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Authors: S. M. Stirling

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BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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He touched his knee as he spoke. He'd arrived last spring as a refugee with the armor on his back and one change of clothing in his saddlebags. These days he dressed in a kilt like nearly everyone else in the Mackenzie territories—the knee-length pleated
féile-beag,
the Little Kilt, not the ancient wraparound blanket style—and a homespun shirt of linsey-woolsey. The tartan was like nothing that the Highlands had ever seen, mostly dark green and brown with occasional slivers of a very dull orange. Handsome enough, if subdued, and excellent camouflage in this lush, wet land of forest and field; quite comfortable as well, but you had to remember to keep it arranged properly. His legs were well proportioned and muscled, particularly for a man his age, but he didn't think his graying shins were the most aesthetically pleasing part of him, not to mention the scars.

“You could at least have used the real Mackenzie tartan, if you were going to put everyone in pleated skirts,” Nigel grumbled.

The other man grinned. “Hell, I only came up with the idea 'cause we'd found a warehouse load of these tartan blankets, and because I knew it would torque Juney off when she got back from the scouting thing she was doing, and found it was a done deal—pardon me, torque off Lady Juniper,” he said, nodding towards the eastern end of the Hall where the dais stood. “I started the Lady Juniper bit, too, and it drove her crazy.”

“Why would the kilts annoy her?” Nigel asked. “They're very easy to make, and quite practical in this climate, which I can assure you from much dismal training-maneuver experience is far milder than the Highlands of Scotland. She looks quite convincing in that getup as well, and she has a suitable accent, when she wishes—though Irish rather than Scots, to be sure. Still, the Scotti came from there, originally. And there's the religious aspect, of course.”

“Yeah, but I was always teasing her about the Celtic stuff she put on to go with her music before the Change,” Dennis said. “Sort of a running joke, you know? And the way her coveners—I was a cowan back then, didn't believe in anything much—were always making like Cuchulain or Deirdre of the Sorrows or whatever and raiding the Irish myths for symbols the way the old Erse stole each other's cows. So when the first bunch of us got here right after the Change, and she said we'd have to live like a clan to survive, I was the one who pushed for all this stuff 'cause I knew she hadn't meant that literally. There wasn't much to laugh at back then, and it was fun.”

He looked around. “I didn't expect it to catch on this…emphatically.”

“It certainly has,” Nigel observed, matching his glance.

The Englishman had heard the building's story from Juniper. Her great-uncle the banker had been the single wealthy exception to the modest middle-class rule of the Mackenzies, and he'd bought the site of the ancestral homestead and the forest around it as a country hunting-lodge; her parents had visited every July as far back as she could remember and, later, more than once she'd spent a whole summer here, just she and the old man, walking the woods and learning the plants and the beasts. It had been the last of the childless bachelor's many eccentricities to leave the house and land to the teenage single mother she'd been, more than a decade before the Change.

The lodge had been built in the 1920s of immense Douglas fir logs on a knee-high foundation of mortared fieldstone; originally it had been plain on the interior, and divided into several rooms as well. The budding Clan Mackenzie had ripped out the partitions when they put on a second story late in the first Change Year, leaving a great wooden box a hundred feet by forty; on the north side a huge stone hearth was flanked by two doors leading to the new lean-to kitchens, and on the other three walls windows looked out onto verandas roofed by the second-story balconies.

And it certainly isn't
plain
anymore
, he thought.

Over the years since, the great logs that made up the walls had been smoothed and carved, stained and inlaid and painted, until they were a sinuous riot of colored running knot-work that reminded him of the Book of Kells, crossed with Viking-era animal-style and a strong dash of Art Nouveau. Faces peered out of that foliage, the multitude of Aspects borne by the twin deities of Juniper Mackenzie's faith; the Green Man, stag-antlered Cernunnos, goat-horned Pan; flame-crowned Brigid with her sheaf of wheat and Lugh of the Long Hand with his spear, Cerridwen, Arianrhod and silver-tongued Ogma, Apollo and Athena, Zeus and Hera, Freya and one-eyed Odin, blond Sif and almighty red-bearded Thor.

Beneath the high ceiling were carved the symbols of the Quarters; over the hearth comfrey and ivy and sheaves of grain for North and the Earth; vervain and yarrow for Air and the East; red poppies and nettles for the South and Fire; ferns and rushes and water lilies for West and the Waters.

A few people were doing touch-up work on it all, on ladders propped against the wall. Winter was the slack season for farmers, and so time for maintenance work, and for leisure and crafts and ceremony. There were others here, reading or playing at board games, three in animated discussion over the plans for a new sawmill at another dun and a circle of younger children listening raptly to a storyteller in a corner.

“I'm off,” Dennis said to the Englishman as the practice group around the dais broke up, rising and giving a nod to Juniper Mackenzie as she approached—and a wink to Nigel. “I've got apprentices doing practice-pieces to check on and then Sally'll have dinner ready. 'Night, Juney.”

“Tell Sally we need to talk about the Moon School schedule tomorrow, Dennie,” Juniper said, then: “And how are you today, Nigel?” She sat and stretched out in a leather armchair, feet towards the fire on a settee.

Sir Nigel Loring picked up his thick, white ceramic mug with his left hand. His fingers tightened on it until the knuckles whitened and cords stood out in his forearm, and then relaxed.

“Your healer seems to be correct,” he said. “Full function is returning.”

Slowly and painfully,
he added silently to himself; he'd never been a whiner. Old bones didn't mend as fast as young, and that was all there was to it. And he was fifty-three now, even if a very fit fifty-three.

“Judy Barstow knows her business,” Juniper said, and nodded. Then she smiled: “Or Judy Barstow Mackenzie, to use the modern form.”

He could see sympathy in the bright green eyes; her voice held a hint of her mother's birthplace, Achill Island off the west coast of Eire, running like a burbling stream beneath her usual General American. Her father's heritage had been mostly what Americans called Scots-Irish, and it showed in the straight nose, pointed chin and high cheekbones; so did the very slight trace of Cherokee that side of her family had picked up in the mountains of Carolina and Tennessee before they made the long trek over the Oregon Trail.

“And the headaches?” she went on.

“Fewer as the weeks go by, and not as bad; the herbal infusion works wonders. Ye gods, but that man was strong! What was his name?”

In two strokes the greatsword had buckled the tough alloy steel of his helm, ripped the chin-protecting bevoir right off his breastplate, and cut through the sheet metal and strong laminated wood of his shield to break his arm while he lay semiconscious on the ground, trying to protect Rudi Mackenzie from a death as unstoppable as a falling boulder.

“Mack,” she said. “Although I've heard that was a nickname—for the truck.”

Juniper Mackenzie's usual expression was friendly; more sincerely so than his own, he thought. Just then it changed for an instant, and you could see the fangs of the she-fox behind her smile. She glanced over to another corner, where a nine-year-old with copper-gold locks to his shoulders was playing chess with a black-haired young woman in her early twenties. They looked up for an instant from their game and waved at their mother and the Englishman. He felt himself give an answering grin; young Rudi was irresistible, and his sister Eilir charming in her slightly eerie way.

“Mack wasn't so strong as you and your son Alleyne and John Hordle put together,” Juniper said. “Since he was trying to kill my son, I would consider that a fortunate thing, so. I won't forget whose shield it was covered Rudi.”

Her hand tightened on his shoulder for an instant, and he covered it with his as briefly before she leaned back, arranging her kilt and plaid gracefully and then taking one of the muffins from the plate beside Nigel's chair. They were made from stone-ground flour, rich with eggs and thick with dried blueberries and hazelnuts; one steamed gently as she broke it open and buttered it.

“And if one has to convalesce from a broken arm and a cracked head, this is as good a spot as any,” he went on with a smile, waving his mug. “And as good a season of the year.”

With the summer's wealth stored and the next year's wheat and barley in the ground, supporting a guest too weak to work or fight was no hardship. The Great Hall of Dun Juniper was comfortably warm in the chill, rainy gloom of the west-Oregon winter, too, not something you could count on in a large building after the Change in a place like the Cascade foothills.

Or in a large British building even
before
the Change,
he thought mordantly. But the Yanks always were better at heating. Snow beat at the windows with feathery paws amid December's early dark, but the great room was bright with firelight and the lanterns that hung from the carved rafters.

“The winters weren't the Willamette's strongest selling points,” Juniper said. “Though with my complexion, I find them soothing. At least I don't turn into a giant freckle!”

“I like your climate. The tropics wear after a while”—she knew he'd had plenty of hot-country experience in his years with the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment before the Change—“but this is homelike enough for comfort and just the right bit milder.”

Juniper laughed, and waved a hand around the great room and its flamboyant decoration. “Now,
this
I don't think you'll find homelike.”

He found himself laughing with her, although he'd been a rather solemn person most of his life. “I grant it isn't what you'd find in Hampshire, even after the Change.”

He recognized the symbolism of her faith and he could interpret most of it, partly from his readings in ancient history, partly from occasional contact with practitioners of the Craft—some had been on the Isle of Wight, the main enclave of British survivors, and a few had even managed to hide out in the New Forest to be discovered by his scouts in the second Change Year. And his son Alleyne had been a recreationist before the Change, one of those who played at medieval combat, and the odd Wiccan had overlapped with that set.

Extremely odd, some of them,
he thought with a smile.

Then he raised his gaze to the brooding, feral face of Pan, and the smile died. The heavy-lidded eyes were shadowed as they stared into his, given life by the flickering firelight. They brought with them a hint of green growth and damp, moldering leaves; the dark scented breath of the wildwood, and the fear that waits to take the souls of men who wander too far beyond the edge of the tilled, tamed fields.

That isn't just good carving,
he thought.

It reminded him of medieval art in ancient churches; not the style or the imagery, but the raw power of bone-deep belief. The Wiccans he'd known in England before the Change had mostly seemed at least slightly barmy to him, when they weren't playacting. He didn't know what Juniper and her friends had been like before the modern world perished, but they weren't putting it on now. Not in the slightest.

Juniper's green eyes twinkled, following his thoughts with disconcerting ease; she linked her fingers around one knee and considered him with her head tilted to one side.

“It wasn't like this when I inherited it from my great-uncle, that good gray Methodist,” she said, her tone mock-defensive. “We didn't have much to do but carve, those first winters after the Change, and it was useful with so many new Dedicants, sort of a visual training aid. At first it was just me and my coveners and a few friends like Dennie. Then we had to help other people, get the farms started again and make tools and save the livestock, fight off the bandits and Eaters and…It all just sort of…snowballed.”

“I had the same feeling of riding the tiger in directions unpredictable over in England, my dear,” Nigel said. “I've seen it elsewhere. While things were in flux, one strong personality with luck and, hmmm,
baraka
, could set the tone for a whole region, like a seed-crystal in a saturated solution. As Charles and I did in England, until I fell out with His Majesty.”

Juniper shivered very slightly as she looked around. “And as I appear to have done hereabouts.”

“I should think you'd be glad to see more come around to your way of thinking?” he probed gently.

“The Craft never did hunt for converts the way the religions of the Book do; we waited for those who were interested to seek us out. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Then suddenly there were so many…”

“Are you sorry?” Nigel asked.

BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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