Back | Next
Contents

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Edmund had the luxury of drawing hot water off of the forge, and fixing a bath for Daneh had been simple enough. She had withdrawn with a small vase of wine and some old clothes after which Edmund returned to the kitchen to face the wrath of his daughter.

"She was raped," Rachel said, looking up from a plate of cold roast pork. As the warmth and light of the room sunk in, she was beginning to realize she was safe. Deep inside she had feared through the whole journey that Dionys would reappear. But now, in her father's house, she knew she was protected. Which, for some reason, was just making her angrier.

"So I gathered," Edmund replied sitting down across from her.

"No thanks to you, Father. Where were you?!"

"Here," he answered bluntly. "Right here. Trying to create something for you to come home to."

"Nice excuse."

Edmund sighed and took a sip of wine. "It is not exactly an excuse. It is a reason. When I was asked to do the job, I recognized that one of the concomitant realities was that I could not go looking for you and your mother. I knew that you had both been home at the Fall and I knew that you were both resourceful. I recognized that you had a higher chance of something . . . I almost said 'untoward' but the real word is 'bad,' something bad happening to you and your mother. I chose to accept the larger responsibility."

"Well that larger responsibility got my mother raped, Father," the girl hissed. "You'll forgive me if I'm just a little pissed about that."

"Probably about as much as I am," Edmund answered. "But I will not second guess the choice. It is the one I made. I'll live with it for the rest of my life. As will you. And your mother." He noted that she looked down and he nodded. "And what choice is it that you wonder about, Rachel?"

"I . . ." The girl sagged and swallowed hard against a bit of pork. "We'd split up to forage. She went south, I went north. If only I'd . . ."

"Rachel, look at me," Edmund said and waited until she did. "If there is a God, I will thank Him for the rest of my life, and so will your mother, for that choice. Your mother is much older and wiser than you, and probably stronger as well, although you have great strength in you. But if I was forced to choose who to send into something like that, I would have chosen Daneh over you for all that I love her. And so would she. Know that."

"I do," Rachel said in almost a wail as she dropped her face in her hands. "But . . ."

"Survivor guilt is a very false form of guilt," Edmund said. "We cannot undo the choices that we make in our life. And so many times, who survives or who is not wounded comes down to simple chance. Regretting that you were not raped is silly. And regretting the fact that somewhere in you you are glad it was not you is sillier."

"I never said that!" Rachel snapped.

"No, but you have thought it and you regret the thought," Edmund replied, firmly. "I'm old, girl. I'm so old it's hard for you to understand. And I know what it is to survive when others do not. And I know the evil thoughts that creep in. Face them, show them the light of reason. At first it will not help, but over time it will. If you won't do that for me, do that for your mother. She is going to have her own thoughts that creep in unbidden. Small, petty, maddening thoughts. Yours will be easier in some ways and harder in others. And you will need to talk about it. But you need to have them under some control. For her and for the, yes, the 'larger' picture. We have done much here but there is much work yet to be done and you are going to be part of that doing. If you start it out in bitterness and hatred for those you love, and for yourself, the work will never be the best. And it deserves your best."

"How can you be so cold about this!" Rachel shouted. "Don't you have a gram of feeling in you?"

"Yes," Edmund said after a moment. "But I don't show it in the way that you think I should. You'll just have to decide for yourself. On the other subject, were the men involved just random passersby or are they likely to be more of a problem."

"Oh, I think they're likely to be more of a problem," Rachel said, lightly. "The leader was Dionys McCanoc."

For the first time in her life, Rachel started to understand why people treated her father with respect. For just a moment, something flashed across his face. It was an expression beyond anger, something odd and implacable and deeply terrifying to watch. And then it vanished except for a jumping muscle in his jaw and he was the same, plain, wooden-faced creature she had known her whole life.

"That is . . . interesting," Edmund said with a sniff. "I'll put the word out, wanted for banditry and rape."

"That's it?" she asked. "Just 'put the word out'?"

"For now," her father said coldly. "For now. People like McCanoc tend to end up killing themselves. If he doesn't do it for me, I'll find the time. But for now, I have other things to do. Just as you do. You need to rest up."

"And what are you going to do?" she asked, looking out the window. While they had been talking the sun had fully set and it was clear that unlike during Faire, Raven's Mill rolled the streets up at dusk.

"Me? I'm going to work," Edmund said. "People, they work from sun to sun, but a politician's work is never done."

"Very funny, Dad."

* * *

"Edmund?" the voice said out of the darkness.

"Sheida, where've you been?" he said looking up from the endless paperwork and pushing his glasses down his nose. Daneh and Rachel had both gone to bed but he was still up burning the midnight oil.

"Even split like this, I'm being run ragged," she replied, her voice faint and her projection a half-seen ghost image in the lamplight. The vision was clearly the worse for wear, and Edmund shook his head.

"Get some rest," he said unctuously. "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."

She chuckled at the ancient joke and sat on the chair across from him. "You look pretty worn yourself."

"It ain't easy. We're up to nearly a thousand people; just making sure they're all getting fed three times a day is a challenge." He gestured at the paperwork, pulled off his glasses and leaned back in his chair. "You heard about Rachel and Daneh."

"Yes, all about Rachel and Daneh," Sheida said with a sigh. "Something has to be done about McCanoc."

"I think Dionys is going to be less of a threat than I'd anticipated," Edmund said. "I'd expected him to turn up and start causing problems before now. Instead he's turning bandit."

"Don't underestimate him," Sheida said. "We're starting to piece together intelligence on Paul's supporters in Norau. And he's likely to be one of them; I think that Chansa authorized some illicit mods on him. Just before it all came apart the Council was presented with a formal mods challenge from the elves in regards to him. It would have taken a council member to allow them. So he may have backing you don't realize."

"That's as may be," Edmund said. "But, frankly, given his background in shitting all over social organizations, I'd rather have him as an outlaw than on the inside causing trouble. If I can get this damned town organized, he's not going to take it away. And that's my primary responsibility, as I mentioned."

"Agreed," she said. "And one that some people aren't rising to. I've got problems, old friend. I need some advice."

"Advice I've got aplenty."

"You're forming a democracy here," she said, waving out into the darkness towards the town. "But too many of the communities aren't. Strongmen are taking charge and . . . I mean it's getting feudal out there."

"Not surprising," Edmund said, taking a sip of wine well-mixed with water. "It's not entirely a democracy, more of a republic. They chose me and when I thought I was right I've run roughshod over a couple of votes. And there are times when I've wished I could just order people to do things or toss them out. We've done that in a few cases, people who wouldn't work, one thief. I've been tempted with a couple of yammerheads. And even more tempted in the case of a couple of 'minstrels.' "

Sheida chuckled. "You never did like minstrels."

"I like people who can sing," he said. "I've got perfect pitch; listening to most 'minstrels' is positively painful. And getting someone who considers themselves a bard to actually work is . . . tough. Even when there's no pins to throw them they think they can ride on generosity. Maybe in a few years they'll be able to. But not now."

"But the . . . strongmen," Sheida said.

"Call them warlords," Edmund said musingly. "Well, the first thing you do is tell them that they're not allied with you if they don't institute democratic reforms. Then you draw up a simple document that states what the rights of all persons are in your government and what the duties are of the local and overall government. Preferably you gather representatives from all the communities that are allied with you to vote on it, but get the outline settled before the arguments start."

"You're talking about a constitution?"

"Aye. And a good one. Just what happened to Daneh proves that we need some laws to hang our hooks on. Right now, if I went out and hunted down McCanoc and hung him from a tree, I'd be as much in the 'wrong' as he is."

"Nobody would question it, though," Sheida said. "Not and get very far."

"Sure, but that's not law, that's anarchy," Edmund pointed out. "At its base, all government is about ensuring that people abide by contracts. McCanoc violated an implicit contract that one does not force women to have sex, much less steal their rain gear when conditions are cold and wet. But with the Council's authority broken, there is no process to enforce the contract. Nor is it a written contract. Look at some of the historical models; you've still got access to them. Then write the constitution. Then, if any of the 'warlords' refuse to join, remove your support from them."

"I haven't been able to give much support," Sheida admitted.

"But you will be giving support and more as time goes on," he added. "You're the only source of power available unless they go to Paul's side."

"And what if they do?"

"Then you deal with that as it comes," Edmund said bluntly. "This is a war. If someone wants to be neutral, that's fine. If they take the part of your enemy, then they become your enemy. Make that clear as well."

"One of them is Rowana," Sheida said. "Martin down there has set himself up as the local lord. Including a . . . a harem I guess you'd call it. I haven't been able to sort out how much of it is voluntary, how much is desperation, and how much is forced. But I know that all those women didn't jump into his bed because he's God's gift to women."

"And if Rowana goes to Paul we'll have a knife pointed at our back," Edmund said, musingly. "Well, that's all right, by the time he can get his act together, we'll be in a position to smash him if it comes to it. One of things you'll need to write into that constitution is how new groups are entered into it. That is the way that geographical boundaries are settled, who has full voting rights, that sort of thing."

"Hmmm . . ." Sheida said with a distant look. "I've already accessed a few of the more well-known historical documents."

"And one thing."

"Yes."

"The first Constitution of the United States of America, the Second Amendment. Whatever you write, if you want my support for it you'll have something similar or stronger."

She smiled at him and nodded. "Will do."

"Is there a way that you can take Harry with you?" he asked, suddenly.

"Perhaps," she said. "Why?"

"The cut that I did to his leg is never going to heal right short of nannite rebuilding," Edmund said with a shrug. "In this society he's practically a cripple. That's not good, but the other side to it is that he's got a good basis in preindustrial war and government. If he could be someplace where he's not seeing how crippled he is, or that he could get repaired, he could still contribute. But as it is, he's not doing himself or anyone else much good."

"I'll see if I can gather the power for a teleport," she said after a moment's thought. "We're working on some lower powered methods, but until then we're stuck."

"Well, if you can do it, you can do it. If not, we'll find something for him. He can train in sword-play just by shouting if it comes to that."

"Okay," Sheida said with a nod. "Thanks for the advice."

"Anytime. And, really, do get some rest."

"I can sleep in the grave."

"Which is where you'll be if you don't get straight," Edmund said.

"It's . . . there's so much. They're just more powerful than we are, Edmund," she said, sighing and lowering her face into her hands. "I don't know where they're getting all their power. We've actually got two more plants than they do and we're drawing on the Stone Lands power source. But they've got two or three times our power. They're not using it very well, but we have to use every erg to defend against it. And in the meantime it leaves them free to do . . ." She stopped and shuddered. "I can hardly believe some of the things they're doing."

"I probably can," Edmund said, thinly. "But I'm a firm believer in the concept of original sin and the basic corruptness of the human soul."

"Well, I'm getting that way," Sheida said. "Paul's got enough power to make it nearly impossible to send an avatar into most of the areas that he has assimilated but we've slipped in a few long-range aerial scouts and it's horrible. He's rounding up all the refugees and Changing them against their will."

"Not surprising," Edmund nodded gravely. "If he's got the power."

"He does but he's mostly drawing it from their own bodies. He's using humans as a power source. Sometimes it kills them. And what it leaves behind!"

"Let me guess. Low intelligence, brutish in appearance, a few rudimentary skills and . . . hmmm . . . aggressive. Stupidly aggressive, right?"

"You've heard."

"Oh, I've heard the rumors. But more than that, I know the people involved. That's not Paul's game they're playing there, it's Chansa and Celine and to an extent the Demon."

"Why?" Sheida said seriously.

"Well, Celine has been bitching for a hundred and fifty years about the medical and bioengineering locks that the Web imposes. She wants to make monsters. Why? Because she likes monsters. Monsters are cool."

"The wasps that attacked us were probably Celine's doing," Sheida said.

"Yes, and so are these . . . things. These Changed. As to Chansa, have you ever wondered why he would make himself so huge? That's pure lack of confidence. What he has always wanted was control, over himself, over the people around him. I don't know what made him that way and don't really think it matters; maybe somebody beat him up as a kid. Whatever, he wants to subordinate those around him. He wants subordinates, not equals. Celine creates this great unterrace for him lord it over and they both pitch it to Paul as 'for the good of the people.' "

"Do you have a spy in the New Destiny Council?" Sheida asked seriously. "Because that's exactly the story that I got."

"No, but it's pretty damned obvious if you know the players."

"What about the Demon?"

"Convenient, isn't it, how he just showed up right when things went south," Edmund said sourly. "You really think that's coincidence?"

"You think he was in on it from the beginning?"

"I think he was in on it from before the beginning. It's a little late to search out now, but it might be worthwhile to look at how Celine, who was a nut-job from the word go, and Chansa got on the Council in the first place. The Demon is old, Sheida. Older than either of us. Old as some of the elves."

"You think he planned this?" she asked. "All of this? Even he isn't that insane, is he?"

"The Demon? Yes, he is, Sheida."

She sighed and nodded her head tiredly. "I suppose you're right. But where does that leave us?"

"In one hell of a hole," Edmund admitted. "But that's what shovels are for. Go home, Sheida. Let everything go to hell for one night. Pull in all the avatars and get some damned rest."

"Okay," she said smiling impishly. "I wish I was here; I'd get some rest with you."

"Not tonight," Edmund said. "I'm going to be doing nightmare watch."

"True," Sheida said shaking her head. "If you find him . . ."

"I'm going to nail his gonads to the first tree," Edmund said. "You see, deep down inside, I don't give a shit about laws."

* * *

Herzer had accepted a meal chit and headed for the shelters before his brain really kicked in. He was in Raven's Mill, the rain had stopped and for the first time in weeks he was going to be able to eat and sleep under shelter. Not much food, he'd been warned, and not very good shelter. But it was food and shelter and that was a good thing.

There were already lines forming for food and he got at the end. He was annoyed when some people came up and cut the line, evidently slipping in in front of friends. But there didn't seem to be anyone around to prevent it.

The people collected in the line were a sorry sight. All of them were obviously travel worn and clearly not used to it. Many of them just appeared . . . beaten, as if they were never going to get any better than this, for the rest of their lives. Others, though, were different. They were chatting amiably with others and looking up and around. There didn't seem to be any difference, any way to spot which was which or any way to guess who would be looking up and who would be looking down. Some of the apparently weakest of the group were the most active and some of the most rugged looking seemed to have just fallen apart.

Beyond that the group was odd in another way; there were very few Changed. Herzer was used to any similar group being at least a quarter Change, from winged men to cat girls. There was one of the latter, a really cute reddish blond tabby, and what looked like it might be a werebear or werepig near the front of the line. But that was it for Change. He didn't think the town was excluding them, but there had to be a reason they were so few and far between.

The line led into a large open shed that looked almost like a warehouse. At the entrance a bored looking woman was accepting chits from people. She turned one person away who didn't have a chit, without any explanation offered or given. Inside there were some trestle tables, obviously rough hewn from logs—there was still sap exposed on most of them—with crudely carved wooden bowls and spoons piled up. Following the example of the person in front of him he took one of each and then accepted a small piece of cornbread from one of the servers. At the kettle the bowl was filled with some sort of stew, it looked to be mostly beans, and that was it.

At the far end of the warehouse were more rough tables with benches, most of them filled. He walked almost to the far end before he saw an open space next to a young man about his own age. He walked up and gestured to the spot.

"Do you mind . . . ?"

"Not at all," the young man said after a quick glance at the girl across the table from him.

"Thank you," Herzer said, sitting down. "Herzer Herrick," he continued, sticking out his hand.

"Mike Boehlke," the young man said, and gestured across the table. "That's Courtney, Courtney Deadwiler." Mike was blond with short hair, stocky and about a meter and a half high. He was medium good looking for the period but his muscles had the indefinable look of someone who had worked on them, not just had them sculpted. The one odd thing about him, not quite Change but something close, was his eyebrows. They pointed sharply upward at the end. And his brow had a distinctly strange cast.

Courtney had red hair and was . . . buxom was the only term that came to mind looking at her. She had bright green eyes with a lively intelligence that did a quick appraisal of Herzer and then seemed to accept his company without any show of other interest.

"Hi," Herzer said, ducking his head in greeting. Then he picked up his spoon and basically inhaled the food.

"You have to be careful with that," Courtney said with a snort. "I did that the first night and then threw it up all over the table."

"I think I'll be okay," Herzer said. There was a slight queasiness, but Tom had had some rations left so he hadn't been starving the last day or so. He mopped up the bowl with the small piece of bread and then ate that. "That's it, right?"

"Right," Mike said gruffly. "New here?"

"Just got in," Herzer said then paused. The details of his journey didn't make for very good storytelling.

"We're on our second day," Courtney explained. "You know you get three days?"

"Yes. And they said someone would be around to find me then. I'd wondered about that; how do they keep track?"

"Some people skate out," Courtney nodded towards the tent. "But on the third day they stop giving you meal chits if you're not otherwise employed. They're talking about some sort of apprenticeship program. We're hoping to get into that."

"What else is there to do? I saw a couple of guards."

"They're not much," Mike said. He had a tight, short manner of speaking that was blunt enough to be right on the edge of rudeness. But Herzer sensed it was just the way he was rather than anything intentional. "There's talk that Talbot's going to set up a professional guard and police force. But there's been too much going on with the farm battles."

"Farm battles?" Herzer asked. "We're having wars already?"

"No, not that," Courtney interjected. "It's just the arguments about how to get the farms running."

She gave him a fairly concise description of the various positions, then shrugged. "Mike and I, well . . ." she looked over at him and shrugged again.

"I want a farm," Mike said. "I want my own farm, mine and Courtney's. I don't want to farm somebody else's and I don't want to share it with a bunch of people. I know I can make it run if I don't have to worry about sharing it with a bunch of losers." He gestured at the various people still sitting at the tables.

"I suppose that makes sense," Herzer said. "I'd never thought about being a farmer myself . . ."

"Farming is what makes an economy like this run," Courtney interjected enthusiastically. "It's hard work, maybe the hardest there is. But it's rewarding, too, if you get good land and do a good job at it. We'll succeed," she reached across and took Mike's hand. "I know we will."

"But you're going to do the apprenticeship program anyway?" Herzer asked. He noticed that Mike seemed uncomfortable with the touch and disengaged as quickly as possible.

"I want to see what else there is," Mike said. "And there's more to farming than just putting seeds in the ground. Knowing a little bit about coopering and carpentry and smithing will be useful."

"There's supposed to be a week or two of combat training, too," Courtney noted.

"Well, I guess I'll see about this apprenticeship program," Herzer said. The sun was setting in the west and he suddenly realized he was bone weary. "Where do people sleep?"

"There's separate bunkhouses for the men and women," Mike said. "I usually walk Courtney over to hers and then find a place to sleep."

"You can come with us if you want," Courtney said.

"Uhm . . ." he looked at Mike who shrugged disinterest in whether he did or not and then nodded. "Okay, if you don't mind."

They walked through the crowds in the gathering darkness to one of the many log-frame huts. Up close they were much less sturdy than they appeared at a distance, and the walls were filled with cracks where the logs didn't meet. The roofs were made from wooden "shakes," slightly mounded pieces of wood about two decimeters long, a decimeter wide and a couple of centimeters thick. He suspected that they leaked like a sieve in the rain.

He waited as Courtney kissed Mike good night, on the cheek, then followed the young man across the encampment. Mike seemed to find his way in the dark remarkably well for having been there only a day.

"I think you see better at night than I do," Herzer said as he stumbled on one of the innumerable potholes. The area had been a forest up until a few days before and while the stumps had been rooted out and the holes filled, the rains had caused the soil within to slump.

"A couple of generations back on my mother's side is a cat Change," he said. "I do see well at night."

"Do you know why there are so few Changed here?" Herzer asked, the question that had been nagging at the back of his mind coming to the fore again.

"Not really, but Courtney and I were discussing it. She thinks it's a matter of adaptability. Most of the Changed take more energy, either food or externally derived, than unChanged humans. So, naturally, they were going to be at a disadvantage when the Fall came. Think about a werebear, for example. They need a lot of food, every day."

"Yeah."

"Or, think about a guy with wings. He's got wings, but he can only fly with external power. And the wings weigh thirty, forty kilos. Take away power, make him have to walk for days to get to shelter . . ."

"Yeah."

"Makes me glad I never Changed. You ever think of Changing?" The question was hard edged, almost accusatory but, again, Herzer put it down to personality.

"Not really," Herzer answered honestly. "A little bigger, a little beefier . . ." He flashed back to the scene at the bridge. Bigger wouldn't have helped unless he was the size of a giant.

"You're pretty big already," Mike said with a questioning tone.

"That's mostly natural genetics," Herzer replied. "I . . . the muscle is sculpted but I worked for it. I was sick most of my life and I couldn't bulk up no matter how hard I tried. So when I got fixed . . ."

"Yeah, whatever," Mike said. "Here we are."

Mike pushed open the flap—which appeared to be made of rough-cured deerskin—and led the way into the interior. Already the room was filled with the sound of snores.

"There's a spot over here," he said, pointing down the middle of the room.

To Herzer the interior was as black as pitch and quite cold. "Are there any blankets?"

"Not unless you brought one, but it warms up after a while," Mike replied. He led the way down the center aisle to a spot between two of the sleeping bodies.

"Keep your boots on and double knot the laces," his guide said. "I had somebody try to steal mine the first night."

"Okay," Herzer said, sitting on the floor. It was dirt and both moist and cool, and the air in the room was damp and filled with odors. He was suddenly glad that the problem of human body odor had been solved generations before, otherwise the room would have been truly foul.

He fell asleep on that happy note.

Back | Next
Contents
Framed