Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chapter 4


“I told you girl, to treat him well.  All I see is more trouble.”   

I looked up to see Miz Lana in her wagon.  I shrugged.  “I have done what I could to not cause him trouble.”  Looking back over my shoulder I shook my head, “But it appears that boys will be boys until they decide to be men.” 

Miz Lana cackled.  “That way is it?  What was the cause of it if I might be so bold?” 

“I was telling him of the cats of the grassland ahead of us on this road.  He thought I told a story.  I was showing him proof I was not.” 

“And this proof included flashing your silkies?” 

I felt myself redden.  “I have a scar high on my leg from a cat claw.” 

“What?!” she asked in alarm.  “Is this true?” 

Sighing I asked, “I’ll show you but not where the whole wagon train can see.”   

A burly man I had identified as the wagon master said, “And my wife as well to bear out this so-called proof you have.” 

I climb in the wagon with Miz Lana while a rawboned woman of indeterminate age road along beside.  I felt like a dancehall whore, flashing my bare skin, trying to let no man see my wares.  The wagon master’s wife looked and then asked, “How long ago?” 

“Summer before this one past.  The young lioness went after me more for jollies than hunger as there was a fresh bison kill not too much further down the road.” 

The woman looked over at her husband and nodded.  I covered myself as he rode close.  “What can you tell us of these monsters?” 

I shook my head.  “Not monsters, they’re big cats.  Bigger than the tree cats that live in certain parts of the forest in these parts.”  I proceeded to tell them what I had told to Gid.  I noticed both Gid and Tad had ridden up and paced the wagon I sat in.  The wagon master asked, “What else can you tell us?” 

“You do not want to go through the grasslands in the early morning or evening as that is when they hunt most often.  It is safest to travel through in large groups as quickly as possible during the hottest part of the day.  They are sleepy and indolent during the noonday sun since they are up most of the night tracking prey.  If they attack as a group you’ll not get out without some losses.  Keep children and small animals in the wagons.  Avoid fresh kills because even if it wasn’t done by a lion they’ll try and steal it from the predator that did if it is in their territory or if they are hungry.  Do not wander into the tall grass.  Avoid any watering holes that other game is using as they may have it staked out.  If you have a lame animal, muzzle it or it will broadcast its distress and draw the predators for what they think is an easy kill.” 

The men around nodded but one said, “Cross that grassland in a fast day?  We’ll lose at least a wagon if not a beast or two in that airless heat.  And for what?  A child’s nightmare tale?” 

His voice seemed to carry some weight and I knew as quickly as they had started to listen they would close their ears.  I’d watched it happen season after season in the wagon trains.  But this wagon master surprised me.  “You’ll all do as I bid or you can get left behind.  I saw some tracks last time we were through, though they were a couple of days old and barely legible.  I’d never seen the like but it fits with the stories.  I won’t put the women and children to danger just because a few of yers gots too much lead in the arse to get a move on.”  He looked around and then said, “We break early tonight.  Use the time wisely.  From that point we should hit the grassland mid-morning and with due haste be able to make camp half way to the river crossing.” 

Tad gave me a dirty look which I ignored.  I also ignored him when he muttered to no one in particular, “I can’t believe they’re listening to a dimwit.” 

I exited Miz Lana’s wagon on the side opposite from him and Gid and put my back into gathering more wood.  Soon enough there would be none to gather.  The grasslands were only the beginning.  After that came the treeless land around the big river and then the rocky fields that was all that was left of a city that stretched for miles in all directions.  Where they turned off from there I did not know. 

I was able to collect two more bundles of wood and a piece of a third before we broke for the night.  Gid had said nothing more to me though Tad had had fun enough making comments, especially when I stopped to take some wood from a wagon broken down along the road.  “You don’t even have enough sense to respect the dead.  Stealing from them when you could see three crosses lined up at that camp.” 

I told him, “I’ve set my feet to serve the living, not worship the dead.  To me it looked like whoever survived to bury those beneath the crosses was leaving it all so that some other soul didn’t have to follow in their footsteps.  What more generous act could that be?” 

I heard Miz Lana cackle and then say, “Come girl.  Help me lay this fire so we can put some food in their bellies.  Maybe that will settle his lordship’s mood to one less irritating to the rest of us.” 

All her words did was make Tad angrier.  I set myself for a slap or at least a push but he jerked away and stormed off.  Turning I saw Gid watching me but since he said nothing neither did I.   

I didn’t just help Miz Lana set the fire, I did most of the prep and cooking as well while she watched and mended some piece of cloth.  That was fine.  It was a test and I knew it but it saved me from having to make conversation which I was grateful for.  The rabbit I had caught was the only meat in the soup so I diced it fine and seared it before adding the other ingredients.  The soup alone would not carry the men far so I added dumplings.  It thickened the soup into a stew and made it go further besides. 

Like the night before the men ate first, but unlike then Gid wasn’t in time to stop Tad from taking a last bowl that left barely a serving in the bottom of the soup pot.  After the others had left I scraped it out and gave it to Miz Lana, a woman of girth.  “Split it with me child,” she offered kindly. 

I shook my head.  “Regardless of what Gid may think there were no banquets in my past.  I’m used to running long miles on thin rations and it does me no harm.  Besides, I still have two mush patties from breakfast I have not eaten.” 

“Land sakes girl …” 

I took the pot off to clean it rather than listen to her protestations.  When that was finished I came back with it full of water to finish the rest of the crockery.  Miz Lana watched me from her rocker and then said, “You’ve a cool nature.  Most young women would have thrown a fit by now; at the very least had an attitude or felt sorry for themselves.” 

I shrugged.  “Waste of energy.  What good would it do except create more problems?  Better for me to accept the way things are and do my best to make my way.  Fighting only brings beatings and beatings do nothing but make the next several days harder than they could have been.” 

“Had me a father and a husband that used to beat me regular.  ‘Twas almost a sport for them.  When they both finally died I got me a husband that were just the opposite, too soft.  Never understood him nor him me.  He set me aside as I made him feel too bad though my past wasn’t his doing.  Finally wound up with a man that didn’t need to hit but didn’t need to prove he didn’t by being weak.  Took me near about a lifetime to find him and when he died there for a long time I wished they’d planted me with him.”  When I didn’t respond she asked, “What was your Pa like?”

“A good man as men go.  He was raised by the church but never felt the calling to be a Brother himself, nor a traveling preacher though he had the talent for sharing the Good Book so that even the lowliest layman could understand and appreciate what it contained.  Fighting wasn’t his first choice but he could and he was the best in our community at the bow and the sling; that’s who taught me despite some of the Sisters thinking it wasn’t a girl’s place to be skilled in such things.” 

“A progressive was he?” 

“No.  He was just my Papa.  He said it was his duty to make sure that I could take care of myself so that I could do whatever task God gave me in this life.” 

“And your mother?” 

“Soft.  Gentle.  But strong in her own way.  She had beautiful hands that played scissors and needle like a traveling bard plays his strings during story time.  His pledge to God was Papa’s first calling, but Mam was his second.  He kept her safe, worked to see her happy.  When they were together there was barely any need for a lamp their joy in each other was so bright and shiny.” 

Ern who had come to get warm by the fire said, “Sounds like a faradiddle.” 

I nodded.  “Better if it had been.  When Papa died too much of Mam went with him.  She didn’t outlive him by even a day.” 

I’d had enough of questions and of memories.  I stood and packed the last items away in Miz Lana’s wagon and then took the rags off as if I was going to rinse them out by the stream some bit away from camp.  In reality I simply wanted to be away from them.  At least Aunt had meant to hurt me with her words when she bothered addressing me at all.  It was cruel, but easy to put down to her sour nature.   These people wielded weapons that they didn’t even realize they held and I was dying the death of a thousand cuts from their words.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chapter 3


There was no wood to secure which to me was a sign of a band that only had a short distance to travel or didn’t know the area very well.  Miz Lana’s cooking gear was put into a wagon by a young man she said was her nephew.  I went to stand by the wagon I had slept beneath. 

Tad walked up and sneered, “You expecting to ride like the rest of the bought goods?” 

Risking his wrath I said, “I’ll do as the one that bought me bids.” 

The one called Ern called over, “Lay off Tad before you put Gid in a mood.” 

“He’s always in a mood,” Tad said taking a step closer to me, crowding my personal space.  I hadn’t considered this problem and had no desire to get caught between brothers.  There had been stories of it in the antique books in the library and they never ended well, especially for the female caught betwixt and between. 

I clinched my fists that were hidden in my cloak but was saved from having to do something by Miz Lana who waddled over and poked Tad with her walking stick. “Go.” 

“Don’t tell me what to do old woman.” 

“You’ll mind me or else you’ll not eat at my cookfire and if it comes to that I’ll make sure no one else will have ya either ya wicked sprat.  You’re cementing trouble we don’t need.” 

“She’s nothing but a dimwit and so much uglier than Vaniece that she makes me want to puke.  I told Gid to pick a different one if he had to have it regular but he was some set on her for some reason.  What do we need her for?  Just another mouth to feed when there’s little enough to go around as it is.”  He would have said more but Gid showed up and with barely any effort threw his brother in the direction of his horse. 

“Move.” 

“I have a right to have a say in this!” 

“And you’ve said it.  Now your say is over.” 

Almost beseechingly he said, “Gid …” 

“I said move.  When we get back to the village you can go on about your way.  You’ll have your place.  I’ll have mine.” 

“There’s no need for this.  Surely another, less ugly, would …” 

“Enough.”  His voice was terrible and forbidding and I realized the man who had bought me could possibly be more frightening than any of Aunt’s men had been. 

Tad seemed to gather some sense finally and brushed himself off like he was washing his hands of the whole situation.  He walked over and gathered the reins of his horse in hand and then mounted, treating us all like we didn’t even exist.  Gid turned to me and I swallowed and held onto my composure despite shaking on the inside. 

Instead of the bloodletting I had expected he said calmly, “The horses are overworked and should not be asked to pull more than what they are already doing.  Can you walk or do I need to take you up behind me?” 

Quietly I answered, “I can’t gather wood from horseback.” 

After a moment and a searching glance he nodded and then turned to talk with the brother called Ern who was sitting on the wagon seat as driver.  Soon enough the call was given and we headed out.  I walked beside the wagon but saw little of Gid or Tad during most of the morning and Ern thankfully desired to avoid any conversation with me.  After I ate one of the mush patties I began picking up wood and slinging it into a bundle I was building on my back.  It was nothing but small wood fit for little more than kindling but it was all there was.  Travelers before us had stripped the ground of anything bigger than that and in fact the limbs that remained on the trees were well above the heads of even those riding in the high wagons. 

The wood bundle was getting awkward when a horse came near enough to cause me to move tight against the wagon.  I felt the bundle being pulled and made to grab it.  “Easy.  This must be getting heavy.  Tie it to the wagon with the straps that hang over the side.” 

“Not heavy,” I told him yet complying.   

“Then you’re stronger than you look,” Gid said eyeing me as I walked and worked at the same time. 

I shrugged since it didn’t really matter if I was or wasn’t, it was a job that had to be done if there was to be a fire to cook over. 

To fill the silence since I wouldn’t Gid said, “Ern saw you use a sling against the dogs.” 

Ern, from his seat on the wagon said, “I had just spied them from my spot in the trees.  I was drawing my bow when I saw ya let go at the one that tried to take that babby.” 

Disliking their combined attention I merely said, “There’s wild dogs everywhere.  If it isn’t dogs it’s some kind of cat.  If not that then bears, or boars, or raiders, or some other beast.  Something is always out to eat you when you are on the trail.” 

Gid nodded in agreement then asked, “How good is your aim?” 

It was not my intention to show off.  He asked a question and I was merely going to answer it via demonstration.  I pulled out the sling, put a small stone in the cradle thinking to knock down a pine cone but just then movement off the trail caught my eye as a rabbit bounded for cover deeper into the woods.  My projectile caught it in the head and the jackthumper tumbled and came to rest all in a heap.  I went to walk to get it but a dog zipped out and scooped it up.  I thought the meat lost until it trotted back to me and offered it up. 

The dog was huge, the top of its head coming to my chest.  It could have easily been mistaken for a small pony.  Not wanting to do anything to set such a large monster off I froze.  Gid told me, “Take it and then tell him good dog.” 

I cautiously stuck my hand out and the dog laid the carcass across it and seemed quite pleased as if he wanted to play the game again after I had told him he was a fine specimen.  Once I was over my initial fear I realized the look on the dog’s face reminded me of the dogs my father had kept for hunting though none were near so large as the one that now walked beside me. 

“Roof seems taken with you.” 

“Not me … the game.  Papa’s dogs were the same.  They lived for hunting.  They preferred playing the game with Papa but they would accept me if he were busy.  Papa called them beagles.” 

“The village Huntsman trades with a man who raises beagles from the next valley over.  Noisy dogs.  Roof is quiet; a cross between a nagazi and a wolfhound.”  When I just looked at him he added, “Those are breeds of dogs.  We use them to keep the wolf population down, especially during birthing seasons.  Roof was mated and there was a large litter.  I will get one of the puppies when we arrive in the village.” 

I nodded and Roof consented to my hesitant attention, making it easier for me to scratch an itch he had behind his ear.  “Yes,” I admitted as I did Roof’s bidding.  “Beagles can be noisy; excitable.  They use their voices to call each other and flush their prey.  Roof is so big he doesn’t need to be noisy.  His size alone probably shocks what he is after into insensibility.” 

Then I sealed my lips, realizing that I had inadvertently dropped my camouflage.   I thought Gid hadn’t noticed it but then after a moment he reached down and pulled me up behind him sending Roof to look for his attention elsewhere.  Gid took the rabbit from me and deposited it in Miz Lana’s wagon then and walked his horse off road.  When we reached the brush trail that ran parallel to the road we could still see the wagon train but were far enough away to speak privately. 

He asked me harshly, “Is your name really Yulee?” 

Knowing it could be nothing but the truth I told him, “Yes sir.” 

He snorted.  “Save your sirs.  I’m immune to feminine wiles.”  I shook my head and though he couldn’t see it he must have sensed it because he snorted.  “All females have them.  They’re packaged that way in the womb.” 

I sighed, already disappointed that I hadn’t been out from under Aunt a full turn of the day and I was already in trouble.  Quietly I told him, “That’s not the way I was raised.  Even had I been so inclined my Mam and the Sisters would have punished me for that type of behavior.  There’s too much danger in being misunderstood, too much danger of someone getting hurt.” 

He grunted then did some more fishing.  “Miz Lana said you were raised by the church.” 

“Not by the church; within the church.  Papa and Mam still raised me, I wasn’t an acolyte.  Our church wasn’t run that way.  We were … um … I don’t know what they are like where you are.  Our church was a community church.  The Word was most important, but so was serving and bearing fruit.  We looked after each other and took care of those too young or weak to care for themselves.” 

He chuffed a biting chuckle.  “One of them communes you hear tell of?” 

Calmly I answered him, “No sir.  We didn’t live all together on top of one another and share in the ownership of everything.  We worked together but we stewarded and were responsible for what God gave us to care for as individuals and families.” 

He was silent for a moment.  Then with less antagonism asked, “I said enough with the sirs.  Answer me this … That woman was truly your aunt?” 

I tried not to shudder as I answered, “Truly.”   

Unfortunately some of my feelings escaped into my voice.  “That was the way of things was it?  A bad life?” 

After a moment of thinking how to phrase it I wound up simply saying, “Yes.” 

He was silent again.  He must have decided I wasn’t the threat he had worried I might be.  “My name is Gid.” 

“So I heard.” 

Another silence. 

I could hear both frustration and curiosity in his voice when he said, “You are strange for a female.  You ask no questions.” 

This time the silence was mine before saying, “I’ve learned it is safer to listen.  There is an old saying; better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it true.” 

“Heard that one myself.”  He gave another sigh before saying, “Fine, then listen.  I … I bought you because I need a woman.  You’ll hear I nearly had one before you but that she changed her mind.  That parts true.  You’ll hear it was my brother that she chose over me.  That part is true as well.  You’ll hear my heart is broken.  That part isn’t true.  You’ll ignore it hear me?” 

His forceful question demanded an answer.  “Yes sir.” 

“Last time … enough of that sir business; save it for the elders who’ll appreciate it.  You’ll call me Gid.  Or Gideon; that’s what my stepmother and sisters call me.” 

“Yes … Gid.” 

“Good enough so here’s more.  You’ll hear that because of my so-called broken heart I’m destroying my life and running away.  That’s another untruth, or wishful thinking by some.  I’m going away but not running away and it isn’t to destroy my life but to make something of it.  I have land; it’s mine from my mother’s brother.  Father left the block house in the village to my brother as there was too little to piece out to each of us.  He is the head of the family and for the last three years has been responsible for caring for all of the family same as Father was before him.” 

“Uh … Tad or Ern?” 

He snorted, “Neither.  Jace.  He is the oldest son from my father’s first marriage.  Jace then Sabrina, then Heather.  Jace’s mother died of childbed fever after birthing Heather.  Then Father married my mother.  From that marriage there was only me and a sister buried in the village lot after getting born backwards.  My parents didn’t get on after that and decided to go their separate ways.  But when I was five my mother sent me to live with Father because she said I needed a man’s hand and he was it since she wasn’t in the mood to have another man in her life when Father could do his duty to me for free.  Mother died the following spring when she was thrown from her horse.  By the time I moved back into Father’s home, he had remarried yet again and there were enough babies in the house that you had to wade through them as the widow Lurna came with several young children from her first marriage.  Together Lurna and my father were pretty prolific.  Tad was the only son from Lurna’s first marriage and Ern the first son that Lurna bore my father.  Don’t even bother trying to remember all of the names of the others because even Lurna forgets who is who on occasion.  Most of the time they’ll answer to whatever name you call them so long as you are looking at them when you talk.” 

Hesitantly I said, “It sounds like the church orphanage … only … only perhaps noisier.” 

“Aye, it’s that and then some.  By rights there’s too many for the block house to hold.  There’s kids everywhere including in hammocks slung between the rafters of the attic like wreaths of garlic and onions and just as noisome.  Jace is like father; he loves the controlled chaos and does his best to make them even noisier and louder when he is in the mood for a good time.  He’s a gun smith by trade, same as father was, and most of the young boys are apprenticed to him though the blacksmith who has nothing but daughters has taken on a few since he and Father were cousins.  Lurna is a spinner and most of the girls are apprenticed in textiles save for the oldest ones who are married with homes of their own.” 

“And you?” 

He snorted.  “Neither trade interests me beyond the necessary.  I take after my mother’s family and like farming and hunting and wild places.  The village is getting too crowded and the block house doubly so.  It is time that some spread out before we starve ourselves out or bring in some plague that runs through it like wildfire.  But too few are willing to live outside the wall.” 

Curious despite myself I asked, “Your village has a wall then?” 

“Aye.  Built during the Great War but it has been added to since then.  It gives them a false sense of security.” 

I nodded.  “Our community had a wall as well, but it didn’t stop the raiders from sending over plague ridden corpses when they found that a siege would not work fast enough to suit them.” 

He reached back and startled me when I felt him touch me.  “Is that how it happened?  How you wound up with that woman?” 

I sighed.  “Yes.  Father was a guard.  He tried to explain to the Elders what could happen.  He’d heard stories of that particular group of raiders.  But sometimes the horrors are just more than people want to believe.  And by the time they understand they must believe or perish, it is too late.” 

He was silent for a moment.  “I have obligations at the block house that will take a day or three then we’ll head out.  The land lies a half-day’s ride from the village.  You’ll hear … stories.  You … you may not …”  He stopped and sighed, once again in irritation.  “Lurna, Jace … all of them … they’ll try and turn it into high drama and you’ll be the center of it.  They’ll set on you and … and try and draw you in.  I don’t want to see my family hurt.” 

After a moment I said, “You’ll need to tell me what your wishes are.” 

“My wishes?” he barked.  “I wish none of this need be, but it is.  I wish the pages in my life would have turned as I planned them to.  I can live with the way things are so long as I don’t have to listen to it day in and day out.  Their managing grows wearisome, their pity … unacceptable.”  He gave a discontented growl that told me more than words could, whether he meant to or not.  He shook himself then said, “Ignore them if you can but I doubt a dead man could.  But I warn you, do not hurt them.  They don’t deserve any pain from this.  Vaniece made her choice and I’m not so broken or vengeful that I want it to split the family.  Not to mention it is going to be hard enough for them to accept an outsider like you especially with the stories Tad is probably going to tattle.  You’re too different from what they know, what they had planned for me.” 

I blinked and realized I was making a mistake opening up to this man as much as I had.  I’d shared more words with him than I had with anyone since Old Annie had died.  I wanted to snap then why chose me if he had known it would displease his family but instead closed myself back off and calmly spoke, “It will be as you say.” 

“It had better.” 

I expected for him to take me back to the road but he did not.  I tried to ignore the unease between us.  I realized I preferred Aunt’s open hostility to the strangeness of a man who did not relish his seeming dislike of me.  He broke my reverie by saying, “Your shoes are serviceable for now but you’ll need winter boots.” 

I swallowed, uncomfortable with him noticing something so personal.  “I … I have fur lining for them for when the cold starts blowing.” 

He grunted.  Then, “You’ll need warmer garments.” 

“I layer what I have and trade off from inside to outside until it is warm enough for a wash day.” 

He said impatiently, “Lurna will see you dressed properly.  I won’t be shamed but I won’t be delayed either.  You don’t need a whole wardrobe like a debutante.” 

Feeling the pinch of my pride, something that I hadn’t let happen for a long time, I told him, “I need no one to make my clothes for me.  This cloth may be rough and thin but the stitches are strong and sure.  My mam was a seamstress and taught me the skills of cutting and sewing.” 

He nodded in relief.  “At least that is something.”  There was a pause like he was ticking off items in his head.  “Cloth it is then.  I’m due that much from the coffers at least.  But we take no more food than what I was able to trade for at the Buy n’ Sell.  There is none for wasting so don’t think there will be banquets as you are used to.” 

Again I felt the pinch of pride, so strange after being absent for so long.  If he only knew.  I drew my mind back to practical matters.  “This place you say we go.  What is it like?  Forest, prairie, rocky moraine?” 

“Forest except for the fields, though there are areas of rocks where they tumbled down from the mountains during the Great War.  For two years I’ve fought to keep the sprouts from encroaching and reopen fields that have lain fallow for nearly a generation.  Why?  Ye’ve got a preference?” 

I ignored his question as his tone said he could have cared less even had I preferred one over the other.  My lot in life was chosen.  I had agreed to be a good slave and servant.  But something had awakened in me. I may hide myself from others, from his family, but if he knew I was not dim then maybe it was time for him to find out just how not dim I was.  “I’ll have to see the lay of the land and see how the season goes once you take me there but if there is a wild edible to forage I’ll find it and put it on your table.  I kept the caravan from starving from point to point even when on first glance there was nothing to be had but lichen and limewater and yet did it so that no one ever realized how I pieced out the meager scraps in the food baskets or what I did it with.  I can keep illness at bay but not if death is determined to have the patient … but that angel will have to fight to win for I’ve seen him too often to fear him any longer.  If you’ve animals I can care for them as well as I do a person.  I can help prepare your meat and season it so that it will last longer and not spoil to make you and yours ill.  I’ll mend your clothes, scrape your furs and hides, clean your hearth, cook your food.  And I’ll do it without yapping you deaf with complaints.” 

I snapped my teeth together.  It had been too long since I’d allowed anger to ride me this way.  I calmed myself with a deep breath and then thinking of a distraction said quietly, “We’ll be coming to a large flat area of tall grass.  This time of year it is all brown and grows right up to the road bed.” 

He let my previous comments pass without a slap and agreed, “Aye, we passed through it coming while it was still green.” 

“But do you know it?  Do you know the dangers it holds this time of year?” 

“I’ve heard stories.  What stories have you heard?” 

“Not stories,” I told him.  “Actual experience.  There are great cats that hunt in the tall grass.  They are called lions.  A huntsman from a village on the outskirt of the grassland saw the carcass of the animal we killed and told us that before the Great War there were men that paid large sums of money to hunt for sport what were then called exotic animals.  Other men, seeking to earn coin from such wasteful insanity imported dangerous animals to places they had no business being and called them hunting preserves.  When the Great War came the fences fell and those animals escaped and became truly wild, migrating to the lands that suited them best.  With no natural predators and too few men to hunt them, such animals grew in number; sometimes they are so numerous they over hunt the local prey and turn to men to hunt as man once hunted them.” 

“You claim to have seen these monsters?” 

I sighed then tapped his shoulder.  He looked to see me lift the hem of the leather skirt I wore to protect the cloth one beneath it and then the slip that lay between those coverings and my skin.  There on my thigh lay four parallel scars where I had barely escaped death before the bouncer for Wash’s tavern had speared the animal through its chest and pinned it down until it finished its death throes. 

Tad’s sneering voice came from behind us.  “Shoulda figured she was trying to bed ya.  Taking a little longer to entice ya than it normally does Gid, must be her pretty face.  What decent female lifts her skirts in full view of a wagon train?  This should show you …” 
I jerked the leather down to cover myself but suddenly slid from the back of the horse then had to scramble out of the way of the hooves when Gid and Tad ripped at each other from the saddle.  Disgusted with the both of them I turned my back and started picking up wood and making my way back to the wagon train. 

Chapter 2


“Guardsdaughter?  Don’t lie to me girl.” 

I tried not to bristle at the implied judgment that my family could never be so exalted.  “My father was a church guard.  The Brothers christened us all with our names.” 

“Was?” the hidden man who had addressed me before asked with something like real interest. 

“Was.  My family … they were carried off by the angels almost five winters ago.  We served in a place on the other side of the peaks.” 

The legal man asked, “And how did ye wind up here?  The church excommunicate ye?” 

Carefully as I did not want trouble in case Aunt was lurking I said, “No sir.  Family took me in and then migrated to new barter routes.”  I nearly choked on the words but got them passed my lips without vomiting. 

With that the legal man lost interest, ceased his questions, filled out the sheet of skin and put his seal on it, handed it to the hidden man and then walked away to finish a few more late transactions.  I stood there, still reeling from God’s timing. 

“Yulee?” 

I jerked my head towards the voice.  “Sir?” 

The third man who had not spoken to that point said, “Well, she’s polite enough.” 

Ignoring him the man who had taken my paper said, “Are you so calm because you plan on running away?” 

His question caught me off guard.  “Run to where?  To whom?” 

“To freedom.” 

I shrugged.  “To me, this is freedom.” 

After a moment he asked a thoughtful question.  “Your former life was so bad?” 

Carefully, thinking it might be another one of my Aunt’s games I searched the crowd.  Hesitantly I asked, “Have you truly bought me?” 

He sounded like a man that wasn’t used to his questions being answered with a question but in this case he seemed to let it go.  “Aye.  Five silvers.” 

I exhaled in relief.  “Aunt will be fit to be tied but that’s no longer my problem.”  Moving my shoulders a bit to settle my small pack of belongings a bit more easily I asked, “What are my duties?” 

The man was a long time answering but the disbelieving snort of one of his companions and the snickering of the other revealed at least part of my job before the man said, “Housekeeper.”  His answer only caused his companions to increase their amused reaction. 

For me I was not surprised.  The only thing I yet worried about was if he expected me to serve his friends as well as himself.  I didn’t let that show however and when I didn’t react the two other men slowly left off their hilarity.  The hidden man said, “We have miles yet to cover before the stars come out.  You’ll need to eat as we walk.  Are your shoes fit for such travel?  Is your water skin full?” 

I decided then and there that him I would serve willingly and with as much grace as I could find.  The Sisters at the church that gave us lessons said that slavery was wrong but that it existed in the world because humanity was sinful by nature and that in a sense we were all slaves of one sort or another, even those that claimed to be free.  The Good Book explained that if there were going to be masters, servants, and slaves that each of us were required to be good ones in whatever capacity we found ourselves; that we had a responsibility to reflect our teachings at all times, not just when we were at the top of the food chain. Papa had told me that the mark of a free man or woman was revealed in how they treated those under their authority. 

“My feet are toughened to walking but I have no water.” 

We stopped at the pump to fill our skins.  I heard familiar voices and instinctively hid behind the man with the hidden face.   

“Let’s find her and take her back.  We can get more for her putting her ter work as one o’ the girls.” 

“Nah, let er go Gizzy.  Yer gots yer coins though fewer than you thought, and it’ll buy enough grain to get to the winter camp.” 

Still whining she asked, “Who’s gonna cook and clean?” 

Philosophically Wash answered, “Shoulda thought o’ that afore yer put her in the pens.” 

Aunt screeched, “It was your idea!” 

Warningly he responded, “Were not and yer raise yer voice ter me like that again and I’ll backhand you inter next week.” 

“Hah! You’ve not got the bollocks to pull it off.” 

Their squabbling voices finally faded but I stayed where I was trying to calm my racing heart.  One of the men asked jovially, “Friends of yours?  Should we call them back so that you can say your goodbyes?”  His question only made me want to hide behind the one that held my paper even more. 

He said, “Enough Tad.”  To me he asked, “You have a coat?  We will be camping higher up and it will be cool.” 

I reached behind me into my pack and pulled the thin garment that was both my cloak and my bedding by turn.  I put it on and tied it in place.  He sighed but nodded.  From a pocket he pulled a cloth wrapped bundle.  “Here.  Eat as we walk but do not lag behind.  The way is steep.” 

I fell in behind the man whose name I still did not know.  The bundle held two meat pies, greasy but stuffed with not just cooked, ground meat but with mashed vegetables as well.  I took my time despite the hunger gnawing my insides; twisted guts from inhaling the rich food was not something I wanted on a long hike nor would the men appreciate the inevitable delay it would cause. 

By the time we reached the place they had chosen to camp someone had gotten there before us, or so I thought.  Instead, after a moment of observation, I realized the three men and the new people were part of the same travelling group.  There were quiet greetings but it was late and many were already asleep.  I was summarily ignored for a while so I stood quietly to the side.  Finally the man beckoned me over to a wagon.  “Crawl under and make your bed.  I will return shortly.” 

There was no threat in his voice but there was expectation of obedience in every syllable.  I suppose I could have run away but that would be like stealing.  The man had paid true coin for me, not just barter goods.  In a very real sense he had also rescued me, rescued Aunt and Wash as well though they’d never know it.  Before the first snow fell it would have been me or them, there was no doubt in my mind of that.  So I owed him something, at least for a while, and if not him I owed God and needed to show proof that my upbringing was better than that of a dweller of the corrupted lands. 

I had not meant to fall asleep but the day conspired to sap my strength.  The next thing I remember is growing warmer and that startled me enough that I woke.  “Easy,” a gruff voice sounded in my ear.  “There is no need for silly hysterics.  I have last watch and would like to get some rest.” 

I wanted to tell him I’d never had hysterics in my life but with his cloak spread over us we both found sleep too quickly for me to even imagine the conversation that would have been. 

I woke when he moved and then followed him out from under the wagon.  He seemed uncomfortable and at a loss for words when we came out of the woods after seeing to our ablutions.  Then he gave a shrug that was almost resentful and without a word turned and disappeared into the darkness.  

I stood there, numb, wondering what I should be feeling before deciding it was best not to feel anything at all.  I looked around and saw people silent and asleep around the coals of the fire that had been banked to last through the night.  The boy that had been set to feed it had fallen over, derelict in his duty but none of the guards seemed to notice.  Then off in the brush and trees that surrounded the camp I saw them. 

Eyes.  At least a dozen, maybe more.  I swallowed the lump that had formed in my dry throat.  What little spit I had was frozen and I couldn’t have squeaked a warning even had I been the type to make such noise.  Slowly I pulled my sling from the pouch on my belt as well as a few pieces of ammunition that, out of habit, I had collected along the hike the evening before. 

I looked around wondering where the guards were; where was the man?  Was I seeing things?  Did these dogs belong to the camp?  Why did no one notice them but me? 

Then I saw a large black specimen slink closer.  And closer still.  He was intent on a bundle that lay beside a woman.  The bundle mewed just a bit and I could almost see the spittle dripping from the great fangs that gleamed in the moonlight.  I almost waited too late. 

There was a yelp of great pain right before the jaws could clamp on the baby to carry it away.  The woman gave a piercing shriek and then there was snarling and snapping and the camp awoke in chaos.  I took a limb from the fire and shook it to make it flame.  Just in time too as one of the feral beasties tried to take me down at the back of the knees.  I was uncomfortably familiar with such tactics and the mongrel got a singed snout and ear before I could lose a leg. 

It was over in minutes.  Man in numbers still triumphed over a pack of beasts though some might say there wasn’t that much difference between the two groups.  The carcass of the dead dogs were pulled away and summarily skinned though their meat could not be consumed as there was no way to know what they had been dining on before they sought to munch on us.  Feeding on something that had been living in a corrupted area was a sentence to a long and agonizing death whether you be human or animal.   

There were some injuries amongst the travelers but not many and none were life threatening though they would be painful for a few days and would need to be warded against infection.  I saw the camp had a healer so I didn’t say a word.  The most painful of all though was the paddling the boy who was supposed to be tending the fire was receiving at the hands of a large man who appeared to be the wagon master.  I closed my ears to his howls as he could have cost many their lives. 

I saw an old woman struggle to right her cooking pot and bent to help her.  She looked at me curiously but offered no words merely pointed and with motions told me where things belonged.  That is where the man found me some minutes later. 

He told said, “So you’ve found some work.  Good.  Continue as Miz Lana directs you until I return.” 

I nodded and then continued my task.  He stared at me a moment longer then went about doing his own straightening though it seemed more about setting people to right than the mess of belongings strewn under everyone’s feet from the melee.  The old woman reminded me of my Old Annie.  Her sighs said nothing and everything, as if she had seen far too much in this life to put up with the nonsense of the young.  “Well girl, since it appears I’m to be your keeper for a bit ye mind telling me your name?” 

“Yulee.” 

“Never heard such a name before.” 

“It was my mother’s name, before she married my papa.  The Brothers thought it fitting to christen me thus.” 

“A church born are ye?” 

“My father was raised in a church orphanage.  He protected those that had raised and protected him as a child.  Mam and I did our duty as well.” 

“Hmmm.”  After a moment she asked, “Are ye fit for work or only for churching duties?” 

I knew what she meant but took no offense.  I realized early on as I traveled with Aunt that our church was different from many others that seemed to only be concerned with study of the Word and singing the old songs.  I mean no disrespect, studying the Word is a high calling that we should all aspire to, but we are also called to serve.  Our church had not been concerned with the soul alone but with the body that housed it as well.  We didn’t live a cloistered life away from the rest of the world; we believed we’re expected to share the knowledge of the difference between good and evil and where both come from.  To that end it was too hard for people to hear the Word if their ears were forever filled with the cries of an empty stomach or the pain of an illness.  Rather than explain all that I answered simply, “I can work.” 

“Hmmm.  I supposed we’ll see.  Gid and his brothers eat at my fire this trip.  Best that he see what the pig in the poke he bought can do sooner as later.  Start parching the morning brew.  They drink it by the bucketful so you’d best hope it be done well or they’ll be worthless and foul the rest of the day.” 

Putting two and two together I realized the man who had bought me was named Gid.  The two men that had been with him were likely his brothers and one had been called Tad.  I stored the meager information away and then concentrated on the task at hand.   

Wash had been another one that demanded a good morning brew though he often wasn’t awake to drink it until the sun was high in the sky; most of Aunt’s men had been the same, especially the ones she married.  If it wasn’t to their liking there’d be consequences, usually painful or humiliating.  Over the last two years Wash had found plenty to complain about but never my brew or my cooking. 

I was frying mush patties when the one called Tad came over.  “Oh Lord Miz Lana, you mean you let her touch the food?!  I wanna eat, not worry if some dimwit has ruined it or poisoned me.” 

He had no idea how true his words could have rung had I been some other type of female but rather than say a word or make a sound I pulled my calm around me like a wall.  His words couldn’t touch me.  Nor the other one either when he arrived and said much the same thing.  I simply continued to cook as they complained and exasperated the old woman. 

“Enough.”  I knew that voice and had a feeling I would come to know the tone.  Gid had arrived. 

“Tad, Ern … eat and then load your gear.  Or don’t eat and load your gear.  Your choice.”  I heard the implicit threat as well as the brothers did.  They grumbled but allowed Miz Lana to fill their mugs with brew.  Since I didn’t hear any strangling or sputtering – or feel the soles of their boots kicking me into the cookfire – I took it that the brew was well enough to suit them.  In fact they made no sound at all as they inhaled the fried mush patties almost as quickly as I could move them from the pan to the serving platter.  The only sound that escaped them was the occasional hiss as they took one that was still as hot as the skillet that it had just been kissing. 

From the corner of my eye I saw that Gid also took his share. I was scrapping the last patty from the pan when he gave a look at Tad and Ern.  They grumbled but stopped feeding their faces and turned to set their gear to rights as the sky turned pink above the peaks.  Gid divided the remaining patties between Miz Lana and me and said, “We likely won’t stop until we make camp tonight.”  With that he turned away.  I folded the patties that had been left for me in the piece of cloth that my supper had come in and put them in my cloak pocket; there was still work to do. 

Miz Lana nodded in his direction as he walked away.  “You see he stopped those other two gluttons from eating all there was.  Gid takes care of things so do him right girl.  You may not be what was expected but if you can cook it will be more than what he was after before.  And being a little dim your feelings won’t get hurt on what you’ll never have.”  I filed that cryptic bit away.  Had it been under any other circumstances I might have brought myself to ask a question but I still had too little understanding of the man called Gid, the man that had bought me, to risk it.  Miz Lana certainly wasn’t volunteering anything more as she was busy putting her hand to cleaning and packing her own gear.   

As a matter of habit I scooped some of the red hot coals into a lidded clay pot from my pack which I then wrapped in a couple of protective furs.  The pot secured in its normal place I glanced up to catch several women watching me from the corner of their eye and a few openly staring.  I ignored them.  The Tavern whores used to do the same thing.  Usually they were trying to provoke me to some mistake to get me in trouble, or make me feel like I was already making one, though often enough it could also be something more sinister to it.  Being on the bottom of the pecking order in such a group was a dangerous place and I quickly learned to tread carefully and make as few ripples as possible.