron Rod by this time next year. Or on your backs, depending on your gender and his tastes.

"I suppose you tried to get some help from Boise," Havel said.

He didn't bother making it a question. Woburn spat into the fire.

"There's plague in Boise, too. Really bad, and typhus; we haven't had but one outbreak here, thank God. That was in Grangeville, and we managed to damp it down quick with quarantine. Iron Rod's been careful not to attack the Nez Perce … yet. He'll be their business if he finishes us off!"

"That's too bad about Boise," Havel said. "There's a lot of good land west of the city with gravity-flow irrigation; they might have made it."

And I've got friends there, he thought. I hope Eileen's OK, even if she did dump me, and the folks at Steelhead.

The thought was oddly abstract. Things had closed in since the Change; people and places beyond a day's ride were … remote. The world felt a whole lot bigger.

"Could be worse," Signe said unexpectedly. "It could be like the coast … or like St. Louis."

Everyone shivered slightly. A spray of bicycle-borne fugitives had made it from the big cities of the Midwest, and from the Pacific coast. A lot of people didn't believe the stories. Nobody wanted to believe them.

"OK," Havel said. "Here's your problem. They've got an impregnable base. You've got more men"—although not a lot more; there were probably only about five thousand people left within three or four days travel—"but yours have to stay split up most of the time, and his are concentrated. He can strike any ranch or farm with superior numbers, then retreat behind his walls if you get together. And he doesn't have to worry about getting a crop in. It'll be worse at harvest time, which is soon. It's always easier to stop other people doing something than it is to do it. The grain'll be dry enough to burn then, too. If you don't get rid of them in the next month or so, they'll wreck you. You'll have to surrender, or move far enough away he can't reach you."

"The filth destroy what they can't steal," Woburn said bitterly. "We can't farm if we have to stand guard twenty-four hours a day! But if we leave, get out of range, we're homeless, we're road people ourselves."

Ken Larsson nodded. "You're spread out too much," he said. "Even resettling townsfolk on the farms, the properties are too big and too widely scattered, which means every household's on its own and impossibly far away from help. What you should do is group together, village-style, with settlements of … oh, say fifty to a hundred people, minimum, in places with good water and land. Then they could defend themselves—run up earth walls and palisades, too, maybe. And have specialists where they need them. We're all going to run out of pre-Change tools and clothing eventually."

"I can't make people give up their land!" Woburn said, scandalized.

Ken shrugged. "They don't need most of it," he pointed out. "This area"—his hand took in the Camas Prairie— "produced wheat and canola and beef for hundreds of thousands of people. Now it only has to feed the few thousand people who live on it; and that's going to take only a fraction of the area, which is lucky since you won't have the labor to work more anyway. What would be the point in growing more when you can't ship it out? To watch it rot?"

Woburn looked sandbagged. "Hadn't thought about it in quite that way," he said. "Haven't had time, I suppose."

Havel cut in: "Essentially, what Iron Rod's trying to do is charge you rent for living here, by making life impossible for people who won't knuckle under. You have to winkle him out of his fort. And you also need a standing force; full-time fighters, well equipped and trained."

Woburn's eyes narrowed. "You asking for the job?" he said softly.

The obvious drawback was that a standing force would be functionally equivalent to Iron Rod and his merry band, and might well end up with similar ambitions.

Havel laughed and shook his head. "Emphatically, no!" he said. "We've got a destination further west. But you ought to think about raising some rangers or soldiers or whatever you want to call them. And if you can't afford it … well, think about whether you can afford Duke Iron Rod."

Woburn took a deep breath; he looked relieved. "Thing is, Mr. Havel, I was wondering—"

"Whether we could get rid of Iron Rod for you," Havel said. He looked at Ken Larsson, who nodded imperceptibly.

"I'd heard that you did some work like that elsewhere," Woburn said.

"Not on this scale, we didn't. I've got forty people I'd be willing to put into a fight," Havel said. "Forty-five if I stretch it and include some damned young teenagers. Getting into a stand-up toe-to-toe slugging match with the Devil Dogs by ourselves isn't on. I'd like to see the people who did that"—he pointed towards the sacked farmstead, invisible in the gathering dusk—"in hell where they belong, but I'm not going to get half my people killed to do it. And frankly, Sheriff, this is your fight and not ours."

Woburn's face dropped. Larsson went on: "There are things we could do, though, as … ah, contractors."

Condottieri, Havel thought silently. Which means, literally, "contractors."

He nodded, as if reluctant. Ken Larsson took up the thread smoothly: "When I was studying engineering, back in the 1960s, I had a professor who taught us the history of the field. And until a couple of hundred years ago, what engineers mainly did was build forts and engines to knock 'em down. Now … "

Chapter Twenty-five

The warriors of Clan Mackenzie arrived on horseback for the joint muster with Sutterdown in the cool just after dawn, with a horse-drawn wagon behind them. Each wore jack and helmet, had spear in hand, bow and quiver slung across their back, sword and buckler and long knife at their waists; each carried three days' worth of jerky and crackerlike waybread and cakes of dried fruit in their saddlebags.

The birds were waking as the stars faded, and the stubble-fields to either side were silvered for a moment with dew. Many flew up from tree and field at the rumbling clatter of hooves.

At their head Juniper Mackenzie rode, in her rippling shirt of mail. Her helmet had a silver crescent on the brows, and the standard-bearer beside her carried a green banner with the horns-and-moon.

The refugees from Sutterdown and its farms looked on—the ragged fighters grouped together, listening to a sermon from Reverend Dixon, and the families camped on either side of the road; she could smell the woodsmoke of their cooking fires and the boiling porridge—one thing the Mackenzies had in reasonable quantity right now and could spare for gifts was oatmeal.

A loud Amen came from the Sutterdown men as the Mackenzies reached the encampment—and it was all men in the armed ranks, she noticed.

Well, we had our ritual, Juniper thought. They have a right to theirs. People need faith in a time like this; if not one Way, then another. There are many roads to the same goal.

She felt far calmer than she'd feared; increasingly so, with every hoofbeat that carried her away from home. Calm in an almost trancelike way, but her mind was keenly alert, and she felt as nimble as a cat. That was one thing she'd asked for at the ceremony last night, but she'd never led a war-Esbat before—against whaling and nuclear power stations, yes; for help in battle, no. She wasn't sure how it worked. There were certainly enough crows around today, bird of the Morrigan.

The Sutterdown leaders waited to greet her, beside a table set by the side of the road. She threw up her hand and the column clattered to a halt; then she dismounted and walked towards them, leading her horse. Cuchulain padded beside her.

"Whoa!" she said suddenly.

She pushed back on the bridle to halt the animal as a small form darted out from the crowd; the mare snorted and danced in place, hooves ringing on the asphalt, trying to toss its head and failing as her grip on the reins just below the jaw calmed it.

The child was a girl, about six, her face smudged and long tow-colored hair falling over her grubby T-shirt. She wore jeans and sneakers, and she stood belligerently in Juniper's path with her chubby arms crossed on her chest; there was a shocked gasp from the onlookers as she spoke up in a clear carrying treble: "Are you the Wicked Witch?"

Juniper laughed, and went down on one knee. That brought her head about level with the girl's; she'd long ago found that children generally didn't like being loomed over. Particularly by mysterious strangers, she supposed.

"You're half right, little one," she said, looking into the cerulean blue gaze.

It was like and unlike Eilir's at the same age; just as fearless but solid and direct, without the fey quality she remembered.

"What's your name?"

"Tamar."

"That's an ancient and wonderful name, Tamar; a princess of long ago was called that. My name's Juniper, like the tree," she replied.

Her other hand went out for a moment to calm the mother who was hovering, waiting to snatch her daughter back.

"And I am a Witch, yes. But I'm a good Witch."

"Then will you make the bad men go away?"

"Yes, darling, I will do that. I promise."

Tamar glanced to either side, then leaned closer.

"Can you really do magic?" she whispered.

"Why, yes I can!" Juniper replied, keeping her face serious. "In fact—"

She'd been palming the half-eaten Snickers bar while she spoke; not without a pang, because they really didn't have many left. Now she produced it with a flourish, and the girl's eyes went wide.

"—I can make chocolate appear."

Tamar's eyes went wide as she recognized the silver-foil wrapping; she probably hadn't had any candy since right after the Change. But she restrained herself nobly; Juniper held the bar forward.

"For you."

Tamar took it eagerly. "Thank you," she said politely. Then her face fell a little: "But that wasn't real magic, was it?"

"No," Juniper said, laughing. "That was just a trick. But I can do real magic, too. Real magic doesn't make rabbits disappear in hats or chocolate bars appear out of pockets. It does great and wonderful things, but they're secret."

Tamar nodded gravely. "I hope you make those bad men disappear," she said. "They're really really bad. They chased us out of our house and they took my Mr. Rabbit and they hurt people and scared my mom and made her cry."

"Then by spell and sword we'll make them go away, and get you back Mr. Rabbit, and your house," she said. "And none of them will make your mom cry again."

Then she looked to either side as the child had, and lowered her voice: "Do you want to know a secret?"

Tamar nodded eagerly, leaning forward herself and turning her head so that Juniper could whisper in her ear.

"I can do real magic. And so can you."

Tamar gave a squeal of delight, and Juniper rose, putting a hand on the small hard head to steer her back to her waiting mother; the woman snatched her up, but Tamar waved gleefully with the hand that held the chocolate bar.

Juniper was still smiling slightly when she reached the Sutterdown triumvirate.

"Sorry," she said. "But I couldn't resist."

Sheriff Laughton nodded. "Tamar's my sister's daughter," he said. "Her dad was in Washington—D.C.—on the day of the Change. Thanks."

Then he took a deep breath. "We're ready," he went on. "But an awful lot depends on you."

"And I'm laying the life of my people on the line," she said. "This is all of us, bar the children, the very pregnant, the nursing mothers and the sick. Our lives are riding on this, and the lives of our children."

He nodded jerkily, and traced two roads on the map. "We'll draw them back to here." His face went distant for an instant, as if at some memory, and not a good one. "It's not easy, getting men to stop running—even if they know they're supposed to run in the first place."

"As agreed, here," Juniper said, taking the meaning if not the reference, tapping the map in her turn. "And it's our best chance, Sheriff. We'll just have to hope the enemy are as arrogant and overconfident as they seem."

 

There was a grassy hill not far east of Craigswood. As the sun set, Michael Havel and Signe Larsson walked to the crest. The lights of the town showed below them, soft with firelight and lantern light; the smaller cluster of the Bearkillers' camp was directly below, distant enough that the sound of voices singing in chorus was faded to a blur. Within their own scouts' perimeter, they could dress as they pleased; Havel found himself reveling in the light feel of the T-shirt, Levi's, and Stetson.

Signe was dressed similarly, except that she wore a flannel shirt over her "No Whaling" T-shirt, with the tails tied at her midriff.

They both carried their backswords and shields, of course; by now that was as instinctive as putting on shoes. They leaned them against a lone pine that marked the crest, spread their blanket and sat, elbows on knees, watching the sky change from salmon pink and hot gold to green shading into blue as the sun dropped below the jagged horizon.

"Pretty," he said.

Signe turned her head and grinned at him; at close range, he noticed how the down-fine gold hairs on her skin stood out against the golden brown of her tan, like very faint peach fuzz.

"You're supposed to say but not as pretty as you," she said.

"I suppose that's one reason I'm still single, not saying silly stuff like that," Havel said, smiling back. "I mean, you are pretty; you're beautiful, in fact. But you aren't a sunset."

"So, is this our first date?"

"Well, if you don't count fighting cannibals together—"

They shared a chuckle, then sat in companionable silence for a while.

"They seem like nice people," Signe said. "The Woburns, I mean."

Havel nodded; dinner had been pleasant. "Nice to eat at a table again, too."

"Yeah!" A pause. "You know, this is a very pretty area, too. Looks like very good land, as well."

He turned and looked at her; she'd laid her head on her knees, and the last sunlight gilded her hair. He replied to her unspoken question.

"No, I don't think settling down here after"—he nodded towards the outline of Cottonwood Butte where Duke Iron Rod laired in his monastery-cum-fortress—"we take care of him would be a good idea. Doable, perhaps … but not a good idea."

"There's a lot of vacant land, good land, with good houses and fencing already in place. And they'll be grateful; we could help them set up their defenses."

He nodded. "Gratitude is worth its weight in gold."

She thought about that for a moment and then made a growling sound and hit him on the shoulder.

"You are the most cynical man I've ever met!"

"I was a blue-collar kid," he grinned. "And then a grunt. Dirty end of the stick all the way. Cynical I can do in my sleep. No, the main reason is up there."

He nodded north. "This was all Nez Perce land once. They haven't forgotten—Running Horse told me more than he intended, I think. What's more, you're right, it's good land and well watered, about the best farming country in Idaho that doesn't need to be irrigated. Much better than anything the tribe have left. Give it a generation or so … well, I wouldn't want to leave my kids that sort of war as an inheritance."

"Oh," she said. "And I suppose the Protector would be after us too, if we knocked off his local boy. And Sheriff Woburn might cause problems."

"Bingo, askling," Havel said. "You're not just a pretty face, you know?"

She hesitated. "Mike, do you like me?" At his raised brow, she went on: "I mean, I think you do—we get on better than I ever have with a guy … but then … "

He leaned back on his elbows, plucking a grass stem and chewing on the end; it was sweet as honey.

"Didn't think you'd want to be bothered with men hitting on you for a while, judging by our last try."

She looked down at his face. "Better not let anyone else hear that," she teased. "It might spoil the great, ruthless Lord Bear's reputation."

"Hmmphf." He hesitated in his turn. "Well, if you want to know the absolute truth … The other problem's been that while I do like you, I'm in charge here. Had to be really sure you reciprocated, you know?"

"You're a gentleman, and a gentle man, in your way, Mike."

"Within limits," he grinned; his arms came up and encircled her.

 

"Lord Bear! Lord Bear! Lord—oh, shit, I'm sorry!"

The messenger turned and dashed back down the hill, standing looking ostentatiously away thirty feet down-slope.

Mike Havel looked down into Signe's face. A little of the glaze went out of her eyes; then she wrapped arms and legs around him.

"If you stop now, I'll ... I'll make sure you never can again!"

"Come back in ten minutes!" Havel shouted.

Signe giggled again and bit him on the shoulder; Havel gave an involuntary yelp, loud enough for the messenger to hear. They could hear his floundering retreat.

"Ten minutes! You unromantic beast!" Signe said, running her heels up the backs of his thighs. "Where were we?"

Signe paused as she began to tie her bootlaces, looking at Havel out of the corners of her eyes.

"Well, that sort of rushed things, didn't it?"

"Yeah, it did sort of rush things. Goddamned embarrassing interruption, too."

"You're an old-fashioned guy in some ways, Mike."

"Backwoods upbringing," he said, buckling on his sword and jamming the hat on his head. "This had better be important."

"Wait a minute," Signe said, fingers plucking. "Grass in your beard … there, got it."

"Your hair is full of the stuff … hey, kid! The message!"

She was running a comb through the dense yellow mane when the adolescent returned.

"Mr. Hutton says to tell you there's a bad discipline problem with Waters, and you're needed pronto," the boy said, still facing away.

"Tell him I'll be right there," Havel said.

And in no very good mood. Billy boy, you have the worst timing of any man I've ever met.

 

The crowd parted at the sound of hooves; Havel reined in, hearing murmurs of "the bossman" and "Lord Bear." He slid from the saddle and someone took the reins; possibly Signe, but he wasn't looking around right now.

Several of the lanterns that hung before the family tents were lit; that and the fires gave plenty of light, but the people crowding around were flickers at the edge of sight, their faces uneasy.

Billy Waters stood, looking sullen and flushed, two men holding him by the arms—both his neighbors. Jane Waters sat by the front flap of their tent in a boneless slump, her face covered with the red flush of incipient bruises, tears leaking down her face; her two younger children huddled near her, torn between fear and need for their mother's closeness.

Reuben Waters was not far away, lying on his back while Pamela Arnstein worked on him. Her hawk-featured face was incandescent with fury; Havel felt it through his own anger as he knelt beside Waters's twelve-year-old son.

"He was just woozy," she said. "I gave him something to make him sleep."

She touched the boy's face gently, turning it towards the brightest firelight. Relaxation made the narrow foxy hillbilly-Scots-Irish face look younger than its twelve years.

"See here? He's going to have a shiner, and this tooth is loose. Punched twice, I'd say. Those are a grown man's knuckle marks. All he needs now is cold compresses and rest. And a different father!"

Havel nodded, walked over to Jane Waters, and crouched on his heels so that their eyes were level. He touched her chin with a finger, turning her left cheek to the light and studied the swelling marks of a man's hand.

"Jane," he said. "Why don't you help Pam get your son to the infirmary tent?" She looked at him with dumb fear. "Jane, whatever happens, you've still got a place here—and your kids. Understand?"

He helped her rise, and composed his face when he realized it was frightening some of the onlookers. The stretcher-bearers took Reuben off, with his mother walking beside him.

"Angelica," he went on. "You've got some of those cookies left, don't you?" At her nod, he went on: "I think it would be a good idea if you and Annie took the kids— everyone younger than Astrid—and fed them some cookies over by the chuck wagon, and tell 'em stories. Tell 'em about Larsdalen."

Their destination was assuming mythic proportions; he hoped the reality didn't disappoint too much.

She nodded: "I'll get Sam to check Rueben over just in case and help with the kids."

Rounding up the children wasn't hard; they all thought cookies and a tale by the camp's best storytellers was far more interesting than a frightening confrontation among the grownups.

"Get all the adults here, except the sentries," Havel went on.

That took a few minutes. He ducked into the Waterses' tent—normally something never done without invitation— and rummaged. The bottle he'd expected was still three-quarters full. It was Maker's Mark, first-class Kentucky bourbon, expensive as hell even before the. Change. There was another just like it, empty.

"All right," he went on, when he brought the bottles out and held them up for the company to see. "Everyone here? Good. Now you, Fred Naysmith, you give me the details."

The man holding Waters's left arm gulped, and stuttered. The Bearkillers' judicial proceedings were refreshingly simple, so far; a trial by a quorum of the adults, presided over by Lord Bear. Punishments were simple too. With fines and imprisonment impractical, they went quickly from "extra duties" through a mass kicking around that Pam called "the gauntlet" to "expulsion," which was equivalent to a death sentence.

Naysmith licked his lips and spoke out: "I heard the Waterses arguing—sounded like Billy was yelling at Nancy." That was the bowyer's eight-year-old. "Then she started crying and screaming at him to stop, and … well, we hadn't been listening too hard before, you know, Boss?"

He nodded understanding. There wasn't much privacy in camp; the tents were set far enough apart that ordinary conversation didn't carry, but shouts certainly did. A convention had grown up of pretending you didn't hear family arguments—one of the little forbearances that made the tight-knit group's life tolerable.

"But it got sort of scary. And I could hear Jane screaming at him to stop, too. Then he started hitting her—hitting Jane, that is—and then Reuben tried to make him leave her alone, and he started hitting the kid, real hard, yelling bad stuff, really bad. So Jake and I went over and dragged him out. He tried to slug us too, and he smelled and acted drunk, and we sent someone for you, Lord Bear."

Havel looked around the circle of firelit faces; most of the men had close-cropped beards like his, and most of the women braids. Underlit from the flames, they all had a hard feral look, new since the Change. He held up the whiskey bottles again. There were resentful murmurs; pre-Change liquor was already extremely valuable as trade goods, like tobacco.

"This isn't from our stores. I think we can all guess how Billy got it from the townies over there."

He uncorked it and took a slug, baring his teeth and exhaling as the smooth fire burned its way down his gullet.

"That's the real goods, and no mistake. The man who took Bearkiller equipment for this didn't cheat Billy the way Billy did the rest of us."

More formally: "Anyone want to speak for this man? Anyone have a different version of what came down here tonight? Anyone know another way he could have gotten this liquor?"

There was an echoing silence; Waters didn't have many friends, and since he was obviously guilty as sin the few he did have weren't going to court unpopularity by swimming upstream. Being severely unpopular in a small community like this was unpleasant to the point of being dangerous, when you had to rely on your fellows for your life in a world turned hostile and strange.

Havel tossed the empty aside and handed the full bottle to someone, and it passed from hand to hand, with a little pawing and cursing and elbowing if anyone kept it tilted up too long—there was just enough for a sip for everyone who wanted one.

"One last time, does anyone want to speak for Billy Waters? It's any member's right to speak freely at a trial."

More silence, and Havel nodded. "Hands up for not guilty. Hands up for guilty ... anyone want to propose a punishment? Or shall I handle it?"

There was a rumble of you're the boss and let Lord Bear decide.

He sighed. "Let him go," he said. The two men stepped aside, and Havel moved forward.

"Waters, you sad and sorry sack of shit," he said in a conversational tone, and then his open hand moved with blurring speed.

Crack!

Waters went down as if he'd been hit across the face with the flat side of an oak board, but nothing was broken; Havel had calculated the blow with precision.

Waters cringed and tried to scramble back as the Bearkillers' leader stepped forward, moving with the delicate ease of a great cat.

"On your feet! Christ, you're getting the beating whatever you do. Take it like a man, Waters, not a yellow dog!"

Havel raised his voice a little after the older man crawled upright, holding a hand to the side of his face.

"Do you remember what I said to you when you joined the Bearkillers, Billy?"

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