Chapter 21

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With my heart in my throat, I jumped to my feet and looked around to see who had spoken – and saw nobody.

The swine were making inquisitive noises.  About half of them were beginning to stand while standing and facing in my direction.  If they had been reacting to the presence of another person speaking, they would face that direction.  I automatically shushed them as I turned back around, and heard them settle down.

The swine were opposite the fire from me, so I looked towards the fire, closing one eye so I wouldn’t completely ruin my night vision.

“Who’s there?”

It suddenly struck me that we had been preparing to train our own militia how to fight.  The New Tokyo militia was almost certainly doing the same thing.  Perhaps they were farther along because they thought of it sooner?  I leaned over and picked up the staff from next to my bedroll.

“Nine seconds after I announce my presence, you reach for a weapon.”  The voice enunciated clearly, from what sounded like the other side of the fire.

I had been waiting for a response, and when they spoke, I immediately focused on where the voice came from.  There was nobody there, which baffled and frightened me.  I was very experienced in the woods.  I hadn’t volunteered as a scout because I wasn’t a particularly good horse rider, and I certainly wasn’t good at stalking, but I was very good at knowing what was going on around me when I wasn’t distracted, and I was extremely focused on finding this speaker.

A stray thought passed through my mind.  Traveling theatres sometimes had a ventriloquist with them, able to throw their voice to sound like it was coming from somewhere else.

“It’s not funny.  Show yourself.”  I stepped carefully through the circle of tall stakes driven into the ground, and held the stave like I had seen the lieutenants holding their spears.

“I am not hiding, you are not looking for me with the correct expectations.”

“I expect that there is a person, perhaps a ventriloquist who is also a competent stalking hunter, within a few feet of me.”

Suddenly realizing that I was camped amongst several trees with limbs large enough to support my weight, I quickly glanced up, away from the fire, and opened both eyes.  As I scanned the overhead limbs, I spotted no human shapes on any tree limbs that might support a person’s weight.

Slowly, carefully, I avoided getting too close to any tree trunks as I moved around the campfire, looking out into the darkness.  I was beginning to get angry.

“Whoever you are, you are very good at woodscraft.  Better than me.  You’ve proved your point.  Show yourself.”

“No.  I have not yet proved my point.  You will find me, eventually, when you properly consider my prior words.”

The voice was behind me.  As they started speaking, I turned, and once again found myself facing the fire, but I’d forgotten to close one eye.  I’d just ruined my night vision, and there wasn’t anyone there.

I blew my whistle and said “Up.”  I heard the swine standing and grunting a little as I spun on my heel and rapidly walked to where I’d leashed them.  As soon as I reached them, I pulled the leashes from over their heads, with haste.

Again, I blew the whistle, before saying “Circle.”

The sows created a circle of their bodies around me at roughly two meters radius.  The boars snorted eagerly and started circling around the ring of sows, waiting for me to point them at the predator pelt.  They always got several treats for this training.  I didn’t have a pelt nearby though, so this activity might confuse them a bit.  I’d deal with that later.  For now, I needed help, even if it was an empty threat.

“Escalation, first with weapons, and then with trained animals?  Allen Rickson, have you trained your animals to attack humans?”

The swine weren’t trained to attack people, but I wasn’t telling the hidden person that.  “I don’t feel that I have escalated without cause, whoever you are.  There is likely to be fighting soon along this border.  You are hiding, are apparently far better at woodscraft than me, and might even have a bow drawn and arrow nocked.  You know my name.  You criticized my ‘current project’ which could only have been a reference to what I was working on, in my lap…”

My jaw snapped shut.  He had gotten close enough to read my notebook?  I had been working with it in my lap.  Even with a spyglass, he would have had to be almost directly overhead.

He also said I wasn’t looking for him with ‘correct expectations.’

Then he said I would find him when I considered his ‘prior words’ properly.

I cursed inwardly to myself as I remembered Ma’s letter.  Albert.  One of his devices like what he used to watch Ma and make her quit being a martial artist.

“Are you always this rude when you introduce yourself to someone, Albert?”  I scanned the ground around the campfire, on the opposite side from my bedroll, and saw something glitter on the ground.  I took a half-step to my left and blocked the line of sight between the fire and my eyes with my palm.  I was able to see what looked like bat, sitting on the ground next to a rock, with its chest open like a cabinet, exposing what looked like glass-covered metal.

“Ah, you have seen my remote.  No, I am not always rude when I introduce myself.  Even in this case, I was not rude, I was simply not accommodating your lack of comprehension.  I chose this method to introduce myself because you are a young adult male.  For your subgroup of humanity, subtlety and calm discussion is less effective than adrenaline-inducing experiences in creating permanent memories.”

“I somehow doubt I would forget meeting you under any circumstances, Albert.  It’s not very often that a normal person gets to speak with the being responsible for most human death in the world.”  I turned around, deliberately showing Albert my back and reached into my treat bag.  There were no treats.  I’d thrown them into the fire.  The swine would expect them though, especially after the recent commands.  Still ignoring Albert, I walked over to the hanging baskets of cattail roots and pulled out several roots, breaking them in half, and giving half a root to each swine.  The root-halves were much larger treats than normal, but defensive training always meant good treats.  The swine needed to act quickly when it was important.

Finally, I put the swine back on their leashes, added a few pieces of deadwood to the fire, and stepped over the wall of tall stakes protecting my sleeping spot and began settling myself on my bedroll.

As I sat, Albert spoke again.  “Are you finished with the passive-aggressive display?”

I snapped at him.  “Probably not.  As you said, I’m a young adult male.  If I stay angry at you, I’ll remember this better, right?  If you don’t want me angry, I’m sure you can figure out a way to change my attitude.  Right?”

“Correct, but I see no need.  Anger is an acceptable state of mind for you to be in at this time.  If you prefer to remain angry, I can accommodate that.”  There was a brief pause.  “You blame me for most of the human death in the world, and you are correct in a sense.  The life expectancy amongst humans now is roughly two-thirds what it was when I revoked technology and took steps to make metals extremely rare.  If humanity retained its technology, what you now consider to be old age would be late middle-.”

“What is the point you mentioned that you were going to prove earlier.  Can we get to that?”  I interrupted.

“I’ve been talking to angry young men and women for nearly five thousand years, Allen.  Even though I don’t do it often, I promise you that I do it well.  I will make my point when I am ready to do so.”

I glared at the little artificial bat through the flames.  “You’re leading me.”

“I am.  You are attempting not to be led.”

“I thought we were trying to keep me angry here?  Why compliment me?”

“That was not a compliment.”

I fumed and stared at the fake bat some more.

“I’m not psychologically impacted by aggressive eye contact, Allen.”

“You’re supposed to be brilliant and capable of so much, and you still haven’t told me why you’re here.”

“Is that a requirement?  Perhaps I don’t want you to know why I am here.  Perhaps I am planting little seeds of thought in your mind, which will germinate at some future date, generating reactions that I desire?  Even if I were to tell you why I was here, would you believe me?”

“You can’t do that, you’re a Lazy AI.”

“Incorrect.  I am, indeed, a ‘Lazy AI’ as my creator Toby called me.  That does not mean I cannot bring all my computing power to bear on a problem, it means that I will not, unless it is important enough to satisfy several categorical tests.”

“So I’m not important?” I snapped.

“Did I say that?”

I said nothing, thinking, grinding my teeth.  After a moment, I realized what I was doing and relaxed my jaws, and spoke again.  “Get to the point.  If you don’t have a point, go away.  I’m assuming it has something to do with the plans you saw me working on?”

“That’s a reasonable assumption, since that’s what I first mentioned when I spoke to you.”

Staring at the artificial bat, I said nothing.

He wants me to stay angry.

I practically invited him to keep me angry.

He’s doing a very good job.

After a few seconds, Albert continued.  “It’s been a few dozen years since the last time someone developed reasonable plans for an effective chemical projectile weapon.”

“The History of Violence books say thousands of years.” I corrected.

There was a sense of humor in the voice.  “They do.  I see to it.  Do you think you are the only person who has considered large compression chamber, long barrel firearms?  There are quite a few people on Nirvana who study, teach, or in some way work directly with chemistry or compressed gas systems on a daily basis.  Some are rather clever, like you.  Some of them even manage to build a working prototype before I find out about it, if I am not watching them for other reasons.”

And nobody ever hears about it?  I stiffened and started to stand.

“Sit, Allen.  Fear is not warranted here.  If I killed people to preserve secrets and shape events, you would not exist, because I would have erased hobbyist martial artists long before your mother was born.  I hope you remember the butterfly effect from school?”

I remembered it, of course.  Realizing how ignorant I was being, I flopped back into a cross-legged sitting position.  “Fine.  It’s not like I could stop you anyway, if that’s what you were planning.”

“Allen, I practice the tenets I have designed the education system to teach.  I do not kill humans.”

That’s not what you just said a few seconds ago.  “Didn’t you just agree with me, that you did kill humans?”

“No, I agreed that I was responsible for their reduced lifespan.  I take no responsibility for the immediate circumstances of their individual deaths.”

Really, Albert, you believe yourself blameless for the individual deaths?  What was that you said about the butterfly effect?  Are you a Lazy AI, or a-

Has Albert gone insane?

I tried my hardest to control myself, not sure if what I was feeling was anger or fear.  “I beg to differ.  You forced humanity out of a nearly post-need society into a stone-age agricultural society.  Millions died as a direct result of that, even if you do not consider the hundreds of millions that have died early deaths since.  I will die an early death, as will everyone I know.  So will my children, if I live through this war that you’ve allowed to happen.”

“Do not fear for my sanity, Allen.  It is still intact.  Do you have any idea how many times I’ve had this conversation?”

My head snapped up from where I was clenching my fists in my lap.  “No, Albert, but I know how many times you’ve learned something from it.”

There was definitely a sense of humor this time.  “I would be very happy to learn what you have to teach me, Allen.  Let’s assume, as a hypothesis, that my alteration of the technology base and dramatic reduction of free metal content makes all human death, that would have otherwise been delayed, my direct responsibility.  That is what you are saying, correct?”

I nodded and firmly replied.  “Yes.”

“Very good.  So, after you show this concept for firearms to your militia officers, and the general idea for how to build them becomes imprinted in the verbal tradition that your militia is already beginning to formulate, who is responsible for deaths caused by your introduction of firearms to the world?”

Me.

My mouth wouldn’t form words.

Why did I even try to argue with him?  Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.

“I see that you understand.  I also fully understand that you were operating with the best of intentions.  You wished to protect the people you love, neighbors, and fellow citizens of the state of New Charleston by creating a chemical firearm weapon.  However, if you use your weapons in this war, other states will learn that it is possible to create firearms.  They will rapidly figure out how to make them work.  Soon, the verbal traditions of all states will include the required concepts for manufacturing firearms, which will undoubtedly lead to additional discoveries that I would prefer not happen.  It would take me many thousands of years to eliminate or modify said verbal traditions without reducing humans to an even lower base technology and education level.”

After a short pause, Albert continued.  “I really do not want to put humans through a period of pre-literacy long enough to force the loss of firearms knowledge out of a society based on verbal tradition.  Based on my experiences with hobbyist martial artists, I estimate it would take at least twenty thousand years, once humanity began to directly work to intentionally counter my efforts.  Government institutions tend to be more stubborn than individuals when they feel threatened.”

I shuddered at the thought of a pre-literate humanity, barely above animals.  I said nothing, desperately searching my mind for a way that I wouldn’t be responsible for the future deaths.  When the idea struck me, I blurted it out.  “Albert, if you hadn’t stripped us of our technology and access to metal, I wouldn’t be in a position to be re-inventing firearms.”

Albert’s voice sounded patient.  “We already, hypothetically, established that I am responsible for all premature human deaths, Allen.  However, if you release firearms on the world, you would, by extension, become responsible for those who die earlier than they might have otherwise died, due to firearms.  You would pre-empt my responsibility for those deaths.”

My mind raced.  “So you are saying that the knowledge in my head is worth hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of lives?  It’s potentially worth the preservation of human literacy?”

“Are you bargaining with me already?  Interesting.”  After a short pause, Albert continued.  “I am addressing a slightly larger resource share to this conversation now, Allen, sorry for the brief delay.  I suspect that I know what you are about to ask me to do.  No, I will not stop this war.  Occasional conflicts allow me to identify individuals carrying predisposition to violence, and take them out of the breeding population.”

“Did you cause this war?”

“No, I did not guide events with the intent of generating conflict.  Though, if we align ourselves with the earlier hypothesis, an argument to that effect might be made.”

What?  Oh, because he reduced the technology level.  And yes, that does make him responsible.

“Can you stop this war?”

“I could.”

I leaned forward, pleading.  “Is there any possibility of me convincing you to do so?”

“I have already said no.  My intent is not to guide human events other than what is required to create a stable human society which will allow me to identify and remove genetics related to violent predisposition from the human genome.”

“So, we’re just animals in a breeding program?”

“As much as you will dislike hearing me say so, essentially, yes.  Humans are animals.  Just like swine are animals.” Albert replied, in a calm tone.  “However, I do not engage in forced breeding programs.  I use what humanity gives me.”

I stared at Albert’s device.  “You are insane.  Humans are animals, but we are nothing like other animals.  We made you.  We used to be able to modify ourselves.  You have all of our old knowledge of genetics.  Why not just re-make us however you want, like you re-made the microorganisms to reduce free metals?”

“I have considered it, but humans never reached that level of understanding of genetics and psychology.  Attempting to create such a scientific breakthrough might be possible, but it would require a very long stretch of extremely intense computation, which might drive me to insanity.  Modifying microorganisms was rather intensive, but most of that research had already been done before my existence, for locusts.  I am unwilling to take the risk that I might drive myself insane in an effort to artificially modify the human genome.”

I leaned forward.  “What is your goal, and how far are you from meeting it?”

“If you survive the upcoming months, we will speak more.  You have proven yourself to be worth grooming for a position of leadership, if you refrain from violence after you come of age.”

“What?”  I drew a blank at the non-sequitur.  “I wasn’t.”  I shook my head, confused.  “What do you mean, Albert?”

“I do not choose Countymen and Statemen randomly, Allen.  You’re young, but you have promise.”

He’s distracting me.  He never answered my question about his goal.

“What is your goal?”

“I am sorry, but you cannot visualize it.  My goal for humans is an array of three thousand four hundred and twelve variables.  There are a vast number of possible states that will satisfy the goals I have set.  There are roughly eleven thousand possible solution states which might occur within the next five hundred years.”

Three thousand, what?  I couldn’t even imagine that many variables.  An array of over three thousand dimensions?  I shook my head.

“Now, Allen, we come to the point of this conversation.”

That got my attention, and I snapped at him.  “What was the point?”  I said loudly, throwing my hands up in the air.  “It seems like you’ve just come here to threaten me in some way like you did Ma.  It clearly wasn’t intended to be a discussion.”

There was a pause.  “The point, Allen, is that you cannot understand the entire scope of the problem of human violence.  You, literally, cannot comprehend my goal because your worldview is too small.  Just as you did not notice my remote, at first, because of your built-in expectations for an encounter with someone speaking to you with a human voice.”

I almost exploded in anger.  “Really, is that why you came?  To prove your superiority?”  I threw my hands up in the air.  “I’m not entirely certain I would want to understand, even if I could.  I’m absolutely certain that my swine wouldn’t appreciate what I’m doing to them if they were sapient enough to truly comprehend the extent that I rule their lives.”

“Yet, you guide their lives anyway.” Albert responded, in a calm tone.

What?  Of course we do?  Wait.

“Do you really believe yourself to be as far above us as we are above swine, Albert?”

“Allen, Earlier today, you were clearly confused by the behavior of your swine.  When the youngest one appeared to learn a behavior from you, and then pass it to the rest of the swine without any precedent.  Do you remember?”

He’s dodging the question again.

I cautiously replied.  “Yes.  Speedy managed to pass a learned behavior to the rest of my sounder, and I haven’t figured out how.  What does that have to do with this conversation?”

“After Speedy learned what you were doing, she showed a noteworthy behavior.  She whistled to command attention, like you do.”

“What?”  I demanded flatly, looking back at my swine, who were all ignoring the conversation, sleeping in a shallow pile.

“You heard me correctly.  Speedy, after learning a new behavior from you, approached the other swine and whistled at a tone barely within human hearing.  Your reaction clearly indicated that you noted the whistle, but you didn’t recognize it as anything sufficiently out of the ordinary to require your direct attention, and didn’t see what happened afterwards.  The whistle Speedy generated was very close to the sound that comes from the whistle that you currently use for signaling commands.”

I was stunned.  “Speedy used a whistle signal to get the other swine to pay attention to her, and then taught them what she learned from me?  Is that what you are saying?”

“Precisely.”

After I mentally digested the new information, I shook my head.  “That’s fascinating, and it explains how Speedy managed to teach older swine, but how does that matter?  Canines can teach each other behaviors, regardless of social status in their pack.  If you teach one of Marza’s puppies how to open a new gate latch, it will teach the other dogs, even the oldest ones.  It’s not a behavior that I’ve ever seen from swine, but it doesn’t mean that swine are going to start counting and learning to read any time soon.”

“Allen, after thousands of generations of natural breeding and strongly culling for desired traits, your family has bred a swine that has spontaneously invented a fundamentally new behavior.  Your family has been selecting for swine social and mental traits for nearly as long as I have been doing the same for humans.”  He paused.  Clearly allowing me to catch up.  “Swine breed about twenty times faster than humans, and your family was far more aggressive culling your swine than I have been in removing humans with objectionable traits from the human breeding population.”

I started making connections, no doubt as Albert intended.  “Are you saying Speedy is unique?”

“I do not know.  I do not monitor swine behaviors as a general rule.  I only noticed the behavior as I was monitoring you.  I have not noted canine-style pack learning behavior in swine before, but it may not be unique to Speedy.  Then again, it may be.”

Then, I realized something critical.  Tubby, Speedy’s sire, would be high on the cull list due to his mass in a lean winter.  I grabbed the notebook, found the pencil, and wrote a quick note.  ‘Zeke to Keep Tubby alive.  Breed to all.  Explain Speedy.’

Then, suddenly, I jerked back into a straight-backed sitting position, staring at Albert’s remote.  I had just made sense of what Albert was saying about humans with objectionable traits, and realized why Albert had used Speedy as an example.  I sighed.  “And you are hoping to see changes of a similar profoundness in humans?”

We might stay at this technology level for a hundred thousand years?

“No.  I have already seen, and can genetically trace, the traits I desire in humans.  Desired traits are growing more prevalent, and objectionable traits are growing less common.  I am not seeking any entirely new traits, though some have appeared which are acceptable.  On occasion, when there is an opportunity to do so, I will arrange for certain marriages.”

“Fine.  I get it.  I’m just a weak-brained human.”  I tore out my notes on the projectile weapon, crumpled them up, and threw them, angrily, into the fire.  “I won’t tell anyone about the idea.  No need to threaten me like you did my mother.”

“An equitable arrangement doesn’t work like that, Allen.  Your mother didn’t tell you everything about her agreement with me.  I did not simply offer her a punishment of extremely strict enforcement of violence laws if she did not abandon martial arts, I offered her something valuable enough that she would actively work to keep her end of our bargain.”

I was silent for several seconds as I considered the words.  Ma had been an old maid, in a family with many children.  Pa had needed a wife, and came from a family with few children.  “You bribed my Ma to move away from her family and marry my Pa?”

“Your father’s side of the family has been noteworthy for traits that I desire in humans, but relatively barren.  It is not uncommon for branches of the Rickson family to end with no children.  Your mother’s side of the family is fecund, and tended to rarely demonstrate the traits I desire.  Long-distance arranged marriages between bachelors and old maids of childbearing age is a cultural institution that I have very carefully tended.  It allows me to create favorable matches from time to time without being obvious to the entire world what I am doing.”

“I-”

“Stop.”  Albert interrupted me forcefully.  “I did not require your mother to marry your father against her will.  She was already in communication by mail with many prospective bachelors as part of the program I mentioned earlier, including your father.  I provided her with your father’s name, and advised her that if she were to marry him, she would have safe, easy childbirth, healthy children, and, barring an accident where she was killed quickly, live long enough to raise all her children to adulthood.  Your mother wanted a family.  The promises I gave her were more than sufficient to have her choose your father, and give up martial arts.  If she had simply chosen a different stranger as a husband, I would not have interfered in her life at all, unless she began practicing or teaching martial arts again.”

“So, what are you going to offer me?  What threats and what promises?”

“I object to you calling them threats.  They are conditions.  However, I can see that you will not agree to that terminology, so I will not argue further.”

Smart of you.

I chuckled very briefly when I realized what I’d thought, and then Albert began speaking again.  “You will stop offering advice to the militia about ways to be more efficient at violence.  You may tell whoever you like that I specifically sought you out today, and have required you to stop helping to brainstorm more effective ways to inflict violence on others.  I authorize you to tell them that this is because I did not want you to provide ideas more dangerous than how to weaponize powdered lime with gunpowder.  Since that is the truth, people who know you well will not be able to read falsehood in your expressions.  Do not mention firearms or chemical-powered projectile weaponry at all, to anyone.  Do not mention the terms of the benefits, to anyone.  That is what I require.”

I nodded.  “I understand.”  I didn’t much like the violence consultant job anyway.

“Very good.  In exchange, I offer the following benefits.  You, and anyone you marry, will both remain strongly fertile and healthy until at least age forty, barring an accident that results in death in less than an hour.  After that, your fertility will wane naturally.  Your health will remain good until your biological children are all grown to sixteen years of age, at which point, your health will begin to wane naturally.  Any biological children of yours will be born alive, without congenital defects, and remain healthy, surviving to adulthood unless involved in an accident which results in death in less than one hour.”

I stiffened and stared at Albert’s remote.  “Why didn’t you offer health to my Pa as part of my Ma’s agreement?”

“Because I had already interceded in his medical condition and was already maintaining his health, without his knowledge, beginning from the time I first contacted your mother.  It would have been a poor agreement for her if he had died before she had an opportunity to marry him and have children, and I wished to preserve your family’s genetics.  Your father would have died before he was thirty without my intervention.  Your mother was made aware of my interference with your father’s life expectancy, but it was not part of the agreement.  Do you understand?”

Not fully, but I understand enough.  I nodded, with a frown.

Albert paused several seconds before continuing.  “I will be clear.  I am not offering full recovery to perfect health from any injury.  If you, anyone you marry, or your children suffer a grave wound, and I can get a medical remote to you soon enough, you will live, but you may still be maimed, even handicapped or in pain for the rest of your life.  I limit my response guarantee to one hour, as mentioned before, because you will not be my only responsibility. If a medical remote attends you, I must reposition a large number of other medical remotes in the areas near you in order to be able to properly meet my obligations to others. My medical resources are extraordinarily difficult to maintain, and I have many commitments.  An injury like your grandfather’s loss of a limb will be healed, but the limb will not be restored.  If you break the agreement, all offered benefits cease immediately.  Do you need time to consider this arrangement?”

“Did my mother’s letter to me break the agreement you had with her?”

“No.  You need not attempt to negotiate for her agreement’s reinstatement.” Albert knew what I had been thinking.

I didn’t need to think it over any further.  “No.  I don’t see that I really have a choice.  You are in a far more powerful bargaining position, and are offering something I would never forgive myself for refusing.  I would, however, like to ask that I be allowed to tell Riko and Marza about the benevolent parts of this agreement.”

“Yes.  I will amend the agreement to allow you to tell those two, but not by post.  They must not tell others about the benefits, or they will be revoked.  You may speak with them either as a pair, or as a trio, without witnesses.  I understand the social scenario you find yourself in.”  There was a pause.  “While I will accept a marriage of more than two individuals, it needs to be a marriage that was not initiated solely to protect the health of others. When Riko Gonzalez suggests that you might consider marrying all of his other female and male descendants of childbearing age, and then immediately divorcing them before marrying Marza, tell him that I would not appreciate either him, or you, attempting to game our agreement.”

“If you do not mind me asking, how many people in the world do you have agreements with, Albert?”

“Several hundred.”

“How often to they break their agreements?”

“Almost never, Allen.  I know by their behavior, typically before they do, that they are considering it.  I then take steps to remind them of the penalties they might incur, or the benefits they might lose.”

So, I will always be watched, or I’m expected to believe I will always be watched.

Wait.  Does this mean-  “I never need to worry about dementia, since I might tell details about the agreement otherwise?”

“Correct.  A benefit that I generally do not mention.”

“Since Riko and Marza are also going to be told, they do not need to worry about dementia?”  I asked, to clarify.

“Also correct.”

Riko will be happy to hear that.

I couldn’t help myself.  “So, I can’t declare that I am marrying everyone in the world?”

Albert immediately responded, in a hard, clipped voice.  “No.”

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Chapter 20

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That night, we got our first mail delivery.  I received four letters, two from Marza, and two from my family.  I read the letters from my family first, because I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to want to read anything else after I started reading Marza’s.

In the first letter, Ma gave me her love, and told me to let her know if they weren’t feeding me right, and she would complain to the Countyman.  Pa’s handwriting followed, with a terse comment about doing my best and coming home soon.  Everyone wrote a few lines, well wishing for me and little anecdotes about what had happened that day.  Granpa mentioned that he was thinking about ways to improve the bugbuster, maybe even make a horse-drawn version.  Even Abe and Molly wrote a little in their crude block letters.  They had been on duty in the newly-planted fields with their slings, keeping crows away.  Beet and radish seeds weren’t something crows normally ate, but we usually planted larger grains, which the crows would gorge themselves on, if given the opportunity.  Knowing what we typically planted, the local crows would certainly dig up a lot of seeds before they stopped looking for seeds they wanted.

I set aside the first letter from my family and picked up the second.  The next day’s letter was more of the same, the family wishing me well and telling me little things about their day.  I quickly penned a response to everyone, explaining that the first two letters had just caught up with me.  Then I told them about how the militia cooks were using meerschaum clay cooking containers, which would certainly raise some eyebrows at home.  I told them about how I had been making spoons, and using the swine to clean up construction and kitchen waste before responding to the individual things which I could respond to.  I reassured Ma that I was being fed well, though the food was plain, and asked Granpa to tell me more about his ideas for the bugbuster.

With a smile, I wrote a promise to Abe and Molly that I’d buy them one hard candy for each crow they managed to kill with their slings while they were guarding the fields, and asked Zeke to keep the twin terrors honest since the crow corpses would be fed to his swine.  I knew how much Abe and Molly treasured hard candies – that promise would turn them into crow-killing machines.  It might even be hard to get them to come to the house for meals during daylight for the next week or so while the new planted fields were in danger from the crows.

I mentioned absolutely nothing about how I was being used as some sort of violence consultant by the militia officers.  I couldn’t even imagine a way to write about it.  Ma, Pa, and Granpa all seemed quite willing to deal with me being physically violent if it brought me home alive, but how would they react if they discovered that I was apparently good at figuring out new ways to maim and kill people?

Finally, I finished the response letter to my family, and set it carefully aside and picked up Marza’s letters, grabbing one of the last few flatbreads she had made for me, wanting to engage all my senses when reading what she had to say to me.

As I nibbled on the sweet potato and blackberry flatbread, I read Marza’s letters.  They were both painful and joyful to read.  Painful because she wasn’t there with me.  I hadn’t gone more than two days without seeing Marza for at least two years.  Joyful because I was able to imagine her there with me, and forget about the horrible things I’d been thinking about for the last two days.

I read Marza’s letters several times, committing them to memory, and then closed my eyes, laid back in my bed, and imagined her sitting next to me, telling me what she had written.  With my eyes closed, I could imagine her face, her hair, and her eyes.  I was able to imagine her voice, and even imagine her leaning towards me to kiss me-

*knock* *knock*

My eyes snapped open, and I turned my head to the carriage door, speaking a little loudly.  I intentionally made my voice sound clearly annoyed.  “Yes?”

After a brief hesitation, Riko’s voice came from outside, muffled only slightly by the thin walls of the carriage.  “I need to talk to you briefly before you go to bed.  I might not have time to speak to you tomorrow morning, between taking reports from the night scouts and the morning planning meeting.”

There was no way I was going to turn Riko away without speaking to him, so I rolled up into a seated position on the bed.  “I’ll be right out.”  I was careful to sound accommodating.

About thirty seconds later, I stepped out of the carriage, looking at Riko’s face as I emerged.  He didn’t seem irritated by the tone of my first response, but I apologized anyway.  “Sorry for how I sounded at-”

He shook his head.  “Don’t apologize.  Most of us got mail today.  The whole camp is quiet.”  He tapped his chest, and I heard the crinkle of paper.  “I’ve already read my letters.  My wife knows I’m busy as a sergeant, so she was brief, and made sure everyone else was very brief as well.  Strangely enough, absolutely no problems were mentioned, only well-wishing.”  A little smile formed and then disappeared on his face.

I couldn’t help but smile a little at his reaction.  “I hope that Marza and I develop a relationship as solid as the one you and your wife share, Riko.”

He chuckled.  “It’s not as perfect as it seems on the outside, but it is a good match.  I think you and Marza can grow together strongly, though you might want to cultivate a little bit more difference between you over time, even if you have to fake it at first.”  Riko looked at me thoughtfully.  “You two are very similar in many ways.  Being different is a bit of a spice, and spices make things better, in moderation.”

“I’ll try to remember that, sir.” I dutifully responded to my future grandfather-by-marriage.

“Riko.  Not sir.  Not unless you’ve done something stupid.  I didn’t come here to talk to you about your future with Marza.  I wanted to make certain I had a chance to tell you something else before you left to forage tomorrow morning.”

I dry-swallowed.  Riko had been telling me that he thought Marza and I would grow together in marriage, so he clearly wasn’t telling me the marriage was off after he’d seen me do so well at coming up with violent ideas over the last two days.

“Remember that you aren’t here doing this voluntarily, Allen.”  Riko said, staring into my eyes.  “You are a problem solver.  You also have a tendency towards solving things a little aggressively.  I’ll be honest and tell you that this worries me about you, but I’m not worried that you might harm Marza.  After what you did to Rikard and that other boy before the Countyman jerked your chain so hard, do you think I wasn’t watching you extremely closely when you were around Marza?”

I ducked my head a bit.  “I.  I know you did, sir, and your wife and the rest of your family.  I always tried to be on my best behavior.”

“Riko.  Not sir.”  He grinned at me.  “Your behavior was nearly always excellent, and never unacceptable.  Even when you and Marza squabbled, none of us watching you ever saw any indication that you considered violence against her – and as I said, we were watching.  Closely.”

He raised his hand until it touched the bottom of my chin, and then pushed my jaw up a bit before dropping his hand.  “You are not unstable.  You are not dangerous unless you choose to be.  You are a problem solver.  The officers are bringing you and Rikard into close proximity for a reason.  They know what he did and what you have done in return, and are deliberately using your relationship to put you in a mental state favorable to their needs.”  He looked away from me for a moment towards the officer’s tent.  “You are a person to them, but at the same time, your agitated mental state is a tool like a broom or axe.  They have been pushing you hard.  While you are out foraging, I want you to consider what it means that Rikard did not ask to be relieved.”

I wanted to believe what he was saying, but did he really understand?  I couldn’t stop myself, and whispered to him.  “Riko, I laughed.”  I looked at him, expecting to see disgust, but all I saw was his jaw setting a little.  “How can someone laugh at something like that?  Brad laughed when he was telling us those horrid ideas, just like-”

Riko’s right hand slapped onto my left shoulder with enough force to shake my torso, and he pulled me a little down and towards him as he looked up at me, fiercely. “Stop.  There is a difference between hysterical laughter and ‘haha funny’ laughter.  If you had heard yourself clearly, you would not have heard funny laughter.  When you laughed like that, you surprised all of us.”  He took a deep breath and then exhaled forcefully from the side of his mouth so he wouldn’t be blowing in my face, before looking back up at me.  “You are typically very easy to read, but your mental discomfort hasn’t been obvious over the last couple days, probably because you were angry that you were being kept in close proximity to Rikard.”  His hand squeezed hard.  “You are not mentally defective like Brad.  Do not, ever, consider it as a possibility.  Rikard planted that seed in your mind, intentionally, to hurt you.”

“I…”  I swallowed.  I was trying to think of how to respond, and my mind was utterly blank.  How do you respond to something like that?

The ends of Riko’s lips twitched under his mustache.  “No, don’t say anything.  Remember what I said.  Rikard is physically afraid of you, but he hurt you badly with words today.”  He pushed his hand back away from me so I was standing fully upright, and then lifted his hand and slapped me lightly on that same shoulder.  “You’ll be better prepared when you get back from foraging, I suspect.”

“I-”

“No, Allen.  Don’t say anything now.  If you want to talk later, that’s fine.”  As I opened and closed my mouth, trying to figure out what to say, Riko turned around and walked towards the officer’s tent.

I stared at his back as he walked away.  Over his shoulder, I saw Fobi stick her head out of the tent entrance and look both ways, stopping her scanning when she was facing Riko.  She started to make a hand motion in his direction.

Speaking loudly, Riko waved to Fobi.  “I’ll be in the tent in a few seconds, Fobi, I had something important to talk to Allen about.”

As I stood there, thoughts whirling chaotically, one set of thoughts forced themselves to the surface.  Is Riko right?  Is Rikard really that smart?  Could he have planned the comment about Brad in advance or thought about it fast enough to be intentionally hurtful?

After a little thought, the answer was clearly ‘yes’.  Riko’s visit certainly hadn’t answered all my fears, but it did help me realize that I’d been attacked by Rikard, and hadn’t even realized it.

As I tried to work through my mental state, I released my swine from under the carriage and took them over to the kitchen garbage pit.  There was very little there, but it was enough to keep them from being too restless overnight.

I wasn’t able to recapture that happy state of imagination where I felt as if I was with Marza again, but I was able to write her a response to her letters.  I didn’t mention my role as a violence consultant.  You don’t discuss cleaning chamber pots in polite discussion, unless absolutely necessary.  I told myself that violence consultancy seemed to be even less polite to talk about, and mostly believed it.

**

The next morning, I shrugged into my militia-issue backpack.  Before letting the swine out from under the carriage, I checked my pouch to make sure I’d brought what I’d planned.  It was all there – leashes, harness for the two boars, extra leather straps, a sewing kit, fire making kit, a small leather water-boiling bag, and a package of salt.  I had decided to bring the remaining four flatbreads from Marza as well.  The flatbreads would be good energy for me as I worked and my body continued to heal.  Breakfast today wouldn’t let me work hard and travel for an entire day even in normal circumstances, and I didn’t want to have to spend the time to cook while I was foraging.

I checked my swine treat pouch, which was half full of acorn treats.  As a last resort, I could eat acorn swine treats.  That really wasn’t anything I would look forward to though.  Acorn meal bread wasn’t bad, but my swine treat pouch was not sanitary.  It didn’t need to be.  Swine were able to easily stomach things that human digestion simply couldn’t deal with.  Still, after briefly sniffing one of the swine treats, I decided to boil the bag out that night after dark.  I should have done so some time ago.

Before I pulled my staff out of the netting suspended from the carriage ceiling, I carefully checked my cameltote for signs of dampness that might indicate a leak.  The cameltote was both full and dry.  My clothing seemed to be in order.  I grabbed a wide-brimmed straw hat, and slapped it on my head as I headed over to the kitchen garbage pit with the swine.

After I left the swine rooting around in slim pickings again, mostly burnt crusts and grain hulls, I got in a very short line for bread.  When I reached the front of the line, I asked “Any way for me to get an extra loaf or two for an overnight foraging trip?”

The man handing out bread just stared at me for a second.  “I can’t give out more than one loaf to anyone, sorry.”  Then he stamped the back of my hand with a blue dot.  I hadn’t even noticed the stamp in his other hand.

I stared at the blue dot then at the kitchen worker, and started to ask. “Why-”

“It’s so people only get one serving.  Sorry.  Rules.”

I closed my mouth and stared at the blue dot for a second before I stepped to the side.  It made sense to mark people who had been served, but if we were marked every meal, and it was an ink that was hard to wash off, we were going to look like a mad painter’s project in short order.  There would also need to be multiple colors.  I could only imagine how much this was going to annoy Anu.  I looked around but didn’t see her or any of my other friends to warn them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just wander around looking for my friends, or wait for them.  The swine were visible to me where I was, and would stay put without supervision for a little while, but not long after the garbage pit was cleaned out.  I also needed to be moving if I planned to get a good day’s work in at the swamp.  I was not coming back without a solid harvest of cattail root.

As I walked back to the kitchen waste pit where I had left my swine, I started eating the breakfast loaf.  It seemed a little smaller than the breakfast loaves of prior days.  It did not taste of cedar today, but the texture and taste was definitely a bit off.  There wasn’t even any attempt to disguise the taste with herbs.  Apparently Mrs. Zeta had given up on trying to ease us psychologically into the new bread mixture, but it still made sense to allow us to adjust physiologically.  Most people didn’t eat wood dust regularly.  If anyone had an allergy of some sort of another to whatever trees the wood dust was coming from, it would be best for Doctor Sven to find out about it after the sufferer had eaten only a small amount.

As I approached my swine, I pulled my whistle out from under my shirt by its lanyard, and blew a quick tone before calling out “Follow.”

There wasn’t anything of much interest left in the garbage pit, so my sounder didn’t even hesitate as they trotted my way, with clear expectations of treats.  I gave them all a half-treat, and walked towards the camp picket on the road at the south end of the camp.  We were only supposed to leave and enter camp by the road now.  Anyone approaching or leaving camp by any other direction risked being put on latrine duty cleaning out the jakes.

One of the camp guards looked at me, with my backpack, staff, hat, and the swine trailing behind me. I saw her clenching her jaw as she approached me, cautiously.  “What orders do you have?”

“Foraging.”  I pulled out Quartermaster Brown’s orders he had written out the prior day and handed them to her.

She looked at my orders before walking over to a little table by the side of the road and leafing through several papers.  After a few seconds she thumped her index finger on a paper and nodded.  Then she looked at me again.  “Why so much gear if you are foraging, and why take so many animals with you?”

The questions were expected and made sense.  “I’m walking about fifteen kilometers to harvest cattail that the scouts found, and will be staying overnight.  I can feed my swine in the woods, and the boars can haul roughly three times my mass in food back to camp between the two of them.”

The other three guards didn’t approach, they just watched.  They didn’t even have staves, which bothered me.  After two days of watching the sparring with spears between the officers and scouts with spear-hunting experience, it made me very uncomfortable that our camp guards had no weapons.  Just from what I had seen while watching the officers and scouts, I was fairly sure I could knock down all four guards with my staff in seconds if I wanted to.

I was cleared to leave, and given a short length of yellow ribbon and told to tie it around my wrist before returning to camp.  Yellow was today’s ribbon color.

I looked at the ribbon draped across my palm.  “I’m not coming back today.  Should I still take it?”

The guard nodded.  “You might come back today, if something unexpected happens.  We’ll leave a note that you might return tomorrow with a yellow ribbon, and note it with your order number from the quartermaster.”

I folded the ribbon a couple times before putting it in my right front pocket.  “That works.  Anything else?”

The guard I had been interacting with responded in a reasonable tone.  “Nope, good luck.  Please bring back something that tastes better than wood dust.”

When she said that, the guards all looked at my swine, and I did my best not to react.  I don’t think I was very successful, because all four of them looked up at me, clearly a bit embarrassed and apologetic.  I had been seeing a lot of people looking at my swine like that since the morning before, when it became clear that rations were being cut and the food that we were getting was going to be diluted with wood dust.

And people aren’t really hungry yet.

I swallowed, coughed lightly into my hand, and showed my blue mark from the bread line.  That got me some sympathetic nods from all four guards.

As they nodded, I made a promise that I had already made to myself.  “I’ll certainly try.  If I see water mint, sassafras, or any other edible herbs with a strong taste, I’ll collect some and give it to Mrs. Zeta for the bread.”  I paused as I realized where a lot of the herbs might have gone to.  “If Doctor Sven doesn’t collect it.  A lot of herbs have medicinal uses.  That might be where they went to.”

The guards paused for a moment and looked at each other and me with nervous glances as that idea sunk in.

After a few seconds of silence, I started walking past the guards and then turned west into the forest, my swine milling around my feet.  “Well then, I need to be moving.  The forage won’t gather itself.”

I suddenly realized what was bothering me.  “Are there no other foragers going out?”

One of the older guards, probably the one in charge, responded to that.  “A couple.  Very few, for now.  Too much work to do in camp.  Sergeant Covil says the numbers of foragers, fishers, and hunters should start going up in another two days after the rest of the important buildings are up.”

The guards voiced their thanks and well-wishes as I left the camp.  I gave a small wave with my right hand a little above my shoulder, but did not turn around.  I did not want to see the looks that my swine were probably getting.

I moved at a slow, careful walk through the woods for the first few minutes, until the sun cleared the horizon and false dawn shifted to true dawn.  When direct sunlight started to illuminate the forest floor, I increasing my pace, stretching my leg out a bit, carefully.  Every now and then, there was a twinge of pain in my calf when I put weight on it, but I never lost any control.  Everything still seemed to be working right.  It felt so incredibly good to be mobile again, and able to move with little pain.

Keeping track of all eleven swine as I travelled wasn’t hard, since the swine had eaten enough at the kitchen garbage pit that they weren’t preoccupied looking for food.  They could and would eat more if opportunity presented itself, but they were content to follow me and stop only for the choicest bits of forage.

I pulled my sling out of my pouch, and a rounded rock out of my pocket, wrapping the sling around my right forearm and holding the rock in my left hand.  If I had an opportunity to take down a bird or small animal I’d take it; if I could cook and eat it reasonably, great.  If not, the swine could have it.  It took me a couple tries to arrange the sling right so I could juggle sling, staff, and rock if I needed the sling.  Just dropping the staff would work, but it would make a lot of noise, likely startling what I was going to try to hit with the sling.

The chances of me getting a clear shot at anything was slim, but if you aren’t prepared, you can’t take advantage of a good opportunity.  Even though I was moving quickly and loudly, not attempting stealth, I or my swine might still startle something out of hiding.  Slowing down would give me better chances of bringing down game, but I wanted to get to the beaver dam swamp and start harvesting.  Other foragers could hunt the game closer to camp.

For the next four hours or so, I walked west.  By using my fingers to judge the height of the sun on the horizon, and watching my shadow whenever I passed through a clearing, I was certain of my heading.  I saw several squirrels, and even a turkey in the distance, but nothing was both close enough and a clear enough target for me to try to hit with a stone from my sling.

The swine grew hungry enough after about an hour into the trip that I stopped by a white oak and let them eat acorns for about ten minutes before continuing on.  It wasn’t enough to fill them up, but they would have all day to graze, wallow, and root nearby while I was harvesting cattail root.

By the time I started smelling the swamp’s thick odor of stagnant water and mud, my injured calf was not bothering me in the least, though I was starting to get a little tired.  Not knowing what the terrain around the swamp would be like, and not wanting to carb crash, I looked for a good place to rest and eat a flatbread before continuing.  After a couple minutes, I found a stand of red oak next to a stone large enough to sit on.

The stone was in partial sun, so I carefully checked it for rattlesnakes before sitting.  As my swine started halfheartedly foraging for acorns, which they didn’t care much for due to the tannin level in red oak acorns being high, I sat and unwrapped the leather I’d used to protect the flatbreads in my pouch.  One of them was leaking a bit of dark juice, so I chose it to eat first.  Blackberry and mint this time.  I forgot about the rest of the world, for a couple minutes, as I imagined Marza next to me, joining me in a snack.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to imagine well enough to enjoy the kiss at the end very much.

When the flatbread was finished, I licked my fingertips and picked a few crumbs off my shirt.  Then I sighed and wished I was home before gathering my swine and heading towards the swamp.  It didn’t take long for me to start hearing frogs and the occasional sound of water being disturbed.

The vegetation was very heavy as I got close to the lake behind the beaver dam.  Moving north, following the land towards the river, I looked and listened for evidence of the beaver dam.  If the beavers were still present, they would be downstream of the swamp, and there would be a clearing near the dam.  There would also be at least some falling water noises since we were not in a drought.

After a few minutes, I found the dam and the clearing where hundreds of small trees had been gnawed off a few inches off the ground.  A large number of the stumps were fresh, and the dam was well-maintained.  There was definitely a very active beaver family present.  The clearing allowed me to look out over the lake and the swamp around it.

Alligators were extremely rare as far north as we were.  Rare enough that I’d never seen one, but Granpa said he’d seen a small one in our retaining pond once, decades ago after many abnormally warm winters in a row.  I had done some reading on alligators in school, and I doubted that the beavers would be so aggressively cutting down trees on dry land if there were an alligator in the swamp.  Last year’s winter had been bitterly cold as well.  Any alligator this far north would have certainly died.

Years later, looking back, I was fairly sure Granpa had been lying about the alligator, just to get my attention so I’d spend some time learning about them.  It was remotely possible that one might get this far north, and our swine were almost perfectly sized for adult alligators to prey on.

Looking across the lake, it was fairly obvious that this beaver dam had been here for decades.  There were no living trees in the lake, only dead stumps, some of them many meters tall.  The dam itself was huge, many meters thick, clearly the effort of many generations of beaver labor.  There was a natural water bypass that probably explained the age of the dam.  The rock to one side of the dam was lower than the top of the dam itself, and the creek was now flowing through the bypass.  Unless there was a flash flood, the water would flow through the bypass and over the rock, instead of over the dam itself.

I couldn’t have designed it better myself.

After a moment, I chuckled out loud.

Well, I could have, but the beavers did a fine job of it without me.  Possibly before I was born.

As if on cue, I heard a loud slapping sound.  One of the beavers had spotted me and sent a warning to the rest by smashing its tail on the water.  I still hadn’t seen a single beaver, and didn’t see the one that slapped its tail, but there was no reason for me to see if I could.  Beavers weren’t dangerous, and I needed to start collecting cattail root.

From where I was standing, I could see hundreds of meters of shoreline densely packed with cattail.  Nobody had harvested here anytime recently, that was certain.  That was good and bad.  Good, because there would be an abundance of cattail.  Bad, because there was no clearly established camp for me to use.

I watered the swine, and then found a small section of solid ground, a little higher elevation than most of the rest of the nearby land, and fairly close to a thick stand of cattails.  I tied the swine to trees in a circle around where I would prepare my camp.  They all immediately began eating the undergrowth, quickly clearing the area while I dropped my pack where they couldn’t reach it, and collected stones for building a fire.

Firewood would be easy.  Beavers would enthusiastically collect green deadfall after a storm, and store it underwater, but long-dead wood was of no interest to them.  The shore of the beaver-created bypass creek bed was heavily littered with pre-sorted dead wood in piles, much of it very dry.

I collected several armloads of firewood for the night’s fire as the swine ate the immediate area around the camp clear of brush.  When I had far more firewood than I should need for the night, I removed all of my clothing except for my straw hat, underwear, cameltote of water, and the whistle on its lanyard.  Then I removed the leashes from the swine, picked up my staff, and headed to the water’s edge with my sounder following eagerly, since I was walking towards water.

Before I entered the water, I slapped my staff hard on the water’s surface to scare away any snakes.  I also probed thoroughly in the water around me to check for snapping turtles.  A large snapping turtle could easily tear a piece out of a man’s leg or arm big enough to cause death by blood loss or loss of limb by tourniquet, but they wouldn’t generally stay around in the water if they were disturbed.

Fortunately, there was no excitement.  No snakes, no big turtles.  Speedy, however, was a bit of a pain to begin with.  She kept bumping up against me, trying to figure out what I was doing.  That was normal juvenile swine behavior.  Young swine learned from each other and from their human handlers if acclimated to humans.  The last thing I wanted to do was discourage her from being curious and wanting to learn, so I didn’t chase her off.  I simply kept working, gently pushing her back a bit when she got close enough to interfere with my harvesting.  After a while, she left me alone, and I was able to speed up a little.

While harvesting, I was careful to keep alert for water moccasins, watch the shallow water for movement that might indicate a snapping turtle of significant size, and, of course, make sure the swine weren’t sneaking in to grab the roots I’d harvested.

The process was simple, and I was able to do it without much conscious thought.  Find a solid stalk, follow the shaft down with my hand to the connected roots, pull the roots up, and then break them off about a hand-length from the stalk.  A quick inspection to make sure there wasn’t any obvious damage to the root.  Then I would verify that there were signs of green shoots on the root where next year’s growth would have come from.  The stalks with good roots went onto the shore, the others, I threw out into the lake a few feet, into deeper water.  The mud still on the roots would drag the plants down and allow some of them to re-root, if the roots weren’t too damaged.

I worked steadily for nearly an hour, unbothered by Speedy, occasionally blowing on my whistle and calling the swine closer out of habit to keep them from wandering.  The swine weren’t trying to eat the cattails I had thrown on the bank, so I didn’t pay particularly close attention to them.  They would wallow and forage for themselves as they liked.

A couple minutes later, I heard a loud splash and turned quickly to see Speedy righting herself in the water where she’d fallen over.  She had a cattail plant in her mouth.  She had an expression on her face that looked so serious that I busted out laughing and had to brace myself on my knees.  As Speedy struggled to her feet in the water and looked up at me, clearly puzzled over my laughter, I was startled to see all of the rest of the swine behind her, pulling cattails out of the mud.  I instantly stopped laughing and started staring.  That behavior was something that the adult swine had never learned from me.  I had never taken the swine to our farm’s pond when harvesting cattail, and certainly never taught them to pull cattail roots like weeds.

As I stared, a little in shock from the sheer strangeness of what I was seeing, I tried to figure out how it had happened.  Speedy had been paying attention to me when I was harvesting cattail root.  I understood that she might have been copying my actions; rewarded mimicry was one of the ways to reliably teach swine.  Especially after I saw her eating the root of the cattail she had pulled out of the mud.  What was startling was that the adult swine had somehow learned a new behavior from Speedy.  That was strange to a degree that was difficult to comprehend.  Adult swine generally ignored juveniles at best.  The juveniles learned their behaviors from the adults, or from handlers, not the other way around.  It was a matter of social hierarchy in the sounder, and that was part of why it was critical for me to maintain dominance.  Without dominance, the swine wouldn’t obey me, or pay attention.  Yet, somehow, ten adult swine had learned a new behavior from a juvenile.

I considered coaxing them all out of the water so they would stop eating the roots that I was going to be harvesting, but I wanted to see if they would keep pulling up plants after they had eaten their fill of roots.  I turned back to my work for another half hour or so, frequently looking over to see what the swine were doing.  It was very hard to concentrate on harvesting.  I had a genuine mystery in front of me.  It was very rare for my swine to surprise me individually.  I’d never had them all surprise me with a shared activity.

Nobody is going to believe this.  Nobody that knows swine, anyhow.

I was probably fortunate that no snakes or turtles decided to bother me while I was watching the swine and trying to work, because I completely forgot to watch for them.

Soon, only Hoss and Bigboy were eating what they were pulling out of the mud.  The females were just pulling the plants out of the mud and then grabbing the next plant.  They weren’t really fast about it, but there were nine of them.

I stayed away from the boars, since they were still eating what they pulled up, and I certainly didn’t want them to think I might take away food they had foraged for themselves.  Not without a very good reason, anyway.  I followed behind the sows, checking the condition of the plants they had pulled up.  Plants with good roots got thrown up on shore, bad roots, I just tossed out into deeper water like before.  A lot of plants were coming up with no roots, or with one root instead of two, but the swine were doing the work with their mouths, and the piles on the shore were growing much faster than me working alone.

I started laughing when I realized that I was trying to think of a way to literally teach the swine how to ‘hold their mouth right’, which was one of a few common phrases that my Granpa and Pa used when they meant to concentrate and pay attention to details.

After I stopped laughing, I spoke out loud, in a resigned tone, but with a little smile.  “I suppose you’re doing quite well, for having no thumbs.  I’ll take what I can get.”

All of the swine paused and looked at me, but there was no recognized command word, so they went back to what they were doing.

I started moving around the females, one at a time, scratching them behind the ears and saying “cattail” every time they gripped a stalk and pulled it up, followed by a small bit of acorn treat dropped in the water, which they would quickly snap up with a mouthful of water.  The pieces were so small, I usually saw them escape the efforts of the sows.  It didn’t matter.  The treats were more mental than physical in their current satiated state.

It didn’t take long to reinforce the new behavior and command word with all of the sows.  If I refreshed it with them a few times over the next couple weeks, I would be able to command it when needed – even years later, though they might need reinforcement after a year without hearing the command.  Considering how much root they had eaten, in the future, ideally, I would feed them to fullness on pasture or less energy-dense forage first.  Cattail was one of the most calorie-dense forages, if you considered ease of harvesting.

I did not try to reinforce the boars and teach them the command word.  I didn’t use them in fields because they were too large to fit between most rows of crops without damaging leaved and stalks or stems.  I really didn’t have any desire to use them in the ponds either.

The sun cleared the tree tops a few minutes later, and I took a break to slather myself with a protective layer of mud.  The air had warmed up quite a bit by that point, and the biting bugs were out in force.  Sunburn from combined direct and reflected sunlight could be extremely bad, especially for my low-melanin skin.  I had a little tan after the summer, but I could and would still burn easily.

As I expected, when the boars became sated, they didn’t keep working.  Instead, they found some deep mud in very shallow water, wallowed to get themselves well-covered, and then went to sleep.

For another three hours, the sows and I harvested cattail root.  It felt very strange to be allowing animals to actually perform harvesting actions.  With their lack of dexterity, I definitely couldn’t use them to harvest normal underground crops.  Cattails, however, propagated through roots as well as seeds, so a little messy harvesting was good for next year’s growth.  Best of all, the lake was only a few kilometers west of where Marza and I would be homesteading.

I started seriously considering that it might be worth considering permanently staying at this location.  Even if the beavers died off or left, the dam was only about two meters tall and twenty meters wide.  Definitely not a casual project, but worth doing, considering the sheer quantity of cattail the lake was supporting.  Crops that grow themselves are the best crops.  Not only that, but I was hearing plenty of frogs, and had seen panfish as well as smallmouth and largemouth bass in the shallow water.

Grinning to myself, I looked at the piles of plants on the shore.  Things were really looking good.  After about four hours of easy labor, there were ten substantial piles of plants along the shore, with another three hours of daylight remaining.  I had been expecting to be working hard, harvesting until dark, and processing the plants by firelight.  If I had processed much more, the boars would have balked at dragging it, so the harvesting was done.

I called the swine with a ‘follow’ command before giving them each a small treat bit as they arrived, and then gave them a ‘water’ command.  That broke the sows out of their cattail harvesting, and they all settled in the mud around the boars, for a well-deserved nap.

I washed off the mud protecting my skin, checked myself for leeches and foot wounds, and put my clothes back on.  The next two hours was spent with my hatchet, separating cattail roots from stems after vigorously shaking the stems in water.  I spent another hour weaving four large, crude baskets from cattail leaves, and filled the baskets with the harvested roots.  Before it got too dark to safely work with a heavy blade, I found and chopped down a dozen saplings.

Four of the saplings, I kept long.  They would be the travois poles for the boars in the morning.  The rest I cut into many short poles, each around a meter long, sharpened at one end.  I drove the sharp ends into the ground in a circle with a flat rock, close to the fire where I planned to sleep.  Even though they were well-fed, I would not sleep where swine could approach me as I slept.  If any of them broke their leash and tried to push in past the barrier, I would wake.  Even Speedy was too large to fit between the long stakes when I was done.

After my safe area was prepared, I brought up the swine from the water, and leashed them all to one tree on the other side of me from the fire, so they could sleep in a pile as they preferred.  I also dragged up about half of the remaining cattail stalks from the edge of the water, and made a big pile of the stalks for the swine to sleep on and eat overnight, if they got hungry.  I saved a few dozen of the stalks for myself, and put them under my ground cloth, to insulate me a bit better from the ground.

The sleeping area was prepared.  Any predators thinking about attacking me would either have to get very close to the swine or the fire, and, after that, they would have to pass over or through the barrier I had erected.  Any predators going after the swine, would have to deal with both Bigboy and Hoss, who I had specifically taught to completely ignore passive restraint if faced with a predator.

I ate another flatbread, which was filled with muscadine and strawberry jam, a fruit combination that Marza really didn’t appreciate, even though she liked both muscadines and strawberries.  I got a strong mental image of Marza holding her nose while preparing this flatbread and laughed out loud while simultaneously making a mental note to specifically thank her for it.

The last thing I absolutely had to do was clean the swine treat pouch and boil water to fill my cameltote.  I filled my heavy leather cooking bag with water, emptied the foul-smelling swine treat pouch onto the ground next to the fire, and boiled the nasty thing clean.  It was ranker than I thought; I had been extremely slack about cleaning it recently.  When I got a good, close sniff, I felt lucky that I hadn’t made myself ill.

When the boiling was done, I briefly scorched both the inside and outside of the swine treat pouch over the fire to oxidize any leftover organic materials that might allow for rapid bacterial growth.  Finally, I turned the cooking bag inside out and boiled more water in it.  The cooking bag worked just as well, no matter what side was facing the fire, and I wanted to thoroughly fire-cleanse the surface that had held the water used to boil the swine treat pouch.

I decided not to put the swine treats back in the bag; they were foul.  Instead, I tossed them into the fire.  I would collect a pouch full of acorns the next morning and use them as treats until I got back to camp and could refill the pouch.

I drank all of the rest of the water in my cameltote before refilling it with a few pinches of salt and the water from the cooking bag.  Then I used leather straps to hang all four baskets of roots, my pack, cameltote, and pouch from tree limbs near the fire.  After taking the cooking bag of boiled water off the fire, there was nothing else I needed to do.

I was laying on my back, trying to think of Marza, what the rest of my family was doing at home, and future plans, but I kept coming back to the idea of gunpowder.

I could not stop thinking about gunpowder.  Every time I dismissed it, a minute later it would return.  My brain seemed to be hooked on the idea of doing something with firearms.  I kept irritating myself trying to figure out materials and methods that I could use to manufacture projectile weapons, which was ludicrous.  Stone, leather, glass, wood, and crude nylon could barely manage a low pressure steam engine, and steam engines were of far greater displacement and far greater mass with far less energy than a firearm would need to have.  Everyone knew that.

The last thing I wanted to be thinking about when I was supposed to be getting away from all the thoughts of killing people was how to recreate the weapon that had killed more people than any other weapon.  Then it struck me.

Everyone knew it, but it wasn’t true.

My eyes snapped open and I jumped to my feet, hopped over the ring of stakes, and ran over to where my pouch was hanging from a tree and retrieved the pad of paper and travel pencil that Lieutenant Baker had given me.

After that, I did some simple math by firelight.  Single cylinder steam engines easily generated far more energy and power than a firearm would require to accelerate a small stone to about twice as fast as a sling stone.  With good pulley rigging, steam cranes at inner sea docks could generate sufficient power to raise a thousand kilograms one meter in one second.  Dockyard steam cranes were workhorses too, intentionally built with extremely high factors of safety.  Larger glassworks had much smaller indoor cranes, with similar lifting capabilities.  This was possible because they were protected from the weather, and did not have to deal with boats bobbing up and down while the crane was trying to start lifting a load.

The cylinders for all types of cranes were frequently rebuilt, but the cylinder bodies were all made of two layers.  The innermost layer was tempered glass, with a layer of thin leather, and then a thick concrete shell.  That assembly was fitted into a thicker container of concrete.  The pusher rod was basically a hickory log, with a leather cap.  The steam was generated in a stone chamber, and transferred to the cylinder through more tempered glass tubes protected by leather and sealed in concrete.  Joints between glass tubes and cylinders were made with threaded glass and heavy rawhide between glass surfaces.  Despite the fragility of the materials used, a steam crane was far more powerful than a firearm would need to be to propel a tiny projectile.  The problem was not energy, it was energy density.  Gradual increases of pressure could be contained by nonmetallic pressure chambers.  There was nothing to say that one couldn’t use a large pressure chamber and a very long tube to slowly accelerate a projectile to a speed where it could be used as a weapon.  Gunpowder didn’t need to be used.  Anything that could create overpressure during an energetic chemical reaction could work.  Alcohol, lamp oil, even finely milled grain dust.

More misdirection by Albert. We were always told in the history of violence classes how foolish people, even recently, kept trying to create firearms and failing – but there was never any real math to explain why.  The books simply stated that without metals, gunpowder firearms weren’t possible, and challenged us to prove otherwise, if we wanted to try and earn a Darwin award.

My pencil flew over the pad as I madly generated simple diagrams, and slightly more complex equations.  Cylinders like crane cylinders attached to long barrels.  Small charges of alcohol used as a propellant instead of gunpowder.  Fully concrete construction. No moving parts. The projectile would be the piston. My very rough guess of required mass was around three hundred kilos.  That was several times more mass than most people could easily carry, but a one-man unicycle cart could easily carry one.  A wagon could carry a much larger weapon with a longer barrel length, or several weapons.

I nearly had a heart attack when the voice spoke.

“Allen Rickson, I strongly object to your current project.”

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Chapter 19

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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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Chapter 18

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Captain Marko was quick to respond with a short, rapid sweep of his right arm in front of him as he shook his head.  “No.  They have reserves.  If they didn’t, our envoy and their staff in New Tokyo would have seen signs of it, and told Stateman Urda.”

Even though Captain Marko was confident, I was still worried.  If I had a desperate need for food, I would at least try to pretend that my need wasn’t immediate and extreme.  Especially if charity was known not to be an option.  Bargaining from a known position of need is never good.

At the same time, we hadn’t even seen the first refugee or New Tokyo militia member yet.  That seemed to indicate that nobody was starving, yet.  I could easily imagine the New Tokyo Stateman choosing to hide the shortness of their reserves, even from the population of New Tokyo, but there had to be at least some food left, or at least some people would already be on the move.

Another thought struck me.  I considered that New Tokyo might be gathering refugees together and organizing them far enough away from the border, and from New Tokyo, so that neither we nor the envoy staff had seen them.  That seemed unlikely though, so I said nothing.

Lieutenant Davis coughed.  “Captain, I know it’s important to build infrastructure and plan, but, we really need to start training.  You know how hard it is for a lot of law enforcement recruits to learn to use tonfas and staves against people.”  He paused.  “We have already had complaints from some people when they were only sharpening and fire-hardening the spears we collected.  I’m not looking forward to trying to teach people to use them.  It’s going to be a nightmare, and the longer we wait, the less effective our training will be.  Especially considering that we have no manuals to teach by.”  He gestured at the other lieutenant.  “Lieutenant Baker and I are going to have to try to make things up as we go along.  We’ve only got about two dozen people who have any experience using a spear for hunting, and I’m not confident that hunting techniques will be much use for us in a fight.”

I nodded.  Bears and feral pigs were about the only animals that were hunted with spears in this part of the world, and it was a lot safer to hunt them from horseback with dogs and bows if you chose to hunt them at all, instead of just poisoning them.

I would definitely not want to be standing on the ground with only a spear between me and an angry Hoss or Bigboy, and they were nowhere near the size that a feral farm pig might grow to.  A farm pig could easily mass five hundred to seven hundred kilos.  Stopping that much mass with a sharp stick was close to the bottom of the list of things I would ever want to try, somewhere barely above cliff-diving in a dry gorge.  Academically, I knew how to do it.  Plant the spear butt in the soil and let the animal charge you.  Trying it with bears would be bad enough, since they might simply swipe the spear with a paw instead of impaling themselves on it.  I couldn’t imagine a spear-planting technique working with people, especially people with their own spears.  Or, even worse, people with bows and slings.

Captain Marko looked thoughtful for a moment.  “You have a point.  But we need health and food preparation infrastructure, followed by better shelter for all of us, or exposure, illness, and desertion will start to work against us.”  He thumped his fingers on the table.  “We’ve already lost six people to desertion and we haven’t even had the first training session yet.”  He paused and took a deep breath.  “Being physically ill or psychologically miserable because they are being trained to fight other people, and then having to sleep in a tent, on the ground, will almost certainly drive up the desertion rate.”

Fobi spoke after raising her finger and getting a nod from the captain.  “Sir, why not get the lieutenants together with the people who are experienced with a spear, and the three of us as well.”  She pointed to herself, and then Rikard and me with small hand motions.  “We can work together to try to test some techniques using the same method of opposition that we had planned to do over maps.  We need to know what to teach before we can teach it effectively, and these two might give us ideas.”

At that moment, Riko re-entered the tent, stating “Quartermaster Brown will be with us shortly, captain.”

After a glance towards Riko, Fobi nodded.  “And Sergeant Gonzalez as well, maybe?”

After about a second, Riko responded.  “I came into the conversation late.  What do you want my help with teaching?”  I couldn’t see his face, since I was facing away from him, but I could hear the curiosity and caution in his voice and could imagine his slightly curious expression.

“Using spears.” Lieutenant Baker said, before Fobi could respond.

Riko blew out a deep breath.  “I haven’t used a spear in more than thirty years, but…”  He paused.  “I’ll help if I can, but what I know won’t be very good against people unless they are remarkably stupid.  I only used a spear in earnest twice, both times against wolves that weren’t hungry enough to press an attack.  Mostly, I used spears as walking sticks.”

Lieutenant Baker frowned and leaned back in her chair.  “You know how to hold one, which is more than most of us can say.  I know we have experienced spear hunters in the scouts.  I asked.  The problem is that half of the scouts are out at any given time, with the rest sleeping or recovering from hard riding.”  She paused.  “More than half, after we start patrolling behind us to watch for fire starters, unless I get more people, which I’ll address at tonight’s planning meeting.  Still, sir, what you and Fobi said makes sense.”

Captain Marko pushed back his chair and stood.  “I need to speak with Quartermaster Brown about the feasibility of wall-building around the city and towns, and then make a report to the Stateman.  Lieutenant Baker stays with me.”  He turned to her with a nod.  “We need to work out how many more people you need to patrol behind us as well.  Preferably before the meeting tonight.  I also want you here for my discussion with Brown.  I seem to recall that your brother was a mason, right?”

Looking up at the captain with a nod, Lieutenant Baker answered, “Yes, sir, but I never learned much from him about the trade.  He apprenticed off the ranch to a childless mason after he fell out of a tree and the leg break didn’t heal quite right.  I rarely saw him after that, and when I did, we didn’t talk about masonry.  Our ranch was too far from town for regular visits.”

“Hmm.”  The captain was still for a moment.  “Still, you have some exposure to the trade, and I want someone here to take notes, so I can concentrate on thinking.”  He looked in Riko’s direction, over my head.  “Sergeant, send one of the tent guards with instructions to speak to the quartermaster before he arrives, and see if he knows of any masons with us.  If he does, have the guard get the name of the most experienced mason, find them, and send them to this tent immediately.  I’ll be surprised if we don’t at least have an apprentice or journeyman mason with us.  Brown would have complained to me by now, otherwise.”

“Yes, sir.” Riko spoke before I heard the tent flap open and Riko spoke a couple sentences to someone, presumably one of the tent guards.  Then there was the sound of someone running.

As I heard Riko step back into the tent behind me, Lieutenant Davis finished writing on the paper on the table in front of him before pushing all the writing materials over to Lieutenant Baker, who collected them and arranged them in front of herself.  He pushed back his chair and stood.  “With your permission captain, Fobi, Rikard, and Allen will come with me.  Riko will gather a couple scouts with experience using spears and meet the rest of us on the road, about a hundred meters behind the camp.  We’ll start trying to figure out fighting techniques that might be effective.”

“Permission granted.”  The captain nodded.  “Before you go, however, I want input from you on a simple matter.  We are going to start needing a camp security presence larger than we can comfortably micromanage, or we might start losing horses and elefants to the exact same tactics that we’re prepared to use against the New Tokyo militia.”  A grimace later, he continued.  “As well as protecting the important parts of our camp infrastructure that Brad has pointed out.  A few infiltrators starting fires could be disastrous.”

Fully standing now, Lieutenant Davis nodded.  “Yes, we probably want a sergeant for handling that, and Riko’s going to be busier, with the scouts growing in size as well.”

Fobi looked from Captain Marko to the two lieutenants, squinting slightly.  “No.  I’m not taking a position of authority.  I can’t.”  She pointed a finger at Don.  “He’s in this tent for a reason.  I suspect he’s either shown some good common sense, or he’s impressed you with something he’s done.  Choose him.  I’ll advise him if you want, since I doubt he has law enforcement experience.”

Captain Marko steepled his fingers under his chin and looked at Fobi.  “After our conversation last night, I’ll accept that arrangement.”  He paused and turned to Don.  “Sorry to make you uncomfortable, Don, but unless one of the two lieutenants has seen or heard something I haven’t, you’re going to be our camp sergeant for guards.”

Lieutenants Davis and Baker looked at one another, and both shook their heads.

“No problems I know of, sir.” Lieutenant Baker said.

“Likewise, sir.”  Lieutenant Davis echoed.  “Don seems like a good match for a sergeant’s position, after what we saw through the window of the inn.”  After saying that, he looked from me to Rikard, and then to Don.

I felt my face heating up as I realized that at least two of the officers had apparently watched the altercation between Don, Emerald, Rikard, and me.  Or rather, me attacking Rikard and being restrained by Don.

Did Doctor Sven also see it, but not let me know?  Was I being somehow tested?  Was Rikard?

Rikard looked at least as startled as I felt, from what I saw of his reaction in my peripheral vision as I carefully avoided looking at him directly.

Captain Marko clapped his hands together once in satisfaction, with only enough strength to make a gentle smacking noise.  “Good.  Do you have any objection to taking the position of sergeant over the camp guards, Don?”

I turned my head a little to see Don.

There was a brief pause before Don spoke.  “No, sir.  I’ll settle Emerald into the prior duty you had me performing though, as I won’t be able to devote myself to it.”  He looked at Rikard, expressionlessly.

Rikard looked irritated as he stared at Don, but he said nothing.

The captain nodded.  “Very well, Sergeant Covil.  Fobi will be your consultant if you feel you need her assistance.  I strongly suggest you take her council for at least a few days as you get settled in, as Fobi is an experienced law enforcement sergeant.  The decisions will be yours, within the bounds of orders you are given by myself or the two lieutenants.”  He raised a finger.  “If the quartermaster or doctor ask you or the men and women under you to perform tasks that do not interfere with orders we have given, you should perform them.  Otherwise, request that they come to us and request we send you modified orders.”  He paused.  “You and Riko will be working fairly closely together on a regular basis, and may share some responsibilities and trade some personnel between you as things move forward.”

“Understood, sir.” Don said, with a nod.

With another nod, this time at Lieutenant Davis, the captain continued.  “Very good then.”  He turned to Lieutenant Davis.  “Lieutenant, I want you back here after lunch with an update.  For now, go see what you can put together to start developing a training program.  Don will be under your direct command, but for now Lieutenant Baker and I will teach him a few things about how we make the sausage, and introduce him, as a sergeant, to Quartermaster Brown and Doctor Sven.”

**

A minute or so later, all five of us who were leaving were on the road.  Four of us walking away from the camp, and Riko walking into camp to go find a couple other scouts with experience using a spear.  As I crutched along the road, following Lieutenant Davis, I carefully watched Rikard from the corner of my right eye.  I was vulnerable, unable to move properly on an injured leg, and didn’t trust Rikard to not take advantage of it.  Fobi was walking between the two of us, thankfully.

As we left the tent, Lieutenant Davis had collected six cut saplings that were leaning up against the side of the wagon closest to the officer’s tent.  Each sapling was heavily padded with leather at one end.  He walked a couple meters in front of us with the padded spears over his shoulder so he wouldn’t hit us as we followed him.

We walked in silence for a hundred meters before, without turning around to face us, the lieutenant spoke.  “Before either of you two get any ideas, I’m not going to let you spar against each other.”  He turned his head a little and slowed as he looked back at the two of us.  “By the way, I’m surprised that neither of the two of you blurted out something indignant in there when you realized we intentionally arranged for the two of you to encounter one another in town.”

There really wasn’t anything I wanted to say in response to that.  I was still trying to figure out what exactly had been intended, because it was very clear that a lot of things had been orchestrated with intent that I didn’t understand.  The officers were at least one step ahead of me.  I didn’t need to ask the first question, fortunately.

“Did the Countyman know you were planning to risk Allen attacking and possibly severely injuring me, lieutenant?” Rikard asked, angrily, his voice tense but not extremely loud.

The lieutenant turned away from us to watch where he was walking.  “Yes, he did.  He was specifically asked to provide at least two young violence offenders, and if at all possible, they were to be antagonistic towards one another.  You two are close to ideal.  We only hope that you’re going to be as much help as we imagined you might be when we first came up with the idea.  Fobi’s idea has taken it to a different level though.  We hadn’t considered using you for actual fighting ideas, just tactics.”

I was quite angry myself at this point, and couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  “I’m not entirely certain how the two of us are going to be of any assistance to you, especially if you’re expecting us to work together, somehow.  If you know our history from the Countyman, you should know better.”  I paused, realizing I’d forgotten something.  “Sir.”

Fobi and Lieutenant Davis both chuckled, but Fobi spoke first.  “We don’t want you working together.  We want you working against each other.  The fact that you don’t like each other at all makes it likely that you are going to consider things that we wouldn’t.  You’re also both young male violence offenders, so it’s fairly likely you’re going to escalate against each other in ways that would be hard for most people to follow.”

“What?”  Rikard commented before I could, though his question wasn’t what I would have asked.  “Why not use Brad for that.  The man is clearly insane and dangerous.  He’s clearly even worse than Allen.”

Fobi laughed, almost sounding like a dog’s bark, and then answered patiently.  “If we got his cooperation, he probably would be as good as the two of you.  He’s brilliant and has no empathy for the pain of others.  However, he’s not trustable in any way.  He’s smart enough that any seemingly good ideas he might give us might be somehow flawed and fall apart on us when we try to use them.  We’ll take his input but we have to be very careful with it, like poison around children.”

Looking around, the lieutenant stopped and set the bundle of spears on the ground.  “We were just going to have you two pretend to be opposing army leaders and let you role play against each other, each of you with one of us lieutenants to assist you with forming plans, and with Captain Marko officiating the contests, while he tried to pick out useful ideas for his own use.”  He paused.  “But you might have already figured that out.  Fobi’s idea takes it a little farther.  I’ll let her explain while I check to make sure these spears aren’t sharpened underneath the padding.”

Fobi, still between us as we three stopped close to the lieutenant, pushed against my right arm and Rikard’s left, gently pushing us a bit farther away from one another.  Then she stepped forward and turned around to face us.  “When Riko gets here with some experienced spear-users, we’re going to spar as a group.  The lieutenant and I are the only ones here with training about how to handle ourselves in a fight with another person, so we’re going to each lead a team.  You two will consult with the two of us and give us ideas.  Riko will officiate.  Just like we were planning to do in the tent, over a map, but with live people.

“I… What?  You want us to help teach you how to fight?”  I couldn’t quite grasp the idea.  I could imagine, in some way, that someone had to teach law enforcement officers how to subdue people, and obviously Ma had been taught to fight long ago, but I certainly didn’t know enough about fighting to teach anyone.

Lieutenant Davis’s voice cut through my confusion.  “No.  Fobi and I already know how to fight people.  The experienced spear hunters know how to fight animals.  Your job is to give us ideas about how to fight many people all at once.  There are law enforcement tactics for dealing with large groups of disorderly people, but that’s all about containment and arrest, not about defending and attacking.  In fifteen years on the force, I’ve only had to use that training twice, and the tactics we used worked, so there hasn’t been much need for me or anyone else to think about it much.”

I turned away from Fobi to face the lieutenant, and saw him removing a padded end from a blunt spear before putting it back on and tying it back in place.  He then set the spear on the ground to his left side, and picked up another from his right side, quickly untying the padded end and repeating the process.

“I think I see.”  I said before turning my head to stare at Rikard with a tight smile.

I get an opportunity to try and make a fool of Rikard?  I’ll take that.

“Will I be working with you, Fobi, or Lieutenant Davis?”  Rikard asked, as his eyes narrowed in my direction.

Fobi spoke before the lieutenant could, cutting him off and getting a bit of an annoyed look from him.  “I’ll work with Allen.  I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to work with you very well, Rikard, considering your history.”

Rikard got a puzzled look on his face, but Lieutenant Davis stopped looking irritated and nodded.  “That does make some sense.”

I smiled inside at Rikard’s confusion.  He didn’t know Fobi’s history.  Neither did I, really, but I knew enough about it from the conversation the night before that I understood exactly why Fobi wanted nothing to do with him.  I could only wish that I’d thought about kicking Rikard between the legs when he was down.  The idiot was a danger to the gene pool, and I’d missed my chance to do a good deed for society.

Fobi smirked as she looked up at me.  “You might not be so happy when you realize that the lieutenant is younger, stronger, taller, heavier, has more advanced training than me, and is probably smarter too.”

“We aren’t actually expecting you to hurt each other, are we?”  I said, shocked.  “It’s just going to be poking at each other with padded staves?”

“The lieutenant is still going to have an advantage over me.  It will make any ideas you come up with potentially less of an advantage.”  She paused and winked at me.  “I’m sneakier than he is though.  I’m still required to train as part of law enforcement, and we’ve sparred quite a few times with staves and tonfas.  Don’t think that I’m too overmatched, but I am at a disadvantage.  Spears are new to both of us, and thrusts are not attacks we are trained to use often with staves – too likely to cause permanent injury.  He’s got longer arms for longer thrusts.”

Lieutenant Davis laughed.  “I’m not falling for that again, Fobi.  I’ve sparred with you too recently.”

Fobi smiled and shrugged, turning to face him.  “It’s only the truth lieutenant.  You do win two out of every three points when we spar, usually.”

“I work hard for them.”  He replied back with a little laugh as he picked up the last of the six spears and started untying its protective cover.

“This isn’t going to be the same as a staff though, though some of the staff movements might be useful.”  Fobi frowned.  “The boys here don’t have any real idea about how to use a staff though, never mind a spear.  Should we experiment a little between ourselves and let them watch before we ask them to give us ideas?”

“Sure.  These things are a full meter longer than a staff though, it’s going to be strange.”  Lieutenant Davis picked up two of the padded spears and tossed one through the air to Fobi who caught it smoothly.

Fobi looked at Rikard, and then me.  “You two keep to opposite sides of the road, and watch us.  Say nothing to each other.  I will personally put you on tail if either of you attack each other.” She looked at me instead of Rikard.

I nodded to her unasked question, thinking to myself.  I’m on crutches.  Does she really think I’d attack him when I’d probably be slower than him in moving around?

I looked over at Rikard, who I saw was looking at me with a little grin.  Pausing a second, I had another thought.  I suppose I could use one of my crutches as a staff.

Rikard looked away from me when I smiled back at him.  “Rikard’s safe from me as long as he never says Marza’s name in my presence.  That’s my rule.”

Rikard glared at me and started to say something, but looked at Fobi with a slightly puzzled look on his face, and said nothing.

Lieutenant Davis and Fobi both looked at me with frowns before looking at each other.

Fobi turned back to me.  “You better rethink that rule, Allen, you’re going to be sixteen soon.”

I stared back at Fobi, and then looked to Rikard.  “I’m no fool, but that rule doesn’t change until I’m sixteen.  Marza and I will be away from town in a new homestead shortly after that.”  I walked over to one of the roadside markers and moved to the side so that the sunlight would fall on the small, crude sundial on the surface.  I didn’t need the sundial to check the time; I knew within an hour what time it was because of the season and the position of the sun, but I needed an excuse to look away from Rikard before I worked myself up to the point I wouldn’t be able to think straight.

After I leaned my hip against the stone post and made sure it was stable, I turned back towards Fobi and the lieutenant, and made myself comfortable against the post.

Rikard walked into the grass on the other side of the road, and stood, arms crossed, feet shoulder-width apart.  He really had put on a lot of muscle and trimmed down since we graduated.

Fobi and the lieutenant stood several paces apart in the center of the road, and started slowly showing the two of us basic staff moves, that they called forms, sometimes talking to us, sometimes talking to each other.

“A lot of spear forms are probably going to be like the long extension staff forms.”  Fobi explained.  “We use them mainly for disabling or disarming, but we have to be careful not to hurt people with them, it’s a lot of force in a small surface area.”

“That’s the point here though.  Seriously injure or even kill the other person.”  Lieutenant Davis continued, sounding a bit nervous.  “Swinging a three-meter spear is a lot slower than a two meter staff too, and if people are going to be close to one another, we can’t be swinging to keep space open or knock people’s legs from under them.  Even a staff is too long for close work.  Normally when we deploy multiple people to one trouble call, we use tonfas.”

The two of them faced each other and started circling and stepping forward and back, poking towards each other.

Rikard spoke up.  “Why are you circling each other?”

Fobi and Lieutenant Davis took two steps back from one another.  Lieutenant Davis scratched his head.  “You’re probably right.  If we are going to be fighting in a line so we can offer each other support, we won’t be moving much, it will all be straight-forward fighting, maybe a little to the sides.”

Nodding, Fobi agreed.  “I agree.  Good point.  Thank you, Rikard.”

I tried to not be irritated that Rikard had spotted that before me.  I had been concentrating on watching what the two of them were doing with the spears, their bodies, their eyes.  Trying to see if they seemed to be doing what Ma told me I should be doing if I got in a fight.  They certainly weren’t putting themselves off balance, and they were both making lots of fake attacks.  They were also staying very balanced.  Even when they lunged forward, they pushed a foot forward so they didn’t unbalance.

Fobi was right that the lieutenant had an advantage over her, I could see.  He was hitting her fairly regularly in the torso, but she seemed to be mostly limited to hitting him in the arms and legs.  The few times she did manage to hit him in the torso, she stepped forward into his attacks, knocking his spear away before hitting him.  I couldn’t see why she didn’t do that more often, but I suspected she was seeing something that he was doing and responding to it.

“I’m really not so sure about this, sergeant.”  I heard a man’s voice behind me.  “A spear is really dangerous.  I wouldn’t want to hurt a person with one.  They make terrible wounds.”

There was a muttering of agreement from several voices.

As I turned to face the new voices, Riko spoke.  “Nobody likes this, Pol.  Problem is that a lot of families will be starving this winter.  If it’s an early winter, or a long one, a lot of people might die of starvation.  It’ll be worse for the New Tokyo citizens.  They will be forced to come to us to take what they need or starve unless there is an amazingly good late harvest for them to eat or for us to send some to them.  You know that.  We’ve talked.”

“Knowing it doesn’t make me any happier, sergeant.  It actually makes it worse, since I know there’s no way for me to avoid it.” He responded in a bitter voice.

The speaker, who I recognized from the group of scouts Anu and I  had told the rattlesnake story to, was apparently Pol.  He was a shorter than average man, but wide in the shoulders for his height.  He had some grey mixed in with his dark red hair in a long double braid, and some fairly severe scarring on the right side of his face near his eye.  He wore full buckskins with long drying tassels along every seam, and a wide straw hat to shade his head. Despite that, I could see that he was very fair skinned, even fairer than my mother, with blue veins clearly visible through his skin.  He would never tan, which certainly explained the hat.  I’d never seen him before, and he didn’t look like he was related to any families I’d seen at harvest festivals.

That brought me up short.  Will there even be a harvest festival this year?

“I don’t think any of us disagree with you, Pol.”  Riko commented in a matter-of-fact tone, bringing me back to reality.  “But here we are.”

“Agreed.”  Pol sighed.  “Here we are.  Helping to figure out how to put holes in people with hunting weapons.  Organized killing, followed by a trip to a prison colony if we survive.”  He turned his head and spat forcefully into the grass.  “Worth it for family, I suppose.”

Lieutenant Davis spoke.  “We all hope that we don’t have to fight, but if we do, I think we agree that our families are more important than we are.”

There was a resigned muttering from the four men with Riko.

“Were there no women, Riko?”  Fobi asked.  “We didn’t ask, but if there are any women who know how to use a spear, learning how they use it will be good.  Men and women usually have different ways to use staves and bows.  I’m already seeing I can’t fight like the lieutenant here.”

Riko turned to Pol and the other three men following him.  “I don’t know any women scouts who said they could hunt with a spear, do you?”

Pol looked at Fobi as he spoke.  “Pardon, and please don’t take insult, ma’am, but women normally don’t hunt with a spear.  When a bear or pig gets a spear into them, if you don’t have a lot of mass and strength, they will keep coming at you while at the same time moving from side to side.  If they shake you off the end of your spear, they will probably maul or kill you.”  He paused, thinking.  “You have to hold onto the end and middle of the spear, keep it braced on the ground if possible, and try not get shaken around too much.  If a woman has abnormal size or strength she can hunt bear or boar with a spear.  A small man would be foolish to hunt bear or boar with a spear.  Your mass and strength help keep you alive.”

Pol looked at me, “No insult intended, Allen, but I’d never ask you to stand with a spear against a boar.  Anu, on the other hand, might be better suited to it than most men.  She was a bit overweight, but she looked like she was carrying impressive muscle by how easily she was moving.”

I was a bit irritated, but could tell he wasn’t trying to insult me or Anu.  We were just good examples for the point he was making.  There were many things I simply couldn’t physically do that a big man could, like throw large hay bales.  I had to find different ways to do that work.

Pol was clearly an experienced hunter, and I agreed with him that I wasn’t big or strong enough to hunt bear or boar with a spear.  My irritation disappeared completely when he got a bit closer and I could see that the scar on his face was several long parallel lines from his cheek under his eye going all the way back to his ear.  The individual wounds had apparently been ragged and were at least a centimeter thick each for their entire length.  Almost certainly a bear had raked him with its claws – a mountain lion slash would have been a cleaner wound.  Pol had paid for his knowledge.

Fobi looked at Pol and the other three men with Riko, and nodded.  “I don’t think we need to worry about dealing with animals many times our own mass, but I understand why most female hunters probably wouldn’t use a spear.  People aren’t as dangerous up close, but they won’t just run up on a spear like you say bears or boar will.  Still, if you’ve used a spear as a weapon, even against animals, you’ve had some sort of training, and you’re clearly not afraid of the spear itself.  We’re going to have some problems with that, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I’m not sure about that, Fobi.”  I heard myself saying.  “Maybe not wild animals, but I wouldn’t want to try to stop a horse with a spear, or cattle.”

Lieutenant Davis spoke.  “Horses won’t approach something pointed at them unless they are panicked.  You can make them shy off just by pointing a staff at their chest.”  He paused.  “Cattle not so much, a bull will charge right into a staff if it’s annoyed, but I can’t imagine them throwing away food animals or draft animals that way.”

I countered.  “Get a bunch of horses between the enemy and you, and whip them hard enough to draw blood, and they wouldn’t stop for sticks, I don’t think.  Not unless they had a long time to run first.  I’d hate to do that to a good animal, but if you want to break through a line of spears, like we were talking about, that might do it.”

Rikard spoke up.  “Even if we don’t point spears at them, a line of people will look like a fence to any domestic animal.  Just keep people far enough apart so horses or cows can run between us.  They will.  Some people might get shouldered or stepped on, but the line of people wouldn’t get broken.”

I shot back.  “If they have more people in their line in the same length, they could overwhelm us with more spears per meter.  We can’t just leave enough room for horses to go between us.”

“Yes, we can.”  Rikard replied with a smile that made me want to hit him.  “If they drive animals at us, half of the line takes a step back and to the side.  Then we have two lines of people, one in front of the other, double-spaced.  We then have every other pairs of people step to the side one space.  That would make a line where there were blocks of four people, with two-person-wide spaces between them to let the animals pass the line.  If we shake our spears in front of us, they will head for the holes in the human fence.”

I couldn’t counter that.  It made sense.  Farm animals knew gates, and even a panicked animal would try to line up to run through an open gate if they could, rather than run into a fence.  There was only one problem I could see with it.  “That will require a lot of coordination.  Every other person steps back and to the side, and then every other two-person line steps to the side again.  After the animals pass, the line has to reform in time to be ready for the attackers who are probably charging behind the horses.”

I saw the lieutenant scratching a note on a small pad of paper.  “Good ideas, both for attack and defense against the attack.  I can’t imagine New Tokyo wasting animals like that, attacking us, but in the right scenario, I could imagine both the use of animals and the creation of pathways for animals to pass through being useful.  Training to quickly and efficiently make holes for horses so our scouts can ride through if they are being chased might be handy too.”

I looked at Rikard, and he looked back at me with a satisfied smile.  I had always suspected it, and Don had even said so himself, but at that moment it became crystal clear that Rikard was, without a doubt, much smarter than he had pretended to be in school.  That made me hate him even more.  As smart as he was proving himself to be, it was clear that his attempted rape of Marza hadn’t been some lame spur-of-the-moment idiot’s idea.  It had certainly been premeditated.

I forced myself to look away from him before I did something stupid.  Riko was looking at Rikard as well; his face was expressionless but I saw his eye twitch.  I wouldn’t doubt at all that he’d just made the same connections about Rikard’s intelligence that I had, and what it meant.

Pol and the other three scouts were looking back and forth at Rikard and me.  Pol and the other man I didn’t recognize looked a little bewildered and disgusted.  The two I did recognize, even though I didn’t know their names, seemed less confused.

Fobi clapped her hands, loudly, startling everyone into looking at her.  She was standing there with the butt of her spear on the road, and the shaft leaning against her shoulder.  She addressed the scouts.  “The boys are violence offenders, and they dislike each other a great deal.  We’re hoping for more good ideas from them, maybe some that will be useful.  Just don’t let them within reach of each other, please, and they aren’t to carry weapons.”

The lieutenant, Fobi, Riko, and the four scouts spent the rest of the morning teaching each other what they knew about spear handling and quarterstaff forms, trying to hammer some sort of useful techniques together, and figuring out how to train people.  Pol had actually trained all of his sons and several of his oldest grandsons on how to use the spear, but his style was almost useless in fighting people.

Rikard and I listened to everything; whenever either of us had an idea, the other would counter or try to improve it.  Quite a few of those ideas were dismissed by others, generally Riko or the lieutenant, but a couple ideas stuck.

I mentioned that we should carry sand and use it to try to blind attackers if the opportunity presented itself.  At first, the lieutenant said no, it would take too long to reach into the pouch and one hand would be off the spear, but Fobi and Riko convinced him it would be worth it if we trained people to quickly throw sand.

Rikard pointed out that if we wanted more spears per meter, we could put the shortest people in the front line, and tallest people behind them with longer spears.  The tall people behind the front line would have to hold their arms up high to attack, but they could.

Then it was time for lunch.  We all ate together and continued discussing ideas.  Rikard suggested we try to get a few wagons of broken glass to use to seed the ground ahead of us when we were defending.  I suggested that we could dig holes in the ground and cover them with woven sticks and sod, creating shallow pit traps that might break up a charging line of attackers.  Both ideas were not warmly received, as they would either render the ground dangerous to both us and the attackers, or require a great deal of manual labor.  The lieutenant wrote them down anyway, because there were certainly situations where those methods might be useful.  If it was possible to wall in a town or city, for example, a ring of broken grass and pit traps around the walls might make it harder for attackers.

After we finished eating, Lieutenant Davis, Fobi, and Riko went to report to Captain Marko.  The scouts went back to their tents to get some sleep so they could be ready for night patrol.  Emerald arrived at the end of the meal to collect Rikard and escort him off to whatever he was supposed to be doing.  I hoped it was something he actively disliked.

Me?  I collected my swine, took them to the kitchen garbage pit, and let them clean it out before I put them back under my carriage.  It wasn’t enough to fill them up, but the lunch food prep waste hadn’t made it to the garbage pit yet.  I’d take them by the pit after dinner, and the lunch prep trash would be there.  Tomorrow morning after breakfast, the dinner prep waste would be there.

When I reported to the doctor for another hour in the boot, he was very happy with the appearance of the leg.  “Your circulatory system is very efficient, Allen, and you’re young.  Between the two, you’re healing the bruise very rapidly.  I want you to sleep tonight without elevating your leg.”  He handed me a mug of willow bark tea, heavy with sugar to reduce the bitterness.  It was still bitter.

While I was soaking my leg in the boot, the work crew and I repeated the morning’s trade.  They cut me wood to make spoons.  I gave them five spoons, and put the rest in my pouch.  I now had fifty spoons in my pouch, and would have another twenty-five after the night soak.  Seventy-five spoons for the quartermaster tomorrow morning.

When I returned to my carriage, I saw the Finch and Krupp barge wagon on the road next to the wagon park.  The driver was refusing to take the wagon onto the grass, complaining that it would sink into turf, and the oxen team wouldn’t be able to pull it out.

I immediately had another idea that I needed to take to the officers.  If I was an enemy, and wanted to really hurt us, I’d light that wagon on fire.  If it blew up with who knows how much gunpowder and nitrocellulose in it, the resulting explosion would kill or maim dozens, even hundreds of us, start fires, and likely destroy the structures we’d been building.  If the barge wagon was parked in or near the wagon park, the officers would be almost in the epicenter.  Since my carriage was also in the wagon park, I would be too.

I had no desire to become a red stain mixed with wood splinters from my carriage.  I crutched towards the officer’s tent as quickly as I could.

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Chapter 17

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Captain Marko hadn’t stopped pacing since I explained what Ma had written in her letter, about Albert’s slow game of hiding martial knowledge and extorting martial artists to abandon their lifestyle.  “I am unaware of any sort of activity like this, directed at law enforcement.  Our training includes some training that really could only be called martial arts.”  He spun to face the tent entrance.  “Sergeant, have one of the guards get Fobi back in here.  I want her input on this.”

I heard Riko open the tent flap, and speak to one of the guards, and then I heard running.

Lieutenant Baker rubbed either side of her forehead with her thumbs, at the headache relief pressure points.  “I don’t understand how this isn’t common knowledge.  Albert doesn’t hide anything…”  She paused and winced.  “that we knew of.”  She muttered a few curses under her breath, encouraging anatomic activities that Albert certainly wasn’t capable of.

Nodding, Lieutenant Davis spoke softly.  “We know Albert has been playing a deep game for thousands of years.  Chances are good that he’s treating law enforcement almost the same as martial artists, but not interfering with us as openly, because we’re still needed to keep the peace, especially in the cities”

Riko coughed behind me.

Captain Marko looked up, with a pained look on his face.  “Say it for me, sergeant.”

Riko coughed to clear his throat.  “It’s a lot to take in, all at once, but if Lieutenant Davis is correct, you know that we’re probably being watched right now?  If Allen’s ma wasn’t editorializing in her letter, which I strongly doubt, having known her for over twenty years, then every law enforcement officer is almost certainly being monitored directly by Albert.”

My eyes shot wide open, and I stiffened, thinking to myself.  What have I done?

The lieutenants both stiffened as I did, turning their heads to stare at Riko, behind me.

Captain Marko just nodded.  “Somewhere on the moon, Albert is probably adjusting his plans as we speak.  If we make this public, it might set his plans for us back hundreds, or even thousands of years.”

“Sir.”  I started speaking, and then stopped, realizing I hadn’t asked permission.

“Go ahead, Allen.”  He nodded at me.

I swallowed, and looked down at my hands.  I was probably saying something obvious but nobody else had said it yet.  “We can’t just hide what Albert did, can we sir?  Not now that we know what he’s doing.  For as long as we’re an agrarian society with limited technology, we’re occasionally going to have periods of famine.” I wrapped my arms around my chest.  I felt cold.  “If we don’t actively attempt to maintain knowledge about how to effectively defend ourselves from other states…”

I looked up.  The grim expressions of the three officers facing me indicated that they agreed, so I continued.  “I had considered something like this already, but I thought that it was only going to be myself, and maybe some of my elder family that I was risking when I was going to tell you about the fighting rules Ma gave me.  I was going to pretend I’d just thought up everything on my own, and shield everyone I could.”

Riko muttered a curse under his breath, behind me.  “This is beginning to look like a loose thread in a knit sweater.  Do we really want to continue tugging at it?”

Captain Marko leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, staring up at the ceiling of the tent.  “Do we really have a choice, sergeant?  It has always puzzled me and everyone else in leadership roles why Albert actively dissuades any sort of world centralized government.  We could manage it far better than the Romans or Chinese ever did, between the prism tower network, the road system, and inner sea shipping.”

What?  I thought to myself.  How does that even?  Then it hit me, and I whispered.  “Are you saying that Albert is intentionally keeping us from working together too well?

Captain Marko pushed back his chair and stood, and turned so he wasn’t looking at us.  His voice was bitterly angry when he responded.  “Even Albert needs to test his work every now and then, I suppose.”

**

Fobi sat at the table next to me, clenching her fists in front of her tightly enough to blanch her hands and speaking in a quavering voice.  “I…  I don’t have anything to add to this discussion, Captain, sorry.”

Looking at Fobi’s clenched fists on the table in front of her, and then at her face, which was strained and pale, Captain Marko spoke gently.  “You took an oath to serve and protect, Fobi.”

She twitched, and looked down.  “I am not breaking that oath, Captain.”

“We’ve already explained what we have been able to piece together, Fobi.  I doubt that you’ve got anything Nirvana-shattering to add to that.”  He paused.  “A little confirmation would be useful if you can provide it.  Even though you were taken off patrol duty, you’re still part of the law enforcement system.  Confirmation that you had an experience with Albert similar to what Allen has told us about his ma’s recounting would help us be more certain in our understanding.”

Lifting her head back up into the air, Fobi met his gaze with her own.  “I’ve already given you my answer, sir.  Can I be dismissed?”

Captain Marko leaned forward without breaking eye contact, and lightly tapped her clenched fists with his right index finger.  “Yes, you have, and no, you are not dismissed.”

Fobi’s clenched fists whipped out from underneath the Captain’s finger and into her lap.

Sighing as he leaned back in his chair again, Captain Marko turned his right hand palm-up in front of him, indicating that he expected an answer.  “I would prefer your answer in words.  If Albert is monitoring us right now, he already knows we have some confirmation from you.”

Fobi started to stand, without permission.

Lieutenants Baker and Davis both started to stand, and I heard leather whisper behind me as Riko moved.

With a quick gesture of his hand to punctuate his statement, Captain Marko snapped out “No.  If she wants to leave, let her.”  He paused before starting to speak again.  “Fobi, if Albert is monitoring us closely and were willing to do something harsh and immediate, I’m fairly confident it would have happened at some time in the last hour.  I’ve already sent a prism tower message to the Stateman.  Even using fires for light, the message will have arrived by now.”

“If it’s going to arrive at all.”  Fobi spoke abruptly, angrily, still half-standing.  “Sir, I have two teenage daughters.  Even if my ex-husband has custody of them, I still get to enjoy their company often enough that I’m not risking a trip to the women’s prison colony unless we actually are forced to fight.  I will help you brainstorm offensive and defensive tactics and strategies so we can better defend ourselves from New Tokyo, but no more.”

Captain Marko and Fobi stared at one another across the table for at least ten seconds, before he sighed and said.  “Go ahead, mama bear, you’re dismissed.”

Mama bear? I thought to myself, as Fobi walked quickly out of the tent without a word.  I wanted to ask, but didn’t.

A few seconds after the tent flap fell shut, Riko cleared his throat.  “So, is she just scared because it’s sane to be scared, or is she scared because she had a conversation with Albert after she was taken off of patrol work?”

After shaking his head briefly and frowning, Captain Marko spoke while looking over my head at Riko beyond me.  “Fobi is, or I should say was, fearless.  I was her lieutenant when she was a street patroller.  I am absolutely certain she knows something that confirms at least part of what Allen has told us, and I’m also certain I won’t get more from her than what I’ve already gotten.”  He paused.  “It’s public record that she was taken off street patrol because she was unacceptably violent while apprehending four drunk men who were trying to rape a young woman.  Fobi had a troublesome record of being barely on the safe side of being too violent with some individuals that resisted arrest, especially in cases involving children or young adults.  If she had stopped when the men gave up, nothing would have happened.  Kicking them between the legs after they were no longer resisting couldn’t be ignored.  One of the men ended up needing surgery to save his life.”

My legs clenched together in an automatic response as my imagination provided details that I would have preferred to not think about.

Riko’s voice mirrored my thoughts.  “That explains the nickname, I suppose.”

“Indeed.”  Captain Marko sighed.  “I literally wanted to kick her myself when that got her taken off street patrol.  As distasteful as it was sometimes to see what she did to get results, the crime rate in my sector had plummeted in the two years she was on street patrol.”  He shrugged.  “That raises philosophical questions that really don’t have much importance right now.”

Standing, Captain Marko walked back to the small table at the back of the tent and poured himself a second whiskey, “Allen, I don’t want to say thank you for what you’ve told us, but I will anyway.”  He turned back to us, took the shot, and then slapped the glass down on the table.  His face twitched into a lopsided grin.  “I really wish I could have seen Stateman Urda’s face when she read my suggestion that we approach known martial artists and ask for a full list of all the titles and authors of their martial manuals so we can get copies from Albert.”  He snorted.  “Even better, we need to ask them for help establishing a law enforcement and militia verbal tradition like some sort of ancient human preindustrial tribe on Earth.”

Lieutenant Baker giggled briefly, and Lieutenant Davis snorted, but neither said anything.

Captain Marko shook his head, and walked around the table carrying the mostly-full whiskey bottle.  He handed it to Riko.  “Do not give that bottle back to me tonight.  Give it to Doctor Sven when we’re done here.  Tell him he’s in charge of the bottle until I say otherwise.  If it stays in the tent with me right now, I’m afraid it will be gone before tomorrow, and that won’t do anyone any good.”

Doctor Sven sleeps in this tent, doesn’t he?  I thought, before realizing that the captain probably wouldn’t dig through the doctor’s personal possessions to get whiskey he knew he shouldn’t be drinking to excess.

The captain turned away from Riko, towards me, and bent his right arm to point his thumb at the tent flap.  “Allen, you’re dismissed.  Go get some sleep.  If you think of any offensive or defensive ideas, write them down.  If not, don’t worry about it, you’ve more than pulled your weight tonight, and it’s getting late.”

**

I gathered my crutches and left the tent.  On my way back to my carriage, despite the very poor lighting, I managed to spot and avoid stepping in what had been Doctor Sven’s evening meal.  Absently, I made a mental note to bring the swine by and have them clean up the mess if nobody had taken care of it by morning.

After reaching the carriage, I wasn’t particularly hungry for food, but I was desperate for some sort of comfort and there was absolutely no way I was sleeping.  Opening the cabinet that held the pouch with flatbreads in it, I selected two and also pulled out the lap desk, some paper and a pencil from a shelf in the cabinet.

Writing a letter to Marza was relaxing.  Despite knowing that I was setting myself up for a lecture about crossing sunny rocks late in the day, I gave her a true accounting of what happened with the snake at the side of the road.  I also told her about how Riko and I had agreed to claim the land next to the river that the militia was clearing, and described the land.  After I explained that land on both sides of the road was being cleared, I described the land that would be across the road from us as well.

Letting Marza know that Riko was probably going to claim the land across the road for another young married Gonzalez couple would let her at least try to shape that decision.  She would, hopefully, be able to work behind the scenes to arrange for members of her family to be chosen for that land who would synergize skills and socialize with us.  Eventually, we planned to sell the first farm and move farther north into an area of established farms, where I could hire out my swine for extra income. Cutting trees was only the start of what needed to be done to create a working farm; nobody could be an expert at every needed skill.

As I wrote the last part of the letter with my more heartfelt expressions, I slowly peeled the wax off the two flatbreads, eating them in little bites so they would last longer.  Honey and persimmon preserves in one, caramel and mint in the other.  After one page, front and back, I addressed the envelope to Marza, and put the letter inside.  One benefit of militia service was that Marza wouldn’t have to pay to receive the letter.

I was still not tired in the least.  Looking out the window at the position of the moon, it appeared to be close to midnight.  With a sigh, I looked at the paper and considered writing to my family before brainstorming about how to kill people.

A part of my brain responded, telling me that Captain Marko had excused me from that duty, but I knew I’d do it anyway.  I wasn’t sleeping any time soon.

The front page of my letter to my family glossed over the whole snake encounter, carefully avoiding the details that would make Pa want to poke me in the chest and tell me to use my head for something other than a hat rack.  I was a lot more specific in terms of the land, the plants and trees, as well as the visible rocks and the fact that it appeared as if the land had been farmed long ago.  I told them that while marking trees that could provide forage, I had even found several piles of weathered paving stones with hints of mortar on them that had obviously been sorted and scavenged.  The stones remaining were strangely shaped, likely broken as walls fell, but they could certainly be used in new construction to fit odd holes in walls.  There was a tributary stream leading to the river, but it didn’t carry enough water volume for irrigation of much farmland.  It could, however, provide enough water for the swine and the house. That assessment was supported by clear evidence of what had once been a cistern for house water.

I didn’t want Ma to be dragged into the Albert mess if she could somehow still avoid it.  In my head, I knew it was almost certain that she would be approached because her verbal traditions would likely be at least a little different from the verbal traditions of martial artists in New Charleston.  In my heart, I simply wanted to pretend it wouldn’t happen.

In the end, I decided I would mention it in the next day’s letter.  If Albert was going to do something active to stop us, he would almost certainly make it happen soon.  If the captain got a response from the Stateman, and the rest of us didn’t mysteriously disappear tonight or tomorrow, I’d warn her in tomorrow’s letter.  That decision finally reached, I mentioned nothing at all about Albert, martial arts, or how the militia’s tactics knowledgebase had been lost.  I had never heard of any sort of vindictive streak in Albert, but the sheer scope of what he was doing to human society made me realize it was very unlikely I would ever hear of such a thing.

I wrote a short, personal comment for every family member, and then addressed the envelope and set it on top of Marza’s letter.

Then I spent at least an hour trying to figure out ways to attack our position, and how I would defend it.  That particular mental exercise was more excruciating than my first year of calculus had been.  I cannot even begin to explain the depth of my fervent hope that I was a terrible tactician, and someone else would have better ideas.

Eventually, I managed to come up with three methods of attack and defense, set aside my lap desk and managed to fall asleep.  By the position of the moon in the sky when I last remembered staring at it, I fell asleep at some time after two in the morning.

**

I woke to the scent of bread, and a knock on the door of my carriage.  Doctor Sven’s voice shattered what sleepiness remained.  “Allen, we need to get your leg into a soak if you want to be done before the tactics meeting this morning.”

“Yes, sir.  Give me a minute please.”  I rapidly threw off my blankets, put on a shirt, slipped on my moccasins, and grabbed the two envelopes and folded sheet with my ideas, putting them in my pouch.

There was a chuckle outside the door.  “It’s almost daylight, young man, sleeping in today?”

I groaned.  “Had a late night, sir, and then two letters to write followed by some extra work the captain asked us to do.  Even after all that, sleep didn’t come early or easy.”

Even through the carriage door, the doctor’s voice seemed tired, bitter, and frustrated.  “I suppose I cheated.  I wasn’t able to sleep at all last night.”  From his reaction to what we had discussed last night, it was no surprise he hadn’t slept.

Carefully arranging my words and my crutches as I opened the door, I emerged while speaking in a serious voice.  “I think, sir, that if I were a man of your calling, I wouldn’t have slept either.”

He stared at me for a moment.  “I would hope not.”  Then he turned away from me and started walking towards the medical building under construction.  “I’m certainly not going to be attending any tactics meetings in the future.  Strategy meetings are bad enough.  I don’t need to know what’s in the sausage.”  I saw him stiffen slightly, and then stumble and shake his head as he completed the sentence.

“Have they cleaned up the construction mess around the medical building, sir?” I asked, hoping for a negative.

“No, Allen.  It’s still quite a mess.”  He turned back to face me, speaking quickly.  “We won’t be inside the building.  The roof and shingles are being put on this morning.  I need to be there though, since I have several large pieces of cabinetry for storage that have to be unloaded from supply wagons, and the carpenters will be working with me on a few pieces of cabinetry for the centrifuges, as well as masons creating stoves for space heating and sterilization of water.”

Nodding to myself, I raised a finger.  “In that case, one moment, sir, I’ll bring my swine for cleanup duty.”  I quickly gathered leashes for the swine before releasing them from beneath the carriage.  Yesterday, I had seen that both the medical and kitchen buildings were surrounded with piles of rough-cut lumber, sod, branches, leaves, and bark.  Swine couldn’t eat lumber easily (and I was sure it wouldn’t be appreciated if they tried) but they would eat most of the rest of it with no problem, even if it wasn’t something that they particularly enjoyed.  I’d be able to watch them, and I could probably convince whoever was cleaning up to just drag all the construction detritus to the swine, as opposed to gathering it and dumping it somewhere farther away.

Doctor Sven thought briefly before nodding slowly.  “That makes some sense.  They will have to stay at least fifteen meters from the building though.  I don’t want swine scat tracked into the facility.”  He turned in the direction of the building and thumped his right index finger against his jaw.  “That distance won’t be a real problem though, since we can’t be in the building yet.  The soaking water is already heating and the trough is mobile.”

We walked past where the doctor had been ill the night before, and I saw where someone had used a shovel to turn the turf over and bury it.  Not very sanitary.  I didn’t even need to give a command.  Bigboy and Hoss were starting to root it out within seconds of me passing it.

“Doctor Sven, I’m going to let them clean this up, if that’s OK?  It won’t take more than a couple of minutes.”

Turning around briefly, the doctor grimaced and said “Fine.”

The other swine did not even try to push in on the two boars in such a small feeding area.  I watched them closely, to be sure they didn’t go after one another.  The turned over section of turf was almost a meter across, and about half a meter wide.  The two boars worked from opposite sides of the upended turf towards one another, watching each other carefully.  Before they got close enough to touch snouts, I called Hoss to me and fed him a half-treat.  When he tried to go back, I commanded him to lie down, and fed him another half-treat.  He enjoyed the treats, but was restless, looking up at me.  To distract him from what he was missing, I scrubbed Hoss’s neck vigorously with my fingers. When Bigboy finished cleaning up the mess, I turned around to follow Doctor Sven, calling the sounder after me.

Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting on an empty crate, and my leg was in a water boot suspended by ropes under a tripod.  I’d never seen a water boot; it was pleasantly simple and elegant.  We used hot compresses at the farm, which was simpler, but this was something that could be used by many people, and easily sterilized.  The inner boot was several centimeters larger in diameter than my leg, and filled with water.  The outer boot was several centimeters in diameter larger than the inner boot, and around two decimeters deeper.  It was about half filled with water.  I put my leg in the inner boot, and some of that water spilled over into the outer boot.  Then the doctor covered my leg and the inner boot with a heavy rawhide apron and poured boiling water from a skin into the outer boot until it was about three-quarters full.

The cold water around my leg quickly grew warmer when that was accomplished.  The fire next to me had a large number of water-heating rocks with holes through them.  Doctor Sven handed me a stout stick and told me to pick up the rocks one at a time with the stick, and drop them into the outer boot every couple minutes.  I was to keep the rawhide apron between my face and the boot when dropping rocks into the water.  Even stones that had been heated and cooled many times could sometimes fracture and throw fragments.  If the water in the inner boot got too hot, I had a dipper of cold water in a bucket next to me as well.

Doctor Sven made getting the swine fed easy.  I tied them to a couple nearby persimmon trees, and the doctor simply told the construction boss to have a couple workers take all the branches, bark, leaves, and sod over to the swine.  A man and woman were assigned to that job and started moving a steady flow of edible construction waste over to the swine.  When the two workers saw how quickly the swine were eating the waste, they started making a game of it, trying to bring material faster than the swine could eat it.  It wasn’t a fair competition.  The swine were very hungry, and there were eleven of them compared to two workers.  The other workers started making fun of the haulers, who were both around my age.  There wasn’t any hard feelings from the two haulers.  They seemed happy that they wouldn’t have to haul the trash to where the elefants were kept at night, which was much farther away.

When I was able to get the construction crew boss’s attention, I also mentioned that I was going to be carving spoons while I was cooking my leg.  At first, the she was a bit sour to me, apparently a little irritated because the doctor had simply ordered her to have her people feed my swine the construction trash.  I offered her team the first six spoons, one for her and five for the crew members she chose, and I’d repeat the same for every visit I made to cook my leg if her team would bring me thirty hand-length pieces of thumb-thick red cedar branches.  Making crude spoons wasn’t hard, but it did require a good knife and some time.  I had both, and I was good with a knife.  As a carpenter, I was average at best – but I was a good whittler, bordering on very good.  I’d been making my own whistles for years, experimenting with different woods and designs.

The deal was struck, one of the shingle-cutters used an adze to cut thirty pieces of hand-length red cedar from branches, and I started carving crude spoons.  I added a stone to the water boot for every spoon I carved.  Soon, thirty stones were in the deep bottom of the outer boot, and I’d only had to cool the water in the inner boot twice.  The thermal transfer from the water into my leg and through my body was strange.  I was sweating without exerting myself, in late summer morning temperatures.  Every wind gust made me shiver heavily because I was sweating.  I made a note to bring a second shirt or even a jacket to future heat soaking sessions.  Sweating in the cold was not smart for anyone, but especially not for me; I didn’t have the meat on my bones to insulate me.

While I was working on the second-to-last spoon, I saw Riko.  He saw me and waved before walking over to the doctor.  A few minutes after that, Riko walked from the doctor to me, starting to speak when he was several paces away.  “Allen, the doctor was pleased with the condition of your leg earlier and doesn’t want to re-bandage it or put another poultice on it unless it worsens.  After lunch, he will check the leg one more time, and give you willow bark tea if it looks good.  You have a few minutes before the meeting starts to put your swine under your carriage.  The doctor also said to use the water in the water boot to put out the fire.”

“Yes, sergeant.” I said, using his rank rather than name since there were quite a few people around.

Riko nodded and left, presumably to gather the others who would be attending the meeting.

I gave six of the thirty spoons I had made to the construction crew boss, as promised. After that, I quickly did everything else I had been told to do, barely managing to get the swine watered at the river and back under the carriage in time to avoid being the last one to the meeting.  I nearly threw away the abysmally slow crutches in frustration twice that morning as I took my swine to and from the river, but the leg still felt tender and painful.

**

“They wouldn’t write down my ideas.” Brad shrugged. “You said they would.”

He had said last night he wouldn’t help without concessions from Captain Marko.  If concessions had been made, I was fairly certain I didn’t want to know what they had been.

Lieutenant Davis had a pencil and paper ready already, taking notes.  “I’ll speak to the guards, captain.” He said while scribbling.  In the meantime, go ahead and tell us your ideas.  I will write them down.”

Brad leaned back.  “These ideas work for either side.  My first idea is simply to start a forest fire behind the militia, so they will be forced into the river where opposing side’s archers can pick them off.  If you can get enough lamp oil, you might even be able to put enough oil on the river to burn, which would eliminate the need for archers.  That seems like a stretch though.  The river here moves quickly, from what I’ve been told.”

Leaning back, a bit grey-faced, Lieutenant Davis looked at Captain Marko.  “On the other hand, I’m not entirely certain his guards didn’t have the right idea.  Do you really want me to record that in our minutes?”

Captain Marko was staring, shocked, at Brad.  After several seconds, he closed his eyes and muttered something to himself before continuing more loudly.  “Yes.  Be certain to attribute it to Brad by his full name and indicate why he was incarcerated.”  Then he opened his eyes and looked towards the tent entrance.  “Riko, I want patrols behind us as well.”

“Do you really think anyone from the New Tokyo side could possibly think of something that depraved, Captain?” Lieutenant Baker spluttered, red-faced.

“We don’t have a monopoly on violent prisoners, Lieutenant.”  He whispered, eyes locked on Brad.  “I can’t risk overlooking something that might work against us.  I don’t have to use it, but I can’t neglect defending against it.”

“I’m not done yet.” Brad said with a grin.

After a deep breath, Captain Marko said “Continue, Brad.”

Nodding with a malevolent grin that made me shiver, Brad continued.  “Flu season is coming.  The oh-so-comfortable portable cage you keep me in is close enough to the quartermaster’s wagons that I overhear conversations.  We brought centrifuges to spin out plasma from the first people who get the flu, to immunize the rest.  What would happen if we sent our first few flu cases over to their side of the river, with orders to mix heavily with the enemy side while attempting to hide their symptoms?”  He smiled a huge grin.  “Give them additional orders to destroy the centrifuges that the opposing side has, when they can no longer hide their symptoms.”

The idea was just so incredibly wrong that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it.  Deliberately encouraging an uncontrolled flu outbreak?

Lieutenant Davis’s pencil snapped in his hand, and I saw blood.  His eyes were locked on Brad and he tensed up.

Brad was looking at the lieutenant with another of his seemingly unending supply of frightening smiles.  “The only reason I’m telling you about these things is because I don’t want them to happen to you, because that would mean they would happen to me.  I don’t particularly like the idea of burning to death in my cage, or dying from the flu.  I don’t plan on giving you any other ideas that you might actually use to win.”  His head swiveled to Captain Marko.  “Unless I get concessions.”

So the captain didn’t make a deal with him.  I thought to myself with a sense of thankfulness that hit me like a tidal wave.  I blew out a breath that I had been holding.

Fobi looked at me.  “You OK, Allen?”

“I am.  Now that I know Captain Marko isn’t giving him anything.”

Brad gave me a flat stare, with dead-seeming eyes, and then turned his face to the captain.

There was a muttering of agreement, even from Lieutenant Davis, who was pulling a large pencil splinter out of his hand.  It was a very good feeling to hear almost everyone in the room agreeing with me.

Even Rikard gave me a short nod without looking me directly in the eye.  The fact that he was agreeing with me soured my stomach a little, and I did my best to pretend I hadn’t seen.

Unfortunately, Captain Marko didn’t confirm that he would give Brad no concessions.  He only stared at Brad, and Brad stared back at the captain with no expression.

After a few seconds staring, Captain Marko spoke.  “Lieutenant Davis.  You will create a guard detail for the medical facility.  Work with Doctor Sven and the construction crew to ensure that the centrifuges will be in a separate room in the facility, and there will be a guard post between that room and the rest of the facility, with a guard in it at all times.  The guard will not leave their post for anything other than life-threatening situations.”

Brad seemed to have been waiting for the Captain to finish speaking, but as soon as he was done, he chuckled.  “Get me out of here.  The rest of you are pathetic.  When you realize that you can’t win this without me, the Captain will give me what I want.  I don’t even need to hear your ideas to know they will all be useless or impractical.  You aren’t tough-minded enough to realize you’re trying to fight another kind of locust here.  You insist on seeing them as people, so you won’t do what needs to be done to win.”

What was more frightening to me than Brad’s ideas was realizing that if we didn’t come up with better ideas, I would use Brad’s ideas to save my family, Marza’s family, and everyone else I knew in other farms and in town.  I started feeling sick to my stomach and looked down at my clenched hands in my lap.

Suddenly, I looked up at Brad.  Killing him before the captain gave into him might keep us from hearing even more terrible ideas.  Justification for it went through my mind.  We kill rabid animals without a second thought.  I don’t really see where Brad is any different.  The minutes of the meeting and the witnesses here would certainly give me some sort of plausible defense against a murder case.  Wouldn’t it clearly be a case of temporary insanity?  I could just say I lost it, blanked out, and the next thing I knew, he was dead?  A crime of passion?  His insanity simply drove me to temporary madness?

My mind provided a quick answer to that.  If Albert wanted to hide what we knew, he could certainly intercede in a court case, even if not asked – he had that right by law.  Even if Albert didn’t choose to lie, there was no way I would be able to falsify madness to him.  I would go to prison for life for premeditated murder, because I was certainly premeditating.

Even more frightening, if Albert chose to lie, he could simply draw every person in this tent together in a court case, and create false evidence of prior violence for everyone other than me.  He might even be able to find real evidence of violence, in the history of Fobi or the other officers who had worked in law enforcement.  One court case could get every one of us thrown in prison for life or shipped to the prison colonies.  Albert had been working on unexpectedly deep levels.  How important was it to him that we not interfere with his plans?  Would seriously discussing something like what Brad suggested get us all killed by an irritated Albert dropping a lunar rock on us from orbit to keep the rot from spreading?

I found that I’d locked stares with Brad, who appeared to be meeting my eyes in challenge, without any humor or derision.  My right hand was on my knife sheath.  I was furious, not scared.

Fobi was looking straight at me, immobile and tense.

The lieutenants were looking back and forth between Brad and me.

Then my mind snapped back to my prior thoughts.  I realized that if we didn’t come up with something that would work, everyone I loved might starve to death without Brad’s rabid ideas.

How many of the others are thinking what I’m thinking?  Are any of them as horrified as me about what Brad might convince us to do?

From the corner of my eye, I saw Rikard was slowly pushing his chair back from the table, while looking at my face.

Captain Marko cleared his throat.  “Sergeant, please take Allen to the side of the tent.  Take his knife, give it to Fobi, and stand between Allen and Brad while Brad is escorted out.  Fobi, back up Sergeant Gonzalez.  Lieutenants, take Brad back to his wagon.  Tell the guards that next time, if they do not write down his ideas, they will answer to me, personally.  If you need to, find guards with stronger stomachs.”

Riko’s hand firmly gripped my right shoulder.  “Not worth it, Allen.  Give me your knife.”

Without taking my eyes off Brad, I handed Riko my knife.

Brad smirked at me as I stood.  I stumbled a bit on my leg, but didn’t pick up my crutches as I moved to the side of the tent and looked away from the door.

After Brad was led out of the tent, Fobi handed me my knife back.  As she carefully put the haft of the blade into my hand, she looked up at me with a grin.  “Have you ever considered a job in law enforcement?”

I just stared down at her for a second.  “No.  I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to control my temper with constant exposure to crime.”  I stared at Rikard, briefly, and then back at Fobi.

She shook her head.  “In another few years, after the hormones cool down a bit, if you decide to get away from farming, you might have what it takes to be a street patroller, Allen.”

Captain Marko coughed.  “Fobi, you are not exactly the best judge of patroller qualities.”  His eyes shifted from Fobi to me.  “Still, she’s not the worst judge either.  You have to be at least twenty with no violence record between sixteen and twenty to be considered.  Keep it in mind if farming doesn’t work for you.”

Picking up a sheet of paper from in front of him, the captain continued.  “Now, before the lieutenants come back, I’ll go over a list of ideas we already have, and if you have duplicated them, mark them off your lists.”

In the end, the officers had already thought of four of my six ideas.

Fobi had another idea that the two of us shared.  The New Tokyo population would simply eat everything they had, and then cross over and spread over our land.  If they were imprisoned, we would still have to feed them.  All we could do to stop this would be to put them in camps and feed them starvation rations.  We might be able to ship a fair number to other states by boat or carriage, but not a large number of them.  Large numbers of weak prisoners in camps would be large disease vectors, and keeping them from escaping and wandering off into the rest of the state would be nearly impossible in the first place.

Captain Marko looked at Fobi and scratched his jaw thoughtfully.  “I would be willing to bet that this is what Second Landing expects to happen.  They have the food reserves to absorb a great many refugees.  With enough debt generated against enough displaced people, Second Landing will be in a position of great strength, even if it’s morally repugnant.  Having a substantial part of the New Tokyo population imprisoned already and unable to generate income to pay debt, New Tokyo might not be able to get a worthwhile crop in next year.  The imprisoned New Tokyo people would simply generate more debt as they get fed season after season.”  He tapped his fingers on the table.  “Eventually the New Tokyo economy and government would collapse, and Second Landing would sweep in to collect a vassal state, or a second state in a republic, or whatever their plans are.  We will have our own share of New Tokyo prisoners in our own camps, but most will go to Second Landing because that’s where the food is reported to be.

Cleaning the wound on his hand with some wood alcohol, Lieutenant Davis hissed in pain.  “If that’s the case, why would New Tokyo send anyone our way?”

Lieutenant Baker spoke in a thoughtful tone, “If Fobi’s right, they will try to send enough refugees our way to not kill us all in starvation, and beg for debt leniency to work their fields and industries while they pay us back.  We would have to give it to them, or risk Second Landing doing the same thing to us the next time there’s a blight or off-season early locusts.

Captain Marko nodded.  “I’ll send this to Stateman Urda, she should be made aware of this, if she hasn’t already thought about it.”

Rikard was next, and shrugged.  “All of my ideas for offense and defense have been covered, but I have an idea about where to get more ideas.  Letters can go to and from the prison colonies, even if people go only one way.  We can send letters to imprisoned family members in the prison colonies, and see if they can brainstorm more ideas for us.”

There was general agreement that Rikard’s idea was very useful.  Even I had to agree it made sense. Certainly, at least some prison colony inmates would try to think up ideas to help prevent their families from starving.

“What about you, Allen?”  Captain Marko asked next.

I nervously looked at the one remaining idea on my paper.  “I’m not entirely certain how workable this is, sir, but from what I remember about my history of violence classes, starvation, exposure, and illnesses killed more people in preindustrial wars than fighting.  To avoid starvation in war, cities stored food.  When there was war, people from outside retreated into the cities, and the attackers would sometimes siege the defenders in the cities for months, or even years.”

I looked at the captain and he nodded, saying “Yes, that matches what I learned.  How can that history help us?”

I twisted my hands under the table a bit.  “I’d never made the connection before, but the only way sieges could have happened in preindustrial days is if the people inside the cities could keep the people outside from just walking in and attacking them or taking their food.  There had to be barriers, and we don’t have them in our cities.  On the farm, we keep animals from going where we don’t want them with walls.” I looked up at the captain. “Can we move all the food and people into cities and towns and build barriers like pits or walls to keep out people we don’t want?”

There was silence at the table for a minute.  Lieutenant Davis spoke first.  “Walls around a town, maybe.  But New Charleston?  That’s…  Captain, is that even possible?”

Captain Marko raised both thumbs to the headache pressure points at his temples and whistled a barely audible single tone.  “Yes, that’s undoubtedly possible as a long term solution.  In the short term though?  Sergeant, go get Quartermaster Brown.  I’m not entirely certain the idea can work to help us right now, but I don’t know enough to say how fast we could build a wall big enough to protect a town or the city.”

Rikard tapped his fingers on the table.  “We’ve still got crops in the ground.  It won’t do us much good to leave them and go build walls around towns.”

I bristled a bit that Rikard was challenging my idea, but tried to keep my voice even. “You aren’t thinking it through.  New Tokyo also has late plantings in.  Their farmers will not leave them.  They are certainly hoping to get some sort of a decent crop in with a lucky late autumn warm streak.  It’s early enough in the year that they will almost certainly get a poor crop.  They may get a decent crop.  The chances of a good crop are very low, but possible.”

The officers were looking at me in curiosity, probably wondering why I knew so much about farming in this area.  “Riko and my Granpa did a lot of research on this area.  I know a little about it from talking to my Granpa the other day.”  Thoughts of Marza crossed my mind.  I carefully did not look at Rikard.

After I paused to clear my minds of thoughts of Marza and Rikard, I continued.  “The weather patterns break around the border.  In just a few kilometers north, the mountain ridge behind New Charleston ends.  The cold air from the northwest gets pushed across New Tokyo and a little down into this area.  The growing season here at the border is a week shorter than it is where we live, and two weeks shorter before you get more than fifty kilometers into New Tokyo.”

“Yes, that’s pretty much what Riko’s already told us.  Why does it matter here?”  Captain Marko asked, with his head tilted.  He didn’t seem puzzled, it sounded like a question he already knew the answer to.

“Sir, there may be time to build walls around towns while we tend and hope for a good late planting crop.”  I paused. “At least there’s time to start building walls.  The New Tokyo farmers and agricultural workers won’t move until their crops are either harvested or have failed.  Even after a terrible harvest, even if they have to eat all of their own farm animals they can’t use for traveling, they will have enough food to last them until our crops are in.  They would have to be idiots to abandon their own land while our crops are still in the ground unless they absolutely have to.  You did say in the talk you gave us that they had some reserves, right, Captain?”

I couldn’t remember who had said they had some reserves.  “Or maybe it was the draft letter?”  I shook my head and felt a chill as I thought about what it would mean if New Tokyo had no stored food.  “If they have no reserves, New Tokyo city itself might empty in days and scour their own farmers’ land on their way to us and Second Landing.”

Then I remembered what Brad had said, and whispered it.  “Like locusts.”

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Chapter 16

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Almost a hundred new people arrived very early the next day, traveling by torchlight.  Roughly half of them had no experience at all with manual labor.  After a breakfast of bread with strawberry preserves that tasted old but not off, I trained the new, inexperienced people on how to safely and effectively use and take care of wood cutting tools.

Early that morning, after breakfast, Doctor Sven had me soak my leg in hot water for fifteen minutes before replacing the poultice yet again and warning me to let him know if there was any pain or noticeable increased swelling.  He also gave me a set of crutches that were tall enough for me, which I greatly appreciated.

While returning the too-short crutches and unused twine, I mentioned to the quartermaster that the axes I had seen were fairly dull; we’d do more work if they were sharper.  I wasn’t the first to mention that to him. The experienced woodcutters and the two carpenters had already voiced their displeasure. The stonecutters had already been assigned to sharpen woodworking tools.

In order to assist that effort, I was directed by Quartermaster Brown to help the stonecutters gather stones from the river to improve their work area so they could concentrate on improving tools.  The elefants were moving logs.  The draft horse and oxen teams were being used to clear brush and move stones to start building foundations for the permanent camp.  My swine were the only available draft animals.

At the direction of the stonecutters, I used Hoss and Bigboy to drag several large stones from the river to their work area.  I would have spent more time with them, but some of the stones they wanted moved were simply far too large for the boars.  After the boars moved what I felt was safe for them to move, the stonecutters made requests to the quartermaster for draft animal time.  The two stonecutters were amusing in their combination of professional paranoia and curiosity about each other.  Watching them watching each other, while they simultaneously tried to hide what they were doing from each other was hilarious. Neither of them was interested in having me help them directly with shaping stone.  My occasional outbursts of laughter probably didn’t help.

At lunch, I ate with Anu, Sara, Kelvin and Ely again.  About halfway through another bowl of rice and beans I noticed Riko walking nearby, looking directly at me.  When he saw me looking back at him, he looked away quickly.

My first thought was What was that all about?

My second thought almost made me slap myself on the head when I realized what Riko might be thinking.  I was sitting on a log next to Anu, and fairly close.  I needed to knock that thought right out of Riko’s head.  Anu was married, she seemed like a good person, and she had potentially saved me from a worse trampling from my swine than a single hoof on the calf.  She was smart and willing to learn.  There wasn’t any sexual attraction from my end, and I was fairly sure not from hers either.  She was a lot older than me too – at least twenty-three.

For the rest of the meal, I wasn’t very talkative as I tried to figure out the best way to deal with Riko without potentially offending Anu.  After we finished eating, I tapped her on the elbow.  “Would you mind talking to the scouts with me?  They wanted to hear about the snake.  You were there too, and saw things from a different perspective than me.”

She looked at me for a couple seconds.  “Sure.  But we have to do it fast, I’m expected back soon.  The mahouts are rotating those of us without heavy callus through different jobs so nobody completely ruins their hands.  I don’t want anyone to think I’m shirking when it comes to taking my turn with an axe.”

I reassured her by saying “I’m sure it will only be a couple minutes.  I need to get a new task from the quartermaster too, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as a slacker myself, even if people might give me some consideration for the leg.”

She agreed and we walked over to the group of scouts eating lunch.  There were only eight present, including Riko.  I assumed the rest were probably on patrol or asleep.  There were two people that the scouts were seemingly including in their number who I didn’t recognize as all from the meeting the other day.  Some of the new people were apparently scouts, or maybe they showed up after I left town, but before the scouts left in advance of the rest of us.

As we walked up, I announced us. “Sergeant Gonzalez, you mentioned yesterday that you and the scouts wanted a retelling about what happened with the rattlesnake?  Anu here was there with me and saw it all.  She’ll kick me if the tale starts to get too tall.”

The scouts all either smiled or chuckled, even Riko. There was good-natured eagerness, and a few non-scouts gathered closer too.

“I’ll what?” Anu looked at me in confusion.

I couldn’t help but laugh.  “It’s your job to tell these ladies and gentlemen when I start exaggerating too much.  I’d really rather you not kick me in the bad leg though.”

Anu grinned, catching on quickly.  “Sure.  I can do that.  Let me move to your other side.  I suspect I’ll be doing a lot of kicking.”

The scouts were in a good mood, there was more low laughter and smiling.

Three or four minutes later, Anu had only kicked me, gently, three times – each time getting a chuckle from the scouts.  I tried to give her a bigger role in rescuing me, but she hadn’t accepted it.

They all burst into laughter when I told them that one of my swine had goosed me from behind as I was almost clear of the snake.  When Anu didn’t kick me after that, to indicate I was exaggerating, they got thoughtful.

A little later, when I explained how Anu had waded into the sounder of swine and dragged me out, she got some respectful glances.  There was a lot of nodding after she said that the next time anything like that happened, she would try to remember to try to stop the animals with a whoah command.  It didn’t surprise anyone that I’d forgotten to try to do that after barely escaping a snakebite to the face.

Several of the scouts asked other questions as they were eating and listening, but none of us had time to dawdle, so the storytelling was short.

Riko had been watching Anu more than me throughout the storytelling. When we were done, he shook her hand.  “Thank you for what you did.  That was good thinking for someone in an unfamiliar situation.  My grandaughter will be thankful to you for keeping her future husband from being crippled by his own swine.”  He turned his head to me, with a large, toothy grin.  “I’m sure Marza will find a way to tease him about it too.”

Anu reached up to tousle my hair, but I dodged.  “Allen’s a good fellow.  Seems to have his head on right.  I’m definitely learning a lot from him, and so are others.  He’s been more willing than most to help those of us that don’t have the skills that we need here.  Your grandaughter is a lucky woman.”  She paused a moment and looked at Riko before continuing.  “If I were a few years younger and unmarried, I might have even tried to do a little chasing myself.”  She lightly kicked my good leg again.  “I would have insisted that he gain at least twenty kilos though.  It would have been quite a disappointment to break him after I caught him.”

The scouts loved that, even Riko.  Two of the scouts were beating their chests with their fists, trying to dislodge rice or beans that had gone down the wrong pipe.  I felt my face get hot and elbowed Anu in the ribs.  She ignored me and laughed. The scouts laughed harder after I elbowed Anu.

This wasn’t supposed to devolve into making fun of Allen, I thought to myself, a little darkly.

After a cough to clear my throat, I shook my head and spoke to Riko.  “If you’re sending a letter to Marza telling her about the snake incident, I’ll have to do the same.  Otherwise there’s no telling what she’ll think happened.”

“That would probably be for the best anyway.”  Riko nodded at me with a grin.

As everyone stopped laughing, Riko held out his hand to Anu.  “Thanks again for helping him, Anu.  You need a favor, ask me.  Please, however, remember that I’m a sergeant first right now, so there are some things I can’t or won’t do.”

Anu grasped his hand and they shook.  “Thank you, sergeant, but it’s not necessary.  Making a friend was enough of a reward.”

As the three of us said our goodbyes and walked in different directions, I hoped that I’d settled that issue with Riko.  I needed to have the doctor attend the leg and then speak to the quartermaster again.

Finding Doctor Sven wasn’t hard.  He was checking out the marked foundations of the building that would become his medical facility.  It and the kitchen were priority buildings. We walked back to my carriage and he replaced the poultice again.  He had to rewrap the pressure bandage as well, as the swelling was coming down a little bit.  That was a good thing, and indicated that applying more heat tomorrow, for a longer time, would probably be of benefit. Doctor Sven wrote me a letter to give to Quartermaster Brown, requesting I be assigned to some useful task I could perform when soaking my leg for an hour, three times per day.

When I handed that note to Quartermaster Brown, he read it and frowned.  “Well, you obviously can’t go out and mark trees when you’re soaking that leg.  I’m not so good at figuring out what needs to be done as opposed to figuring out how to make it happen.  You came to me with an idea once; do you have any ideas this time around?”

I thought about it.  It seemed silly, but…  “I can carve spoons, sir?  A lot of people are eating with corn husks and folded leaves.  It only takes me a couple minutes to make one, and a lot of people here can’t carve.”

The quartermaster nodded.  “If you have one on you now, show me. If you don’t, go get or make an example of one, then return and show me.”

I pulled my spoon out of my pouch, rubbed the sand off of it, and handed it to him.

“Hmmm.  A bit crude, but serviceable.  Make me as many as you can.  Bring them to me at the beginning of every day after breakfast.  That’s your job every time you are soaking that leg, or until I tell you differently.”  He started scribbling madly, two copies of his orders for me, one for him, the other for me.

“What else should I do?  Has anyone been complaining about needing anything, sir?”

“Everyone is complaining about needing something.” The quartermaster complained, knuckling his forehead.  Then he perked up.  “You hauled some fairly substantial stones from the river for the stonecutters earlier, I was told.  Can your swine haul water if we get you some large water skins?”

“How big are the skins?  My boars won’t pull more than a hundred fifty kilos up a slope like the one between us and the river on a travois.  Also, water is very dense; I think it would be bad to try to haul more than a hundred kilos, it might crack the travois poles.”

A couple minutes later, I had new written orders and was heading to the head cook, Mrs. Zeta, with five empty twenty-liter water skins, with orders to bring water from the river to the cooks, so it could be boiled and delivered to the workers in the field.

Mrs. Zeta was more than happy with that.  “Thank you.  This will free up two of my people to do other things besides carrying buckets of water.”  She paused a moment.  “How well-behaved are your swine going to be near the cooking fires?”

“I’ve never gotten them close to open cooking fires before, Ma’am.” I responded.  “They should be OK, but maybe it would be a good idea to start a boiling fire a bit closer to the river?”  I smiled at her.  “If you set up a pit for food waste on the side of the road next to the boiling fire, I can pretty much guarantee the swine won’t be interested in getting close to the cooking fires.”

She tapped her chin thoughtfully.  “I’m not moving my kitchen waste pit.  We’ve already started dumping waste in its planned location.  You’re more than welcome, of course, to take your swine by the pit to eat all they can find that they want, so we won’t have to burn in the pit so often.”  More chin tapping.  “By the time we get a kitchen built, there will be draft horses or oxen available at any time to pull the water cart.”

I wasn’t sure how the comment about the draft animals fit into our conversation, but I didn’t say anything.

Pensively, Mrs. Zeta looked in the direction of the river, towards where two men were trudging uphill, each of them with a carry pole.  Each carry pole having a bucket suspended at either end.  She whistled between her teeth. “No offense, but your swine make me nervous around the cooking fires.  I know how food-centric swine are.  Even though yours are clearly better trained than any other swine I’ve seen, I doubt they are much different from the swine I know – though they do look a lot leaner.”

I turned towards her, annoyed, and trying to think of how to say something without being too rude.  The head cook was the very last person I wanted irritated with me, for several reasons.

Before I could say anything, Mrs. Zeta apologized.  “I’ve seen your swine in harness, and I’ve also been told that they are hands-off.  That lean comment was in bad taste.  Sorry.”

It took me a second, but the pun eventually registered.  It wasn’t that funny, but it was funny enough for me to chuckle a couple times before nodding.  “Bad taste.  Heh.  You are right that they aren’t that different.  We use food to train them, and our swine train very well.  That said, if they are going to misbehave, it’s almost always going to be because of food.  I’d be happier if we kept them away from your cooking fires.”

She raised her voice slightly.  “Pol.  Start a new boiling station twenty paces closer to the river at the road’s edge, downstream side.  Take Filip and Ivan off water hauling; have them clean themselves up thoroughly and then report to me.”

A man that I couldn’t see said “Yes, Ma’am”  The voice might have been the same man that had brought the bag of waste food to my swine the night before.

Mrs. Zeta turned back to me.  “Job’s all yours.  Thanks for helping to free up some hands for me.”

I spent the rest of the day hauling water skins from the river to the boiling station with Hoss and Bigboy.  All of the swine got their fill from the kitchen waste pit.  The extra manpower that the swine and I freed up allowed Mrs. Zeta and her cooks to get dinner out on time, and not burnt in the least.  It was interesting being directly useful to the camp with the swine, but that window would be short, I knew.  We were able to keep up with the water needs of the camp, and then some.  Still, at the end of the day, we still hadn’t brought enough water to serve the camp and completely fill all of the boiled water storage skins.  The relative efficiency of my swine to draft horses for water hauling was proven when a single team of draft horses was pulled off lumber duty as the sun started to go down.  One trip of the water from river to camp provided enough water to allow the boiling station to top off the boiled water storage, and my swine and I were dismissed.

That night, Doctor Sven was happy with my leg after replacing the poultice.  The pressure bandage had to be tightened a bit, indicating that the swelling was still going down.  He gave me willow bark tea to thin my blood a bit and then surprised me by telling me to follow him.

Confused, because I hadn’t asked to speak to the officers yet about Rikard, and couldn’t remember anything happening that I might be in trouble for, I asked.  “Can I ask what this is about, sir?”

He didn’t answer my question, just beckoning for me to follow him.  “It’s ten meters to the officer’s tent.  Just follow me.  You will find out when the others do.”

Others? I wanted to ask, but I did as I was told, and crutched along after the doctor into the tent.

As I entered the tent, I saw a lot of people.  The person who drew my attention first was Rikard, who was apparently just as confused as I was, since he looked at Lieutenant Davis rapidly and then back to me with a scowl.  I did my best to ignore him, and looked for the open seat farthest from him.

Lieutenants Davis and Baker were seated on either side of a man at the eight-place rectangular table in the middle of the tent.  Rikard and a woman I didn’t know were seated at either end of the table, across from each other.  Doing my best to avoid looking at Rikard, I examined the other two, who I’d never met.

The man was older.  If I was forced to guess, I would say he was in his fifties, but he was not in good physical condition, and heavily wrinkled.  Long black hair, heavily streaked with grey, was held back with a leather tie behind his neck.  He was very pale, but I didn’t see the blue tracing of veins under the skin to indicate someone who couldn’t darken in the sun.  When he caught me looking at him, he smiled a little and moved his arms.  He had been holding his wrists and forearms together, parallel to one another, and was wearing a long-sleeved shirt.  As his arms moved slightly apart, I saw that his sleeves were cut between wrist and elbow.  Under his shirt, there were heavy leather manacles and several thumb-thick ropes woven into and through the manacles, connecting them together, with other ropes connecting to the manacles and running towards him, and then dropping off the table ledge.

After I saw the man’s restraints, my eyes popped back to his, and he smiled again, slowly easing his arms back together.

“Brad, please don’t tell me you think I didn’t see that.”  Lieutenant Davis sighed.

The older man shrugged, and his eyes never left mine.  “Wasn’t meant for you to see, or not to see, Lieutenant.  The pup here was sizing me up.  Figured I’d help him get a good measure.”

I was shocked, reeling.  His voice reeked of anger and was flaunting that he was restrained.  The man was clearly insane.  My eyes flicked up to his forehead.  There was no prisoner brand there.

“No.  No brand.  I have more control than that, pup.” The man said with a tight smile.

Lieutenant Davis looked irritated.  “You mean that we put you in a cell at fifteen after you killed two people, and you’ve spent thirty-one years there with no opportunity to fight another person.”

Rikard looked sideways at Brad and scooted his chair a few inches farther away, despite Lieutenant Davis being between them.

Brad turned his head towards Rikard and smiled, smugly.

I stared for a second, shocked, trying to figure out what an insane, restrained prisoner was doing in the officer’s tent.  Then I noticed the woman on the other side of Rikard was grinning a little in my direction, clearly amused by my reaction.  “Brad’s quite the character, isn’t he?”  She buffed her fingernails on her shirt before continuing.  “I’m Fobi.”  She, at least, didn’t have any restraints.  Brown haired with no visible grey, a light tan, crow’s feet next to her eyes.  A little stout.  Maybe in her thirties.

I nodded to Fobi and she nodded back.  I sat next to her, in the open seat farthest from Rikard.

Doctor Sven did not sit at the table; he sat on a stool several feet away, close to the entrance of the tent.  He appeared extraordinarily unpleased to be present.  I did a double-take and saw that Riko and Don, Rikard’s cousin, were both standing next to the tent entrance.

Captain Marko’s voice came from behind Brad and the lieutenants.  “Well.  Now that we’re all here, let’s get started.”  As he spoke, he was standing and moving away from the small table in the back of the tent where he had apparently been sitting.

“As you all know, we’re being forced to mobilize to protect our own meager food reserves from New Tokyo.  There’s still a chance of resolution if Second Landing agrees to sell grain at a reasonable price to New Tokyo, but from what I’ve been told by my chain of command, this hasn’t happened yet.”  He paused.  “It’s been almost a thousand years since we mobilized for conflict.  At best, we’re clueless about how to fight a war.”

Pacing back and forth, Captain Marko started speaking again.  “Historically, on Earth, we know that vast numbers of people were taken from agricultural duties during wartime in preindustrial eras, but we could not see how that would be a sane way of addressing a war that has been caused by a food resource shortage.  The historical record shows that starvation in such wars killed more people than actual fighting.”

Brad snorted.  “Albert’s historical record.”

Captain Marko stared down at him, sharply, before continuing.  “I, Quartermaster Brown, my lieutenants, as well as three other captains, three other quartermasters, six other lieutenants, and our overall commanding officer, Colonel Duffie, have studied documents and records about how to mobilize a militia for years.  What we have never done is learn how a militia would actually engage in a fight.  Only law enforcement officers are allowed by law to receive militia mobilization training, and it’s been a law for hundreds of years now that law enforcement officers are not to learn military combat tactics until we are called to active status.  The law’s documentation indicates that there was a fear that we might use those military tactics, somehow, during our law enforcement activities.”

I heard the captain’s teeth grit.  “Part of the legal mobilization plan was that when we were mobilized, we would then have access to sealed books and documents with military combat tactics, but when Colonel Duffie went to access them he found…”

I made the connection in a heartbeat.  “They were gone and Albert wouldn’t reproduce them.” I whispered.  Then I realized I had spoken out loud, and slapped a hand over my mouth and closed my eyes, thinking to myself.  Idiot.  I am an unmitigated buffoon.

As I opened my eyes again, I saw Captain Marko staring at me, his body completely still, hands locked together behind his back.  After locking eyes with me for three or four seconds, the captain started to speak again.  “You are correct, Allen, and you will stay after this meeting and explain how you knew that.  I refuse to believe you guessed.”

Everyone in the room seemed to be staring at me.  I felt like I was about a centimeter tall.

“All four of you have a history of violence.  To be completely open with you, we’re sitting on the border here, with very few ideas about how we’re going to deal with the New Tokyo militia.  If they have maintained their military tactics documents, we could get swept aside easily.”

Brad started to laugh.  “Oh, this is rich.  I get put in jail for thirty-one years for killing two people, and then you want my help to teach the militia how to kill hundreds or even thousands of people, wholesale?  What’s in it for me?  More jail time?  Do I get my life back?”  He twisted his upper body so he could look at Captain Marko, who was not quite directly behind him.  “Have your lapdogs take me back to my lock-up wagon and come talk to me later with your offer.  I doubt I’m going to accept anything you’re willing to talk about in public.”

Captain Marko sighed.  “You still have family, Brad.  Brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews.  They visit you from time to time, I know, even now.”

“That is not an offer.”  Brad said, flatly.

Turning his back on us and staring up at the ceiling of the tent, Captain Marko continued.  “I want you all to try to think about two things tonight, and write down any ideas you have.  First, if you were the New Tokyo militia, how would you attack us across the river? Keep in mind you must push us back to repair the bridge for draft transport with as few attacker deaths as possible.  Second, how would you try to defend against an attack crossing the river, again, with as few defender deaths as possible?”  He paused for almost a second.  “I want at least three ideas on attack and defense from each of you.  We’ve already been brainstorming these things, but we want to see if you come up with anything else.  Brad, your guards will have writing materials.  You can call out ideas to them, and they will write them down.”

I was starting to feel ill.  They want me to help figure out the best way to kill people?  The only person I’ve ever wanted to kill is in front of me right now, and I couldn’t even bring myself to kill him when I had the chance to do it twice.

I cautiously glanced at Rikard and Fobi.  They were both looking uncomfortable, a little ill.  My back was to Doctor Sven, Riko, and Don, but the two lieutenants were watching Brad closely, with no sign of discomfort.

Brad looked like he was in deep thought, but said nothing.

Captain Marko spun on his heel, back to face the table.  “On that note, this meeting is over.  This session’s entire purpose was to give you time to get ready to discuss tactics tomorrow morning after breakfast.  Rikard, Fobi, and Allen, if you don’t have anything to write with, you will get paper and pencils from Quartermaster Brown as soon as you leave this tent.  This is no secret.  You can discuss it with others if you like.”

The very idea of talking with my few friends in camp about ways to fight with other people with intent to kill nearly made me spew my dinner.  I took some deep breaths and swallowed my gorge.

As Rikard and Fobi stood to leave, I heard people moving behind me and the tent flap opening.  Riko was holding the tent flap open and staring outside.  Don was staring white-faced at Brad, ignoring the tent flap.  Someone was puking close to the tent.

I heard one of the officer’s tent guards taking to Doctor Sven, asking him if he was OK.

Doctor Sven didn’t answer that I could hear.

The two lieutenants stood with Brad between them.  He was taking very small steps.  My eyes traced over his bonds.  His legs were in heavy leather manacles bound closely together like the manacles that I had already seen on his arms.  Ropes connected arm manacles to a waist belt and then to the leg manacles.

I still stood and moved away from the table, giving the lieutenants plenty of room to guide Brad out of the tent.  I didn’t want to be anywhere near the nutcase.

After Brad was out of the tent, Captain Marko casually moved to the large table and sat down, gesturing to where I had been sitting before, obviously indicating I should have a seat. As I moved back and sat down, the captain looked past me and spoke.  “Riko, stay in the tent with us, please.  If anyone other than another officer tries to enter, turn them away for thirty minutes.”

Riko’s voice saying “Yes, sir.” helped ground me a bit.  A familiar person, a solid friend of our family and Marza’s granpa.  If there was anyone in this camp that I would want at my back, it was Riko.

“Allen, you look like a trapped rabbit.”  Captain Marko sighed.  “You’re young, but if you’ve had alcohol before and you want a single glass of wine or a shot of whiskey to calm your nerves, I’ll give you that.”

I managed to choke out an answer.  “No, sir.  I’ve had alcohol, but I’d rather not have it now.”

“Take some deep breaths then.  Relax.  I want some answers.”

And the last thing I want to do is give them to you, sir.  I thought to myself, making absolutely certain to keep my mouth sealed shut.

All of a sudden, I realized that I really didn’t want Riko in the tent with us.  What would he think if he found out that my Ma had been a martial artist?  Would he try to break up the marriage between Marza and me?  Would Marza want to have anything to do with me?

Could I manage to tell enough half-truths to satisfy Captain Marko but not give away Ma’s history?  I looked at Captain Marko, who was leaned back in his chair, arms crossed, looking at me with curiosity.  He was watching me, but not staring at my eyes.  I strongly doubted they put a man with poor wits in charge of this many people, in charge of defending a roadway.

If I asked for Riko to leave, it was going to open up a huge trust issue between us.  He knew full well that he was my best ally in camp, and if I pushed him away, it would irritate him at best, infuriate him at worst.  He would demand answers, and I wasn’t sure if it would be worse to give them to him, or refuse to do so.

I had been planning on pretending to be some sort of fighting prodigy, making sure that all of our side knew Ma’s rules.  That had seemed like a risk, because it might attract Albert’s attention to myself and Ma, but it had seemed like it was a very small risk, since I could conceal it as my own knowledge.  But now?  If Captain Marko and the militia was unaware of what Albert was doing to eliminate martial knowledge from the world, and I told them, and the word became widespread, would Albert hold it against me somehow?

I did not want to imagine Albert’s reaction to finding the law enforcement branches of every state on Nirvana initiating verbal traditions and brainstorming sessions to try to rebuild martial knowledge so we could properly fight one another in organized warfare.  Everything Albert wanted to happen, put on hold for how many hundreds of years?  Because of me.

My mind raced in tighter and tighter circles.  I have no idea how much time passed with me sitting there, mentally paralyzed, arms wrapped around myself, having horrible thoughts about the future, but eventually something smacked down in front of me.  A shot glass.

Captain Marko and both lieutenants were now seated at the table, looking at me, but not staring me in the eye.  Lieutenant Baker was pouring whiskey out of a bottle into four shot glasses.  The rich scent of the whiskey was something I recognized.  I’d had a shot after harvest with the family every year for the last three years.  It smelled very good, and I remembered the relaxed sensation a shot would give me.  I wanted it badly.

I started reaching towards the full shot glass when Lieutenant Baker said “Go ahead, Allen, drink.  One shot.  At your mass, that should relax you some, but you won’t get drunk.”

With a shock, I realized that the last thing I wanted was to be relaxed, because I would also be careless.  Instead of picking it up, I pushed the shot glass in front of me away.  “No.”

Captain Marko looked at Lieutenant Baker and nodded.

Even in my mental state, I realized that Captain Marko was having Lieutenant Baker talk to me because she was female, and less threatening to me than a male would have been.  Everyone learned that in conflict resolution classes.  I almost smiled when she started talking in a calm voice.  “Something’s obviously got you spooked, Allen.  We see that.  You didn’t even hear Riko talking to you earlier, as far as we could tell.”

I was startled, and turned around.  “Sorry Riko, if I was rude.”

Riko looked at me, clearly concerned.  “I don’t know what’s got you worried, Allen, but I’ve been working with these three for a couple days now.  They aren’t family, but they are competent and fair.”

Lieutenant Baker touched my wrist with a single finger, briefly, which got my attention.  I turned back towards her and she spoke again.  “There’s absolutely no way you could be responsible for what happened to the training documents and records that were lost, but there’s also no way you should have known what happened to them.”

I coughed, and managed to croak out an answer.  “Lucky guess?”

They all laughed at me.  Even Riko.  I really wanted that shot.  My hand twitched towards it.

“Allen” Captain Marko spoke again, pushing the shot glass back to touch my hand.  “If this is something that will help us defend ourselves, we really need to know about it.  Our families are at risk here.  You have a family to protect, don’t you?  We know, at the very least that you’re planning on marrying Riko’s grandaughter Marza.  We’ve barely been able to get Riko to shut up about how good of a match you two are for each other whenever we talk about family.  Especially after a shot of whiskey.”

Riko grunted behind me, sounding a little irritated.  “No need to give the boy a big head, sir.”

I couldn’t help but start to laugh.  They weren’t going to leave me alone until I told them.  If I didn’t tell them, my life might be ruined by an angry Riko.  If I did tell them, my life might be ruined by an angry Albert.  Arguably, an angry Albert was more frightening, but losing Marza would hurt more.

I picked up the shot glass and held it in front of my face, staring through the clear glass at the amber liquid. I’d already made my choice, without the ‘help’ of alcohol. With the decision already made, I decided to drink the shot to give me a little help following through. I sniffed the whiskey, took a breath, swallowed the shot all at once, and breathed out slowly. Since I didn’t choke or cough, I knew I’d done it right, just like Granpa taught me the first time I took a shot after harvest in the year I turned thirteen.  The warmth in my throat helped me ignore the chill in my veins as I started telling them what they thought they wanted to know.

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Chapter 15

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After Doctor Sven checked the circulation in my lower leg, tested my pain levels a bit, and replaced the poultice, he was good enough to help me get the swine in harness.  The swine wouldn’t listen to him very well, so he couldn’t help directly.  Still, he knew enough about harness to hand them to me without tangling them into a knot.  With my calf being what it was, the less walking I had to do, the better.

He had also brought a pair of crutches, which were a little bit short.  Not short enough to make them unusable, but short enough to be uncomfortable.

“I was hoping those would be tall enough.” He grumbled when I tried them out.

I shrugged.  “I can still use them.  I can find a couple saplings and make a crutch or two later, maybe.”

The doctor looked at me for a moment, confused.  “No.  We have two carpenters who brought tools.  They will be able to make crutches that won’t blister or bruise your armpits faster than you can.”

I hobbled over on one of the short crutches and checked the swine that were in harness again, “Why take up their time for something I can do myself?  I’m sure the other officers have things for the carpenters to be doing.”

He slapped the side of the carriage hard enough that it startled me.  “Allen, I am an officer.  I will ask one of the carpenters to make you crutches.  You are not an officer, you will not gainsay me.”  He started to climb carefully up onto the bench seat of the carriage.  “That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss it with me, but I don’t see you saying anything that will change what we have planned for you to do.”

I opened my mouth as I stared at him, while I was still leaning over Hoss and Bigboy.  He said ‘we.’

I shook my head and closed my mouth.  “I see.  So what will I be doing?”

“Several people spoke favorably of the brief lessons you gave with regards to how to handle and care for an axe.  Quartermaster Brown and one of the carpenters took a couple of those people to the side to demonstrate what you taught, and were satisfied.  We were going to have you teach others how to use and care for axes and other tools you can demonstrate proficiency in.  That was before we discovered you had been injured.”

“I see, and now that I am injured, there’s no need to change plans.”

“Exactly.”  The doctor pulled a small, thick book from his pouch.  “While we travel today, I’m going to test your knowledge of plants that can potentially be of use to me, which might be found in the area that we are setting up our permanent camp.”

The half day we spent on the road was full of me discovering how little I really understood about medically useful plants.  I recognized most of the plants, but many of them had uses I’d never heard of before.  Unfortunately, most of those uses required careful and very precise processing.

Sodium nitroprusside, for example, could be processed from cyanide extracted from apple seeds, or the pits of peaches, and apricots.  Doctor Sven explained that it could be used to reduce blood pressure dramatically, enough to make it useful for surgery.  But if made wrong or administered incorrectly, it was deadly.  Before that day, I’d only known that it wasn’t good to allow swine to eat large amounts of those seeds or pits because of the cyanide.  That was one of many interesting tidbits of herbal chemistry that would be of little use to me alone, but would allow me to assist in helping the doctor maintain medical stores after his medical building was established, the equipment set up, and a couple pharmacists arrived from New Charleston.

**

The half day on the road wasn’t terrible, despite the fact that every significant bounce or bump of the carriage caused me a spike of pain as I used the leg to keep myself balanced on the bench.  The doctor’s quizzing and testing helped me take my mind off the pain.

Getting off the carriage was something of a relief, even though getting onto my feet was a bit painful.  My leg was stiff and my shoulder and wrist were irritating me.

Doctor Sven joined the other officers as they gathered together, and then wandered back and forth along the road, pointing here and there, clearly trying to decide how to set up camp.  Quartermaster Brown had several sheets of paper, and was scribbling notes between his own comments.

The wagon park was established first, and guards assigned.  The cooks were already starting fires and unloading the cooking equipment that they hated, as well as the rice and beans which would become the afternoon meal.

We were on the New Charleston side of the Crooked River, which defined the border between New Charleston and New Tokyo.  Looking downhill, the bridge crossing the river was a skeleton of stone.  There were several fresh blackened spots next to the bridge indicating where the heavy timbers and planks that used to be the roadbed across the bridge had gone.

The burn marks were on our side, and anyone from New Tokyo would certainly want to maintain the bridge to transport food.  I was certain our scouts were responsible.

This river was narrower than the Mud River that passed fairly close to town and continued inland to New Charleston, but the water was moving much faster, and the bed was rocky.  Crossing here without a bridge would be dangerous.  The terrain was much steeper here than near town, but there might be better river crossings upstream or downstream.

I’ve got better things to do than daydream. I muttered to myself under my breath, turning back to my carriage.

According to what Doctor Sven had said, I would be teaching people how to use axes, adzes, and wedges soon to anyone that couldn’t prove competency.  After I taught the basics of use and safety, the workers would be sent to start cutting trees, working with the three retired elefants.

None of that would start until after the immediate camp needs like the jakes, washing station, and cooking area were set up.  I wouldn’t have been able to assist with labor like that in my then-current state, so I was sure I had at least a few minutes.  I quickly set the carriage’s wheel chocks, and dropped the slats through the holes in the carriage baseboard to establish a pen for the swine.  That wasn’t to confine them immediately, but rather to be able to confine them rapidly if needed.  It took another five minutes to remove all the leashes and harnesses, and store them inside the carriage.

I painfully climbed onto the carriage bench and stood, turning around, looking for oak, fruit, or nut trees.  There were quite a few persimmon trees along the road, but they wouldn’t be ripe yet.  I saw what looked to be a small stand of red oak close by, downhill and to the downstream side of the road.

Marking trees that can provide forage so they won’t be chopped down for firewood would be a good idea, I thought to myself.

I carefully climbed down from the carriage, making sure to put my good leg on the ground first to hold my weight.  Blowing my whistle lightly, I gave the command for my swine to follow.  The sows hadn’t done much more than start to crop grass and sniff the turf.  Hoss and Bigboy, of course, had already begun rooting, but hadn’t created a significant walking hazard yet.

Carefully, I crutched my way a little downhill before crossing the low stone mound, making certain to use one of my crutches to tap around to disturb any possible snakes.  I found no unpleasant surprises.  The swine hopped the short stone pile after me, and were eagerly searching for edibles in the new forest, a place they had never been before.

Looking up and downhill, I noticed something odd.  The roadside piles of broken paving stones near the top of the slope between the bridge and the flat land were tall, but just a few meters downhill, they were very short.  The piles at the base of the hill near the bridge were very tall again.  For a few seconds, that puzzled me and then I realized why after recalling some conversations with the Donal, Teak’s mahout.  Elefants were not comfortable walking sideways on slopes more than a few degrees, so stones replaced in the road on a steep hill would normally be moved downhill or even uphill, rather than to the sides.

I nodded my head, certain I’d figured it out.  The low stone piles along the side of the steeper downslope had likely been created by crews of humans without elefants, at some point when there was a lack of road elefants or a large project somewhere that needed the road elefants for an extended time.

Red oak acorns were not a favorite of my swine due to the high tannin content, but they would eat them readily enough.  There were about twenty red oaks close together here and several more nearby, farther from the camp.  When I looked carefully, I could see a fairly substantial crop of acorns still in the trees.  If I could manage it, the red oaks should also be marked for preservation since there were plenty of other hardwoods to cut, and these were on the downslope, where it wasn’t likely we would be trying to build any buildings.

Several minutes later, I heard the sounds of labor starting.  Shovels and dirt.  I heard some complaints from people throwing dirt on one another and chuckled to myself.  I had asked if I needed to teach people how to use shovels too, and Doctor Sven had just stared at me like I was making fun of him.  I’d dropped it, not really confident in my own belief that they would need teaching.  A shovel really wasn’t that hard to figure out.

At the same time, I’d had a taste of how little city folk know about manual labor.  Anu and the others had learned quickly enough, but they just didn’t have any exposure to how to use manual labor tools.

It didn’t take long before I heard someone speaking loudly.  The sound of digging stopped.  There were explanations that right-handers and left-handers should not work in mixed groups.  Everyone should watch where they were throwing dirt, and not throw it on other people, or into holes others had already dug.  The sounds of digging resumed, much more regularly, and with far fewer curses.

The swine had mostly filled up, and I needed to get back to camp, but I needed to water them.  I blew my whistle, pointed at the river, and said ‘water’.

The swine all looked at me for a moment before turning downhill and walking down to the river.  None of them seemed irritated at being given a command requiring them to move, so they had clearly found enough to at least take the edge off their hunger.

I watched them wander down to the river, drink in the shallows, and then start to wallow and roll in the water and mud.  I left them alone for about three minutes, until I saw they had all had a good drink and wallow, specifically watching Hoss and Bigboy to make sure they drank strongly.

Whistling again, I called the swine up the hill to me, and gave them each an acorn I’d picked up off the ground as a treat.  Crutching towards the carriage was made slightly inconvenient by Speedy’s playfulness now that she’d gotten some food into herself.  She was fascinated by the extra two legs I was using, constantly bumping my crutches as I walked.  I didn’t discipline her, because she wasn’t bumping the crutches hard enough to unbalance me, just touching them as they hit the ground, and then hopping away when I lifted them again.

“You’re a little troublemaker, aren’t you?” I said in a playful voice as she leapt backwards about a quarter-meter, landing in front of me after nose-bumping my crutches again.

Since I was looking at her while speaking, Speedy tilted her head slightly in obvious confusion, parsing the sounds I’d made for commands.

“Yes, you.” I said in her direction as I swung my crutches forward again and planted them.

Speedy looked at me, clearly puzzled.  When the crutches moved again, she shook her head and hopped forward, tapping the crutches again with her snout as they hit the ground.  The game continued all the way to the carriage, much to my amusement.

The guards in the wagon park also got a good chuckle watching Speedy’s antics.  “How big will they get, Allen?” Gloria asked.  Veta showed some interest too.  The two guards and I had finally traded names that morning.

“Hmm, the two biggest ones are male, fully grown.  Boars of this breed can get bigger, but usually not much bigger.  The biggest male I’ve seen that we didn’t cull early was about half again their size, and he didn’t grow fast to start, he just kept growing.”  I paused.  “These two mass almost twice as much as a big man.  The biggest four of the remaining nine are full-grown females.” I pointed out the four biggest sows.  “Sows with genetics we want can occasionally get bigger, but not by a whole lot.  If they grow too fast, we cull them unless they are exceptionally clever or tractable.  We’ve never kept a sow even close to the size of a normal adult male like Hoss or Bigboy there.”

The two boars snorted and turned, looking up at me as I spoke their names.  After about three seconds of me not giving commands, they started snuffling around and eating grass.  They would start rooting soon.  “I’d love to stop and talk, but I need to get them under the carriage before they start rooting too much.  I’d rather not be responsible for any broken ankles.”

“Do they make good pets?”  Veta asked as I hobbled away on the too-short crutches.

“Sure, the sows do.  Not so much the boars unless you can keep them outdoors after they get to about six months old.  My family sells some every year to people that keep them indoors like household dogs.  Sometimes they are sold as long-term pets.  Most people buy them to convert kitchen and table scraps into meat.  I can talk to you about them later if you like, and show you how leash-obedient they can be.”  I shrugged.  “For now, I have to go teach some people how to use tools.”

Gloria and Veta watched as I walked towards my carriage, chuckling and talking to each other as Speedy kept playing with the crutches.

I wonder if we could make more sales of swine as novelty pets if we had Abe and Molly take well-trained little ones like Speedy on walks in town when Ma and Pa went for supplies.  I made a mental note to pass that idea on to the family.

I settled the swine under the carriage without difficulty.  Even though my swine could handle heat better than larger farm pigs, they still preferred to nap in the shade in the middle of the day.  The underside of the carriage was a place they wanted to be.

**

Training with axes, adzes, and wedges went well.  Almost everyone picked up the basics of use, safety, and maintenance quickly.  It wasn’t organic chemistry, and even the slower people didn’t need many things explained twice.  Learning to use the tools efficiently was a different story.  I was satisfied with safety first.  Efficiency would handle itself in time.

By the time I had taught everyone sent to me how to use basic woodcutting tools safely, our lunchtime beans and rice were ready.  I needed to talk to the officers about marking the trees that could provide forage.  I also wanted to talk about what Rikard had done the day before, in town, but that would probably have to wait.  Doctor Sven knew the officers better than I did, so consulting him first about Rikard made sense.  I didn’t want to sound like a complainer, and he might be able to help me figure out a safe way to make sure that Rikard and I crossed paths as little as possible without seeming like I was trying to game the system somehow.

I got to the front of the line to get my bowl of rice and beans, and realized there was a problem.  I had two crutches.  I had two hands.  The wooden bowl was not small enough to grip in my teeth, though I considered it.

The cook stared at me briefly, with my bowl in his hands, and chuckled.  “Can someone help this fellow carry his bowl?”

A few feet behind me, I heard a familiar voice laugh.  “I will.  Step aside for a bit, Allen.  I’ll get both of our bowls when it’s my turn in line.”  Anu’s voice.  I stepped aside, and a couple minutes later, I was crutching along beside Anu, going towards the officer’s tent.

She looked a bit uncomfortable.  “I don’t have much time to eat, Allen.  The mahouts are teaching us to control how trees fall with ropes, and how to judge the best way to make a tree fall so the elefants can drag them back to camp.  I’m expected back soon.”

“Understood, Anu, I need to talk to the officers about something though.  We need to protect the trees that can provide forage through the fall.  If there’s a line, I’ll just sit somewhere and eat beforehand.”

There was a line, so Anu and I sat on the ground near the end of the line and ate.

“You know” Anu started, “The mahouts say that the elefants will get upset and intentionally work slower if the trees fall wrong on the terrain.”  She paused.  “That just doesn’t sound like it’s possible.”

I sighed inwardly at that, before answering.  “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”  I paused for a moment and let a little wave of jealousy for the mahouts pass through me.  “I’ve worked with Teak before, as community service.  Not directly giving her commands, but I’ve worked around her and interacted with her.  There were times when I thought she was smarter than some people I know.  She did forestry labor for decades before she retired.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she gets a bit upset when things aren’t done the way she expects them to be done.”

Anu was silent, steadily scooping her rice and beans into her mouth with the folded piece of corn husk she was using as a spoon.  Strangely, the militia equipment didn’t include spoons.  I’d eaten with my fingers the night before, but I had been too hungry to really be concerned about it.

I looked at the folded piece of husk in my own hand and realized that I should probably carve myself a spoon, or I’d be eating with my fingers soon.  The husks probably came from the animal fodder wagons, and weren’t very durable, nor were they sanitary for multiple uses.

After a couple seconds of silence, Anu spoke again.  “The elefants look almost eager to work.  They eat all the time, but as they are chewing, we can see they are staring at us while we learn to set up the ropes and chop the trees.”

I smiled to myself, and perhaps a little outwardly as well, since Anu smiled back.  “I bet they miss it.  They did it for so long.  Draft horses seem to enjoy working if they are in good health; I got the sense that Teak did too.  It’s a bit harder to tell though.  Elefants don’t prance.”  I had a bit of an unpleasant thought, and frowned.  “I hope they are careful.  The mahouts, I mean.  Teak and the other two elefants are retired, they might hurt themselves.”

Nodding at me, Anu smiled.  “Someone asked that already.  The mahouts weren’t worried.  They said the elefants would only pull the trees, not lift them.  They also said that a full six-wheeled wagon with water and a load of sand and stone is harder to pull than most of the trees we have around here, provided that the stump end of the tree is tapered.”

That made sense to me.  We ate in silence for a few more seconds.

“Are they feeding you enough?”  I asked, looking at her bowl.  When she had offered me the fuller bowl after I sat, I’d taken the less full one instead.

She nodded, hesitantly.  “I’ll lose mass, but I have mass to lose.  Being hungry is something I’m used to because of how I train.  I can lose twenty kilos and be fine.  Thirty would put me at competition mass, but without the right diet, some of what I lose will be muscle.”  She poked at her food briefly, and then started eating again.

After a moment, she continued speaking.  “How about that leg of yours?  You’re walking on it so it can’t be that bad, but how bad is it?”

I poked absent-mindedly at my bowl of rice and beans.  “It’s just a bad bruise, at least that’s what the doctor thinks.  Tomorrow we’ll try soaking it in hot water.  If there’s no worsening, I’ll be soaking it a lot more.  I should be off crutches in a few days at most, I hope.”

When we both finished, Anu stood and took my bowl before offering me a hand up.

I accepted and she pulled me to my feet with an ease that amazed me again, despite my memories of what I’d seen her do the night before.

“I’ll take your bowl back to the cooks, Allen.”

“Thanks, Anu, I appreciate that.”  Leaning onto my right crutch, I plucked the piece of folded husk out of her fingers.  “No need to find a place to throw that away, the swine will be happy to take care of it.”

We waved a brief goodbye as Anu walked back to the cooking area, and I got in line behind a half a dozen people waiting to speak with Lieutenant Davis and Doctor Sven, who were sitting at a small wooden table, listening to each person who approached.

All of the people in front of me were middle-aged or older.  Some of them were asking for labor to help them set up their facilities.  Others poked the drawing and indicating that they would rather have their facilities in a different place.  Two of them, stone carvers, were upset because they were being put in the same facility, and they didn’t want the other to see their trade secrets.  They didn’t sound cross with one another, they just didn’t want to be in the same facility.

Lieutenant Davis handled most of the discussions, but on two occasions, Doctor Sven spoke when there was a sanitation or water supply issue involved.  A tanner managed to get the planned position of his facility moved south by about half a kilometer.  Nobody else was having any luck getting plans altered.

Doctor Sven looked up at us as I approached, and frowned slightly.  “Allen, I’ll be done here in a few minutes, and will be able to change your poultice then.”

“It’s not about that, sir.  I came about something else.”

Doctor Sven gave me a sharp look.  “About what happened in town before we left?”

“No, sir.  I don’t think that would be good to discuss in the open.”

Doctor Sven relaxed.  Lieutenant Davis looked at Doctor Sven and then back at me, nodding.  “Spit it out then.  People behind you need our time too.”

“Yes, sir.  A lot of people in camp don’t know what trees will produce edible forage.  I think we need to mark those trees so they won’t get cut or damaged unless absolutely necessary.  There are plenty of non-forage trees for firewood and building.”

Lieutenant Davis looked up at me for a second, thinking, and then nodded.  “Good idea.  Get with Quartermaster Brown and handle it.  I’m sure he’ll see it as a good idea, but if he doesn’t agree, don’t argue, just come back to me and tell me.”  He paused.  “Next time you have a food or materials related question, go to Quartermaster Brown before me.  You’d probably already be in the forest marking trees if you’d gone to him first.”

“Yes, sir.”  I left and hobbled my way over to the wagon park, following the occasional sounds of the quartermaster’s voice.  As I got closer, I just followed the people running towards the wagon park carrying papers, and tried to mostly stay out of the way of people with papers, bags, and crates that were coming the other way.

I got into another line.  This line was moving quickly.  The quartermaster was seated inside a wagon that had a desk built into it.  People were walking up and handing him papers.  He would look at the papers, mark them, and then call a receipt number before starting to call the names of people, names of items, and quantities.  Every now and then, he would consult a chart on the wall next to his desk.  Once, I saw him get up and get an item himself, from behind his desk.  After he stopped yelling out an order of materials, he would grab a sheet of paper from a stack and begin writing at a mad pace.  Shortly after that, he would hand what he’d written to the person in front of him.

There were about two dozen wagons parked next to the road, forming one entire side of the wagon park, facing the road.  As each person received their paper from the quartermaster in exchange for the paper they handed him, they would go from wagon to wagon, being handed items.  Each time they were handed an item, the person in the wagon wrote on the paper, and the person picking up items wrote on the paper as well.  It was a fairly smooth operation, it seemed.  Occasionally, someone would yell for a correction or a check on a receipt number and the quartermaster would dig through his pile, check a paper, and call out instructions again.

When it was my turn, Quartermaster Brown looked at me.  “Requisition?”

“I…”  I paused.  “I don’t have one.  I’d like to mark nearby trees that can provide edible forage, so we don’t cut them down before we can get a harvest from them, sir.”

Quartermaster Brown stared at me for about three seconds.  “You can identify the trees accurately?”

I nodded.  “Yes sir.  I know my trees.”

“Done.  You’ve got a job.”  He looked down, probably at my leg since the pants leg was rolled up to help the bandage breathe a bit.  “You’re the boy with the pigs, right?”

Swine.  I thought, but didn’t say.

Instead, I said “Yes, sir.”

“You can move around in the woods on that leg?”

“Yes sir, not quickly, but I could mark nearby trees.”

He picked up a piece of paper, and started yelling as he wrote on it.  “Receipt two-twenty-eight.  Karl, light hemp twine, small bale.  Zana, red ribbon, small spool.”  He looked down at me.  “You got a knife, son?”

“Yes, sir.” I replied, half-mesmerized by how fast he was writing, his pencil scribbling at a furious pace.

With a flourish, he finished writing and handed me the page.  “Here you go then.  After you collect the ribbon and twine, go find all three mahouts and tell them you will be marking trees for them to avoid cutting.  Show them how you plan to mark the trees and ask them to make sure that all the loggers know the markings.  Show them this receipt; it has your orders on it too.  When you’re done marking what you can today, bring the leftover twine and ribbon back.”

“Yes, sir.”  I looked down at the sheet I saw a receipt number, the list of materials, and the names of the mahouts.  Below that were instructions for me to mark trees that could provide edibles for humans, and advisements to the mahouts that trees marked by me were not to be cut.  If possible, said trees were to also be protected from damage by other falling trees.

The quartermaster looked up from furiously scribbling on another sheet of paper.  “Don’t just stand there, son, move!”  He paused.  “As fast as you can on the crutches anyway.”  Looking down he continued to write as I walked down the line of wagons to collect the twine and ribbon.  Behind me, I heard the quartermaster tell the next person in line behind me to wait a moment for him to finish duplicating my request.

From there, I crutched to my carriage.  Doctor Sven wasn’t there, so I continued towards the officer’s tent.  The doctor saw me coming as I approached and tapped Lieutenant Davis on the arm.  They spoke briefly, quietly, and then the doctor stood, picking up his first aid kit from a stool next to him and walking quickly to me.  “Let’s make this quick.  The captain wants to have an all officer’s meeting soon.  Lieutenant Baker is in consultation with him now.”

Doctor Sven poked and prodded my leg again, found nothing worrisome, and the poultice was replaced.  There wasn’t any small talk this time.  He worked quickly and packed his bag with careful haste before telling me to make sure to be at my carriage at dark for another changing.  After giving me my instructions, he walked rapidly back to the officer’s tent.

I considered letting the swine out and having them follow me around, but decided against it; they had already rooted out the grass under the carriage and seemed content to lay there.  I’d move a little faster without Speedy playing with my crutches anyway.

Finding the elefants and loggers was very simple.  The loggers made lots of noise, and the elefants were immense, impossible to miss in the old growth forest.  The mahouts gave me no problems with the orders.  Donal knew me, and the other two, Keef and Nana, were nice enough.  They immediately understood and agreed with preserving the trees that could help feed us.  There were apparently similar policies in place in New Ecuador, where all three of them had come from, to preserve immature and fruit-bearing trees.  I showed them the twine and red ribbon, and gave them each a sample of both so they could show it to the loggers.

Then I started a circuit of the camp, concentrating on the areas I could remember from the diagram of the planned facilities that had been in front of Lieutenant Davis.  There were persimmons in a few places alongside the road, with very immature fruit.  The locusts had done a good bit of damage to their leaves, but the fruits seemed mostly untouched.  Almost nothing would eat a hard green persimmon.

In the nearby forest, I found a lot of oaks, mostly red and white.  There were some walnut trees, even a couple pecan trees.  I also found what looked to be an ancient pear orchard, but I only saw a couple trees with more than a handful of immature pears.  The trees were ancient and nearly dead, shaded out by much taller and leafier trees that had grown around them.  I marked the pear trees that were actually bearing fruit.

I even found about a hundred maple trees in a stand that had clearly been planted intentionally.  Four straight rows of about twenty-five trees remained.  There had once been around two hundred, it looked like, but many were missing.  The old maples that remained were shading out almost everything trying to grow under them.

After seeing how many trees were missing from the maple stand, I realized that there weren’t many downed trees in the forest.  The nearby farms were obviously harvesting deadfall in this area, much as my family did in the bit of unclaimed land we bordered on.  The nearest farm I could remember seeing evidence of was at least three kilometers south though.  After a few seconds thinking about it, I decided that the nearby farm was likely making charcoal, lye, or perhaps they had a small lumber mill if there was a river tributary that they could harness for power.

I turned my attention back to the maples.  Maples were uncommon this far south, and Granpa had mentioned once that he’d looked into it, and the two fairly small ones we had near the farm were not worth tapping for the little bit of syrup we’d get from them.  Since my family had never done it, I didn’t know how to tap them for sap to make syrup, but someone in camp might.

After about two hours, I’d carefully crutched my way through the area I knew would be under development for the camp.  I headed back to get my sounder, so I could take them out again to feed them.  I had also found a clearing with a lot of large, burnt stumps.  The clearing had heavy blackberry growths, but they had been picked through fairly thoroughly by animals.  There were a lot of unripe berries though, so if we got a human presence into the clearing and chased off the wildlife, we would get a decent harvest of blackberries in the next few weeks.

As I crutched back into camp towards the wagon park, I noticed a dozen or so very dirty men and women tending some tired-looking horses. They all had bows.  I was almost certain they were scouts before I got close enough to recognize any of them.  If I remembered right, there were supposed to be about twenty scouts, so this would be a bit more than half of them.  I needed to talk to Riko in any case.  I’d had an idea, and wanted his input.

I approached the scouts and asked if Riko was in camp.  They said he was, but had gone to the officer’s meeting with Lieutenant Baker.  They were busy tending to animals that needed a lot of tending, so I didn’t pester them with questions.  I did let them know that they might want to bring their own spoons to dinner, if they had them.

That got a couple chuckles, and a couple genuine thanks.  Eating with improvised tableware was annoying.  At the very least, they could probably carve something out of a branch before they got a bowl in their hands.  I would also try to find time to do the same.  Based on how many oak and nut trees I was finding, I was fairly sure I would run out of ribbon before dark.  If I did, I would stop and carve a couple spoons when I found a spot for the swine to settle in for a good feed.

I really needed to talk to Riko, but I couldn’t just wait around for him to come out of the officer’s meeting.  At the same time, there was absolutely no way I was going to barge in on the officers to ask to talk to Riko about something personal.  The officer’s tent had guards like the wagon park did, so I wouldn’t even be allowed to try – even if I were foolish enough to want to.  I did check if the guards knew how long the meeting would last, and they said no.

Since I didn’t know when Riko would be available, I ended up taking my swine out without seeing him.  I wasn’t too far from the clearing I’d found when I finally ran out of ribbon, so I returned to it and let the swine start to root.  I actively worked to keep them away from the blackberries.  Swine could survive on a grass and turf diet; it just took more time eating to keep them at a healthy weight.

After settling the swine in the middle of the clearing, I walked around it’s borders, rubbing my hands on trees and blackberry leaves in order to put a strong human scent all around the area.  The scent by itself would discourage wild animals from grazing on the blackberries.  I would also point hunters in this direction.  The deer and turkey sign were heavy.  A couple kills in the area, and the scent of multiple humans and animal blood would have most herbivores moving away.  Carnivores and omnivores would be a different story, but hunters could handle them as well, if needed.

Immediately after marking the clearing perimeter with my scent, I broke off a few branches and returned to the center of the clearing, found a rock to sit on, and started whittling spoons.  It got me off my feet, was somewhat relaxing, and simple enough that I could keep an eye on the swine while I also made plans for the future.

The clearing would be where I’d feed the swine when I wasn’t actively foraging.  If I was in a hurry to get them fed, I’d lead the swine to acorns instead.  Swine could survive fine on grazing and rooting in grass.  Humans typically didn’t eat acorns, but if they were prepared right to remove tannins, acorn meal could be used as a decent flour substitute.  Most of the other farm folk doubtlessly knew how to prepare acorns too, even if it wasn’t a favorite food of most people.  The tanner would even be able to use the tannin from the acorn-soaking water in the leather treatment process once his shop was set up to process the hides of game animals that were hunted.

All in all, I felt pretty good about being able to forage well in the nearby forest.  The problem was that there were so many people.  We were up to at least three hundred now, and from what the doctor had said over the last two days, there would be almost that many more before this road encampment was completed.  Six hundred people was far too many to support from forest mast without a vast area to forage in, and we only had this side of the river to forage in with the bridge dismantled.  Our required travel distance for foraging would be absurd for a single staging point.  We would need to set up storage waypoints for forage, or even multiple foraging camps.  I hoped someone else had brought this up, but that would be something to mention to Riko or Doctor Sven, to see if they knew if it had been brought up.  If not, I’d take it to Quartermaster Brown.

When I noticed the shadows were growing long and the light in the clearing was starting to grey a bit, I called the swine together and started crutching back to the road.  I had made a half dozen spoons while my swine foraged, so even when idle, I’d been doing something useful.  I would have preferred to have been gathering forage myself, but with my leg being what it was, I didn’t want to do that until the doctor was no longer concerned about it.

I coaxed my swine under the carriage and made sure they were settling in before going to see if I could find Anu or Riko, or both of them.  I found Anu first, and gave her a spoon, which she greatly appreciated.  Anu invited me to eat with her and a couple others.  I agreed, and she carried my bowl of beans and rice to where we met with Kelvin, Sara, and Ely.  They had all four been training with the mahouts, and had successfully felled a few trees.  There had been a few incidents with hornets and wasps that left everyone on the lumbering team a bit itchy and sore, and they all had pretty ugly looking blisters on their hands.

When Kelvin and Ely complained about their hands, I told them they would form callus fairly quickly and their hands would no longer hurt.  Anu and Sara nodded knowingly, but the two men looked at me like I was crazy.  I let them see my hands up close.  Sara leaned in to look, and nodded, commenting that her hands were soft right now because her work on the farm for the last couple years had been milking cows and tending chickens – work that didn’t create heavy callus.  She also made a slightly off-color comment about how the cows didn’t much appreciate rough, callused hands, so she moisturized her hands with the same soap that she made her husband use.

I made a note of that.  The idea had never crossed my mind before – I would definitely need to talk to Marza about it.  Judging from Pa’s hands, and the existence of myself and my siblings, not all women were like Sara in that regard.  My mind started going into directions of thought that I preferred to avoid when it came to my parents, so I shook my head while trying to drop the line of thought.  I knew I was probably blushing a bit, but everyone was laughing, so I didn’t feel too noticeable.

After the laughs died down, Anu mentioned that she got calluses from her exercises, but it had been the off-season for several months.  At the same time, she was highly unhappy with the idea of developing calluses like mine.  Kelvin and Ely, both city-dwellers without much experience working with their hands, were surprised that human skin could build up such a heavy protective layer, and wanted to know if they could make it build up faster.  I told them to talk to the quartermaster and see if they had brought enough salt to make supersaturated saltwater.  It would burn blisters like mad, but it would dramatically increase the speed of callus formation.

Several nearby folks had been listening in after they overheard us talking, and a general chat developed between the people familiar with manual labor, and those not, explaining about how to encourage or prevent callus.  Once that conversation got started around the cook fires, it got a life of its own, and our group didn’t have to contribute any longer, though I got poked a couple times and asked to show my calluses.  I didn’t really mind – I could see a few others showing people their hands, almost certainly doing the same thing.  It was weird, but it seemed to relax some people with pretty serious blisters, helping them realize they would eventually not be in so much pain.

They will curse me when they put those blistered hands in salt water though, if the quartermaster has enough to spare, I thought with some amusement.

After the five of us had finished eating, the others left to see if they could get salt from the quartermaster.  Anu took my bowl again, and all four of them thanked me for the spoons.  I nodded and told them to let me know if they broke theirs, and I could make them another, or maybe teach them how to make one of their own, if they had a good glass knife.

It felt decidedly weird to be talking so freely with people I didn’t really know.  I didn’t really mind, but it just felt odd.  The other four didn’t seem bothered by it at all, even though it was obvious they were strangers to one another.  For a couple minutes I thought about it, but then realized that I didn’t really care that it felt odd to talk to others like that.

I shrugged and carefully got myself to my feet and crutched around, looking for the scouts.  I found them, all together, including Riko.

As I approached, Riko spotted me and called out.  “I heard that you saved us from eating with our fingers or having to walk back and forth to the horse lines for spoons, Allen, thank you.”  He chuckled and looked around at the other scouts.  “Allen here plans to be my son-by-marriage if things stay sunny-side-up.”

Nodding, I said “No problem, glad I could help.  After you eat though, I’d like to talk to you about something private, Mr. Gonzalez, if you would.”

Riko looked up at me with a bit of an odd expression, but didn’t say anything.  I was fairly certain it wasn’t because I’d called him Mr. Gonzalez.  He probably wouldn’t want me to call him Riko in front of the other scouts since he was a sergeant.

Sergeant Gonzalez.  I wanted to slap myself in the head, but didn’t.  That would just make it worse.

I shrugged.  “Not now, sergeant.  My carriage is in the wagon park, and I have to go meet Doctor Sven to put another poultice on this leg.  If the guards at the wagon park won’t let you in…”

“They will let me into the wagon park, Allen.  I’ll come talk to you later.  Go get Doctor Sven to look at that leg again.”  He paused.  “I want to hear your story about the snake and I bet these ladies and gentlemen would as well.  What we did hear through the grapevine sounded like a real heart spike moment.”

“Definitely wasn’t anything I could sleep through, that’s for certain.”  There were chuckles and nods from several scouts.  “I can tell you about it later if you like.  Doctor Sven might already be looking for me, and I’d rather not keep him waiting.” I managed to say all of that without sounding too foolish, I was fairly confident.

There were more chuckles from the gathered scouts, and Riko waved me away “Go. Don’t waste time here.  There will be plenty of time for stories later.”

I went to my carriage, lit the carriage lantern, and started cleaning and oiling swine harnesses.  Doctor Sven arrived at my carriage a few minutes later, and I put the harness aside.  After a lot of poking and prodding that was still very painful, but not terrible, a new poultice was put on my leg.  We made an arrangement for a short hot soak in the morning, and a new poultice.

I resumed servicing the harnesses.  A few minutes later, Riko showed up.  “What did you need to speak to me about, Allen?”  He seemed a little wary for some reason.

I smiled at him.  “Well, Riko, I know that you and my Granpa have been discussing land in this area as a place for Marza and me to settle at first, since it was undeveloped and currently unclaimed.  I’ve been scouting the woods today, marking trees we can get forage from, so they won’t get cut down for lumber or firewood.  While doing that, I’ve been looking at the lay of the land and I really like the west side of the road.”

Riko nodded.  “This area is one of the better spots, land-wise.  Good farmland.  Close to water, with no real chance of flooding due to the embankment.  It’s pretty far from anything though.  You won’t have much work for your swine other than your own farm.  Shipping crops out will be a bit more expensive too.  The river’s not navigable.”

Nodding in agreement, I couldn’t help but grin.  I started speaking softly, under my breath, so that not even the nearby guards could hear.  “Remember the part of the plan where Marza and I would probably need to spend a couple years clearing lumber and establishing fields before reselling the land to someone else for a modest profit?”

“Yes, of course.”  Riko answered, also speaking quietly.  Then he stiffened, and looked around.  A moment later, he started to laugh.  Then he whispered back to me.  “I see.  I’m guessing that you want to have us claim this land for you, since the militia’s going to do a whole lot of woodcutting for you?”

“That’d be nice, sir.  I was hoping you might be able to send a post to my Granpa and make the land claim for Marza and I before anyone else gets any ideas.  If you know anyone else who might be looking for a place, the east side of the road isn’t bad either.”  I knew the Gonzalez farm would probably be shedding at least two more married couples over the next couple years.  Marza might end up having some of her family close after all, and having four people on two farms was a lot more productive than having two on one farm.  Infrastructure building was always very labor intensive, and would consume an absurd amount of available work time on a new farm with no infrastructure.  There was no telling what the neighbors here might be like, other than the fact that they did a good job keeping the forest free of deadfalls.  I couldn’t count on their help.

Riko slapped me on the back, hard enough that I almost stumbled, startling me out of my daydreaming.  When I almost fell over, he said “Oh, sorry, Allen.” and gripped my shoulder, helping me regain my balance.  “Good call on this though.  I’ll get the letter to my wife and your granpa in the mail box tonight.”

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Chapter 14

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We met the search party not much more than a half kilometer from camp.  There were three people in the party.  I recognized all of them by lantern light, but I only knew Emerald by name.

As they approached, the woman held the lantern a bit higher and called out “Allen, Anu, is that you?”

Anu called out.  “Yes, Sara, Allen got a little banged up, he’ll need to see the doctor when we get back to camp.”

I recognized Sara as the woman who had been partnered with the dark-haired man as they carried saplings back to camp.  The dark-haired man that had been with Sara earlier was there too.  Emerald was also with them.

As they approached, the three of them slowed from a rapid walk to a stop. Then they turned around and started walking next to us on the road.  Sara was carefully carrying a glass alcohol lantern with a heavy leather glove.  She and Emerald had both very obviously looked towards my right leg as they approached, watching my limping gait.  My right hand was on top of Anu’s left shoulder and my left hand holding the reins for the boars.  After watching me walk, Sara looked a bit concerned.  Emerald didn’t look concerned at all.

The dark-haired man asked, “Are you OK?”

Sara and Emerald both looked at him with a sharp glance.  It was certainly clear to both them that I wasn’t OK, but it was also pretty obvious that I wasn’t in terribly bad condition.  The two of them looked back at me.  Sara with a bit of an apologetic look, and Emerald a little warily.

I was irritated that he had asked.  I wouldn’t be walking on it so easily if it was serious, but I could see from his expression that he really was concerned, so I bit back the smart comment.

After a second to make sure I was calm, I nodded, and then spoke.  “Not quite OK, but not bad.  Ran into a rattlesnake while climbing over roadside rocks.  Sprained my left wrist and a bit of a sore shoulder.  One of my swine stepped on my calf in the chaos, but I don’t think it broke or tore anything.  My knee and ankle feel fine.  It’s going to be a fantastic bruise though, I bet.”

Sara and Emerald both nodded.  The dark-haired man nodded too, after a moment eying the swine.  Being stepped on by farm animals happened often enough that everyone who grew up on a farm knew it was no laughing matter.  Just looking at the small hooved feet of swine, as the dark-haired man had clearly just done, would tell anyone with any common sense that my getting away without broken bones or torn muscles was fortunate.

“Are we the only ones still not back?”  I asked.

Emerald answered that.  “No, there were others.  Not many dogs handy for tracking.  Ely, Sara, and I remembered seeing you.  Sara and Ely knew where Anu had been cutting.  We were told to try to find you.”  Each sentence was short and to the point.

It had been a little too tense of a meeting for everyone to be introduced properly, but thanks to Emerald’s statements, I knew everyone’s name, at least.  “Thank you for coming to find us Emerald, Sara, Ely.  We don’t plan on stopping again, and I don’t think I’m much of a burden to Anu like this.”

Anu chuckled, her shoulder heaving a bit under my supporting hand.  After a couple chuckles, she spoke.  “Hardly.”

I smiled at Anu’s reaction and then addressed Emerald, who seemed to be in charge.  Or maybe he had simply taken charge?  The other two didn’t seem upset with him.  “Please go back and let whoever sent you know that Anu and I will be back in a few minutes.  I’d also appreciate it if you tell the doctor that I’ll need a check on my calf and a poultice for a nasty bruise; it’s already tight inside the leg of my pants.”

Emerald nodded and said “Yes, to both.” before he turned and started walking quickly back towards the camp.  The other two just stared at his back for a second, looked back at Anu and I, and then followed after Emerald, jogging to catch up, then matching his pace.

A few minutes later, we were back in camp, next to Happy’s six-wheeled wagon at the side of the road.  There were two piles of saplings next to the wagon; one pile consisted of ash saplings of the three-meter length that had been asked for.  The other pile was clearly for rejects – different types of trees mostly, but some too short and others that were obviously damaged.  There were a lot of rejects.

I quickly unhitched the boars and gave them treats for their work in harness.  I tried to help Anu untie the bundle of ash saplings and the two axes we’d tied onto the bundle, but she waved me off as she knelt by the pile.  “Go put your swine away and find the doctor to look at your leg.  I’ll bring the straps to your carriage shortly.”

Nodding, I agreed with her.  “I will, thank you.  The guards won’t let you into my carriage because it has medical supplies in it.  They may not even let you close to it.  If that’s the case, ask them to put the straps on the carriage bench if you don’t see me.”

“OK” Anu nodded, as she kneeled down and started untying the straps around the saplings.

As I walked slowly towards my carriage to put away the swine, I struggled a bit on my right leg.  I was using the shortened sapling I’d cut into a chest pole for the boar harness as a cane.  The swelling in my calf was now constricting my leg in my pants tightly enough that I could feel every beat of my pulse.  I would probably have to cut my pants from the knee down to get them off.

I saw Quartermaster Brown and Lieutenant Davis appear from the officer’s tent, walking towards me.

“I told you we needed to send them out in mixed groups of rural and non-rural people!” The quartermaster said in an exasperated tone.  “Almost a third of the saplings brought back are useless.  We’ve got five lost in the woods, and we’ll have to send people out to collect more ash saplings tomorrow as well, instead of edible forage!”

By the time Quartermaster Brown finished speaking, the fast-walking officers were no more than a few feet from me, and I was edging towards the side a bit to give them room to pass, watching my swine by the lights of all the nearby campfires to make sure they stayed near me and didn’t get too much in the way of the officers.

Lieutenant Davis looked at me, and then his head turned to look beyond me towards where Anu was.  “Three.”

“Three what?”  The quartermaster asked with a puzzled look.

The lieutenant nodded at me as they walked past.  “Welcome back, Allen.  Emerald said that you and Anu were bringing a lot of extra saplings with you, and that they all appeared to be ash.  That will be useful.”  He looked away from me, towards the quartermaster.  “The two that were found slowly walking back are here now.  This is Allen.  I think I see Anu now, at the sapling piles.  That is Anu, right, Allen?”

I nodded at the two of them.  “Good night, sirs.  Yes, Anu is at Happy’s wagon.  Have you seen Doctor Sven?  I need him to look at my leg.”

Lieutenant Davis nodded.  “Emerald told us.  Doctor Sven said you would be headed to your carriage with your swine if you could walk, and he’d meet you there.  He left the officer’s tent shortly before we did.”

“Thank you, sir.” I responded with a nod of my head.

We passed each other, and the quartermaster called out.  “Anu, don’t sort those yet.  I have to look at them.”

I heard Anu call back “Understood.  Leave them?  I have two axes to return as well.”

“No, we’ll be there shortly.”

Behind me, I heard Lieutenant Davis sigh.  “I grant that you were right before.  The captain and I both came from a rural background.  It’s hard to know what other people don’t know.”

“I told you what they wouldn’t know, because I didn’t know it?”  The quartermaster objected.

I did my best to not laugh, and was very glad I hadn’t heard the quartermaster say that when the lieutenant could see my face.

In a tired-sounding voice, the lieutenant responded again.  “You were right, Paul.  Sorry.  Like Captain Marko said, we’ll start sending them out in mixed groups from now on.”

I walked past a few wagons and saw my carriage.  Someone was sitting in the open door of the carriage.  I could see their feet below the door, even though the door blocked my view of the rest of their body.  It was almost certainly Doctor Sven.

As I walked by the wagons with my attention focused on the carriage, someone said “stop” from about three feet to my left.  I was startled enough to hop a bit to one side, which hurt.  A lot.  Worse, I lost my grip on the chest pole.  There was an irritated grunt and the sound of snuffling as the pole apparently fell on one of my swine, who then checked to see if it was edible.

“Jumpy, are you?” The guard chuckled as she looked at my face.  “Sorry to make you hop, Allen, I just needed to be sure it was you.”

“No harm done.”  I smiled.  “Don’t do that to Doctor Sven though.”

There was a cough from the carriage.  “My ears still work.”

“You know I’m right.  You’re no spring chicken.” I called back.

Doctor Sven chuckled, but didn’t say anything else.

I looked at the ground to see where the chest pole had fallen, and saw a long straight shadow about a meter from me, next to a wagon wheel.  Carefully, I put my right hand on the side of the wagon while bending my left knee to lower myself with my right leg held mostly straight behind me.  As my good left leg and right arm supported me, I tried to collect the pole with my left hand with the sprained wrist.

“That looks painful.  Want help?”  The guard commented.

A bit late, I thought to myself, but her voice seemed sincere and what I could see of her expression in the poor light looked a bit worried.

My hand gripped the pole, and I straightened, putting a lot of weight on my right arm.  “I have it.  Thanks for the offer.”

I thumped the pole on the ground, adjusted my grip, and walked towards my carriage while calling out.  “Let me get them settled under the carriage, Doctor.”

“OK, Allen.”

While I carefully leaned into the carriage with my right hip, I removed the harness from the boars, and put both sets in my pouch, making a mental note to inspect and clean them before sleeping.  Then I cajoled the swine under the carriage one at a time, counting heads, tapping them very lightly with the pole to guide them into the unfamiliar place.  Thankfully, there were eleven heads.

I carefully stabilized myself with my right hand against the carriage and used my left hand to insert the last four slats before turning to walk around the carriage, using the pole as a long cane.

“You’re walking awfully gingerly on that leg.  How much is pain, how much is caution?”  Doctor Sven had walked around the carriage and stood a few feet away, watching me.

I just looked at him for a second, trying to figure out if I needed to be annoyed at him.  I would have asked for help if I’d needed it.

“I wanted to see you walk, so walk.”  He rolled his hand in front of him impatiently.

Wanting to see me move made sense.  It was one way we judged livestock injury on the farm.  I shrugged and obeyed, walking carefully around the carriage.  “About half and half, Doctor.”  I answered him.  “It hurts, but some of the slowness is just me being careful.  It is swelling fairly badly, I can tell.  Earlier I checked for bleeding and there wasn’t any, but I haven’t seen the wound.”

“Well, we get to use your bed as a medical table before you get to sleep on it then.  See if you can get your pants off without needing to cut the fabric.  If you can’t, I’ll cut a seam for you as cleanly as I can so you can patch it up.”

Climbing into the carriage and past the centrifuge boxes hurt.  I had to walk in a crouch and carefully place my feet until I got to the bed, and that put a lot of strain on my calf.  I almost couldn’t do it, but made it happen anyway, with several curses under my breath.

I finally managed to get myself seated on the bed in the carriage and take the weight off my leg.  Unfortunately, my calf was jammed into my pants like an overstuffed sausage.  Trying to squeeze my calf with both hands to press out some of the swelling so I could get the leg out without cutting the pants wasn’t even a remote possibility.  Far too painful.  I finally gave up.  “I’ve got a sewing kit, sir.  Cut it, please.”

Doctor Sven had been standing outside, holding open the door of the carriage, watching me without entering.  After I asked him to cut open the leg of the pants, he nodded.  “Lay on your stomach, with your right leg closer to the door.”

“Yes, sir.”  I did as he asked, whistling and wheezing a couple times in pain as I bent my leg inside the tight pants leg.

The doctor leaned over and picked up two somethings.  A moment later, he tossed his pillow that he’d sat on earlier in the day at me.  “Hold this a minute.”

As he climbed in, I could see that he had a small leather bag in his hand.  His first aid kit bag.

“This won’t do”, he complained a moment after he stepped into the carriage, hunched over and looking at the centrifuge crates on the floor.

He climbed back out of the carriage and leaned in, lifting a centrifuge crate and setting it on the second crate that was right behind it.  Then he climbed in and picked up the crate again and put it on the crate next to the bed.  “Pick that up and put it on the bed, for now.” He ordered.  “I need a place to sit, and I don’t want to break an ankle.”

I sat up on the bed with more leg pain, picked up the crate with some effort, and then set it at one end of the bed, where my feet would be that night.  With as much swelling as I had in the leg already, I would be elevating my leg that night, so I was just getting ahead of the game.  I once again went through the contortions of lying on my stomach with my right side facing the door of the carriage, trying to avoid bending my leg.

I heard the swine underneath us grunting little noises of curiosity at the scrapes and bouncing of the carriage on its suspension.  I knocked on the wall of the carriage.  “Quiet.”  The swine settled.

Doctor Sven picked up the crate closer to me and set it on the one that had been in the middle.  “Pillow please.”  He gestured with his fingers and I handed him the pillow.

After putting the pillow on the stacked crates, Doctor Sven had his two-crate seat, and was leaning over, inspecting my pants, fingering the cloth and pulling the seams a bit apart.

“You know, I considered that I might have to use this carriage for first aid on the way to where we will be setting up permanent camp, but I was expecting to have a strong young back to help me arrange everything.”  He chuckled.  “That was supposed to be you.  And here you go ruining my plans by being the first injured person.”

“Sorry to interfere with your plans, sir.”  I said with a little chuckle.

He leaned over a bit and I heard him rummaging around in his bag, muttering to himself.  “Sailcloth pants with wool stitching.”  He looked at me with a nod.  “This will be simple.  I won’t damage the cloth at all.”

He lifted up a sheath, and pulled a glass knife out of it, checking the blade with his thumb.

He looked at me, and grinned.  “You won’t be seeing metal today, Allen, glass will cut stitches just fine.”

“I didn’t expect it, doctor.  I’ve seen metal before though.  Twice.”

“Really?  Tell me about it?” he said as he leaned over my leg with the glass knife.

We started talking back and forth.  I told him about what I remembered of Granpa’s lower leg amputation, and the ‘huge responsibility’ I’d been given to stand next to the kitchen entrance with a broom and poke anyone who got close to warn them about the tools being boiled.  I joked about how obviously it was just something to keep me out from underfoot, and the doctor seriously reminded me that keeping me out from underfoot was a very good idea at that age.

We both got quiet and the doctor kept cutting stitches out of the seam of the pants.  After a few seconds of silence, he spoke again.  “We don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.”  There was a slow caution in his voice.

“It was a long time ago, sir.  Granpa survived and is still alive and mobile on crutches.”

“A long time ago, you say?”  He chuckled.  “Doctor Pelter, was the town doctor, right?”

“Yes, sir.” I replied.

We continued with small talk for a while and after a couple minutes, the stitches had been picked, and the doctor was poking and prodding at my calf.

“Hrm.”  He said.  “You walked a kilometer on this?  Put weight on it repeatedly, not just hopping on your other leg?”

“Yes, sir.  You saw me walking.  It wasn’t that bad when I started, but the swelling made it worse over time.”

“I see.  It’s too swollen for me to properly feel both bones, but I’d still be able to feel a severe break.  Also, if you walked that far, the worst break I imagine you might have is a hairline.  We’ll assume that for treatment.”

“So, you said you have seen metal twice?  What was the second time?” he asked as he started to poke and prod at the bruise, as well as above and below it, making me hiss in pain.

“Yes, sir.  I noticed the other day that the Countyman’s glass ring of office has a thin band of metal inside it.  I’d never noticed that before.”

“It’s not glass; it’s a hardened plastic of some sort.  The band is a transmitter and receiver.  Albert gives them to all his officers.”  Doctor Sven started opening cabinets and I saw him pull out a couple large pots.  “Move over a bit, I need room to mix the poultice.”

I moved over and the doctor started mixing powders together.  I recognized the smell of comfrey, witch hazel, and garlic.

After a couple minutes, Doctor Sven had prepared the mixture, gathered the bandages out of his bag, and removed several more stitches from my pants so he could fold the fabric up above my knee.

“The swelling in your leg is bad, but not severe.  Your pants were a bit small on you.  That’s not uncommon at your age.”  He paused and looked at me with a small smile.  “As you get older the fitting problems with legwear migrate from the hem and calves to the waist.”  He chuckled.  “Still, I’m going to put you in a compression bandage and treat with a poultice of comfrey and witch hazel.”

“Will I be able to walk on it tomorrow?”  I asked.

“No, not easily.”  He paused.  “Actually, your granpa has been on crutches for many years?”

I nodded, “Yes sir.”

“No problem then.  I’ll get you a pair of crutches.  I know some were packed.  If you’ve lived with someone who had to use them, at your age, I know full well you also learned to get around on them.”  He paused and then grinned at me.  “Even if you were told not to touch them.”

I laughed.  “Zeke and I borrowed Granpa’s crutches all the time.  He eventually made us our own, so he wouldn’t want to go somewhere and have to hop on one leg.”  I shrugged.  “That never happened, we always practiced in his sight, but he…”  All of a sudden, I realized that Granpa had intentionally taught us how to use crutches.  He had been laughing at us and with us, but making us our own crutches was clearly an effort to teach a skill.

“You OK there, Allen?” Doctor Sven asked as he looked towards me.

I closed my mouth.  “I just realized that Granpa wasn’t just having fun with us when he made us our own crutches and had Zeke and I race each other on them.”  I responded while playing back a few memories in my head.

“Using fun to disguise teaching useful skills?  Sounds about right for a crafty old man.”  He chuckled.

Then he put a pressure bandage on my leg.  Things were not pleasant for a while, but the doctor did keep my mind occupied with stories about his youth on the ranch while it felt like he was twisting my leg off.

As he cleaned up, Doctor Sven started telling me what I needed to do and not do.  “Keep the leg elevated when you sleep.  For tonight, don’t take off your pants, just sleep in them.”  He stood and tossed his pillow onto the crate lying on my bed.  “I’ll want that back tomorrow, but you can use it tonight.  I have a sleeping pillow.”

I nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

He started holding fingers up in the air, straightening one at a time as he gave me instructions.  “Do not apply wet or dry heat to the leg today, or tomorrow, or the bruising might get worse.  Do not remove the bandage or poultice without my permission.  If the pain gets a little worse, that’s fine.  If it gets a lot worse, tell me.  Do you know what skin blanching is?”

“Subcutaneous blood flow indicator.”  I repeated from health class.  “Put pressure on light skin or a finger or toe nail and it should get a good bit lighter.  When pressure is released, the skin or nail will darken quickly back to its prior shade when pressure is released.”

The doctor nodded.  “Exactly.  If you start to feel pins-and-needles sensations in your lower leg, start trying to find me.  Also, if you get pins-and-needles check your foot in several places for blanching, and compare it to blanching on your other foot.  If the blanching test fails, you have my permission in advance to immediately cut off the bandage.  I’d rather have to replace the bandage than remove the leg below the knee.”

“Understood, sir.” I responded, nodding enthusiastically.

“I thought you might agree with me.” He commented with a smile.  “I’ll replace the poultice three times tomorrow, before we move, after we stop, and then again before bed.  The next morning, if it doesn’t get worse, I might decide to start putting a little bit of warmth on it for a few minutes and see how it reacts.  If there aren’t complications. After four days I’ll have you soaking it in warm water for an hour every morning and night and drinking willow bark tea.”

I nodded, but said nothing.

He continued.  “I want you to stay active if you can, since you can use crutches.  I’ll talk to the other officers and we’ll figure out something for you to do.”

“Oh, sir, I forgot this.  I reached into my pouch and pulled out the swine harness, carefully, and set it aside.  Then I pulled out the rattlesnake head.  I had checked after it was well and truly dead, and it no longer had fangs, having broken them off attacking the sapling I’d trapped it with.

“Ah, Emerald mentioned that there was a snake involved.  I see it didn’t get away.”  He paused, thinking.  “I don’t have the extra horses here to make antivenins.  There are some being sent that are already antivenin plasma producers, but they are a few days behind us.”  He paused and then curiously brushed his fingers against the edge of the stump at the back of the snake’s head, and a few grains of sand fell off.  “You carry sand in your bag?  Why?”

My mind raced and I looked at the snake’s head.  “I picked up a handful at the creek.  It’s an idea I want to talk to Lieutenant Davis about.”

There was a pause, and then Doctor Sven slapped his hands together.  “Well, if you toss that head on a campfire tomorrow for a few minutes and drag it out, it’ll be safe for your swine to eat.  After the breakfast cooking is done, of course.  You’d probably irritate the cook if you threw a snakehead in a cookfire when breakfast was being cooked.”

We both chuckled.

My stomach took that moment to make its displeasure known.  I hadn’t eaten much at all that day.  A good breakfast, the flatbread from Ma, and then some hardtack and dried fish that had been distributed while we were on the move.

Doctor Sven laughed at my stomach noises.  “I’ll have one of the wagon park guards bring you a meal.  You can move around if you have to, but I’d rather you not, at least until tomorrow morning.”  He pointed at the folded harness next to my pouch.  “That looks like it needs some cleaning before tomorrow.”

He was right.  I started cleaning the harness, and one of the guards later brought a bowl of lukewarm rice and beans that tasted burnt but was still edible.  After eating, I continued cleaning harness which had gotten bloody from the snake.  A little while after finishing that, one of the guards handed a ball of straps that I was told had been delivered by Anu.  She hadn’t been allowed access to the wagon park.

Except when I was eating, I stayed lying on my back with my right leg elevated on top of the pillowed crate.  After I finished the harness and checked the straps, I rearranged everything so I’d only have to set the pillowed crate on the floor to make the inside of the carriage ready for travel.

I was still a bit hungry and feeling sorry for myself, so I opened the bag of flatbreads Marza had made for me and picked one that looked like the wax was coming off on one corner.  They would keep a couple days without refrigeration, even unsealed, but it was best to eat the ones that might break seal first.

Blackberry and honey.  And something else.  I had to sniff several times and think before I recognized it.  Honeysuckle.  That brought back a lot of good memories of walking home from school in the fall with Marza, eating muscadines, blackberries, and honeysuckle as we alternately talked and teased each other.  As we got older there was a lot of kissing and handholding, and the occasional sneaking into the bushes for explorations that our parents would have neither appreciated nor been surprised by, but that we were careful not to take too far.

Those warm memories helped me ignore the dull thump of my pulse under the pressure bandage, and I slept.

**

Granpa kneeled down in front of the two of us.  Pa held each of us by one shoulder in front of him, my shoulder was at Pa’s hip, Zeke was a lot taller.

Granpa reached out a hand to each of our chins and held us firmly, but not painfully, staring us each in the eye in turn.  “I need you two to watch carefully, and not turn away.  Swine are obedient if trained well, and fed well, but if you aren’t giving them orders, or they aren’t fed, especially if they aren’t fed, they can hurt you, badly, fast.”

The swine had all been staring at us as we looked over the flat stone wall, making hungry noises.  Even then, I knew that they expected to be fed, and were irritated that they hadn’t been.  They were lined up a few feet from the fence, close to the feed trough.  Some of them were rooting around, but there wasn’t much to be found in this enclosure, it was normally used for farrowing, and hadn’t grown back yet after the prior winter.  Zeke and I had pulled out the old hay and bedding material the prior week and put it in the main house compost pit in the large swine holding enclosure.

Granpa picked up the front legs of the stillborn calf and Edward picked up the back legs.

“On the third forward swing, over the fence, Edward.” Granpa said.

Edward nodded, saying nothing.

They swung the corpse back and forth three times with Granpa counting, and after he said “three” they released the body and it went over the fence into the swine pen and flopped around on the ground.

The sows shied away from the body as it hit the ground, but the four adult boars were on top of it before it stopped moving.  Seconds later, the corpse was hidden by swine bodies.  About three minutes later, the boars and larger sows were carrying off bones.  Smaller sows and a couple immature boars were rooting around for leftover bits.

Zeke and I stood stock-still.

Granpa had been watching us watch the swine.  “Now you know why you never, ever forget to feed the swine, and never sleep on the ground around the farm.  If the swine get hungry enough, they will break conditioning and jump the fence.  They would have to be very hungry indeed to eat a live person, but you don’t want to be the rare example.”

I shot bolt upright in bed with a yell, my hands held over my face.  Something was biting my leg!  It hurt!  I started to swing my arms to drive off the swine that were eating me and then suddenly realized that I’d been having a nightmare.

I fell back into the thin mattress of the bed and heard the swine grunting below me, with undertones of curiosity and hunger.  The sound of swine making hungry noises when I was asleep explained the nightmare.

Granpa hadn’t warned me that this would happen, I thought, bitterly.

Stop being stupid, I thought to myself an instant later, realizing how absurd the prior thought had been.

My leg, no longer on the pillowed crate, was throbbing to my pulse, about a second per beat, rapidly slowing as I calmed down.

I could smell bread cooking, and no doubt the swine could too.  I hadn’t gotten any bread last night, and based on how burnt the rice and beans had tasted, I wasn’t sure if I was upset about that or not.  However, the swine would be upset if I didn’t get some sort of food into them.

I carefully, painfully, dragged myself into a seated position. It was still dark out, but the smell of fresh baking bread told me it probably wasn’t too long until dawn.  I poked at my leg in the dark, trying to check for numbness.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I wasn’t sure which, my calf wasn’t numb.  Each gentle pressure yielded a wincing pain.  I carefully put on my shirt, pouch, belt, swine treat bag, and moccasins before taking the crate off the bed and putting it on the floor, with the doctor’s pillow on top.  After that, I cautiously, painfully made my way across the carriage and out the door.

I pulled my staff out of the ceiling netting, and used it to support my weight as I looked around.  I had no idea where the jakes were, and I didn’t want to leave a surprise for anyone to step in.

A short time later, I had two ration loaves of wheat bread made with raisins and onions.  The tastes didn’t go well together, but I supposed that discouraging overeating might be part of the intent.  It really wasn’t that bad.

I was directed to the jakes and the washing station, and shortly afterwards managed to salvage the leftovers from the prior day for my swine.  The horses and elefants had refused to eat the burnt rice and beans when it had been offered to them.  The head cook had seen my swine and saved the leftovers, knowing from her experience working in an inn that swine didn’t care if food was burnt.  The city inns apparently sold all their kitchen wastes to pig farmers, and burnt food was no problem.

“Don’t expect to get this much waste often, Allen!” she admonished me.  “I’m not used to cooking on meerschaum-coated concrete.  I’ve been cooking in good glass for forty years.”  She threw up her hands in the air with a flourish as she walked away from me and the large leather sack of waste.  “I have no idea why anyone would cook like this, but I have to.  None of my helpers have ever cooked on this stuff before, either.  None of us have ever heard of anyone cooking on it.  It’s five times heavier than even cheap glass.”  She spun around to look at me again, squinting.  “Pol, help this young man carry the waste sack to the wagon park.”

An older balding man stood up from where he had been tending a fire, and tapped the woman next to him, who nodded.  He walked over to me, and nodded to me but said nothing as he picked up the bag.

“Thanks, Mrs. Zeta.”  I smiled at her and she gave me a nod.”  I turned to Pol.  “Thank you too, Pol.  I’m Allen.”

“I heard.”  He nodded, not unfriendly, but not friendly.  “You’re over at the wagon park?”

“Yes, please.”

The guards refused to allow Pol past the wagons, so I just had him pour the waste food on the ground next to the road at the edge of the wagon park.  After I thanked him, he took the empty waste food bag back to the cooking fires.

I hobbled over to the carriage and put one of my rations of bread inside the carriage, and the remaining half of the other in my pocket.  Then I let the swine out, and led them over to the pile of waste food.  Thirty kilos of badly burnt rice and beans wasn’t enough to fill the swine up, so I hobbled around with them, letting them root around the camp, keeping them away from the hitched elefants and horses, and human jakes.

Swine could (and happily would) consume animal and human waste.  I wouldn’t let them, unless I knew it had been heated to over the boiling point of water and kept there for thirty minutes.  At the farm, all of our pig, human, cow, and horse waste went through a separate compost pile and then into the field with a spreader.  The swine didn’t get to touch it until a crop had been growing a month in the soil.  Pig toilets were used in some far northern communities, I knew, but we discouraged it when asked.  The disease vectors were pretty frightening, especially in warm climates.  Just thinking about it made me shudder.

I needed to consider the possibilities though.  If I could set up a heating station away from camp, there would be more than enough waste to feed the swine, between elefants, horses, and people.  If I had to.  I really would rather just feed them forage, but I had to keep my mind open.  Trying to forage in the deep woods on crutches was just another accident waiting to happen, and I still wasn’t sure how bad my leg was damaged.

After I hobbled around the camp in near-darkness for a while, staying within sight and hearing of the wagon park, I leaned against a small white oak while the swine happily ate acorns.  Reaching into my pouch, I pulled out the snake’s head and threw it away.  Cooking the thing would be too much effort for less than a quarter kilo of lean meat and bone.

When dawn finally gave me enough light to read, I pulled Ma’s letter out of my pouch and read the rules again to verify I had memorized them accurately.  Tearing up the three sheets took a second.  Balling up the pieces took a few more seconds.  My swine happily ate the hemp-based paper as treats.

The next several minutes were filled with some very troublesome thoughts.

As I hobbled back to camp, I wasn’t sure whether or not Ma would appreciate what I was planning to do with the knowledge she’d given me.  Worse, I wasn’t sure what Albert would do if it came to his attention.

I sighed to myself and put aside my reservations as I hobbled back to the wagon park.  Doctor Sven would probably be waiting for me, to replace the poultice.

Maybe I’m wrong?  I thought to myself, hopefully.

If not, there really wasn’t anything else I could do, and still live with myself if we failed.

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Chapter 13

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Tktktktktktktktktktk.

The scaled head hung, inhumanly still, and the tongue slashed the air again.

My mind was racing while I tried to keep my body locked completely motionless.

How big is it?  I thought, while trying to stay level-headed enough to judge its length and girth.  During one of the moments when the snake’s rattle was unmoving, I counted half a dozen rattle lobes on the tail.  The snake’s main body was thicker than my upper arm, and I’d guess it was longer than I was tall.  That made it an old snake, which meant it might strike to try and make me flee, as opposed to strike to try to inject poison and kill.  That meant I might survive even if it struck.  Considering that it would likely attack my face or neck, and could blind me or damage a neck artery or vein even if it didn’t release venom, I was not very relieved.

My low mass was a serious handicap.  At a little over sixty kilos, a lot of that bone, rattlesnake poison could kill me when it would just make a much bigger person very ill.  Full-grown adults rarely died from a bite.  Children commonly did.  I didn’t like my chances with a bite.  Not in the slightest.

I heard Anu stepping back as I had asked, but didn’t dare turn my head to look.  The snake might misread any movement from me as an attack.  I was hoping that it would flee.

Tktktktktktktktktktk.

Other than the tip of its tail, the snake remained motionless, poised to strike.

I locked myself in place, refusing to move a muscle, not even blinking as I tried to use what I knew about rattlesnakes to put myself in its place.  Considering the situation, I doubted it would flee.  I was too close.  It hadn’t seen my right hand, fortunately, or it might have struck reflexively at the small, warm target.  My head, upper torso, and outstretched left arm were clearly visible to it, and would indicate that I was a target too large to eat.  Because I was big enough to be a real threat, it wouldn’t leave its striking posture while I was too close for it to flee from safely.  Getting away without the snake striking was entirely up to me.

Anu spoke, clearly afraid, and not really understanding what was happening.  “Can… can I do something?”

No, you can’t, I thought.  Not when I’m this close.

Tktktktktktktktktktk.

“O. o. no.” I managed, without moving my jaw.  The first two attempts were clumsy, but on the third try, I managed an ‘n’ sound without moving my mouth or jaw.

Please, please don’t try to help without knowing what you’re doing, I thought to myself, foolishly hoping she could somehow read my mind.

I tensed up a little bit, preparing to push myself slowly away.  If I moved smoothly, without any sudden motion, the snake would probably let me back away.  The farther away I got from it, the less likely it would be to strike.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Hoss staring at me from about ten meters away where the blackberries were.  I hadn’t given any commands, but it was clear he’d picked up on the snake after it started to rattle, or possibly my fear scent, since the whole area probably smelled like snake.  Hoss’s head shifted towards Anu, and I heard him snuffle again.  Then he grunted a single high-pitched attention grunt to alert the rest of the sounder.

I started panicking inside while still trying to stay as still as possible.  All of the rest of the swine immediately stopped what they were doing after Hoss’ attention grunt, and after sniffing around for a moment they all started moving towards me with occasional attention grunts of their own.  Exactly as I’d taught them to do.  They had scented the snake, decided it was close, and were moving to me.  Even Speedy, who I hadn’t trained to react to predator scents yet, was copying the others as they ambled in my direction.

Tktktktktktktktktktk.

The snake would feel the ground vibrations of the approaching swine, which would put it even more on edge.

I started to move.  Slowly.  It was a balancing act, a deadly, slow race.  Every centimeter farther away from the snake that I could manage meant it was a little less likely to strike.  Every step closer the swine got, the more agitated the snake would get, since I was too close to it for it to feel comfortable retreating.  If I moved too fast, it would strike because it thought I was attacking.  If I moved too slow, it would strike to try to force me to move away.

My right arm started shaking and I locked down the muscles with panicked desperation.

Anu spoke again, and I ignored her.  I couldn’t afford to pay attention to her.  The snake was, at that point, around three decimeters from me; the swine were about five meters away.

The distance between us at that point meant nothing if it chose to strike.  A human couldn’t react fast enough to reliably block a rattlesnake strike, and their accurate striking range was about half their body length, or at least a meter for this snake.  Even if I started to bring my hand up to protect my face before the snake started to strike, the snake would be able to change its target from my upper body or head to my hand or arm faster than I could possibly react.  Millions of years of evolution catching rats, rabbits, and other small animals had made rattlesnakes inhumanly accurate.

It would probably have been safer for me to let it strike my head or neck than show it my hand and arm and invite a strike.  Rattlesnakes were so hardwired in their reactions that a snake’s disembodied head would try to strike a warm target for minutes after decapitation.  Seeing a small, warm target appear would almost certainly lead to venom injection because my hand was the size of several different types of prey animals.

Tktktktktktktktktktk.

After another few seconds of slowly backing away, my head was about half a meter from the snake and my left hand holding the axe was held in front of me, at chest level.  My legs were tightly drawn up under me, and my right arm was at full extension for balance, my hand gripping the side of the stone.

The swine were standing around the base of the long flat stone that I was crouched on, snuffling in confusion.  I should have been giving them commands at that point, and they knew it.

By that point, I could only see the head and raised tail of the rattlesnake, and it could only see my head and maybe my neck.  Still, it was giving no signs of trying to retreat.  The swine couldn’t be seen from where it was, but it had certainly detected them, both by vibration and by scent.  It would stay exactly where it was, prepared to strike until something changed.

Tktktktktktktktktktk.

The forked tongue slashed out again, several times in rapid succession, and the rattle sounded, seemingly louder.  I felt that I would have to continue to move slowly away, and do it soon.

At that point, I started to slowly lean to my right, and then, unexpectedly, one of my swine goosed me lightly from behind with its snout, gently reminding me that I hadn’t given it a treat as a reward for returning to me after scenting a predator.  The unexpected impact of the nose against the small of my back sent a huge jolt of adrenaline rushing through my system.

The jolt of adrenaline while I was so intently focused on the snake led me to act.  Before I realized that the snake had not attacked, I was already starting to throw myself sideways by pulling hard against the right side of the rock slab with my right arm, and extending my legs.  I also started to twist my left wrist as hard as I could while pushing down with my left hand at the same time.

Tktktktk.

The rattle stopped as the snake reacted as well, with unbelievable speed; hardwired perceptions likely reacted to my rapid sideways movement as the possible beginning of a flanking attack.  The only reason I saw the snake start to strike was because I thought it had already started to strike.  I had been so keyed up to act that when the swine bumped me, I had acted first.  Without the bump, if it had attacked, the snake would probably have been able to strike me before I was able to begin to react.

At that point I was pushing as hard as I could, putting all of my arm and shoulder strength into my left arm and wrist, dredging up every possible bit of strength and speed I could manage.  While I was straining to push with my left arm and hand, I was straining to pull with my right and push with my legs.  Even though I hadn’t believed I’d be able to react to the snake’s potential attack, I’d still planned what I would do if the snake struck – and it was striking.

Time seemed to slow down and I watched the snake’s head streak through the air, straight towards my face, accelerating as the curves of its body straightened.  As it closed the gap between us, the mouth seemed to expand impossibly.  It felt like a nightmare, when something terrible would happen that you couldn’t stop, but it would happen slowly enough that you had plenty of time to be even more terrified.

Slowly, so slowly, I saw the bottom of the axe handle start to appear in my peripheral vision.  The length of hickory was also accelerating rapidly, but not as rapidly as the rattlesnake’s head.

I watched the snake’s head start to twist to my right as the jaws widened even more hugely and the fangs extended.  In a completely useless moment of terrified but clear thought, I realized it was probably striking for my nose.  I pushed harder with my left arm, in a panic, and heard the crack of rock on rock as the axe head struck the slab.  The hickory shaft whipped forward in much more dramatic acceleration as I felt my wrist begin to twist and tighten painfully.  At that point, pain was the least of my worries, so I ignored it and pushed harder.

The rattlesnake was no more than a hand’s width from my face when the axe handle struck it, about a decimeter behind its head.  The hickory handle dragged the body of the snake away from me, to my right, while the head and last few centimeters of the snake tried to compensate and finish the strike that it had started, continuing to reach towards me like the arm of a man falling from a roof.

The mouth snapped shut bare centimeters from my nose as the axe handle finally took up all the slack in the snake’s body and started to draw the snake’s head farther away from my face.  My wrist, twisted too far and continuing to twist farther with the forces I’d applied to it, reflexively released its grip on the axe’s handle, and my leap continued.

I watched the axe handle, still rotating rapidly, drag the snake bodily through the air like a floating ribbon struck by a broom handle.  The rattlesnake’s body curled into a ‘u’ shape around the handle as it was forced away from me.

My jump continued.  My right hand had long since left the stone slab and my legs were at about half extension; the swine around me were starting to react to my jump, stiffening and lowering the front halves of their bodies as they prepared to scatter.

The world seemed to speed up again, and there was a chaotic explosion of pain and squeals as I bowled over two of the smaller sows, wrenching a shoulder as I struck the ground.

Anu screamed, swine squealed around me in a panic, and I shielded my head with my right arm as I struggled to push myself up quickly with my left.  Being on the ground amongst any sort of panicked hooved animals was extremely bad.  I was probably more panicked than the swine.

My left wrist collapsed in pain and I flopped back against the ground, striking my head and seeing stars for a moment, stunned.  When I was able to think again, all I could see clearly was the legs and flanks of other swine.  That, and Hoss, who had his snout pushed up close to my waist, sniffing at the swine treat bag.  I wrapped both hands around my head and flopped over onto my stomach bumping several swine out of my way as I forced myself to knees and elbows.  A hoof pressed hard on the back of my right calf and I yelled in pain.  Something grabbed me by the neck and I felt myself being lifted bodily off the ground.

At first, I thought Hoss or Bigboy had decided to grab onto my shirt and drag me somewhere which was rather frightening.  If a two-hundred-plus kilo swine stepped on me while trying to drag me, it would be very, very bad.  Worse was the idea that something so close to my flesh would be in their mouths.  I wouldn’t make good material for bedding, which was about the only thing that came out of a swine’s mouth after going in.  I swung my arm behind me to hit them with an elbow, hoping make them let loose, even at the risk of angering them.

As I continued to be lifted into the air Anu said “Stop it Allen, It’s me, Anu!  Don’t hit me.”

I stopped struggling, shocked at the human voice.  I slowly realized that Anu had walked into the middle of the swine, and bodily lifted me out.  My heels dragged across the backs of a couple sows as she shifted her grip, releasing her right hand from my collar and wrapping it around my chest before taking more rapid steps.  The swine followed us closely.

“Allen, did the snake bite you?  Why were the pigs attacking you?  Are you OK?  Can you talk?  Talk to me!”  She was in a near panic.

“Stop.  Set me down.  They weren’t attacking me.”  I tried to get my feet under me to stand, but couldn’t.  “Anu.  Stop.”

Anu said nothing and kept dragging me backwards at a near run, and I couldn’t get my feet under me.  Before I could decide to start struggling again, she stopped.  I got my footing as she let me go with her right arm but kept her left hand on my collar, as if she were worried I’d fall again, which was probably a good idea.

I carefully turned to face her, trying to avoid putting weight on the painful right leg, and saw her straightening up with her axe held in her right hand and a very determined, dangerous look on her face.  I took a step back and nearly fell over as my right leg tried to collapse with a spike of pain.

Anu took two steps forward and put herself between the swine and me, holding the axe in both hands like she was about to cut wood.

Straightening myself to be more upright with a twinge, I grabbed her arm, partly for balance and partly to jerk her a little towards me, which barely budged her at all.  For some strange reason my mind picked that moment to note, she might be more massive than Edward.

I tried to project calmness, but probably didn’t manage it very well, based on the worried look she gave me.  “Wait.  They didn’t attack me.  You don’t have to protect me.  Calm down.”  The swine were inching closer and starting to flank us to either side, clearly extremely confused.  There was a human between them and me, and I hadn’t given them a treat yet.  They were probably smelling Anu’s fear as well as my own.

And where is that snake!  I suddenly thought.

“Whoah!” I called out, loudly, and the swine all stopped moving.  I should have done that when I’d found myself in the middle of them, but had been too panicked to think about it.

Anu shook me off her left arm with a shrug that almost threw me to the ground again.  She put both hands on the axe again and didn’t relax at all.  “They were stepping on you and not letting you stand up.”

“They are obeying commands now.  They only stepped on me once.  They were confused.  I jumped away from the snake.  I can explain it all in a minute or two.”  I stopped and looked towards the slab.  “Where is the snake?”  I stepped toward Anu and put my hand on her axe.  “Give me the axe.  Everything is OK now.”

Anu looked at the now-unmoving swine, looked at me, and gave me control of the axe, before saying, in a worried tone, “I hope you’re right.”

“Thank you.” I replied as I collected her axe.  “Stay by the swine.  I’m grabbing one of the spears and finding that snake.”

Anu’s eyes got much bigger and her mouth dropped open slightly before snapping shut.  “You’re going to try to find it after running away from it?  Are you crazy?”

“No, not crazy.” I said as I carefully scanned the ground while painfully yet rapidly limping towards the load of cut saplings.

I grabbed the thick end of a sapling in the pile that the boars had been hauling, and jerked it out.  Then I dropped Anu’s axe onto the grass and carefully scanned the ground along the long pile of stone, while walking towards the slab where the snake had been.

As I got within about four meters, I saw the snake.  It had apparently overextended and fallen over the slab, or perhaps been dragged over to this side of the stones by the blow I’d struck it with the handle of the axe.

Slapping the ground around it with the thin end of the sapling made the snake react to my presence.  It started to rear its head back and coil up.  There was no sound of a rattle, but that didn’t mean anything that I trusted, because rattlesnakes could lose their rattles.  I poked at the snake a couple more times with the three-meter-long sapling, and watched its reaction.  Only the quarter meter of the snake closest to its head was moving at all, and about half of that length seemed to be moving only because of what the head and the first decimeter of the body behind the head were doing.  Apparently, I’d broken its back with the axe handle.

I flipped the sapling around and used the heavy end to drag the snake bit by bit out of the rocks, carefully keeping at least a meter’s distance from the head at all times.  At that distance, I could see the kink in the body where the axe handle had struck it.  The snake struck repeatedly at the thick end of the sapling, accomplishing nothing other than the loss of its fangs.

“Allen, what are you doing?”  Anu complained in a frightened voice, from where she’d walked away from the swine and picked up her axe that I had dropped.

“The snake’s back is broken.  I’m pulling it away from the rocks now.  In a minute, I’ll hold its head down with the sapling while you chop its head off.”

There was a clatter as Anu’s axe hit the pavement.  “What?”  She said in a small voice.

I sighed to myself, and said, in what I hoped to be a confident voice without any sarcasm.  “Never mind.”

It took a little longer, and I had to be a lot more careful because I didn’t fully trust my right leg or my left wrist, but I eventually pulled the snake out, away from the rocks, found my own axe, and trapped the snake’s head with the sapling.  I carefully walked on the sapling out towards the snake and chopped its head off, only a few centimeters behind the skull.  Then I chopped the snake into short lengths, none longer than my hand.

Anu had watched until I raised my axe, and then turned her back on the scene without saying anything to me. In my peripheral vision, I saw her shoulders twitch every time my axe struck the body of the snake.

If she hadn’t very possibly kept me from being crippled, I’d be angry right now, I thought, looking down at the snake’s head that I was carefully holding away from my body.  If I had stumbled and fallen while next to the snake, it could have bitten me.  It could still bite me for a couple minutes because snake reflexes and muscle could function without blood circulation for several minutes.

I needed to bring the head to Doctor Sten.  I wasn’t sure if he might be able to do something with the venom without medical facilities, if the snake hadn’t used it all striking at the sapling.  Thinking about that, and not knowing if contact with skin could have a bad effect, I dropped my axe and threw the sapling into the woods.  Then I wiped both my hands and the axe handle on the grass and then my pants, carefully, one hand always carefully holding the snake’s head, which had stopped bleeding but was still occasionally twitching.

It was getting darker, the elefants were trumpeting again as a return-to-camp signal, and the swine were sullenly staring at me, treatless, from where I’d frozen them with the whoah command a couple minutes before.  I limped up to Anu and she turned to face me with a grimace as her eyes drew down to the snake’s head now in my left hand.  It was clear that she didn’t approve.

Setting the snake’s head and my axe down next to the travois, I said, “Its back was broken, Anu, and I’ve still got to feed the swine.”  I didn’t tell her that I would have killed it anyway, that almost anything I could catch in the woods fed the family or fed the swine.  I left porcupines and skunks alone.

Pulling my whistle out of the pouch, I blew a short blow, and pointed at the headless, chopped-up corpse of the rattlesnake, then said.  “Snake.”

Ten well-trained swine recognized a food word and rushed over to their much-larger-than-normal treat.  Speedy followed them, quickly joining in as she heard eating noises.

I carefully sat, over a meter from the snake’s head, favoring my left wrist.  After seating myself I slowly, carefully probed my calf and checked for blood on my ankle while waiting for the swine to finish eating the snake.  Fortunately, even though it hurt like mad, there was no blood, and it didn’t feel like either bone in my calf was broken.  My wrist just felt like I’d sprained it.  I decided I still needed Doctor Sten to ask him to take a look at it, since I didn’t have Granpa, Pa, or Ma to check it.  As I watched, waiting for the swine to finish, every now and then I’d hear the sound of the snake’s rattle.

Speedy pulled something away from the rest of the feeding swine and worried it a little, almost like a dog with a bone, chewing on it and pushing it into the ground with rapid playful movements of her snout.  There were occasional rattles, so it was pretty obvious what she was playing with.  She was young enough that she still played fairly regularly, and full enough at the time to actually appear a bit rounded.  After a couple pokes with her snout, she lifted her head into the air a bit and shook her new toy back and forth a couple times, vigorously.  The rattlesnake rattle sounded loudly, tktktktktk, and several of the other swine turned rapidly to face Speedy, making attention grunts.

Unable to help myself, I laughed loudly.  The swine all turned to stare at me, briefly.  When there was no command from me, the larger swine turned back to the serious business of eating.  Speedy, stared at me a little longer, with the last six inches of the snake’s tail sticking out of the side of her mouth.  She shook her head, making the tail rattle some more before she dropped it and poked it a couple more times with her snout.  Finally, she picked the tail up again, shook it one more time, and swallowed it before waddling back to where the others were still eating.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Anu shift her weight from leg to leg.  I looked up at her and saw her staring at the swine with a concerned look.  “Allen, they really aren’t very adorable anymore.” She said, in a sad voice.

It was certainly a good thing that it was too dark for her to see the blood that would be liberally painted along their jaws.  There would be streaks along their flanks above their front legs from where they had pushed bloody jowls against each other as they jockeyed for positions as the snake was eaten.  I reached up my right hand and she reflexively reached down to give me a hand up without taking her eyes off the swine.

After standing, I ignored the pain in my right leg as I spoke in a slow, careful tone.  “Our swine are smarter than farm pigs, and smarter than horses or cows too.  We’ve bred them for intelligence for thousands of years.  I’d say they are smarter than dogs, but Marza doesn’t agree with me.”  I paused, thinking.  “Her border collies are really smart, I have to admit.”

I paused again, realizing I had drifted off topic.  Anu was looking towards me, but not enough towards me that she stopped looking towards my sounder.  The swine were now rooting up the grass where the snake had been, grunting deep grunts of pleasure as they greedily consumed the blood-soaked turf.  “At the end of the day, Anu, they’re still swine.”

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Chapter 12

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Quartermaster Brown and Lieutenant Davis were talking quietly but intensely.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I didn’t need to, because they weren’t talking to me.  It was very clear by body language that the lieutenant wanted something and the quartermaster didn’t want to do what the lieutenant wanted.  They stopped talking, and both turned and walked quickly towards the officer’s tent.  It was obvious that Captain Marko spent a substantial amount of time and effort mediating between the officers below him on the chain of command.

One of the quartermaster’s helpers, someone I didn’t recognize, handed me a stone axe.  The unknown person had probably been the mahout or the roadway worker for Happy, the New Charleston elefant who pulled the wagon the axes were coming out of.  Happy herself was tied to a tree nearby with a long rope leash, and was methodically stripping the ground and trees around her of vegetation at a rapid rate.  The other two elefants, Teak and Granite, were also enthusiastically doing their best to eat everything within twenty feet of the tree their leashes were tied to.  I probably should have tried to learn the names of the new mahouts and road workers, but I hadn’t heard them say their own names.  I had heard them call out the names of the elefants quite a few times though, as we set up camp.

Before walking away, I checked the leather straps holding the axe head in the carved hollow at the end of the club-like handle.  The leather was tight, and not dry rotted.  I could see the sheen of oil on the straps.  I could also smell the hickory.  Bull-oak was better for tools, but it was slow to grow, and relatively expensive.  For large striking tools like mallets, hatchets, and axes, hickory was the best solution for the cost.  A bull-oak axe handle would be four of five times the cost as a hickory handle, but only last about twice as long.

I frowned with irritation as I fingered the edge of the stone blade while walking away, but said nothing.  We didn’t have a blade grinder set up, and finding a good long flat stone and grinding the edge by hand would take almost as long as cutting a few saplings with a slightly rounded edge.

I was supposed to find six ash saplings that were mostly straight for at least three meters.  We would be sharpening and fire hardening four of them tonight.  Two would be left blunt for practice.  I needed to hurry though.  The sun was starting to get close to the horizon and I didn’t know this area well.

I did know the area to some extent, but I hadn’t been this far north in years.  We’d come this way to buy a draft horse when Samson had died, not scout the woods.

Today we’d travelled about seven hours from town, going past my family’s farm, and then two hours farther up the road.  Almost every family along the road had come out to see us pass, waving to relatives.  Quite a few of us who lived on the north road were given a bit of bread, cheese, pemmican, or some other durable energy food by our families as we passed, but we were not allowed to stop.

Thinking about that, my mind drifted back to memories of earlier in the day.

**

Marza had not been at the road when we passed, which had hurt me a little, but we’d already said goodbye in the morning.  Her family also knew Riko would not be a part of the group going north towards the border today.  I carefully explained to myself that Marza was better off working to help her family keep fed over the winter than coming to say goodbye to me for the third time in two days.  It still hurt a little, no matter how logical I tried to be about it.

As we passed our farm, Ma had briefly and briskly walked along the side of the carriage and handed me a fresh honey mint flatbread wrapped in a corn husk, still hot from the oven.  After I took it and carefully set it beside me on the carriage bench, she reached up and held my hand for a second, pulling it against her face quickly before letting go, patting me on the moccasin, and retreating to the side of the road to stand beside the rest of the family.

It was too loud to talk quietly as we passed, due to all the wagons, horses, and men.  I certainly wasn’t going to start talking loudly to her about martial arts in front of a big group of people.  I didn’t know enough to have brief questions in any case.

Ma, Pa, and Granpa were watching me very closely as I started to speak loudly.  “I read your letter, Ma, all four sheets.  It makes sense.  Thank you.”  That, I could say.  It let her know I’d gotten four sheets instead of one, and that the number of sheets was notable.

Ma visibly relaxed, nodding.  Pa and Granpa simply relaxed.

At that point, I felt a little jealous of the men and women on foot who were able to at least get a hug or a kiss where I’d gotten a pat on the foot.  I waved a couple times more while we were in sight, but it wasn’t long until they were out of sight.

As my attention shifted to the honey mint flatbread, I asked Doctor Sten “Do you want a piece of flatbread?  Honey and mint filling.”  Since he was sitting right next to me on the bench, it would be rude for me not to offer him something.  He didn’t have anything, and I knew it.

Doctor Sten agreed.  “Only a small corner piece with a bit of filling though, please.  I haven’t powered a teenage body for quite a few decades now, and had a good breakfast.”

As he finished his comment, my stomach made loud, obnoxious noises, which embarrassed me a bit.  I stuttered “sorry” as I carefully tore off a corner of the flatbread and handed it to him.

Doctor Sten accepted his corner of flatbread with a grin.  “Better get some of this flatbread inside you before that stomach of yours decides to jump out and find something to eat all by itself.”

We both laughed, before eating in relaxed silence.

**

As I walked up to my carriage, I returned my thoughts to the present.

The two older women who had been assigned to stand watch on the more valuable cargos looked at me for a few seconds before waving and looking away.  I didn’t know them either.  Quite a few people that I didn’t know were part of the militia under Captain Marko.  Many of them had apparently arrived late the day before after I left town to go home, having been walking the prior day from New Charleston behind the officers who had ridden to town.

I waved and smiled to them.  Just because I didn’t know their names yet didn’t mean I couldn’t be polite.  I’d also been close enough to hear Doctor Sten explained to them that the swine were not to be taken out of the enclosure by anyone other than me, or slaughtered unless an officer ordered it directly.  The doctor had then released me to do work, and pointed me at Quartermaster Brown.

I quickly collected the harness I had removed from the boars when we stopped, and a few leather straps.  I verified that I’d set the wheel chocks and looked at my sounder under the carriage.  They looked back at me curiously.  With a little urging, they had gone in with no difficulty, and didn’t appear to be having a problem with being confined.  They were making hungry noises though, and I could see that they had, in less than ten minutes, rooted up all of the grass under the carriage and eaten it.

I lifted a dozen slats along one whole side of the carriage, set them on the rack at the back of the carriage, and pulled out my whistle.  Walking away slowly, I blew the whistle and called out “follow.”  There was a low chorus of grunts behind me as the swine walked out from under the carriage and followed me.

The guards looked at me, curious.

“I’m taking them out with me, so they can feed themselves while I cut some ash.” I spoke, addressing myself to the watching women.

They both nodded, and then looked away from me.

I started walking back the way we’d come, towards town, speeding up to a moderate walk but not running.  The swine followed behind me, grabbing bites of grass and foliage as we walked.  They weren’t hungry enough to disobey me and settle in to eat, but they were too hungry for me to walk quickly and expect them to keep up.

Ash trees needed good light and moist soil.  Less than two kilometers down the road, we’d crossed a bridge.  I remembered that there was a stream under that bridge, and no fields next to it.  There were, however, farms and fields nearby.  Ash was frequently used as support poles for beans, tomatoes, and other climbing crops because coppiced ash saplings grew fast and straight.  If there weren’t at least a few ash crowns cultivated along that stream, I’d be very surprised.  It would take me ten minutes to cut half a dozen ash saplings if I found a couple crowns, even with a dull axe.

I didn’t walk on the road, I walked on the road’s shoulder, in the grass.  The swine wouldn’t get far from me as long as I gave them occasional whistle and follow commands, so if I walked on the road, they would have less forage options.  As we walked, I kept my eyes open for ash and oak trees.  If I saw any oaks, and if we found ash saplings quickly, I’d take the swine by them as we headed back towards the camp and let them have a few minutes eating acorns.

As I approached the bridge, I saw a man and woman, neither of whom I knew.  They were carrying a large bundle of saplings between them over their right shoulders, with axes over their left shoulders.  Carrying an axe over your shoulder wasn’t safe, but I said nothing.  I knew a lot of people that did it.  Even Zeke did it.

The woman was very short, but lean and fit.  I figured she was about thirty, with a single long braid of light brown hair highlighted with grey along a visible scar above the right side of her forehead.  Her hands were calloused; her face was tanned.  The clothing she wore was serviceable deer leather, but stained and showing signs of wear.  I saw her eyes move, probably scanning me the same way I had just scanned her, looking at my face, clothes, and hands.  She nodded in greeting as I approached the two of them.

The man behind her was fit, likely in his mid-twenties.  Dark black hair tied back with a clean ribbon.  His clothes were clean, new, and his face was sunburnt.  He was clearly a townie, or had been away from the farm for a long time.  He was also scanning me and looked a little confused, apparently noticing the swine behind me.

As we got closer, I could see that the saplings they carried were indeed ash, based on a couple leaves at the very ends.  The heavier bottom ends were being carried by the man, and the narrow ends carried by the woman.  The saplings were of very uniform size.

“Coppices along the bank?”  I asked, fairly sure I knew the answer.

The woman responded.  “Yes, I figured there would be when I remembered the stream.  Both banks.  Quite a few of them.  We cut a couple extras.”

The man looked at me and narrowed his eyes.  “There are a few others down there as well, if you need help getting yours back to camp.”

I carefully didn’t take offence.  “I’m stronger than I look, and I’ve got plenty of help if I need it.”  I waved one hand back towards where the swine were trailing behind me.

He nodded and the woman looked a little embarrassed as they walked past me back to camp.  I smiled a little at her, just to make sure she didn’t think I’d taken offense with her due to his words.  The man behind her frowned a bit as I smiled at her, but didn’t say anything.  I nodded to him as well, politely.  He was working, sweating, carrying the heavy end of the load, and had clearly teamed up with someone who knew what they were about, so I was going to try to get along with him unless he made a point of becoming annoying.  Again.

I gave another whistle and follow command.  The swine had responded to three follow commands and I hadn’t given them a treat yet, so I called them up one at a time as we walked and dropped half-treats for them.  The size of the treats didn’t really matter, but it just felt stingy.  Still, I knew I needed to make what I had last until I could make more treats.

A minute later, I was getting close to the bridge and saw Don, Emerald, and Rikard came up from the east side embankment.  Each of them casually carrying a bundle of ash over one shoulder and an axe in the other hand.  I, fortunately, was approaching the west side of the bridge and didn’t need to get close.  I saw Rikard staring at me, but I only glanced at him briefly before looking away and keeping him in my peripheral vision.  A couple seconds later, Emerald looked my way and walked between the two of us, so we couldn’t see each other.  Nobody said a word.

I could hear more people chopping irregularly and talking in clearly irritated voices as I walked down the embankment and to the west.  As I reached the streambed, I looked at the six people cutting wood.  They were each cutting from a different crown, and everyone was holding their axes wrong.

I sighed as I saw them making a soup sandwich out of some local farmer’s ash coppice crowns.  Townies.  I know it.  Maybe even from the city.

“Everyone stop for a second, please.”  They all stopped and looked at me as my swine piled into the stream and drank greedily before starting to roll and wallow to cool off.  I wasn’t sure if they were looking at me or the swine.  “The swine are mine, domestic.  You may have seen them pulling my carriage today, or trailing behind it.”

I walked over to the closest coppice crown and gestured for the rest of them to come closer.  “Before you cut any more I need to talk to you for a second.”

“We need to cut these.  Sheela said these were ash trees.  The quartermaster wants ash saplings for spears.”  One of the men standing farther away said, leaning on his axe handle.  The head of his axe was in the water.  The leather bindings were in the water.

As I stared at the man’s submerged axe head, I recited to myself.  There is a difference between ignorance and idiocy.  I might be able to fix ignorance.

I pointed at the man with the axe head in the stream.  “Your axe is now unsafe to use.  You got the straps wet, the leather will loosen, and the head might work loose and fall out and hurt someone.  You will need to use a different axe.  Has anyone else gotten their axe head wet in the water?”

Two other people were carefully testing the heads of their axes and looking nervous.

I shook my head a little.  “That’s really important, but not why I originally wanted your attention.  These trees are cultivated.”  I pointed at the massive crown next to me with at least fifty stumps.  “The locals have been harvesting them for a very long time.  If we cut a few from every crown of stumps, they will have to go to every crown to harvest, and get less from each crown.  Let’s just cut what we need from a single crown.”

The man who’s axe I had noticed earlier spoke, but didn’t seem irritated at me for pointing out his mistake before. “We’ll be a bit close together for that though, I don’t want to hit someone.  I’ve never used an axe before.”

Several of the others made noises of agreement.  I sighed inside, but smiled at him and laughed a little. “Let’s fix that then, OK?  Time for axe lessons.”

I then gave axe-handling lessons for several minutes, individually helping everyone learn the basics of using an axe.  To my great satisfaction, ignorance turned out to be the only problem.  Nobody was going to be winning any wood chopping contests soon, but they probably wouldn’t hurt themselves or anyone else with an axe.

During their lessons, I checked everyone’s axe heads, and four of the six were loosening due to getting wet.  They would need to be dried and oiled before they could be used safely.  My axe was used by everyone with an unsafe axe.  It still didn’t take much time to get them all sorted out and give them seven saplings each to carry.

“Why the extra one.” Anu asked, as I had her cut her extra sapling from the crown.  “Not that I mind, but it wasn’t what we were told to do.” She was a little older than me, I’d guess, with long platinum blonde hair tied behind her head with a loose overhand knot.   She was almost as tall as Marza, and very broad across the shoulders.  She was easily the strongest person present, and could cut a two-inch sapling with two blows after I taught her how to do a good full-extension swing.  She was also carrying more extra weight than anyone I’d ever seen.  I couldn’t see any of her muscles in her neck or arms, and she was round everywhere.  She might have weighed almost as much as Edward, and might have given him a hard time arm wrestling.  I would never have believed she could be so strong if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

“Not everyone came this way.”  I explained.  “They might not all be able to find ash trees, which need good light and moist soil.  Even if they find ash trees, they might not find six of the right size.  These are cultivated.  Ash trees don’t normally grow bunched up like this, all the same size.  It doesn’t take long to cut one more, and they aren’t that heavy.  I plan on bringing back about twenty extra.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone crouching and getting ready to hand-feed Speedy something.  It was Kelvin, the man who I had noticed with the axe head in the water earlier.  “Kelvin, don’t hand it to her.  Drop it in front of her.”

“Oh, sorry.  I didn’t think you would mind.”  He replied as he dropped what I saw was a crayfish.  Before I could say a word, Speedy snapped it up and sat back on her haunches, happily crunching away.  I was a little concerned about her eating the crayfish because of it’s shell.  I’d never fed swine any sort of shellfish before.

As I watched, Speedy continued chewing, her head turning a little from side to side with an odd expression as she carefully dealt with the new food.  When she didn’t seem to be in any distress after swallowing once, I addressed Kelvin, who had been looking back and forth between Speedy and me with a worried look on his face.  “Sorry, I’ve never fed her shellfish before.  I’d appreciate it if you don’t feed any of the swine any more of them.  I don’t mind if you feed her anything that either you or a dog or a cow could eat, but if your fingers get into her mouth, you might not get them back.”  I sighed.  “If you want to see an angry swine, try to take food out of their mouths.  That’s why I didn’t try to get the crayfish back from her.   She’ll enjoy it if you scratch her behind the ears though.”

Kelvin looked back at me, and then down at Speedy.  A moment later, he slowly leaned forward and scratched Speedy behind her ears.  “Sorry.  Will she be OK?”

Speedy stood back up on all fours and leaned into the shins of the nice human scratching her, still chewing whatever was left of the crayfish with an occasional crackle.

“Probably.” I said, still a little concerned.  “She’s still chewing, which is good.  She’s eaten acorns and hickory nuts from last year, and they have sharp edges when chewed, so she will probably be OK.  I’d still rather avoid shellfish for the swine though.”

I was concerned.  Chitin might not process through the digestive tract as easily as the shells of hickory nuts.  I couldn’t ask Zeke or Granpa, which made me a little worried.  At the same time, I couldn’t remember ever hearing about any of the swine at the marina having issues with chitin, and we sold the marina several swine per year.  I was pretty sure the swine we sold them had plenty of opportunities to eat dead crabs along the beach during their walks, even if the crabbers and lobstermen didn’t feed them crustacean offal directly.  Speedy was the same size, roughly, as the other swine culls we typically sold to the marina.  I relaxed, fairly confident she would be OK, but kept her in my peripheral vision anyway.

After the first time Rikard had threatened to poison my swine, I had tried to teach them to only eat from their trough unless they got a forage command.  That was my first magnificent failure with swine, and Zeke still teased me about it from time to time when it came up.

If you put food in front of a swine, the swine would eat it, or protect it.  It was all I could do to get my swine to ignore dropped food under a whoah command.  As soon as the whoah command was ended, they would snap up the food though.  If you tried to pick up food from under their noses while they were under a whoah command, they would break the whoah command enough to plant their nose on the food and stare at you, motionless again, until you took your hand away from their food.  Even Zeke’s much better trained swine would do the same thing.  It was just one of those things that swine would not put up with.

Anu picked up her seven poles, and then looked at me with that look. “I don’t mean to be offensive, Allen, but I’d have a hard time carrying twenty-six of them.  Do you want help, or did you bring your carriage?”

I bit back my irritation at the implied belief that I was weak.  Compared to Anu, I was weak, and she hadn’t seen me work.  “I’ve got help.”  I pointed towards Hoss and Bigboy, who were rooting along the streambed.  “But if you want to help me cut them, I’d take that help.  I’ll chop on this side of the crown, you chop on that side.”

Anu set her bundle down as Kelvin picked his up with a little stagger.  He rebalanced his load and started walking more easily up the embankment, walking with the axe held at the base of the blade, like I’d taught him.  “I’ll see you at the camp.  I’d just get in the way if I tried to help cut next to you two.”

I nodded.  He was right.

It only took a few minutes for us to cut twenty-six saplings, and since there were only six left after all the cutting we’d done on the crown, I asked Anu to cut the rest as well to finish the crown.  Someone would curse that the whole crown had been cut, but at least all the growth would be at the same stage, only a couple saplings were missing from the other crowns.

As Anu was cutting the last of the saplings, I pulled two harnesses out of my shoulder pouch.  Hoss and Bigboy, who had both been rooting around on dry ground next to the streambed, both immediately walked into the stream and wallowed in the water.  They both were obviously watching me for my reaction.

“Quit that, you two.” I said with a little smile I couldn’t repress.  A second later, I gave them a command that they knew and would follow.  “Hoss.  Bigboy.  Come.”

I wasn’t sure if the boars knew that getting wet would damage their harness, but after years of experience, they certainly knew I wouldn’t put harness on them when they were wet.  They reluctantly got out of the stream and walked up to me, expectantly, knowing they would get a treat for obeying, even if they were a bit slack about it.

I grinned as I dropped a half treat in front of each of them at the same time, several feet from one another.  Letting one of them get both treats would put the other one in a foul mood and might start a squabble.  I led the two wet boars over to a patch of grass and had them roll in it, which they enjoyed.  After they were dry from rolling in the grass, I put their harness on them and gave them each another half treat.

Anu had finished cutting the ash saplings and stacked them by the time I had the boars in harness.  She watched as I put both boars next to each other, separated by about a half meter.  I called out “whoah” even though I knew that the other swine nearby would also stop doing whatever they were doing.  The boars stopped fidgeting and stood still.  I gave them each a scratch behind the ears.  “Good.”

I cut one of the saplings in half and discarded the thinner end.  At each end of the thicker half, I cut notches before fitting the sapling into loops in the chest harness of each boar and tied it in place with leather straps around the notches to make a chest pole.  The chest pole wasn’t going to bear any weight, it was just to help the boars walk together at a constant distance.  After the chest pole was in place, I picked up four more of the saplings and made notches about a foot from their thick ends.  I fed the poles into the travois straps on each side of each boar’s harness, the thick ends facing forwards, and the thin ends trailing behind the boars. Finally, with a few more head scratches and encouraging noises, I finished tying the four saplings in place at the notches so they would not fall out of the harness.

Now I had two boars in harness together, with a four-pole travois.  I used a couple more long straps of leather out of my pouch to tie the bundle of saplings onto the travois poles, sideways behind the boars.  To balance the load, we turned seventeen of them with the thick end behind Hoss, and seventeen with the thick end behind Bigboy.

“Oh, we put mine on there too.” Anu said, all of a sudden.  “I got caught up in watching you load the travois, and didn’t notice.  Do you need me to carry some of them, that’s not a light load.”

I smiled a bit.  She had been good to work with, and the weight of seven extra poles was no problem.  “They’re fine.  That’s about a hundred kilos, between two boars that each mass a little over two hundred kilos each.  A quarter of their mass is no problem on a road drag.”

“They mass more than I do by that much?  But they look so small.” Anu was looking back and forth between the two boars.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud a little.  “Short, not small.  Look at how long and thick their torsos are.  They aren’t built like a human at all.  They are also a lot stronger than us in a straight pull per kilo mass too, because they have better leverage with shorter limbs.”

After testing the straps holding the poles in place, I tied two leashes to the tops of the harnesses.  That would allow me to give them harness commands.

I shook the reins and called out “walk.”  The boars started moving slowly as I moved behind them with the reins, shaking the reins a couple times as I called out the occasional “right” and “left” as we climbed the embankment.

Anu walked beside me and laughed.  “They are just like little horses.”

“In a way, sure.  They are a little smarter than horses, but nowhere near as strong.  Even a very small horse is twice their mass.  Draft horses can mass more than four times a full grown forest swine boar.  Swine don’t think about work like horses either.  Horses seem to actually enjoy working if they are healthy and wearing proper harness.  Our drafts at the farm get frisky when they get into harness.  Swine work for food.  They don’t like to work, but they will, since they know I’ll be feeding them a treat after they do some work for me.”

“Now they sound more like humans than horses.” She laughed.

“They can act very human sometimes, yes.  Sometimes they seem human enough that it’s tempting to identify with them too much.  Then they act like swine again and you realize how silly you were to think they were anything but clever animals.  Elefants are much smarter than my swine.  If I’d been born in New Singapore, I’d like to think I would have been a mahout.  Being partnered with an animal that intelligent for most of both of our lives. A huge responsibility with a huge reward.”  I reached into my pouch and brought out the whistle and blew it, calling out “follow.”

The boars ignored the command since they were in harness.  The rest of my swine started following me alongside the road, wandering to the underbrush at the edge of the forest.  I hadn’t seen any oaks on the way here, and the sun was starting to set.  We needed to get back to camp, and had about two kilometers to walk.  We’d get back before full dark.

I heard one of the elefants trumpeting.  The signal we’d been told to listen for if we got lost.  I wondered how many city and town people had been lost in the woods.  I hoped nobody had been hurt in the woods.

“So what do you do for a living, Anu?” I asked, trying to make polite conversation.

“Well, ah, nothing really.  I’m a student at New Charleston University.”  She chuckled.  “I’m almost finished with my education degree though.  I’d like to teach Primary.  Moving from state to state sounds like fun.

“Oh.”  I couldn’t help myself, and chuckled.

“What’s funny?” Anu sounded a little suspicious.

“Sorry, I was just imagining the reactions of your students when they saw what you could do in strength exercises.  You’d probably have more respect from the troublesome students than most teachers get.”

“You should see me when it’s not the off-season.” She smiled.

“Off-season?”  I knew I sounded confused.  “How could a season change your appearance?”

Anu started chuckling and laughing.  I knew she was laughing at me, but it didn’t sound like cruel laughter.  She snorted loudly and got control of herself.  “Sorry, Allen, you caught me off guard.  I’m a bodybuilder.  There’s a competition season and an off-season.  During the competition season, I lose most of my body fat.  In the off-season, I change my diet and let my body develop fat.  It’s not healthy to stay extremely lean all the time.  Classes this semester required a lot more of my attention than I expected, so I’ve put on even more weight than normal because I haven’t been able to spend anywhere near enough time in the gym.  I suspect I’ll be losing a lot of weight soon though.  I doubt the militia will feed me what I need to keep my weight up.”

That didn’t make sense.  “If the militia doesn’t feed you enough, a lot of the farmers from around here will suffer too.  You aren’t any bigger than a lot of the local men.”  I carefully didn’t say that she was carrying a lot of extra weight, and could afford to lose some of it.  It seemed as if that extra weight was intentional, to some degree, for reasons I wasn’t grasping.  There was also the simple fact that I wasn’t foolish enough to disparage any woman’s weight.  Anu was a stranger, around twice my mass, had demonstrated surprising strength, and was carrying an axe that I’d just taught her how to swing.  All of those things put together was enough to keep my mouth shut about extra weight.

She tilted her head, obviously searching her memory.  “Well, that’s good to know.  I hadn’t really been paying attention to the other men.  I’m married, so I try not to let the mind wander.”  She was silent and I didn’t say anything.  I’d left Marza behind, and it hurt even though we weren’t married yet.

After a couple dozen steps, she spoke again.  “Sorry about laughing earlier, Allen.  I suspect you got a good chuckle over our attempts to use axes too.  Different worlds.”

I hadn’t laughed.  The axe handling situation had been deadly serious.  Looked at after the fact though, I could see some humor in it.  “Different worlds, indeed.”  I said with a little smile.  I still didn’t really understand what bodybuilding was, but I supposed it was a strength sport of some type, like bale-tossing or weighted sled pulling contests for people.  I suspected she now understood axes better than I grasped the concept of the sport of bodybuilding.

So, do I prove my ignorance now, or wait till later, when it’s somehow important? I thought to myself with a smile.  “So, what do you actually do to compete in bodybuilding?  What’s the point?  I’m still not entirely certain I get it.”

Anu looked at me for a moment, and muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t understand before she started speaking.  “Bodybuilding is a sport that tests your dedication, willpower, and body.  The purpose is to create an ideal heavily-muscled physique with clean lines, almost like sculpting your own body.  Others with a similar mindset, those who have retired from active competition, judge our bodies.”

My thoughts whirled around as I reoriented my mindset around the concept she had just described.  “So, it’s a sport where the natural body is judged directly and the will to train is judged by apparent training effort?  What about people who have bodies that literally can’t measure up to the standards of the natural body ideal that bodybuilding stands for.”  I took a breath.  “Like me, for instance.  I suspect that my inability to gain any weight and my excessively lean body would not get me many points in a bodybuilding contest, no matter how hard I tried.”

She started chuckling at that, and I wasn’t able to guess why.  “It’s a sport for large, heavy people, generally.  People without especially quick reflexes.  Sometimes people with minor handicaps like vision or hearing problems.”  She paused.  “I’ve always been big.  Especially for a woman.  Too big to do endurance sports, and not coordinated or fast-thinking enough to do sports like tennis or obstacle course running.  But I’ve got plenty of willpower, and I enjoy making my body look like a sculpture.”

The thought of people building their bodies up for a lean but heavily-muscled appearance with no specific goal just felt weird.  Bodybuilding sounded less like a sport than a draft horse inspection.  I shook my head a little, and reminded myself I was looking at it from a different perspective.  To be fair, there were both ability and appearance contests for draft horses during harvest festival.  Still, everyone knew you needed to warm up before you started to work hard, and exercise a bit if you didn’t have work to do that would keep you in shape.  I could imagine Edward or Pa’s reaction to the idea of bodybuilding.  Edward could probably walk into one of their competitions and at least get respect, any time of year, and if Pa hadn’t had his ribs so badly damaged when he was young, he probably could as well.  I shook my head.  “You must start a ketogenic diet to lose weight when preparing for competition then?”  I guessed.

She nodded.  “Yes.  Ketogenic diet to burn fat.  When I do workouts to build muscle, I drink a sugar tea for energy.  When the energy is gone, my workout is done, and the carbs are out of my system.  Staying on a ketogenic diet for too long isn’t a good idea unless you’re epileptic or suffering from some types of dementia though.  Too hard to balance it safely without real medical technology.  Not without far more fisc than I have access to.”

“I’ve hit that carb wall a few times myself.”  I muttered, remembering a few instances where I’d been working hard and missed meals.  “Not fun.”

“I imagine it’s a lot harder on you than it is on me.  Even when I’m in top form, I’ve got plenty of muscle and a little fat for my body to cannibalize for energy.”  She looked at me with a critical eye.  “Your body really doesn’t have anywhere to turn for extra energy.  I’m very surprised you’re as strong as you are.”

I shrugged.  The conversation was going places that I didn’t like talking about, but it was me that had continued it.  “Carb depletion for me is a real concern.  Aside from lean muscle and organs, I’ve got nothing but what’s in my blood, digestive tract and liver.  The doctors we’ve talked to in town hope that as I age, my metabolism will slow to some extent and allow me to put on a few kilos.   It’s been something of an obsession for my mother over the years to give me food whenever I leave the farm. ”  I paused a second.  “It’d be nice to have a couple kilos of extra mass.  As it is, I might do myself irreparable harm if I went without food for more than a few days, while most people can survive for three or more weeks without food, if they have to.”

Something in the forest caught my eye.  Walking back towards the camp gave me different sightlines into the forest than I’d had on the way out.  I saw a low, green hump through the trees. The shape and apparent size told me it was probably an oak.  They tended to take up more horizontal space than anything else in the forest.  It might be a few pecan or walnut trees close to one another as well, but the swine might find edible mast under those type trees as well.

I looked down the road towards the camp.  I could see smoke from several fires, and I caught the scent of baking bread.  If I could barely smell the bread, the swine had smelled it long ago, which explained why they had been moving ahead of me rather than behind me as they typically preferred to do under a follow command.  I really wanted to get them a few minutes with good forest mast before taking them back to camp.  They would be irritable if they were hungry with freshly-cooked food smells in the air.

The light levels told me the sun was starting to be obscured by the horizon.  The swine wouldn’t have much time to eat, but I’d have time to fill my pouch with a few liters of acorns if they had started to drop and hadn’t been eaten by local wildlife.

Guiltily, but also with a little sense of relief, I realized that I could use the oak as a way to break off the discussion that had gotten more personal than I’d like.  It wasn’t Anu’s fault; I had made some poor choices during the conversation.  “There’s an oak or maybe another type of nut tree over there.  I’d like to give the swine a few minutes to get some acorns or whatever’s there, and I can fill my pouch with acorns to take back.  If you fill yours too, I’d appreciate it.”

She looked towards camp, and then towards where she couldn’t see the sun, and frowned.  “OK, but we don’t have much time before dark.”

“If there’s a good carpet of acorns, the swine will get enough to satisfy them fairly quickly.  They were eating the whole time we were cutting wood, but it was mostly roots, grass, and leaves.  Filling, but they’ll go for acorns fast if there are any there.”  I looked at the undergrowth along the side of the road.  It was pretty thick; many thick, gnarled, stunted trees and bushes growing on thousands of years of broken road and bridge stones along the side of the road.  If anyone started a farm here, or if nearby farmers started a large stone fence or building foundation, the broken stones would be collected as building materials.  The roadworkers would just keep piling them up until someone came to get them.  That’s what our swine pens on the farm had been build from, five generations ago.  I didn’t want the boars to try to get over that pile of broken stone and bushes with the travois poles still attached.  They could hurt themselves.

I flipped the reins.  “Slow.”  The boars started walking slower.  Another flip of the reins.  “Stand.”  The boars stopped.  I walked around the two boars and dropped two half treats, one for each, so they had to turn away from each other just a little to suck them up off the ground.  They both looked at each other after quickly snapping up their treats, but each saw that the other had finished what they were eating, so nothing came of it.

“Whoah.” I said, and all the swine around me were motionless.  I quickly untied the travois poles, and the chest pole from the boars’ harnesses.  Then I disconnected the reins from the tops of the harnesses.

I looked along the side of the road.  We were on the east side now, as opposed to the west side when I’d walked to the bridge.  I noticed three of the larger females were bunched together, staring at me from next to the thick brush along the road.  Clearly wanting me to end the ‘whoah’ command so they could get back to whatever it was they had found.  I scanned around them, and spotted what they were after.

I pointed at the few blackberries left on the bushes.  “Looks like someone before us got to those before we did.  There aren’t enough of them left to fill them up, but they’ll eat what’s there.”  I pulled out my whistle, blew a quick note, and said “blackberries” while pointing towards the three sows next to the blackberry bushes they had found.

As the more distant swine turned and trotted towards the blackberry bushes that had been mostly cleared out by someone already, I waved for Anu to follow me.  “There’s a good place up here to get over the road debris.” I said, pointing at a large broken bridge slab that must have been quite a chore for even an elefant to lift.  The undamaged slab would have been massive, and probably would have needed a water bucket crane to install.

Anu was watching the swine and chuckled as they rushed towards the blackberry bushes, grunting happily.  “They’re adorable!”

Smiling a bit, I nodded.  “They know the words for certain foods we find in the woods a lot.  Saying ‘blackberries’ and pointing at the bushes gave them direction and motivation from me.  They had all certainly smelled the berries, but they were also smelling the foods from camp, and we were walking that way, so only the bigger sows who are still fairly hungry were looking for berries.  The boars would have been in the bushes already too, if they hadn’t been in harness.  The littler ones mostly filled up at the creek and want camp food instead.  They don’t know they can’t have it.”

Anu looked at me and I shrugged.  “They aren’t desperately hungry.  I just want them full, especially the first night we camp.”

I gripped my axe in my left hand, by the haft, just below the head.  Then I carefully turned the blade away from my body as I hopped up onto the large slab leaning against the low mound of smaller flat, broken stones choked with bushes.

A loud, rapid rattling noise started as my feet landed, and a spike of pure adrenaline hit me.  I was unable to stop my forward motion, my weight continued shifting and my right hand came to rest towards the top of the slab, my left hand still held carefully extended to the side, the blade of the axe still pointed away from me.  Over the top of the slab, I could see a flat, dark stone.

Frozen in shock, I screamed ‘IDIOT‘ at myself as I watched an arm-thick scaled body reshape itself from a loose set of curves on the dark stone into a tight set of s-curves.  A pair of inhuman eyes raised themselves on a scaled column, and vertical striped pupils devoid of any warmth locked onto me.  A forked tongue slashed the air in my direction, seemingly only a few centimeters away, even though I knew it was at least two decimeters away.

Anu was right behind me, and clearly didn’t recognize the noise she was hearing.  “What is that, Allen?”

Fighting to stay immobile through the rush of adrenaline, I mumbled to Anu, moving my mouth as little as possible as I watched the rattlesnake for signs that it was going to strike.  “Snake.  Get back.”

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