Dies the Fire | Chapter 9 of 13

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

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"It's a nest of Eaters!" Juniper shouted.

Most people would rather die than turn cannibal, but when you were talking about millions, a small minority was far too large. And they were starting to get hungry, as their food became scarce in turn.

"Get back in here!" she called. "Stand them off!"

Three cars made a loose triangle; too loose, but the Eaters were all around them. The Mackenzies retreated, Vince shooting as fast as he could knock and draw, then turned at bay. But the gaps between the cars were too big, and the Eaters swarmed over the hoods and trunks as well. For a minute the four of them pushed and shoved, hit and stabbed and chopped; their jacks were a huge advantage, and health and sanity and real weapons they had some idea of how to use.

But there were too many; it was like trying to fight in a nightmare where nothing worked and more and more came at you. Juniper knew with some dim distant part of her mind that the horror would come back to her if she lived, but most of her was a reflex that shouted and swung and struck.

Then something hit her across the shoulders, sending her reeling forward into the press. Two Eaters grabbed at her buckler and dragged it down. Another hugged her sword arm, and a third raised a baseball bat in both hands—

Thock!

A broad arrowhead stuck out from the Eater's chest, barely to the left of the breastbone. Blood gouted from his mouth, and he had just enough time to took surprised before he collapsed, kicking.

Behind him was a mounted giant with the head of a bear.

Juniper had only the blurred glimpse; then she was too busy getting her right arm free from the momentarily slackened grip. She hadn't lost her sword—the sword Dennie's gentle brother had made for show and play and the beauty of it, before the Change.

It was still the weapon of Rome's legions, the most dreadfully efficient tool of slaughter humankind had invented until Hiram Maxim's time. A short punching stab in the throat sent the Eater backward gobbling and clutching his throat.

"Let me go!" she shouted, chopping at the other two as if she were jointing a chicken. "Let me go!"

They did, running in squalling panic, grabbing at terrible slash-wounds, and then there were no more of their kind left within the space marked out with the three cars; none living, at least. Juniper gasped and leaned her fists on her knees as she tried to suck air in through a mouth gone paper-dry.

All the rest of her people seemed to be on their feet too, with nothing worse than cuts and scrapes and bruises; she squeezed out a brief, heartfelt wordless thanks. Outside the Eaters were running about the graveled parking lot, squealing and screaming. Three mounted men loped their horses after them, shooting methodically at close range with short powerful recurve bows, turning their mounts as nimbly as rodeo cowboys.

It's a headdress on top of a helmet, not a bear's head, Juniper thought. Gave me a start there!

Animal-headed god-men were very much a part of her faith, but she hadn't expected to run into one in the light of common day. It was almost as frightening as the prospect he'd rescued her from, of grisly death and dreadful feasting.

After a moment the cannibals gathered, clustering around a leader—one with a louder voice, at least. The three armored men dismounted, tied their horses to the chain-link fence, drew long swords. The round shields on their left arms bore a uniform mark, the stylized outline of a snarling bear's head, red on dark brown.

The noon sun blazed on the edged metal of their swords, and the man with the bear helmet shouted: "You in there! The party's not over and the mosh pit is sort of crowded. Pitch in if you can!"

The shout carried easily across the twenty yards, through the brabble of the Eaters' lunatic malice; a voice trained to carry, but not a musician's like hers—more of a crashing bark. Juniper looked with disgust at the blood on her blade and arm and side.

"Let's go," she said. "Come on, Mackenzies!"

The three strangers formed up with their leader as the point of a blunt wedge and charged in a pounding rush with the skirts of their mail hauberks flapping around their knees, armored from shin to helmet. Their great straight-bladed sabers went up in glittering menace.

"Haakkaa paalle!" they shouted in unison; the words weren't English or any language she knew, but they prompted a flicker of memory. "Haakkaa paalle!"

Then they struck the loose crowd of their foemen, and the mass seemed to explode in a spray of blood and screams and swords swinging in arcs that slung trails of red droplets yards into the air. Juniper gritted her teeth and made herself move forward with blade and buckler.

The Eaters stood and fought—mostly, just died—for a brief moment, then spattered screaming across the parking lot and out into the fields around, running for the shelter of the woods. Steve and Vince retrieved their longbows and shot while any targets were still in range; Juniper stood shuddering and blinking as the tall strangers made sure of the enemy dead.

Then there was no sound except their own panting and a series of quick are you all right queries. And the sickening knowledge that a single minute's delay would have seen them all dead and dismembered.

"Oh, Goddess gentle and strong, I want to go home," Judy whispered, then straightened. "We ought to check out the buildings. There might be things that … need doing."

"Damn right," one of the strangers said.

Juniper looked around. She had been controlling the churning in her stomach by main force of will; the movement distracted her, and she swayed backward against a car, sliding sideways. The world swam, narrowing and graying at the edges, and her mouth filled with spit.

Judy reached for her, but the stranger was quicker, holding her upright until she recovered a little. His grip was firm but not painful, although she could feel the remorseless strength in it, but she swallowed again at the sight and smell of the blood and matter that clotted the mail on the back of his leather gauntlet.

"Easy," he said. "Your first sight of combat?"

He held a water bottle to her lips. She filled her mouth and turned her head to spit, then drank.

"Not … not quite," she said, looking around at the bodies.

And every one of these a child of the Goddess and the God. Hard to remember that, but she must. May they find rest and peace in the Summerlands, and come to forgive themselves!

Aloud she continued: "But nothing before the Change, and nothing since like … like this."

He nodded and stepped back as he felt her strengthen; his friends came up behind him and followed his lead as he took off his helmet.

Their eyes met. For an instant that stretched green gaze locked with gray; Juniper felt a sudden shock, like a bucket of cold water and a jolt of electricity and all the chakras— power points—of her body flaring at once. She could see very clearly; clearly enough to notice the sudden widening of his pupils as he stared at her with the same fierce focus.

Then the moment passed, so quickly she wasn't sure if it had been more than her wooziness; it did blow the horror out of her for a while. Instead she was chiefly conscious of another reaction: My, but he's pretty.

Almost beautiful, in a hard masculine way: square-chinned, with high cheekbones and short straight nose and slanted gray eyes, the long chiseled line of his jaw emphasized by the close-cropped black beard. Only a scar running across his forehead and up into the bowl-cut raven hair marred it.

Oh, my, yes, Juniper thought, surprised she could notice at a moment like this; and even then she thought she caught a flicker of kindred interest on his face.

Then: They're not giants, either.

She'd had a confused impression that they were all huge men; but on second glance the leader, the one with the bear's head … let's mentally subtract all that gear … was tall but not towering, and not even thick-built; broad-shouldered and long-limbed, rather, narrow in the waist and hips. He moved easily under the weight of cloth and leather and metal, light and graceful as a leopard.

The youngest was an inch or two over six feet, a fresh-faced freckled blond no more than twenty at the most, already heavy in the shoulders- and thick-armed. The other was about halfway between his two companions in build.

"No disgrace to feel a bit woozy after something like this," the gray-eyed leader said. "I was, first time. You get used to it."

"Goddess, I hope not," she said.

He raised a brow at that—observant of him—and looked at the four Mackenzies, quickly taking note of their gear and the antlers-and-moon blazon on the breast of their jacks.

"Well, your Goddess must have been looking after you; we've met bunches like this before and decided to pile in and help on general principles. Ah … I'm—"

The blond boy grinned. "Lord Bear, war chief of the Bearkillers! At least according to my sister, Princess Astrid Legolamb."

The older man—about my age, give or take a year— grimaced at him, and the other one smiled.

"I'm Mike Havel." He jerked a thumb at the youngster. "This is Eric Larsson, and his family are all humorists—in their own opinion, if nobody else's. The sensible one here is named Josh Sanders."

The other man had brown hair and blue eyes and a narrow planes-and-angles Scots-Irish face that reminded Juniper of her own father; he pulled off a gauntlet and extended his hand.

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," he said. "Mike is the bossman of our outfit, right enough."

Eric went on: "The rest of us are a long ways east of here; we're scouting," and the other two scowled at him.

She noticed with amusement how Vince and Steve bristled just a little as she made her own introductions; and her trained ears pricked up at the strangers' accents. The mix was odd, and she could usually tag someone within a hundred miles of their birthplace.

The blond boy, Eric, he's a native Oregonian, she thought. From west of the Cascades, at that, like me, but probably raised in metro Portland rather than the valley. Hmmm, is that just a wee tinge of New England? Mr. Sanders. Midwestern flat vowels for sure; but there's something harsher there too, hill-country Southern; born not far north of the Ohio and on a farm, or some little crossroads town. Our Lord Bear is interesting; Midwestern too, I'd say, but from a lot farther north. And there's just a hint underneath of something else, not English. Singsong, but very faint.

"Your friend was right," Havel said. "We should check out those buildings—together, and cautiously."

"You think there might be more Eaters?" she said.

"Eaters? That's what you call them around here? Possibly, or more likely prisoners, alive so they'd stay fresh. Like I said, we've done this before."

He looked down at one of the dead; his expression was clinical, and the other two looked matter-of-fact as well; the youngest was a little green around the gills, but only slightly.

Havel and Sanders were calmer still; not exhilarated or excited either, their breath slowing gradually from the brutal exertion of fighting in armor far heavier than hers, but calm. The bodies seemed to disturb them no more than the blood that clotted on their mail, the way a farmer would ignore muck-covered boots when he shoveled out a stall.

Hard men, she thought, with a tinge of distaste and then a rush of shame; they'd saved her life and that of her friends at the risk of their own, doing the deeds for nothing but the deeds' own sake.

Not wicked, I don't think they're bad, but hard. This Havel, he probably was that way before the Change, too.

She'd always trusted her first impressions of people, and had rarely been disappointed. Havel would make an excellent friend and a very bad enemy; provoke or threaten him or his and you could look for a sudden frightful blow, without warning, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky.

"A lot of this bunch look sick, too," he said. "I've noticed that before as well."

Judy spoke: "They were probably undercooking their … food," she said. "You can safely eat fish or even beef rare, most times. Pork you have to cook thoroughly. Human flesh … "

"Right. Josh, cover us. You two"—he nodded to Vince and Steve—"keep an arrow on the string and an eye out behind us. One of you stay at the entrance when we go in, and watch the horses. Don't want them creeping back to corncob us. Ms. Mackenzie, if you and Ms. Barstow could back me and Eric up directly?"

They all moved towards the BBQ place; that was where the smoke came from, trickling out of a sheet-metal chimney. The big picture window was unbroken; the lower half was frosted as well. Nobody felt like trapping themselves in the revolving door.

Havel looked at Eric; they nodded without words, laid their swords down carefully, and picked up a big motorcycle between them; then they pivoted and threw it—six feet and through the glass. The crash and tinkle sounded loud across the corpse-littered parking lot.

Juniper noted that the two young Mackenzies looked impressed; she snorted slightly to herself.

A horse is even stronger, but those two don't get that me-am-awestruck-junior-dog look when one hauls a ton of logs out of the woods. Men!

Havel looked through the shattered glass, blade and shield up. Then he turned his head aside, grimacing slightly.

"Christ Jesus!" he said, spat, then turned back to whatever was within.

Judy looked as well, then turned and began vomiting. When Juniper stepped forward in alarm, Judy waved her back as she spat to clear her mouth. Mike Havel held up a palm to stop his own men likewise.

"No point in letting this inside your heads unless you have to."

"They were … cooking," Judy said. "They had a—" Another heave took her. "I wish I hadn't seen it."

Havel nodded, sheathed his sword and drew the long broad-bladed knife he wore across the small of his back.

"I'll handle this," he said with calm, flat authority.

He went inside; they could hear wood scraping and crunching, and then his voice, speaking loudly as if to someone deaf or ill:

"Do … you … want … to … die?"

A rasping mumble, suddenly cut off; Juniper made the Invoking sign, as did Judy—and to her surprise, so did the two young men. Then Havel called an all-clear, and they stepped cautiously into the big dining area; the stench was stunning, even to hoses grown far less squeamish since the Change. Even with the front window smashed in it was dim, which she was thankful for, and she let her eyes slide a little out of focus as well. Havel had spread some of the filthy crusted tablecloths over … things … lying beside the big fireplace hearth that stood in the center of the room, radiating heat from a bed of coals.

That had a copper hood, and firewood heaped nearby; the Eaters had been burning bits of planking and broken-up furniture … complete with the varnishes and stains in the wood.

No wonder they were all mad! From the chemicals, as well as guilt and horror.

The table beside it was scored with cuts, soaked with old blood and littered with knives, saws and choppers, a moving coat of flies buzzing around them.

"I … don't think there's anything here," Juniper said, lifting her eyes and focusing on the please wait to be seated sign still standing near the door. "If they're holding prisoners, it'll be out back. We ought to shout and then listen first; it might save poking around."

They did; in the ringing silence that followed she heard a muffled calling and pounding. She led the way back through the kitchen—empty, save for a few boxes of spices and salt and a severed blackened hand kicked into a corner and lying with its fingers clawed up as if reaching for something.

She moved on grimly, down a near-lightless corridor, to a metal door that had probably been a cold-store for meats. Even in the dimness she could see long scratches in the paint on the walls, as if someone had tried to cling to the smooth surface while being dragged. Voices and thumping came from behind the metal door, muffled by the insulation.

"We've come to get you out safe!" she called."Hold on!"

The voices redoubled, but the door looked strong, and the padlock was a heavy model with a stainless-steel loop as thick as her middle finger. Her heart revolted at the thought of rooting through the clothes of the dead Eaters outside, or among the grotesque filth in the room around the hearth of abominations; both would be dangerous. And the one with the key might have been among those who fled, anyway. She began to look around for a tool.

"Just a second," Mike Havel spoke, surprising her. "Josh, check the packtrain. I don't think any of those maniacs would stop running that close, but no need to take a chance. And get some torches ready, we'll want to burn the place down when we've checked things over. Ms. Mackenzie, I'll be right back."

They squeezed past the knot of people in the corridor; Havel was back in a few seconds. Oddly, he was carrying a rifle.

"Thought I saw this on a rack in the main room," he said. "Over by the cash register."

"But … that won't work," Juniper said.

Havel grinned, a flash of white teeth in the darkness. "It won't shoot, but it'll work fine as a pry bar," he said. "An ax or a sledge would be awkward, the way the door jamb is right against the end wall. This is a Schultz & Larsen 68DL hunting rifle, of all unlikely things, always wanted one myself. Hell of a thing to do with a fine piece of gunsmith's work … Stand back, please."

He slid the barrel through the padlock between hasp and body, tested the position once or twice, set his hands on the underside of the stock and put a booted foot against the further wall. That made the skirt of his hauberk and gambeson fall back; he wore copper-riveted Levi's beneath, and the incongruity of it made her blink for a second. Then he took a deep breath, emptied his lungs, filled them again … 

"Issssaaaaa!" he shouted, teeth bared in a rictus of effort.

The lock parted and flew apart with a sharp ping of steel striking concrete. Havel threw the gun aside too, panting; the barrel had a perceptible kink in it now.

"Show-off," the blond youth said, but he smiled as he did.

Juniper ignored them, pulling the latch open and then working the handle of the door; she had to dodge as the heavy portal swung open.

A woman with matted hair and a face covered in bruises and crusted scabs ran out, bounced off Havel's armored form with a shriek, then stopped and stared at Juniper's face. The dim light in the corridor must seem bright to her; the inside of the cold-storage locker would have been stygian-black. And Juniper's molten-copper hair was hard to miss.

"Juney?" the prisoner said. "Juney?"

"You know me—Carmen?" Her eyes went to the other captives. "Muriel? Jack?"

The slight dark woman threw her arms around the High Priestess of the Coven of the Singing Moon; then the others were around her as well.

"Juney, they wuh, wuh, were going to—"

"Shhh, I know. You're safe now. We cast the Circle and made the rite, and She brought us to you."

Chapter Eighteen

"Oh, ladies bring your flowers fair
Fresh as the morning dew
In virgin white and through the night
I will make sweet love to you;
Your petals soon grow soft and fall
Upon which we may rest;
With gentle sigh I'll softly lie
My head upon your breast … "

Juniper finished the tune, and laid her guitar aside. Their campfires were in a hollow where the hills began west of Salem, cut off from the flatlands, overlooked by little except the Coast Range forests. A huge oak leaned above the little hollow, and the low coals of the fires lit its great gnarled branches and the delicate new leaves, turning them brown-gold and green-gold. The sky above was clear, frosted with stars and a waxing moon that hung huge and yellow above the mountains; sparks drifted up to join them now and then, when a stick broke with a sharp snap amid the coals.

She was feeling pleasantly not-quite-full, although closer to it than she had been in weeks. The kettle had held three big rabbits, as well as some wild onion, arrowhead tubers, herbs, and bits and pieces from both parties' stores; noodles and sun-dried tomatoes and two cans of lima beans they'd found in an abandoned camper.

The smell of it still scented the air, along with the fresh green grass and camas lilies. She'd contributed the makings for herbal tea, and she picked up a cup of it now.

"Good of you to slow down and keep us company for a while," she said across the coals. "It's been a nice couple of days; a chance to let clean air blow the grue out."

It was a joy to be able to chat with someone new, as well, the pleasant meandering talk you had when people struck a spark of friendship and got to know each other. Beyond essentials, they'd mostly talked about times before the Change, as if to raise a barrier against the grisliness of their meeting. He'd found her ex-surburban, only-child, déclassé-boho life as a wandering minstrel intriguing; just as she had his hard-grit blue-collar rural upbringing with swarms of siblings and relatives; and they shared a love of the woods and mountains, the trees and beasts.

"No problem, we were heading this way anyhow," Mike Havel said. "It's been fun, and fun's thin on the ground these days."

They were a quarter-circle away from each other; Judy was a little farther from the fire, and the second hearth held most of the rest—she could hear Muriel's voice. A dear lady, but given to babbling at the best of times, and more so now; Eric and Josh were going to get an earful of Wiccan herbalism, whether they wanted to or not; at least that was happier than the bursts of tears in the first day and night.

They've been surprisingly patient and gentle with the captives, that they have, with strangers they owe nothing, Juniper thought. Good hearts under those iron shirts.

Mike Havel sat with his back against his saddle; his hands worked on a rabbit trap without needing to look at the task, long fingers fashioning the bent willow-withe and nylon cord with effortless strength. In boots and jeans and T-shirt under a battered-looking sheepskin jacket he appeared a good deal less exotic than he had in hauberk and bear-crowned helmet, but just as good.

I'm not one to need a Big Strong Man at every moment, she thought. But I'm fair thankful this one came along when he did. Nor is he hard on the eyes, by Macha! Not stupid either, and strong of will without being a macho jerk; the women of the Bearkillers must be fair blind! Nice pawky sense of humor, too.

Tactful questions had revealed he was single so far. There was wistfulness in the thought; they must part, and soon.

"Figured your friends needed some recovery time," he said. "Cutting our way through that hell-on-earth south of Portland wasn't any fun for us three, either, and hard on our horses—we took it as quick as we could and not founder them. Slowing up for a bit makes sense."

He grinned: "And besides, while your style isn't what I usually put on the CD player, it's good—and Lord, but I've missed music! The only people in our outfit who can sing at all do cowboy songs. Mind you, it could be worse—one of my father's sisters was always trying to make me and my brothers listen to Sibelius."

"Cowboy songs? You don't like country?" she said, surprised.

"Oh, I like country a lot. I meant real cowboy songs: cows, dust, horses—the old stuff actual trail riders sang to the dogies. Not bad, but sort of monotonous. My tastes run to Fred Eaglesmith, say, or Kevin Welch."

"Kevin Welch, is it?" Juniper said with a smile; she picked up her guitar and struck the strings, whistling for a second to establish the beat, tapping her foot and then putting a down-home rasp into her voice:

"My woman's a fire-eater,
My woman's 'bout six feet tall … "

Havel exclaimed in delight when she'd finished, leading a round of applause.

"'Hill Country Girl'! My favorite tune—never thought I'd hear it done right again!"

Juniper laughed. "We have céiliall the time; well, all the time we're not working or too cursed tired."

"Kailies?" Havel said, which was roughly the way it was pronounced.

"Singsongs, really; the word's Gaelic. Music and dancing; I was a professional, of course, and I can handle several instruments—not badly, either, if I say so myself—but Chuck's a good hand on the mandolin and Judy can do wonders with a bodhran drum, and Dorothy is a piper, and plays a mean tenor banjo as well, and most of my old coveners can carry a tune. There's a lot of sheet music at my cabin, of course; it was my base and as much of a home as I had. I specialized in Celtic music and folk and my own stuff, but it's not all we do."

Havel whistled. "Sounds better than a CD player!"

"More fun, truly. What do your people like to entertain themselves with of an evening, then?"

"Well, we try to sing something else, now and then," Havel said. "Angelica knows some Spanish folk songs. Astrid—Eric's younger sister—does readings from her favorite books, or just tells stories; she and Signe both draw and sketch, and they've been teaching some others; and we have games, play cards … I do wish we'd had a good musician, though. Maybe we'll get one."

"You don't have a bad voice, Mike," she said. "It just needs training."

"Haven't had the time," Havel replied. He hesitated, and went on: "Is Juniper your real name?"

"It is now," she said cheerfully, putting the tea down and strumming a little to accompany her words. "And has been these fourteen years; it's my outer Craft name. I was sort of militant about it then; put it down to being sweet sixteen and at outs with my parents."

"Er … " Havel said. "I'm sort of a lapsed Lutheran myself. I haven't known many Wiccans."

Juniper laughed: "And the ones you did see tended to the impractical? Endless discussions of anything under the sun? A preoccupation with dressing up? Sort of flaky, overall?"

She watched his embarrassment with a slight smile; he was about the most relentlessly practical man she'd ever met, on first impressions. He was probably trying desperately to avoid saying words on the order of some of my best friends are flakes.

"Well, that's not entirely mistaken," she said, taking pity on him. "But there are all types in the Craft, from herbalists to dental hygienists, some varieties more flamboyant than others; not to mention the different traditions, which are as distinct as Baptists and Catholics. My coven, the Singing Moon ... well, we're a straightforward bunch. A musician—myself—a city gardener, a nurse, a couple who owned a restaurant … "

"Certainly sounds like you've been doing well," he said with relief. "Anyone who's alive and not starving and has a crop planted is!"

They looked at each other for a moment while she let a tune trickle out through her fingers. Then Havel cleared his throat and gestured at the piled rabbit-traps he'd wrapped in a blanket for carrying.

"Guess I should get these set," he said, then coughed into one hand. "Ah … care to come along?"

"I'd be delighted," Juniper said gravely, suppressing her smile—men had fragile egos and big clumsy emotional feet. "It's a useful skill, setting snares for rabbits. Learned it from your grandmother, did you say?"

"Her younger brother, Ben."

They both picked up their sword belts and buckled them on. As she rose and turned to slide her guitar into its battered case she saw Judy smiling at her from across the flame-lit darkness, raising her hand in the gesture of blessing.

Juniper stuck out her tongue briefly, and turned to follow Havel into the darkness. They both stopped for an instant beyond the reach of the firelight, staring outward to let their eyes adjust; she noticed Havel noticing what she'd done, and his nod of respect.

The moon was a week past full, still huge and yellow, shining ghostly through tatters of cloud, and the stars were very bright—even now she wasn't quite used to seeing them so many and so clear in this part of the country. Together they made it easy enough to find your way, if you were accustomed to nighted wilderness.

After a moment they moved off the trail, through long grass thick with weeds, where a spiderweb shone like silver with beads of dew. Havel moved quietly—very quietly for a big man, and in unfamiliar country. Juniper followed him up the slope, through overgrown pasture towards a line of brush and trees behind a wire fence.

"Good spot,'' she said in an almost-whisper, when she saw where he was heading.

She pointed, and they could both see the tracks and the slight beaten trail. "Creature of habit, your average rabbit, likely to come through here again."

"You a hunter?" he asked softly with a chuckle in the tone.

"No," she said. "I didn't hunt, not until the Change. But I liked watching the birds and animals, when I got the chance."

They both ducked through the wires of the fence, holding it for each other—his long saber was more of a nuisance than her gladius—and moved to where a fallen tree trunk made good shelter for a small animal low on the food chain to scan the meadow before venturing out. He rubbed grass and herbs between his hands before he planted the trap, and baited it with a handful of evening primrose roots. The next few went further up along the brush-grown verge, natural stopping-places for an animal attracted to the varied food that grew in edge habitats.

They moved into the woods; mixed fir and oak, old enough to have a canopy over their heads. The cool green smell was different from the open meadow, more spicy and varied. It was much darker here, just enough to see their way.

"There," she said, pointing.

The spot showed close-cropped grass, beneath a high bank that cut off the wind; it also broke the roof of branches above, and let in a little starlight and moonlight.

"Good spot," he repeated. "Wouldn't be surprised if there were some burrows there."

"You men are unromantic beasts," she said, laughing. "I had a bit of a stop in mind, Mike."

He had a crooked smile, but an oddly charming one. "You know, I was hoping you'd say something like that." He hesitated. "I can't stay. I've got my people to look after—commitments elsewhere."

"Me too, but you're a gentleman to say so." She put her arms around his neck. "Now shut up, will you?"

 

My, my, my, Juniper thought.

She stretched luxuriously and then hugged the sheepskin jacket around her shoulders against the chill, watching as Mike Havel lit a fire a yard away. He had an old-fashioned liquid-fueled cigarette lighter to do it with, and the wick caught the second time his thumb worked the wheel in a little shower of sparks. The light showed for a moment through the teepee of twigs and duff he'd laid as tinder.

"It's not that cold," she said. "Besides, it's fun to cuddle, and we've got this blanket you so accidentally wrapped those traps in."

He looked over his shoulder. Squatting naked wasn't usually a flattering position for a man, but he was as un-selfconscious about his body as a wolf. Odd that he got a bear-name dropped on him. He wasn't furry, less body hair than most, but a wolf was what he reminded her of, or a cat; something lean and perfectly shaped.

Except for the scars, she thought, with a quick surge of compassion; she'd noticed, of course, but things had been too … urgent … to ask before.

"How did that happen?" she asked gently.

He glanced down at the white seamed mark on his leg as he carefully added deadwood to the little blaze.

"Slipped cutting down a dead pine," he said. "Christ Jesus, did my dad give me hell about it!"

She nodded, but went on: "No, I meant that."

That was a curious radial pattern on his ribs; the muscle and tendon moved easily beneath it, but the flickering underlight of the fire brought out the tracery of damaged skin.

He glanced up at her quickly, his eyes cold and withdrawn for a moment, then thawing.

"No," he said. "You're not the sort of girl who'd get off on scars, hey?"

"I'm not any sort of a girl," she said tartly. "And not that sort of woman, either. I like you, Mike. I just wanted to know about you."

He grinned and finished building the fire. "OK, point taken, and I like you too, Juney. It was an RPG."

"Role-playing game?" she asked, bewildered, and saw him laugh aloud, his head thrown back—for the first time since they met, she realized.

"Rocket Propelled Grenade," he said. "Freak thing— should have killed me, it hit the rocks just to my left and then shit was flying everywhere."

He looked down at his hands; they slowly closed. "Next thing I knew I was crawling and pulling what was left of Ronnie Thibodeaux out and yelling for a corpsman. You would have liked Ronnie—Cajun kid from the bayous, turned me on to zydeco music."

The flames cast shadows on the bank of earth behind, moving like ruddy ghost-shapes in the darkness.

"I may be a beast, but not an unromantic one; a fire always makes things nicer, right?"

Juniper threw back the coat and opened her arms.

 

Mike Havel always found partings awkward; he'd expected this to be worse than most, after the holiday feeling—like three days spent out of time, without the sensation of knotted tension he'd had most days since the Change and every day since he saw the Protector's outposts. He'd always gotten good-byes over with as fast as he could, keeping his eyes fixed ahead.

Oddly enough, this good-bye was easier than most; not less for regrets, but … 

But then, she's … comfortable to be around. Cuter than hell, but not at all the pixie you 'd think from her looks. There's steel underneath. Damn, I wish life wasn't so complicated.

At that he had to chuckle; since the Change, it had gotten complicated beyond belief—but apparently the personal stuff didn't stop. Juniper looked up at him from her bicycle, smiling in her turn. The young sun flamed on her hair, falling in loose curls to the shoulders of her jack; she had her bow over her shoulder, and her bowl helmet slung from the handlebars—as if this was a carefree day before the Change, and she someone heading out on a mountain bike. The air had a cool bite to it, a wind out of the west that hinted at rain, but for now the clouds were white billows sailing through haze-blue sky.

"What's the joke, Mike?" she asked; her voice still had that hint of a lilt and burble to it.

"That this doesn't really feel like good-bye," he said.

"Well, maybe it isn't, then?" she said, grinning at him. "I have a strong premonition we'll all meet again—and I'm a Witch, you know."

She looked past him to Eric. "I've a present for your sister," she said.

"Signe?" he blurted, then looked as if he wished his lips would seal shut.

"No, Astrid," she said; then glanced at Havel.

He could read that glance: I'm already sending Signe something.

"From what I heard, your Astrid and my Eilir would get on like a house on fire—tell her that from me."

She unsnapped the dagger from her belt. It was a Scottish-style dirk, ten inches of tapering double-edged blade, guardless, with a hilt of bone carved in interwoven Celtic ribbon-work, and a pommel in the form of the Green Man's face. More of the swirling patterns worked their way down the sheath, tooled into the dark leather.

She tossed it up to him, and then turned her bicycle; the rest of her people were straddling their machines in a clump—the nest of Eaters had had half a dozen workable trail bikes.

"Merry meet and merry part," she said, waving to the three Bearkillers; her eyes met Havel's, and he felt a little of that shock again. "And merry meet again!"

Havel waved, then leaned his hands on the pommel of his saddle as the knot of … Well, "Mackenzies," he thought. Makes as much sense as "Bearkillers," doesn 't it? … coasted off southward, freewheeling down the slope that took the two-lane road weaving among trees and fields.

"Damn. That is quite a woman," he said quietly to himself. "One hell of a woman, in fact."

Eric was looking over the dagger; he drew it and whistled at the damascene blade. "Legolamb will love it," he said. "Looks Elvish to a fault."

"Scottish," Havel corrected.

"Whatever." Then his glance turned sly: "Shall I tell Signe about the circumstances?"

Havel shook himself slightly, touching the rein to his horse's neck and turning the big gelding westward, up the gravel road that intersected the county highway.

"No, I'll tell her."

"Why shouldn't I do it first?" Eric said, grinning.

"You over that constipation, kid?" he said.

"Well … yeah," Eric replied, frowning in puzzlement.

Josh Sanders was chuckling on Havel's other side as the three horses moved off, the pack-string following.

"Then if your bowels are moving regular, you really shouldn't tell Signe a word," Havel went on seriously.

"What's that got to do with it?" Eric said.

"It's real difficult to wipe your ass when you've got two broken arms," Havel said.

Sanders barked laughter; Eric followed after a moment.

"Want me to take point?" he said.

"Let Josh do it first," Havel said.

Sanders nodded and brought his horse up to a canter, pulling ahead of the other two riders and the remount string. The road they followed wound west into the Eola Hills; the slope was gently downward through a peach orchard for a long bowshot, and Havel lost himself in it for a moment as petals drifted downward and settled in pink drifts on the shoulders of his hauberk and Gustav's mane. There had been enough ugly moments since the Change that it was a good idea to make the most of the other kind.

The thought made him smile. Morning's chill and dew brought out the scent; it reminded him of the smell of Juniper's hair for some reason, and the almost translucent paleness of her skin where the sun hadn't reached.

The road broke out of the little manicured trees and crossed a stretch of green grassland that rose and fell like a smooth swell at sea; from here they could just see how it turned a little north of east to head for a notch between two low hills shaggy with forest; there were more clumps of trees across it, and along the line of the roadway. Beyond all rose the steep heights of the Coast Range, lower than the Cascades behind them and forested to their crests.

Beyond that … 

The coast, about which nobody seems to know much. Beyond that, ocean and Asia … 

Would ships sail there in his lifetime? Perhaps not, but maybe in his son's, or grandson's; windjammers, like the Aland Island square-rigger that had brought his greatgrandfather to America. He shook his head, and Gustav snorted, sensing that his attention was elsewhere.

Back to practicalities.

Salem lay to their rear across the Willamette; Corvallis was two days' walk southward. The closest town was the tiny hamlet of Rickreall, miles off to the left and over ridges. The hills ahead were an island in the flat Willamette, steep on their western faces, open and inviting when you came in from the east.

The only human habitation in sight was a farmhouse and barn off to the right about half a mile away, and it felt abandoned—probably cleaned out by foraging parties from the state capital right after the Change.

"Mike … " Eric began.

Havel turned his head. "Thought you had something to say."

"Are you and Signe … well, together?"

"Yes and no," Havel said. A corner of his mouth turned up. "Or yes, but not really, not quite yet. Want to have another go about the way I look at your sister? Or did you think I was cheating on her?"

"Well … "

"You and Luanne have a commitment, right?" Eric nodded. "Well, Signe and I don't, yet."

Eric flushed, and went on: "Just wanted to know. I mean … are you two going to get married, or something?"

"Probably," Havel said. "Very probably; depends on what she decides. But I haven't made any promises, yet."

Although that's probably not the way a woman would look at it, he acknowledged to himself.

Eric nodded; he was a male, after all, and a teenager at that.

"She'd have to be pretty dumb to pass you up, Mike," he said. Then he went on, in a lower tone: "Thing is, if you two get married, that'll sort of make us brothers, won't it? I've never had a brother."

Havel gave one of his rare laughs and leaned over in the saddle to thump his gauntleted hand on the younger man's armored shoulder.

"I could do worse. What's that old saying? 'Bare is back without brother to guard it'? We've watched each other's backs in enough fights by now that we're sort of brothers already. Now let's see this home of yours."

"Yours too, Mike," Eric said.

Hero worship's natural at his age, Havel thought indulgently.

They moved along smoothly, keeping the horses to a fast walk and occasional canter. From what Juniper had told him, this area had been swept clear by those idiots in Salem, and they were well south and west of the refugee hordes along the main roads now. There was still no sense in taking chances—a flood tide that big would throw spray and wrack a long way.

"Might be some people left further up and in," Havel said. "More places to hide."

Ahead the broad meadow narrowed, rising to low, forested heights coastward, shaggy with Douglas fir and oak. Once past the place where the hills almost pinched together the land opened out again in a wedge with its narrow part to the west. The rolling lands were silent, grass waist-high in the pastures, shaggy in the blocks of orchard and vineyard too—the south-facing side of the valley was all in vines—and the neglect was a disquieting contrast with the still-neat fences of white painted board. Willows dropped their tresses into ponds, and ducks swam.

The big house on its hill was yellowish-red brick, mellow with ivy growing up the south-facing wall, bowered in its trees and in gardens that looked lovely even at this distance. Barns and stables stood off at a little distance, and a smaller cottage-style house.

"Don't get your hopes up," Havel warned as he unshipped his binoculars for a brief scan. "I can't see any movement."

"Well, it didn't burn down, either," Eric said, smiling. "That's something."

They rode up the graveled road, hooves crunching in the loose rock; that turned to white crushed shell as they entered the gardens and lawns proper, in a long looping curve leading up to the white-pillared entrance to the main house. Velvety grass dreamed amid banks of early flowers— the Willamette was prime gardening country—clipped hedges, huge copper beeches, oaks, walnuts, espaliered fruit trees blossoming against a brick ha-ha.

Old money indeed, Havel thought.

He scanned the windows carefully; some of the dormers that broke the hipped roofline were open, and he saw a gauzy curtain flutter free.

Just the thing to hide someone looking down at us, he thought.

Aloud: "Eric." The younger'man looked at him. "This place has good memories for you. You're probably feeling happy and relaxed to be here, down deep. Bad idea. Keep alert."

Josh Sanders was looking around, fingering his bowstring.

"Someone's been doing maintenance here since the Change," he said. "The grass isn't as long as it would be otherwise, and there's been some weeding. And that's horse dung, there, and hoofprints. Not more than a day old."

"Throw down the weapons!" a voice barked from an upper window. "Give it the flick, yer bastards, or come a guster!"

The thunking twang of a crossbow followed on the heels of the command; a shaft whipped by and went tock into the smooth gray trunk of a beech, quivering with a malignant wasp-whine.

Chapter Nineteen

Juniper kissed the vine leaf and dropped the thanks-offering into Rickreall Creek, chanting softly:

"Water departing
Sky endless blue
Both forever;
Lord and Lady
My love to you always flowing
As rain and river to the sea
Blessed be."

Water took it and whirled it downstream, quick with the cold mountain waters of spring, past the pilings of the bridge and on towards the Willamette River to their east. Highway 99 stretched southward through open fields.

Then she and Judy leaned in to the pedals of their bicycles. They were on point today; she'd decided that the freed prisoners needed Steve and Vince by them, being unarmed save for belt knives and still feeling shaky, for which she couldn't blame them. They could haul the cargo carriers; she hoped some food would be available in Corvallis. The rabbits wouldn't last long.

"Well, you're looking like the cat that got the canary," Judy said after a while when the singing humm of tires on asphalt was the only sound to rival the birds.

"Mmmmmm," Juniper said wordlessly, and laughed at Judy's scowl.

"It's not like you to do the whirlwind romance thing and get swept off your feet," her friend said.

"Other way 'round," she said. "He's a nice guy, but I sort of had to prod him into action." A giggle. "If you'll pardon the expression."

"Not your usual style," Judy repeated.

She frowned. "It wasn't, though, was it?" A shrug. "Tilings have, you may have noticed, changed. We didn't have all that much time."

Judy's thoughts had moved on. "I wonder why they didn't want to come on to Corvallis?"

"I think I can guess that. When I asked him about it, he just smiled and said that it was usually easier to get forgiveness than permission. Which I take to mean the Bearkillers don't want to attract attention to the place they're thinking of settling until they are settled and it's a done deal. And pre-Change title deeds don't mean much anymore. It's a lot closer to Corvallis than it is to our land, of course."

"To the Mackenzie clachan," Judy said, smiling; it lit up her full dark features.

"Oh, don't you start in on that stuff! Leave it to Dennie and his mispronounced bits of Gaelic."

Judy gave a broad shrug and flipped up one hand: "Nu, I should know from Gaelic? I'm just a simple Jewitch girl, after all."

They both laughed, and Juniper said more seriously: "Giorraionn beirt bothar; two people shorten a road. Glad you're along, Judy."

She smiled back. "You do have one for every occasion!"

"Mom was fond of 'em." She frowned. "I'm not sure it's a good idea now."

"What's the harm? For that matter, all this clan-Celtic business is more suited to the world we're living in now."

"That's what worries me," Juniper said. At her friend's glance, she went on: "Look, we know all this high-Celtic Deirdre-of-the-Sorrows sort of thing is a bit of a joke, and we don't take the old-country stories too literally either. But now we're pushing on an open door—there's no TV, no … no world to push back. What about our children's children? It was my father's people who gave the words 'blood feud' to the English language; not to mention 'blackmail' and 'reiver' and 'unhallowed hand.' "

Judy shrugged again, normally this time. "Right now, shouldn't we be more concerned about getting through to harvest? And whatever works."

"I suppose so," Juniper said with a sigh.

Her eyes had been moving as they spoke. "Look!" she said suddenly.

"It's a microwave relay tower," Judy said.

"But there's someone in it. Right up near the top, that looks like a platform added recently. Perfect spot for a lookout. Sort of ironic, isn't it?"

She halted and got out her own birding glasses. "And he's signaling someone, using a mirror. Clever." She paused to take a deep breath. "I can smell turned earth, not too far away."

It hadn't been a main road before the Change, but someone since had taken the trouble to push the occasional cars aside and bury the bodies—she could see fresh graves in the fields to either side. And that wasn't all … 

"Bunch up," she called back over her shoulder. "We're getting closer to town and I think they've got a lookout system set up."

This part of the Willamette was fairly flat. That cut visibility, but … 

"We weren't the only ones to scare up some seed potatoes," Juniper said, looking left and right. "And is that barley?"

"Barley in this field, oats in the next, I think," Judy said. "Hard to tell when it's just showing. Spring planted—not too late, I hope."

Every day past the optimum cut the yield and increased the chances of running into the fall rains at harvest time.

Then:"Oooops!"

They cleared a slight rise; someone was waiting beyond. Everyone grabbed the brake levers, and the Mackenzies halted.

About sixty someones, Juniper thought.

Most of them were puffing and blowing, as if they'd arrived quickly … which the rows of bicycles hinted at, too. All the people waiting for them were in chain mail shirts that came to their thighs, like metallic extra-large T-shirts, with shortswords and bucklers hung from heavy belts.

Half of them carried long spears, made up of two sections that fitted together; a few were still getting the joint locked.

That was quick, Juniper thought, looking at the armor; she had a vague memory that chain mail was expensive in the old days. I'll have to ask Chuck. The SCA had gone in for re-creating that sort of thing.

At a guess, someone from the Society had been advising this bunch as well.

"Pikes actually, not spears," she murmured. "Sixteen-foot pikes."

While she watched, they hurried into a four-deep line. Someone called out: "Pikepoints—down!"

The great spears came down with a shout, presenting a quadruple rank of sharp blades. The rest of the welcoming party were on either side, aiming crossbows. They all looked the more intimidating because their helmets came down in a triangular mask over the eyes, and flared out behind.

Their leader had a different weapon: a five-foot shaft with a head like a giant single-edged knife, curved on the cutting edge and thick and straight on the back, tapering to a murderous point. A glaive, she thought—the word came to her from some Society get-together where she'd played.

"Halt where you are!" the man with the glaive called when they were about twenty feet from the line of points. "In the name of the University Council!"

And the Continental Congress and the Great Jehovah, she thought irreverently, but she obeyed.

Those pikes looked unpleasantly, seriously sharp; so did the heads of the crossbow bolts.

"This area is under quarantine," the young man with the glaive went on. "I'm Lieutenant Peter Jones, Committee militia. Anyone found to be infectious will be put in isolation; turn back now if you are."

He pushed up on the mask. That turned out to be a jointed visor, and the face below was disconcertingly young; he also wore sports glasses with an elastic strap at the rear.

"We're peaceful travelers from a community on the east side of the valley," Juniper said, and gave their names. "Just out scouting, trying to find out what's going on. We have a registered nurse with us, and as far as we know we're healthy."

The word "registered" brought a bristling. "Not working for the state government, I hope," Jones snapped.

"They tried to take away our livestock! Until we taught them better."

"Our area had the same problem, but I don't think there is a state government anymore," she said, jerking a thumb northeast in the direction of Salem.

"Why not?"

"Plague. We got near enough to see the pits where they tried to burn the bodies, but from the looks of it the last survivors just lit out for everywhere else."

Jones cleared his throat and barked an order with self-conscious sternness; she put him down as a teaching assistant before the Change, possibly in one of the more practical departments, like agriculture or engineering. The pikemen—or in a few cases, pikewomen—swung their weapons upright again, and the crossbows went to port arms.

"We'd heard about that," Jones said. "The plague, that is."

His eyes flicked to Carmen, Muriel and Jack, all of who still had ripening bruises from their brief captivity.

"These are friends of ours," Juniper said in haste, and they nodded enthusiastically. "We rescued them from a nest of Eaters north of Salem, then looped around west of the river and came down Highway 99."

"You see we have to be careful about checking … ah, good."

More bicyclists had come up, from the direction of town. Two of them had white boxes marked with the Red Cross strapped to the carriers of their bikes, and they immediately came forward.

"Blood samples," one said.

"And customs inspection," the other added.

Juniper bristled slightly—she'd thought the Change had eliminated bureaucracy, at least—but the pikes and crossbows were a powerful argument. Plus they needed to contact any surviving nuclei of civilization out here. She'd been beginning to doubt there were any, beyond the three-families-and-some-friends level..'

It would be truly alarming if Clan Mackenzie and Reverend Dixon's flock were it as far as rebuilding goes!

Judy chatted in medspeak with the doctor taking the blood samples; he had an optical microscope ready on a table by the side of the road, and could evidently identify most diseases from the shape of the bacteria in their blood. She recognized about one word in eight; and Yersinid pestis only because Judy had been using the technical term for bubonic plague rather frequently of late.

Jones examined their weapons. He sniffed at the jacks— "kludge" was the expression he used—and the swords were much like the ones the Corvallan militia carried, cut and ground out of leaf springs. The longbows brought his eyebrows up, and the dozen staves they had in the baggage carriers made him lick his lips, an expression she doubted he was conscious of. The bundled arrows brought nearly the same light of lust to his eyes.

"Wait a minute!" the customs inspector said. "They've got meat here!"

Everyone bristled at that, and some of the weapons started to swing in her direction.

"Venison jerky!" Juniper exclaimed, keeping her voice from panic. "Just venison jerky. There are a lot of deer up in the Cascades."

The doctor took a moment to confirm her claim, and everyone relaxed. Jones had the grace to look apologetic.

"You understand … " he said.

"Yes." Juniper winced slightly at her memories, and Judy put a hand to her mouth. "We've had … experience with … Eaters."

"Eaters. I suppose we needed a euphemism," Jones said. "You can follow me. The Committee will want to speak to you."

He had a bicycle of his own, waiting; if it was one thing every town between Eugene and Portland was plentifully equipped with, it was bikes—Corvallis had had scores of miles of bike path. Jones was full of pride as they cruised down Highway 99, pointing out the signs of recovery; they were still some ways out of town.

" … and after the riots, we—"

"We meaning who, precisely?" Juniper asked.

She was impressed by the scale of planting on either side of the road; everything including former suburban lawns right up to the big Hewlett-Packard plant was in potatoes or vegetables, or spring grain. People stopped working for a moment to wave, or shout question to Peter Jones, then went back to weeding and hoeing.

And I'm almost as impressed by the lack of stink, she thought; there was a heavy scent of manure and turned earth, but none of the sickly smell of sewage or decay. Although she did catch the heavy ashy taint of burnt-out buildings as an undertone.

"Well, the agriculture faculty, mostly, and then the engineers and the history department, and some others. We were the ones who realized what had to be done—the ones who saw that letting Salem take all our food wouldn't mean anything but everyone starving. We got things organized. West to the Coast Range, now, and we're expanding."

Judy and Juniper looked at each other. This is promising, ran through her.

"Do you know Luther Finney?" she said. "Is he … still there?"

"The farmer?" Jones asked in surprise. "Why, yes—he's a member of the Committee, and not the least important one, either. He and his family helped get their neighborhood organized."

Juniper smiled, heart-glad to hear her friend was still alive, and only somewhat surprised; Luther was a tough old bird, and nobody's fool. And … it never hurts to have references.

A good deal of that happiness evaporated when they stopped at 99W and Polk. Someone had gone to the trouble of knocking down the ruins that stretched along the riverfront—she saw a wagon of cleaned-up bricks go by, pulled by a dozen sweating townsfolk—but the sheer extent of it shocked her. She could see all the way to the waterfront from here. A sour ashy smell clung to the fallen buildings. Broad streaks of destruction reached north and westward, too, looking more recent. There were a fair number of people about, but nothing like the numbers before the Change; about a tenth as many, at a quick estimate, but probably a lot more had moved out of town to work the land.

"I was here the night of the Change … presumably a lot of other people had the same idea, and headed out?"

Jones cleared his throat. "A lot happened that first week—the fires burned for days, and we had to tear down firebreaks to stop them. Then there were the food riots … we had outbreaks of cholera and typhus … a fair number of people moved off to Salem when the state government said they should … We've got about six thousand in the area the Committee controls."

She nodded, but suspected that "food riots" covered a lot of internal conflict; better to blame everything on outsiders, once order was restored once more.

She took a deep breath. It had been silly, expecting anything but devastation here, too. This was a hopeful sight.

I should be glad so much was saved, she thought. It's a good sign that they're already salvaging building materials.

Jones made another throat-clearing noise: "So you'll realize ... well, probably you can't stay very long. We're still extremely short of food, just barely enough to get ourselves through to harvest, and except in special circumstances we just can't feed outsiders."

Juniper looked at the rubble that covered the site of the Hopping Toad. Odds were nobody had tried to search the basement.

"Oh, I think we may have some things that would interest your Committee," she said with a smile. "Besides our trade goods, that is."

 

Luther Finney nodded. "Figure you made a good choice, Juney," he said. "Most places, it was just as bad as you thought it would be, from what I hear. Salem and Albany, for sure, and there aren't any words for what we've heard of Portland. H— heck, it was bad here! If it hadn't been for you and your friend warning me, I might not have done near as well myself."

The big farmhouse kitchen was a lot more crowded than it had been that night of the Change; brighter, too, with three gasoline lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Juniper's presence required a lot of shuffling and pushing about of tables and chairs; and the meal wasn't anything like the fried-chicken feast she remembered so fondly, either. There were a round dozen sitting down to dinner, counting children, and more out in what had been the rarely used formal dining room.

She got a bowl of porridge, some anonymous mixture of grains with husks in it, and the dried beans she'd contributed from the basement cache of the Hopping Toad were served with obvious reverence. Everyone got one hardboiled egg, as well. For the main meal of the day among people doing horse-heavy manual labor, it wasn't much.

At least the porridge is fairly good. Smells nice, too, like fresh-baked bread, and it tastes a little sweet. Maybe molasses-and-rolled-oats livestock feed?

"We got to work right away, because of that. And we were lucky," Finney said, after they'd bowed their heads for grace. "Real lucky," he went on, beaming at his son and daughter and their spouses and his grandchildren and one wiggling pink great-grandchild.

Edward Finney shrugged; he was a square-built man in his forties, a compromise between his mother's stocky frame and his father's lean height. The erect brace of his shoulders showed the legacy of twenty years in the Air Force.

"We were lucky to get out of Salem before everything went completely to hell," he said. A grin. "Looks like I'm going to be a farmer after all, like Dad wanted. And my kids after me."

"Not just farming," Luther said grimly.

His eyes went to the door. Outside in the hallway chain mail shirts hung on the wall, with swords and crossbows racked near them, and pikes slung from brackets screwed into the ceiling.

"Well," he went on to Juniper. "Things are looking up, provided we can keep this sickness away; the doctors have some medicine left, but not much. The first of the garden truck looks set to yield well—I give those people at the University that, they busted their … butts getting seed out to everyone and into the ground, and we've laid claim to a fair piece of fall-seeded wheat. Lord, though, doing everything by hand is hard work! If we could get some more harness stock, that would be grand—that team of yours would have been real useful around here."

"Cagney and Lacey are useful around our place too, Luther."

He nodded. "I expect they were, but if you can spare any … We stopped using horses when I was about twelve, but I remember how."

"We could use more stock too," she said happily. "But my people were going to try scouting east for them." Then: "About this committee running things here, Luther—"

 

"Back!" Havel shouted as the crossbow bolt buzzed past his ears.

All three men spun their mounts and went crashing through greenery and lawn until they were out of range— a hundred yards was plenty, unless the crossbowman was a crack shot. He blessed Will Hutton's liking for nimble quarter horses and his training of man and beast; and the wide sweep of Larsdalen's lawn made it next to impossible for anyone to sneak up on them.

One nice thing about horses was that for the first ten miles or so they were a lot faster than men on foot.

"Christ Jesus, what the fuck do you people think you 're doing? " Havel shouted, rising in his stirrups to shake a fist at the window.

"They weren't trying to kill us, Boss," Josh said.

"I know that, or I wouldn't be trying to talk," Havel snarled. "But anyone who got in the way of that bolt would be just as dead, accidentally or not. What sort of idiot fires a warning shot that close without a parlay?"

Eric was flushed with anger too. He pushed his helmet back by the nasal and called out: "What are you doing in my family's house?"

A voice came from the same upper window, thin and faint with distance: "Who the hell are you, mate?"

Havel blinked at the harsh almost-British accent … An Aussie, by God. What in the hell?

"Mr. Zeppelt?" Eric said, still loud but with the anger running out of his voice. "What are you doing here?"

"Eric? Your pa bloody well hired me, didn't he, sport? I've been looking after the place and the staff."

"Wait a minute," Havel said, baffled. "You know him?"

"Well, bloody hell," the voice from the house said, dying away.

A few moments later the doors opened and a short stout man with a crossbow in his arms came out; he was balding, with a big glossy-brown beard falling down the front of his stained khakis. A tall horse-faced blond woman with an ax followed him. Several other figures crowded behind her.

"That you in the Ned Kelly suit, Eric-me-lad?" the man called. "Who're your cobbers? S'truth, it's good to see yer! C'mon in and have a heart starter—we're a bit short of tucker, but there's some neck oil left."

Chapter Twenty

"For the road is wide—
and the sky is tall
And before I die, I will see it all!"

Juniper Mackenzie broke off at the chorus as three armed figures stepped into the roadway. She stopped her bicycle and leaned one foot on the dirt road and called a greeting, putting a hand up to shade her eyes against the bright spring sun. Judy Barstow stopped likewise, and Vince and Steve waved hellos of their own; the rest of their party stopped as well, uncertain.

They'd all relaxed now that they were well into the clan's land—past the Fairfax place, and just where the county road turned north along Artemis Butte Creek—and they'd been singing from sheer thankfulness, despite the bone-deep ache of exhaustion.

Homecoming was sweet almost beyond bearing.

"Hi, Alex, Sam," Juniper shouted, returning their waves of greeting as she swung her other foot down and started pushing the bicycle towards them. "Merry meet again!"

Alex had his bow over his back, a buckler in one hand and a spear in the other; six feet of ashwood, with a foot-long head made from a piece of automobile leaf spring. He leaned the spear against a tree to put a horn to his lips—it was the genuine article, formerly gracing the head of a cow—and blew one long blast and three short ones, a blat-ting huuuu noise not like any sound metal had ever made.

Then he grinned and waved it overhead as the bicyclists approached. The other two slipped their arrows back into their quivers—which meant poking a razor blade on a stick past your ear, so you had to be careful—and tapped their longbows on their helmets in salute. One was stocky and broad-shouldered, unmistakable even in green jack and helmet and … 

And a kilt, by Cernunnos! Dennie's got them all doing it, the black-hearted spalpeen!

"Glad to see you've got them alert, Sam," she said to the Englishman. "That's the second time I've been stopped!"

Because one guard post at the border isn't enough, curse the expense and lost work of it!

The other archer was a lanky blond girl in her late teens, and definitely not a member of coven or clan that Juniper remembered, despite the Mackenzie sigil on her jack—the crescent moon between elk antlers.

"Cynthia?" Juniper said. What's a Carson doing on sentry-go for us? "Does your family know you're here?"

"My folks are up at the Hall, Lady Juniper; it's Cynthia Carson Mackenzie now," the girl replied with self-conscious dignity.

Juniper felt herself flush slightly, and Alex gave her a wink as he leaned on his spear, grinning.

Goddess, it's embarrassing when people call me that!

So was the growing practice of calling her cabin the Chief's Hall. Dennie's fault again, she thought. And he's enjoying doing it to me!

"Dennie and Chuck can give you the whole story about the Carsons and the Smiths," Alex said. "Hey, fancy armor—where'd you get it? Who are the new folks?"

Juniper wasn't in a jack herself. She wore a thigh-length, short-sleeved tunic of gray-brown chain mail.

"Corvallis; and these are three of my coveners—made it out of Eugene after the Change and were on their way here, and a couple of—but you'll all get the full tale of our travels at dinner in the Hall," she said, retaliating a little for frustrated curiosity.

"Pass then, Lady Juniper," Alex said formally, rapping his spear on his buckler and stepping aside; Cynthia and Aylward tapped their helmets again.

The travelers pushed their bicycles upslope. Judy Barstow leaned over and whispered in her ear: "Maybe you should have taken a horse anyway, Lady Juniper," she said. "More dignified, for the exalted chieftain of the Clan Mackenzie … "

"Oh, go soak your head, you she-quack," Juniper grumbled, sweating as they pushed their bicycles up the slope.

"Just what I was hoping to do," Judy said. "I hope they're stoking the boiler in the bathhouse right now." Then her smile faded. "And we need to do it, just in case. I'm pretty sure we're all still clean of infection and that the fleabane worked and that we scrubbed down enough, but … "

Juniper shrugged, lightening her mood with an effort of will: "And horses are far too conspicuous and edible to take into the valley. And too valuable."

The creekside road wasn't very steep, but the chain mail shirt and the padding beneath were hot on the fine late-spring afternoon, besides weighing a good quarter of her body weight. She had her quiver, buckler, helmet and other gear slung to racks behind the seat, and the bow across her handlebars, but she still had to push the weight uphill; and none of them had eaten much for the past full day, or very well over the last ten.

She could smell her own sweat, strong under the green growing scents; the faint cool spray from the stream tumbling down the hillside in its bed of polished rocks was very welcome. They were deep in shade now too, big oaks meeting overhead, and flowers showing white and crimson and blue through the grass and reeds and shoulder-high sword ferns. The other side of the water was a steep hillside, covered in tall Douglas fir.

"It's the Mackenzie!" someone shouted as they came out of the woods into the meadowland. "The Mackenzie herself!"

A crowd of adults and more children were waving and running onto the rough dirt road ahead of her, alerted by the horn or by a runner from the outer sentries. Dennis's bulky form led them.

And yes … every third adult was in a kilt now, and half the children.

"It's herself herself!" he caroled, waving on the cheers as more people ran in from the fields.

"Will you stop doing that, you loon!" Juniper called, laughing. "You'll have them all clog dancing and painting their faces blue next!"

"There can be only One," he said, making his voice solemn and portentous.

"How about the One throttles you with your fake kilt?" she said. Then louder to the crowd, holding up her hands: "Sláinte chulg na fir agus go maire na mná go deo!" she said, laughing: "Health to the men and may the women live forever! I said I'd be back by Beltane, didn't I?"

That was the spring quarter-day festival, not long off now, a time of new beginnings.

And my, things have been happening here, too!

There was more than one face she didn't recognize; evidently her lectures about sharing when you could had born fruit. She did know Dorothy Rose, who was not only in a kilt but wore a plaid improvised out of one of the same batch of blankets and a flat Scots bonnet with a feather on the side.

She pumped up the bellows of her bagpipes and then lead off the procession, stepping out with a fine swirl and squeal, not spoiled in the least by half a dozen dogs going into hysterics around her—Cuchulain was throwing himself into the air like a hairy porpoise breaching, wiggling in ecstasy. The rest of the people crowded around her and her companions, taking their baggage ... and then suddenly seizing her and carrying her along behind the pipes, whooping and laughing as they tossed her overhead on a sea of hands.

"Put me down!" she cried, laughing herself. "Is this how you treat your Chief, returned from a quest?"

"Damn right it is!" Dennis bellowed.

She felt a huge load lift from her chest at the cheerful expressions; obviously nothing too dreadful could have happened while she was gone—dreadful by the standards of the first year of the Change, that was. Dennis was looking good himself; the kilt flattered him, and it was perfectly practical in this climate, and he had the additional excuse that none of his old clothes came close to fitting anymore.

But mostly it's playacting. Well, people need play and dreams. In bad times more than good, and there are no badder times than these, surely?

Jack and Muriel and Carmen were weeping openly as their fellow coveners danced them around in circles; Juniper finally struggled back to her feet and called Diana aside and gave instructions; the three were still too weak for her taste, and it would be better to get them fed and rested before the stress of meetings and explanations.

Dennis was tanned dark and wet with sweat from whatever work he'd been at; carpentry, going by the sawdust and wood shavings in the curly, grizzled brown hair on his barrel chest. With just barely enough food and more hard work than they'd ever dreamed of doing every adult in the clan had lost weight, but it looked much better on him than most. The sagging paunch had shrunk away, and the heavy muscle stood out on his tanned arms and shoulders like cables. He'd gone for a close-trimmed beard rather than the distinctly unflattering muttonchops, and overall he looked ten years younger than he had that night in Corvallis.

Sally Quinn evidently thought he was good enough to eat; she was beside him, hanging on to one arm, unconsciously curving towards him as they walked despite her mud-stained working clothes. Her delicate amber-skinned looks made a vivid contrast to his hairy massiveness; her son, Terry, walked on the other side, with Dennis's arm around his shoulders.

Now, that's only a surprise in that it took so long, Juniper thought happily. I saw that coming the day they met, I did.

She finally persuaded the mob to set her down, and even reclaimed her bicycle.

"Good thing we cleaned up yesterday," Judy grumbled. "This bunch have no idea what it's like out there."

"That's why we went on our journey," Juniper said. "To find out. But I would like a hot-water bath very, very much."

She raised her voice: "Is the bathhouse finished? And if something to eat could be arranged, that would be very welcome. We're tired and dirty and hungry, Mackenzies."

Most of the crowd went back to their work, save for Dorothy marching before; everyone had gotten used to the fact that there were never enough hours in the day to get everything done that needed doing.

And everyone's been very busy, Juniper thought, as she pushed her bicycle back westward along the dirt track that led to the Hall; the dust and ruts were worse than they'd been, with the wagon and sledge traffic.

Mental note three thousand and sixty-three: Get someone to run a scraper over the bumps and maybe pitch gravel in the holes, in our copious spare time. Or this will turn to a river of mud come autumn.

She'd left on the meet-and-survey trip because the main crop was planted. It all looked much neater now, turned earth showing green shoots and tips in orderly rows. Adults and children were at work, hoeing or kneeling to weed with trowels; Juniper almost drooled at the thought of harvest.

I crave fresh greens in an astonishing way, she thought. Not to mention food in general.

Others were laboring with pick and shovel, horse-drawn cart and wheelbarrow on the contour ditch that Chuck Barstow had laid out from the pool below the waterfall to water the garden. It was another blessing that they had a year-round stream tumbling down from the steeper hills northeastward.

Which reminds me … 

She craned her head over her right shoulder for a second. The twenty-foot wheel of the mill was actually turning now; they'd been arguing over how to mount it when she departed. Dennis deserved a lot of credit for it, even if they had simply carried off most of the works from a tourist trap near Lebanon.

Nobody had been around to object—another opportunity that had been worth the risk and effort to get done before someone else had the same idea.

Ahead to westward the open land had been left in grass, a rippling green expanse starred with hyacinth-blue cammas flowers, better than knee-high already; grass never really stopped growing in the Willamette, and in spring it took off as if someone was pushing hard from below. Some of it was being mown by a team swinging their scythes together in a staggered row, followed by another with rakes gathering it into rows. The wild sweet smell lifted her spirits further as they passed the swaths of drying hay.

Not to mention the fact that nobody's digging the point into the ground every second stroke, or the blade into their neighbors' ankles. I nearly cut off my own foot on my first try, she remembered. Chuck's lessons have sunk in, at last.

The haymakers stopped to wave and shout greetings, and the travelers replied in kind; so did a brace of archers practicing at the butts. Improvised rail-and-wire fences made corrals for the precious horses and the livestock on the rest of the open land; there were moveable pens for the poultry and pigs. They had about twenty sheep now, with a ram among them, along with half a dozen lambs; and as many cattle.

Or more, she thought with keen interest; there were white-faced, red-coated Herefords among the cows that she didn't recognize, skinny yearling beasts that grazed with concentrated zeal as if they'd been on short rations. New horses, too … 

Aha! The other emissaries' trip bore fruit as well.

The higher plateau that held the old cabin stuck out into the benchland like a steep-sided U; she was surprised at the amount the clan had gotten done there while she was away. The roof was off the main cabin, and poles stretched down to ground level to make ramps for the logs of the second story. What was really surprising was the progress on the palisade; the first log hadn't yet gone in when she left. Now a hundred feet of the defensive wall was complete.

Thank You, Goddess Mother-of-All, and You, Lord Cernunnos of the Forest, she thought. We take these trees from Your woods that our clan may live.

The better her group did at feeding itself, the more likely it was that some gang of killers would come and try to take it all away.

She puffed a bit as they went up the last section. The area around her half-dismantled cabin was nearly unrecognizable; half a dozen other structures in stages of construction ranging from sticks and string outlining their foundations to cellars nearly complete; dirt and rocks and ruts and horse dung in the open spaces between, sawhorses and frames and people cutting with everything from hatchets to two-man whipsaws, the clatter of hammers … 

Nothing of the serenity she'd known here before the Change when it was her refuge from the world, a well of deep peace broken only when her coven arrived for the Sabbats and Esbats or by a rare guest. And yet—

And yet I don't feel the least saddened at how it's changed, she thought, waving and shouting greetings as Eilir came out of the cabin door with a book in one hand—she was helping teach school, with younger children crowding behind her.

Perhaps because now it's my homea refuge from horror and death. Home isn't a place. Home is people.

From the rear of the cabin there came an intoxicating odor along with the woodsmoke. Juniper's nose twitched involuntarily at the unmistakable smell of barbecue; if they had meat enough to actually roast and grill, rather than throwing it into the Eternal Soup cauldrons, then things were looking up. She felt slightly guilty at the waste, but her stomach rumbled disagreement. Soup got boring.

"Now give me some peace!" she called, putting her hands on her hips and facing those who'd followed her all the way to the bathhouse door, grinning. "Let me wash, at least, and put on some clean clothes!"

They stripped to the skin before the door of the bathhouse; smoke was pouring out of its sheet-metal chimney, and Juniper's skin itched in pleased anticipation. Stripping took a little doing, when you were wearing a mail shirt; first taking off the sword belt, then bunching up the skirts as much as you could, then bending over with your hands on the ground and wriggling until it fell in a rustling, clinking heap.

"What a relief!" she wheezed—the contortions required were rather active. Like a rich armor worn in the heat of day, that scalds with safety.

The padded tunic underneath came off more easily, and soon the clean wind was telling her exactly how much rancid sweat had stuck to her skin.

It's like wearing winter clothes in summer, and then lifting weights, and not being able to change into clean. How Mike and his friends bore those hauberks, I can't imagine.

She hopped on one foot and then the other to get the hiking boots off, and scrambled out of jeans and T-shirt and underwear even faster.

"Take all the cloth and boil it in the laundry," Judy said, dumping the party's clothing in a hamper. "Boil it for fifteen minutes at least, with the special soap. Move!"

The helpers moved. Despite being tired to the bone, Juniper practically skipped up the steps and into the washing room with its flagstone floor. They'd set things up Japanese-style, that being simplest. The boiler they'd made from a big propane tank was hissing; water from that and the cold taps got splashed everywhere in glorious abandon, as the returned travelers sluiced each other down with bucketsful, soaped, rinsed again, massaged suds into their hair. The gray water ran out a drain and down a pipe into the orchard and herb garden below the plateau, so nothing was wasted.

Juniper groaned with pleasure even when her loofa hit spots that had chafed raw and the strong soap stung her eyes and the blistered bits. Eventually Judy was satisfied, and they trooped through into the next room to sink into the tub—that was a big sheet-steel grain bin, one of a series lined with planks and sunk halfway into the ground, separated by board partitions. They settled into the water, scented by herbs and the sauna smell of hot damp pinewood.

"Hey, you folks noninfectious now?" came a deep voice from the doorway. "Mind if we join you?"

"Yeah, Dennie," she said. "But don't get between me and the kitchen, or I may trample you!"

He stood dripping in the doorway; Sally was with him, and Eilir, and Chuck Barstow. Everyone tried to speak at once, and Eilir's hands flew, her slim coltish body dancing accompaniment to the signing.

Thanks to the Lady you're back, Mom. I was so worried, I've got pages of new protective spells in my Book of Shadows!

And the same back to you, my child of spring, she replied. I could feel your well-wishes every moment of night and day.

Meanwhile Dennis brought one thick hand out from behind his back. He had a bowl, a huge turned-wood thing; her eyes went wide as she saw it was heaped with vegetables: snow peas, green peas, carrots, deep-green broccoli florets, pieces of snow-white cauliflower … 

Her mouth actually cramped in longing for a moment.

"Blessed be the fruits of the Lady's womb, and hand 'em over, Dennie! Don't tell me you've found some way to make veggies grow that fast!" ,

"Nah, we came across a big winter garden, well-mulched," he said, complying.

You could grow hardy vegetables over the Willamette's mild winters, with luck and a lot of work. Few had bothered, back when you could just drive down to the supermarket.

"Where?" she cried. "Frank Fairfax didn't have one!"

"Believe it or not, it's from the Smiths."

Juniper made a wordless sound as she popped pieces into her mouth, trying to decide whether the carrots really were as sweet as apricots, or if it just felt that way because they were the first fresh food she'd had since the Change.

And here I thought the Smiths disliked us, she thought; they were strong followers of the Evangelical minister in Sutterdown. Maybe Dixon's mellowed!

"You won't believe what dinner is," he said, as the four sank into the tub.

Eilir crowded under her mother's arm and laid her sleek dark head on her shoulder. The bowl was thick wood and floated easily, which let them push it around the circle like a food-bearing boat.

"We're having something besides Eternal Soup, from the blessed smell of it?" Juniper said, lying back with a sigh of contentment. "And fresh veggies … "

He nodded, smiling smugly. "Our hunters must be in right with Herne, or Sam the Silent's finally learning how to teach as well as he stalks. We've been getting a mule deer or whitetail every couple of days for the last ten, and then yesterday I got a young boar. All two hundred pounds of whom is over the coals as we speak. Ribs, loin, crackling, gravy, liver … "

She threw a splash of water at him as her stomach rumbled and saliva spurted into her mouth. There were plenty of feral swine in the Cascades, crossed with European wild boar introduced by hunters; they'd been regarded as pests before the Change. A lot of them hung around this section, because the hardwoods her great-uncle planted left mast for them to eat, and there was camas-root in the mountain meadows. The problem was that they were fierce and wary, and hard for mostly inexperienced hunters to take without guns. Which prompted a thought … 

"Wait a minute! You got it, Dennie? As in, actually shot it yourself?"

"I found a much better method than sneaking around in the woods. I just waited up late by the gardens." He smiled smugly. "If you grow it, they will come."

A groan went around the tub.

"There aren't all that many veggies, I'm afraid, but eat, eat—it's a special occasion, after all! Oh, and Di is sacrificing some of her flour to make buns to go with the pork-and-sage sausages … "

The two younger members of the traveling party excused themselves with exquisite good manners, grabbed towels and bolted … 

Or perhaps they've just got enough energy to pester the cooks, she thought. She felt her friend's description right in her stomach, but the hot water was soothing away her aches so pleasantly that she could wait. Particularly with each piece of garden truck a sweet explosion of pleasure in her mouth.

Or maybe the youngsters are off to their girlfriends. Certainly Chuck and Judy are devouring each other with their eyes, and perhaps playing touch-toes.

The brief meeting with Mike Havel already seemed like a dream; an ache went through her … 

Ah, Rudy, Rudy, I miss you! You'd bless me from the Summerlands if I found a man, but who could take your place?

"So," Chuck Barstow said, tearing his gaze away from his wife's eyes, and other parts of her. "Obviously you did have luck. I couldn't believe you got Jack and the others back!"

"We had help, and until then it was a very sticky situation indeed … " Juniper began, and gave a quick rundown.

A murmur of blessed be ran through the coveners.

"Who says the Lord and Lady don't look after Their folk?" Chuck said.

He was always keen, but we're all turning more to the Goddess and the God, Juniper thought. Perhaps because there's so little else to hold on to.

When she mentioned that Luther Finney had survived, Dennis swore in delight, and Eilir clapped her hands.

"Who says you don't have the Goddess looking out for you, special?" Dennis grinned. "Little stuff and big? There were those yew logs seasoning at the bottom of your woodpile that you never got around to burning, just waiting to be made into bows … "

"That would be the God looking out for me, as Cernunnos Lord of the Forest, Dennie. But I make allowances for the ignorance of a mere cowan."

He splashed water back at her; "cowan" was Wiccaspeak for a non-Witch, and not entirely polite.

"Hey, you're playing confuse-the-unbeliever again. I have never been able to get a straight answer on whether you guys have two deities or dozens, taken from any pantheon you feel like mugging in a theological dark alley. Which is it? Number one or number two?"

"Yes," Juniper said, with all the other coven members joining in to make a ragged chorus; Eilir concurred in Sign.

Dennis groaned, and there was a minute of chaotic water-fighting. Juniper rescued the bowl and held it over her head to keep it from sinking until things quieted down again. That exposed more of her, but if everybody felt like throwing hot water at her aching, overworked, underfed body, she wasn't going to object.

"Or maybe it's just that somebody had to be lucky," he went on. "Anthropic principle—anyone still around to talk about it nowadays has to have had a string of lucky coincidences helping them, and more so every day that passes. If someone's breathing, they're a lottery winner. You, Juney, you're the Powerball grand-prizer."

Juniper's chuckle was a bit harsh; after her trip through the valley that bit a little closer to the bone than she liked. But when gallows humor was the only kind available … well, that was when you needed to laugh more than ever.

"Scoffer," she said, and continued: "Anyway, I spent time with the Committee running things in what's left of Corvallis; mostly the aggie and engineering faculties and some other folk—Luther's on it himself. They're talking about a meeting of the honest communities sometime this autumn or early winter to discuss mutual aid—especially about the bandit problem."

"Well, blessed be Moo U," Chuck said. "That could be really useful."

Juniper nodded. "Good people, though a bit suspicious. They can offer a lot of varieties of seeds and grafts, and stud services from their rams and bulls and stallions, and farming and building help in general. They've got real experts there; I've got forty pages of notes, advice they gave me on our problems. The difficulty is that what they want most besides bowstaves is livestock; heifers and mares and ewes particularly, to breed upgrade herds from their pedigree stock."

Chuck Barstow breathed on his nails and polished them on an imaginary lapel; Dennis grinned like a happy bear.

"Those Herefords?" Juniper asked.

"Yup. We got a small party through there about five days after you left. They got back day before yesterday, driving their flocks before them—twenty-five head of cattle, twenty sheep, six horses. Mostly breeding females."

Juniper made a delighted tip-of-the-hat gesture to the two grinning men. That solved their unused-pasture problem, with a vengeance! They could get a good crop of calves, lambs and foals too. And they could slaughter a steer every couple of weeks … 

Or if we can trade for more, maybe we can spare some for Corvallis ... have to arrange escorts across the valley, though … if only Highway 20 were open … 

It wasn't; by all they could tell, it was a gauntlet of horrors, everything from plain old-style robbers to Eaters. Aloud she went on: "What's it like over there in the Bend country?"

Chuck went on: "The Change hit them about like us, just not so much. Bend and Madras and the other bigger towns have pretty well collapsed, but a lot of their people got out to the farms and ranches, since there weren't millions of them to start with; if anything, they're short of working hands."

That sounded familiar. It just took so much effort to get anything done without machinery, particularly since nobody really knew how to do a lot of the necessary things by hand. There were descriptions in books, but they always turned out to be maddeningly incomplete and/or no substitute for the knowledge experience built into your muscles and nerves.

"And they've got local governments functioning in a shadowy sort of way—they're calling it the Central Oregon Ranchers' Association. They've got more livestock than they can feed, too, without the irrigated pastures ... this year, at least; next year's going to be tighter for them too. We traded them bows and shafts and jacks for the stock, and for jerky and rawhides. They've got bandits of their own and the ranchers who're running things over there want weapons bad. They really miss their rifles."

"Congratulations," Juniper said sincerely.

The night when she'd nearly had a fit over hitting a man in the head seemed a long way away, except when the bad dreams came. She wasn't happy about becoming case-hardened, but it was part of the price of personal sanity and collective survival.

"Congratulations!" she said again. "It sounds like the eastern slope is a lot better off, at least for now."

"What was it like out there in the valley?" Dennis said. "I still say it was a crazy risk, you going out."

"Worth it," Juniper said. "Rumor isn't reliable and we have to know what to expect. The way the world's closed down to walking distance, you don't know until you go there and see or it comes to you. I'm not absolutely indispensable, either."

"The hell you aren't," Dennis and Chuck said together.

"I may be the High Priestess, but I'm not the Lady come in human form, you know, except symbolically and in the Circle."

Chuck snorted; he tended to pessimism, as befitted a gardener-turned-farmer.

"You're here and you're Chief. We're alive where most aren't," he pointed out. "And we're doing much better than most who are still alive. The two things are probably connected. Anyway, to repeat the question … "

Juniper shrugged, stroking her daughter's hair. "As to what it was like … some of it was very bad. Most of it was worse. And a few things like Corvallis were encouraging, which is what I'll make the most of when we have everyone together."

"You're turning into a politician, Juney," Dennis said, grinning.

"Now you're getting nasty," she said.

Then her smile died. "Hope is as essential as food. We have some here, of both. Out there … "

Judy went on grimly: "The bad news there is what broke up those refugee camps around Salem and Albany, apart from plain old-fashioned starvation."

She looked around the circle of faces; Juniper put her hand over Eilir's eyes; the girl stirred restively, and she sighed and removed the fingers. This wasn't a world where you could shelter children much; not anymore.

"Plague."

There were murmured invocations, and some old-fashioned blaspheming of the Christian deity.

"What sort of plague?" Dennis asked.

Judy snorted, and her husband chuckled, being more accustomed to the fact that she said exactly what she meant when medical matters came up. She scowled at him as she replied: "I'm not joking and it's not funny at all."

"Sorry—"

"It's Yersinia pestis. The Plague. The Black Death. Those camps were filthy and swarming with rats, and plague's a species-jumper endemic among ground squirrels here in the West. Then it got into someone's lungs and changed to the pneumonic form—which is standard in a big outbreak—and that spreads from person to person, no fleas needed. Spreads very easily. Plus pneumonic plague'll kill you fast, sometimes in a day. It's been a long time since our ancestors were exposed, much. Mortality rate of over ninety percent, like a virgin-field epidemic, and they ran out of antibiotics quickly."

That shocked Dennis into silence, not something easy to accomplish.

"I identified cholera morbus and typhus, too … and half a dozen other diseases ... but the plague's worst of all. They tried to burn the bodies, but that broke down. We could see the smoke from the death-pits still rising around Salem."

"And we could smell it," Juniper said quietly. "We might think of setting out parties to burn down abandoned sections and clear out the rats."

Judy shook her head. "We're going to have to pull in our horns—set up a quarantine. And we shouldn't send anyone into the valley until the first hard frost unless it's life or death for the clan. With the plague and the cholera and typhus piled on top of sheer hunger … this time next year … a hundred thousand left between Eugene and Portland? Fifty thousand? Less?"

A cry from the heart: "If only we had some antibiotics! There probably are some left, but we can't find or ship them."

"Shit," her husband said quietly.

"Yes."

"And you haven't heard about what's happening in Portland," Juniper said. "We met a group that had come through the city—come all the way from Idaho—and … "

When she'd finished the silence went on until Juniper reached out and took the last of the cauliflower.

"Well, we don't have to think about this Protector person for a while. The sickness will shut the valley down until autumn."

There were some things you simply couldn't think about too much, or you'd lose the will to live. She suspected that many had sat down and died for just that reason.

"What did we trade the Smiths for this stuff?" she said in a lighter tone. "I'd have said they wouldn't spit on us if we were dying of thirst, for fear it would give us the strength to crawl to water."

The stay-at-homes looked at each other before turning back to her; she recognized the gesture as one showing more bad news was on the way. There had been an awful lot of that, since the Change.

"Bandits hit the Smith farm," Dennis said. "Took them by surprise. No survivors except for Mark."

That was the Smith's youngest, about seven. She winced; she hadn't liked the family, they'd been rude to her and Eilir before the Change and downright nasty to the Mackenzies since, but … And their children had been just children, and they'd taken in as many relatives from town and plain refugees as they could and not starve right away. And treated them fairly, which was more than you could say for some.

"Mark got out and ran to the Carsons', and they got a message to us; Cynthia galloped up on their horse. We called out everyone and trapped the bandits, there were about a dozen of them—took them by surprise, nobody on our side hurt much. None got away."

"Blessed be," Juniper said sadly. "I wondered what Cynthia Carson was doing, on guard duty here and calling herself a Mackenzie. Her whole family moved in, then?"

"Joined the clan formally the next day, them and all their dependents," Chuck Barstow said. "Not to mention the Georges, the Mercers, and the Brogies.They weren't happy with the way the Sutterdown militia showed up a day late and a dollar short, as usual."

She blinked, a snow pea pod halfway to her lips. That was an awful lot of people. He went on:

"The whole thing scared them all several different shades of green, and I don't blame them; it was damned ugly at the Smith place, and they saw it—the bandits had the whole bunch hung up by their heels and … well, I don't know if they were Eaters or just vicious. The problem is … "

"Oh," Juniper said. "Let me guess. Cynthia wants to join the coven, not just the clan—I remember her asking questions— and her folks aren't enthusiastic about it?"

"Worse. She and her mother and her brother want to join, and her father isn't too enthusiastic. Not that he's a bigot, he just thinks we're weird."

"We're Witches, Chuck," she said reasonably. "We are weird."

"Could be worse, from his point of view," he said. "We could be strict Gardnerians, and do everything nekkid."

"Wait a minute," Sally said, looking down at herself as the Wiccans laughed. "I hadn't noticed you guys got upset about skin, much. For example, right now we are naked."

"Well, yeah," Chuck replied. "But that's because right now we're in a bathtub."

That time everyone laughed; Sally joined in, then went on: "Who's Gardner? I've heard you coveners mention him."

Chuck grinned. He'd always enjoyed the early history of the modern Craft.

"Gardner was this early Wiccan dude over in England, back in the forties, fifties," he said. "In our particular Tradition, we sort of save skyclad work for special ceremonies or solitary rituals and use robes most or the time, but he thought you should do pretty well all the rituals skyclad, which is Wiccaspeak for bare-assed."

Juniper popped another piece of carrot into her mouth, savoring the earthy sweetness.

"There are two schools of thought on that," she said around it. "One is that the Goddess revealed to Gardner that you ought to always be skyclad in the Circle so you could conduct energy better, and it had nothing to do with sex. Then there's the other school, to which I subscribe."

"What's that?" Dennis asked.

"That's the school which says that Gardner was a lecherous, voyeuristic, horny old he-goat who loved to prance through the woods with nekkid women, but since he was also an Englishman born in 1884, he had to come up with a religious justification for it."

She sighed. "Of course, he did do a lot for the Craft; he's one of our modern founders. He just had … problems. And mind you, Gardnerians don't have his problems; they simply end up taking off their clothes an awful lot, even in really cold weather … chilblains, head colds … "

"Purists," Chuck said, and grinned. "Say, how many Gardnerians does it take to change a light bulb? Twelve: consisting of evenly matched male-female pairs to balance the Divine energy with a leader as number thirteen to—"

The Wiccans all chuckled, and then Juniper went on: "Back to business: I'll talk to John Carson and his family. Cynthia's a bit young for such a major decision … "

Older than you were, Mom, Eilir signed. I've talked to her too, she signs a bit, and she's real sincere about it. I think the Goddess has spoken to her heart.

"We can't very well turn clan members away, but all these new candidates, and then the Carsons … "

Dennis and Sally were looking at her with odd smiles. "Oh, no, not you two as well! I thought life was all a dance of atoms, Dennie!"

"Let's say my faithless faith was shaken by the Change, OK?" Dennis said. "I'm not the only one to have that experience. And if I started believing in Jehovah, I'd have to blame Him for all this since there's only one address for complaints in that system."

"And Sally, you're a Buddhist!"

Sally shrugged. "Was a Buddhist," she said quietly. "I already believed in karma-dharma and reincarnation and multiple spiritual guides—the difference is more in the terminology than the theology. Plus Terry wants to go to Moon School with his friends; it's important to belong at that age. Plus Dennie and me want you to handfast us, too. And soon. I'm pregnant, and"—she raised a hand out of the water, all fingers folded except the index, which she trained on Dennis—"guess who's daddy."

Juniper stared at her for a moment. Oh, Lady and Lord, I wish we had more contraceptives. Condoms were already scarce, and pills worth their weight in … not gold, in food, even with the way the low-fat diet cut down on fertility.

"Congratulations," she said weakly.

Then she turned her head to Chuck and Judy: "Do you two feel the truly bizarre irony of someone wanting to become a Witch so they can fit in?"

Judy nodded; then, uncharacteristically, she giggled—it was funny, if you'd spent time in that subculture of misfits.

"When can you swear us in?" Dennis said. "Sooner the better; I've talked with some of the others, and they think so too."

"Now, wait a minute, Dennie," Juniper said warningly. "This isn't something to rush into. You can become a Dedicant right away, but Initiation isn't like Christian baptism; it's more like finding a vocation to the priesthood. You have to study a year and a day, and you have to really mean it."

Chuck cupped his hand full of steaming water and scrubbed it across his bearded face.

"Well, yeah," he said, hesitation in his voice. "But Juney … there has to be some reason why the Lord and Lady have set things up this way."

She conceded the point with a gesture—there were no coincidences—and turned back to Dennis and Sally: "Look, this is no joke. This is our faith you're talking about. It's a serious commitment; people have died for the Craft."

More soberly they linked hands and nodded. Juniper sighed again, troubled. Covens in her Tradition were quite picky about who they accepted as Dedicants, and how many … 

Of course, traditionally we were a self-selected microscopic minority. All of a sudden we're an Established Church in this little hilltop world, with people beating at the door, and I'm not sure I altogether like it.

Things were a little different outside, too: Wiccans were doing a bit better than the general populace, from what Carmen and the others said.

Which means just a large majority of us have died, rather than an overwhelming majority. Still … 

After a moment's thought she threw up her hands: "Oh, all right, let's assume the Lady and the Lord are telling us something; we can see what our coveners think over the next couple of days."

She raised a brow at Chuck, who was High Priest; traditionally somewhat secondary to the High Priestess, but to be consulted on any important manner. Rudy had been her High Priest before the Change … she put the thought out of her mind. Chuck was nodding reluctantly; he shared her reservations, but there really didn't seem to be any alternative that wouldn't leave people feeling hurt and excluded.

"I think it'll be good for the clan," he said. "We can't have resentments and factions and quarrels—Goddess spare us!"

Judy nodded in her turn. One thing they'd all learned, living in each other's laps like this, depending on each other in matters of life and death, with no escape—not even any music that they didn't make together—was that you had to keep consensus. Public opinion had a frightening power in a community this small and tight-knit; and divisions were likewise a deadly threat.

Juniper threw up her hands in surrender and went on: "Then we can do the Dedications at Beltane, which is to say, right now; so Dennie and Sally, you can start spinning a white cord, if you're serious—pass the word. The hand-fastings we'll have at Lughnassadh, after the First Harvest, you certainly don't have to be Initiates for that and we'll be able to afford decent feasts then, and the Initiations we'll have at Yule, at the turning of the year."

"Not Samhain?" Dennis asked.

"No! First, it's too soon even if we're going to hurry things; second, that's the festival for the dead, Dennie. We have an awful lot of people to remember, this year. Not appropriate. By then, I expect you to know why it's inappropriate, too."

She turned back to Judy: "As my Maiden, I expect you to run a turbocharged Training Circle to the max—fast but nothing skipped; I don't care how tired people are in the evenings. Let them show whether they're committed or not. That includes you, Dennie."

She paused to glare at Dennis and Sally. "We'll have a bunch of Giant Monster Combined Sabbats, OK? Initiations, handfastings, square dancing, bobbing for bloody apples. There. Is everyone satisfied?"

It was good to laugh with friends; good to have some problems that looked solvable, as well. And sometimes the Goddess just gave you a bonus. Keening over the Smiths wouldn't bring them back before their next rebirth—that was between them and the Guardians. And in the meantime … 

She looked at Chuck: "I presume we're taking over the Smith place?"

The Carson farm went without saying, and the others who were coming in; if you joined the clan, you pooled everything but your most personal belongings and you pitched in as the clan decided. Life alone post-Change was nasty and brutish and for most, short; particularly for a single household isolated in a violence-ridden countryside where once again a mile was a long way to call for help.

Chuck shrugged and raised his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture he'd picked up from Judy. The Smith farm and the others were good alluvial terrace land as well, much of it planted before the Change and needing only tending and harvest this year.

She went on, musing aloud: "On the one hand, I hate to profit from the misfortunes of neighbors; on the other, the Smiths were a bunch of paranoid bigots, and the Carsons and the others will be a real asset; on the third hand, that land is going to be a gift of the Goddess  … if we can hang on to it, and work it properly."

"Hell, the Smiths even had beehives," Dennis said, smacking his lips. "Which means we now have beehives. Mead … And the Georges planted a vineyard three years back."

"We can work all those farms from here, with bicycles, or sending people out in a wagon," Chuck said, giving him a quelling glance. "Thank the Lord and Lady you can't run off with a field of wheat!"

"But," Juniper said.

"But," Chuck answered. "Guarding that land's going to be the hard part. If we pull everyone back here every night ... and you thought we were shorthanded before? Get ready for everyone to make like an electron—we'll all have to be in two places at once from now to Samhain! Not to mention housing; Dennie's crew are running up bunk beds for here and the Fairfax place."

Juniper made a mental tally: "With the Carsons and the others that gives us … what, sixty adults sworn to the clan, now? Blessed be, but we've been growing!"

"Fifty-nine, counting Cynthia Carson but not her brother Ray—he's seventeen come Lughnassadh. Forty-two children, half of them old enough to do useful chores or mind the toddlers. We've got more people, but a lot more land to work. It wouldn't be so bad, if we didn't have to spend so much time on guarding and sentry-go and battle training, but we do."

"Truly, by the Morrigu Herself," Juniper said, closing her eyes and juggling factors. They'd taken in as many as they could, from the beginning … 

Just one year, she thought, and prayed at the same time. Just one year and one good harvest and enough seed corn, Lady Gaia, Mother-of-All. Then we can start the spiral of energy going up instead of down.

Chuck went on, as if echoing her thought: "But the food we got from the Smith place put us ahead of the game in reserves; they had a lot of oats and root vegetables in store, and all the farms had quite a bit of truck planted and some just coming ripe, besides the fruit. John Carson's a first-rate livestock man, too, which is something I'm no expert at and Sam doesn't have the time for. John was wasted without a herd to look after, I've been working off his advice since the start."

"How much grain?"

"Between the new farms and what we planted in spring, counting wheat and barley and oats together—call it eight thousand bushels all up, less fifteen percent for wastage and seed if we want to double the acreage for the fall planting, yields will be way down next year without brought-in seed..We were counting on exchanging the labor of our people and the use of our hauling teams for some of the crops anyway, but this way we get it all."

Juniper nodded. "Enough to put our diet this winter from 'just barely' to 'rude plenty,' with more to come next year, despite the way we've grown."

She did a piece of quick mental arithmetic: sixty pounds to a bushel, so … "That's multiple tons of grain; we'll need to start thinking bulk storage."

"If we can harvest it all," Dennis said. "The grain's going to come ripe real soon now—the first oats in a month, the rest from mid-July on."

"Maybe we could take in a few more refugees, then," Juniper said. "Since we're going to have a surplus. That group at the schoolhouse near Tallmar? We know they're healthy, they were grateful enough for the rose hips"—which had halted a nasty case of scurvy. "A couple of them know useful stuff like cooperage, and they'll not make it through till winter by themselves. And we could loan some seed-grain later to … Hmmm. Maybe we could throw up a mound and palisade around one of the farmhouses too, and settle some of our people there at least part-time? That way—"

The water had cooled from hot to lukewarm before they thrashed out the details to put to the clan as a whole, and it was nearly sunset outside; they all heaved themselves out, pulled the plug and began to towel down. Diana and Andy Trethar stuck their heads in.

"That pig is incredibly ready, and we're putting the sausages on, so anyone who feels like dinner had better come," she said. "The only leftovers are going to be bones for the Eternal Soup Stock."

"Yum," Juniper said, pulling a robe over her head from the stock kept ready for bathers. "Yummy yum—"

Then a disquieting thought struck her, and she turned to the others as she knotted her belt.

"Wait a minute, though—I suppose all the cowan within a day's walk of the Smiths are hopping around frothing about our taking over their land? Not to mention the sheriff! And Reverend Dixon ... The Wicked Witches strike again? It's all a Satanic plot?"

"Right," Chuck and Dennis said, in chorus, as they sidled towards the door.

Dennis went on in a reasonable tone: "But we told them Lady Juniper could explain it all when she got back."

Juniper gave a wordless howl of wrath as they both ducked out—you had to be careful about spoken curses, when you knew they could stick.

She dashed after them with the skirts of the robe hiked up in her hands so she could kick both backsides; symbolically, but with feeling.

A cheer went up as she appeared in the door, and she dropped the fabric hastily; flashing the crowd wasn't exactly appropriate behavior for the head of the clan. Nearly everyone was gathered, minus the first watch of the night guard and some of those doing kitchen duty—and those were loading the trestle tables in the Hall and on the veranda and the scrap of lawn preserved before it.

Someone came up and put a wreath of wildflowers on her head, red and yellow columbine laced with lavender vetch and white daisies; everyone else was wearing one too.

I'm home, she thought. And I'm going to see my people safe; I can't save the world, but what I can save, I will.

She set her hands on her hips. "All right, then—let's eat!"

That could always be relied on to get a positive reaction, these days.

"Come away, human child
To the woods and waters wild
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the Moon has taken flight … "

The voices and the strings of the small harp went plangent through the soft cool spring night, full of the green sap-scent of trees, and of the flowers along the way; there was a hint of woodsmoke and cooking from the Hall below, a breath of cooler air from the great forests of the mountains whose snowpeaks were lit by moonlight far above. The quiet rustle of many feet and the hems of their robes through the grass blended with the creaking of the forest and the night sounds of its dwellers.

Juniper had always loved this part of her great-uncle's land, even on brief visits as a little girl, frightened of the intimidating, solitary old man but bewitched by the place. Having it for her own had brought incredulous joy, and so had sharing it. The path wound up eastward from the cabin, through stands of huge Douglas firs and groves of pine and big-leaf maple, past openings and glades; sometimes the candles and lanterns of the coveners caught the eyes of an animal for a fleeting moment of green-yellow communion.

She led the procession, the hood of her robe thrown back, the silver moon on her brows, her belt woven from cords white and red and black and carrying her scabbarded athame. Behind her walked Chuck—Dragonstar in the Craft—with the elk mask and horns of the High Priest on his head, and Judy—Evenstar, the coven's Maiden—at his side; then the rest, two by two, cradling their candles and the tools of the ceremony.

The dew-wet stems of the grass seemed to caress her ankles. At last they came to the place, high on the mountain's slope, where a knee of its bones made a level space jutting ... out into emptiness.

Why her great-uncle had planted a circle of trees here she'd never known; but that had been nearly ninety years ago, and the oaks rose straight and tall all about it. Their boughs creaked over her, a patient sound, waiting as they had through all those decades for their destined use.

Just outside the circle to the west was the spring that was the source of Artemis Creek—how fitting the name! It flowed clear and pure among rocks and reeds, trickling away down the slope and making a constant plashing murmur between banks glowing with the pale golds of glacier lilies and stream violets. She could feel the care and trouble melting away as they approached, the gentle familiarity of the ritual and the place soothing like cool fingers on a hot brow.

Within the enclosure was close-cropped grass, soft as a lawn but shot through with the small purple flowers of wild ginger; in its very center a shallow fire pit lined with stones. At the four quarters, brackets of wrought iron reached out from the trees. Against the northern side of the ring was a roughly shaped altar, made from a single boulder.

They halted at the northeast quadrant of the great circle. With the sword in her hand she traced the perimeter de-osil, sunwise, past the great candles flickering at the quarters in their iron-and-glass holders:

"I conjure you, O Circle of Power, that you may be a meeting-place of love and joy and truth; a shield against all wickedness and evil; a boundary between the world of humankind and the realms of the Mighty Ones … "

Stars arched above, like the glowing hearths of an endless village; the moon hung over the mountaintops, white splendor, bright enough to dazzle her eyes. When she was finished she admitted the coven and sealed the circle behind them; the Maiden lit the censer and took it up, casting a blue trail of incense and sweetness behind her to mingle with the spicy smell of the wild-ginger leaves bruised beneath their feet. Two more followed with their bowls of salt and water … 

"I bless you, oh creature of Water; I bless you, oh creature of Earth; come together you power of Water, power of Earth. Cleanse all that must be clean, that this space be made sacred for our rites."

The words and movements flowed on:

"Guardians of the Watchtowers of the East, ye Lords of Air … "

Her athame's blade traced the Invoking pentagram in the air; in the eye of the mind it hung there, blue and glowing against the yellow flicker of candle flame.

"Guardians of the Watchtowers of the South, ye Lords of Fire … "

"Guardians of the Watchtowers of the West, ye Lords of Water and of Sunset … "

Facing the altar at last:

"Ye Guardians of the Watchtowers of the North! Oh, Lady of Earth, Gaia! Boreas, North Wind and Khione of the Snows, Guardians of the Northern Portals, you powerful God, you strong and gentle Goddess … "

At last all had been cleansed and purified: with Water and Earth, Air and Fire. She stood with the Wand and Scourge in her hands, facing the coven as the High Priest called:

"Hear you the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven, and whose body encircles the universe!"

Juniper's eyes rose, beyond the heads of the coven and the rustling dark secrecy of the trees, to where the stars made the Belt of the Goddess across the night sky, frosted silver against velvet black. Her lips moved, but she was hardly conscious of the words that rang out:

"I who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters, I call upon your soul to arise and come unto Me. From Me all things come and unto Me all must return Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you. And you who seek to know Me, know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without."

Her voice rose triumphantly:

"For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire!"

The stars seemed to open above Juniper, rushing towards her as if she were falling upward or they into her, through galaxies and the veils of nebulae whose cloak was worlds beyond counting. But that infinity was not cold or black, not empty or indifferent. Instead it was filled from edge to edge with a singing light, from unknown Beginning to unimaginable End radiant with an awareness vast beyond all understanding. So great, yet that greatness looked on her, at her, into her, the atom of being that was Juniper Mackenzie.

As if all that was lifted her in warm strong arms, and smiled down at her with an infinite tenderness.

Sight and sound returned; she was conscious of tears streaming down her cheeks, and of the High Priest's tenor singing:

"We all come from the Dark Lord
And to Him we shall return
Like a leaf unfolding
Opening to new life … "

And the Maiden's alto weaving through it, the words mingling without clashing:

"We all come from the Goddess
And to Her we shall return
Like a drop of rain
Flowing to the ocean … "

Higher and higher until the song became one note and broke on the last great shout of power like a wave thundering on a beach … 

With that she was herself once more, among her own in the Circle; yet still glowing with thankfulness. Only a handful of times had she felt this so utterly, but that too was good—some joys could only be had rarely, or you would break beneath them … 

When the working was done and the Circle unmade, the coven making its way down the nighted trace, Chuck drew her aside.

"Something special happened, didn't it? I could feel it. I think most of us did."

She nodded solemnly. "I think … I think the Goddess promised me something, Chuck. I just don't know what."

Chapter Twenty-one

Michael Havel leaned back against his saddle and gnawed a last bite off the rib; he took a quick drink of water afterward, and a mouthful of bread as well. Angelica's homemade BBQ sauce had real authority, as well as lots of garlic.

I can just about handle it now, he thought. After years of pouring Tabasco over MREs to hide the taste. It would have killed me when I was Eric's age.

Most of the people in his neck of the woods clung to Old Country cooking habits, and Finns thought highly seasoned meant putting dill in the sour cream.

The eating part of the Bearkillers' homecoming celebration was about over; mainly variations on meat and bread, but well done; the grateful smell lingered, along with woodsmoke and livestock. It was full dark now, with a bit of a chill in the air and only an enormous darkness around their fires. Somewhere in the distance a song-dog howled at the stars, and he could hear horses shifting their weight and snorting in the corral behind the wagons.

He flipped the bone into the fire, watching as it crackled and hissed and then burned when the marrow caught. Not far away a hound pup followed the arc with wistful eyes, but she was lying on a pile of them already, stomach stretched out like a drum. Havel was thinking of naming her Louhi, after the Old Country sorceress who could eat anything.

And Christ Jesus, it's good to be home.

Will Hutton wailed a note or two on his new harmonica and set it down again.

"You really ready to get back on the road?" he said.

"You haven't been back but half a week, and busy as hell that whole damned time."

Havel nodded. "We've about outstayed our welcome in the Kooskia area if we aren't here for good," he said. "We'll start south tomorrow. Josh and Eric and I were doing fifty, sixty miles a day most of the way back."

A smile. "Tiring him out was the only way to keep Zep-pelt from playing that goddamned accordion. Christ Jesus, if you knew the hours I'd suffered listening to those things as a kid, and watching the old farts lumber around dancing to it! And the kraut version is even worse."

"He 'n' his lady did seem a mite sore when they got in," Hutton grinned. "Fact is, though, he's not bad on that squeeze-box at all."

Havel shrugged; he didn't want to argue a point of musical tastes. "So five or six miles a day with the whole outfit will be a rest-cure."

"That slow?" the Bearkillers' trail boss said.

Havel nodded: "I don't want to travel too fast; Pendleton or the Walla Walla country by July or August—we can hire out to help with the harvest, or just pick some out-of-the-way wheatfields nobody's working on and help ourselves— and Larsdalen in say October, November. By then the sickness ought to be burned out, and until then we don't go near cities."

"Bit late for plantin' surely?"

"Not in the Willamette. You only get occasional winter frosts there; you can put in fall grains right into December, and graze stock outside all year 'round."

Will frowned, turning the mouth organ over in his battered, callused hands. "Don't like what you told about this Protector mofo," he said. "Don't much like it at all."

Havel grinned like a wolf. "The guy seriously torqued me off, yeah, I admit it, but I'm not just looking for a fight. The Willamette's still the best place going, and I don't think Mr. Protector is going to stay satisfied with what's west of the Columbia Gorge, either. From what he said, he already had his eye on the waterways inland, too—and you can sail all the way up to Lewiston, if you hold the locks. That's cheap transport nowadays."

Hutton's lips pursed in thought. "Bit far to reach, things bein' the way they are."

"Not him directly. But remember that deal I told you he offered me? One gets you five that's his boilerplate—and every would-be little warlord within reach of Portland gets the offer. No shortage of them; they're like cockroaches already. Give them some organization and backup, and things will get nasty all over this neck of the woods."

Ken Larsson nodded. He and Pamela Arnstein were sitting close with their hands linked; that had surprised Havel and flabbergasted Eric when he got back, but even Signe and Astrid seemed to be taking it in stride.

Ken spoke slowly, deep in thought: "Not surprising, given what you told me about his academic background. I think he's jumping the gun a little—it's a bit early to try for full-blown feudalism. But it's certainly more workable than trying to keep the old ways going."

"Like, we've got to learn how to crawl before we walk," Havel said; a corner of his mouth turned up. "Get tribes and chiefs right, before we can have barons and emperors."

"More or less."

Hutton had been thinking as well: "Mike," he said after a moment, "Does it strike you as a mite strange that the plague, the Death, got as far as Lewiston so fast?"

"Hmmm. The Columbia-Snake-Clearwater is an easy travel route, and refugees from the coast did get that far … You suggesting Professor Arminger helped it along? Let's not make him the universal boogeyman."

"Could be; or not," Hutton said. "For sure it's helpful to him that way, keeping the interior all messed up while he gets himself set. Anyway, I see what you're drivin' at. Stay here, go there, we're still gonna end up fightin' the man. Unless we move far south or east, and that's damn risky too. Could be worse there and we'd be committed. Only so many months in the year and we need to find somewhere we can put in a crop. The Willamette … "

Havel nodded. "It's best because things are worse; no organized groups to stop us settling … well, not in parts of it, at least. There's that bunch of monks around Mt. Angel, and Juniper Mackenzie and her neighbors, and Corvallis, and a bunch of small holdouts around Eugene, but that chunk around Larsdalen's clear. Most of the central valley is empty."

"Thought you said there were families holdin' out 'round the Larsson spread."

"By hiding. Nothing organized—and if they don't get someone to organize them, none of them will last out this winter. You need some security to farm. I think we could provide it."

Just then Signe came back to their campfire with a basket, followed by Angelica with a bottle and tray of glasses, and Astrid staggering under a collection of wooden struts and a large rectangular object. The basket held little chewy pastries done with honey and nuts; the bottle was part of the town's gratitude, good Kentucky bourbon—priceless now, and usually jealously hoarded. Havel poured himself a finger of it, and splashed in some water.

"What've you got there, kid?" he asked the younger Larsson girl indulgently; she had that epic-seriousness expression on her huge-eyed face.

He'd noticed some smudges on her fingers lately, Magic Marker and paints. Signe had real talent when it came to drawing, but Astrid was better-than-competent herself. Apparently Mary Larsson had thought it was something suitable for her girls to learn.

She gave him a smile, and went to work. The struts turned out to be an artist's tripod and easel; the strange object she put on it was about the size and shape of a painting, or a very large coffee-table book.

"Dad helped me find the paper," she said, one hand on the cloth that wrapped it. "At the Office Max where we got all that stuff, you remember? Art supply section—non-acid-pulp drawing paper. And Will did the covers."

"We weren't doin' anything with that piece of elk hide," Hutton said, a little defensively. "I like to keep my hand in at tooling and tanning leather. It'll be right useful, one day."

"Signe helped with the drawings. And I took notes from everyone about everything!"

Havel felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach; Astrid's pale eyes had taken on that dangerous, joyous glint they had when she came up with something truly horrifying.

She used her new dagger—which she wore every waking moment—to slit the string binding, then whipped off the cloth. Beneath lay a book—leatherbound board covers, rather, with an extensible steel-post clamp at the hinge for holding the paper. Across the front, tooled into the elk hide, was: the

CHRONICLES OF LORD BEAR AND HIS FOLK: THE RED BOOK OF LARSDALEN.

The letters were archaic-looking in a sloping, graceful fashion, carefully picked out in gold paint.

Havel felt his throat squeeze shut and his eyes narrow. Signe sank down beside him, elaborately casual, and leaned towards him on one elbow.

"She needs to do this, Mike. It's like therapy. Go with it? Please?"

He forced himself to relax. A crowd had gathered, standing behind him. It was the usual suspects—everyone who didn't have something urgent to do. There wasn't much in the way of entertainment on a typical evening, and this made a delicious change.

Astrid threw back the cover. The pages inside were large in proportion, big sketch-pad size. Across the top something was written in spiky letters; between the odd shapes and the flickering firelight it took him a moment to read:

The Change came upon us like a sword of light!

The Change came upon us like a monumental pain in the ass, Havel thought; but the drawing below was interesting enough—complete with him wrestling with the Piper Chieftain's controls and Biltis yeowling inside her carrier box—the actual cat was sniffing around people's feet and hissing at the hound pup.

Astrid began to read the text. It was written in the Roman alphabet, cunningly disguised to look runic. Her high clear voice made the mock-archaic diction sound less ridiculous; absolute faith could do that. He almost rebelled when he got to the appearance of the Three Aryan Brotherhood Stooges, and she faltered a little.

"You said they were like orcs, Mike!"

"Ahh … Yeah, kid, I did say that. Go on, you're doing great!"

I didn't say they had fucking fangs, girl, or arms that reached down to their knees, or little squinty yellow eyes and scimitars!

Signe murmured in his ear again: "It's sort of metaphorical. Showing them outwardly the way they were inwardly."

Havel smiled and nodded. It probably was theraputic for Astrid to do this; and looking around he found amusement and fondness on a lot of the adults' faces. The problem was that the youngsters were just plain fascinated, and God alone knew what stories they'd be repeating when they were parents themselves. He kept smiling and nodding when the Eaters became a nest of goblins, his meeting with Arminger turned out to be a confrontation before a huge iron throne, with the Protector ten feet high and graced with a single slit-pupiled red eye in the center of his forehead..

And Juniper Mackenzie was evidently a sorceress Amazon with a glowing nimbus of power around her, a wand trailing sparks, and guarded by Scottish-elf longbowmen.

"More whiskey," Havel said hoarsely, holding his glass out without looking around. "Please."

"Was she really like that?" Signe said. "Beautiful and mysterious?" A smile: "I sort of resent it when you go fighting cannibals with anyone but me, you know."

Tell the truth, Havel told himself.

"Beautiful? Nah," he said. "Cute, in a … cute sort of way, sort of like a scruffy hobo pixie. About five-three, redheaded, thirtyish—looked like she'd been spending a lot of time out of doors. Skinny. Nice singing voice, though."

Astrid finished up: "And to Larsdalen and home, he showed the way!"

There was a moment of silence, and then a burst of whooping cheers; he wasn't quite sure whether they were for him, as the subject of the epic, or for Astrid's treatment of it. It certainly came out more colorful than the dirty, boring, often nauseating reality. Eventually they dispersed towards the open space in front of the wagons; there had been talk of dancing. Of course, that meant the Bearkiller analogue of music … 

"Got the storyteller's gift, that girl," Will Hutton said. "Tells things the way they should have been." He popped one of the pastries into his mouth.

"Married this woman for her cookin'," he went on contentedly.

Havel grinned at the smoldering look Angelica gave her husband; the fire that slipped down his throat as he sipped the bourbon was no more pungent-sweet.

"My cooking? De veras? And here I thought it was because my brothers were going to kill me and the worthless mallate cowboy I'd taken up with!"

"Now, honeybunch, you know it was your momma I was frightened of," he said, mock-penitent.

Then he looked over at the cleared area, brightly lit with half a dozen big lanterns. "Oh, sweet Jesus, no, no! Spare us, Lord!"

Havel glanced that way himself, and snorted. Eric Larsson had a feed-store cap on backward, and a broomstick in his hand, evidently meant to be a mike stand; he was prancing around—

"Christ," his father said. "A capella karaoke rap! How could it come to this? How did I fail him?"

"That boy may be able to jump some," Hutton said dourly. "But Lord, Lord, please don't let him try to sing!"

Luanne Hutton leaned against the wagon behind Eric, holding her ribs and gasping feebly with laughter. A few of the other young Bearkillers were making stabs at dancing hip-hop style, and doing about as well as you'd expect of Idaho farm kids with no musical assist.

Hutton surged upright. "C'mon, Angel. We got to put things right; let's find Zeppelt and his squeeze-box."

Havel looked at Ken Larsson. "What gives with you getting your vineyard guy from Oz of all places?"

"Australia has a lot of fine winemakers," Larsson said defensively. "Hugo Zeppelt is first-rate. Smart enough to hide out in that old fallout shelter my father built, too, and get our horses into the woods when the foragers from Salem came by."

The chubby little Australian and his tall gangling blond wife had pushed Eric out of position with the Huttons' help, and they were warming up on their instruments— accordion and tuba. Oom-pa-oom-pa split the night, already familiar from the trip back; Josh and Annie Sanders started organizing the dance—they had no musical talent to speak of, but she'd helped at church socials a good deal in her very rural Montana neighborhood.

"Do-si-do, turn your partner," Havel said. "Not only an Aussie with an accordion, but an Aussie who's obsessed with polkas!"

"He's from the Barossa valley in South Australia, and it was settled by Germans," Larsson said defensively. "And Angelica likes it."

"She's Tejano," Havel said. "San Antonio and the Hill Country used to be lousy with krauts. The oom-pa-pa beat spread like the clap. Put Zeppelt and Astrid together, and in a generation we'll all be wearing lederhosen to go with the pointed ears ... the Tubas of Elfland, going oom-pa, oom-pa."

"C'mon," Pamela said; she'd been quiet that evening. "Let's dance, oh fianc?Mike's in one of his grumbling moods. Signe and the dog have to listen but we don't."

They wandered over to where couples were prancing to the lively beat. Signe sipped at her own whiskey; her cheeks were a little flushed. For a moment they leaned shoulder-to-shoulder; then Louhi crawled between them, licking at hands and faces.

"All right, that settles it. I christen thee Louhi, and you can start learning manners. Been ten years since I had a dog."

Signe smiled, tousling the young hound's ears. "I'd have figured you for a dog sort of guy, Mike."

He shrugged. "I was, when I was a kid. Had this German shepherd called Max—very original, hey? From the time I was eight until just before I graduated high school."

He smiled, looking into the flames: "He used to sleep on the foot of my bed, bad breath and gas and all, and I even took him hunting."

"It's odd to take a dog hunting?"

"Max? Yeah, sort of like taking along a brass band. He saved a lot of deer from death. My dad couldn't stand it— the mines were always laying people off with about a week's warning, and there were four of us kids, so a lot of the time we needed that venison. But Max, he'd howl something awful if you tied him up when you got in the canoe."

"Canoe?"

"Yeah, we had this creek that went by our place, and ran through some marshland—man, when I remember what my mom could do with wild rice and duck—then into a little lake with some pretty good hunting woods. Even better if you took a day or two and portaged a bit. White pine country before the loggers got there; lots of silver birch, and maple. We had a good sugarbush on our land, in the back of the woodlot."

"It sounds lovely," she said. "In fact, it sounds like Sweden—we visited there a couple of times, Smaland, where our family came from originally."

Havel's mouth turned up. "Yeah, the Iron Range country is the grimmer parts of Scandahoofia come again—it's even more like Finland. Makes you wonder if our ancestors had any brains at all—those of present company excepted, of course."

"Que?" Signe said.

That was one of Angelica's verbal ticks, and a lot of people had picked it up while he was gone.

Havel mimed wonder: "Like, did they say to themselves: Ooooh, rocks and swamps, crappy soil, mosquitoes bigger than pigeons, blackflies like crows, and nine months of frozen winter blackness! Just like what we left. To hell with pushing on to golden, mellow Californialet's settle here!"

Signe laughed and wrinkled her nose: "I saw the Larsson home in Smaland, and you could grow a great crop of rocks around it. Oregon probably looked really good by comparison. I mean, Sweden's a pretty nice place to live now—or was before the Change, you know what I mean—but back in the old days, you could starve to death there."

"And in 1895 the Upper Peninsula of Michigan didn't have a lot of Russians trying to draft you into fighting for the Czar, yeah, point taken. Anyway, Max, he would have starved to death if he'd had to hunt on his own—what the shrinks call poor impulse control. He got his nose frostbit a couple of times trying to track down field mice in winter; he'd go galloping across the fields with his muzzle making like a snowplow. I was too young myself to train him properly when he was a pup."

Louhi crawled further up, stuck her nose into Mike's armpit and promptly went to sleep.

"I'll do better with Louhi here. Hounds scent-hunt anyway."

Signe considered him for a while, head on one side: "What happened to Max?"

"Besides scaring the bejayzus out of deer and squirrel, getting into pissing matches with skunks, and shoving his face into a porcupine's quills once a year? He used to get into the maple-sap buckets in the spring, too, pretty regular. Ever tried to get that stuff out of the fur of a hundred and ten pounds of reluctant Alsatian?"

"In the end, I meant."

"In the end? Got run over a little while before I graduated high school," Havel said. "Broke his back; I found him trying to crawl home. I had to put him down."

And he kept expecting me to make it better, Havel remembered. Right up to the second I pulled the trigger.

"That must have been terrible," Signe said, laying a hand on his.

He turned his over, and they linked fingers. "Yeah, I missed him."

To himself: I couldn 't have proven in a court who did it, but then, I didn 't have to.

A flicker of grim pleasure at a memory of cartilage crumbling under his knuckles: Beating me out with Shirley was one thing, but killing my dog … 

"Is that why you didn't get another dog?"

"Nan, didn't have the time, and it's not fair on the animal if you don't—they're not like cats," Havel said. "Now things are different."

Signe nodded, and looked over to the open space; it was square-dancing now.

"That fiance thing seems to be breaking out all over," she said. A pause: "You … you've been sort of quiet since you got back, Mike. I … there wasn't anything with this Juniper woman, was there? Eric won't talk about it at all."

"Just giving things a rest," he said, sitting up and resting his free arm on his knees. "And yeah, I won't deny there was a sort of mutual attraction, pretty strong for short acquaintance. She had a lot of character."

Signe froze, her hand clenching on his, and he went on: "But we decided we both had commitments elsewhere; she had her kid to look after, and her people. I do have commitments here, don't I?"

Signe nodded, flushing redder. "Ummm … I hope so. Nice night for a walk out?"

Havel uncoiled to his feet, pulling her up. "Walking's nice, but we can do that any night. Right now, why don't we dance?"

She smiled, a brilliant grin that made her eyes like turquoise in the firelight.

"I'll dance your feet right off, mister!" she said.

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