Capital, Central Oregon Ranchers Association
March 20th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
“This city is going to fall,” Signe Havel said bluntly.
The rancher-delegates who made up the CORA assembly roared—some in agreement, some in protest, some to hear themselves make noise, as far as she could tell. It echoed off the walls of the old pre-Change theatre; shouting faces shone desperate in the light of the gas-lamps, a thick smell of sweat and burnt methane and hot lime, wool and leather and linen. The representatives of the city itself and the smallholders who farmed the irrigated land upstream and down mostly just stared at her wide-eyed.
“Why can’t you stop them?” someone shouted.
Signe leaned forward and braced her hands on the sides of the podium, and the lames of her articulated suit of plate clattered slightly against each other, despite the backing of soft leather. Moving quietly in armor was like trying to tiptoe in a suit sewn with cowbells. She wanted them to notice it; notice the nicks and the indented lines that looked like someone had taken something sharp and pushed it against the steel very hard. Which was exactly what had happened, and she still had the bruises underneath.
“You may notice we’ve all been trying to do exactly that, your people and mine.”
She paused to let the way she looked—and for some of the closer delegates, smelled—reinforce the words.
Rationally it’s silly to wear sixty pounds of metal to talk to people, she thought. But then again, who ever said war is a rational activity? And the whole world went crazy when I was eighteen. It’s been getting worse ever since. My armor is a symbol, and Mike taught me about the value of symbols. He used them and knew he was using them, even when he believed in them himself. Because symbols hit down below the part where knowing makes any difference.
She was very tired, tired enough that her eyeballs felt as if they’d been rolled in a mixture of fine grit and cat hair before they were stuffed back in their sockets. There was probably enough red around the pupils to drown out the blue.
I’m forty-three now. I can’t go for days without sleep anymore. Willpower makes up for the tired and the hurt and the hungry but every time it takes a bit more water from the well and someday soon I’m going to run dry.
“It hasn’t been working, no matter how hard we try, because they outnumber us three to one,” she said, when the noise had died down a little.
If anyone but Mike Havel had been flying that light plane over the Bitterroots on Change Night, she and her family would have died like hundreds of thousands of others. Signe thought of them sometimes, whenever the present seemed too grim to bear; astronauts in orbit when all the city lights below went out and the ventilators died, passengers in 747’s at thirty thousand feet glancing up in a flickering moment of pain and silence, people in submarines or down at the bottom of gold-mines when the pumps stopped.
Mostly they’d been the lucky ones, at that. For them it had been fairly quick. Five billion and more had died in what followed, died slowly of thirst and hunger, of plague, or killed for what little they had or the meat on their bones.
And thanks to Mike we survived. Survived the plane crash, survived that year after the Change, survived… life. For a while. Life’s so dangerous nobody gets out of it alive, he used to say, and he’s been dead fourteen years now. I’ve got this bad feeling about what’s coming down the tracks.
She poured strength into her voice, willing desperate men to see sense: “The Prophet’s maniacs alone outnumber all the troops the countries of the Meeting… the High Kingdom of Montival—“
Freya, we’re calling the whole country something because someone barely old enough to shave suggested it in a letter. What next? How desperate for hope are we?
“—can muster. The United States of Boise outnumbers us by about the same margin. If we try to meet them here in open country, they’ll crush us. They didn’t beat us at Pendleton last year because they were better, they beat us because they were good enough and there were Loki’s own lot of them. They want big decisive battles. We can’t afford to fight on their terms, we have to make them come to us. Bleed them until they’re down to a level we can tackle.”
A man got up; elderly, leathery: Rancher Brown of Seffridge. A good man, steady. He’d been an ally of the Outfit in the wars against the Association in the decade after the Change.
“What’s wrong with Bend?” he asked; they’d agreed on the question beforehand. “They have to come at us here, and we’ve got the city wall and plenty of food.”
Signe made herself grin. “You have to ask? The wall’s good enough against a bunch of bandits or Rovers. It’s too long and too low for an army with a good battering and assault train—wheeled belfries, siege towers, trebuchets, which Boise has and will lend to the Corwinites. And the water supply can be cut off. You people should really have thought of that.”
She saw embarrassed winces. The CORA had trouble agreeing on the time of day, normally. War wasn’t normal times, but it was a bit late now for major engineering.
“I thought that… that thing that happened was supposed to stop places falling to the Cutters,” Brown said.
People made the signs of their various religion, or muttered prayers… or curses, or both. Signe kept calmness, but only just. That flash of pain and the ringing voice in the middle of Juniper Mackenzie’s ceremony: Artos holds the Sword of the Lady, she remembered that tolling voice speaking within her. The Sun Lord comes, the son of Bear and Raven! The High King comes, as foretold! Guardian of My sacred Wood, and Law! His people’s strength, and the Lady’s sword!
She cleared her throat, swallowed, and went on: “That means their spooks can’t hoodoo men into opening gates any more,” she said.
And added to herself: We think. Aloud: “It does absolutely nothing to keep them from coming over the walls on ladders. When—“ She nearly said if and then went on: “When Artos gets back, things will be different. Until then we’re on our own.”
Another roar, and a general shout of what good are you, then?
She slammed a gauntleted fist down on the podium. “We Bearkillers stand by our promises, and by our friends!” she shouted.
That had the double advantage of being true, and being known to be true. Over the years the Outfit had shed a lot of blood, their own and other people’s, making sure everyone knew it. Everyone, including the people expended, had thought it was worth it. Quiet fell, slowly and incompletely.
“Bend will fall, and with it everything this side of the Cascades, before we can hope to get help. Before Rudi… Artos gets here. Your home-places aren’t fortified, not really, not the way the PPA’s castles are up north. But if we hold Bend long enough, you can get your families and your livestock through the passes, which have forts we arestrong enough to hold. Hold for a long time, long enough for the snow to close them, while you hit and run and pull back into the space you’ve got so much of out here. We—and the Clan Mackenzie and the Corvallans and everyone else in the west—guarantee you lodging for your people and grazing for your stock during the rest of the war, and all the help we can give after it, to rebuild. We’ll take your families in. Nobody starves as long as anyone has food.”
That set off another explosion; she waited it out, while the sensible ones argued the hotheads into line. It took less time than she might have expected; but then, they wereranchers, not farmers. Losing buildings and the crops some grew would be painful, but their real wealth was their flocks and herds.
With those and their people safe, they’d be willing to scorch their land as well as fight across it. Turn it into a wasteland where the enemy would starve while the battered at the Cascade passes and they harassed his outposts and supply columns.
I hope. I never liked you, Rudi. I kept seeing Mike with Juniper when I see you. When I think about you. But we need you, and badly.
When the meeting ended and Signe was back in her rooms, she sank into a chair and stared at the ceiling, watching the lamplight flicker on the stained plaster and smelling hastily cleaned-up mustiness, as if this suite had been boarded up right after the Change and only opened when Bend started getting crowded with people pushed ahead of the Prophet’s armies.
She was too limply exhausted to even think about removing her armor, much less hunting up food and drink. She felt too tired even to sleep; the sort of bun-fight she’d just been through took more out of you than work or even fighting, and her mind stayed hopping-active even when her eyes closed. She started slightly at the feel of someone working on the buckles and catches.
Her only son shook a finger at her when she looked, Mike Havel Jr. in all the tireless glory of seventeen years. He looked like Mike too, more and more every year. Taller already, just a sliver under six feet, though his hair was yellow-blond to his father’s raven-black.
Which makes him look more like Rudi too, even if there’s no red in it.
Otherwise the same hard-cut masculine good looks emerging from under the last of childhood’s padding, high cheekbones, straight nose, square cleft chin, long-lashed light eyes that had already cut a swath through the more susceptible females of his generation.
“Mom, you need to get some sleep. You need to eat first. And no disrespect… but you need a bath, real bad, too.”
All Gods witness, I still miss you, Mike, she thought, then smiled at him.
“Glad to see someone’s attending to business, Brother Havel,” she said.
He’d earned that title, and the small white scar of the Bearkiller A-list between his brows, young as he was. Earned it on a battlefield, while still a military apprentice.
He knew it too, from the moment’s flash of reckless fighting-man’s grin; it sat a little oddly on a face that was still nearly a boy’s. That she still saw as a boy’s, unless she made herself look at him as a stranger might.
“Someone has to do it, Sister Havel… Mom.”
She groaned a little with relief as the last of the war-harness was removed, and a junior took it away clanking in a canvas sack to be cleaned and have the dints hammered out. Mike Jr. went to the door and returned with a tray.
“Eat, ma’am,” he said again.
He placed it in front of her; a slab of rare prime rib, some fried potatoes, pickled vegetables and a half-loaf of bread and butter on the side, with a wedge of dried-apple pie and cheese to follow. Winter food, but good.
Mike stood at parade rest with his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed on the far wall.
“You’re in the field,” he said. “You don’t know when you’ll get another chance at a hot meal. Never pass that up.”
“At ease,” she replied.
The smells tickled at her nostrils, and she took up a fork and dipped a chunk of potato in the spicy Bend-style ketchup and pointed with it before she put it in her mouth.
He relaxed then—Bearkiller discipline bit deep—and sat in the chair across from her. The suite was comfortable by modern standards, which meant there was a blaze going in the fireplace and you only needed a sweater despite the chill early-spring night of the high desert.
“So…” he said; the order had put him back in pupil mode, which meant he could ask questions. “What the hell are we going to do now?”
“Fight,” Signe said succinctly.
The first bite had made her ravenous; there had been nothing but field rations for the past week, and not always that. She ate with slow care anyway. He was right; this might be the last chance for a good long while. It was something Mike had always said too. He’d probably gotten it from her, though. He hadn’t been old enough to remember his father, not really. For him the first Bear Lord was something put together out of stories, and out of the shape his life had left in the world he helped to make.
“Mom, you were right out there. If we go at them straight-up, well, they’ll know they’ve been in a fight, but then it’s pork chops at Odin’s All Night Diner for us until Ragnarok.”
“We have to fight. A delaying action at least. Evacuating this bunch of range-country anarchists is going to be a nightmare, especially considering how late they’ve left it. We have to cover them… us and the rest. I hope the PPA can send some help but that’s iffy. Boise is pressing them hard, even with the castles.”
“Time,” Mike Jr. said soberly. “We have to play for time. Until Rudi gets here.”
Her mouth twisted slightly. If he hadn’t been so self-controlled, Mike Jr. would have sighed in exasperation. She caught it anyway, of course.
I am his mother, after all!
And she had that odd floating feeling you had when you were very tired, or some types of very drunk; as if you were perfectly lucid, but some part of your brain was missing. The part that decided what to say and what to leave out.
“Don’t worry,” she said dryly, tearing a chunk off the bread and buttering it. “I’m not going to let it get in the way of business.”
“I didn’t think you would, ma’am.”
Signe swallowed and chuckled. “The hell you didn’t. You’re growing up now—you’re old enough to be told things—but you’re not forty yet. I don’t know if emotions get weaker as you get older, or you just get better at controlling them. That’s supposed to be part of growing up.”
His expression was perfectly calm, but it radiated: I am grown up!
No, you’re not, she thought. You’re getting there, you’ve fought and seen blood shed and you’re not a virgin any more either, but there’s a lot more to it. I want you to live long enough to be an adult. I want to see your children. And there’s not a damned thing I can do about it except to try to win this war, or at least not lose it.
Aloud: “But one way or another I’ve got it covered. Hey, Brother Havel—what matters most, what you’re feeling, or getting the job done?”
He snorted; there was only one answer to that, for a Bearkiller of the A-list. For a Havel. A hesitation, then: “You know, Mom, I like Rudi… Artos, I suppose, now… fine. Always did.”
Signe nodded, mopped the plate and began on the pie. “You’re his brother… half-brother. He’s blood-kin to you.”
“And a hell of a man.” Another hesitation. “I, well, I always thought he had something of Dad in him.”
“Yes, he is, and yes, he does. Even as a kid, you could see what he was going to grow into; Mike was proud of him, though he didn’t say much about it. But to me he was also always a reminder of your father straying. And don’t let either ‘get over it’ or ‘that was before you two were married’ go through your mind. You’re going to find that you don’t get over things that easily; feelings become a habit, after a while, and they’re hard to kick. Even when you’re tired of them. And the other part… all that shows is that you’re a man. Or male, at least. Which I suppose is for the best.”
He managed to suppress the infuriatingly smug smile until she gave a weary grin.
“Artos is… well, if we have to rely on somebody, he’s the one I’d pick, ma’am. Plus that Sword thing. Whatever.”
Signe nodded. That was business, and the appraisal was accurate, of the man and of the situation. She’d manage to smile and cheer at the coronation of Artos the First, if they won. Life hurt, and then it hurt some more, and then you died. What mattered was that you did what you had to do without sniveling about it.
And if we don’t win, we’ll be too dead to care.
“Bath,” she said. “Sleep. Work tomorrow.”