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Authors: S. M. Stirling

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“And this I bind on every man and woman and child of this Clan, and I make it
geasa
to break it. I bind you all, by the Dagda and Angus Og and Lugh of the Long Spear; by Macha and Edain and the Threefold Morrigú; by the Maiden, the Mother and the Hag, and if any break it by word or deed may the Mother's Earth open and swallow you…the Mother's ocean rise up and drown you…and the heaven of stars which are the dust of Her feet fall and crush you and all that is yours. This is my
geasa,
which I, Juniper Mackenzie, Her priestess, and Chief of the Clan by the Clan's choice, lay upon you! So mote it be!”

An echoing silence fell, and lasted until she put her hands on her hips and spoke in a normal tone: “And that is that!”

She sat again and drank, conscious of eyes rolling white as they looked at her, and mouths gaping. It took a moment for the others to follow suit, but when the roar of conversation started up it was louder than ever.

“Whoa,” Luanne said quietly.

Her husband had blanched and was clutching at a crucifix beneath his shirt; sweat darkened the fine linen a little, and gleamed on his forehead.

“Remind me never to piss you off that much, Juney!”

“I doubt you'll ever do it, so,” Juniper said. “Now, where were we? Ah, yes, Mathilda, and her being Arminger's only heir.”

“Ah,” Luanne said. “Yes, we've talked that over a bit at Larsdalen, with Signe and Mike and Eric's dad and my folks.”

“And what did Ken have to say about it? And Will?” Juniper asked; she had a lively respect for Kenneth Larsson's brains, and for those of Luanne's father.

“That we shouldn't build too much on the foundation of one little girl,” Eric said. Then, elaborately casual: “You know, this dried-tomato-and-onion thing in vinegar is
good
.”

“Ken has a good heart,” Juniper said.
Although he and Will have the advantage of being a ruler's advisors, not the ruler himself.
“And a keen mind.”

“Yup,” Eric Larsson said, obviously glad to change the subject for a moment. “But Dad's also got a mind full of weird shit. The latest—” He rolled his eyes.

“What is it?” Juniper asked with interest.

Kenneth Larsson had been in his fifties before the Change, an engineer by training and an industrialist on a large scale by avocation; both had proved surprisingly useful since. Mike Havel did ordinary civil administration when he had to, but he hated it and was self-confessedly not very good at it, either. On the other hand, Ken was also given to what he called long-term thinking and others dubbed eccentricity. In someone of lower rank, the word
cracked
would probably have been used.

“Asteroids,” Luanne said. “He's worrying about
asteroids
.”

Juniper looked at her as blankly as the younger couple had at the reference to
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
. Eric and his wife both laughed, and he took up the tale.

“You know how an asteroid was supposed to have killed off the dinosaurs?”

Juniper frowned. It had been so long…

“I think I read about it in a
National Geographic
once. Wouldn't it be better to worry about Mount Saint Helens blowing up? It started smoking again a few years ago, after all. Does Ken have some reason to believe we'll be hit by a big rock from above?”

Eric's grin grew wider. “No, but he says we're overdue for one, give or take a few million years. He gets worried about it because there's nothing we could do about it now.”

Juniper blinked.
Even for Ken, that's a bit eccentric.
“Well, what could we have done about it before the Change?”

Luanne crossed herself and put her hands together in the gesture of prayer, before giggling. She was pious in her way, but not too solemn about it.

“I know every coven in the world would have been on the hilltops, spellcasting to beat the band,” Juniper said. “But apart from that…”

“Dad says they could at least have detected it,” Eric explained. “And possibly have launched, ah, nuclear-tipped missiles”—he spoke the phrase as if he was repeating it verbatim, almost from another language—“or something. With another few decades or generations of technical progress, intercepting 'em would have been easy, he says. But now that's impossible.”

Luanne giggled again. “Oh, I dunno. We could build some really big catapults on top of really tall towers. Or we could build, oh, some gigantic hot-air balloons and mount the catapults on top of them and float them up—”

“God, did Dad get furious when she sprang that one on him,” Eric chuckled. “On the one hand, I sympathize. On the other, it was sort of funny.”

And here we have a whole slew of generational gaps,
Juniper thought.
Not to mention social ones.

Eric had been eighteen when the old world ended; and a rich man's son, attending high-priced private schools, interested in the sciences when he wasn't playing football or chasing girls or drinking beer with his friends and being resentfully angry at his father in the usual testosterone-poisoned head-butting of male adolescence.

But a third of his life—everything beyond that last tag end of childhood—had been spent in the Changed world. That was where he'd become a man and a lord of men, a husband and a father, not to mention a warrior of fearsome repute. Things like rockets, asteroids and nuclear weapons were real to him, in a detached and intellectual fashion, instead of not-particularly-interesting myths the way they were to those a bit younger, but they didn't really
matter.
Not the way a horse with splints did, or an attack of brucellosis in the cattle, or getting a good clear shot at a deer with his bow, or how well a line of pikemen kept alignment while advancing over rough ground. Luanne had the same detachment, only more so; she was a bit younger, and she'd been brought up deep-country-rural on her family's Texas horse ranch or traveling around the country to deliver stock. To both of them it was natural to exist in this world, where the Willamette Valley and a few days' travel about it were all that really counted.

The thought ran through her mind in an instant; she turned and met Nigel Loring's eyes, and knew that the thought was shared.

“We adapted,” he murmured. Unspoken was:
Those who couldn't are dead.
“But never completely.”

“No, never completely,” she replied in the same undertone. “Although
déan crónán cupla barraí agus cuirfidh mé bréagriocht air…

His involuntary chuckle helped her shake the gloom off; in Erse, she'd just said
if you hum a few bars, I can fake it.
Looking into his eyes, she knew she'd lifted his mood as well, and that was a pleasure in itself.

Glancing around her Hall, she made it come real again with a mental effort. The younger Larssons had finished chuckling over their own joke.

“Well, whatever or Whoever caused the Change, I doubt they did it so we would be done in by celestial debris,” Juniper said.

“They could certainly have finished us off without doing anything so elaborate,” Nigel confirmed.

“Moving back to practicalities, what did your father say about our…guest, Luanne?” Juniper asked.

Will Hutton was at least as intelligent as Kenneth Larsson; he had much less formal education, but he made up for it with a good deal more focus.

“Pretty much the same thing as my honorable father-in-law, for once,” Luanne said. “Not to sweat it, basically. And believe me, after Reuben got killed by the Protector's men last year”—that was her foster-brother, adopted after the Change—“Dad was as angry at Arminger as anyone.”

“I don't know precisely what we can make of Matti's being here. Still, the Lord and Lady wouldn't send us an opportunity if there weren't some way to use it.”

She reached for the horn again. The wine was made by Tom Brannigan over in Sutterdown, the Clan Mackenzie's only real town, farther west in the Valley; Tom owned a vineyard, and was a brewmaster and vintner besides being mayor and High Priest of the coven there. The drink had a pleasant scent like cherries and violets, and a smooth, earthy taste just tart enough to accompany the rich savor of the grilled venison. There was an art to drinking from a horn without spilling half the contents on your face, as well.

“But,” she went on, after she'd rolled a sip around her mouth, “do consider what happens if he doesn't manage to beat us. Say that
we
beat
him
. Are we going to destroy the Portland Protective Association utterly, root and branch?”

“Nope,” Luanne said. “Signe and Mike've thought about that. Even if we beat them in the field, we could only wreck ourselves trying to dig 'em out. Too many of those damn castles; too many knights and men-at-arms. And it's just too damned
big
. Portland rules more people than there are in all the rest of the northwest outfits put together.”

From her other side Sir Nigel Loring nodded and spoke. “And while the man is a tyrant of tyrants, I saw last year that his obsession with feudalism means that you can't destroy that kingdom of his by chopping off the head. It's decentralized, and he built that into its bones. If it split up, the parts would be nearly as troublesome.”

“Yeah,” Luanne said. “Plus the way he recruited his lords. All those gangers; and the Society types who stuck with him may have been the roughnecks, but they're tough ones, not to mention the men who've worked their way up out of the ruck. Now they all have families and want to keep what they've gained for their children. Winkling every one of them out of his manor…”

“And there are limits to what we can do by encouraging the common folk to snipe at his barons,” Juniper said regretfully. “Especially now that things there have had a chance to settle down. I have hopes for that, sure, and contacts there—but the farmers can't hope to rise up against his new-made knights unless they have more help than it seems likely we can offer. We have a network of informants and sympathizers there, but I can't ask them to take up arms if all it gets them is dead, so.”

“Guns are great equalizers,” Loring agreed. “Guerilla warfare isn't impossible without firearms and explosives, but it's…much harder to pull off.”

“Not as many force multipliers, Mike says,” Eric added. “Plus it's harder and takes longer to learn to use the weapons we've got.”

“So,” Juniper said. “Let's be optimistic. Say that Norman and Sandra Arminger are sent off to the Summerlands to make accounting for what they've done and select an appropriate reincarnation.”

“I'd prefer a nice, fiery, eternal hell for 'em, Juney,” Eric said, more than a trace of grimness in his voice.

“I confess the thought is tempting but that's not my mythos. So then, hypothetically speaking, they're off to choose their reward or punishment…”

They all shot a glance at Mathilda; she was laughing, with a forkful of beets halfway to her mouth, as one of the other children told a story; Chuck and Judy's Tamsin, born three years before the Change.

“I don't think they'll wait ten years, and then take back a Princess Mathilda who's a Mackenzie in all but name to rule them,” Loring said. “The thought is tempting, my dear, but I fear it's not likely.”

“Not exactly that, no,” Juniper said. “And trying to deliberately shape her outright, that would be…futile, as well as unkind. She's a proud little thing, and no fool—I've known her for half a year, which is quite a while for a child that age. Best to just…leave her be, and treat her like any other, and wait to see what opportunity offers.”

CHAPTER TWO

Portland, Oregon
December 12th, 2007/Change Year 9

T
he presence room had been built for intimate conferences when the library was remodeled into the Lord Protector's city palace. It was small and comfortable, with a new fireplace flickering, Oriental rugs glowing on the floor, and walls lined with well-filled bookshelves and good pictures—mostly old masters, including a couple of Maxfield Parrish originals scavenged from as far away as the ruins of San Francisco, plus a fine modern carving of
Christ Crucified
done half life-size. Rain beat against the night-dark windows, but within was warmth and the light of gasoline lanterns; those were a rarity these days, but brighter than the natural oils or alcohol that were the alternative. The maids in their uniforms—a white tabard over a black t-tunic and a long, loose undertunic down to the ankles, and silver-chain collars around their necks—set out trays of small pastries with the unthinkable luxury of real coffee as well, in a Sevres pot suspended over a spirit lantern on the mahogany table.

“Leave us,” Arminger said, leaning back in the leather-upholstered chair.

They bobbed curtseys and scuttled out. The guards followed at his nod, with a stamp of boots and crash of metal.

Arminger grinned to himself as he watched the two Corvallans, a tall, horse-faced blond woman and a short, thickset brunet man, twitch their noses at the scent from the coffeepot. Master Turner was a fixer and backer of budding enterprises, a sort of neo-medieval equivalent of a venture capitalist and the closest thing Corvallis had to a banker; closer every year as trade and handicraft flourished. Mistress Kowalski had made handlooms and spinning wheels before the Change for the handicraft market and still did—in a large workshop with dozens of employees—renting the equipment out to poor families, supplying the raw materials, and taking payment in thread and cloth. In Europe in the old days they'd called it the
putting-out system;
evidently she'd reinvented it on her own initiative. The two had joint interests in flocks of sheep out on shares with farmers, and in mills for breaking flax and finishing cloth.

Both had influence in the city's Faculty Senate through their clients and debtors, and through business connections with other budding magnates. Those still called their get-together and steering committee the Faculty of Economics, but it might as well have been the Guild Merchant.

“You've met Conrad Renfrew?” Arminger said to the two visitors from the city-state. “Grand Constable of the Portland Protective Association, Count of Odell, and Marchwarden of the East, as well.”

They murmured
my lord Count
together. “Mistress Kowalski, Master Turner,” the Constable replied in a voice like gravel and sand shaken together in a bucket.

Kowalski frowned suddenly, and looked at Arminger's commander more closely: “Lord Count, didn't we meet before the Change? At a tournament…Was Renfrew your Society name?”

The Grand Constable was a thickset man built like a barrel, with a shaved head and bright blue eyes in the midst of a face hideously scarred. The two from Corvallis looked at him a little uneasily, but they didn't show much fear despite his reputation. Arminger nodded to himself; they'd be useless to him if they did. Although if they were going to be afraid of anyone in the room it ought to be
him,
with Sandra a close second.

“No it wasn't, Mistress Kowalski,” Renfrew rumbled. “Yes, I think I remember the occasion. But I've put all that behind me. The time for playing at things is past. We don't have the luxury of make-believe anymore.”

Arminger cut in; pre-Change connections in the Society could be a sore issue these days, considering how badly its survivors had split between his followers and the rest. Not to mention that if he remembered correctly that particular tournament had been the Day of the Ox, about which memory he had mixed emotions himself.

“You know Lady Sandra, of course.”

She gave each of them a nod as she sat, adjusting the skirts of her cotte-hardi and smoothing back her headdress. Both were in fabrics rich but subdued, in shades of dove gray and off-white, the jewels silver and diamond with a few opals.

“And this is Father McKinley.”

McKinley was a lean young man in his early twenties in a coarse black Dominican robe with a steel crucifix and rosary at his belt. He also had a quill pen and blank paper, and took unobtrusive notes; the priest-monk was Pope Leo's man, of course, but he and the Holy Office of the Inquisition also reported directly to the Lord Protector.

It was best to remember that Leo's Dominicans took their nickname—the
Domini Canes,
the Hounds of God—quite seriously.

Sandra poured coffee with a smile of gracious hospitality. “Sugar? Cream?” she asked.

Arminger added a small dollop of brandy to his; it was the genuine product of Eauze, the crop of 1988, and aged in black oak, recovered from a warehouse in desolate Seattle by his salvagers in '05. From what he'd learned from the Englishmen who'd arrived last spring, and the crew of the Tasmanian ship that brought them, there wouldn't be any more even if traders crossed the waters again. France was a howling wilderness, without even the tiny band of survivors that King Charles the Mad and his junta of Guards colonels had brought through in the British Isles. The English and Irish would resettle France in due course and prune the abandoned vines, but he doubted they'd ever rival the French as vintners and distillers.

“There's more coffee where that came from; it's fresh-roasted bean imported by sea, not pre-Change leftovers,” he went on.
And our own brandy's passable, and will get better as we master the knack. In the meantime…

He poured small glasses of the amber liquor. “Do have some of this as well. Genuine Armagnac, Larressingle, nearly twenty years old and quite marvelous.”

Carefully he did not sneer at the way the pair's ears pricked in trader's reflex when he mentioned the coffee. There was no more point in despising a merchant for being a merchant than a dog for being a dog.

Not that you don't kick a dog if it gets out of place,
he thought.
How did the poem go? Ah, yes, something like
:

Gold for the merchant, silver for the maid;

Copper for the craftsmen, cunning at their trade.

Good! Laughed the baron, sitting in his hall;

But iron—cold iron—shall be master of them all!

“The coffee's from Hawaii,” he amplified. “Kona Gold, and none better in all the world.”

“Hawaii survived?” Turner said in amazement. Then, hastily: “Lord Protector.”

“Not Oahu, that was toast, but the Big Island did; not too many people, a lot of farms and ranches, and they didn't get too chaotic so they made the best of what they had. And Ni'ihau.”

Or so those Tasmanians told me,
he thought.
I suspect their folk at home will be a bit peeved with me when they find out what happened to the
Pride of St. Helens;
and they and the Kiwis on South Island came through amazingly well. It's a good thing
they
haven't anything I want to trade for.

Those Antipodean islands were among the few places where there hadn't been a collapse or mass dieback in the aftermath of the Change; he supposed it was having scores of sheep per person, and
not
having any unmanageably large cities.

Taking the ship was a just payment for them bringing the Lorings and their pet gorilla to Oregon, and the trouble they caused me.

“And the Hawaiians are ready to trade sugar and coffee and citrus fruit and macadamias for…oh, any number of things. Wheat and wine, for instance. Dried fruit. And timber; they don't have much suitable for shipbuilding themselves. Smoked fish too, perhaps…but all that would be more your line of work than mine. We rulers keep things stable and safe for the traders and makers.”

Or the smart ones do,
he thought.
Some of my new-made nobility apparently can't grasp the parable of the goose that laid the golden eggs.

He had the Tasmanian ship, the
Pride of St. Helens,
safely docked at Astoria, and he was training his own crew from fishermen and surviving yachtsmen. There were still enough people who remembered coffee fondly for it to be a valuable trade. The two merchants looked at each other; Corvallis had its own outlet on the sea at Newport, and a railroad and highway link across the Coast Range that the city-state had kept up. They were probably wondering if they could find a hull big enough for a Pacific voyage themselves.

“Salvage goods?” Turner asked hopefully. “Since there weren't any large cities on the Big Island.”

“No, I don't think so. They have enough sailing craft of their own to mine the ruins of Honolulu and that had all the usual assets.” Arminger stopped to consider. “On second thought, there might possibly be a few things; medical supplies, perhaps. Definitely cloth. It's getting hard to find any pre-Change cloth in useful condition here, and it would rot faster down there in the tropics.”


That's
the sort of thing we should be exploring,” Kowalski said. “Instead of wasting our slender substance on fighting each other.”

“My sentiments exactly.” Arminger beamed.

Everyone nodded and murmured agreement. Arminger grinned like a shark behind his smoothly noncommittal face. He'd spent the previous decade snapping up every surviving community too weak to stand him off, and claiming all the intervening wilderness.

Perhaps I was a little too enthusiastic reducing the surplus population back in the first Change Year,
he thought.
More labor would be very handy now, and dead bones are useful only for glue and fertilizer. On the other hand, I needed to ride the wave of chaos.

“Did you have anything more concrete to discuss, my lord?” Turner said.

“Oh, very much so,” Arminger said. “As you know, I've been having…difficulties…with the cultists and bandits that lie between Portland and Corvallis. Why, they've even kidnapped my daughter!”

“Terrible,” Kowalski said; she even seemed sincere. “I have children of my own, and I can imagine how you feel, my lord Protector, Lady Sandra. Those people been very uncooperative with us, as well.”

Sandra smiled, very slightly, under an ironically crooked eyebrow. She'd found out the way the Mackenzies had forced the pair into something like a fair deal for mill work—water-powered machinery to full and scutch and slub wool and flax—and markets for Mackenzie produce in their territory. The Clan and the Bearkillers had also gotten together to preserve the bridges in Salem, the old state capital, which gave a route across the Willamette that wasn't controlled by Corvallis.

“Ah…my lord…you do understand that there are plenty of people in Corvallis who feel that having, ah, buffers between us is a good idea. Particularly people on the Agriculture and Engineering Faculties.”

“But of course,” Arminger said.

That translated as
the farmers
and
the craftsmen,
more or less. Oregon State University had been the core that organized survival in the little city, and its Faculty Senate still governed the place—as much as anyone did. Everyone there affiliated with the Faculty closest to their daily occupation, though the town had gone to great lengths to keep the teaching functions active as well.

“Still,” the lord of Portland went on, “I'm sure you can see that disunity—and especially the anarchy that bandit gangs like the Bearkillers and the so-called Clan Mackenzie spread—are bad for everyone. We're all Americans, after all! The Association has been the main core of survival and order on the West Coast—the only large one between Baja and Alaska. Its expansion throughout the central and southern Willamette could only benefit everyone, and then it would soon include the Bend country as well.”

He smiled slightly at their hunted expressions; that was more than they'd bargained for. And while they were influential in Corvallis, they didn't rule it. A rumor that they'd sold the city out to him would be disastrous for their reputations.

His wife took up the tale: “But of course the Association is a decentralized organization. We've incorporated a number of independent communities through agreements with their own leadership.”

Which translates as
made deals with
and
gave titles to
local warlords and strongmen, my love,
Arminger thought.

She went on: “We realize that Corvallis has developed its own system, and a very successful one too. We don't want to incorporate the city directly, or even the lands it holds beyond the city walls.”

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