A voice that I did not want to hear spoke loudly, nearby. “Hey look, my good buddy, Allen the pig-boy, has brought us dinner! Pork on the hoof!”
My head whipped around to bring the speaker into view, and I slowly turned my body afterwards, my fist tightening on my staff. I didn’t need to see the face to know that voice. I did, however, need to see the speaker because I didn’t trust him at all. Rikard. Two years older than me, I’d fought with him twice in school, for reasons I wasn’t supposed to talk about. If he hadn’t failed grades, twice, we probably would have never crossed paths. Even the Countyman hadn’t given me much grief about my fights with Rikard. It was my most recent fight, with Clark, that had gotten the Countyman very angry with me, and even I had to admit that fight had been pretty stupid.
I shook my head as I looked at Rikard, instantly angry at his presence, thinking to myself, He’s not supposed to speak to me, and that’s the Countyman’s orders. What is he thinking?
Rikard was walking next to two of what were clearly his relatives by their similar appearances. Both of the other men were looking at Rikard like he was stupid. All three of them were carrying one small crate each, tucked securely under one of their arms. Each crate was marked with red paint, clearly indicating fragile contents.
Slowly, I made myself speak. “Rikard, I’m still not sixteen yet, and the other two times you threatened harm to my swine to try to get me to do what you wanted didn’t end up going in your favor, did it?” I glared at him, and he smiled back at me, seemingly unconcerned. Idiot, I thought to myself as I saw that his nose hadn’t healed quite straight after our second fight. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like it was crooked enough to impact his breathing. “What do you want? You aren’t supposed to talk to me anymore. I was there when the Countyman told us both that we weren’t to speak to each other except in case of emergency.”
Rikard started to speak, and one of his relatives, whose name I thought was Dan or Don, reached over with his hand that wasn’t holding a crate and put it over Rikard’s mouth. His hand had started moving before Rikard had even started talking. “Shut up, Rik.”
Reaching up with a meaty hand, Rikard gripped the hand touching his face, stared at Dan or Don, and pushed the hand away from his mouth, but said nothing. Unlike the last time I’d seen Rikard’s hands, they were now thick with callus and ground-in dirt. He was also carrying less extra weight. It looked like he’d been doing real work after he finally managed to graduate. The farm kids had noticed those soft hands, and most agreed that he was so bad in school that his parents had allowed him to study instead of do chores.
Though I had an active dislike of him, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Rikard was as stupid as he had sometimes seemed to be. He seemed more lazy than stupid, always trying to get what he wanted with the least effort possible, even if the less difficult way was the more dangerous way. Not that there was a functional difference between lazy and stupid when you lived on a farm. You can sometimes cheat humans or find ways to cajole or even force them to do what you want them to do. Nature, however, isn’t a thinking being. You can’t break nature’s rules, and successful farming requires both the application of one’s mind and liberal quantities of elbow grease.
“The quartermaster would like these put in your carriage, if possible.” Rikard’s relative said. I had been hoping his name would have been mentioned, but names weren’t necessarily required.
“How much do they mass?” I asked, keeping all three of them in view as they stepped closer. I didn’t want Rikard within a lunging reach of me.
Fortunately, I had reason to ask them to stop. “Please stop there. The militia doctor, Doctor Sten, indicated nobody but he or I should access the carriage, since it’s been loaded with medical supplies.”
“Afraid of me?” Rikard grinned.
Rikard’s other relative, who seemed a couple years older, and who I didn’t know at all, smacked him in the arm with his free elbow. “Don said shut up, Rik, so shut up.”
Don, I thought, grateful that his name had been used.
After a quick glance at Don, who had clearly not missed the elbow, Rikard said nothing, staring at the other relative, who stared back until Rikard looked away.
I’d be a fool to not be afraid of you, idiot. You’re at least twenty centimeters shorter than me, outweigh me by fifty or sixty kilos, maybe more, and could probably crumple me up like a handful of tinder if I let you grab me. And you seem to be in better shape than you were when I fought you last, I thought, as I intently watched him take another step forward before Don stopped walking and put his arm up to stop Rikard. The other fellow stopped too.
Don looked from me to Rikard, and I cursed my easily-read expressions as he frowned. “Rik, put your crate down and step back three steps. We’ll talk about this later.”
As Rikard started to put the crate down faster than a fragile package should be put down, his other relative put a hand on his shoulder. “Fragile, Rik. You break a centrifuge, you might just be killing yourself this flu season.”
Glaring at the fellow I didn’t know, Rikard carefully put the crate down and stepped back. As he stepped back he stared at me, his face expressionless.
Don looked at me. “I’m glad we live on opposite sides of town, Allen. You two are toxic together.”
“I’m not…” I began to protest.
Don raised his right hand. “Stop. I’m not taking sides. You two have fought twice, and he lost both times, and I’m certain I know why.”
You shouldn’t know why. I thought. The Countyman said he would only tell Rikard’s pa and ma, and we were only allowed to tell our parents. But you can think you know why.
“Rik holds a grudge, even when he’s in the wrong. He’s still family, and I have no doubt what the outcome of another fight would be, especially with you having a staff, Allen. Emerald and I would have to restrain the two of you. I’d rather not have to try to do that, but I won’t let you possibly cripple him with a weapon.” He looked at Rikard, clearly disappointed.
I noted the other man’s name, Emerald, and then nodded to Don. “I understand. Still, please don’t come any closer. Doctor Sten’s orders. Medical supplies in the carriage.”
Don and Emerald both looked at me, and then the carriage, thoughtfully. Even more worrisome was the fact that Rikard was also looking back and forth between me and the carriage, and clearly thinking.
“Less than thirty kilos?” I asked Don. None of the three had seemed burdened by their carried crates, and when Rikard had put his down, it had seemed to be a casual weight for him.
Don nodded. “Yes, closer to twenty, I’d say.” He carefully took the box out from under his arm and held it with both hands as he looked at the stenciled lettering on it. Ah, I was wrong. It’s got twenty-eight kilos marked on it.”
Emerald looked at his own box, and then leaned over Rikard’s box as well. “These are both listed at the same mass, twenty-eight kilos.”
After a second to think about it, I nodded. “Eighty-four kilos is doable, but tell the quartermaster I can’t take more mass. The doctor will also be riding with me as well. If Quartermaster Brown runs into cargo volume problems, I can load a less dense package, but something of roughly equivalent mass will have to come off, if he wants that to happen. It’s a light carriage.”
Nodding as if he agreed with me, Don commented, “He said he just wanted the centrifuges off the wagons. He wasn’t sure they were well enough protected to be riding in a wagon, and he found out your carriage was available.”
“Understood, Don. You can set them down there; I’ll put them in the carriage.” I set my staff against the carriage next to the door and walked forward, picking up the crate that Rikard had been carrying, while being very careful to keep all three of them in my field of vision. As I stood, lifting with my legs rather than my back, I saw Rikard smirking at me as I picked up the crate with some visible effort. Nearly thirty kilos wasn’t a casual weight for me to pick up off the ground. The difficulty was partly due to my height, and partly due to my strength. It wasn’t hard for me to carry that much in a good pack though. I made an effort to not respond to his clear amusement.
Don and Emerald set down their crates as well, carefully, and stepped back as Don commented, “Quartermaster Brown said we have to see the crates get packed before we leave you.”
“I understand, Don, it won’t take long.” I set the first crate in the carriage as I finished the sentence.
Moving the centrifuges to the carriage made sense to me. Wagons were brutal on fragile cargo. Anything that couldn’t take a beating in transit typically travelled by either boat, or carriage. There were wagons with carriage suspensions, but they were rare. Even carriages and wagons with carriage suspensions didn’t have smooth enough rides for some cargo. Ideally, knowing how important they were, centrifuges should probably get moved like fine glassware.
Fine glassware manufacturers used barge wagons for their fragile products, with ten or more wheels, hauled by twenty or more oxen. Elefants could pull barge wagons, but two elefants in harness together was extremely rare, and single elefants were not strong enough to start such a heavy load without jerking it heavily. A jerking start was simply a bad idea for barge wagons. Their beds were filled with water, and a small barge floated in that water. The bottoms and sides of the barge floating in the bed were protected with leather bags filled with sponges. In essence, a barge wagon was a mobile pond with a raft in it. They were limited to mostly-flat roads because of the water in the wagon bed.
The sheer mass of loaded barge wagons made them extremely high maintenance transport. Every now and then, teamsters brought the Finch and Krupp barge wagon to school so aspects of practical engineering and physics could be demonstrated to students. I remembered the teamsters saying on one of the visits that every five hundred kilometers, the axles had to be replaced and the wheels replaced or rebuilt. The bed required re-sealing every trip and the wagon bed itself required rebuilding about every thousand kilometers. I hadn’t seen the barge wagon today. I imagined that the militia didn’t want extremely slow transport that was typically used for fragile glassworks.
Or if they do, they are using it to haul gunpowder and nitrocellulose, I thought, almost dropping the second crate on my way to the carriage, as I startled myself with that thought and stubbed my toe.
“You sure you’re OK there?” Don asked, apparently having seen me stumble.
Shaking my head, I replied. “I’m fine. I just realized that I didn’t see the Finch and Krupp barge wagon today. I was thinking that it might be going to the quarry to get a load of gunpowder and nitrocellulose.”
Don, Rikard, and Emerald all looked at me with expressions of distaste bordering on horror. It wasn’t really directed at me, I knew. “That was my reaction too, but I was carrying something.” I shrugged and kept walking to the carriage with the crate.
After I walked back, I heard Rikard mutter something as I picked up the last crate. I barely heard the last half of it. “…idiot. They would never use gunpowder.”
Don replied, not looking at me, but speaking loudly enough that I could clearly hear him. “I think you’re wrong. I’d put money on him being right. I didn’t see the barge wagon either, and I know gunpowder has been used in wars. Just because you don’t like him doesn’t mean he’s stupid.”
Did Rikard’s family actively dislike him, and only deal with him because he was their blood? It certainly seemed that way. Not that Don had actively sided with me, but he’d definitely not sided with Rikard, and Emerald didn’t seem upset at all that Don dealt with Rikard fairly abrasively.
Still. Explosives used against people. The thought made me want to sick up, and I stumbled again a little bit. Without metal, firearms like the ancients had used against one another were impractical, almost impossible. There were stories about people trying to create gunpowder hunting weapons out of extremely hard woods, with leather and various fiber wrappings like silk or nylon. Most of those rumored attempts were supposed to have failed miserably, usually catastrophically, earning the inventor a Darwin Award if they were unlucky or serious injuries otherwise. Nobody was stupid enough to try to make nonmetallic firearms that used nitrocellulose as a propellant.
I shook my head, trying to get rid of the graphic images of death and destruction from mankind’s wars that had been included in the history of violence classes. A good bow was far more accurate and powerful for hunting than a crude gunpowder weapon made without metals, and much safer, so gunpowder was mostly used in long fuses for nitrocellulose charges in quarries and other excavation work.
I placed the third crate in the carriage, and adjusted the positions of all three. When Doctor Sten returned, I’d probably put a blanket under the crates to give them a little more cushion and prevent them from sliding as easily. As I closed the carriage door and turned around, I saw Don, Rikard and Emerald turning to leave.
Don gave me a curt wave of dismissal, touching his hand to his forehead as I turned to face them. Not a friendly gesture, but not unfriendly. He clearly wanted to leave quickly, and slapped Rikard on the shoulder with a little more force than what might be considered friendly. Emerald looked at the two others, and then at me, saying nothing before turning his eyes away from me and falling into position, walking on the other side of Rikard from Don, almost like they were herding him.
“I suppose one good thing might come from this war.” Rikard said to Don as they were walking away.
Don, clearly reluctantly, asked “What would that be?”
Rikard was pretending to turn to look at Don, but was clearly watching me in his peripheral vision as well as he carefully said, “Marza might come to her senses and decide to marry me, if pig-boy doesn’t make it home.”
“You will not even say her name, animal,” I grated out as my vision went red. I took three quick steps forward and thrust my staff at Rikard’s side. I wanted to break something of his but didn’t want to kill him. Killing him wouldn’t let him feel pain.
It was probably fortunate that Emerald and Don immediately turned to face me as Rikard’s words ended, and they realized what he’d said. Don pushed Rikard away from me, hard, and Emerald grabbed my staff with both hands and pulled it towards himself. Between Emerald’s quick grab and Don’s push, my staff merely glanced off Rikard’s ribs instead of breaking a couple of them. I let go of the staff, and took one step towards Rikard before Don stepped in front of me and grabbed my forearms. I hadn’t been expecting him to grapple me, and I cursed myself as I realized that I’d just attacked three full grown men, and gotten myself grappled by one of them.
I struggled as hard as I could, with no success at all, barely even able to budge Don’s arms as he spoke, though there were a few brief hesitations in his voice as he concentrated on me when I changed how I struggled against him. “Emerald, drop Allen’s staff and get Rikard back to Quartermaster Brown at the loading area. I’ll follow as soon as I’m sure Allen here isn’t going to pick up his staff and try to break one of us with it.” He paused. “I don’t think we would be as lucky next time if he comes at us expecting all three of us to resist him. Someone would be hurt, badly, I fear.”
Rikard stood, favoring his side a little where my staff had clipped him, pointing at me. “Did you see that, he attacked me!”
I spit at Rikard, over Don’s shoulder. Don jerked back a bit, and I tried to break free again. Despite his reflexive avoidance of my spitting, I couldn’t break Don’s grip, so I just hissed a response, angry enough to forget that I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone what had happened that day. “You tried to rape her on the day before your sixteenth birthday, because you knew it wouldn’t count towards prison colony time, even if you did end up getting sent to the county jail for a couple years. You tried to threaten my swine with poisoning if I said anything when I found you two in the woods, following Marza’s yells.” I glared at Rikard as Don’s fists got even tighter on my arms. “If you somehow managed to arrange a marriage with her, you’d be on your way to a prison colony after the third time you tried to have sex with her, because it would be violent rape every time.”
Don spoke, urgently, and in a low tone. “Stop this. Now.”
A thought struck me. I ignored Don and smiled a wolf’s smile at Rikard, baring my teeth. Don got a frightened look on his face and his hands grew tighter on my arms. I continued, angrily, “That is, if the Gonzalez family men didn’t just pick straws to see who would kill you and go to jail for a few years for taking out the garbage. You missed your chance to get into the gene pool when you tried to rape a thirteen-year-old. Your own right hand probably doesn’t want anything to do with you.”
Rikard looked at Don holding me, and started to walk towards me, smiling a little while balling his fists. I struggled harder, and Don’s arms actually moved a little.
Don, quietly, angrily, said “I will let him go if you take one step closer, Rikard.” He paused and his voice got a little louder, but less angry sounding. “Emerald, like I said, drop that staff and get Rik out of here before he says or does something even more stupid.”
Rikard hesitated, and my eyes bored into his. Remembering Ma’s advice, all of a sudden, I didn’t just stare into his eyes, I watched what his pupils were doing. I saw his hesitation, as his eyes flickered away from me, towards Don, and he stopped in place. His pupils danced back and forth a couple times between Don and me. Don was also watching Rikard with a cold look, but his fists were still locked tight on my forearms.
Emerald dropped the staff and pushed it away from him with a quick kick. As the staff rolled, it rattled over the cobbles until it came to a stop against the fence of the Countyman’s home a few feet away from me. Emerald hastily grabbed Rikard by the arm, speaking severely, but not loudly. “You come with me. Now. I told your pa that he shouldn’t have chosen you, because you would be trouble.” He paused, and in a menacing low tone, spoke. “Maybe now I understand why he really sent you. The fact that Don isn’t saying anything to defend you means the rumors were apparently not just rumors.”
Emerald glanced at Don as he spoke and Don nodded with a grimace. Emerald’s expression got even grimmer.
Rikard glared at all three of us, in turn, before shrugging and allowing Emerald to drag him away, while commenting over his shoulder. “Even if I can’t have Marza, I’ll be happy enough if you don’t make it home.”
I threw myself forward, pushing with my legs against the ground as hard as I could, while simultaneously pulling my arms apart, rather than just trying to pull them away. I almost got loose from Don’s grip, but not quite.
Don did have to take a step back and nearly lost his balance as he struggled to keep his grip on me. His hands clamped down even tighter on my forearms, and I gasped in pain as my bones felt close to breaking. All of Don’s attention was on me, and I tried to head butt him. I had no luck with that, he had been drawing my forearms together again, and lifting them to his shoulder level. My head missed him without him even needing to jerk his head back. I tried to knee him between the legs, but he turned his hips slightly in time to take the blow on his thigh rather than where I was trying to hit him.
Don shook me like a rag, briefly. “Allen, I spent some time with family in another county learning about cattle ranching. I’ve wrestled calves three times as heavy as you. You aren’t getting away from me, but I won’t hold you for him either, if he doesn’t leave like I’m trying to get him to do.”
As Don finished explaining to me that I wasn’t getting away from him, Emerald turned to Rikard and slapped him, a resounding slap that sounded almost like a whip crack. As Rikard looked at him, stunned, Emerald leaned forward in a furious, low toned verbal assault that I barely heard. “You just don’t know when to shut up, do you, boy? You tried to rape the girl who he’s planning on marrying, you threaten the animals that are his livelihood, and then you make hopeful comments about him dying when you are both going to war in the same militia unit? How many kinds of idiot are you trying to be today?”
Rikard looked like he was actually thinking about resisting Emerald, but that wasn’t happening. Emerald simply jerked him hard, almost pulling him off his feet, dragging Rikard down the road. “Don’t even think about it, boy. I didn’t really hurt you, I just got your attention. Shut your mouth and come with me.”
I wasn’t entirely certain Albert would agree with that assessment, but I couldn’t imagine Rikard trying to bring a complaint to the Countyman about it. I didn’t think he was that stupid.
As Rikard and Emerald walked away, Don watched. After a few seconds, when they didn’t appear to be stopping, he turned to me. “If I let you go, are you going to try to catch him and fight him again? Or attack me?” He stared into my eyes. “I’m pretty good at knowing when folks lie. Got plenty of practice with that one, and had to set straight some of the other relatives younger than him, who tried to follow in his footsteps.” His head jerked a bit in the direction where I could still see Rikard being dragged off by Emerald.
“If I was going to lie, I’d do it a lot better than he could.” I stared at Don.
After a moment, he started shaking a bit. As the smile started, I realized the shaking was him chuckling without letting it out. “No. No you wouldn’t. You have a face like an open book. That’s one thing Rik is actually quite good at. Lying. Even though he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, he’s not as stupid as he tries to appear. Not when he has time to try to think things through.”
“As much as I hate to admit that he’s better at anything than me, other than lifting heavy things, I think you’re right.” I paused. “You knew? I thought the Countyman only told his pa, since I stopped it?”
Don looked at me, his eyes bored into mine, clearly more interested in getting my answer than giving one of his own. “Are you going to go after him, or me, or can I let you go?”
“No. I won’t go after either of you. I’m going to have to talk to the officers and maybe the Countyman about it though. I can’t let his threat pass. Not with our history.” I met Don’s eyes, challenging him to say I was lying, or mistaken about how serious the problem was.
Don sighed and released my arms, watching me closely as I walked over to pick up my staff. “His pa is my uncle. We’re almost twenty years apart, but despite our age difference, his pa and I always got along very well, almost like brothers.” He began, pausing before continuing. “Some burdens are too heavy to bear alone. I help Rik’s pa bear the burden of knowing something is wrong in Rik’s head. His ma has never believed anything is wrong with her boy. Despite the fact that she’s an otherwise excellent person in every way, she just can’t see any bad in Rik.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, other than the obvious. “But he’s family.”
Don sighed. “Exactly. He’s family. One of us until he does something too heinous, like almost happened when you stopped the rape. Thankfully there aren’t any others like him in the family.” Another pause, Don’s eyes closed briefly in a pained facial expression, and then he opened his eyes and continued. “Unless they are a whole lot better at lying than Rik, which doesn’t seem likely.”
He stopped watching me as closely and his shoulders slumped a little bit, not in defeat, but just the slump of a man bearing a heavy load. “Between us, his pa and I thought we were making a change in him in the last few months. He’s actually been working pretty hard, with few complaints, being genuinely helpful. Emerald was wrong about why his pa sent him. It wasn’t to get him away, and hope he wouldn’t come back. It’s because he’s the weakest link and we were hoping he’d come back stronger. Not that much of a difference, but it is a difference.”
I grunted, noncommittally. Don seemed to be trying to paint Rikard in a better light than I’d ever be willing to see him in.
After my grunt, Don shook his head a little and frowned. “Like I said before, Rik was never really stupid. After he finally finished school, and started having to work around the different family farms, it was a combination of collapsing complex lies and several pretty clever ideas to make things easier that made us realize he was a lot smarter than he’d been pretending to be. It’s pretty hard to hide intelligence when you’re motivated to use it to make your life easier.”
He clearly wasn’t finished so I said nothing, just politely letting him speak while I watched Rikard and Emerald walk farther away out of the corner of my eye. I hadn’t heard anything yet to make me change my belief that Rikard’s best contribution to the world would be after he was cremated, when his ashes were spread in his family’s fields.
Don’s fists clenched, which got my undivided attention before they relaxed again. Then he looked up, avoiding looking at me, as he continued. “He’s short-sighted about consequences though. If he’d actually used his brains in school to learn, instead of pretending to have been brain-addled by a fall from a horse so he wouldn’t have to do chores for three years, we could have sent him to university. The family farms are successful enough that we might have been able to get him the education needed to learn how to do a job that would put calluses on his backside rather than his hands.” He turned his head away from me and spat on the cobbles. “After he failed two years of school in a row, no university will take him now. Except, maybe, as a janitor or groundskeeper.” He looked at me with a sad face. “After what Rik tried to do to Marza though, his pa and I would do what we could to sabotage any efforts of his to get a job like that, unless we saw long-term improvement in his behavior. Too many young women at university, too much temptation to try the same thing again.” He looked at me, and sighed as he turned to walk towards the loading area. “I’ve said too much. I hate to say this about my own family, but watch your back. Carefully.”
During the last few seconds of the conversation, I realized that I had completely misread Don’s intent. He hadn’t been trying to make me see Rikard in a better light, he’d been warning me to not underestimate him. I couldn’t imagine how much that must have hurt Don to say that about family. “I understand, Don. Thank you.”
Don said nothing as he walked away, just raising his right hand jerkily while nodding his chin down and to the right, wordlessly acknowledging what I’d said.
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