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Authors: S. M. Stirling

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BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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“Ah, well, names are funny things,” he said with resignation. “Someone has an impulse and then you're stuck with them. That's why I've got a Karelian pedigree and a Bohunk moniker.”

They both chuckled at the old family joke; back in the 1890s one Arvo Myllyharju had arrived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, fresh off an Aland Island square-rigger and looking for a job in the Iron Range. The Czech pay-clerk at the mine had taken one look at the string of Finnish consonants and said:
From now on, your name is Havel!

His great-grandson remembered.
Though will it make any sense to our kids?
he wondered.
Finland might as well be Barsoom, to them, and Michigan about the same.

There was a solid
…sound as the heavy beams that secured the gates were pulled back, and a squeal of steel on steel as the great metal portals swung out, salvaged wheels from railcars running along track set into the concrete of the roadway. Winches grated as the portcullis was raised, and the dark tunnel behind suddenly showed gray light at the other end as the identical inner portals went through the same procedure, to reveal a cheering crowd lining the way. The gates were normally kept open anyway in daylight, during peacetime; this was for show. Signe and Havel reined in beside the gate, saluting as the infantry company went by, followed by the lancers. Feet and hooves boomed drumlike on the boards of the drawbridge and echoed through the passage.

Havel looked up as he followed; there were flickers of lantern light through the gratings in the murder-holes above, and a scent of hot oil bubbling in great pivot-mounted tubs.

“Always thought we could save some effort with those,” he said. “Sort of wasteful, all that cooking oil, and burning all that fuel, when all it does is sit there and simmer.”

“They've got to be kept hot,” Signe said.

“Yeah, but we could do French-fries in 'em. Maybe onion rings too…”

Dun Juniper, Willamette Valley, Oregon
December 15th, 2007/Change Year 9

There was a chorus of giggles from the sixteen-year-olds preparing their choir at the other end of the great Hall. One of them sang in a high, clear tenor:

“It's the end of the world as we know it!

“It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine!”

The rest of them took it up for a moment. Sir Nigel Loring put down his book and looked up with mild interest from his armchair beside the big fireplace on the north wall, sipping at the last of his honey-sweetened chamomile tea. It wasn't quite as vile when you got used to it, and the dried-blueberry muffins that stood on the side table were quite good. Flames played over the glowing coals, red and gold flickering in an endless dance.

I quite liked that little tune the first time around, for some reason,
he thought, relaxing in the grateful warmth and the scent of burning fir as firelight and lamplight played on the colored, carven walls.
But that changed with the Change. And these…
They were six-year-olds then. All they know is that it scandalizes their elders.

Juniper Mackenzie—since the Change the Lady Juniper, Chief of the Clan Mackenzie, which nowadays meant ruler secular and sacred through most of the southeastern Willamette—hopped up onto the dais to put her head above the youngsters. Loring smiled at the sight. There was a crackling energy to the slight figure; she was a short, slim woman just turned forty, with a little gray starting in her vivid fox red hair, pale-skinned and freckled with bright, leaf green eyes; the fine lines around them were mostly from laughter. Besides the tartan kilt and saffron-dyed shirt of homespun linsey-woolsey she wore a belted plaid pinned at the shoulder with a gilt knotwork brooch, a flat Scots bonnet with three raven feathers in the silver clasp, and a little
sgian dubh
knife tucked into one kneesock. She gave a mock-scowl as she stared at the youngsters with her hands on her hips, and they shuffled their feet and looked abashed.

Behind her loomed the Chief's chair, a thronelike affair carved from oak and maple and walnut, the pillars behind ending in stylized raven's heads for Thought and Memory, and arching to support a Triple Moon. Juniper went on to her crowd of kilted adolescents:

“Perhaps you'd rather not do a Choosing at all, then? Or is it that you don't want it to go perfectly?” That got her appalled looks and a babble of apologies. “
Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile,
remember. People live in one another's shadows. This comes only once in your life; don't spoil it for your sept-siblings or your friends. Now, we'll be starting with the opening song.”

The man in the chair beside Loring's chuckled quietly. “That got their attention, the little bastards,” Dennis Martin Mackenzie said. “At sixteen you're wild to stop being a kid, which is one thing that
changed since the Change.”

“This is practice for some rite of passage?” Loring guessed.

“Yeah, choosing a sept. We divvied up the Clan into septs when it got too big for just a bunch of us hanging out at Dun Juniper here, and it's become sort of important. You figure out what your totem animal is, and that means you're in one of the septs. Fox, Wolf, Raven, Tiger, Bear, Eagle, whatever.”

He chuckled again. “We had this guy
his totem was the Tyrannosaurus rex. Saw it in his dream-quest, he said. Took quite a while to talk him out of it.”

Nigel choked off a snort of laughter; he didn't want to be caught mocking the customs or religion of his hosts. Dennis cocked an eyebrow nonetheless, and there was a dry note to his voice:

“Yeah, I thought the whole thing was sort of loopy myself. It's not part of the Craft, strictly speaking. Andy Trethar came up with the idea; he and Diana always did like that shamanistic stuff and they were part of Juney's original Singing Moon coven before the Change. The rest of us just went along, mostly, but these days the youngsters…well, they take it real serious.”

“Far be it from me to object,” Nigel said. “Just before I left England—”

“Escaped from Mad King Charles, you mean,” Dennis said.

Loring shrugged; that was a fair enough description. “By then King Charles was doing some rather eccentric things…making Morris dancing, thatched roofs and smock frocks compulsory, for example.”

Juniper signaled to the musicians; a bodhran and a flute, a set of uilleann pipes and a fiddle. The tune began softly, a rhythmic stutter with the wild sweetness of the pipes in the background. Then the music swelled and she raised her voice in an effortless soprano that filled the Hall without straining; she'd been a professional singer before the Change, of course. One hand went up as she sang, and the teenagers followed suit, first with the fingers spread and then held together.

“What is the difference 'tween feathers and hair?

The handprint of a human or the paw of a bear?

We all roar with laughter, we all howl with tears,

Show our teeth if we're angry, and lay back our ears!”

The youngsters came in on the chorus:

“A passion within you

Whispering what you want to be

Take a look in the mirror

What animal do you wish to see?”

Then louder, as they all joined in:

“We each meet our animal…in its time and place

And gazing into those eyes…we see our own face

It'll teach us and guide us if we but call its name

For under the Lady's sky we're animals all the same—”

“Here, try this instead of that lousy tea,” Dennis went on, pouring from a pot that rested on a ledge in the hearth. “You were out in the cold and wet most of the day, and it's getting dark. And since I brew the stuff…What's that old saying about the time for the first drink?”

The sun's over the yardarm
is the phrase,” Nigel said aside to Dennis, keeping his eyes on the Mackenzie chieftain as he sipped at the hot honey-wine.

The contents were mead, dry and smooth and fragrant with herbs. He worked the muscles of his left arm, his shield-arm, as he drank. The break where the greatsword had cracked the bone of his upper arm still hurt a little; he suspected it always would on damp winter days like this. It would take work to get full strength back, but the bone had knit and it could take the strain of a heavy shield and hard blows once more. He'd spent the morning sparring and beating at a pell-post with his practice sword along with some other adults in the open space under the northern wall. During occasional rests he'd watched while the children built their two snowmen and adorned them with antlers and feathers, and constructed two snow forts and named them
before fighting a ferocious snowball battle-to-the-death.

“And…ah, yes, I remember now.”

“Remember what?” Dennis asked.

He was a big man, probably fat before the Change and burly now. Hands showed the scars and callus of a wood-carver and leatherworker; besides that, he ran the Dun Juniper brewery and distillery. His face was wreathed in brown hair and beard, except for the bald spot on the crown of his head, and he was going gray in his late fifties. That made him half a decade older than the slight, trim figure of the Englishman sitting across from him, smoothing his silver-shot mustache and blinking blue eyes that were just a trifle watery from an old injury. They'd spent a fair amount of time talking since Loring had arrived at Dun Juniper seven months before.

“Why I liked that little ditty the youngsters were singing a moment ago,” Nigel said. “About the end of the world. I was convalescing then, too. In a hospital…a rather, ah, private one…and someone kept playing that tune. It was the sort of place where you had armed guards outside the sickroom door.”

“That made you like the song?”

“Well, I didn't die, you see,” the Englishman said, with a charming smile. “And after having a Provo shoot me with an ArmaLite and blow me up to boot, that put me in rather a good mood. The tune brings back that feeling of sweet relief.”

“What happened to the Provo?” Martin asked curiously.

“Nothing good, I'm afraid, poor fellow,” Nigel replied.

His accent was English, in an old-fashioned upper-class manner shaped by Winchester College, the Blues and Royals, and the Edwardian-gentry tones of the grandmother who'd raised him. His mother had broken her neck when her horse balked at a hedge, not long after his father had vanished leading a jungle patrol against Communist guerillas in Malaya.

Just now the smooth, mellow voice had a sardonic note as well.

“You killed him, I suppose? Or what do the SAS call it, slotting?”

It wasn't a question Dennis Martin would have asked before the Change, when he was a pub manager in Corvallis and Juniper was a musician who sang Celtic and folk on gigs there, and on the RenFaire circuit and at Pagan gatherings. It seemed natural enough to Dennis Martin Mackenzie of Dun Juniper, a man who had survived the death of a world, and now lived in another where you took a bow or ax along whenever you went beyond the walls.

“Killed him? I wouldn't go that far. I simply stabbed him in the spine and kicked him out through the window. It was either the knife, the broken glass or the fifteen-foot fall headfirst onto concrete which actually
him, I should think.”

Most of the time Nigel Loring's face bore an expression of mild, polite amiability. Just then something different showed for an instant, in the closed curve of his slight smile. It reminded you that this was a good friend, but a very bad—as in “lethally dangerous”—enemy, who'd been a fighting man long before the world was broken and remade that March afternoon in 1998.

Since Dennis was a Mackenzie now, and hence a friend of the Lorings, he went on slyly: “Does Juney know you picked up Erse because it was so useful to the SAS in South Armagh?”

“Nach breá an lá é?”
Nigel replied.

“I suppose that means ‘I deny everything'?” Dennis said.

“More on the order of:
Isn't it a lovely day?

“And aren't the walls vertical,” Dennis laughed. “Unless
snowy and cold
counts as lovely in the Emerald Isle.”

Nigel chuckled. “Though in fact Ms. Mackenzie still despises the Provos with a passion, despite her Irish mother. Or because of her. It's Ireland's misfortune that the sensible people never quite manage to dispose of all the different varieties of lunatic. Even the Change hasn't changed that, I'm afraid; it must be something in the water, and it affects the English too, when they travel there. Celts do much better here—appearances sometimes to the contrary.”

BOOK: A Meeting at Corvallis
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