Protector (Marked Like Me Book 0)

Book: The Protector's War
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I almost think we'll talk like normal adults. I don't expect the shirtless behemoth who comes barreling through my door.

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Landon's grown up. All snarls, testosterone, and lethal chemistry. We're in trouble, he says. Oh, Landon. Oh, baby, don't I know it? From Wall Street Journal bestselling author Nicole Snow - a tale of two hearts torn, stomped, and dragged through the mud. An uber-alpha protector bent on reclaiming his nerd next door. Full length romance novel with a Happily Ever After worth a "hell yeah.

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About Nicole Snow. Nicole Snow. Even with the leader's luxury of more than one gambeson-so that they could be switched off and washed occasionally-you never really got the oldsocks-and-locker-room smell out of the thick quilting you wore under armor. Mingled with horse sweat soaked into leather and the oil you rubbed on the metal of the armor to keep it free of rust, it was the smell of a trade: the trade of war in the Changed world. He walked to the center of the stretch of grass; sheep kept it cropped now, not so neatly as it had been when this was a rich man's toy, Ken Larsson's summer place.

The others dropped back; the troopers who stood to keep a circle cleared here were from the Bearkiller A-lister elite, armored as he was, their long single-edged swords drawn and points touching the grass before them. Sunlight flashed and glittered and broke from the honed edges as they flourished them upright in salute. He approached the brass bowl that stood on a stone plinth; it was heaped with a gritty gray-black powder.

A hush fell over the crowd, broken by the susurrus of breath, the voices of children running around on the fringes, somewhere the neigh of a horse. Birds went loud overhead-honking geese, tundra swans, V's of ducks heading north-and a red-tailed hawk's voice sounded an arrogant skree-skreeskree. Signe offered her tray of pine splints. Havel took one and waved it through the air until flame crackled, sending a scent of burning resin into the air along with a trail of black smoke.

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The powder burned slowly, black smoke drifting downwind with a stink of scorched sulfur. The flame flickered sullen red; an occasional burst of sparks made people skip back when clumps were tossed out of the bowl like spatters from hot cooking oil. There was none of the volcanic woosh it would have produced before the Change; the sharp fireworks smell was about the only familiar thing involved.

When the sullen fire died, nothing was left but a lump of black ash; a gust of wind swept it out in feathery bits to scatter across grass and clothes and faces. They did this every year on the anniversary of the Change, just to make formally and publicly sure that it hadn't reversed itself; it had grown into something of a public holiday, too-more in the nature of a wake than a celebration in the strict sense, but boisterous enough for all that. The watching crowd sighed. Some of the adults-men and women who'd been adult that March day nine years ago-burst into tears; many more looked as if they'd like to cry.

The children and youngsters were just excited at the official beginning of the holiday; to them the time before the Change was fading memories, or tales of wonders. Though by now we wouldn't get the old world back even if the Change reversed itself, he thought grimly. Too many dead, too much wrecked and burned. And would we dare depend on those machines again, if we knew the whole thing could be taken away in an instant? He felt a sudden surge of rage-at whoever, Whoever, or whatever had kicked the work of ages into wreck, and at the sheer unfairness of not even knowing why.

Then he pushed the feeling aside with a practiced effort of will; brooding on it was a short route to madness. That hadn't killed as many as hunger and the plagues, but it came a close third, and a lot of the people still breathing weren't what you could call tightly wrapped. But a pancake breakfast we can still manage. Let's go! Juniper Mackenzie said to her son; she spoke in Gaelic, as she often did with him, something to keep her mother's language alive a little longer. Alive in Oregon, at least, she thought. On the other side of the world She suspected and hoped Ireland had done better than most places, uncrowded as it was and protected by the sea.

And Achill Island What would the Mother-of-All say, to see you wasting it so? She was only half serious as she wiped sticky butter and syrup from around Rudi Mackenzie's mouth, but the serious half was there too. Nobody who'd lived through the Dying Time right after the Change would ever be entirely casual about food again; plague had taken millions, fighting there had been in plenty, but sheer raw starvation had killed the most.

Some survivors were gluttons when they could be, more were compulsive hoarders, but hardly anyone took where the next meal was coming from lightly. Nobody decent took the work involved in producing food now lightly, either. She'd laugh an' tell me to lick my fingers," Rudi said, also an Gaeilge, and did so. The boy's smile grew dazzling, and Juniper felt her heart turn over as he threw his arms around her neck.

There was her friend Luther Finney, a whipcord-tough old man who'd been a farmer near the town of Corvallis and still was-and sat on the University Council as well, since the ag faculty of Oregon's Moo U had ended up taking over that area. Captain Jones of the university's militia, too. The abbot of the warrior monks of Mt. Angel was wearing armor under his black Benedictine robe-presumably to mortify the flesh; they'd gotten rather strange there. Nobody from farther north than that; the abbey's lands were a thumb poked into the territories of the Portland Protective Association, and Lord Protector Norman Arminger was no man's friend.

A scattering were from the smaller groups south of the empty zone around the ruins of Eugene; some of those were Witch folk like her clan, and had taken to imitating Mackenzie customs, or taken them and run with them, often to embarrassing lengths-the leaders of the McClintocks were not only dressed in kilts, but in the wraparound Great Kilt rather than the more practical tailoredfeilebeag style her folk wore.

Some others were the saner type of survivalist, of which southern Oregon had had many, some just survivors. There was even a kibbutz. Juniper and her party were sitting at the center of the upper table, near Mike Havel and his folk. The Bearkillers were hosts here, and the Mackenzies honored guests and allies-which was good, but a bit awkward in one respect Well, shit, this is a problem, Mike Havel thought, watching the boy run.

Oh, is it ever a problem. He had to hide a grin as Rudi's mother tousled his hair before he jumped off the bench and dashed shouting to join an impromptu soccer game not far from where the trestle tables stood on the great lawn, bare feet flashing and kilt flying-that and a Care Bears T-shirt were all he was wearing; most had a broader comfort range with temperatures these days.

He had something of her pale coloring, though there was as much gold as red in the hair that fell in ringlets to his shoulders, and his eyes were graygreen. Feet and hands promised he'd have a tall man's height when he got his growth; right now he was all arms and legs.

He was already agile as a young collie, though, vaulting across a friend's back and cartwheeling from sheer exuberance. Even in youth his face had a promise of jewel-cut handsomeness, square-jawed and straight-nosed, and a trace of the exotic-high cheekbones, a tilt to his eyes. Those were the legacy of Havel's blood, east-Karelian Finn mingled with Norse and Swede and a dash of Ojibwa; he'd run into Juniper while he was scouting the Willamette that spring and she was out of her home territory over in the Cascade foothills with a small party doing the same thing.

Only for three days, but it had been intense, starting with a stiff fight with a cannibal band and moving on to That she had gotten pregnant was the problem, this last little while. Turn the boy's bright hair raven dark and he was his father's spitting image, minus a quarter century-his actual blood father, not Juniper's handfasted husband Rudy, who'd died with so many others when the Change hit precisely nine years ago, caught in an airplane taking off from Eugene's airport.

Young Rudi had been born nine months later, but this year it was finally unmistakably clear that he'd been conceived some time after Rudy Starn's life ended in flame. I can't really regret fathering him. His inward grin grew wider as he applied himself to the breakfast. It was a hell of a lot of fun, to begin with. And he's a great kid, and it looks like Juney's making a good job of raising him.

Wistfully: I wish I could see him more often, show him stuff His twin daughters Mary and Ritva-named for his mother and his father's mother-had brought out a soccer ball, and the kids started kicking it around in a whooping impromptu game that swarmed over the lawns. It didn't much resemble a pre-Change match, starting with the forty-odd kids of various ages playing, moving on from there to the hound dogs joining in and culminating with a fair bit of grabbing and tackling.

The twins had a particularly wicked method: one of them would drop, curled up into a ball, in front of someone's shins and the other would accidentally-on-purpose run full-tilt into their backs. They were identical-snub-nosed, with straw blond braids and cornflower blue eyes that slanted like his-and young Rudi went flying head over heels. The pair of them were only a few months younger, and they proceeded to pin him to the turf in a laughing tangle. All three were good-natured as tussling puppies but still exhibited half-learned judoka holds.

Most of the others at the high table laughed with him; a large percentage had children of the same age range. Not many people past their prime had lived through the first year after the Change, and the leaders were mostly in their thirties, like him. Even Abbot Dmowski, fortysomething and fiercely celibate, smiled in a lean way; he was an uncle, according to the intel reports. With their faces close together, the parentage of the three was quite obvious; so were the maternal admixtures, with the originals sitting so close together, and people must be noticing-and Signe Havel had a much better eye for the little nuances of social interaction than he did.

He could see Signe Havel turn her head and follow Rudi with her eyes-and those eyes narrow, anger the hotter for her suspicion not being quite certain.

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And it isn't the kid's fault, anyway. It's too bad, Juniper Mackenzie thought as the younger woman turned to glare at her. And we were good friends before she realized. Perhaps Mike and I should have told her, it's not as if I wanted to take the man from her, or there was anything between us after that one night but friendship. I wanted to. Well, done is done. In self-defense she loaded her plate with buckwheat pancakes studded with dried blueberries, slathered on applesauce and butter, added bacon on the side, and poured herself a big glass of rich Jersey milk.

Then she dug in, making small talk with her neighbors. She'd learned acting skills as a traveling musician before the Change, and more since; being a leader was mostly keeping up a show. Signe Havel-nee Larsson-was a Nordic beauty in her midtwenties, tall and sleekly curved, her hair a golden fall and her features perfection, save for a slight nick in the straight nose and a corresponding scar on her cheek-and the small blue mark of an A-lister between her brows. Besides her own twin girls playing with the pack, a two-year-old son sat in a high chair not far away with a nanny in attendance.

She was younger than juniper by just over a decade, but a power in the land nonetheless. Larsdalen had been her family's country home before the Change; her brother Eric was Mike's right-hand man and her father Kenneth his close advisor. Mike, you are a darling man, strong and handsome as the dawn, and clever in a heavyfooted male way, and I wouldn't regret that lovely night even if it hadn't given me Rudi Now calories are what keep you alive, not what make you fat.

Now when you have to persuade them you should remember there's a time to talk, and a time to stop hammering and let the arguments filter through on their own. Much to your displeasure, Mike, and a bit to mine, but the Corvallis people aren't coming round this month; I think Abbot Dmowski scared them green with his talk of a Crusade to crush Evil, not to mention his anathemas against Arminger's own pet pope. Aloud: "The Protector's not going to attack tomorrow, is he now? That argument was true-the spring equinox festival came very soon-and had the additional merit of being religious and hence unanswerable.

Goodbyes were made, horses rounded up-so was a protesting Rudi-and the Mackenzies mounted, a double-twelve of them not including her son on his pony. Eilir Mackenzie had been born long before the Change; fourteen years before, to be precise, and on the day of Ostara, the festival of the vernal equinox in the Old Religion. Not that that had meant anything to the teenaged single mother Juniper had been then; she'd been a nominal Catholic then, and only started to study the Craft after the fight to keep her child. That hadn't been made any easier by the daughter being deaf. Now she's twenty-three herself!

Juniper thought, bemused. Well, twenty-three in four days. How swift the Wheel spins! That OK? Juniper hid a sigh.

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The two girls had come up with the Dunedain Rangers the year after the Change, and she'd thought it an excuse to playact with their friends-an equivalent of the Scouts. Maybe it had been, then, but they hadn't grown out of it. She looked over the heads of the crowd and raised a brow to Mike; he nodded. Astrid Larsson was his sister-in-law, for all that she'd been adopted as an honorary Mackenzie years ago, and Reuben one of his people. Eilir waited, taller than her mother and black-haired, but with the same green eyes, straight-featured face and pale freckled skin; slender and strong, able to outrun a deer and ride like Epona Herself and dance the night through.

Back in high school her blood father had been Juniper's first lover, if you could call him that-the backseat of a Toyota had been involved, just the once. He'd turned out to be a faithless fink as well, but at least Eilir had gotten the good points of his splendid athlete's body and his charm, with a lot more character; Juniper flattered herself she'd supplied some of that. To be sure, Juniper went on.

I'll be as glad of Astrid's company as any of her friends, and Reuben is a good lad. Astrid had spent a good part of her time among the Mackenzies these past nine years, and she was a dear, and much admired by the younger generation. Also wild and. Rangers or no, they can't come back across the Valley alone. It'll have to wait until we drive that horse herd over, and it's not in from the Bend country yet.

Eilir grinned. She wants to be there for the Circle on Ostara too. And then we could go up to Mithrilwood for a while, get in some hunting and Rangering around. Juniper nodded, and gave a final wave to the Larsdalen folk. Then she made the Invoking sign-a pentagram, drawn in the air from the top point downbefore she chanted:. Lord and Lady, bless this journey Keep it safe to wandering's end; Yours in parting and in meetingGuard loves and hearth as home we wend. The rest of her riders and a fair number of the bystanders joined in with the final "Blessed be.

He unslung his cow-horn trumpet from the saddlebow with the other hand and blew into the silver mouthpiece: Huuuu-huuuubuuuuu! Folk shouted farewells as the horses' hooves beat out a grinding clop on the old crushed shell and new gravel of the long driveway. Juniper looked over her shoulder for a moment; Mike raised his hand in salute and turned. Looking that way, the big yellow-brick house with its white pillars didn't seem very different from the time before the Change when it had been a Portland industrialist's toy-set at the head of a long east-facing valley in the Eola Hills, gracious with a century's mellowing amid gardens and lawns and giant trees.

It was when you turned and looked down the broad V of the valley that your returned to the Changed world with a vengeance. The Bearkillers hadn't been idle since they got here towards the end of the first Change Year, nor the folk they gathered around them. There were buildings flanking the roadway; the original manager's house and sheds and barns, and others ranging from the rawly new to seven or eight years old. Some were log-cabin style, in squared timber; if there was one thing you weren't going to run short of in western Oregon, it was logs.

Others were frame, disassembled and reerected here. Digging an earth dam and berms turned part of the creek into a pond; below it a waterwheel turned to power sawmill and gristmill. Next were the big storage warehouses and grain elevator, the rows of workshops, then the cottages, and! A steep-sided earthwork thirty feet high and twenty thick spanned the valley's cut. The Bearkillers were pushing it up the hills on either side and along the summit of the steep scarp in back of the house, and now a thick stone curtain wall stood atop it-big rocks set in concrete mortar hiding a framework of; steel I-beams, with more cement plastered over the surface until it was fairly smooth, albeit patchy where the sides of the bigger boulders showed.

A massive stone blockhouse sat over the cleft where the roadway went through the middle of the berm. Four round towers of the same construction flanked the gatehouse, crenellations showing at their tops like teeth bared at heaven; nothing else broke their exteriors except narrow arrow slits, and more towers walked down the wall to either side at hundred-yard intervals.

A tall flagpole on one of the gate towers flaunted the brown-and-red banner of the Bearkillers. A militia squad guarded the open gates, farmers and laborers and craftsfolk in kettle helmets and tunics of boiled leather or chain mail doing their obligatory service, polearms or crossbows in hand. Their mounted leader was in the more elaborate harness of an A-lister-the Bearkiller elite force-and there was a crisp lordliness in the gesture he made to the troops.

His squad lined the road and crashed the ironshod butts of pike and halberd and glaive down on the pavement. The leaves of the inner gate were pulled back to either side-massive doors of welded steel beams running on tracks set into the concrete of the roadway. Juniper led her people into the echoing gate tunnel, under the chill shadow of the massive stone. As she rode, she looked up at the murder holes above, where boiling oil or water, flaming gasoline or hard-driven bolts could be showered down at need; and at the fangs of the twin portcullis that could be tripped to drop and seal the passageway off.

You could call Mike Havel a hard man, but not a bad one; he and his friends were capable, rather-and realists. But you could say they were businesslike to a daunting degree, which was mostly a good thing, and had saved her life and others' many times, but There was still a hulking brutal strength to the stonework; when she looked at it the ancient ballads she'd sung for so many years came flooding back, with a grimness added to their words by hard personal experience since the Change.

You could hear the roaring shouts and the screams, the wickering flight of arrows and the ugly cleaver sound of steel in flesh, smell the burning. Astrid would be going to the big house for all the places she ripped off the details for this, not on a visit to her friends'. This ceremony was much more private than the testing of the gunpowder, although it also involved a circle of watchers standing with swords drawn.

It was on the rear patio behind the big house, with all the registered A-list members not on inescapable duty standing in serried, armored ranks on either side of the broad pathway that led to the old swimming pool. Otherwise only the apprentice candidates were present.

There were seven this time-inductions were held every few months-all sternly controlling their excitement, all between eighteen and twenty-one, and showing the effects of a night spent sleepless and fasting. They were in the full kit of the Bearkiller elite, except for the helmet and blade. Havel stood beside the brazier where the iron heated, near a trestle that bore seven swords; the light crinkle of sound from the charcoal could be heard clearly; the only other sounds were the sough of the wind and an occasional chinking rustle from two hundred ninety-one chain hauberks. Not that I've got any objection to ceremonies.

Any force needs them, like uniforms and lags and medals and songs. The Corps had some great ones All it takes is time to add majesty, I suppose. To these kids it's the biggest deal there is. Let's make it perfect for them. The military apprentices approached. Will Button stepped out to bar the path, resting the point of his backsword against the breast of the first; he was man well into his forties, with blunt features and skin the color of oiled walnut wood and tight-curled graying hair, the drawling Texan rasp still; strong in his voice.

Button raised his voice: "Is there any Brother or Sister of the A-list who knows why Patrick Mallory, military apprentice, should not seek enrollment Speak now, or hold your peace ever after. The A-lister-to-be strode on past into the circle, his boots clacking on flagstones, and came to a halt at arm's length in front of Havel and saluted was a broad-shouldered young man of medium height, eyes and hair an markable brown, skin pale with the long gray skies of winter.

Havel answered the gesture and reached aside to pick up the sword across the trestle, standing with the steel across the leather palms of his gauntlets. This is a sword," he said. The sword is a thing men make solely for the killing of their own kind; and those who don't carry them can still die on their blades. Only an honorable man can be trusted with it. What is honor, Apprentice Mallory? If you take the sword you take death: in the end, your own death, as well as your enemy's. What is duty, next to death? The price is your oath to do justice, to uphold our laws, to put your own flesh between your land and people and war's desolation.

Are you ready to take that oath? Havel reached forward and slid the sword into the empty scabbard at the other's waist, and went on: "Kneel. The apprentice went down on one knee and held out his hands with the palms pressed together. Havel took them between his own and looked down into the fearless young lion eyes as he listened to the apprentice's words: "Until the sea floods the earth and the sky falls, or the Change is undone, or death releases me, I will keep faith and life and truth with the Bearkillers' lord; in peace or war, following all orders under the law we have made.

Now accept the mark that seals you to the Brotherhood. He released the boy's hands and reached for the wooden handle of the thin iron resting in the white-hot charcoal. Mallory's face was unflinching as he touched the brand between his eyebrows; there was a sharp hiss and scent of burning. Signe stepped forward with a quick dab of an herbal ointment for the burn. Havel struck forearms with him, outside and inside, then pulled him into a quick embrace and turned, one arm around the young man's shoulders. So witness earth-so witness sky! Metal-backed gauntlets punched into the afternoon air as near three hundred voices roared the name.

We have the work of the Outfit to do. There was more room at the family's summer estate than at the house in Portland, and making things on holiday had been just as much fun as woods-rambling and reading. He'd kept it up even in his hippydippy student rebel phase-bell-bottoms and blond Fu Manchu and all-when it had been the only thing he and his father agreed on. Then when he inherited Northwest Holdings, puttering around with a little hands-on engineering kept him sane when the managerial side of the family business threatened to drive him bughouse. The oscilloscopes and electric furnace and other fancy toys were useless now, and there wasn't any room in Larsdalen proper; the big house his grandfather had built back in was crowded to the gills with four growing families and the staff.

But rank still had its privileges. He might not be the bossman anymore, but he was the bossman's father-in-law and close advisor-closest, in anything to do with technology. In his fifty-second year-the first Change Year-his childhood hobby had become his life's work. The big technical library still helped, too. He'd had this building run up at the west end of the back meadow as soon as they had any hands to spare, or sooner; a long frame rectangle with a brick floor and running water, plenty of skylights and windows, forges and machine tools, desks and worktables and drawing boards, storage closets, and kerosene lamps hanging from the rooftree.

It all had a smell of solvents and woodsmoke and scorched metal; designs were pinned to corkboards along the walls-for reapers and mowers and threshing machines, for pumps and windmills and Pelton wheel water turbines. And for war engines, trebuchets and catapults and a flywheel-powered machine gun he knew he could get working eventually.

His young assistant ducked her head, shed her many-pocketed leather equipment apron and left; she didn't say anything, but then, she rarely did. Whatever she'd gone through while prisoner of that band of Eaters-cannibals-in central Idaho hadn't left her mute, but she was wary of human contact beyond all reason even after the newly formed Bearkiller outfit rescued her.

Larsson smiled grimly. That was back when he'd still thought his family had been unlucky to be in a Piper Chieftain over the Selway-Bitterroot National Wilderness when the Change hit. And Ken had the good luck to get Mike Havel as their pilot when he hired a puddle jumper to run them up to the ranch in Montana. A teenaged military apprentice from one of the A-lister families knocked and then swung the door in the middle of the workshop's long west wall open, letting in a flood of afternoon light and cool damp spring air. Mike Havel stood in the doorway, still in the war harness that doubled as formal dress for ceremonies.

He was eating ice cream out of a cup with a little wooden spoon, which was a rare treat these days-sugar was an expensive luxury again. A glance at the apprentice, and he handed her the bowl. Larsson hid a smile of his own, as she fought to conceal her delight. When the door swung closed Larsson could see her through the panes, eyes watchful on the open ground as she spooned up the fruit-studded confection. Havel shrugged at Larsson's look. He was a big man, but without quite the height or burly thickness of his father-in-law-a finger under six feet, broad shoulders and narrow hips showing under mail and gambeson, long in leg and arm.

He moved lightly, hugely strong without being bulky, and graceful as a hunting cat, his boots scarcely raising a creak from the boards of the stairs even with the weight of metal and leather he wore. When Larsson first met him he'd been twenty-eight and already had a weathered outdoorsman's tan, with the sort of highcheeked, strong-boned face that didn't alter much from the late teens into middle age. Apart from new scars and deep lines beside his pale, slanted gray eyes, what had changed was something indefinable Perhaps it goes with being a king, Larsson thought, and grinned.

The grin looked more piratical than it had before the Change; the older man had lost his left eye and hand to a bandit's sword in Change Year One, and the patch and hook added something too. In the distance a roaring chorus of voices rose in song, or something close to it, as booted feet clashed in unison to the beat of drums and the squeal of fifes:. Axes flash, broadswords swing Shining armor's piercing ring Horses run with a polished shield Fight those bastards till they yield! Midnight mare and bloodred roan, Fight to keep this land your ownSound the horn and call the cry: How many of them can we make die!

What's better, everyone else on the Alist likes it, too. I ducked out when she started glaring at me again-everything associated with our red-haired friend puts her on edge now. Christ Jesus, I don't need this. Can't you talk to her? Ken Larsson laughed until he wheezed. Yes, Rudi's my kid-but Signe and I weren't married then. She was still back in Idaho when I came west on that scouting mission and ran into Juney. Hell, Signe and I weren't even involved then, not really, and she'd made it pretty plain no hanky-panky was in prospect.

OK, she said no, I folded up my tent and rode away. It had been even rougher on him, the night his first wife died.

Larsson cleared his throat. Have you actually confessed yet? Grovel and apologize and beat your breast and promise never to do anything wrong again. Keep on doing it while she yells and throws things, and then while she sulks and gives you the cold shoulder beat yourself up some more. Besides, there's young Mike. She's probably worried about him. Havel's lips curled into a smile at the mention of his son's name; then he frowned in puzzlement.

Havel blinked, obviously surprised. Who said the position's hereditary, for Christ Jesus' sake? Even Arminger hasn't gone that far. Last I heard, the assembled Outfit chooses the bossman when the old one dies, retires or is impeached; and I should know, seeing as how I wrote the damned law code.

I've gone along with a lot of Astrid's pseudomedieval horse manure, but enough's enough! No golden crowns for this country boy. Larsson sighed. Or maybe I should have reminded you, even busy as we were. But done's done; if the Outfit were to select somebody else after you were gone, who owns the house? And the lands-the stuff we manage directly from here? The heirs of Mike Havel, guy with a growing family, or the successor to Lord Bear, ruler of all he can see?

And if it's the latter, what do your kids get? Parents are supposed to be anxious for their children's futures, you know; you can't blame Signe for living up to the job. This is a low-productivity economy we've got-not as bad as the Dark Ages, more nineteenth-century in a lot of ways, except it's also a pre-money setup most of the time and our population's too small for much specialization. And we've made schooling compulsory, which I approve of. But what do a tenant farmer's kids do in their munificent free time, school holidays being scheduled to coincide with the growing and harvest season?

Only a lot more so. We ran that farm part-time; mostly the family lived on what my old man made in the Iron Range mines. Now, what does an A-lister's kid do? You know, the people with the big land grants and tenants and full-time household workers. You insisted on high standards even for getting into the apprentice program, and it's hard learning to shoot a bow from the saddle of a galloping horse, or handle a lance.

The A-lister's kids have the gear and the space and the trained horses and the leisure to practice, not to mention expert coaching from their parents and siblings. Plus one hell of an incentive-the land goes with the A-lister rank, and without money, how do you build up alternate investments? Plus the family has to be willing to let the kid go when they're sixteen to be a military apprentice, just when they're getting really useful on the farm or in the workshop and starting to pay off the parental investment.

Alisters don't need their children's labor so badly. The original A-listers are too young to have many adolescent children; it's mostly their younger siblings so far. But when their offspring are old enough, you're going to find they're a lot more than half the apprentice uptake. And watch who marries whom, too, which'll push the process along even faster-the more so since it's a coed setup. I watched the same thing happen in the business world back before the Change in the seventies, eighties.

When lawyers and executives were all men, they sometimes married secretaries. When women professionals arrived in numbers, they married other lawyers and executives. Because by then it'll be unnatural to do anything else. So Signe's worrying, maybe unconsciously, if it'll be her kid, not just yours. Pam tells me that there were a lot of systems like that in the old days-where the throne was elective within a certain family, broadly defined.

Like in the sagas-read about what the dozen sons of Harald Fairhair did to Norway sometime. If you acknowledge that Rudi Mackenzie is your son, everyone will believe it who's got eyes. He's older than young Mike, too. Old enough to start getting hints of what sort of a man he's going to be; he's smart, and he could charm a snake out of its skin, for starters.

Unanticipated events sort of took a hand, and nobody's immortal. You ought to be thinking about this now, Mike. We don't have a tradition on how to handle succession yet. Note that I have an interest here too-if it's going to be hereditary, I want one of my grandkids to get it. They looked at each other, and Larsson changed the subject. She'll have them forsoothing next. You're not an A-lister, but you're my father-in-law and you're our Astrid loves that idea, by the way.

You let her slide into the Mistress of Ceremonies position, didn't you? You're also the one who let her wallow in all those doorstopper books with the lurid covers and knights and princes and warrior elf maids and wizards and walls of ice and quests for the Magical Dogtag of,' Doom and whatever. Havel's boot knocked the sheath of his backsword aside with practiced easel as he sat on the stool before a drill press and went on: "She landed me with the'' Lord Bear nonsense before we'd finished who-eats-whom with Mr.

I'm surprised it hasn't turned into a talking bear conjured up by an evil sorcerer, and gotten slapped down in that goddamned illustrated journal she keeps. They shared a chuckle at the thought of the-profusely illustrated-Red Book of Larsdalen. Sheer dogged persistence had let Astrid Larsson hang names out of her favorite books on a good many things, post-Change.

A fanatic for Tolkien and his imitators could do a world of linguistic damage, particularly when things were in flux anyway and she was part of the ruling circle of families; Astrid hadn't shown any signs of growing out of it at the ripe old age of twenty-two, either. The younger generation was alarmingly given to humoring her-or even to taking up her enthusiasms simply because they sounded cool and torqued off their elders. As it is, every little bunch of us is free to go off on their weird tangent of choice. Havel nodded. So, what's up he went on, dropping his bear-topped helm on a table and running his hands over his bowl-cut black hair.

Anything you've got to say will be more interesting than more goddamned reports. Larsson's single blue eye gleamed. He turned to a desk piled with papers and bearing a mechanical calculator he'd salvaged out of a museum, and pulled out a sheet covered with graphs from beneath his slide rule-the results of months of experiment over the winter. Havel snorted. Starting the morning after. I thought you'd gotten the reaper binder working. That we can use. Harvest is tricky. Or more penicillin. We could get another outbreak of the Black Death anytime and we're clear out of tetracycline.

Do I look like an Alien Space Bat from an arbitrarily advanced civilization? Arbitrarily Advanced Alien Space Bats. But I've gotten some idea of what's happening. Look at this. Larsson pointed to a piece of apparatus on a bench, one that involved a gasoline lantern burning under a blackened cylinder.

He turned up the wick with the tip of the metal multitool strapped in place of his left hand, and tapped the metal casing with it. The flywheel off to one side gave a halfhearted turn and then stopped. This one comes from a museum in Eugene; I traded some moonshine to a scavenger who had it in a load of miscellaneous junk. I wanted it because it doesn't depend on fast combustion-explosions-like IC engines. Result: It doesn't work anymore either. He sounded patient, in a heavy sort of way.

But then, he puts up with Astrid, too. Larsson went on: "A Stirling engine is like the theory of heat engines made manifest. Put concentrated heat in here, raise the temperature of the gas, and you get mechanical work out there. OK, mechanica' work and diffuse heat. All you need to make it work is a temperature gradient between one end and the other. And like all heat engines since the Change it just doesn't work to any useful degree. He swung the lamp out from under the cylinder, engaged a crank and worked it with his good hand. Crankshaft and piston and flywheel spun up with a subdued hum; after a moment he released it to run down.

You get cold out the other end. They were used for that in labs and some manufacturing back before the Change. And that still does work. Havel's brows went up. It just doesn't get cold enough in the Willamette to make icehouses practical-one of the few advantages we had back when I was growing up on the Upper Peninsula, and man, did we have ice and to spare. We could run this Stirling thingie in reverse off a waterwheel or a windmill? But think about it for a moment. Why would the heat-to-work cycle not function, while the work-to-cold cycle does?

And when you're cranking it, it works exactly the way it did pre-Change. It's like you can only play a film backward. Havel shrugged again. I never did think the Change just happened. It's too. A random change in natural law would mostly likely just collapse everything into quark soup. And everything is too neatly scaled, the effects kick in at the precise level necessary and no earlier; it lets any biological process go on just fine, our nervous systems work, fish can still use their swim bladders, but that"-he pointed at the engine-"is screwed.

Somebody did this to us. Havel slapped a hand against the brass bars that made a protective basket around the hilt of his backsword. It isn't nanobots with unobtanium force-field generators watching our every move and selectively intervening whenever we try to fire a gun or run a generator.

Demon's Mercy (Dark Protectors #9) by Rebecca Zanetti

What's happened is a change in the Ideal Gas laws-or more accurately, a forced change in the behavior of near-ideal gasses-". There was a rustling chink as the elbow-length mail sleeve of his hauberk brushed the vambrace on his forearm. You're talking to a high school graduate who just squeaked by in math and fudged a lot to get his pilot's license.

Like there's some added force that glues molecules together, so instead of producing work, the heat energy or the work put into mechanical compression gets locked into some weird form of potential energy.

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He pointed to another apparatus, a cylinder with a gauge attached, a piston rod sticking above it, and a framework for dropping weights on that. It turns out the pressure limitation is same-same with pumping air mechanically into a reservoir.

The research

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After a certain point, all you get for more pumping is sweat-same glue-the-molecules effect. Havel looked at the apparatus and frowned. OK, we've got infinitely efficient shock absorbers? Then the volume of air keeps getting smaller as you push, same-same as it would have before the Change if you exerted the same force, and it resists a push just as it would have before, but more like a liquid or solid than a compressed gas. The pressure doesn't get any higher after that cutoff point. There's a falloff in the extra push-back pressure you get for each input of energy applied; it starts small and then goes up in an asymptotic curveeversteeper curve, to you scientifically illiterate types.

Pretty soon it reaches something close to infinity-like trying to go faster than light with a rocket. Of course it's crazy. It simply fucks parts of the laws of thermodynamics, just for starters. That's what confirmed my mental certainty about the glue-the-molecules effect. But see the pressure gauge? Barely a fraction of what it would have been with that reduction in volume. As far as I can tell, what happens is the air gets sort of. They just expand again, they fill additional volume but they don't push at it the way they should. The same thing happens with any other compressible gas, by the way, but not with non-compressible liquids like water.

Which means you can use hydraulic systems just fine. Larsson rubbed his good hand on the leather support of his multitool. You just can't get it back very fast, or in any form that's any fucking use at all. He turned a valve, and there was a long hiss; the piston rod sank down. For that matter, the air in the cylinder gets hotter than it should when you drop the weight; not much hotter, just barely enough difference that I can detect without electronic instruments.

I think the potential energy trapped by the glue-together effect leaks away gradually in the form of diffuse low-level heat as the molecules 'unbind. There seems to be a relation between pressure and I think something similar was done to set an upper limit on permitted voltages, too, maybe by increasing the degree of electron localization in solids. That would-". I'm like Imhotep the Pyramid Builder confronted with a TV set, trying to understand how the wizard got all the miniature people in the funny box.

We're multiple paradigm shifts away from being able to understand it. We just don't have the intellectual vocabularies-hell, the grammars. And with our toys taken away, we can't get from here to there. Havel frowned and continued: " And we're running out of stuff. Things are wearing out. We've got plenty of food and enough basic shelter now, and a fair start on weapons, but we don't have enough tools or cloth or shoes and we certainly don't have enough medicine if the plague breaks out again, and every time we shift people from one thing there's another that goes undone, and Christ Jesus but that bastard Arminger up in Portland is going to take another slap at us soon, so I have to keep our military up to snuff, which costs.

So could we please concentrate on things that'll actually help us? I get your point. It does have some practical implications, though. It means we can get enough concentrated heat to run a foundry, say That'll save us time and effort. Kenneth Larsson unscrewed the multitool from the hardened-leather cup strapped over the stump of his wrist. As he fastened on the hook-grasper he used for everyday work he shook his head.

No, Mike, we couldn't have done it without you. But you're the guy who found us all-". A knock at the door interrupted them. The apprentice opened it. He says you told him to look you up, Lord Bear. Ken got up and left, giving his son-in-law a slap on the shoulder. He waved his hand at the man entering, who ignored it-but that was probably from the terror that left his face like a mask carved out of lard. With the crowd at Larsdalen for the holiday, this was about as private a place as could be found without ostentatiously riding out somewhere beyond the defenses.

For a moment Larsson paused at the bottom of the veranda steps. Somewhere a rooster crowed; behind the workshop was a broad stretch of pasture where horses grazed, slanting up southwestward to a fringe of forest. The foundations of a citadel showed there at the highest point of the Larsdalen plateau-raw earth and sacks of cement, rebar and quarried rock.

Beyond, the steep scarp of this outlier dropped to the flatlands around Rickreall; beyond that was the low green line of the Coast Range. And it wasn't so you could sit on your ass and drink beer and chase girls who didn't want to get caught. You're supposed to keep yourself and your people ready to fight, and administer justice.

Christ Jesus, you do know what the word means, don't you? An inarticulate murmur, and then Havel's voice rising to a roar: "-will not abide trash behavior, Naysmith! This is your last warning; next inspection, I expect your holding's A-listers and the militia to perform by the numbers and on the bounce. And the next complaint about you bullying your people or taking more than the compact allows will be the last; if there's a petition against you I will have that hauberk off your back and I will strike you off the Brotherhood's rolls.

And your assessment is doubled for this harvest-it'll come out of your share too, not the farmers. If you want to work for a squeezing bandit, you can take your sorry ass over the border and try your luck with the Protector. The apprentice stood stiffly at the foot of the stairs, eyes front, left hand on her sword hilt, right hand carrying her targe-small round shield-tucker across her chest. She was a little pale around the mouth; listening to a chewing out from Mike was alarming at the best of times. Another mumble, and Havel's voice was kinder: "Look, Mark, you've been with me since Idaho.

We fought Iron Rod together. I know you can do better than this. Larsson grinned, taking a deep breath of the cool air. Think I'll go visit my new born, or my grandchildren, he thought, and ambled off. He'd had his bellyful being CEO back before the Change and had never liked it one little bit. It was good to have someone else to handle that stuff. I'm a pretty good engineer, and I was passable as a businessman, but I really don't think God gave me what it takes to be a warrior king. The M 1 motorway that ran north from London was still passable beyond the edge of cultivation in the commandery of Whipsnade, in the sense that you didn't need to hack your way along it with a machete or ax; the six lanes and thick deep foundation under the pavement were putting up more resistance to the encroaching armies of revengeful Nature than most of man's works.

Nigel Loring still found it eerie to ride down it with walls of vegetation taller than the tip of his lance on either side, the more so as evening fell and his borrowed remount's hooves dragged beneath him. The sun was a red ball on the horizon, filtered through canes and branches. Runners and growth from the median strip and the verges were most of the way across the pavement; many of the autos and trucks were mere mounds of foliage.

A fox sat on the roof of a pantechnicon and watched him until he was close enough to see the sun gilding its rufous fur and its tongue lolling through its sharp white teeth, then dropped to the ground and disappeared into the tangle of tree and shrub and bramble west of the roadway. There was a brief whiff of the dog-fox's musky scent as they passed, rankly feral beneath the warm green sweetness.

I hope those antifoxhunting fanatics were pleased, in the short interval before their hideous deaths. The joke was sour, but Nigel Loring smiled; his son had been brooding alarmingly, and most of the remaining youth had left his handsome features, though he was still two years short of thirty. Nigel Loring chuckled. I'd have thought his cheerfulness would be irritating, under the circumstances, but it isn't. Maude always liked him, of course.

She'd have given one of those gurgling laughs of hers if she were here now. I remember that was the first thing I noticed at that do of the vicar's-she was talking to him across the garden and I heard her laugh. She was wearing one of those absurd floppy hats The farmworker was sweating a little, and he kept his bow across the saddle despite its awkward length for a mounted man. He started when three red deer rose up from the shade of an Aston Martin that must have cost three hundred thousand pounds once; the big russet animals poised for a moment, then turned and trotted swiftly away with their muzzles up and their horns laid on their backs, bounding over a three-car pileup of wrecks and running northward until they vanished from sight.

Hordle looked at them and thoughtfully twanged the string of his bow. I was thinking they looked like they'd been hunted before. You do much deer hunting around here, Jock? MacDonald squinted after the vanished animals. Hunting around here's mostly birds, rabbits, wild pig, fallow deer, and those little muntjacs-the ones that bark like dogs-they do love a bramble thicket. And you see some gey strange beasties from the Safari Park-there's rhino about yet-but no the red deer. And they'll no ha' gotten a lift south on the Cutty Sark, the way we crofters did from Skye.

They'd be likely to move north for the grazing, and to get away from the settlers, this last little while. He rubbed his chin, fingers rustling on soft blond stubble; there hadn't been much time for shaving. Like his father he was riding one of the farmer's horses, an undistinguished cob of about fourteen hands, and like the elder Loring he'd removed all his armor save for breast- and backplates and the helmet dangling at his saddlebow.

Their own mounts followed behind, carrying the gear in sacks slung over the war saddles. Ergo, they have been hunted. It was disconcertingly easy to lose your sense of place and distance, when the landscape looked so different from the way memory painted it. He'd driven through here countless times Has a flying goose or something of that sort painted on it. He pointed to a sign that rose thirty feet in the air with the upper part of its rusted, pitted surface above the vegetation; it was blue with a white band ending in a pointed tip at the top, and another line pointing leftward.

A mile went by, steady riding at a fast walk-the stalled vehicles made it difficult to go faster. They were on the right side of the motorway, the southbound lane before the Change; Junction Fourteen was on their own right, curving up from the main thoroughfare. Another sign loomed. Specific, too. Better be careful, sir," he went on, as they turned their horses up the eastward-leading access road. We'll cop a ticket if we're seen going down it the wrong way. There was no need for him to ask why he got so much encouragement; and they were careful as they passed a blue-and-white sign with an arrow directing drivers to the M1 for Luton, London and points south.

The lesser road that led to the town itself was far more densely overgrown save for the narrow path Buttesthorn's men had hacked, and a good deal of it had been ripped at by heavy floods, starting with the wet spring in the year of the Change. There were sections where only a scalloped edge of pavement remained above overgrown mud and there they had to dismount and lead the horses.

Nobody was maintaining levees anymore; even in late summer he could see patches of reed and livid green marsh grass to his left as they rode. The arched s roof of the Aston Martin plant had slid quietly into the silt Stay alert, he told himself. The bubble of misery sitting below his breastbone threatened that; it would be so easy to plunge into gray apathy-or worse, tormenting memories of Maude. Work is the best remedy for care.