“Topher, the forest is no longer a place to play. If I catch you out here again …”
He shook his head, “Not playin’ Mistress Fel … honest. I’m protecting your back.”
I gurgled a laugh and asked, “You’re what?”
With all the dignity a ten year old boy can muster he said, “I’m protecting your back. I know you’re an Outlander but you’re still a girl and shouldn’t be roaming around without an escort.”
I gave him a particularly baleful look and asked, “Who did you hear that bit of wisdom from?”
“Uh …” I cocked my eyebrow and he sighed in resignation. “I heard the Cap’n say that it wasn’t seemly for you to be roaming around all over the place alone and that people would talk.”
I snorted. The Captain couldn’t seem to get rid of his double standard where I was concerned. He needed me to be the Outlander I was but he wanted me to conform to his idea of femininity so he wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with his need. It would take someone as feisty as Winnie to put up with that batch of silliness that is for sure; how she managed it was beyond me, she must be a bit of a lunkhead over the Capitan is all I can think.
I told Topher, “And if I was one of your gentle Kiplinger girls that might just be right. But as you say I’m an Outlander and …”
“No’m … you used to be an Outlander … yers is ours now and I baint too sure I want no no account nobody to be talkin’ ‘bout you when theys ain’t got the right. If’n I’m here they cain’t say nothin’ ‘bout it cause I’m your escort.”
I caught myself before I laughed right in his face. Boys are unaccountably sensitive about their manhood even if they aren’t old enough to have any yet. “Well, while I appreciate the sentiment Topher, I’ve been setting man traps and I would feel terrible if you stepped into one.”
“I wouldn’t feel too good ‘bout it neither I reckon,” he said shaking his head sorrowfully, almost making me laugh again.
“You aren’t going to give this up are you?”
Full of stubbornness he said, “No’m.”
I looked Heavenward for patience and finally told him, “Well I guess then you’ll just have to make yourself useful. Though if you want to stay with me you’ll need to keep up and keep quiet. Understand?”
As good as his word … and Topher was a good boy when he wasn’t running with that pack of older yahoos that he tries to keep up with … the boy helped me that day and several of the next to set spring nooses, wire snares, foot traps, deadfalls, tripping holes, man pits, and a few other vicious little dillies all of which were taught me by my Da. And in the early mornings and in the afternoons while Francine was resting I taught the boy how to make poisoned arrows.
“Topher, I learned about this stuff when I was younger than you. But to be truthful my people would not have been happy had they known that my Da was teaching me. I’m not sure your people would be happy about me teaching you what I know either. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He nodded. “I won’t tell no one. Besides, I don’t think some of the lads would understand that this isn’t anything to play games with.”
I tugged his forelock affectionately. “Good that you’re smart about not everyone being responsible that way. Even if they don’t mean any harm they could practice being stupid too much and someone could get dead. I expect you to be responsible. I want to trust you Topher.”
His little chest swelled up and I knew that I’d chosen the right path. “You can Mistress Fel. And don’t you worry about not being a parent to me … never had none anyhow since I was dropped on the church door and no one knowing whence I come from; wouldn’t know what to do with any if someone was suddenly to decide that’s what they’d be to me.”
I ruffled his hair. “Having parents isn’t like getting sick or being born with a birth mark you goof. I liked having a Da and Ma. Most such people only want the best for you … even when you don’t always think they do.”
“Kinda like the Cap’n wanting you to be a fancy lady when it would be just the worst thing for us all?”
I looked at him sharply. “You shouldn’t say such things Topher.” Sighing I stopped what I was doing and spoke to him seriously. “I know people compare me to Mistress Francine. But we’re two different people and she’s Cor’s wife and …”
“So ere you be,” he pointed out.
I sighed not knowing how to get myself out of that trap. Finally I said, “Francine and I serve different purposes … we have different jobs. I couldn’t be like Francine and she can’t be like me. I don’t know why, it just is that way. But that doesn’t make either one of us better than the other. For Cor’s sake don’t act like it does. OK?”
He sighed. “I asked Jonah one time why things were like they were and he said it was complicated. Why does being grown always make things so complicated? You’d think it’d make it sum easier. But the older I get the more complicated things get.”
I almost laughed again at him acting like a little old man. Instead I told him, “I remember asking my Gran the same question.”
“What’d she tell yers?”
I did laugh then. “She swatted me with her broom and told me to stop asking questions there were no answer to.”
He nodded sagely. “’Bout the same thing Jonah old me only he swatted at me with a willow switch that he’d been using to guide the cows.”
With that subject out of the way and hopefully put to rest permanently we went back to work and made poison from water hemlock, hellebore, and monkshood. Most I used for arrows but a few blow gun darts filled an apron that I now wear everywhere I go. I’ve also got a few small bags of goodies stashed under my voluminous leather skirts but I decided no one needed to know that. The skirts and bags underneath were practically chamois they were so soft and quiet as I moved … no swishing … and I spent extra time waterproofing my moccasins and the rest of my leathers – old and new – with a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax. The blades that I carried were always well sharpened but I double checked them all the same and made sure my bow and quiver would do what I needed them to do. If I had to be in a battle I wanted to have all of my equipment in top shape.
I also started braiding my hair tightly with strips of hide to keep it from snagging bushes and leaving evidence for hunters to find. And I took off all of my Outlander jewelry and accessories and put them away. A few people noticed what I was doing and I could see them discussing it behind their hands. I don’t care. Let them talk and whisper. It is a waste of time that they should be using to prepare their own persons and homes for battle.
And battle it would be. A few reports of raids inside the Kipling territory were already filtering in. What I didn’t like is that they were coming from different directions and spread wide apart. No single tribe of Outlanders I knew would have a force that big much less split themselves that many times for that many different, simultaneous assaults. That meant more than one tribe or band or raider group was moving in. We would just have to defend against one enemy but many.
“Gilly you be wantin’ to speak ter me?”
I nodded. “I’ve never been here for a fight. Do you have fall back positions? Are any of the buildings besides the house set for a siege?”
He smiled wickedly. “Oh sure Gilly. They’s been stocked good. And I seen you been bringing that boy along real good. Some of the men are surprised he already knows how to tie some knots and make some traps. Didn’t have to wonder where he learned ‘em from.”
Giving him a troubled look I said, “Don’t blame him Jonah.”
He rolled his eyes and said, “Haw, as if any would. If you’ve decided to take him under yer wing so much the better. Some of these young un’s are too soft. Been too long since we’ve battled on our own land. After the plague it gots ter where young un’s were treated like glass as ever one was afraid of losin’ another. But I’m not so sure that’s the way it should have run. More like we should have toughened ‘em up. Ain’t done ‘em any favors to make ‘em weak, ‘specially not if we’s gonna see blood.”
I nodded. “My Da used to say that when Ma would worry he was ruining me for a man. He said I was only ruined if I was weak. If I was strong and could take care of myself then I would have more sense than to pick a weak man that would only bully me.”
Jonah picked a piece of meat from between his teeth and muttered, “And did yer Gilly? Get a strong man even if yers didn’t get to pick ‘im?”
I looked at the man and realized he was asking me a question, not so much of a personal nature but whether he could trust Cor to lead if it did come down to a fight … and lead if it came down to a fight against others wanting to take the estate. I told him with complete conviction, “Cor’s got a core of fire and iron and is a true and honorable man; having hard beginning in life didn’t take that away from him.”
Jonah nodded and seemed reassured. The fact that my words could reassure him told me that as much as they wanted and needed Cor to succeed, that at least some of the estate people were unsettled about something.
I went back to the house to hear the latest courier report and found out the estate on the other side of the Lathrops had been attacked. Either it was attacked simultaneously by two different groups or a band of Outlanders and some fighters from the territory just to the east of Kipling had decided to be allies. They didn’t lose too many lives but a few women from outlying farms were stolen, though they were caught and returned before they could be removed across the border. However some food and goods were stolen and some destroyed; food that couldn’t be easily replaced this time of year.
A week later I was walking the estate perimeter while showing some of the people from the village a few variations on the most common booby traps when Topher shot down the path and stopped breathless at my feet. “If ya sees ‘em Mistress Fel, don’t shoot ‘em … it be Cor’s done come home.”
I became immediately concerned. “This is a lot earlier than he said he’d be back. Did they run into trouble?”
He nodded. “Yes’m. Some. Nothing they couldn’t handle but the Mister wants ter see you lickety split.”
“Why?” I asked becoming worried.
But Topher just shrugged. “Ter hear what yers been up to I expect.”
I heard a few sniggers from the men and I knew just what part of their anatomy was doing the thinking at that moment. I snorted but took off at an easy lope taking a different path than Topher had taken. This one brought me up and around one of the orchards and I used the tree line to hide my approach the best I could then used a hedgerow to get close to the house.
There was a bellow of alarm when I came up behind the man that was supposed to be guarding that side of the house. The noise was due to the fright I gave him when I shot him with a chalk bag arrow and marked the front of his pants. Jonah came running and getting an irritated look on his face said, “I’ll handle this Gilly.”
I grinned evilly and told him, “I thought you might like to.” Then I jogged up to Cor who was standing there shaking his head.
“You enjoyed that a little too much.”
I shrugged. “We’ll be fighting Outlanders. Better they get a taste of what that means from me than at the point of a blade.”
He nodded and didn’t seem the least put out by my stunt. Unusually there were several men with him that nodded approvingly as well. A new man then approached through the crowd and I immediately went into a crouch.
“Peace Fel McConnell. I have no war with you.”
The man was a little older than Cor and wore leathers similar enough to mine that it took someone who would know to recognize the differences. To me they screamed Lakesider.
I stood up out of my fighting stance but didn’t put away my blade. The man nodded. “Wise.” I waited and after a moment of quiet contemplation he told me, “There are bad men coming.”
It was unusual for an Outlander to simply reveal information like that and I felt my face go carefully blank. He nodded again and said, “A man came from the west. He wore the old colors and spoke the way of the oldsters and told us that across the Mississippi people had too much. That they had sent us to our deaths by preventing us from escaping the bombs and plagues of the Dark Days and had stolen from us when they didn’t let us have any of the old tech that used to run the land. That the people east of the Mississippi needed to be punished. Many believed him and if they didn’t they followed him anyway because of their love of war and blood.”
Cautiously I asked, “Jake?”
He nodded. “You know my father’s other son well.”
“Well enough. Which makes me wonder what you are doing here and not nursing his head after a bought of drink.”
A cynical twist of his lips told me that I’d guessed right, that their father had sent him along to keep an eye on his older brother who was their headman’s oldest son. They shared a father but not their mothers. “There is not as much fun and profit in the fighting as Jake came to find. He has grown tired of the other men and dreams of our father’s hearth. I lead him and a few other men back across the Mississippi. But not all are weary of battle as my people are.”
I asked, “How will we know this man should he come?”
“Oh, he will come unless Yahweh sends him to hell first.” It was a common enough statement where I was from but it was usually reserved for the most wicked amongst us and gave me some idea of how he was seen by others. “Some say he comes from a hot zone. If he does not come from there his mother spent time near one. Half his face belongs to a monster. He is the size of a rugaru but is hairless wears the curse of the wendigo when he captures an enemy. Beware him Fel McConnell.”
A huge, bald cannibal … lovely … just what I need to have the sweetest dreams about. “Alo, why are you sharing this? Certainly you have no reason to share this with me of all people.”
He shook his head. “I do not hold my uncle’s death against you. He made his choice. Your father was always fair with us and we had no quarrel. Certainly no quarrel with an old woman and babe. And your mother counted my cousin’s first wife as a sister. It was Yahweh’s judgment that a fighter such as he should die at the hands of a girl child. You gave him a more honorable sending than my father would have when he found out.”
I relaxed somewhat after that. Alo was painfully honest. He always had been, even when it cost him or his family standing. He had been picked on since he was a child because of his tongue, nearly as badly as I had. He was close friends with Yahweh and counted his walk with Him more important than his walk with others, even of blood kin. Don’t get me wrong, Alo was still an Outlander and all that that meant, but he was an honorable one and he wouldn’t lie to get his way.
Alo said seriously, “You were never paid for your family’s death. You should have been adopted and raised as a cherished daughter … as my sister … but it did not happen. My mother begged my father but he said it would start trouble and perhaps it would have. I do not know but it could not be any worse than the trouble we have all lived with since. Not honoring my family’s debt has weighed on me. I talked with Yahweh and he said to bring this news to you and it would ease my heart.”
I knew that something needed to be said. “Alo, you’ve always been good friends with Yahweh even when it cost you much in this life. If Yahweh told you this then it must be true.” I sighed and then let a knot go that I’d been holding in my heart. “Do you know the dry well near the large field of agave next to the old highway?” Alo cautiously nodded. “Your uncle wore an ancient blade that belongs to your family. It has a sword crossed with three lightning bolts. If you go down into the well about six feet you will see a stone block with my grandfather’s mark on it. Take the stone out and behind it you will find that blade.”
Alo could not hide the surprise on his face. “That blade belonged to my grandfather and to his father before him. My family thought it lost to us forever.”
We nodded at each other and Alo turned and left. I knew he would be rendezvousing with the other Lakesider men some ways off.
I turned to Cor and demanded quietly, “How did he know I was here?”
A troubled look crossed his face. “I asked him the same thing. He said it was common knowledge that you and your sisters had been sold to Kipling. He then added that Yahweh led him the rest of the way.”
I relaxed. “Well if that is what he said then that is what he believes. Alo doesn’t mess around when it comes to Yahweh.” I looked around and saw a few men giving me a look and I didn’t care for it. I like my skirts on thank you very much. I ignored the trolls the best I could but didn’t have to for long because Cor growled at the men to get back to work, that they could go gawp at the mares if they were that lonely.
After the men turned tail at being caught out I said, “You didn’t have to do that. They didn’t really mean any harm.”
“I don’t care what they meant one way or the other. They’ll either treat you with respect or answer to me about it.” Guiding me towards the house he said, “How has Francine been?”
I opened my mouth to lie and then decided not to; I just had to tread lightly. “She’s been fair upset at your absence.”
He stopped me and looked straight into my face. “Thank you for not lying, but you don’t need to sugar coat it Fel, I’ve already heard it all from Lollie Hudson and the healer at the village. They pulled me aside when I stopped to leave supplies at the church.”
I shook my head. “Some women just get …”
“Don’t make excuses,” he said cutting me off. “I plan on staying until the baby is born. Hopefully that will help. If it doesn’t, I’ll send for a healer from the fort if they can spare any. And if I have to I’ll write to Muriel to see if this is how Francine’s mother acted.” He sighed and a weight seemed to descend on him. “I love Francine. I do. And I owe her respect and tender care as I pledged to her; but I can’t blind myself to what is going on. These days it is not safe to take anything for granted. Danger could come from anyplace and if she takes off …”
I shook my head. “I don’t think she’ll go so far as to run away. She’s too afraid.”
Concerned he asked, “Afraid of what?”
I shrugged. “She won’t be specific. All she’ll say is that something bad is coming.”
He sighed. “Will you come to dinner tonight?”
I thought about it. “Better not. You take the time to see her when I’m not around. I don’t want to influence things and maybe she’ll act different for you. Besides, you’ll need to get caught up with the Captain.”
He looked everywhere but at me but then asked, “If … if it isn’t too late … would you mind if I … uh … came to the cabin to talk for a spell afterwards?”
He’d managed to surprise me. “Why would I mind? It’s not like people are gonna talk. Besides, I’d like to hear how your trip went and why you are home so soon.”
He grinned then. “And I’ll tell you. I’ll make sure the Captain doesn’t keep me too long.”