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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Herzer returned to the corral tired and sore. The trail ride had turned out to be far more involved than simply riding along in a group chatting. They had started off that way and had taken the horses for a long tour of the area, including a ride through Raven's Mill. Then, apparently with Myron's permission, they had spent some time pushing his small herd of cattle around and attempting, with mostly laughable failure, something called "cutting out." Using only the horses, they were supposed to pick one member out of the herd and move it away from the rest. Supposedly, in the really old days, this had been so regular and common as to be without notice. Not so here. The cattle would hardly break up when the horses approached and when they did start running they tended to stay together. Trying to get into the herd and push a single individual out turned out to be nearly impossible for most of the riders. The exceptions were Kane, Alyssa and, strangely, Herzer.

The Arabs, which two of the men and one of the women were riding, seemed to take a strange delight in herding the cows. But with the exception of Alyssa, none of the others could get a single individual cut out. Alyssa was able to control her mount well enough, using mostly knee control and shifting weight, to manage the feat at least once. Kane, likewise, was able to control his mount to do the work.

In Herzer's case, he swore Diablo was prescient and, like the Arabs, the young stallion seemed to enjoy the herding. All that Herzer had to do was get him pointed at the right cow and let him do the work.

After a sweat-soaked hour of running cows around—Myron came over while it was going on and remarked that they'd probably run a month's grazing off the herd—they headed back to the corrals. But the day wasn't over. They rode, mostly at a canter, back to the corrals and had a light lunch. Then Kane produced implements for a sport he called "Cowboy Polo" and broke them into two teams. The object of the game was using long mallets to strike an inflated rubber ball about a third of a meter across and drive it from one end of the massive pasture to the other, then through a small "goal" designated by two fence posts.

They played that for the rest of the day, changing horses twice although never people, and by the end of the day Herzer was exhausted but satisfied. He had played on Alyssa's team and while they had lost, four goals to Kane's team's six, he had scored three of the goals.

Again Diablo, who had played almost half the game, seemed to have a knack for running down the balls. It was like the chase game with the cows in a way. In the brief intervals between "chukkers" Kane had explained the genesis of the game. Supposedly it had been invented by the ancient Mongols and the original "balls" had been severed human heads. He also said that the usual "ball" used was about the size of a human fist. Having mis-hit the much larger ball any number of times, Herzer had as much disbelief in that as the human head story.

He had fallen off, been "unseated" as Kane put it, only once and had remembered to fall as "bonelessly" as possible. His prior combat training had come to the fore permitting him to turn the fall into a roll.

"You need to get right back up," Kane said, riding over. "If you fall off and you don't get right back up, you'll have one hell of a hard time riding again, ever."

Herzer shook his head to clear it and then nodded. "Get right back up. I'll remember," he said muzzily.

When he got back up the replacement for Diablo had been patiently waiting, cropping at some of the sparse grass on the recently cleared field. So he had remounted and gotten back in the game.

However, at the conclusion, he wasn't sure he ever wanted to see a horse again. Unfortunately, he desperately needed a bath and to have his clothes washed. And while riding over to the baths was an unpleasant prospect, walking over was about the only thing worse that he could imagine.

Kane had told them to go get a bath and to take a horse if they wanted to. Obviously the intent was not only to get the smelly, sweaty group cleaned up but to get them some more practice riding, so Herzer reluctantly walked over to the corral after the last chukker and whistled up Diablo.

The horse looked at least as uncertain about being ridden as Herzer felt about riding, but he soothed the animal with scratches and finally got the saddle on and adjusted. Riding over was very unpleasant but when he thought about walking he had to admit that riding was at least shorter.

There were at least six others headed over to the baths at about the same time. All the other riders, however, were reenactors who were old friends of Kane and Alyssa. While they didn't deliberately cut Herzer out of the conversation most of it was so "in" that he couldn't even keep up with the names so he just rode along in silence, nursing his various hurts.

At the baths he gladly handed his now dry but crusty clothes over to the ubiquitous Darius and headed for the baths. He had parked Diablo around the corner on a long enough lead that he could crop some grass and when they got back the horse was due for a good feed and a roll.

He scrubbed hard in the cold water of the showers and then nearly screamed when the hot water struck his raw spots. But the pain quickly subsided and as the heat penetrated all his abused muscles it induced a pleasant euphoria that lasted for some time. By the time he felt he could drag himself out of the bath it was dark and the kitchens were nearly closed. He got his clothes, trotted down on Diablo—sensibly riding high in the stirrups to protect his abused bottom—and got some of the last of the scraps. After that he rode back to the corrals, fed his horse, brushed it down, got it a good feed, put away his gear and staggered off to the building designated as a bunkhouse. He found his basket in the dark, rolled out his fur and was asleep practically before he could get his boots off.

* * *

"Edmund," Sheida said, appearing in his office as the town council filed in the door.

"Sheida, we're busy here," Edmund said. "Could you just call me or something? Maybe, just once, leave a message?"

The rest of the council stopped, shocked, at the sight of him chewing out a council member but Sheida just nodded in sympathy.

"I'm starting to forget that people don't split," she sighed, stroking the image of her flying lizard. "I'm sorry, Edmund."

"What is it this time?" he asked, still exasperated.

"I've freed up enough energy to have virtual meetings for the constitutional convention and more important, for the writing of the first draft. I want you to be on it."

"Great I'll slide that in my free time between figuring out how to feed three thousand people and defending them from raiders."

"Is it that bad out there?" she asked, frowning.

"McCanoc is back," he growled. "He burned Fredar."

"Oh," she said, shaking her head. "I don't know how that one passed me by. But it's not the first by a long stretch."

"Nor will it be the last," Edmund agreed. "And we may be next."

"Do you know his current location?" she asked. "He has come up . . . at a higher level lately."

"No, somewhere west of Fredar on the plains presumably," Edmund said. "When is this meeting?"

"When would be convenient?" she asked, looking around and nodding at the council members. "Sorry for taking your time."

"No problem." "Quite all right . . ."

"Tomorrow evening?" he asked.

"Eightish?" she said, glancing in the distance. "That will . . . work. See you then," she added and vanished.

"To have the power . . ." Deshurt said.

"I wouldn't want her headaches," Talbot responded. "Okay, if you'll all grab a seat, the first order of business is another crack at the banking code . . ."

"Rachel," Daneh called as her daughter was heading out the door of the infirmary. It had been a long day at the infirmary, it was late and Rachel was due some time off. But she had put this off long enough.

"Yes?" Rachel said.

"Could I talk to you for a minute?" Daneh asked, waving at her office. "It's not . . . I just need to ask you a question."

Rachel furrowed her brow quizzically but followed her mother into the office.

"You've been talking to more people than I have," Daneh said, when the door was closed. "One of the things that should be done about the women who were raped is they should talk about it."

"I wasn't, Mother," Rachel said, looking at her with a frown. "Or . . . do you want someone to talk to?" she said with a worried tone.

"Well, yes, but not you, dear," Daneh said with a chuckle. "I was wondering if you knew . . . anyone who might want to talk."

Rachel thought about it for a moment and shrugged. "Yes. That is, I know some girls who . . . had a bad time on the trip. I haven't tried to draw any of them out about it. Should I?"

It was Daneh's turn to frown in thought but then she shrugged. "Talking about it is very important for healing. But what I was wondering was, could you ask some of them to maybe meet me in the evenings? One of the important things I learned from Bast is that . . . there are odd thoughts and feelings that are lingering presences of the rape. I think it's about time that some of us who have had that experience share it with each other and start to try to . . . heal."

"Oh," Rachel said. "I'll . . . see what I can find out."

"Thank you," Daneh replied with a smile. "Do you have any idea how much you have changed . . . grown, since the Fall?"

"Sometimes I feel a thousand years old, if that's what you mean," Rachel sighed.

"You know," Daneh said, leaning back in her chair. "I'm your mother. We can talk about things other than work."

"It's okay, Mom, really," Rachel replied. "It's nothing as . . . big as what you have to work through. Just the same problem everybody has. I keep wishing that it would all go back the way it used to be, you know?"

"Yes, I do," Daneh said, sadly. "Do you ever whisper 'genie' to yourself? I know I do."

"Sometimes," Rachel replied with a nod. "Sometimes when I can't get to sleep I just imagine that we're all back the way we used to be." Her face worked for a moment and she shook her head. "I hate this world. Sometimes I wish I'd never been born!"

"Don't wish that," Daneh said, shaking her head. "I love you and the world would be a sadder place if you weren't in it. Know that. It's okay to grieve for what we've lost. But don't wish you hadn't existed. You have a long life to live and there is still joy to be found. Friends to cherish and love. Maybe even a boyfriend, hmmm? Edmund and I would like a grandchild some day."

"I'm a little young for that, Mother," Rachel said.

"Aren't we all," Daneh said, rubbing at her belly. "It's odd to know that there's something growing inside of me. I've been awfully tired lately, and I think that's part of it. But, even knowing that half of it is . . . from them, half of it is from me. And . . . I cannot find it in me to hate the child unborn."

"So . . . you're going to keep it?" Rachel asked.

"Well, even if there weren't some very serious dangers involved in getting rid of him or her," Daneh said, "I think the answer is: Yes. I'm going to keep him. Or her. I don't think I could do anything else. It's a child and I can't find it in me to kill a child."

"Okay," Rachel said. "If that's how you feel. I'm a little . . . intimidated by the whole idea. You know there are risks to you, right?"

"They're risks that women have faced for countless ages," Daneh shrugged. "Just because we were rid of them for a while, doesn't mean I should run away from them. And . . . neither should you."

"I have to find the right guy," Rachel replied with a frown. "That hasn't happened, yet."

"Herzer is . . . nice," Daneh said, carefully.

"Herzer is . . . Herzer," Rachel said with a frown. "And . . . he's not what I'm looking for. He's a good friend but . . . just a friend."

"So was your father," Daneh replied. "Until I got over thinking that I had to have something besides a friend. I'm not telling you to throw yourself at Herzer, but don't ignore an opportunity because the person is a 'friend.' "

"Okay, Mom," Rachel replied then paused. "Can I ask a question? And I know it's none of my business but . . ."

"Your father and I are . . . getting along," Daneh said, frowning slightly. "It has been . . . difficult. The first time . . . after was hard. Probably as hard on him as it was on me in a way."

"I'm not sure that I'm up to details about my parent's sex life, Mom," Rachel said in a choked voice. "I'm sorry. I was just wondering if you guys were okay?"

"We're okay, now," Daneh said with a chuckle. "And, I can see we're reaching the end of this little chat . Seriously, talk to me from time to time. I need a friend, too."

"I will, Mom," Rachel said, getting up and going around the desk to give her mother a hug. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay? And I'll always be your friend."

* * *

Edmund had just composed himself in his favorite chair when Sheida appeared.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Let's get to it," Edmund said and was immediately, apparently, transported to a large room filled with about ten other members. Some of them he recognized immediately; others were strangers.

"Thank you all for volunteering your time to this," Sheida said, waving her lizard away. The reptile took off from her shoulder and then apparently vanished as it left the zone she was broadcasting. "I think this first meeting should cover general principles of what we're trying to do. I think I'll let Edmund speak to that first. Edmund, please introduce yourself."

"I recognize some of you and others I don't know," Edmund said. "So I'll give my general background. I have what was once referred to as a doctorate in political science and another in military affairs. My specialty is preindustrial societies and militaries. In addition I have been a reenactor for much of my life. I'm currently the mayor of Raven's Mill, which is a growing survivor society in the Shenan Valley. Working under their aegis and agreement I'm here to propose that the original Constitution of Norau be enacted with minimal amendments and with all rights of the citizens kept intact. All rights."

The rest were introduced and most of them were from similar communities although two were working directly with the Council in projects. All agreed, in principle, that the original Constitution be enacted, but all had some reservations.

"Edmund," Sheida said, coming back to him again. "What changes would you enact?"

"The first that I would suggest is a stronger wording of the right to own weapons. That it be added that it is for self-defense, defense of the community and for protection from unconstitutional acts of the government. Furthermore it should be the duty of all citizens of military age to own and show capability of use of weapons."

"I have a strong objection to that," the delegate from Chitao town said, frowning. "We've had homesteads burned out by brigands already. I don't see why they should have weapons or the right to them."

"Are they citizens of the community?" Edmund replied. "Furthermore, it is not their ownership of the weapons that is at fault but the use to which they put them. In the codes section the first portion of the code should be a strong prohibition against illegal use of weapons with strong penalties. But in Raven's Mill we are arming our citizens. They are a strong proponent of the defense of the town. This particular position is what they used to call a 'litmus test' for us. We will not have our citizens disarmed by the government under any circumstances short of active rebellion and then only on an individual basis."

"I support Duke Edmund in this," Mike Spehar, the representative from Westphal said. He was a tall, fair man who had dressed for the meeting in armor. "The most important thing that a preindustrial republic must have is a well-distributed armed class. Failure to have such inevitably leads to the establishment of feudalism.

"I am not a duke anymore, Baron Longleaf," Edmund snapped.

"You are still listed on the Society rolls as such," Spehar said. "And it is that which I propose to amend. Many of the towns are developing from the skills of society members or those associated with them. Many of the towns have already reestablished a meritocratic aristocracy. And some that are holding out against the idea are doing so because of the existing rolls. My proposals fall into that area."

"Mike, you're nuts," Edmund replied. "First you rail against feudalism and then you want to bring in its trappings?"

"We're not just accepting society position gratis in Westphal," Spehar replied. "As I said, a meritocratic-based aristocracy. Instead of a Senate elected by the states or the state legislatures, a House of Lords, so to speak, that would have both hereditary aristocracy and members with lifetime appointments for particular merit. The latter, especially, would represent a true 'higher house' and the hereditary aristocracy could be used to woo those who are avoiding entry due to loss of privilege."

"You're talking about dictatorial warlords like that bastard down in Cartersville," the representative from Chitao snapped. "They're exactly what we want to eliminate!"

"And how would you eliminate them?" Spehar replied with a frown of contempt. "You're planning on disarming your citizens. Are you planning on winning them over by smiling a lot or by selling your daughters?"

"Gentlemen!" Sheida snapped. "Calm down. All right, that is two proposed modifications to the base document. I'm sure there will be more. We will all have a chance to present them and look them over, then we can get down to editing and arguing. For now, we'll just let them be presented. Without commentary."

This is going to be a long night, Edmund thought.

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