How fitting! Today is my final blog post in January, and Part 22 is the final chapter of The Meek Valley Incident. The free ebook downloads are now available! :D
I'd say I planned it for the story to wrap up at the same time as finishing January, meaning I'd have everything set up to have posts throughout the holidays, but I'd be lying. I have zero ability to plan 22 weeks ahead for pretty well anything.
This past week was a good one. For the first time in my adult life I have a stand mixer in my kitchen that I actually want in my kitchen. It was a gift from me to myself. I love baking, but my hands simply can't tolerate hand mixing anymore. I've had stand mixers before, ones that well-meaning people gifted me – one that was even ridiculously expensive – and they've all lived in the dark, obscure corners of my kitchens and then been given away or sold to people who actually want them.
This isn't a schedule I recommend to anyone, especially because I was working full time when writing during those hours and my health and wellness suffered a lot for those years. Next week's uninterrupted time with my computer, though? I'm so excited!! I hope you're staying safe and well this weekend!
They couldn’t see up the mountain when they looked, it was still snowing too hard, but the sky was lighter than it had been yesterday morning. It looked like this storm was going to blow itself out before the end of the day. Justin and John loaded the final supplies and spare parts, and then the trio set off with the wind driving them forward. By nightfall their land-travelling boat was splashing through ruts and puddles back in the middle of the storm. The people they passed called out to them and laughed at the strange, wind-driven cart.
At the end of a week from leaving the barn, they stood at the top of a ridge of cliffs and looked down at the harbor town Tam had brought them to. Justin scanned from the dock to the horizon for familiar sails and saw one Opattan navy ship in the distance, two ships with Korballi-owned company sails at the dock, four ships with the white sails marking them as independent merchants dotting the town’s bay, and the distinct red triangles on white of a couple of Montrade-owned ships. Both Montrade ships were anchored on the northern side of the bay and had skiffs running between them – likely exchanging news, mail, or updated orders. One of the Montrade ships was obviously arriving due to how high it was sitting in the water, and the other was obviously leaving for the opposite reason. Justin wanted to avoid his family’s ships, if possible. He wasn’t currently in appropriate dress – and knew he wasn’t previously travelling under appropriate sails – for dealing with any of those Captains who might recognize him.
He estimated his mother and uncle were still a week up the coast, nearer the city where Justin and the other crewmen had been captured. A week would be too long to wait, he reasoned after having learned first hand the quickness of mountain scouts when catching up to whoever they were hunting. Tam and John were certain nobody from the mine could have followed them at the same pace they were running away, but Justin believed that destroying the mine was a likely cause for retribution and didn’t want to be the only strangers in town when the news arrived.
“Well?” John asked, impatient to get moving again now that it appeared they really would be leaving Opat sooner instead of later.
“We’ll have to tear down the sail-cart,” Justin stated. “We look too rough to have been travelling in what could be viewed as comfort.”
Tam sighed in relief and clicked open the ratchets of the harness holding her in place. She was on the ground before the harness straps had finished their first swing after being dropped. Justin followed her down, chuckling at how eager she was to get rid of their contraption. Tam repacked all the supplies and weapons for carrying while John and Justin tore down and saved anything useful or that they could sell. John paused a moment with his hand on the crowbar. It was the last thing they could take for trading, if they brought it.
His lack of movement caused both Justin and Tam to look up at their newest companion from where they were finishing tying up the packs. “We can bring it,” Justin offered quietly.
John shook his head to the negative. “With us as strangers, looking like this and carrying a mining tool is asking to get arrested once news of what happened reaches the coast.” He climbed down and shoved the empty frame, crowbar still attached, over the cliff.
Tam led them on foot into the town, quickly selling things to people she knew from trading rugs in previous years and gaining clothes for herself and enough chips in exchange to rent a room for a few hours along with baths at the only steam lodge in town. She washed and dressed quickly and then disappeared while Justin and John were still cleaning up, returning after having sold almost everything to purchase food for the next few days and clothing for John and Justin that wasn’t so obviously different. Justin gratefully got rid of the coat the mine’s guard commander had given him, pausing as he was buttoning the new one when he noticed Tam staring at him from where she was sitting on the bed. She’d already dressed in new clothes before delivering the things she’d gotten for them.
“What?” he asked looking down at his clothes and hands for what was so out of place it had caught her eye.
Her gaze shot to where her hands were knotted in her lap, and then she shrugged at some internal thought and looked up to meet his stare. “I wasn’t expecting you to be handsome once you shaved,” she stated.
“Oh,” he replied, the unexpected compliment catching him off guard to the extent that he fumbled the following two attempts at forcing the next button through its hole. She laughed at him, the same way she’d laughed with Tor, and he cracked a grin before attempting to try a third time.
“That’s it?” John asked, coming out from behind the screen without a shirt to look through the rest of Tam had bought for them to wear. “All of those daring escapes from guards and bandits, camping with wolves, nearly drowning, and scouts after you the whole time… but all it takes to fluster you up to the point you can’t finish buttoning your coat is some pretty girl who says you’re handsome?”
“You think I’m pretty?” Tam’s eyelids fluttered up at John as he pulled on a new shirt.
“As the first spring blossom,” he confirmed, tucking in the shirt. Justin left them to their constant banter and finished buttoning his new coat. “Where are you off to, Kony?” John asked as Justin reached for the door.
“To the dock to get us jobs. The next sailing will be with the tide in a couple hours. I saw three ships we could likely find work on in exchange for passage,” Justin replied. “You weren’t expecting we’d buy passenger tickets, were you?” He grinned over his shoulder as he opened the door.
“What would we do for work on a ship?” Tam asked, suddenly worried. Justin paused in closing the door after himself.
“I’m a bosun, John’s a swab,” he stated casually.
“I can do more than clean a deck,” John argued.
“No, you really can’t,” Justin answered.
“Ouch, Kony,” John said. He pulled on his new vest while talking. “That hurt right here.” He pointed at his elbow.
“What can I do, though?” Tam asked. Her voice was still worried.
“You sew, you weave, you cook, and you fight.” Justin grinned at her. “Every crew needs people who can mend sails and nets, and people who can cook. Those people also being able to fight is a valuable bonus. I can find us work either today or tomorrow, but from the look of those three ships we can easily plan leave Opat in the next few hours.”
“And then what?” John asked.
Justin considered that his mother was on her way, but shied away from thinking about what would happen after whatever ship he and his friends were on was intercepted. “And then we’re safely out of Opat,” he said.
“And safely together,” John assured Tam, dropping an arm over her shoulders in a half-hug.
“All right,” she agreed, smiling in relief at both of them. “Go find us jobs, Kony.”
Whining and rants are easier to write than complaints. To whine or rant is easy, there's no solutions involved and the writer of them can be as acidic or pretentious as they want. Complaints, on the other hand, have to be clear on what the problem is in certain terms – preferably with references – and have the desired solutions and/or outcomes presented. As an example:
In order to effectively whine, the writer just has to say "omg I hate my job ffs it's awful :("
But for a complaint, the writer needs to put in the labor so it's an effective statement like "this Person's behavior and comments during X meeting with XX client on <date>, where this is what Person did and said, is unacceptable to me for Y reasons (including YY reason as stated to me by XX client after X meeting). Further training for Person after <reprimand> regarding X situation can be provided by ABC company to ensure X doesn't occur again. Currently, XX client is pursuing <consequence>, so I recommend acting quickly so Person doesn't do more damage."
There's a big difference. And complaints are exhausting to do properly.
On an completely unrelated* note, thank Universe our time dealing with this Quarter of trying out virtual school is almost over. (*completely related, this experiment was Not Good)
21. General Discontent
Jin did what Tor expected and punched Tor hard in the stomach for the mocking disrespect. Tor was still coughing and trying to remember how to breathe when he was pulled vertical by his hair. The scout who’d pulled him upright let go quickly so that she could take up the ongoing salute. The general glared back and forth along the entire line of scouts.
“Where are the others?” the general asked quietly. He stopped his assessment of the entire line and stared at Jin. “You said there were three,” he reminded the scout commander.
Tor grinned widely and chuckled as he felt Jin stiffen beside him. As he’d hoped, the anger and confusion from first luring them into the path of the river, and then the rush to get out of the pit, had distracted the rest of the scouts from remembering he hadn’t initially been alone.
“We don’t have them,” Jin haltingly admitted. The general stared hard at the scout commander for a moment, and then frowned further.
“That’s of less concern,” the general stated, shifting his frown to Tor. Tor stared back at his uncle. He was expecting, at the least, that he would be gutted now. “Put him in chains and bring him.” The general surprised everyone with the clipped command and then rode away.
“Huh.” Tor stared after his uncle, shocked that he was still breathing. A few of the scouts in the immediate area hissed and mumbled insults about nepotism, but Jin ordered them silent and sent the closest ones to get the ordered chains.
“Looks like you have until the storm clears before you’re executed publicly,” Jin muttered.
“Wouldn’t want anyone at the back of the ranks to miss it, I suppose,” Tor agreed. He looked over his shoulder at the nearby trees when Jin’s grip on his arm loosened, then shook his head to the negative before grinning at his friend. “I’m tired, I’m cold, and I’m hungry,” Tor whispered with a shrug.
“You don’t have to –”
“Yes. I do,” Tor interrupted. “Tam’s life depends on me staying right here.” Jin sighed and his grip tightened again.
“I found the surviving transport guards and asked some questions.” Jin kept his voice low. “You know you handed her over to a pirate?”
“That explains why he could swim so well,” Tor replied, matching his friend’s serious tone.
Jin scoffed. “He’ll probably sell her to the next –”
“No he won’t,” Tor assured his ex-commander and closest friend since childhood.
“You can’t really believe she’s safe with him,” Jin argued.
Tor smiled, the past few weeks running through his mind in a flash. “You weren’t with him on the road,” Tor whispered, echoing what Tam said when their nameless companion had refused to go in the cabin and thereby saved them from being killed in their sleep, plus any other number of things to protect and help them all get this far. “You can always go after them if you’re that concerned about her.”
“And leave you here to speak on your own behalf and get killed?” Jin sighed heavily and shook his head to the negative.
“I think that’s inevitable at this point.”
“Only if I let you do any talking,” Jin said. They waited together in the snow for the chains and shackles to arrive.
Justin grinned at the result of John’s ingenuity. The storm winds had gotten them far below the snow line before night had fully descended on the valley. They stopped when one of the skis tore off from underneath, lucky that the seasonal coldness provided a temporarily unoccupied barn for shelter while the worst of the storm blew over. The supplies John pulled together from the useful things he’d found scattered in and around the barn had borne a thing which Justin considered a beauty. The best part was that John’s idea had only taken a day to build and they were ready to go while there were still good winds which – down here – carried only heavy rain.
“You’ve both got chalk for brains if you think I’m getting on that.” Tam eyed the innovation critically.
“Structurally, it’s stronger than the sled.” Justin shook the frame and smiled wider. Technically it was the sled, but stripped down to the frame, reinforced, and set on wheeled axles. The platform where they could sit or stand was made of a few solid planks, the rest was open frame and netted storage holes.
“The only thing that might be faster on land is an engine train,” John added.
“But only if we don’t have a good wind,” Justin noted as he started tossing their packs and newly stolen spare parts and tools into the storage nets.
“No,” Tam stated, crossing her arms at her chest. “I am not getting on that thing.”
“We’ve only got one day’s lead once the snow clears on the mountain,” Justin reminded her. “And that’s assuming none of the scouts have come further down the slope during the bad weather.”
“It’s raining,” she argued.
“I could use a shower,” Justin replied, tying the nets closed.
“You could use three,” John muttered at Justin as he started removing the impromptu blockade they’d made in front of the barn’s door. Justin picked up the pull lines and was pleasantly surprised at how easily the contraption started rolling along behind him.
“Which is still one less than you need,” Justin countered, making John nod in agreement.
“I could also use a bath. With heated water.” John paused, fantasizing for a moment.
“I don’t see why we can’t just keep jogging like we were doing before,” Tam insisted, not wavering from the original topic of conversation. Justin sighed and paused in front of her.
“Please don’t make me tie you to the mast like some Leshnatti Cautionary Tale’s abducted child,” he stated quietly.
“I’ll gut you if you try,” she countered.
“My agreement was to get you safely out of Opat, and ensure you remain safe,” he reminded her.
“Only if I show you the way,” she argued.
“I have roads for direction, towns for supplies, and a boat that sails on land. Once the rain stops I’ll have stars,” he said. “I can easily find the coast as long as I’m not captured.”
She sighed and her hard façade slipped a fraction. Her glance shifted around his arm and settled on the window that faced back up the mountain.
“I just …” her voice trailed off. The first gust of wind from the open door puffed up the dust inside the barn.
“He’s not coming. We have to go,” Justin stated quietly. Tam turned her eyes up to search his face, and then nodded and looked away. She climbed onto the platform and clicked the tie ratchets to hold herself in place.
The strange weather we're having is making it difficult to remember it's only January. Usually this time of year we're buried under snow or it's too cold to go outside to be in the snow, but the past weeks have been near or above zero Celsius during the day – with sun shining – and only really dropping into freezing temperatures at night.
I keep wanting to start plants lol.
Then again, I guess it's never really too early to start plants. I'm hoping to get a few big enough to survive the transplant to the garden (which is something I haven't successfully managed on the majority of seeds I start indoors). I don't have much of a green thumb. Flip side, starter plants will be in abundance from family and garden centers in a couple of months to save our gardens from wide patches of barren soil.
20. Quick Escapes
The contraption that they quickly pieced together and anchored to a sled large enough for all of them didn’t have much in common with a ship outside of possessing a mast and sail, but Justin reasoned that should be enough. Tam tied the spare parts Justin wanted to bring onto the sled as John eyed up the conglomeration critically.
“I don’t think fifteen minutes –”
“It’ll get us down to bare grass before nightfall using this wind,” Justin interrupted.
“Or fall apart the moment a gust hits the doubled over tarp you want to pretend is a sail,” John countered.
“Or that,” Justin agreed.
John was about to keep arguing, but was interrupted before he had a chance to speak by the boom! of large mining charges. Justin walked the few strides needed to see into the bottom of the pit. The shape that he knew was Tor had been kneeling in the middle of a ring of other black shapes for the past five minutes. He’d kept them chasing him around the bottom of the mine for nearly ten minutes and then simply turned to them and surrendered. Probably only because he’d gotten tired. Now he was being pulled up to his feet (that was Jin pulling him up, Justin knew it) and they were all running for the nearest road up as the first rush of falling stone and river began its descent.
The guards who had been marching many recaptured slaves down to the cages that were still secure simply stopped, spun and – leaving the slaves – turned to run back up the slope as more of the canal fractured and crashed down the wall to the bottom of the mine. The abandoned slaves quickly broke open the last cages and then all followed, their small victories rekindled as they raced back up to the edge of the pit with hopes this time of freedom beyond the ridge.
“That’s going to be a very big lake,” Tam stated from beside Justin’s elbow.
“Good thing we have a boat,” Justin replied.
They climbed onto the sled and wrapped into blankets, and then tied themselves and their packs to the makeshift mast. John swallowed his arguments, not having any better ideas, and followed after a moment. Justin handed him a tie rope that John knotted around his ankle in the Islander fashion.
“Please don’t fall apart,” John whispered as nearby yelling informed them they’d just been found by a guard patrol rounding up escapees.
John took the steering and sail lines to hand and released the crowbar so it dropped to click into place at the bottom of the mast. The tarp snapped taut and the sled started creeping forward, gaining speed as they tilted down toward the distant farmlands. A few guards on skis started after them, initially getting close, but then a heavier gust hit and the sled accelerated away down the slope.
Tor bent double and rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath. The scouts around him, except for Jin, were all in various poses of stiffly posturing that they weren’t as winded as he was after the run out of the mine. He huffed out a laugh and nodded at the freshly made waterfall that was already starting to pool at the bottom of the mine in spite of still pouring into the tunnels. It would take days to fill the mine and pit completely and re-channel back into the low-lying bed down the mountain and away from the mine.
“What are you laughing at, deserter?” one of the scouts he didn’t recognize the voice of spit the question. Must be new, Tor thought. He only shook his head, keeping his thoughts to himself. Jin slapped his friend on the back of the head.
“Ouch,” Tor stated as he straightened up, his tone exaggeratingly hurt.
“You knew someone was going to blow the canal,” Jin accused, stabbing a finger into Tor’s chest. “You went down there knowing this was going to happen!” He swept an arm wide to encompass the pit and waterfall. “You led us down there knowing this was going to happen!” Another large section of the canal crashed to the bottom of the mine, adding emphasis to Jin’s furious chastising.
“Of course,” Tor agreed easily. “Why else waste time leading you down there?”
The increasing flow of the waterfall triggered a landslide that tumbled the lowest cage into the pit. The scout who’d asked what Tor was laughing at punched him hard in the stomach.
“Ow,” Tor whined, doubled over around her fist but still wheezing out a chuckle after.
The horn of the advance infantry echoed in the pit and the first of the troops came into view, interrupting anything else that the rest of the scouts might do after learning that Tor had lured them into the river’s path.
“Stones and mortar,” Jin cursed quietly as he gripped Tor’s arm just above the elbow. “Let’s go,” he said out loud. The scouts formed into a circle around the pair and, as one, began jogging along the road that followed the top of the pit. Tor trotted beside his friend at the pace that Jin set. They passed through the advance infantry and over the bridge that now had a lovely view of the growing waterfall and emptying canal.
The main body of the army wasn’t far, and all of it was compressed into a marching line where more than the back half was already fighting the coming storm. Tor knew there were two thousand fighters: two hundred advance infantry, five hundred infantry, five hundred cavalry, six hundred pikers, one hundred engineers, and one hundred (approximately) of commanders, administrators, scouts, and the general’s honor guard. And now one prisoner, he added himself to the count. In the few remaining hours of weak winter daylight, the army would arrive at – and set their camp comfortably within and around – the town that serviced the mine.
At least, it had serviced the mine… Tor grinned at the thought that the town would be superfluous (or a nice lakefront, mountain holiday destination for the wealthy) by the end of a week. Too bad the town was above the mine and any new course of the river wouldn’t wipe it out.
He wondered if he would be camping with the army… or left in the pit.
They slogged through the snow to stand at the side of the road when the honor guard came into view. Tor didn’t bother with the effort of standing to attention or stiffly saluting. It wasn’t like he was a scout anymore. The general stopped his horse in front of Tor and Jin and acknowledged the respectfully saluting scouts.
Tor spread his hands wide and bowed gracefully. “Lord General,” he called above the din of clanking armor and hurried footsteps.
I need to stop starting my days with doom scrolling. My writer brain doesn't shut off when I'm scanning through updates, and as of the end of this week I have a lot of questions that probably won't be answered in my lifetime. History will wash down what's happening right now, like sand and gravel in a sifter, and the lumps staying on the screen to be kept likely won't have much to do with the many, many sandy stories and conspiracies people today are saying will be remembered. I really think a lot of us are buried in sand that will sift out, only for our great-great-great-grandchildren to look back at the whole situation and finally see the big gravel clearly.
My questions mostly spiral around Coronavirus pandemic outcome projections and generational long term health impacts, expectations of subsequent pandemics with high double-digit death risks, all the "what-ifs" around the civil and political situations in the USA right now, "what-if" impacts (or lack of) in Europe due to Brexit, China and Russia both riding current upward political power trends to <undisclosed outcomes due to Western culture fear mongering which implies everything not controlled by Western culture as unknown and evil (insert personal eye roll here)>. I also have a few questions about things like increased storm activity, global pollution handling, and the impacts to, and advancements by, not-world-power countries that are ignored which as a Canadian I only get updates on when I actively seek out sources not affiliated with or filtered out by North American owned large media.
To state it clearly, the only thing from the above List o' Doom I'm actually having true fear about is the expected subsequent pandemics which could have terrifyingly high death tolls. The rest of these things leaving me with most of my questions seem to be power struggles in circles I'm not part of – aside from race and ethnicity issues, which I'm daily working to challenge my being-born-white outlooks so I can push anti-racism forward on a wider swath into the world; race and ethnicity issues are in an Everybody Alive circle. I'm (luckily) not a social or political leader, and history is full of people like me who just keep working and living while whatever overlords of the times, and their beliefs and policing, rise and fall with whatever zealots they have as devoted followers.
None of history is written about A Country That Never Changes, In Which Nothing Interesting Ever Happens. Seriously.
They jogged carefully to the end of the cage so they wouldn’t trip on the grid and then climbed down. They raced as quickly as they could toward the pulley hoist that John had pointed out, Tor and John doing the needed fighting against the few guards who tried to stop them. Tor collected two new straight-bladed swords and gave them both to Tam so Justin kept a free hand to hold his injured arm with.
Tam and Justin collapsed near the base of the hoist as John clicked the ratchets and started the platform dropping down to the narrow road they were on. Tor took up a look-out stance, watching the edge of the pit that the army would be arriving from, and the storm clouds that would be arriving with them.
“I hope that hoist rises faster than it lowers,” Tor called over his shoulder as the first of the regular movements he’d been expecting started where he was watching.
“What do you see?” Tam asked, her voice exhausted.
“When will your dad be destroying the canal?” Tor ignored his sister’s question and walked over to stand beside John at the hoist controls.
“Getting to the blasts, getting to the canal, setting everything… probably another ten minutes if he doesn’t have to deal with any guards,” John answered, adjusting the controls so the platform dropped quicker for the final few idlesides.
“And if he does have to deal with guards?” Tor asked, watching the motions on the far side of the mine a moment longer, then turning to study what John was doing.
“Twenty minutes, at most,” John assured the group.
“What’s wrong, Tor?” Tam asked, pushing up to her feet.
“Jin’s back. He brought friends,” Tor answered, not looking away from the ratchets controlling the hoist’s platform and counterweights until the platform was sitting on the road. “Load up,” he ordered.
Tor helped Tam settle in the middle, setting the pack of supplies he’d been carrying in her lap and checking over his weapons to make sure everything drew properly. Justin pushed up to his feet and started pulling off the pack he was carrying. Tor scoffed a laugh at him and hooked a hand behind the elbow of Justin’s bad arm.
“You couldn’t fight scouts and you know it,” Tor whispered so his sister wouldn’t hear.
“You can’t do it alone and we don’t know if John can fight,” Justin argued at the same volume.
“I figure as a petty thief and a couple of non-criminal laborers, you three will be forgotten by the end of tomorrow,” Tor said. “But a disloyal scout? A deserter?” He shook his head to the negative. “Me they’ll keep hunting.”
“So we stay ahead of them and get to the coast,” Justin argued. “That was the deal.”
“No it wasn’t.” Tor tilted his head to look up at Justin. “The deal was I set you free and you set Tam free. Her staying alive gets you to the coast, and you being alive buys her safe passage out of Opat. No matter what happens to me, you take care of her.”
Justin’s brows furrowed as he wracked his brain for something other than what Tor was saying right now and came up with only memories that matched.
“No, I –”
“You promised this morning. Whatever happens to me you’ll take care of her.” Tor’s grin angled into something sad. He let go of Justin’s arm and tapped a finger into Justin’s chest. “You promised,” Tor repeated.
“No, that was for crossing the river. That wasn’t –”
Justin’s argument ended in a grunt. He was lying on his back, staring up at the crane cables overhead, trying to remember how to inhale while his shoulder screamed at him not to.
The pack Justin had been carrying thudded onto the platform. Tor had grabbed it when he threw Justin, a simple way to make sure he landed flat so as not to hurt his wounded shoulder further. The scout kicked one of John’s feet out from under him and shoved the bigger man onto the platform as he was still stumbling. Tor reached into the guts of the machine that controlled the hoist and, with a sound half way between a grunt and a growl, ripped out the brake holding the platform down. Justin rolled and reached out with his right hand, but Tor dodged around the first grab and ducked away from the second, using the spin to throw his weapons belt. Justin’s fist closed around the leather strap that had both swords, three knives, and both lengths of rope hanging from it.
You promised! Justin heard the words clearly even though Tor’s lips didn’t move as the scout pointed up at him on the receding platform. Then Tor smiled brightly and waved a friendly farewell, knowing anything he tried to yell would be heard all the way around the mine and not willing to pass on anything to the troop of scouts which could be used against him later.
The emergency brake automatically applied at the top – as all cranes had in case of control failure – and the platform jerkily came to a stop, banging hard into the catch. Tor waited for the counterweight cables to go slack and then used them to quickly scale further into the mine. Justin watched the black shapes on the other side of the pit pause and then all sharply change direction to follow Tor straight down.
Tam was silently crying when Justin looked at her, her face composed calmly beneath the tears. He was holding nothing but the belt when he finally sat up. She looked at it, nodded once, and then picked up the pack of supplies she’d been given in one hand and the two straight bladed swords in the other. Justin pushed up to his feet and helped Tam stand, steadying her as she stepped onto the catch, and leaving her leaning on the railing while he went back to retrieve his pack.
“I’m sorry,” John stated, not aiming his condolences at either of them singly.
“Where’s the shed?” Tam asked, bracing against the wind as a gust rocked the platform. John swallowed hard and led them the short distance to the supply shed.
Justin paused beside the small building and looked out at the clear view on this side of the mine. The heavy trees leading in had been cleared away what looked like decades again to make fields for farmland and he could see all the way down to where the snow stopped, and then beyond into the green and brown winter crops below. The farms under the snow line were all so far away that they were tinged blue. The guards’ village was nestled into the side of the mountain above where they were standing. It was maybe only a twenty minute walk, at a fast pace, from the closest houses to that edge of the mine.
“This is the way we need to go?” Justin asked Tam, pointing toward the distant farms.
“Yes,” she answered woodenly. There was a muffled thunk and then the sound of wood splintering. Justin looked over at John.
“Door’s unlocked,” John said, lowering the crow bar as a gust of wind pushed the door fully open. “I figure if we take one of these sleds, and we take turns pulling it, we can –”
“Got any canvas tarps in there?” Justin interrupted, tucking his bad arm into the strap of his pack the way Tor had shown him as he walked over to look at what supplies were available.
“What are you thinking?” Tam asked, stepping beside him. Justin stepped into the shed to study the heavy ratchets and replacement crane poles.
“You’re an Islander?” he asked John as the shed’s inventory started coming together into a plan. Justin already knew the answer from John’s accent, but he didn’t know John, so he waited.
“Do you know how to sail?” Justin pressed.
“Of course,” John’s tone was nearly offended.
“Ever build a boat?” Justin asked.
“No,” John answered flatly.
“Good.” Justin grinned over his shoulder at the larger man. “Then you can’t argue with me about how wrong this will be.”
Well it only took twelve months, which seemed to have lasted a total of approximately seven years, but we made it into 2021. Cue up the exhausted "woo-hoo"s and hit Random on the playlist, then please remember you're still here and take a moment to just be impressed by that fact before humming into the rest of your day to the tune of your favorite song. Seriously, you set Random so your fav song will be along shortly if it hasn't come on yet.
The week of squishy holiday time is wrapping up and I'm getting back into remembering which days are what again as the return to school looms closer. The early mornings this coming week are going to be a bit of a shock to the system, but a return to a set schedule will be nice. (Translation: getting up for a 9:00am start to daily class meetings is going to suuuuuck so much for my house full of night people, but at least there'll be regular snacks so we won't all be monster-level grumpy.)
18. Enemies and Friends
The clanging of the fight above silenced. A moment later Tor dropped to the cage beside Justin. He was breathing hard from exertion, but otherwise seemed fine as he straightened. Now that most of the slaves were loose and running away, and most of the guards were dealing with that, Justin could hear parts of the quiet conversation happening under his feet which he was intent on ignoring.
“Good afternoon,” Tor huffed. Justin nodded in greeting as Tor looked around. “Did you still have Tam with you?”
“Look down two idlesides,” Justin answered.
“Oh, in the cage. I suppose that’s good,” Tor said. He sniffed and coughed while looking between his feet, his nose running from having fought to sweating in the cold weather. Tam was sitting with the dark-skinned son and father.
“That was Jin you were fighting with?” Justin asked.
“For most of it, yes,” Tor said and nodded. “He wouldn’t quit fighting, but he wouldn’t kill me either. I guess that means we’re still friends.”
“That’s good,” Justin said, tilting a small grin down at Tor.
“I know, right?” Tor was smiling widely behind his mask, Justin could hear it. “He’s gone back to report, though, so we need to get going.” He sniffled and coughed again, then his head tilted slightly as he looked at the small gang surrounding Justin. “Are these four friends of yours, in awe of you, or simply struck immobile by how bad you smell?”
“I know him,” Justin said, pointing out Archie Cobb. “The rest were deciding whether or not to attack me on his behalf.”
“Ooh.” Tor stretched out the single syllable. “So they’re stone-headed?”
“Completely gearblocked,” Justin agreed. “What about the other scout, the one in the outpost doorway?”
“She was new. I’d never met her before.” Tor rolled his shoulders as he visually measured the men now watching him as well. Justin noted his use of past tense regarding the new scout and didn’t bother asking any further. “Shall we get going then?” Tor clapped his hands as if he was coaching a sport at grammar school. “Tam, are you ready to go?” he called down.
She settled a comforting hand on the shoulder of the young man who’d caught her and smiled tightly up at her brother. “We’ll be right up,” she answered.
“Those two with Tam are friends, right?” Tor asked Justin, pointing down at the men Tam was sitting with.
“They are now,” Justin replied. “The younger one is coming with us. His father gave me this after I dropped my sword.”
Tor looked at the crowbar, then turned and watched the quiet conversation for a moment before shifting impatiently.
“When is he coming with us?” Tor asked. “We really need to get moving.”
“They’re still standing here. You can kill them while we’re waiting.” Justin gestured with the top of the crow bar at the four men growing more confused the longer they were ignored.
“You don’t want to?” Tor asked, the tone of his reply suited better to having been asked if he wanted the last sweet biscuit after a light luncheon.
“No, you go ahead,” Justin confirmed. Two of the four simply ran away as Tor drew only one of the two swords he again had on his belt. Cobb and the other man didn’t stand a chance, even with the cobbled together weapons they’d made from mining tools.
“Are you all right?” Tor asked, noticing Justin hadn’t moved during the very short fight.
“I think I dislocated my left shoulder,” Justin answered.
“That must hurt.” Tor cleaned his blade and sheathed it.
“Doesn’t feel good.”
Tor prodded at the joint in question. Justin winced and groaned from the pain of the inspection. “You did dislocate it,” Tor stated confidently, positioning himself to realign the arm into its proper place. “I can set this, but you have to promise me something,” he added.
“Promise you what?” Justin asked, expecting something else about Tam and focusing on his feet while trying not to tense up in anticipation of how much setting it was going to hurt. Just having Tor lift the arm’s weight off the injured joint immediately felt better, but experience dictated that slight relief would be over very soon.
“Promise you won’t hit me with the crow bar if this doesn’t work the first time.”
“What? Wait, you just said you could – ouch!”
Justin tried to remember how to breathe after the shock of setting the joint ebbed and his shoulder ceased being terrifically painful. Tor was still holding the injured arm, giving the joint a chance to settle before having to support itself again.
“Here, tuck it like this so you can pretend you have a sling,” Tor instructed gently, threading Justin’s forearm through the strap of the pack he was still wearing. “I wanted to ask you something since this morning. Is your mam as scary as she, well, felt?”
“No,” Justin said and then chuckled. “My mom is much, much worse.”
“Huh,” Tor replied, a smirk in his voice. “That explains why you have mortar for marrow,” he complimented.
The cage rattled as Tam and the trio’s two new friends climbed to the top. Tor looked at the father’s crooked foot and the son’s face and – for once – kept his mouth shut. Justin busied himself fidgeting with the strap that was acting as a sling, not looking up when one of the massive, weathered hands squeezed his good shoulder briefly, or when the father limped away.
“Pop’s going to blow the canal wall to let the river out of its channel and destroy the mine,” the young man stated after his father walked away. “It should be enough of a distraction to keep everyone away from us. There’s a supply shed at the top of that hoist.” He pointed a quarter of the way around the mine, well away from where the other slaves were fighting with the guards. “That’ll be our best place to find something to help us get away.”
“Lead the way,” Tor gestured.
“Here,” Justin said, offering the crow bar to their group’s newest addition as they set off. “I’ll pick up a sword on the way.”
The young man looked down at him, his dark eyes too old and too angry for the face they were resting in, and took the tool without saying a word.
“I’m Tor Nao-ak,” Tor said, introducing himself as he pulled his mask off and tossed it into the pit. “You already met my sister, Tam,” he added as he nodded toward her.
“John Duncan,” John introduced himself and then his heavy stare landed on Justin expectantly.
“He’s our nameless companion,” Tor answered after a moment of silence. “But he answers to ‘hey’, ‘look’, ‘no’, and ‘don’t do that’ if you need to get his attention,” he added with a smirk. John scoffed a single laugh.
“My folks had a dog named Kony that only answered to those same things when I was a kid,” John stated, the tone leaving no doubt he was attempting to be insulting to the man he viewed as leaving his father behind.
“That was a terrible insult, John Duncan,” Tor said, the look on his face disgusted. “You’ll have to get a lot better at verbal sparring if you’re going to travel with Tam,” he added, hooking a thumb toward his sister and making Tam snort out a chuckle. Tor was about to continue, but silenced when he heard a horn blowing. It was too far away to echo in the mine, but the notes were clear.
“What is it?” Tam asked.
“Advance infantry,” Tor said, answering Tam as he reached to take the pack she was carrying. “They’re closer than I expected. That puts the scouts at half that distance.”
“So we’re running?” Justin asked, gripping his bad arm with his good one so he wouldn’t be jarring his injured shoulder more than necessary.
“We’re running,” Tor confirmed, settling the pack onto his own shoulders. “We’re running, really, really fast,” he added.
A weekly blog updating on Fridays with quick personal blurbs about me, as in what's going on during my life as an Author and mom, and that doles out my short stories and novellas in bite-sized parts for everyone to read for free!