After explaining my worries about the barge wagon and its load of gunpowder to the officers, nearly a hundred people were dispatched to dig a covered pit to store the gunpowder a hundred meters south of the main encampment. They wanted it on the east side of the road, but I would have preferred it on the west side of the road. I couldn’t really argue too much, unfortunately. There wasn’t any good reason for the pit to be on the west side of the road, as opposed to the east. I only wanted it on the west side of the road because I was planning to own the land on that side of the road.
After one attempt to get the location of the pit changed, I said nothing else. Having a cistern close to the road would have allowed me to easily establish a little roadside market where carriages and wagons could water their animals, and people could buy seeds, produce, eggs, or perhaps even swine culls. It wasn’t critical though. Whatever Gonzalez family members moved in across the road from us would probably like the idea of a market by the road just as much as me. Neither of our families currently had a permanent market stall next to the road because neither family had invested in a water cistern by the road.
I wasn’t in any condition to help dig, haul dirt, or place stones as part of the high priority project, so I gathered my swine and went back to the clearing I’d found in the woods. I spent several hours letting my swine root in the clearing while I made another hundred or so spoons.
When I led my swine back to my carriage before I went to eat dinner, I crutched close enough to the pit to see what had been done. The pit was dug, the loose walls of broken, flat paving stones inside the pit were built, and the raised platform to keep the gunpowder dry was placed. Carpenters were building a wooden frame inside the pit to help support the loose stone walls and support an oversized roof to shed water. All in a period of only a few hours. It was pretty amazing what a large group of people, three elefants, and several teams of horses could do.
After eating the evening meal of rice and beans with Anu, Ely, Sara, and Kelvin, they went back to various manual labor jobs, and I went back to Doctor Sven and the hot water boot. The soaking felt really good, and Doctor Sven continued to stay happy with the leg. He wanted me to soak it three more times the next day. After that, he might stop treatment if it looked good. Following that assessment, he dosed me with more willow bark tea, and then went back to the officer’s tent. Of course, I made more spoons.
It was beginning to be a challenge to keep my mind on my work, as I’d made an absurd number of spoons in the last day. Still, carving spoons was marginally useful, and didn’t require someone else to take time to teach me a skill or process.
While struggling to keep a safe level of attention on my knife, I started considering how we could set up the roadside market so that people could summon us with a horn if they wanted more than water. We would need dogs to protect the unattended, stored goods from thieves, which might make the horn unnecessary if we kept loud dogs there. Marza’s border collies might do, but they would get restless. She had mentioned several times that her dogs become very difficult to manage if they weren’t allowed to exercise at least every other day. We’d probably need a different breed to watch the market, more lethargic but attentive and territorial. It would have to be a small breed – preferably a breed that could defend the stored foods against pest animals. Perhaps dachshunds?
The end of the day came slowly. By the time it was dark, I’d made somewhere around another hundred spoons while sitting on the step of my carriage. I could only guess how many spoons I had jammed into my nearly-round pouch – probably around two hundred fifty. I could have counted them, but decided that I’d just tell the quartermaster that there were more than two hundred of them. I hoped that would be enough spoons for the people that hadn’t made their own. I was very tired of making spoons. I wouldn’t say no to making more, but hoped I wouldn’t be asked to.
Before it got dark, I wrote a letter to Marza and my family while slowly savoring a caramel and blackberry flatbread. Then, I crawled into bed in the carriage and instantly fell asleep.
The quartermaster was happy with the spoons the next morning, and I was happy that he didn’t want any more for the time being.
I spent the following two days helping brainstorm tactics with the lieutenants, Fobi, and Riko. It was horrible on so many levels. I was constantly being reminded that I was helping to figure out ways to maim and kill people. Add to that the fact that I was being forced into close proximity to Rikard, and that we were required to interact with one another. Perhaps the worst part was that I occasionally lost myself in the problems presented to us, and started enjoying myself, especially when I had a chance to tear down one of Rikard’s ideas.
At one point, late on the second day, I snapped back into reality after I started imagining a new idea on how to use gunpowder to fight. On returning to my senses, I realized that I had been laughing while discussing an idea to pack cement-grade lime in pits, with gunpowder underneath, to detonate in advance of an enemy charge and create a cloud of lime powder. Laughing about potentially blinding people, permanently. Even Riko was looking at me a little oddly, with an uneasy expression.
“Beginning to sound like Brad there, Allen.” Rikard said, staring at me, without a smile.
My head swiveled to Rikard and I pinned him with a glare. He dry swallowed.
Everyone else went dead silent, and Fobi edged a little closer to me. It felt like Rikard had stabbed me in the back with a knife, and everyone else’s silence just made it worse. I closed my eyes and counted to ten, while turning so that when I opened my eyes I wouldn’t be facing him. The last thing I wanted to do was attack him and get myself knocked on my rear by Fobi, who had demonstrated twice already that she was watching us both closely, though she hadn’t had to knock either of us down to protect the other. Yet. It would be extremely annoying to be back on crutches again if she knocked me down and I fell badly.
The worst part is that I have to agree with Rikard. I was laughing!
After I finished counting, I opened my eyes and turned to Lieutenant Davis. “I understand that Rikard and I have been of value to the militia, but I need to get away from this. I also need to get away from Rikard, or he needs to get away from me. For at least a day or two.”
The lieutenant looked up from where he had been scribbling on his pad, frowning, but serious. “Lime mines are an extremely unpleasant idea, and could backfire if there’s a dramatic wind change, but it’s potentially useful.” He paused, and tapped the pad with his pencil as he stared at me thoughtfully. “Your idea of tying brightly-colored ribbons to the end of our spears to distract enemies was also very good, and immediately useful. You aren’t coming up with as many ideas as yesterday, but they are still good ideas. I realize this is uncomfortable, even mentally painful, but we really need your input.”
I gathered my thoughts, clenched my fists, and then relaxed them. “Sir, as much as I dislike agreeing with Rikard about anything, he’s right in a way. I was actually enjoying myself as I came up with an idea that could cripple people. I don’t think it’s healthy for me to continue considering how to hurt people. What if violence is like depression or addiction, and some people are genetically predisposed to it? If I keep thinking about how to hurt people, I’m afraid I might actually become something like Brad.”
Even if you make me stay, I’m not participating any longer. I didn’t say it out loud, but I met Lieutenant Davis’s eyes and did not turn away.
After he met my glare for several seconds, Lieutenant Davis looked at Lieutenant Baker and beckoned to her as he walked away from the rest of us. All of the experienced spear-using scouts that were present carefully avoided looking at me. Rikard, was staring at me with a faint smile, Riko was looking at me with a little frown, and Fobi was not fooling me by pretending she wasn’t looking at me.
Fobi spoke loudly into the silence while the lieutenants walked a few meters away and spoke to one another quietly. “Doesn’t really matter what job you’re doing, sometimes you need a break from it.” She paused. “As experienced law enforcement officers, I know you both have seen what I have. Violence can run in families. Both nature and nurture.” She poked her left index finger into the air. “If it doesn’t, Albert has spent almost five thousand years wasting his time with us.”
Both lieutenants turned to face Fobi, briefly, thoughtful expressions on their faces, and then turned back towards one another and continued whispering for several seconds before walking back over to us.
“We’ll end this brainstorming session now. Allen, Rikard and Emerald will go to the quartermaster and get work assignments for the rest of the day. The rest of us will stay here and work on the verbal movement commands for the rest of today. Once we have a unified set of commands, we can start teaching them to ourselves tomorrow and smooth out the inevitable problems.” He looked at Riko. “That was your idea, Riko. I definitely want your input on it.”
Rikard spoke suddenly. “We probably want to figure out a way to give movement commands with flags too, or horns. I suspect a battlefield will get very loud. It gets fairly loud with just two lines of five people facing each other.” He smiled a little. “That’s before we consider gunpowder or nitrocellulose explosions, and people screaming in pain.”
My fists clenched, as did my jaw. I looked away from Rikard and slowly forced myself to relax. I wasn’t sure if I was more upset that he had barbed his idea with an insult to me, or that he had come up with an idea that made sense, that I hadn’t thought of first.
Lieutenant Davis stared at Rikard for several seconds before starting to scratch on his pad again. “On second thought, Rikard and Emerald stay here.” He looked at me. “Allen, I want you back in two days. When you return, we’ll let you see what we’ve come up with while you are gone. Quartermaster Brown will certainly have something for you to do.”
I nodded to Lieutenant Davis. “Thank you, sir. I’m sorry I had to ask to be excused.”
“I have to admit you’ve been worrying me a bit.” He paused. “One Brad is enough. Rest your mind a couple days doing other things, and then come back.” He looked at me sternly. “I will be checking with Quartermaster Brown. You had best make yourself useful.”
What? I clenched my jaw to prevent myself from saying something without thinking. The lieutenant’s expression seemed to indicate he really wasn’t concerned about me shirking, so I unclenched my jaw and responded. “I will, sir. With the rations reduced today, and with fine-ground wood pulp being added to the morning bread, presumably to help stretch out the wheat, I suspect any forage I bring in from the field will be very welcome.”
Lieutenant Baker sighed loudly. “You noticed the wood dust in the bread, Allen? Mrs. Zeta told us that she was fairly sure nobody would notice, at least on the first day. I wasn’t able to taste it.”
Riko spoke slowly, in a carefully neutral tone. “I warned you that someone would talk. When the cook asks for wood chips and has a dozen sacks of them brought into the kitchen, it doesn’t take much to figure out what’s happening. Especially when the morning bread tastes a little like cedar.” He paused. “From what I’ve been told by my scouts and Don’s guards that have overheard some conversations, nobody really minds much, yet. Captain Marko was probably right to keep everyone on full rations until we had some sort of sleeping quarters with a roof for everyone.”
Lieutenant Baker looked at me. “Did you hear about it, or taste it?”
I shrugged. “One of my friends heard the rumor from someone else. After they mentioned it, I was able to taste it.” I didn’t mention that Anu had been very unhappy, especially after three of us had confirmed the taste. She hadn’t acted like she was going to complain to anyone other than the five of us that regularly ate together. “Mixing in a little wood dust into bread stretches out the supply in a long winter. My family has done it two years that I can remember, and we’ll certainly do it this year. I might have tasted it without being told, but probably not, since Mrs. Zeta was smart enough to add a little cedar to the fires this morning. The taste was pretty faint compared to the smell of cedar in the air.”
Riko, Emerald, several of the scouts who were working with us to practice ideas, and even Rikard nodded.
I turned away from Rikard again. Every time I stopped thinking about it, I turned so I could see him. I apparently considered him a threat on a subconscious level, and was automatically turning to keep him in view if I forgot that I was trying to avoid looking at him.
“I see.” Lieutenant Baker frowned. “I don’t remember us ever doing that, but in lean years, we tended to cull the herd a little more, and eat more meat. The bread this morning wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I’ll have to ask Mrs. Zeta for a recipe and send it to my ma.”
Your ma probably already knows, and probably used it in lean years but never told the kids. You were likely not taught about it because you moved to the city. Saying that out loud was probably not a good idea, so I didn’t. I’d been getting a little better at disconnecting my thoughts from my mouth in the last few days, especially around the officers.
I suspected that more wood dust would be added over time to bread and perhaps even the rice and beans until the food became borderline edible. After all, the whole reason we were here was because of a food shortage and potential famine.
Riko looked at the two lieutenants, slapped me on the shoulder, turned me around to face the camp, and then shoved me off gently. “Go on, Allen. Get away from this for a while.” He continued speaking to the lieutenants as I walked away. “I doubt many people will complain seriously about some wood in the food, when they think about it. A lot of us were expecting rations to be reduced and wood dust to start being added to the bread.”
Riko paused and called out to me. “Allen, Dana mentioned that the tributary stream to the west about fifteen kilometers was blocked by beaver dams, and there was a substantial swamp there. He mentioned seeing a lot of cattails. I’d rather eat bread made with cattail root than ground wood.”
I nodded as others agreed vocally, though I suspected we’d be eating wood powder, even if we had a huge supply of alternate foods. The whole purpose of using the wood was so we used less of other foods, no matter what those other foods were.
As I walked off, I heard Riko again. “In fact, I need to make sure that Mrs. Zeta knows that she needs to use other wood than red cedar for the bulk of the cooking. Cedar has an aromatic taste, but too much of it and people will get sick. Other woods are safer.”
Lieutenant Baker coughed, and I faintly heard her response. “Doctor Sven has already had that conversation with her this morning, in the officer’s tent, Riko, when you were taking reports from the overnight scouts.”
I wasn’t able to make out any of the rest of the conversation. I walked for three minutes or so towards the camp, absent-minded, and got into the line of people leading up to the quartermaster’s wagon. My leg, though still spectacularly discolored, was barely twinging me as I walked. Doctor Sven had warned me, quite severely, not to run. He had also encouraged me to walk a lot since I was healing rapidly. Most of the pain had apparently been due to swelling as opposed to any significant damage to bone or connective tissues.
As I made my way through the line to speak with Quartermaster Brown, I started planning. Being able to bring back large amounts of forage to help feed the militia was why I’d been allowed to bring my swine to begin with. Fifteen kilometers was a substantial hike through the forest for foraging, but if I brought a ground cloth, a hatchet, and a blanket, I’d be able to walk out, harvest for a full day, leave the next morning early, and return by mid-day. Walking back would take a lot more time, burdened with travois kits on both boars in the swamp and the woods, but still easily doable in daylight hours.
“I thought you were helping the lieutenants with ideas for the spear-use training program, Allen?” Quartermaster Brown spoke from behind his desk inside the wagon as I reached the front of the line. He sounded more curious than annoyed.
“I was, sir. Got a bit intense, and I started enjoying myself a bit too much, so I asked for a break from it.” I shrugged. “The lieutenants were kind enough to allow me to take two days off to get my mind back into a better place. Sergeant Gonzalez said that one if his scouts mentioned a beaver-dam swamp about fifteen kilometers west, with a lot of cattails. Unless you have something else for me, I plan on making a trip out early tomorrow, and returning the next day with a couple hundred kilos of cattail root, or something else if I see something better.”
The quartermaster raised an eyebrow. “You asked to be relieved from a brainstorming job, so you could make an overnight trip to dig roots out of a swamp and haul them back through the forest.” Pausing a second, he continued. “A couple hundred kilos?”
“My swine, sir, the boars can haul travois behind them, about half their mass, fairly easily.”
He nodded. “That’s right. I won’t say no to that.” Scribbling with his pencil as he talked, the quartermaster finished one sheet and handed it to me as he started making a copy for himself. “Talk to Mrs. Zeta before you go. Make sure she knows what you’re planning on bringing back, since there should be a lot of it. Keep an eye out for other forage. If you see enough to justify a small harvesting camp, let me know and I’ll talk to the captain.”
I hesitantly responded. “You can probably start thinking about that now, sir. If the beaver dam swamp is sufficiently established to have heavy cattail growth, it’s probably established well enough for all sorts of other plants, both dietary and medical, and will have a lot of prey animals too. If we’ve got cast nets, the fishing might be good too. Panfish, carp, maybe catfish and bass. I should see signs of what fish are there while I’m harvesting cattails. I’ll report to you the day after tomorrow when I return.”
“You do that.” He paused, thinking. “I’ll request a few cast nets and net mending supplies. We don’t have any. There wasn’t supposed to be a swamp or lake near here.” After he finished his copy of my orders, he pulled out a pad a lot like what Lieutenant Davis was always scribbling in, and made a note. Then he looked up at me as if he was surprised I was still there. “Oh, people appreciate the spoons. Good job. Now go. Unless there’s something else?”
I smiled at him. “Nothing else sir. I’ll see you in two days.” I stepped to the side to get out of line, while reading the orders to make sure they said what I remembered him saying. They did.
I found Mrs. Zeta sitting on a stool in the middle of the kitchen that smelled of fresh bread, cedar, beans, smoke, and sweat. She was surrounded by a whirlwind of junior cooks, directing them with terse instructions that were borderline polite, very matter-of-fact. She was satisfied to hear that I would be bringing back a lot of cattail root in two days. She had cooked with it before, mostly the green heads and the pollen, but also the sprouts and roots. She would be more than happy to add cattail root to the kitchen food stores. She took a few seconds to tell me that it took a lot of time to get the starch out of the roots, but it was mostly soaking and drying time, with only a little more manual labor involved than most grains. While she was telling me this, she was watching me closely.
As I started to leave, she admonished me, “Remember, young man, the inner root fiber should be white! If it’s not white, it will make people sick!”
She raised a finger to me as a junior cook walked up to her side, rather than behind her. There was a rapid discussion about when to add salt to something. Mrs. Zeta, quickly muttered, “No. Add it two minutes after boiling.”
I stopped leaving and turned back to her, as the raised finger seemed to indicate she wanted something else from me.
After correcting the junior cook, she looked directly at me again. “If you can find female seed pods that are still solid, I can use them too. That might be hard this time of year; it’s a bit late in the season.”
I smiled. “Yes, Mrs. Zeta. I know the root must be white, but I’m afraid the female seed pods aren’t much use for anything but tinder at this time of year. I’ll look for male seed pods with pollen on them still, and if I see any, I’ll collect the attached female pods, but the chances are almost zero. As for the roots, I can’t peel them all before I bring them back, but I can tell a good root by feel and the condition of the plant it’s connected to. We cultivate cattail in our retaining pond and harvest a lot of it every year. I’m sure there will be some bad roots mixed in, but almost all of it will be good.”
Mrs. Zeta peered at me. “OK, you know the plant. I’ll let Pol know to expect them, you just bring them to us. Clean! You don’t have to peel them, but get all the mud off!”
So many Pols. There must be twenty of them in camp.
I laughed a little as I nodded. Fortunately, Mrs. Zeta didn’t take offense, just smiling a little. “They will be mostly clean, ma’am. I won’t have my swine hauling a lot of mud for fifteen kilometers.”
“Good. Now leave. I am very busy here, young man, and while your news was welcome, you are now in the way. If you and your pigs bring good cattail root back, from now on you do not need to tell me what you are bringing. Just bring it.” She waved a hand at me, briefly, as she turned to the line of four junior cooks that had been quietly waiting behind her while she talked to me.
I had another thought as I returned to my carriage in order to start checking tack and packing for the morning.
How much damage would it do to our ability to function as a militia if Quartermaster Brown, Mrs. Zeta, or any other logistical keystones were to be injured or killed?
It took me a couple minutes of arguing with myself before I decided I really did need to tell someone about that idea before I went foraging the next day. I eventually sighed, shook my head, walked back to the lieutenants, and mentioned the possibility of creating chaos in an enemy’s camp by taking out keystone logistical support individuals, as opposed to obvious targets like commanding officers.
Before I was able to get away again, Lieutenant Baker, after looking at Lieutenant Davis, gave me a spare pad and stubby travel pencil she had in her shoulder pouch, and told me “Write down any more ideas you have.”
I stared at the blank pad and pencil in my hand like they were rattlesnakes. Somehow, I managed to put them in my shoulder pouch without throwing either the pad or the pencil back at her. Without a word, I turned away and stalked back towards camp.
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