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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

When Herzer walked back into town in the late afternoon his basket was half filled with slightly damp fur rug; the other half was filled with spring greens. He had found a large patch of asparagus as well as enough sweet leaf greens for a large salad. He had also found a patch of kudzi that had colonized a rock slip, and by the pool of water at the base of the rock slip they had invented numerous fascinating things that you could do with kudzi juice.

When they got back to town they could see that much of the town was deserted. Most of the people had gathered around the former Faire area near the line of hills north of town.

"Come on," Morgen said, taking his hand. "They've started the dancing."

"Oh." Pause. "Good."

"Oh, don't be a baby," she said with a laugh. "All you have to do is move your feet!"

One end of the field had been roped off and a stage set up. On it a group of minstrels, including the redheaded minstrel Herzer had seen the night before, were now belting out a fast jig. There was a large group of people dancing but most of the people in the area were gathered in small groups watching and talking. There were some logs left from clearing the area and a few trestle tables. But most of the people sat on the ground or the occasional uncleared stump. Herzer and Morgen, hand in hand, wandered into the crowd looking for a place to sit or, for that matter, anyone they knew. Morgen, not too surprisingly, was the first to spot an acquaintance. She waved to two women who were standing side by side, their arms folded, and dragged Herzer over to meet them.

The slightly older looking one was sharp featured, short and well rounded with more womanly curves than had been fashionable. Her long dark hair was heavily curled and in the slightly humid atmosphere had started to frizz at the ends. She glanced at Morgen and Herzer with the calculating eye of a raptor looking over a likely meadow. The younger woman was a shade over normal height for a female but had the standard fashionable look: no hips, no breast, no butt. She looked at Herzer and Morgen without expression and then looked away.

"Hi," Morgen said with another wave. "Crystal," she said to the older woman, "this is Herzer Herrick. Herzer, Crystal Looney."

Herzer stuck his hand out and the woman just nodded at him, her arms still crossed. To the degree that there was any expression on her face it was disdain. Herzer took his hand and ostentatiously clasped it behind his back, nodding at the woman with a smile.

"A pleasure to meet you, Crystal was it?" he said.

"Shelly?" Morgen said after a moment, turning to the other woman. "This is Herzer. Herzer, Shelly Coleman."

Herzer didn't bother to stick out his hand that time. He just nodded his head at the woman who nodded briefly and then turned to watch the dancing again.

Morgen flushed at the apparent rebuff then smiled brittlely.

"So what are you guys doing?" she asked.

Crystal looked at her as if she couldn't believe the question.

"Watching The Dancing," the woman replied, slowly and distinctly.

Morgen flushed again as Herzer nodded his head. He took her by the arm and drew her against him.

"It has been a pleasure to meet you ladies," he said with patently false insincerity. "I hope we get to do this again real soon." He stuck his arm though Morgen's and walked away, at which Morgen was forced to follow.

"Bye," she said, waving. "I don't know what is with them," she continued when they were out of earshot. "They're normally friendly."

Herzer put his arm around Morgen's shoulders and gave her a half hug.

"Ah, I think the problem might be that you were with a guy," he said, carefully.

"What?"

"Never mind," Herzer said, rolling his eyes at the sky. "Let's go find some friends of mine. They're at least somewhat more likely to be friendly."

They walked along through the crowd until Herzer spotted first Shilan and then, sitting next to her, Cruz. They were parked along the stream at the edge of the crowd, leaning against some balks of timber.

"Hey, guys," Herzer said, wandering over with his arm around Morgen's waist. "How's it going?"

"To the dogs, Herzer, it's going to the dogs," Cruz replied. "Who's your friend?"

"Morgen, Cruz Foscue and Hsu Shilan, Shilan is like her first name. Cruz, Shilan, Morgen."

Herzer set the basket down and first lifted out the greens, which were bundled in some of the outer leaves, then took out the blanket and shook it out on the ground, hoping there wouldn't be any evident stains.

"Man, dude, you are always prepared," Cruz said. "Where'd you get the rabbit food?"

"We went for a walk in the woods," Morgen said and then blushed bright red.

"Bast showed me some of the stuff that's edible in the spring," Herzer replied. "You can eat all of this stuff raw, but some of it is better cooked." He pulled out a stick of asparagus and nibbled on it. "Umm . . . tasty. Just like the deer eat."

"It is good," Morgen said, finishing off another stalk of asparagus. "Am so'gif," she added, munching on a fern head.

"Oooo! Plums," Cruz said, snatching up the fruit.

"Nah, kudzi," Herzer corrected as Cruz's face twisted in surprise.

"It's good," Cruz said, taking another bite then handing the rest over to Shilan.

"Yeah, but you gotta watch that juice," Herzer said, straight-faced. But the comment still elicited a hysterical giggle from Morgen.

"I need to visit the little girl's room," Shilan suddenly said. "Care to come with me, Morgen?"

"Sounds like a fine idea," Morgen replied, dusting off her hands.

The two men watched the women leave and then Cruz shook his head.

"They do that just to make us nervous, you know that don't you?"

"Yeah," Herzer said. "But do they know that we know?"

"They're going to dissect us in the bathroom, you know that."

"Hey, they're latrines," Herzer pointed out. "Unless they smell much better than ours they're not going to stand in the latrine and dissect us."

"Huh. Good point," Cruz said with a shrug of his shoulders. "But that doesn't mean they won't stand outside. By the way, dude, I have got to ask you this."

"What?" Herzer said with a crease of his brow.

"Do you take a pill or something? I mean, give me a break. One day you're running around with a nymphomaniac wood elf . . ."

"She was not a nymphomaniac!" Herzer interjected.

"Whatever. She's like three thousand years old and knows every position in the Kama Sutra!"

"Oh, thousand . . . maybe . . ." Herzer corrected. "And, okay, the Kama Sutra's like primer!"

"God almighty, man," Cruz laughed. "What? Is it a pill? Give me some."

"I dunno," Herzer said. "I was asking myself the same question. It's like: 'Hey, it's the end of the world. We can get Herzer laid now!' "

Cruz laughed so hard he rolled over on the ground, waving his hand in the air for Herzer to stop.

"It's not fair," he said, waving a finger at Herzer. "You're not the last man in the world! It's not supposed to work that way!"

"I dunno. End of the world, all of a sudden women find me interesting. Don't ask me, I just live here! If there was a pill I would have been taking it for the last five years. And, besides, hey, you, Shilan? Who are you to talk?"

"I've been working on Shilan for a week," Cruz replied in exasperation. "Your wood elf takes off and the first time you come back to town it's wham!"

"I dunno," Herzer said with a shrug. "It's just my searing good looks."

"Oh, puh-leeeze," Cruz replied. Cruz was just a shade under two meters tall with long, wavy blond hair, green eyes and a chiseled face. Everyone in the society was good looking but even within that group, Cruz was on the high end.

"Look, Cruz, don't tell me that you have a lot of problems meeting girls," Herzer said. "When I was growing up I had . . . uh . . . a genetic problem. It made me act really weird. I twitched, I couldn't hold my hands steady, my head was always twitching. Nobody, and especially girls, wanted to get within ten meters of me in case it was catching. Even my damned parents 'gave me my adult freedom' at fourteen. By that time I hadn't seen either one of them in more than three years; all I had raising me was nannies."

"So what happened?" Cruz asked.

"Well, thank goodness just before the Fall it got fixed. By Dr. Daneh as a matter of fact."

"Edmund Talbot's wife?" Cruz asked.

"Uh . . . they're not . . . I don't think they're married but . . . yeah."

"So you know Edmund?"

"Except in passing, I'd never met Edmund until the other day in the bath. But I do know Dr. Daneh and I went to school with his daughter."

"Cool."

"Well, I mean that and a chit will get me a meal," Herzer said with a note of exasperation.

"Yeah," Cruz said, frowning. "But you know people. I don't know nobody here." For just a moment he looked haunted.

"Hey," Herzer said, leaning forward and punching him in the shoulder. "You know me, you know everybody in Class A-5 and you know Morgen. Before you know it you're going to know everybody in this town."

"Now there is a goal to strive for," Cruz smiled sadly. "But I had friends, you know? I never realized how scattered, but they were friends. Here . . . there's nobody for me. Nobody at my back."

"Yeah," Herzer admitted. But in truth, since he'd never had anyone at his back, he couldn't really empathize. "Speaking of which, have you seen Courtney and Mike?"

"Oh, yeah, Courtney drug Mike over to go dancing," Cruz said.

"With what?" Herzer laughed. "Oxen?"

"Pretty damned close, man," Cruz replied, smiling. "Actually, I think she just threatened to cut him off." He looked over Herzer's shoulder and chuckled. "Don't look now, the womenfolk are coming back."

"We gonna tell 'em we're on to their secret?" Herzer asked, raising one eyebrow.

"Nah," Cruz said. "Let 'em think they know something we don't."

* * *

There were still some greens left when Mike and Courtney, streaming sweat in the cool spring air, came walking back from the dancing. Introductions were made and then Mike thumped to the ground with a theatrical groan.

"That's it, I'm done," he said, waving his hands in the air and lying back on the ground. "This is a rest day!"

"Wimp," Courtney said, her hands on her hips and obviously raring to go back to the dance floor. "How about you, Herzer?"

"Eh, nope, I have a prior engagement with Morgen here," he replied, standing up and holding out his hand. "Care to dance, milady?" he asked, sticking one leg out as he bowed with a flourish.

"Why certainly, sirrah," Morgen replied, snatching his hand and hoisting herself to her feet.

Herzer danced with Morgen for nearly an hour, jigs and reels and square dances, until he felt he was going to drop. Somewhere in there he had partnered off with Courtney and at one point even with Shilan but eventually came back to Morgen. After that dance the female minstrel held up her fiddle in apparent surrender.

"We're taking a little break now," she said to the crowd as she wiped sweat dramatically from her brow. "So should you!"

Herzer started to walk away then saw Edmund coming out of the edge of the crowd. He put his hand on Morgen's arm to stop her and both of them saw Edmund walk over to the stage and wiggle his finger at the female fiddler. She raised an eyebrow in return. Edmund's opinion of minstrels had become a standing joke in the town. So it was with an expression of obviously humorous trepidation that she stepped across the stage and leaned down to listen to what he had to say. Herzer wasn't close enough to hear but he saw both her eyebrows raise in surprise and then she nodded, at which Edmund nodded in return. He walked to the edge of the stage and motioned to someone in the crowd. The short, dark man stepped out carrying a set of bagpipes. The minstrel had gotten the rest of the band together. As the man carrying the pipes mounted the stage she stepped to the front and raised her hands.

"Excuse me, folks, we've been requested to do one more number, but it's nay a dance tune," she said with a rueful chuckle. She shook the piper's hand and waited for him to inflate the bellows, then nodded the beat.

Herzer's skin went cold at the shivery sound of the pipes. He'd heard pipe music before and in general could take them or leave them. But this was unlike any tune he had ever heard. It reached down into him and grabbed something in his soul, something old and wild and terrible. His skin flushed cold and goosebumps came out on his arms as the rest of the band joined in. Then the female began to sing and with the first lyric he was gone.

"Axes flash, broadsword swing,
Shining armour's piercing ring
Horses run with polished shield,
Fight Those Bastards till They Yield
Midnight mare and blood red roan,
Fight to Keep this Land Your Own
Sound the horn and call the cry,
'How Many of Them Can We Make Die!' "

Herzer could almost swear he heard the sound of sword on shield and the hoarse bellowing of battle in the distance. He stood there transfixed as the song ended and then looked at Morgen openmouthed. She returned it with an unreadable expression.

"That was amazing," he said finally.

"I liked it," she said, still looking at him with an odd expression in her eye. "But when you were listening to it, you looked really weird."

Herzer thought about that for a second then nodded, a muscle working in his jaw.

"Somebody told me once that we all wear masks," he said quietly. "I think that song just strips some of mine away."

Edmund had mounted the stage by then. He looked at the minstrel and nodded in approval then raised his hands above his head for quiet.

"OYEZ! OYEZ!" some of the people in the crowd shouted. Then in the back of the crowd there was a stentorian bellow of: "AT EASE!"

"Thank you, Gunny," Edmund said to some scattered chuckles. "I have some announcements to make, a couple of things to cover. And I'd like thank these, uhm . . . players here for getting everyone's attention for me." Over the scattered laughter Herzer considered not so much what Edmund was saying but how. The crowd was large and not entirely silent. Furthermore there were no acoustical effects to assist him. But he somehow pitched his voice to carry all the way to the rear of the crowd. Herzer wasn't sure how he had done it, but it was a darn good trick.

"Many of you are in the familiarization program also called the apprenticeship program," Talbot said. "The final schedules for that have been determined and posted. They cover all except for the last two weeks, which are going to be military training, including familiarization with longbow and other weapons. This will be in the last two weeks of training, at the end of which you will be given your final scores for the courses, and masters from some of the crafts will accept applications from those of you who they feel have some talent in the craft. Also at that time applications will be taken for the Raven's Mill Defense Force and persons who have shown aptitude in that area can apply.

"For everyone who is in the apprentice courses or not, you should be aware that the portion of the agreement that everyone made when arriving at Raven's Mill relating to defense of Raven's Mill was not just lip service. One of the things that the smiths are working on very hard right now is the production of defense weapons, primarily spears. Over the last two weeks the town council has been working on a charter for Raven's Mill and it will be presented next week. But one of the features of the charter that everyone should be aware of is a requirement that a person be skilled in one or more weapons of defense in order to be an eligible voter." At that there was a burst of surprised talking, although not as much as Herzer expected. It was pretty clear that many people either knew of the rule or expected it to be included. Edmund raised his hands to call for silence and waited until most of the talking had died down.

"The only exception to this are those who can show that they have clear philosophical or religious objections to violence. In which case they will be required to take training in the care of combat casualties. Everyone in this town will be prepared to defend it. Many of you had things taken from you by force when you were traveling here. Others still worse problems," he said, gazing from person to person in the crowd.

"Historically once bandits find that the pickings are slim on roads, they begin attacking towns. We will be prepared to defend this town. To emphasize this, Sheida Ghorbani is calling a constitutional convention with the intent to reconstitute the North American Union. It is my strongly held opinion, supported by Sheida and other council members, that this requirement, to be capable of defending one's self and the community, be a universal requirement within the North American Union."

"The fact is that we are in the midst of a civil war. It seems right now that we are not, but just as we are recovering and preparing, Paul and his faction are recovering and preparing. At the moment, the Council is fighting the Council, but that battle is effectively stalemated. So, in time, they will come for us. And we will be prepared. You have all gone through much hardship and these may seem somber thoughts for a day devoted to celebration. But they are important thoughts, things that we should all be thinking and talking about. And making our personal decisions. So that when the time comes for you to vote on these questions, you can vote with understanding and knowledge.

"And to tell you the truth I think that's enough to put on your plate for now. You should have plenty to talk about," he ended with a smile. "So as soon as these . . . uh . . . players get their breath back, you all go back to having a good time. Take care." He waved again and started to step down from the stage but turned back and raised his arms. "Oh, by the way, this requirement extends to minstrels!" At that there was a general laugh.

"Yeah? Well I swing a mean fiddle case," the redhead replied, swinging the case of her violin around her head.

"Well, we'll just see how you do with an axe," Edmund replied and stepped down from the stage.

A crowd had already gathered around Edmund so Herzer didn't feel it was the time to ask his questions. Instead he and Morgen wandered back to the patch by the stream that had been claimed by their group.

"He's right, that is a lot to talk about," Courtney said, flopping to the ground and leaning back against the balks of timber.

"Oof! North American Union!" was all Cruz said, shaking his head.

"Yeah, that's some deep stuff," Mike agreed.

"Well I don't think that it's right that everyone should have to use weapons," Morgen said angrily. "I don't have any interest in killing people. Or even hurting them."

"What if they are interested in hurting you?" Shilan asked quietly.

"Why would they hurt me?" Morgen challenged. "What have I done to them? If everyone starts getting ready for a fight, sooner or later you're going to have one!"

"People don't have to have a reason to hurt other people," Herzer said. "They just have to be the kind of people that enjoy it."

Shilan looked at him oddly for a moment then nodded.

"Listen to Herzer," she said.

"I take it you had trouble on the trip?" Courtney asked.

"Yeah," Shilan replied, sharply.

"What happened?" Morgen asked.

"I do not choose to discuss it," Shilan said. She wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them tight to her and looking into the distance.

Cruz's face tightened as a muscle worked in his jaw. Then he looked off to the side.

"I'm sorry, Shilan," Morgen said. "I'm sorry for whatever happened to you. But I still don't agree. Violence never settles anything."

Herzer snorted and tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a laugh.

"What?" Morgen snapped.

"Sorry . . . sorry . . ." he said, still trying not to laugh. "I was just . . . thinking. Maybe you ought to ask the Melcon AI if violence ever settles anything. Or the Carthaginian Senate or the Islamic Jihad."

"What are you talking about?" Morgen asked.

"Have you ever heard of the Melcon AI?"

"Yes, I've heard of the Melcon AI."

"Does it still exist?" Herzer asked with a smile.

"No. It was destroyed in the AI wars," Morgen said, standing up and putting her hands on her hips. "But this is the forty-first century not the thirty-first! Surely we've risen above that, wrestling in wars like boys on a playground!"

"This we defend," Herzer said, shaking his head. "Or not, as the case may be," he continued, looking at Shilan.

"What he is trying to say is, people have always been violent," Courtney interjected. "There have always been wars and as long as we stay human beings there will always be wars. The period of the last thousand years was a golden age. And it would be nice to go back to that. But if the cost of going back to that is letting Paul decide what is right and wrong . . . You can try to limit it by diplomacy but the diplomacy has already broken down. It broke down in the Council hall. When Paul attacked Sheida."

"Well, we only have her word for that," Morgen pointed out.

"Oh, good God," Courtney replied, throwing her hands up in the air. "Herzer, you try."

"Nope ain't gonna do it," Herzer replied. "Morgen, you can say that you just want to sit this out. That's fine. But people aren't going to let you sit it out. You can choose to leave Raven's Mill. I'm sure that there are going to be communities that are not going to enforce the requirements. You can even say that you have strongly held philosophical objections and train to handle casualties. But if you go elsewhere, to a community that says they just want to be neutral or 'violence never settles anything' sooner or later Paul's forces will take you over and not ask your opinion. Or you'll be in the way of Sheida's forces and they'll take you over and not ask your opinion. I for one am not going to let Paul Bowman tell me how to run my life. I know enough history to understand what that road leads to. And I would rather sit here on the ground in the rain and eat maggoty bread than allow him to gain absolute power over Mother."

"But there's no way to fight him!" Morgen said. "He's a council member! They're all council members. Let them fight!"

"It's stalemated," Herzer said with a shrug. "And Bowman wants the entire world under his sway. He is going to come for you, Morgen. And for me and Shilan. Because he thinks it's the right thing to do. It's his mission in life. You can sit on one side or you can sit on the other. But if you sit in the middle, you're just going to get trampled."

"That's just . . . paranoia," Morgen said, stamping her foot. "You're all . . . warmongers! And you can just go to hell, Herzer Herrick!" With that she stomped away.

"Not bad, Romeo," Cruz said, leaning back. "Pick her up in the morning, have your way with her all afternoon and she's gone by evening. Not bad!"

Shilan took this opportunity to hit him in the shoulder as hard as she could with a week's worth of built up muscle.

"Ooow! Jeeze!"

"Less than you deserve," Courtney said.

"I was just joking," Cruz replied, rubbing his arm.

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