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Authors: S. M. Stirling

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BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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“This field's pretty level; if you can't advance over it without breaking front, what's going to happen on a battlefield, maybe with grapevines or fences, and people shooting at you? Or if you have to do something more complicated than pushing straight ahead? You let a pike wall get ragged, and the Protector's knights will be all over you like flies on cowshit. One-on-one, they'll slaughter you. Keep drilling until the formation's always tight, and you slaughter
them
. It's as simple as that. Understood?”

“Yes, Lord Bear!”

“I can't hear you.”

“Yes, Lord Bear!”

“All right, that's enough for today. Fall in, and we'll see if the barbeque's ready.”

That brought more cheers, and more cheerful ones; the padding around the blades of weapons was stripped off and tossed into a light cart, and everyone wiped their faces, scraped off the worst of the mud and straightened their gear. The apprentice brought him his horse, Gustav; he swung into the saddle easily enough, despite the weight of hauberk and weapons. The infantry company formed up on the roadway that led westward from this stretch of pasture; an officer gave a shouted
pikepoints…up!
and
fall in!
and the long shafts rose, like an ordered bare forest. The footmen went first, as the victors of the contest, swinging off with a good marching step; the A-listers followed along, looking fairly glum at first.

Except for Astrid, and the young man riding by her side. Alleyne Loring wore different gear, a complete set of jointed steel plate topped by a visored sallet helm, what Havel had thought of as King Arthur armor when he was a kid, the type beloved of Victorian illustrators. The Pre-Raphaelite look was emphasized by the fog that clung to hollows and treetops round about, making a fantasy of the rolling fields and woodlots. The armor was actually late-medieval in inspiration, fifteenth-century or so, but manufactured post-Change out of high-strength alloy steel stock by jury-rigged hydraulic presses in southern England.

Havel grinned like a happy wolf. Alleyne was also young, only a few years older than Astrid, and six feet tall, blondly handsome, dashing, charming, from a far-off foreign place and in the process of saying—

“Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar, vanimálion noastari…”

“Onen i-Estel Edain—”
Astrid replied in the same liquidly pretty tongue, which sounded Celtic but wasn't; Havel understood not a word of it.

My languages being limited to English, a bit of Ojibwa, rudimentary Finnish and some Arabic cusswords I picked up in the Gulf,
he thought.
None of the Tongues of Middle-earth included in the package.

“You're looking like the coyote that met the rabbit coming 'round the rock,” Signe said.

“Thanks to those Tasmanians—poor bastards—and their world survey voyage I think we may finally have gotten your little sister hooked up,” Havel said. “And out of our hair.”

“Hey!” She punched him on the shoulder. Since he was wearing a hauberk with padded gambeson beneath, that was mostly symbolic, but her voice was only a little defensive as she went on: “Astrid's been…useful.”

“And a lot less trouble since she started up that Ranger outfit out in the woods. But she's still trying to trick us all out in costumes from those books she likes. She makes Norman Arminger sound as everyday as a dental hygienist.”

“Granted she's a flapping wingnut, but a handy wingnut to have around. A lot of stuff we've done wouldn't have been nearly as popular if we hadn't had her to slap some cool, antique name on it and give it some style. It kept those Society types we recruited happy too, they love fancy titles and playing dress-up. Useful…and if they're here being useful to us they're not up north being useful to Lord Protector Arminger, who was one of their own after all. Besides, this lords-and-ladies stuff…once it stops sounding so silly it sort of grows on you.”

“And fungus grows on your toenails if you aren't careful. Yeah, she's useful, and also a goddamned pain in the ass. For a while I thought she'd probably settle down with Eilir, who's sensible, sort of—”

His wife shot him a look; the sisters had quarreled all their lives, but he liked the way they closed ranks. “Astrid isn't gay.”

“Nothing so convenient or conventional. She's an elf instead,” he said dryly.

Signe grinned. “I think she's settled on being a, what's the word,
Numenorean
instead of an elf.”

“I thought it was
Dunadan
…or is it
Dúnedain
? I forget which.”


Dúnedain
is the plural….” She smiled wickedly as he mimed clutching at his head. “
Dunadan
is the word for
Numenorean
…in another language.”


Another
invented language? Christ Jesus, didn't the man have anything else to do with his time? Trimming the shrubbery, visiting the pub? How many of them
are
there?”

“Let's see…the Common Speech, the Black Speech, the tongue of the Rohirrim, Halfling dialects, Quenya elvish, Sindarin elvish…”

“Stop! Stop! Anyway, why…whatever…instead of an elf? Hell, I've got to admit, she
looks
like one.”

“But elves don't get cooties on campaign, or smell. Or have monthly cramps, which she does, bad. Anyway, Eilir's just her best friend.”

“Alleyne there will do even better, nothing like kids to calm you down. Someone who shares her interests—”

“Is nutbar about the same stuff?” Signe clarified helpfully.

“Nah, he just likes the books; he's not goofy over living it all out. He's a pretty regular guy, once you get past that Jeeves-old-chap-fetch-me-a-biscuit accent. But liking the books'll help him keep her from doing a swan dive into the deep end. Christ Jesus knows nobody else ever had much luck at that! Foreign prince—well, son of a baronet—exotic, great warrior. It's a natural! And I get a first-rate fighting man on my side, too; he can king it off in the woods with her in between wars. Win-win situation.”

“You haven't said anything about it to her.”

“Christ, no! That'd be the best way to spoil things.”

“Well, maybe you're learning after all,” Signe said, and touched an ear when he started to reply.

They were leaning together and speaking quietly, and the rumbling clatter of hooves, the crash of boots and the
thrrrrip-thrrrrip-thrrrrip
of the marching drum covered it. Still, she was right. Another time would be better for chewing over family matters.

Not that there's much difference between family stuff and politics anymore,
he thought.
Or between either and the military side of things.

“Aaron wants to visit Corvallis and see if he can get more medical supplies,” Signe went on.

“Aaron just wants to find a cute young thing,” Havel answered. Aaron Rothman was chief physician of Larsdalen; he was very competent, but had his quirks. “He's been itching for some social life since his last boyfriend left him.”

“That's because you're the unrequited love of his life, darling. You
did
save him from the cannibals.”

Havel laughed. “Saved all of him but his left foot,” he said, which was literally true; that band of Eaters had gone in for slow-motion butchery to keep the meat from spoiling.

The road curved westward towards the distant Coast Range, dark green slopes whose tops were covered in gray mist that merged into the low clouds. The broad, shallow valley on either side was a patchwork of dormant bare-fingered orchards, peach and apple and cherry, with fleecy white sheep grazing beneath the trees, grainfields showing wet red-brown dirt between the blue-green shoots of the winter wheat, and pasture dotted with Garry oaks and grazing cattle. Workers and herdsmen waved at the troops as they passed, but this close to Larsdalen there weren't any of the usual walled hamlets or fortified A-Lister steadings that dotted the other settled parts of the Outfit's lands; the folk who tilled these lands dwelt inside the Bearkiller citadel. Horsemen and plodding wagons and bicyclists swerved to the side of the road to let the troops pass, and gave cheerful greetings to their friends and relatives as they did.

He took a deep, satisfied breath; he was fairly happy with the way the exercise had gone, and happier still with the way the half-dormant farmlands promised good crops next year. And the way that his folk all looked well fed and warmly clad in new homespun, drab wadmal, or wool and linen and linsey-woolsey colored in yellows and browns, greens and blues, by the dyes they'd learned to make from bark and herbs and leaves. The air was heavy with the musty smell of damp earth and vegetable decay; this season in the Willamette Valley was more like a prolonged autumn with an occasional cold snap than the brutal Siberian winters of the Lake Superior country where he'd been raised. He'd always liked autumn best of the four seasons, although he missed the dry, cold, white snow-months that followed. Sometimes he'd gone on week-long trips then, cutting school and setting off through the birch woods on skis, with a bedroll and rifle on his back…

The valley narrowed as it rose towards the crest of the Eola Hills, where they broke in a steep slope towards the lowlands around the little town of Rickreall. Orchards gave way to vineyards spindly and bare, with a few red-gold leaves still clinging, and more littering the ground. The vines had been there before the Change, when this area was the Larsson family's country estate; great-grandpa Larsson had bought it back a century ago, when he made his pile out of wheat and timber. The big pillared brick house beyond would have been visible then…

Now the narrowing V was blocked by a steep-sided earth-work bank covered in turf, with a moat at its base full of sharpened angle iron. They'd started on that late in the first Change Year, right after the core of the Bearkillers arrived on their long trek from Idaho; he'd been flying the Larssons to their ranch in Idaho on that memorable March seventeenth, and ended up crash-landing in a half-frozen mountain creek in the Selway-Bitterroot National Wilderness. Which had been a stroke of luck, nerve-wracking though it had been at the time to have the engine cut out over those granite steeps.

“What's that saying Juney uses?” Havel asked. With a grin: “Pardon me, Lady Juniper, herself herself.”

“Something pretentiously Gaelic which boils down to saying a man's home is his castle,” Signe said, a very slight waspish note in her voice.

“Yeah, but it's true in English too,” Havel pointed out, looking pridefully ahead. “We've got a hell of a lot done in a decade, considering we can't use powered machinery.”

A wall topped the mound, thirty feet high and built like a hydro dam; rocks the size of a man's head and bigger in a concrete matrix, around a hidden framework of welded steel I-beams salvaged from construction sites in Salem, the old state capital thirty miles northeastward. Round towers half as high again studded it at hundred-yard intervals as it curved away on either side to encompass the whole of the little plateau that held Larsdalen.

Gotta get the inner keep finished before spring,
he reminded himself. Work on fortifications was another thing that they did in wintertime…
Although there's always fifteen different things we should be doing with every spare moment.
Everything done meant something else nearly as urgent sidelined; one thing that seemed universally true in the Changed world was that all work took a lot longer or cost more or both.

The gate where road met wall was four towers grouped together on the corners of a blockhouse, with his flag flying high above each. The drawbridge was down, but the outer gates were closed. They were steel as well, a solid mass of welded beams faced on either side with quarter-inch plate and probably impossible to duplicate now that the hoarded oxyacetylene tanks were empty. The surface was dark brown paint, but this year for swank they'd added a great snarling bear's head in ruddy copper covered in clear varnish, face-on to the roadway with half on either leaf. The Mackenzies had something similar on the gates of Dun Juniper, though they used the Triple Moon and the head of the Horned Man.

Trumpets blared from above. Astrid brought her Arab forward on dancing hooves, throwing up one hand in greeting.

“Who comes to Larsdalen gate?” the officer of the guard called down formally.

“The Bear Lord returns to the citadel of the Bearkillers! Open!”

“Open for Lord Bear!”

“Oh, Christ Jesus, how did we let her get away with this bad-movie crap?” Havel said—but under his breath. “And now everyone's used to it and they'd be upset if we insisted on a plain countersign.”

“She's the only theatrical impresario in the family,” Signe said, also sotto voce. “Every time we did something new, she was there to tell us how to manage the PR. Don't sweat it. After all, she's not home much anymore.”

BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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