After an awful time last week, I try to crawl back into the cockpit and see where in the hell this flight is going. Oh, yes: time to get started on Part Two. Let’s start with a little exposition. After that, I’ll – as I do – fill in the backstory, then come back to “realtime.”
I’ve looked down from the Blue Mountains toward Pendleton over a dozen times. It’s breathtaking.
From what had once been a rest area along westbound I-85, Nichole stared down the great drop from the Blue Mountains to the ghost town of Pendleton. Cart after cart passed by on her left, drawn by horses, bulls, oxen. About half had already passed over two days, filling the dry plain before her. The lead elements should already be on their way to the Umatilla Bridge over the Columbia River.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” the man at her right asked. “To see an entire nation on the move!”
I would call it ‘a colossal mistake,’ but it is not for me to say, Nichole thought.
“It is quite a sight, Rhun,” she agreed, turning to look at him.
Nearly six-four, his muscled bronze arms held field glasses to his blue eyes ahead of flaxen hair the same length as hers. An SS poster-boy, just over a hundred years later. And just as dangerous. She watched him look about.
“I’m glad to see the van moving on. McKay Reservoir is empty and the little Umatilla River… well, we’ll drink that dry by tomorrow!” he said, lowering the optics.
Unlike the barbarian that had threatened them just before the battle at The Dalles Dam, the fashion of modernity must have crept back into what those in the City called ‘the Huns.’ He wore fatigue pants and boots, but his broad chest was covered by homespun with a complicated seeming-random weave. He’d only a few tattoos on his arms and none on his face. Nichole could not begin to imagine how quickly culture was evolving in the Badlands.
The man called Rhun looked behind him at the dark sky before turning back to the valley.
“Normally we’d have to laager everyone an hour ago. The solar lights from your Mayor will buy us another few hours of movement in the cool.” He paused. “Thank you.”
“On his behalf, I say welcome,” Nichole said at her most formal with a slight bow. “I hope for continued good fraternal relations between us.”
“More and more,” the giant laughed, “I understand why Johnson sent you! Let’s go in!”
He waved at his command post: not quite a yurt and not quite a teepee. Pushing through the leather flap first, he held it open for Nichole. Inside were four men, only one, Reilly, on her side.
And in this case, she thought, that’s twice-over.
Reilly glanced up from his little camp stool and table where he was writing his daily report. So far the Huns – the Nation – she corrected herself, using their term for themselves, continued to honor the treaty and allowed the City’s dispatch riders free access throughout all the territory they claimed. Reilly, along with the other three, stood at Rhun’s entrance.
Rather than a salute, he gave a dismissive wave and they returned to their tasks. It was not the relaxed discipline of a commander, but the casual acknowledgement of a sovereign. Rhun dropped onto a pile of blankets and bolsters, waving again for Nichole to join him. Reilly’s pen hesitated for a fraction.
Nichole knelt just out of his reach, her hands carefully folded in her lap, as she had now so many times before. A small, low table was placed between them as other men, from the rear tent flap, came in with food and drink. A plate was set before both of them.
“After these past few days, I know you eat like a bird, Miss Clarke, but I enjoy both your company and your candor!”
“You flatter me, Rhun,” she replied with a smile. “I shall do my best to entertain you!”
He laughed while pouring wine from a skin into a ceramic cup.
“I’ve minstrels to entertain my people; no…” he took a drink, “… it’s the candor, not the entertainment!”
“You are certainly more refined than your predecessor!” Nichole poured herself a splash of wine – the alcohol content was high – and put a few vegetables onto her plate to push about. She could sense the sudden fear in the room from Rhun’s men.
“See! See!” He pointed at her looking around. “Just like that! She’s fearless! A woman!”
He tossed his first cup of wine back and refilled it.
“My predecessor, while a great man, was impatient.” Another drink. He set the cup aside and put some meat onto his plate. “By the time he’d put our Nation together, Portland had also recovered to where it could resist him. I don’t think he ever forgave himself for that…”
Candor for candor.
“He must have loved his people very much,” Nichole allowed.
“Mmm. He was on vacay, hiking around Crater Lake, when everything went to shit…” he said talking around some pulled pork. “What you city-folk pretentiously call the Breakup.”
He picked up some chicken next.
“By the time he’d made it back to the airbase in Boise, his wife and kids were dead. Kinda shook him.”
“Such would shake any man,” Nichole allowed softly.
Rhun’s eyes came up to her’s for just a moment. He went on with his story.
“No money; no electricity. From the Cascade Mountains to, well, the Deseret valley, you can’t support millions on the land.”
He waved at the tent flap and the creaking of wheels beyond it.
“The Nation is what’s left.”
Nichole had learned much in her very odd assignment: racially, entirely White; religiously, an odd amalgam she was already calling ‘evangelical shamanism;’ politically, barbarism, but already shading into monarchy.
There’s hope there, she thought.
“And is that why to took a variant of what he called himself?” again with her eyes lowered.
“’Ruin?’” he laughed. “Not a great choice to win friends and influence people! Still, we’ve no electronics or printing, so why confuse people?”
Ruin. Rhun. Just like Caesar over two thousand years ago, a cognomen was becoming a title.
“Land,” Rhun said, returning to his topic, “that we need. My people are already outstripping what little resources we have.”
“Thus,” Nichole said, pushing her food around some more, “your proposal of foederati status in the Centralia Valley, between Olympia and Longview, former Washington?”
He blinked at the unfamiliar word, guessing its meaning.
“You’ve suffered much worse from the Seattle cannibals than the few… misunderstandings… we have had. Why not put the Nation as a shield to your north?”
Nichole smiled and allowed her head to tilt left a little.
“You’ve long won this argument with the political masters of the City? Why recapitulate them with a foreign girl?”
He held her gaze while tossing the chicken bones into the darkness behind him.
“I’ve two wives. I’d not mind you as my third.”
Reilly looked up sharply.
“Oh.” She managed.
She allowed herself to think very fast, recalling the surreal events of the past three months.