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Herzer stopped and shook his head at the sight before him. The area had apparently sustained a forest fire sometime in the recent past. No more than a year to a year and a half ago from the looks of the few visible trees. And the area that had burned was now covered, for several acres at least and stretching across the trail, in thick vines that were just starting to come out of winter hibernation. The overall color was brown but it was shot through with green leaves. And it choked the path from side to side.

"What the hell is that?" Herzer muttered as Rachel stepped past his bulk.

"Kudzi!" she shouted, running forward. She darted to one of the greening areas and rummaged into the vines. "Yes! And it's already fruiting!" she shouted, pulling out a small, bluish ovoid and thrusting it in her mouth.

Herzer walked into the patch and found another then, after a moment's hesitation, took a tentative bite. Then he stuffed the whole thing in his mouth and searched for another. The fruit was an absolute taste explosion, something between a grape and a strawberry. It was blue, so he knew it had to be genegineered and he thanked whatever soul had in some distant past time created it. As he pulled out a handful of the fruit he thought better of stuffing them in his mouth and carried them over to Daneh instead.

"Here, you need this more than I do," he said. A large, mature chestnut tree had fallen either just before or during the forest fire and its root bole held the trunk up off the ground. The combination had created a perfect little one-person shelter. Herzer steered the doctor under the tree and found a dry bit of bark for her to sit on. They had been traveling for nearly a day after the incident at the bridge and the doctor was looking more and more wan. He was afraid that something internal might have been damaged, but if so he couldn't imagine what to do for her. The fruit would at least provide some sugars and liquid.

"Thank you, Herzer," Daneh said tonelessly, taking a bite out of the fruit and settling in the shelter.

"Are you going to be okay?" he asked.

"I'll be fine," she snapped then shook her head. Really, I'm fine, Herzer. How are you? Any shakes?"

"Just from hunger," he joked. "And these are helping. What is this stuff?"

"It was derived from a noxious weed called kudzu," Daneh said, taking another bite. "It used to be spread all over eastern Norau; it grew wherever there was a disturbance in the ecosystem, which in those days was everywhere. Sometime in the late twenty-first century a researcher released a controlled retrovirus that modified it to kudzi. The fruit was a gene cross of kiwi fruit and plum; kiwi meat and plum skin. Anyway, that's where it comes from. And just like kudzu, it grows up anywhere there has been a disturbance like a fire or tree-clearing; it's a right pain in farming."

"Well, I was thinking," Herzer said. "With all this food here we might think about stopping. I'm pretty sure they're well behind us."

"No, we need to keep going," Daneh said, lifting her chin with a "t'cht." "We need to make it up to the road."

"Okay, if you insist. But we're going to stop and get some of this fruit. It will give us enough food to make it the rest of the way."

"All right." She nodded, taking another bite and wiping the juice off her chin. The fruit seemed to bring some color back into her cheeks and she smiled for the first time in what seemed like ages. "You go pick fruit. If you don't mind I'll just sit here and let you young folk do all the work."

"Ummm, this is good," Rachel said as he walked up. She had a bunch of the fruits in a makeshift cradle of her shirt and was biting into another. "Thanks for taking some to Mom."

"She's looking better for it, but she insists on keeping going," Herzer said.

"We need to find some meat," Rachel said stubbornly. "This is fine for us, it will keep us going at least, but Azure has to have some meat."

"He looks thin, but . . ." Herzer said, looking over at the cat, which was rummaging in the vines as well.

"Cats are obligate carnivores," Rachel replied. "That means they have to eat, every day. And they have to have protein, every day. If they don't, they get sick. Something about fat buildups on their liver. It can kill them."

"Well, I'm sorry, Rachel, but I don't see any rabbits coming up to be killed."

"Kudzi fruits before anything else," Rachel said. "And they stay in fruit as long as the vines are green. That means that there's going to be something coming up to eat it besides us. We probably scared some things away when we came up. Possums, raccoons, deer, something. If we just stay here a while and let Azure hunt . . ."

"Tell it to your mother," Herzer replied. He had taken off Daneh's rucksack and was filling it with the fruit, hoping that it wouldn't release too much juice and ruin the inside of the bag.

"I will," she said determinedly, and stalked over to where her mother was resting under the tree.

Herzer observed the exchange from afar but could more or less tell how it was going. First Rachel handed Daneh some of the fruit. Then she gestured around at the large field. Next she pointed out the cat, which was poking in every possible hole in the vines looking for something edible to a feline. The argument clearly weighed on Daneh but she shook her head and said her piece. The Rachel said hers with more force. Then Daneh's face set and she gestured to the south, forcefully. Then Rachel's voice could be heard from halfway across the open area. Then she stormed off.

"I have never known a more pig-headed, stupid . . ." she muttered as she passed Herzer.

As she passed, Herzer heard a scurrying in the vines and a field rat ran right in front of him. He had been carrying his staff with the knapsack in his left hand and he quickly dropped the bag, switched hands and then lashed out with the staff. The first blow missed but it turned the rat and the second blow hit.

He called to the cat and tossed the rat towards him as he thought about the implications.

"Rachel, is there some way you can get Azure to sort of . . . station himself on one side of the vines?"

"I . . . don't know, why?" she asked, taking a bite out of a fresh fruit. They had been starving, but the fruit had taken the edge off and now it was already starting to pall.

"If he did we could walk along and sort of push stuff that is in the vines towards him. Things are running in front of us all the time; we'd just sort of have it run in front of us towards him."

With a little persuasion on Herzer's part it was done. Daneh continued to sit it out while the two younger members of the group walked back and forth across the vines. Azure quickly became aware of the nature of the game and waited patiently at the edge of the open area as the game was driven to him. In less than an hour he had bagged several field rats and a small rabbit. For Herzer's part, that was an hour that Daneh wasn't driving herself to keep going. She had simply sat out of the rain and eaten kudzi fruit until she was near to bursting. All in all it had been a very successful exercise in tact and diplomacy.

* * *

"And what is that you're eating?" Chansa asked, appearing out of the air.

As usual Celine was in her workroom, which was filled with a cacophony of whining, bleating and croaking calls. He glanced at one of the cages along the wall and shuddered at the strange octopus-looking creature in the water-filled interior. The door had a sturdy lock but the creature was pushing at every opening with every appearance of intelligence. It saw him looking at it and came to the front, its skin going through a variety of color changes.

"Jelly babies," Celine replied, lifting one of the squirming creatures that very much resembled small human children and popping it in her mouth. "Try one?"

Chansa shook his head and turned from the octopus to look at the writhing mass of faintly whining creatures. They were colored various shades and squirmed most unpleasantly.

"Avatars do not eat, Celine," he reminded her.

"Yeah, that's why I don't use avatars," Celine responded, popping a couple more in her mouth. "Uhmm, lemon."

"Celine, we need to talk," Chansa said, making a moue.

"Hmmmr?" she rumbled, her mouth full.

"Have you noticed Paul getting . . . strange?"

"You mean bug-house nuts?" she asked. "Yeah."

"I'm not sure he's quite what we need in the way of leadership," Chansa said, carefully.

"See yourself in that position?" she asked, standing up and going over to one of the cages along the wall.

"No . . ." he answered carefully, watching as she extracted another one of her little monsters. This one looked like a fairly normal hamster for a change. He wondered what it was food for. "I was actually wondering if you would consider the position. You have seniority on the Council after Paul."

"Hah! No thank you. I like it right where I'm at." She lifted the hamster and cooed at it, bringing it up to a cage that held a weird creature the size of Chansa's massive hand. The beast might have been a spider or a scorpion; it had features of both. The scorpion's stinger and pincers coupled were fronted by a spider's mandibles, and the body, overall, had a very spiderish look to it with long, black legs that ended in sharp points. Celine waved aside the force screen at the top of the cage and dropped the hamster in, waving the field closed as she did.

The spider/scorpion had turned and reared up as the hamster was dropped in and it pounced immediately towards the prey. But as it did the hamster made a flip in midair and, using one paw, bounced off of a branch in the cage. Before the monstrosity in the cage could shift its ground, the hamster was on its back, drawing back its lips to reveal long, fanglike teeth. The fangs punctured the carapace of the spider/scorpion and as the hamster locked its claws into the back of the beast its body visibly shuddered as it sucked out the juices from the interior. The scorpion tail had been jabbing into the little monster repeatedly but it seemed utterly unaffected by the poison.

"No, Chansa, I do not choose to oppose Paul," she said. "The first reason is that a touch of madness is quite amusing. The second is that you never know how dangerous a simple-looking thing can be."

* * *

As they came down the slope of the Ridge, Rachel paused and looked around.

"Is this Raven's Mill?" she asked, incredulously.

"That it is," Tom replied. He had caught up to them just south of the Via Appalia. Too late to help rescue Daneh, for which he had been almost embarrassingly apologetic, and clearly unsure about Herzer's place in things. He had accepted Daneh's toneless statement that Herzer had also arrived too late to prevent it, but he didn't pretend that he liked it. He had wanted to ride back down the trail after the band but Daneh convinced him that it was not worth the danger.

Now he was leading the horse that held Daneh and he, too, stopped to look at the scene of activity. "But it's changed even since I left."

Rachel had been to the Raven's Mill Renn Faire on numerous occasions. The bowl of the valley was broken up into, effectively, four different quadrants. The southeast quadrant was "Edmund's." It was there, on the east side of Raven's Creek, that he had his house and a small open area, "cleared fields of fire" was how he put it, around it. Myron also had two or three fields in that sector that he used in rotation.

The "southwest" sector was mostly Myron's, a large area of cleared fields, some fenced, with a large orchard and vineyard on the hills to the southwest. Up in the hills to the south, behind the two original "owners" of the area, was the mill that had given the town its name. It drew its power from Raven's Creek and there was a millpond, and dam, up in the hills.

The "northwest" sector was the main area of the Faire. It was a large, mostly cleared area that snuggled up against the northeast hills. On the top of the hills were a few permanent buildings devoted to the Faire. The "northeast" sector, across the creek from the Faire, had been wooded, as had all the hills. Many people preferred to pitch their tents over on that side of the valley during Faire, to get away from some of the crowding and the noise in the main Faire area.

Near the center of all four "zones" was the town of Raven's Mill, which had consisted of about five large home/workshops, the tavern and some outbuildings.

Now it had all, seemingly, changed. The Faire area was being slowly covered in rough wooden buildings, mostly made from half-formed logs. There were gangs of workmen assembling two buildings even as they paused. The northeast quadrant was, apparently, supplying much of the material, for there were gangs on that side of the stream stripping it of trees, grubbing up the roots and otherwise clearing the land. There were even some buildings going in over there. The town itself showed signs of building as well, with at least two new buildings under construction. All in all, it seemed entirely transformed.

Then Rachel noticed that some of it hadn't changed. There was, still, the large cleared area around Edmund's house and Myron's fields hadn't been touched. She was glad that something, at least, hadn't changed. Then she noticed that up by the mill there were new buildings. So it wasn't some protective spell that stopped the changes at a line through the town.

"What are those?" she asked, pointing at the distant buildings.

"I see they got the sawmill working," Tom replied. "Fast work."

"Do you think we could actually head down there?" Daneh said, tiredly.

"Of course, m'lady," Tom replied, looking over his shoulder at Herzer. "I'm going to take the ladies up to the house. There's going to be a reception area down there. You should go there."

"Okay," Herzer replied. "I . . . I guess I'll see you all later."

"Even with this many people it will be hard to miss you, Herzer," Daneh replied. "Take care."

"And you, ma'am," the boy said, waving a hand as he walked down the road.

"I wonder where Edmund is?" Daneh said, looking around the scene of industry.

"He didn't come looking for us, why should we come looking for him?" Rachel said nastily.

Daneh didn't even bother to reply. Since the incident with McCanoc, Rachel had been getting more and more bitter about her father's "failure."

"He'll either be down at the town hall or up at the house," Tom said uncomfortably.

"Let's go to the house," Daneh said. "All I want to do is take a bath and go to bed."

* * *

Edmund was hosting still another meeting at his home when he looked out the window and saw the small cavalcade proceeding up the hill.

The endless meetings all came down to lacks; lack of materials, lack of farmers and lack of skilled labor. The shipment of metal from Angus had melted rapidly in the face of various needs, from fittings for wagons to the parts for the new sawmill. And even as fast as it was dwindling there wasn't enough metal for all the needs or enough smiths to shape it all.

And they hadn't even started on weapons or armor.

He knew what was really needed, but so did everyone else on the town council and in some cases what they "knew" was different from what he knew. And in some of those cases it wasn't really a matter of right and wrong. Take the new farm program. There were a few protofarmers whom Myron considered marginally qualified to start a farm. And that acceptance had been grudging. So they were, under regulations so new the ink hadn't dried, eligible for loans to set themselves up farming. None of them had anything to trade so it all had to be loaned.

There were things, besides land and seed, that every farmer needs. Arguably, the only other things that he needs are an axe and a hoe. But having a draft animal and a plow made for much more efficient farming. So did rope. And being able to fix some of his own equipment was helpful, so arguably he should have some blacksmith tools. Then there was how to get the produce to town, so maybe he should have a wagon.

But that was definitely getting into the category of "too much" to loan to a complete unknown. Based upon historical precedent it was expected that at least sixty percent of the "pioneer" farmers would fail. Given the problems that they were up against, that percentage was probably optimistic. Based on more similar precedents they could look at eighty to ninety percent. So that meant that between six and nine in ten of the farmers would be unable to recoup whatever they were loaned. Now, if they were loaned more, more seed, more tools, more draft animals, they were likely to be more successful. But that meant fewer seeds, tools and animals to loan to others. Who got what and how much was at the basis of the arguments.

The argument wasn't going to be resolved today or tomorrow or maybe in a month. Maybe not until harvest time or next year. But it had been raging almost nonstop for a week. All of the council meetings had been fixated on farm policy and so had the last town meeting. And that was another sore point with Edmund.

After the first meeting in the tavern, people had taken it as expected that he'd turn up at every such meeting. For the first week there had been one every other day until he pointed out that he had other things to be doing. At which point the term "dictator" had first been raised, initially by a few of the more loudmouthed of the new arrivals but later in mutterings even among some of the long-term residents of Raven's Mill.

It had started with his "high-handed" decision to put Bethan Raeburn in charge of the treasury. She had taken up the handling of the commissary from the beginning and as food chits had quickly turned into currency, it had only made sense for her to continue applying her practical knowledge and increasing experience in handling them. Oh, but that did not sit well with some of the new arrivals. Brad Deshurt had been a researcher in preinformation technology economies and had made plain, with a large number of polysyllabic words, that the basis of Raeburn's plans were inflationary and would otherwise cause the world to end. As if it hadn't already. Deshurt was just about the only person Edmund had ever met who was frankly obese and he remained "fleshy" even after walking all the way from the region of Washan. Edmund was rather sure that the basis of Deshurt's animus was that Bethan refused to let people have seconds.

Nonetheless, under fire and holding their positions with difficulty, Bethan hung on to the treasury and, remarkably, the sky had yet to fall. What was worse, Deshurt had somehow argued his way into a position of "expert on everything" and it had turned out to be impossible to shake him. Edmund was pretty sure that he was going to run in the next council election and since the world seemed to hate him, the loudmouth was probably going to win.

However, above and beyond Edmund's decisions with regards to the treasury and who should run it, his cut-the-Gordian-knot approach to farm policy was considered even more evil. Edmund knew that he had, at most, a vague layman's knowledge of period farming. To him the difference between, say, Republican Roman farming conditions and those of the Middle Ages existed only as a backdrop to the social, political and military climate of each age.

But in each of those periods the farming techniques influenced the military at least as much as the reverse. So he was well aware of what sort of farming he wanted to occur and what sort he didn't. Fortunately he and Myron were in agreement, for similar reasons, and while Edmund knew next to nothing about farming, if there was anyone with more knowledge than Myron among the refugees, Edmund had yet to find them. So he put Myron in charge of making the decisions.

O! Woe was he! The screams had started almost immediately and they revealed a bitter undercurrent he'd only started to sense. Myron was very much the villain of the piece already. It was through his "stinginess" that food rations were so small. Edmund had never heard the term "bloated plutocrat" outside of an old novel until some yammerhead had stood up at the last meeting and shouted it at Myron.

Myron had no idea how to handle the pressure. He was, in his own mind, just a simple farmer. His previous experience with "public life" had been to give tours of his farm during Faire. Suddenly being at the center of a raging controversy was not his cup of tea. He'd tried to abdicate the responsibility but Edmund wouldn't let him. Myron knew what needed to be done and how to do it and the various yammerheads, as their own proposals proved, did not.

Mostly the arguments boiled down to a few broad groups. One held that anyone who wanted to farm, knowledge or not, should be given everything that they felt was necessary and then given as much land as they could stake out. Generally "stake out" was based upon "blazing" trees to define their area. Edmund hadn't been able to come up with all the reasons that was a stupid idea so he let others carry the ball. It was pointed out by several that there was a limit to the materials available, not to mention the people with the skill to make anything from them. Others pointed out the long-term arguments that would arise from such ephemeral markers as blazes.

The yammerhead that had called Myron a "bloated plutocrat" was at the head of the "all for one and one for all" group who felt that all materials should be held in common and used in common. They were in favor of putting all the resources of the town into a communal "usage storage" and letting people draw from it. All the land would be held in common and people would do what they could, giving material back into common holding.

Edmund had been the main one to put his foot down on that. He had dredged up dozens of half-remembered historical references, from the early Pilgrims in Norau, who had nearly starved before they gave up communal ownership, to the great debacles of the latter twentieth-century "communist" states and communal farms, which had starved most of a nation for fifty years.

The last group, and this one was the scariest, was led by Brad Deshurt. He had proposed that Myron's farm simply be expanded and use the labor of the refugees to do the work. Despite his background in preinformation technology economics, the term "latifundia" was not part of his background nor was he willing to admit the resemblance to "slave plantations." But since Myron wasn't about to let a giant plantation be raised on bond labor, with the long-term implications that would raise, the argument was moot. In fact, the problem that Edmund was having with Myron was the exact opposite; he wanted regulations to prevent any one person from ever owning too much land. They had talked about it for hours the night before.

"Latifundia, either true latifundia with large numbers of semi-bond labor or corporate latifundia where the corporation owns the land and works it through hirelings, are eventually a given . . ." Edmund had explained.

"But . . . Edmund, the whole basis for a decent preindustrial democracy or republic is the small farmer. If you get latifundia, eventually you get feudalism, either implied or in fact. You either get the Middle Ages or the postslavery South. You don't want that, I don't want that. The only way to avoid it is to prevent any group from getting too much power."

"Every law against monopolies, especially land-holding monopolies, has failed," Edmund pointed out. "It's like laws against 'moral crimes.' If you create a law that involves that much money, either people will flout it or the lawyers will find a loophole. It's like the idiots who don't want hemp planted because it can be used as a drug. Great, it's also the best basis for making paper and rope, two things we need. People who want to get addicted to hemp can feel free. Trying to keep them from growing it, given that the seeds are available and the land is for the taking, is impossible. It's a law designed to fail. And if you set up a law to fail, you set up the law to be ignored.

"No, avoidance of latifundi would be a good thing, but in all honesty there's no way to do it. Initially, I'll agree that individuals cannot prove and register more than five hundred hectares during their lifetimes. But after it is proved and registered, it's open season. If someone wants to sell out, they can sell out. Assuming that there is any capital to sell it to."

"I hate latifundi," Myron grumped. "It was the corporate latifundia that put the stake in the heart of the small farmer. And you know where that led."

"To a huge argument about which came first the chicken or the egg," Edmund said with a grin. "Truthfully, so do I, but open-market democratic capitalism isn't the best system of government in the world, it just works the best. Actually, there's a real question whether it's the best for this sort of society. Arguably, we should be setting up a centralized dictatorship or a feudalism. Those are generally the most stable in this sort of situation. But we're not; we're going for the long ball of republicanism. History will tell us if we were right or wrong. Hopefully, if we're wrong, history will tell us after our grandchildren are dead."

And through it all, the arguments continued to rage.

He had pointedly tuned out the current argument, which was specifically about minimal farming needs, and was looking out the window when he saw Tom's horse, first, then recognized who was slumped in the saddle. At that point he rapped the hilt of his poignard on the table.

"This meeting is adjourned until tomorrow," he said, standing up.

"Why? That's rather high-handed, isn't it? We're not even close to done!" Deshurt snapped.

"You can keep arguing if you want, but you're going to do it somewhere else," Edmund said, walking to the door. "Now."

"Oh, my God!" Myron said, standing up so fast his chair went over backwards. He had looked out the window as well.

"Out," Edmund growled. "Now."

"I'll be back with Bethan," Myron said, heading for the door. "Come on. It's Daneh and Rachel. Give the man some peace will you?"

"Oh, if that's why . . . Edmund, we can meet tomorrow . . ."

Talbot just nodded his head as the group filed out the door, then strode quickly to the mounting rail.

"Daneh," he said, taking in the sight of her. He had already noticed that she was wearing a borrowed cloak, unlike her daughter. Now, as he got closer, he took in the look in her eye and the yellowing bruise on her cheek.

"Edmund," she sighed and slid off the horse. As he reached for her she flinched and then held out her hand. "I'm glad to be here."

"I'm glad you've come," he said quietly, standing away from her. "Rachel," he added, nodding at his daughter.

"Father," she replied. "Nice to see you, too. Finally."

"Come into the house," he said, nodding at the implied rebuke. "I'll have . . . I'll get a bath drawn and some food on the table." He turned to Myron's son and stuck out his hand. "Tom . . . thank you."

"Any time, Edmund," he said then shrugged. "I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry I didn't find them . . . sooner."

Edmund's jaw worked and he nodded in reply, following Daneh and Rachel into the house.

* * *

"Tom," Myron called as his son trotted into the farm-yard. "Daneh looked . . ."

"I'll let Edmund or her tell you about it," Tom said, sliding off the horse and shaking his head angrily. "It's about what you'd expect I reckon."

"Damn," Myron said with an angry hiss.

"You know Dionys McCanoc?"

"That I do," Myron nodded. "And I'd guess he's not long for this world."

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