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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Celine looked up in annoyance as Chansa entered her lab without permission.

"I'm working on a very delicate experiment," she said, irritably, her hands continuing to shape the form before her. "Couldn't this have waited?"

Chansa glanced at the humanoid figure in the hologram and grimaced; it was all hair and fangs with odd, floppy, patches of skin in places. "No, not if you want to be able to actually make a monster like that. All of the Change stations are reporting that the Changes have failed."

"What?" she asked, waving at the design program to halt. As she did it flickered and then died. "That wasn't supposed to happen," she muttered, waving at the spot where the hologram had stood. "Genie, reactivate design program."

"Unable to comply," the genie said, forming. "Program unavailable."

"What in the . . ."

"That's what's going on at the Change stations as well," Chansa said, smiling at her discomfiture.

"Genie, diagnostic, design program," she said then watched as the box unfolded. Four of the subroutines of the programmed were in red, indicating unavailability. As she watched, another turned red. "Genie, override lockouts."

"Authorization required."

"I'm a council member! I'm all the authorization you need!"

"Override, Celine Reinshafen. Set password. Minimum fifteen characters. Password required for each lockout. Authorization council members only unless further authorizations distributed."

"Genie, this is stupid. Full override."

"Unable to comply. Security implemented by five member Council vote."

"Damn them!" Celine shouted. "Those . . ."

"What's happening?" Chansa asked.

* * *

Paul looked thin and worn as the meeting members appeared, but for the first time in days his eyes were alive; the challenge presented seemed to have woken him up from whatever dark place his mind had been traveling.

"So the rebels are locking out subroutines," he mused. "Two can play at that game."

"They can't touch teleportation or communications," Celine said, fury in her voice. "But they're locking out everything else. And they can't lock out groups, they're having to go through routine after routine. But they're shutting down my research!"

"You can override," the Demon rumbled.

"Yes, but it's a pain. I have to . . . chant damned passwords over and over again!"

"Can we override the overrides?" Chansa asked.

"We have six Keys," Celine said. "We can override them all, if we have a vote to pass authorization for that from all our Keys and get the Finn to side with us."

"I'm not comfortable with passing authorization," Ragspurr said.

Celine looked at Paul but he simply looked at Ragspurr then nodded. "Who would have this . . . extraordinary override?"

"Whoever is running down the lockouts," Celine said. "Someone, some human has to do it. Not an avatar or a nannoform."

"And the person could not be externally controlled in any way," the Demon said. "I, too, would be uncomfortable with such an override. They could apply lockouts as well as remove them."

"Well, I don't want to take up all my time doing it, but I will if I have to," Celine said, looking around at her fellow council members.

"The Finn has, thus far, sided with the Coalition," Paul pointed out. "His day is coming, but in the meantime I think that it is unlikely he would support us."

"This is restriction on the use of the Net," Celine argued mulishly. "He will surely find that unacceptable!"

"You would also need my authorization," the Demon said. "Passed to a third party. I do not so authorize and would certainly not pass it to anyone else."

"Are you mad?" Celine snapped. "This is going to hamper us more than them!"

"No, it will hamper you," the Demon said, a note of malicious delight in his voice. "It will hamper me not a bit."

"Pretty soon you won't be able to summon a cup of blood to drink without chanting some damned password!" Celine snarled.

"Unlike some, I already use passwords," the Demon replied. There was no way to read face or body language through the black armor, but if anything could be read from his tone, he found her suggestion amusing.

"This will not stand in the way of our ultimate triumph," Paul said, standing up. "Ours is the side of right, and no one can stand before the right and triumph. We will deal with this as we have dealt with all the other actions of those who stand against the progress of the human race! We will defeat them, drive them down and bury them in the mists of history!"

Celine looked at him in surprise then shook her head. "And that's your final word."

"We will deal with this as we have all the other slights," Paul said, leaning forward on the table. "They send their spies against us, their sneaking creatures in the night. Well, we shall send against them. If it is war that they want, then war they will get, they who have killed millions! Celine, we will not be able to overcome this directly, but we shall in the end. You must make greater strides in your research. If they will not come to their senses, then we must ensure that they understand the consequences! Prepare your monsters, for we will send upon them horror! We must win this war for the good of all mankind and if we fail, all mankind will fail!"

"Oh, that's easy," she smiled brightly then looked over at Chansa. He was leaning back in his chair, a blank expression on his face, looking at the Demon.

"Easy," she repeated, happily. Getting the programs functioning would be a pain in the ass, but compared to free rein to open up some of her projects that had been put "on hold," that was nothing.

"Very well," Paul said, smiling in triumph. "We will win! For all of mankind! Meeting adjourned."

* * *

Daneh stood in the doorway of the house looking out at the encampment and then set her shoulders and stepped out. She walked steadily down the hill and into the crowds, occasionally nodding at people she recognized, until she reached the newer buildings near the town hall. Edmund had told her that somewhere in this mess Lisbet McGregor was running the logistic end of things. And Daneh was damned if she was just going to hide in the house.

She stepped through the first door she came to and then froze as a man spoke to her from a shadowy corner.

"You're not supposed to be in here," the man said.

"I'm looking for Lisbet," she replied evenly, trying to control the surge of adrenaline. She knew that her voice was shaky, but that was just a bit out of her control.

"She's in the next shed over," the man said. As her eyes adjusted she saw that he was bent over some paperwork and the shed had a musty smell of poorly washed cloth.

"I'm sorry," she replied, as evenly as she could. "Thank you."

"I'm sorry I snapped," the man said; there was a flash of a grin in the dimness. "It's just that people are always coming around asking for something. There's only so much to go around."

"I understand," Daneh said with a nod then stepped back out the door.

She took a deep breath and told herself to calm down. As she was fighting off the incipient panic attack she was bumped from behind and practically screamed. She turned around but whoever it was had already faded into the crowd. She backed up against the wall and fought to regain her breath. For just a moment she wondered if she was going insane. She closed her eyes and raised her hands to her face, trying to hold back the tears.

"Mistress Daneh," a gravelly voice said, kindly.

She pulled her hands down and looked to the side. A tall, older man was standing at least double arm's length from her. He was wearing armor and had a very hard look. But for some reason, maybe that he knew her if not the other way around, she wasn't frightened of him. Every other male in sight, yes. But not this one. And there was something vaguely familiar about him.

"Yes, I am," she replied. "Can I help you?"

"I was wondering the same thing," the man replied, not stepping any closer. "You appear to be distressed. Would you like me to get Sir Edmund?"

"No, I would not," she said, sharply. Then she sighed and shook her head. "Sorry. I'm just a little . . . out of sorts."

"You are more than out of sorts, mistress," the man replied. "Can I ask why you came down here today? I understood that you were to be resting."

"Is what happened to me common knowledge in the whole town?!" she said, angrily.

"No," he replied. "As far as I know it is not. But I just arrived. Edmund told me as part of my briefing. We are old friends; as a matter of fact I was at your wedding, but I doubt you remember me."

"Now I do," she replied, looking at him carefully. "Gunny . . . ? Is that what they call you?"

"Yes, ma'am. And Sir Edmund only told me because he's putting me in charge of the defense force. It was not idle gossiping."

She looked at him for a long moment and then nodded understanding. "I suppose it wasn't. Where were you headed?"

"I suspect the same place you were, to see Lisbet McGregor." He gestured courteously for her to precede him and then paused. "Or . . . would you prefer that I go first?"

She thought about it for a moment then squared her shoulders again. "I'm fine," she said. She took a deep breath and turned her back to him, stepping over to the door.

This time she knocked and the wooden door was practically snatched open.

"Go away," the man on the other side said. "Unless you're authorized to come in here, this is not where you are supposed to be!"

Daneh initially recoiled but then her innate temper got the best of her. "How in the hell do you know if I'm supposed to be here or not?" she snapped. "You don't even know who I am!"

"But I do," Lisbet said, stepping forward. "It's okay, Sidikou, this is Daneh Talbot."

"Ghorbani," Daneh correctly automatically. "Hello, Lisbet."

The shed was as dim as the previous one but larger, and the far end was piled with sacks and bundles. Lisbet was bent over a list trying read it in the dim light.

"You'll ruin your eyes that way," Daneh said. "Oh, Lisbet, this is Gunny . . ."

"Heya, Guns," Lisbet said brightly. "Now we know the place is going to wrack and ruin; Gunny has turned up."

"Oh, it gets worse," Daneh said lightly. "Bast came wandering in last night. Now she's dragged my daughter off to who knows where."

"Oh, dear," Lisbet said with a laugh. "I hate to think what mischief they are getting into. Bast should have been named Puck."

"Wrong gender," Gunny said, grimly. "Otherwise accurate. She is not a well-disciplined person."

"Nobody, is well disciplined compared to you, Gunny," Lisbet said with a smile. "We don't all prefer to wear hair shirts."

"I don't wear hair shirts," Rutherford replied. "It's an unnecessary form of punishment. There are better ways to induce pain."

"Speaking of pain," Daneh said, with a questioning glance at Gunny, "Edmund said something about me setting up as a doctor. But to do that I need somewhere besides the front parlor to practice my trade. Not to mention bandages, splints, materials for sutures, medicines. Is there anything available?"

"Not much for right now," Lisbet said with a shrug. "Just what we're able to glean off the woods or had in storage."

"Well, to tell you the truth, I don't even know exactly what I need," Daneh admitted. "I've never set up a period hospital."

"A period infirmary should be set up in an area away from latrines and middens," Gunny said. "Preferably in an elevated area to let prevailing winds act upon it. It should have windows that are screened to prevent the intrusion of insects. If metal or plastic screens are unavailable, cheese cloth can be substituted. The windows should have shutters to prevent intrusion of draughts during the winter. Fire-pits, places or stoves should be scattered through the infirmary to ensure the comfort of the patients during convalescence. The infirmary should be separated into three broad areas: a triage wing, a surgery wing and a recovery and convalescence wing. The wings can be in separate buildings but walkways should be covered or, better, enclosed."

"Where did you pick this up?" Daneh asked, startled.

"Gunny is a font of information about the military," Lisbet said with a smile. "Jerry!"

"Yo?" The man who entered the shed from the back was obviously another long term reenactor dressed in early Scots-Gaelic period clothing. But instead of a claymore he carried a case from which poked a roll of paper.

"Gunny, Daneh, this is Jerry Merchant, who manages, and I use that term advisedly, our construction program. Jerry, Mistress Daneh is setting up an infirmary. She and Gunny are going to be looking for an appropriate spot. If there's not an appropriate building available, we'll have to build it to spec."

"What's the priority?" the man said. "I've got five projects running right now, including the bathhouse and the new dam?"

"I'd put it ahead of the bathhouse," Lisbet said after a minute's thought. "I'd rather have a hospital than segregated bathing."

"What's Edmund going to say?" Jerry asked, uneasily.

"He's going to say 'yes, dear,' " Daneh answered with a laugh.

"So is that it?" Lisbet asked.

"No, Gunny has something as well."

"Not as urgent," Gunny said. "But in time more complex. Edmund has assigned me the task of setting up the line infantry. In time there is a list of items we will need. Some of them are simply base materials but others, such as armor and weapons, will require artisans to construct. And, initially, we'll need some buildings and quite a bit of leather and cloth."

"We're short on both," Lisbet admitted with a sigh. "Very short on leather; cloth is a bit better. When do you need it?"

"A few weeks," Gunny said. "I have to train a few trainers first. I'll need some materials for them, but not much."

"Well, if it's after the roundup, that will be better. We're going to do a big drive in the woods and that will give us some more leather. How much is anyone's guess, but more."

"Very well. I'll get you a list of what I need and the points in the training when I'll need it and we'll schedule the training around anticipated availability. How does that sound?"

"Eminently reasonable," Lisbet replied with another laugh. "Now, Jerry, why don't you go look around and see what Daneh needs in the way of facilities and I can get back to making bricks without straw."

"Hey!" Jerry complained. "That's my job!"

* * *

Edmund looked up and frowned as Daneh came in the kitchen. "Where have you been?" he asked.

"Out," she replied, sharply, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Edmund, that was unkind. I was out looking at facilities with Jerry Merchant and Gunny, looking for somewhere to set up a hospital."

"Oh," Talbot said, shaking his head. "Now I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped. But . . . I just thought you should take some time off . . . Get your bearings again. I'm the one that's supposed to be working all hours."

"I've got my bearings," she replied, her jaw clenched. "I'm fine. I wish that people would quit trying to wrap me up in a cocoon or something!"

Edmund started to say something and then stopped, shaking his head.

"What?"

"I was going to say that however you feel, you need to talk about it," Talbot replied. "But not to me. And, frankly, I don't know anyone who would be a good person to talk to about it. There's nobody around who has dealt with this sort of . . . trauma. I know some things about it, but I'm no expert." He frowned and shook his head in exasperation. "The problem is, you're not the only one in town who . . . had a bad time on their trip here. And there's nobody who is trained to handle that sort of thing. And it's just going to get worse; this isn't going to be the last time by a long shot."

"So what do we do?" Daneh asked. "I guess as the local doctor, and a female no less, it's my job to organize this?"

"It would be, but you can't do it," Edmund sighed. "And the one thing that I know about . . . rape trauma is that handling it wrong just makes the person worse."

"Which just annoys the crap out of me!" she practically shouted. "Edmund, I'm fine! Fine, fine, FINE! How much more pointed do I have to make it!"

He worked his jaw for a moment and looked at her evenly until she looked away. "And shouting at me when I'm discussing something that's obviously a problem for the whole town is normal?" he asked evenly.

Edmund wasn't sure what he had said to cause her to go as white as a sheet, but he paused and let her regain her equilibrium.

"What?" he asked, finally.

"Just . . . tone . . ." she whispered. "I'm going to go take a bath, now."

"Okay," he said with a sigh as she left the room. There had to be someone for her to talk to. But who?

* * *

Herzer watched in reverent awe as Bast came up out of the stream. Her body was just as perfect naked as it had appeared to be half naked. She had light pink aureoles and nipples which, when she was excited or cold, as she was now, crinkled up and poked out like daggers, and a tiny tuft of jet black pubic hair that had turned out to be as soft as silk. For just a moment the queasy thought crossed his mind that she looked far too young to be sexually active, more like a fourteen-year-old than an adult female. But then he told himself he was stupid; she wasn't just older than he was, she was older than the trees.

They had started off with swimming, naked as he'd been warned and he had been a tad . . . apprehensive. But the swimming had changed to washing and then mutual washing and things had proceeded from there. And the proceeding had been quite an education for all its brevity. He still didn't know why she had chosen him, but he realized that he was the one luckiest guy in the world.

That caused him to flash for a moment on all the reasons he shouldn't be the luckiest man in the world and he swallowed hard. For a moment he was caught in an emotional vice between fear that she would no longer care for him if she knew both his internal struggles and of his cowardice and shame that he should be here, with her, after both.

She had brought along a fur blanket, a patchwork quilt of many small skins, and she now lowered herself gracefully onto it in a cross-legged seat then started pulling the tangles out of her hair with a twig. Looking off into the woods.

She was within easy arm's reach so despite his qualms he carefully ran one finger up her thigh.

"The wonder of young humans," she said with a smile, looking downward. "Give them five minutes and they're ready to go again!"

"Is that why you picked me?" he asked. He hadn't wanted to ask but it had been nagging at him.

"Only in part," she replied, rubbing his hand in welcome. "You seemed to be . . . wise for your age. That is important. I'm old, Herzer. Many of my kind think that I'm . . . perverse to take human lovers. Even if you live through the wars that will come, I will see you age and mature, as I have watched Talbot age and mature. And then some day you will die, as I have seen countless lovers age and die. But you live your lives, fully in the now in a way that elves do not. And that I love. But in time I will take other lovers, as you will take other lovers. And you seemed wise enough to understand that, as other humans might not."

"I'm not wise," Herzer said bitterly. The compliment had just made his internal turmoil more vigorous and he felt as if bile from self-loathing was going to rise in his throat.

"I said 'for your age,' " she replied, touching him on the top of his lowered head. "Look at me, Herzer."

He looked up into her cat-pupiled green eyes and cringed at the depth of knowledge behind them. It felt for a moment as if she was looking into his very soul. But at the same time, it felt as if even when she saw what was there, she felt no loathing. There was a depth of understanding in those ancient eyes.

"It is said that everyone has one secret. This is not true," she said quietly. "Everyone has many secrets, many faces, many masks. All humans, and dwarves and elves, are the sum of their masks, young Herzer. You are young, yet, and your masks have many rough edges. And you do not see that this is the case of everyone. It is what you do in life, not what torments you in your soul, that matters. And who you are in life, not who you fear you might become."

"And what if you have done something wrong?" Herzer asked, looking down.

"Did you cause others harm?" she asked, gently.

"No. But through my inaction, harm occurred," he said, carefully.

She sighed and shook her head. "Herzer, I'm your lover, not your priest. I'm not here to take your confession and I'm the wrong sex, the wrong species and the wrong religion to give you absolution!" she chuckled.

"What's a priest?" Herzer asked.

"Oh, my, sometimes I realize just how old I am!" she cried, laughing. "My fair knight, unshorn, unvigiled and unshriven. My, how times have changed. Say that priests were an early form of psychological therapy. You could talk to them and nothing that you said, supposedly, could be passed on to others. So you could unburden your soul. Then, under the laws of their religion, they could tell you to do some prayers and chores, maybe pay money, and their God would forgive you."

"Sounds like a racket," Herzer said, interested in spite of himself.

"So was psychotherapy and just like priests they would tell you to come back weekly. But in the case of psychologists, until they started to understand the chemical basis of depression and other psychological problems, they couldn't make people feel as good as priests could. Which was, generally, worth the money. Let me ask you this, if, right now, you could tell someone all sorts of things that are bothering you and then they would tell you that you were forgiven if you did some task and you believed you were forgiven, absolutely, would you do that task?"

Herzer thought about it for a moment and then nodded his head. "Oh, yes. If it would . . . well, yes. But it couldn't undo what was done."

"No, but it could make you feel better about it. That was what the quests were often about to begin with. The concept of 'geas' was a binding requirement to attempt a task and either succeed or die in the attempt. In either case they were forgiven. But if they did not succeed and gave up, when the knight died they would burn in hell."

"Ouch," Herzer said. "That's not the way it is in the games."

"No, but something to understand is that the people of that time, by and large, believed in the truth of confession. Just as many in later times believed that having someone tell them it wasn't their fault but the fault of bad potty training made things better. And in both cases, because what was going on was entirely in the person's head, most people ended up feeling better."

"So where do I sign up?" Herzer asked, grumpily.

"Oh, Herzer," Bast laughed. "I don't know of a single remaining Catholic priest in eastern Norau. So I think you might be out of luck, there. But I will give you this much to cling to: although there are some actions in life that are unforgivable, I refuse to believe you have done any of them."

"But . . ."

"Hush, my love. Have you killed someone in anger rather than defense?"

"No, but . . ."

"Have you committed rape?" she asked, carefully.

"No," Herzer said, after a long pause.

"Hmm . . . we come close to the boil there I think," she replied. "And I'm not one to lance it. But that 'No' was definite enough for me. I suspect I know what part of your problem is and while I'm no psychologist, what I don't know about kinky sex hasn't been discovered."

"What?" Herzer laughed.

"I'm simply going to have to show you what's what in the area of rough sex," she answered, looking at his eyes. "Let me guess, rape fantasies, right?"

"Uh," Herzer said, blushing furiously. "Bast!"

"Little girls?"

"Bast!!"

"Whips and chains? Little Riding Hood?"

"BAST!!!"

"All totally normal," she replied, suddenly serious. "Many men want to be the Big Bad Wolf. And that is okay. As long as you know how, when and where to do what. And that, me bucko, is what you're about to learn."

"You're joking," he said, looking at the fur blanket and stroking a piece of white ermine nervously.

"Not hardly. I can't believe in this day and age you're going around all screwed up about dominance fantasies." The elf snorted. "I'll admit that I'm not fetished that way but I know the moves and enjoy it from time to time." Suddenly she smiled shyly and dropped her chin so she was looking up at him out of the side of her eyes, clasping her hands to her chest. "Oh, sir, you're so big and strong," she said girlishly, then smiled innocently out of big round eyes. "I'm just a little lost. Do you think you could lead me through the woods?"

Herzer blushed bright red again as his member made it clear that she had hit the bullseye.

Suddenly she took his chin and faced him with total seriousness.

"Look at me, Herzer Herrick. It is not what you feel that makes you evil. Those feelings are natural. Perhaps, someday, I will explore the why to that. But for now, know that. They are as natural as breathing. It is what you do with them that decides if you are a villain or a hero. Let me ask you, and look me in the eye when you answer. If you found such a girl, young, nubile, all alone and lost in the woods, what would you do?"

Herzer looked at her for a long moment, a muscle in his chin working, fighting not to drop his eyes.

"I'd lead her back to town," he said, finally, with a slight sigh that might have been regret.

"Aye, and give your life in her defense methinks," Bast answered. "Whatever your past failings."

"I couldn't do anything!" he said.

"Shhhh," Bast replied, laying her fingers against his lips. "And that is the other side. A hurt, once made, cannot be unmade. But they heal, in time. Most anyway. In your case, the hurt, too, will mostly heal. But what will bind the wound and reduce the scar tissue is what you do, Herzer Herrick. But you know that, don't you?"

"Yes," he replied, looking at the carpet again.

"Then let us do," she replied seriously then smiled. "From the looks of things, I'm going to be busy. You have had a hard journey, are you sure you're up to it?" She winked at him and covered her chest modestly, widening her eyes again. "Oh, sir! I was just bathing and I can't find my clothes!"

"For you milady," he said looking up with a gleam of tears in his eyes, "who is young as the air even if you are old as the trees, I will always be up to it!"

"So I see!" she said with a laugh. "And so gallant! Let's see how long we can make it last this time, fair knight!" She picked up a scrap of towel, placing it over her chest and looking at him with a hint of fear in her eyes. "Please, sir, I'm all alone and you're so big!"

"The Belle Dame Sans Merci!" Herzer groaned.

"Oh, you've heard of me," she chuckled throatily. And then there was no more talk.

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