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Authors: S. M. Stirling

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BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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No mortal dare to meet the glare

Of the Eye of the Stormbringer

For he is the lightning slinger

The glory singer,

The gallows reaper!”

The road wound along between the muddy, reaped potato fields and truck gardens covered in mulch of wheat-straw and sawdust and spoiled hay; a whiff of manure came from beneath. A rime of ice was forming in the puddles along the water-furrow from the pond that watered them in the summer; they tramped on over the plank bridge, then past fenced and hedged pastures, and other fields where the stems of the winter oats bowed beneath the wet snowflakes. The stock was mostly huddled in the shelter of board sheds, and the herd-wards forked down hay for them from the stacks or walked their rounds. They had thick cloaks and jackets and knit vests and leggings, and booths to take shelter from the worst of the weather; they and hunters in the woods and unlucky travelers were the only ones who'd sleep outside walls this night.

The song wasn't one he'd have picked if he were going to be rolling in a sleeping bag beneath a tree. Not out where wolves and bears and tigers and woods-fey roamed—the fey could be friendly or unfriendly, and were usually tricksey— and where a stranger met might be anything from an outlaw to a wood-sprite or godling in disguise.

But it was a fine tune when you were heading back to stout gates and bright fires and a good supper. Rudi filled his lungs with the wet chill air and bellowed out:

“Upon his shoulder, ravens

His face like stone, engraven

Astride a six-hoofed stygian beast

He gathers the fruit of the gallows trees!

Driving legions to victory

The bringer of war walks tonight!”

The kilted children poured up the sloping road to the dun in a chattering mass, eager for home and supper. It took a bit longer than usual for the wall to loom ahead of them out of the swirling white; the rough surface of the light-colored stucco was catching the snow now, obscuring the curving flower-patterns painted beneath the crenellations of the battlements. The great gates were three-quarters shut, and the snow had caught on their green-painted steel surfaces too, making little white teardrops where the patterns of copper rivets showed the Triple Moon above—waxing, full, and waning—and the wild bearded face of the Horned Man beneath.

One of the gate guards yelled down: “What were you trying to do, Chuck, feed the little twerps to the Wild Hunt? It's as dark as a yard up a hog's arse out there!”

Chuck Barstow put a hand on his hip and looked up as his horse's hooves struck sparks from the concrete and fieldstone of the square before the gate. “They're not going to catch their deaths from a wee bit of snow,” he called back. “They might from missing when someone's coming at them with a blade.”

The tunnel-like entrance was flanked on either side by god-posts of carved and painted wood hewn from whole Douglas fir trunks thicker than his body; the Lady as Brigid with her wheat sheaf and crown of flames on one side, and the Lord as Lugh of the Long Spear on the other. Rudi made a reverence with palms pressed together and thumbs on his chin as he passed, a gesture as automatic as breath, feeling the warm comfort of their regard, like his mother's smile. Everyone else made the gesture as well, except Mathilda and a few other Christians, mostly the children of foreign guests. The schoolroom crowd broke up, waving and yelling and promising to get up early to build snow forts on the open ground below the north wall, where the wind usually piled deep drifts. As the last of them passed, a dozen adults on guard duty hauled in grunting unison, and the gates shut with a hollow boom and a long rattling, thunking sound as the bars slid home. In the same instant great Lambeg drums sounded from the tops of the four towers of the gatehouse, a deep rumbling thunder; the dunting of horns went through it, and the screech of pipers hailing the departing Sun.

Then they were through into the familiar interior of Dun Juniper, their hobnailed brogans crunching on the gravel roadways. The walls enclosed a smooth oval of several acres, originally a low plateau in the rolling benchland. Lanterns shone from the towers along the wall, and from the windows of the log-built homes that lined the inner surface of the fortification; their light gleamed on the carved and painted wood of the little houses; most were done in themes from myth or fancy, a few left defiantly plain as if to tell the neighbors
so there
. Smoke rose from chimneys to mingle with the white mist of the snow, as the resin scent of burning fir mixed with the homey smells of cooking and livestock; the clachan had six hundred souls within the walls, more than any other Mackenzie settlement save Sutterdown.

Folk walked briskly about the final tasks of the day, from penning the chickens to visiting the communal bathhouse. Voices human and animal rang, and hooves, the buzz of a woodworker's lathe, the last blows of a smith's hammer, the hum of a treadle-driven sewing machine, the rhythmic tock…tock…of an ax splitting wood.

It had all been the background of his life, as were the dogs that came and butted their heads under his hands. The two armed Mackenzies who unobtrusively followed weren't.

“Oh, Aoife, Dan, do you
have
to?” he asked; at least today it was friends of his. “Can't I even go pee by myself? It's like being a little kid again!”

“Yup, we do have to follow you around, sprout,” Daniel said unsympathetically; he was tall and lean like his sister and only a year younger, with shaggy tow-colored hair and a mustache on his upper lip that stayed wispy despite cultivation and spells. “I've got better things to do myself, you know, and Aoife would
certainly
rather be somewhere else with someone else since she's in luuuuuuuuve
again
—”

His sister snorted and made as if to clout him with the buckler in her left hand; the movement was slow and symbolic. A real strike with a two-pound steel disk was no joke.

“—but it's Sam's orders, and Dad's, and Lady Juniper's. You and the princess here get a guard, every hour of the night and day.”

Mathilda pouted a little at the title—she'd tried to insist on it when she first arrived at Dun Juniper after her capture last spring, and found that to be a mistake, like talking about the splendors of the palace in Portland or Castle Todenangst. That reminded him of how she'd arrived, and what had followed from that. His fingers rubbed at his side through his jacket, where the giant's sword had wounded him that August night. Mathilda's voice was small as she leaned close and said: “Does it still hurt?”

“Nah,” he said, smiling, remembering how she'd sat by his bedside through the long days of pain, reading out loud or playing checkers or just being there. “I heal quick.”

“I'm sorry, Rudi.”

“Well,
you
didn't do it, Matti,” he replied cheerfully.

“Eddie was always nice before…well, nice to me. And Mack, I thought he was just sort of big and, well, stupid. Dad just sent them to rescue me. He and Mom are scared for me. They didn't mean to hurt you.”

“Mack was big and stupid,” Rudi said. “And he was a bad man, Matti. He did mean to hurt me.” He put an arm around her shoulders. “I know
you
didn't.”

“You want to go and visit Epona?” Mathilda said hopefully.

He hesitated; Epona was the
good
thing that had happened last summer, the horse that nobody but he could ride…Rudi sighed. There wasn't time, and he didn't have the excuse anymore that the mare would only let him groom or feed her—she'd relaxed a bit about that.

“Oh, come on, let's go get dinner. I'm clemmed,” he said instead.

The center of Dun Juniper held the larger, communal buildings; school, bad-weather covenstead, bathhouse, armory, library, stables and workshops, granaries and dairy, brew-house and storehouses. The heart of it was the great Hall. It loomed bright through the thick-falling snow, firelight and lantern light red and yellow through the windows and on the painted designs graven into the logs. The ends of the rafters that supported the second-story galleries were carved into the heads of the Mackenzie totems, Wolf and Bear, Dragon and Tiger and Raven and more; their grinning mouths held chains that ended in lanterns of wrought brass and iron and glass. The high-peaked roof of moss-grown shingles reared above like the back of a green, scaly dragon, and the rafters at each end of it crossed like an X, carved into facing spirals, deasil and widdershins to balance the energies. The two children and their escorts paused on the veranda to stamp and kick the mud and sticky wet snow off their brogans and brush it off their plaids and jackets and caps.

Through the big double doors, and into a blast of light and sound, warmth and smells; woodsmoke, damp wool clothes drying, leather, meat and cabbage cooking, fir and polish and soap, bright paint and carving seeming to move on the walls. The great stone hearth across the room on the north face of the Hall was booming and roaring, and a group around it were laughing and finishing a song as they threw in chunks of timber:

“Oak logs will warm you well, that are old and dry;

Logs of pine will sweetly smell, but the sparks will fly;

Surely you will find

There's none compare with the hardwood logs

That are cut in winter-time, sir!

That are cut in winter-time, sir!

Holly logs will burn like wax—you can burn them green

Elm logs burn like smoldering flax, with no flames to be seen

Beech logs for wintertime, and Yule logs as well, sir—”

He genuflected to the altar on the mantel and signed the air with the Horns for the Hall's tutelary guardians, and his bodyguards did the same. The long tables were up as well, set in a T this day with the upper bar on the dais at the east end of the Hall, and people were bustling in and out of the doors on either side of the fireplace that led to the kitchens. The western end of the Hall held the great Yule Tree, not yet decorated, but fragrant with promise and Douglas fir sap. Rudi waved to friends as he took off his coat and flat Scots bonnet and plaid, hanging them on pegs; by now Mathilda attracted fewer glares and more smiles than she had right after he got hurt, but she was still a little subdued and stuck close to him. Few dared to be unfriendly when he was around, or when his mother was watching.

One of the glares was unfortunately from Aunt Judy, who hadn't forgotten how her fostern-son Sanjay died last summer.

Well, neither have I,
Rudi thought. Everyone had liked Sanjay, who was smart and funny and brave.
But it wasn't Matti's fault! And that was a whole
year
ago, or nearly! Aoife and Dan aren't mean to her! And Uncle Chuck doesn't look at her like that either.

They hung up their bows and quivers and knives in the children's section. Rudi sighed as he watched Dan and Aoife stow their weapons with those of the other grown warriors. Shortswords and dirks and bucklers swung on their belts from oak pegs; spears were racked in gleaming rows with their bright, rune-graven heads high. In pride of place were the great six-foot war bows of orange-hued yew, the terror of the Clan's enemies and the guardians of Mackenzie freedom and honor, each flanked by its well-filled quiver of shafts fletched with the gray goose feathers.

He knew that the time to wield one would come for him, just as his voice would break someday and he'd start being interested in girls as more than friends. But while that was just knowledge without much impact, the yearning for a war bow of his own was a burning need.

Lady of the Ravens, please don't make me wait forever!
he thought.

There was some foreign gear there as well, from Lord Bear's territories on the western side of the Willamette Valley; long basket-hilted backswords and short, thick recurve horseman's bows hung up in harp-shaped saddle scabbards. Rudi looked up at the top table; yes, a big, blond young man in his late twenties and a woman a little younger, brown-skinned and frizzy-haired. There were others at the lower tables who must be their escorts, all in pants, and jackets with the red bear's head on the shoulder.

“Hi, Unc' Eric, Auntie Luanne!” he called to the pair, and they waved back over the gathering crowd.

His mother was talking with the Bearkiller couple when he hopped up on the dais and walked over to make his respects and greet her. She stopped to give him a grin and a hug, then pulled back a little.

“Well, it's sopping you are,
mo chroi
!” she said, green eyes twinkling.

“Just a little snow, Mom,” he replied. He saw Mathilda out of the corner of his eye, a plaintive look on her face, and whispered in his mother's ear.

BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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