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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Rachel was even more amazed to see the encampment in the morning. Besides the large area of shelters, more permanent structures were going up and everywhere there was the sound of sawing and hammering. Crowds filled the street as well and there was a . . . reek of humanity that she had never experienced before. In general it wasn't unpleasant, but it was very strong.

"Humans are always like this," Bast sighed. "Like beavers, even with dams," she added, pointing up the hill to where, yes, another dam was under construction. "Backwards from beavers, though. First humans build shelters then dams."

Bast was armed now, having picked up her saber and bow on the way out the door. She wore the weapons as if they were just another form of clothing, to such an extent that they almost escaped notice. In fact they mostly did escape notice because everyone was looking at the elf carrying them.

"Not so in Elfheim?" Rachel asked, trying not to notice the looks of the men in the area. Bast was a walking advertisement in more ways than one and made her feel positively homely. Bast, on the other hand, didn't seem to notice at all.

"No, our homes are in the Wood," Bast said. "And we don't change the area around us more than necessary. I suppose, with humans, this is necessary." She sighed again. "So many humans. I haven't visited the human cities in many years. This is more than I have seen in one place in a long time."

"More than I've seen in a long time, too," Rachel admitted.

"Some of them are not so bad, though," Bast said. "Look at those two over there, one for each of us!"

Rachel looked where she was pointing and laughed. "I don't know who the one on the left is, but the one on the right is Herzer Herrick."

"A friend?" Bast asked, walking towards the two young men. "Introduce me?"

"Bast!"

"Oh, sorry, is he yours?" Bast asked. "I never stop to think about that."

"No, he's not 'mine,' " Rachel said. "It's just . . ."

"Good, then you can introduce me and you can have the other one!"

"What if I don't want one?" Rachel asked.

"You like girls?" Bast asked. "Hmm . . . I haven't tried it in a long time. Maybe threesome?"

"Bast!"

"Oh, sorry, virgin princess time, eh?" the elf winked. "I know that ploy, too. Works every time!"

"Bast!" she hissed as they neared the two men. "Be good!"

"I'm not just good, girlie, I'm great."

"Hi, Rachel," Herzer said. He was dirty and looked as if he hadn't had time to wash that morning. He also looked as if he hadn't slept well.

"Hi, Herzer, this is Bast," Rachel said.

Bast in the meantime was circling the young man and inspecting him as if he was a prize horse. "Hmmm . . ."

"Hi, Bast?" Herzer said. "Rachel, this is Mike. I met him and Courtney last night."

"Quick work," Bast said. "I think maybe I like you a little more cleaned up, but if you work that quick . . ."

"Courtney is Mike's . . ."

"Girlfriend," Mike said, looking at Rachel with approval. "And you're . . ."

"Sorry, Mike, this is Rachel Ghorbani."

"Oh, I've heard about you," he said, sticking out his hand. "You're Edmund Talbot's daughter."

"Always," Rachel said sourly. "How's it been, Herzer?"

"Well, dirt is remarkably soft to sleep on if you're tired enough," he said cheerfully. "And breakfast was cornmeal mush. Just that. But things are looking up; we're both going to be going into the apprenticeship program. What are you going to be doing?"

"I've got the funny feeling I'm being groomed as a doctor," Rachel admitted.

"Makes sense with who your mom and dad are," Herzer admitted. "And you, Bast?"

"I'm just wandering through," she said, looking him up and down. "I know where there's a creek that's just right for a bath. Want to join me?"

"BAST!"

Herzer looked shocked for a minute then tried not to grin and tried not to look at Rachel at the same time. "Uhmm . . . maybe later?"

"Sure, I've got things to do with Rachel right now," Bast admitted. "Sometime this afternoon?"

"Uh, sure," Herzer said, clearly not sure if he was having his leg pulled.

"After lunch, I'll meet you by the tavern in town," Bast said. "I'll bring the soap."

"Okay," Herzer said, looking light-headed.

"See you then," Bast said, waving as she turned away. She grabbed Rachel by the arm and gave them a wiggle in goodbye.

"Where are we going now?" Rachel asked acerbically. "Now that you've mortally embarrassed me."

"The other one looked as if he wouldn't mind sharing the stream," Bast said philosophically. "And I want to see who's coming in. There were more people headed this way and people are so much fun to watch."

Rachel sighed as she was towed, very much like a barge behind a smaller tug was the thought that crossed her mind, to the edge of the encampment by the Via Apallia.

There were large numbers of people on the road. Not thousands, but a steady stream of every sort of humanity. Some of them kept going down the road, either for other settlements that were their planned destination or just into the wilderness for some reason of their own. Most, however, were turning into the village, and Rachel hoped that this was the peak of the flow. If it wasn't, Raven's Mill would quickly become uninhabitable.

"So many people. Some stopping, some not," Bast said finally.

"Tom told me yesterday that there's a guard post up the road. They warn the people about the rules of Raven's Mill."

"What rules, nobody told me about rules," Bast said unhappily. "I hate rules."

"I hadn't noticed," Rachel said. "The rules are pretty simple. You can get three days' food and shelter. After that you have to find work. There's an apprenticeship program starting up and some people are going into that. To stay permanently you have to abide by the charter of Raven's Mill. You have to agree to defend it, to pay taxes, things like that. But you also get a vote on major items. You can stay for the three days without being bound to the charter, but after that you have to abide by it."

"Hmmm . . . taxes. I hate taxes."

"I don't think anyone's going to try to tax you Bast."

Bast was having a fine old time, pointing out the more humorous individuals and groups with quick, witty descriptions. Then she stopped and frankly stared at the latest apparition. The man was fairly old for a human, with graying hair cut short to the sides of his scalp. He was dressed in old, worn leather armor with a short sword banging on his hip. On his back was a huge leather rucksack and across it were two poles from which hung more bags. On his right arm was a large wooden shield with an iron rim, the boss of which had been worked into the figure of an eagle with its wings spread.

He had been marching down the road, back ramrod straight and at a very steady pace. When he reached the turn to Raven's Mill he made a precise left face and marched towards the reception tent.

"So who is that man? He looks as if he's a badly made marching toy or as if someone has shoved a piece of steel in his spine. And it hurt."

"Oh, he's a reenactor," Rachel said with a laugh. "I'm surprised you've never met him; he's been friends with my father since forever. His name is Miles Rutherford but everybody calls him 'Gunny.' "

"He doesn't come across as your normal Pict or Viking or knight in shining armor."

"Oh, no, he's an early industrial reenactor.

"Early industrial?"

"Yeah. There were some big wars fought in the Po'ele back in the preinformation period. The character he plays is one of the noncommissioned officers of the infantry that fought in those campaigns."

"Oh. Okay? If his name is 'Miles,' why does everyone call him 'Gunny'?"

* * *

"Good morning, my name is June Lasker," June said without looking up from the record of the last arrival. She knew it was impolite but she didn't seem to have time to do it any other way. She heard the next person walk up and stomp to a halt but she hadn't seen who it was yet. "I'll be asking you a few questions, giving you a short introduction to Raven's Mill Settlement processes and then answering yours to the best of my ability. What is your name?" she said, looking up.

The man in front of her was two hundred and fifty if he was a day. He was standing with his legs spread shoulder-width apart, a shield leaning against his left leg and a heavily loaded rucksack leaning against his right. His left arm was steadying the shield with his right hand over the left. His back was ramrod straight and he was staring just about a decimeter over her head.

"Ma'am, my name is Miles Arthur Rutherford, ma'am!" he barked.

June looked closely to ensure that he was not in some way making fun of her but it was apparent that he had simply answered the question. His face had not changed expression a bit. She noted the name in her log and continued.

"Is that your legal name or a character name?" she asked.

"That is the name I was given at birth, ma'am!" he responded.

"Were you met at the border?"

"Yes I was, ma'am!"

She shook her head but decided that barking out declarative sentences was simply the way he talked.

"And did the guards tell you the minimum restrictions of Raven's Mill? That you are granted three days food and shelter? And that after those three days you can either enter into a training and placement program or assume duties of your own? That after those three days, with the exception of the placement program, you are on your own, required to feed and shelter yourself while following the rules and regulations of Raven's Mill? That you must agree to abide by the Raven's Mill charter to continue living here after three days. That at minimum you must agree to provide for the common defense, pay taxes as provided by the local elected government and obey such laws as that government might see fit to write."

"Yes, ma'am, that is what I was told!"

"Do you agree to these strictures?"

"Yes, ma'am, I do!"

"Is it possible you could look me in the eye?" she finally asked, a hint of irritation entering her voice.

"Sorry, ma'am," he answered unbending enough to look down.

June felt for a moment as if she were staring into a pit. He didn't look at her so much as through her and she felt chill bumps run across her body occasioning an involuntary jump.

"Uh . . ." she looked down quickly to check her notes then looked around flustered. "Uh . . ."

"The last question you asked, ma'am, was on the subject of do I agree with the strictures, ma'am!" Gunny barked helpfully.

"Oh, uh . . ." She looked at her list of questions and found her spot after a moment. "Ah. Are you a reenactor of any sort?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She waited a moment until it was clear that was all she was going to get.

"What sort?"

"I specialize in mid to late industrial reenactment, ma'am."

"Oh," she said. "That's disappointing; those skills don't help much right now. Do you have any skills which relate to preindustrial technology which may be of aid to Raven's Mill?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She looked up again involuntarily when he didn't continue but he was back to staring over her head. "Would you . . . do you mind telling me what they are?"

"No, ma'am, I would not mind. I was a recreationist specializing in premedieval combat technology, especially Roman weaponry, training and tactics. I am the equivalent of a journeyman armorer and blacksmith. I can build all my own armor and clothing from base materials but it takes me more time than a professional armorer and seamstress and the results are cruder. I am familiar with the design and construction of basic siege engines and can construct a ballista with an untrained crew and provided base materials in no more than two days. I can maintain a field camp and instruct others in its construction. I am partially trained as a preindustrial farmer. I am a trained furrier and can tan and work with leather. I am trained as a saddler to the level of journeyman. I am a trained bowyer to the level of apprentice. I can hand, reef and steer on-board ship. I can turn a heel in knitting."

"Ah, well, that should . . . help," she said weakly. "All that?"

"I have been a reenactor or a person living in a preindustrial lifestyle since I was born, ma'am."

"You have?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How . . . People are not a reenactors as a children . . . Mr. Rutherford."

"No, ma'am."

"So you have lived in preindustrial conditions? Not just for a few days?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Where?"

"Ma'am, I am not at liberty to disclose that information."

"What? What does that mean?"

"Ma'am, I am not at liberty to disclose that information."

"Ooookay," June said, shaking her head and finding the next question after noting down as much of the list as she could remember. "Do you know anyone who was a resident of Raven's Mill prior to the Fall?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'm getting tired of dragging this out of you, sirrah. Who?"

"Ma'am, I am a long-time acquaintance of Edmund Talbot."

"Oh, really?" she asked, interested for the first time. "Where'd you meet Edmund?"

"Ma'am I am not . . ."

"At liberty to disclose that information?"

"No, ma'am. But I have known Lord Talbot for most of my life."

"Well, I've never heard of you. And he's not called 'Lord Talbot.' "

The new recruit didn't seem to have much to say about that for a moment then he cleared his throat.

"He doesn't talk about me much, ma'am."

"Can't imagine why. Very well, if you exit to your left when we are done, at the end of the street is a quartering tent; they will tell you where you stay. You need a token," which she handed him, "for that. You get three meals a day. You can check in at the quartering tent each morning for your meal chits. That is all you get and what is served is what is served. We're short on food, shelter and everything else. Take only what you can eat, eat everything that you take."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Later on you'll be told where to go for orientation." She looked up at him and shook her head with a smile. "Welcome to Raven's Mill."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, scooping up the quartering token and his gear. "Somehow I'm starting to feel right at home. May the Bull God bless and keep you."

"And may the Warrior keep you, Mr. Rutherford," she said as he marched out of the tent.

* * *

Gunny did not turn towards the barracks, as he thought of them, but towards the house on the hill. There was a group of guards on the road up, if you could call them guards. A bunch of reenactor punks with rusty halberds was another way to describe them.

He was polite, though, and determined from them that Edmund was not at the house but probably in town at the town hall.

The town hall was another new building with another set of useless guards. They were both leaning on their spears when he walked up and asked to speak to Mr. Talbot.

"He's busy," the guard on the left growled. "Too busy for any old reenactor to just barge in on him."

"I am not surprised that he is busy," Gunny said coldly. "What are your standing orders in the event that someone states that they are a close personal friend and have business with him?"

"What?" the guard on the right asked.

"Okay," Gunny growled as patiently as he possibly could. "What are any of your standing orders?"

"We just got told to keep people out that don't have business in here," the intellectual on the left said uneasily. "I don't know about any standing orders."

"Right, get me the sergeant of the guard," Gunny snapped, losing patience.

"Who's that?"

"WHO'S THAT?" he shouted. "YOU WILL STAND AT ATTENTION WHEN YOU ADDRESS ME YOU PIMPLE ON A REAL GUARD'S ASS! OTHERWISE I'LL TAKE THAT PIG-STICKER AWAY FROM YOU AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS SIDEWAYS! LOOK AT THIS THING!" he continued, snatching the spear out of the surprised guard's hands and submitting it to a minute inspection. "IS THIS DRY ROT THAT I SEE ON THIS SHAFT? THIS THING IS A PIECE OF CRAP EVEN WORSE THAN YOU." He broke the spear, which was in fact in lousy shape, across his knee and threw half of it on the ground, using the other half as a pointer to emphasize his words. "YOU TWO ARE, WITHOUT A DOUBT THE LOUSIEST EXAMPLE OF GUARDS IT HAS EVER BEEN MY DISPLEASURE TO SEE IN ALL MY BORN DAYS AND I HAVE SEEN PLENTY OF SHIT ASS GUARDS IN MY DAY!"

* * *

Edmund looked up from his paperwork and gave Myron a relieved glance.

"Ah, unless I'm much mistaken Gunny has arrived."

* * *

"I've been busy with other things," Edmund said with a shrug. The two guards had been relieved to go clean their weapons up, and to get their shattered nerves back together if truth be told, and Edmund had brought Gunny into his office, where he was explaining some of the facts of life. "I haven't been able to train the troops the way they need to be. Not the way that I know they should be and you know they should be. We're back in the bad and the scary, Miles."

"You're the king," Gunny growled. "That's not your job."

"I'm not the king," Edmund stated. "I have no plan to be the king. If nominated, I will not run, if elected I will not serve. Monarchy is a great place to play in but you wouldn't want to build a society on it. I'm going to turn this place into a constitutional democracy if it breaks my heart."

The NCO nodded and gestured out the window with his chin. "So what do you want me to do?"

"Train 'em."

"Who? How? What technique?"

"I was thinking pike."

"Legions."

"Gunny, we've had this argument before . . ."

"Pike's nothing but phalanx without the armor. Legion beat phalanx. They will if they have any control of the terrain at all. On perfectly flat, level ground, phalanx might beat legion. But, there, you can beat phalanx with chariots. Legions can beat them both."

"Projectile weapons?" Edmund asked.

"Bow. Crossbow or self, take your pick. Lightweight spears for the legionnaires, what else. Find somebody else to train the bow-pussies. And they'd better be able to maneuver with us."

"I will. It will be longbow. There are trainers available and if they're not in town we'll find them."

"Legionnaires. Again. Can't wait." After a moment, though, he sighed tiredly.

"What?"

"I'm not sure it's possible," the NCO admitted. "There's a . . . belief system that these guys ain't got. The Romans, the Norau Marines, the Britic Redcoats, all of them came from a society that understood the concept of discipline. These young pukes . . ."

"The Gaels made damned good redcoats," Edmund pointed out. "They built the Britic empire."

"The Gaels were more disciplined than they were made out to be," Gunny growled. "And they trusted the Gaels that fought by their side. They might be from a different clan, but they were all Gaels. You can't teach something like that; it's learned with the mother's milk!"

"We've had this discussion before," Edmund added dryly. "The point is that it has to be done."

"It's all in the heart, boss," Gunny said after a long pause. "It's all in the soul. We have to come up with something that will give these boys the intestinal fortitude to stick it out when the shit hits the fan. Until the Fall, they never cared about nothing in life except nanadrugs, women and going to parties. They'll need something to keep them going when everyone is dying around them. So that they will give their lives, carefully, precisely and creating the maximum possible honor guard, but so that they will not turn and run from anything. That comes down to leadership, yeah, but it also comes down to tradition. Keeping true to your comrades and true to your salt. And we ain't got no tradition.

"With a little polishing they'll make decent legionnaires on the surface. But the legions fought for the people and the Senate of Rome. And anything that we wave at them will have exactly the same gut message as saying that they're fighting for Rome. They need something, something . . . special. And special just ain't my meteor."

"I think I have an idea," Edmund said after a few moment's musing. "At least, something that will help. We're going to need good troops, Gunny. The best. Better than ever. This is going to be a long, big war. We need Rome built in a day."

"The difficult we do immediately . . ." Gunny said with a grimace.

"The impossible takes a little longer. I'll give you six months."

"Aye, aye," the NCO said, moving his shoulders as if settling a weight. "We'll just do that little thing, my lord."

* * *

The world seemed to swirl around her as Sheida studied the energy flow diagram. She had finally taken Edmund's advice and started thinking strategically, letting her sentient avatars drift out to handle the moment-to-moment crises that were cropping up everywhere.

But here was the crux of the Freedom Coalition's problem; there wasn't enough energy. Each side had about the same "base" energy due to their seizure of power plants. But the New Destiny Alliance was finding more from somewhere.

Since they hadn't been able to even determine where the "somewhere" was, thus making it impossible to attack, the Coalition had to find some way of either raising more power or hobbling their enemy's use. Ishtar and Ungphakorn were working on the issue of finding new sources, she and Aikawa were working on ways of hobbling the enemy. There didn't seem to be much chance directly. Paul was using the energy flows from his plants efficiently and they were mainly going to hold down the Coalition's power use. The "extra" seemed to be coming from nowhere and it was that he was using, abusing in her opinion, for all his other attacks and . . . uses.

More information had come, this time through refugees, about the changes that Paul was making and she had to admit that if those were his worldwide plans, this was the ultimate "just" war.

She considered the "improvements" that had been made and thought, not for the first time but perhaps for the first time in a concentrated fashion, how they had been made. The obvious answer was "Change protocols" but that begged the question, what went into a Change protocol.

Becoming a council member meant far more than just being able to split your personality and survive. The first requirement of a member is that they have some fundamental understanding of the Net and she kicked herself for forgetting that simple piece of information residing entirely within herself. She had been studying the politics of the Council and information and power management for so long, she had forgotten that it all rested on the back of a series of programs and protocols. Change was the Net, upon a simple command "change thus" bringing up various resources and managing the Change. She called up a theoretical Change program similar to what Celine was apparently doing and then had the full process open up its detailed list of subprograms and requirements. Frankly, it was not as power intensive as she would have thought, especially if you drew spare power from the human body itself. That program was buried in the mix, a medical program for reducing epileptic side effects from botched Change. There hadn't been such in a thousand years, but the program was still out there, hanging around.

She studied the detail of the process for more than thirty minutes and then smiled, sending a mental message out to her allied council members and summoning avatars for a meeting.

"I think I have a way to put a stick in Paul's wheels," she said with a smile.

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