FORT STEEL, MIDWINTER
“Sun on the beach gristle my hog dirty ricken-fricken-fracken sorbitol!”
Jeremy “Weasel” Compton had popped his cork at least a little. The unending string of profanities, which the perpetrator thought were uttered under his breath, fascinated young Davies. The Fort Administrator’s son (no, that was the old title, wasn’t it?), turned eleven just five days ago, heard every word, memorized every one, and understood about half. Regarding the reason for his father’s outburst, the boy’s photographic hearing understood one hundred percent. Davies epitomized the ancient saying that little pitchers have big ears. His visual recall was excellent but his auditory memory? Spooky. Canny enough to conceal his talent from even his parents, the lad never forgot anything he ever heard, and today he’d heard a lot. Too many Fort Steel citizens had ignored the all-important edict to save every apple seed for planting in the spring. Dried apple pies were just about running out but hard cider wasn’t; the people had, perhaps understandably, pigged out on the delicacy in more ways than one.
But there should have been three times the volume of dried seeds in inventory. Too many blind fools had cheated early on, too lazy to pick out the seeds and dry them, discarding the valuable apple-babies when they cored the apples or, most frustrating of all, hand-feeding more-precious-than-gold apples whole to favored, appreciative horses as special treats. Maybe that’s why horse poops were also called road apples. It would serve the population right if they were forced to sort through every road apple deposited by every horse they owned, searching for pass-through seeds. If Compton had thought he could enforce such a draconian measure, he would have, but who knew which people had done wrong?
So much for the honor system.
As a result of this waste, the fruit crop for which they’d so badly overpaid would eventually produce a mere fraction of the trees on which Compton had been pinning his hopes. Worst of all, the perpetrators of this folly remained entirely unrepentant. In the public meeting, one idiot had summed up this grasshopper view all too well. “What difference does it make? It’ll be years before any of them mature enough to bear fruit.”
May the Creator deliver Fort Steel from those who could not even imagine the future, let alone plan for it.
Weasel seemed to suddenly pop back to himself. “Nick, go saddle our horses. I’ve got enough paperwork to choke a goat, but when you’re ready, yell at me and we’ll get out of here. Your mom will have supper waiting.”
The younger Compton nodded and darted for the door, his heart swelling with love and pride. Hearing the old man address him by his private nickname always did that. Before becoming known as Weasel, Jeremy Compton had also carried the Nick moniker. Nick for a Prince of Thieves, one who could nick pretty much anything, anywhere, anytime, often without the owner realizing his property had gone a-wandering. No one else in Fort Steel knew about this. Especially not Mrs. Compton. The community’s premier healer would have ripped her men but good, had she realized what they were up to. In her view, thieving was a mortal sin. She also wasn’t particularly happy about the amount of time her son was spending with his father. It really curtailed his work with her as an apprentice healer, and besides, she hated him being away from her, stretching if not severing her apron strings.
But the craft had been treasured in the male Comptons for seventeen generations, son apprenticed to father as soon as each lad was old enough to understand and enforce the need for his own personal rule of absolute silence and secrecy. Even with that, their oral history taught the truth that not every young Compton was initiated into these mysteries. More than a few failed to meet entry qualifications, native intelligence being but one of many hurdles that had to be cleared.
Nick had reason to feel good about being selected. Had he failed to qualify, the tradition would have died with his father. And nobody would have known. As it was, during training there was never any hint of harm done to another. Every purloined item was eventually replaced in the precise spot from whence it had been lifted. This was all practice, practice, practice, for when the ancient art would truly be needed.
Nick was particularly proud of the prize stallion he had stolen, kept hidden for three days, and returned to the owner’s pasture without another soul being any the wiser.
Jeremy Compton had his emotions under control by the time his son returned with the horses. He locked the office door–that was a new thing, a padlock reverse engineered from a rusty Before specimen and produced by the brassmaker. A wizard with metal construction, that man, though he refused to have anything to do with firearms or edged weapons. If Brass Malone wasn’t such a pacifist, they’d likely already be producing shoot gun repeaters capable of six inch groups at three hundred yards. But pacifist he was, and that was that. Young Nick practiced half an hour each day, trying to pick that lock, trying to match his father’s skill. He hadn’t yet, but he would. Someday. The lad was as stubborn as they came.
The two Compton men rode through the gathering darkness in companionable silence.
Jeremy and Davies breezed on in as if nothing was wrong, greeting me casually on their way to the mandatory wash basin. They might be doing mostly office work these days, but they’d been breathing the same air in meetings as all the other men, shuffling ink and paper, handling horse tack and horses. No man tucked his feet under my table without washing up first.
Both men, father and son, worried me. It’s a mom thing, maybe, but something was going on. Something troubling. Eleven year Davies was growing up fast, and maybe not having him studying with me every day was part of it, but I could see a change in him I didn’t like. His eyes knew secrets. Secrets his mother would never be told. What those secrets might be, I had no clue. He certainly wasn’t sharing them with me. It drove me nuts. He was becoming more like his father every day, except Jeremy shared everything with me.
Or did he? Did my son of the shuttered face get that look on his own or was his sire the Weasel responsible?
My husband’s aura of constrained stress, woe, and general irritation was more understandable. He was boiling under the surface, the cork in a shaken bottle of champagne, ready to pop. Weasel Compton had long been known as the slickest, sharpest character in all of Fort Steel. Every man, woman, and child residing behind stockade walls knew that. The problem was, the big wide world out there involved a lot more than just our little community. I knew exactly what was bugging him, but he needed to pop his cork before the pressure inside blew up the whole bottle.
Best to get some food inside him first, though. “Leftovers,” I said by way of explanation, not apology. “I was going to cook a roast, but one of the foundry workers broke a leg on the job. Tripped over some scrap steel he was supposed to be cleaning up, jammed his shin against a sharp-edged beam, and snap, crackle, pop, time to call for the healer. Still might have made it back in time if his coworkers hadn’t tried to set the bone themselves. It wasn’t a pretty picture.”
“Will he heal up all right?” Jeremy’s question was asked as he loaded his plate with reheated mashed potatoes, stale bread, Swedish meatballs, and gravy. As long as there was gravy, the man was happy.
“It’s never safe to predict in these cases, but barring infection and unpredictable stupidity, he will. Honey, I think he was on something.”
That got his attention. His gaze sharpened. “Under the influence?”
“A bit, yes. Not so deep that he couldn’t fake it fairly well, but the signs were there.”
“What signs, exactly? Do you have any idea what, exactly, he might have been using?” If there was one thing Jeremy “Weasel” Compton hated more than anything else, it was a man fool enough to mess with stuff that led him down the primrose path while ruining his life and often the lives of everyone around him.
“Some of it could have been shock, but…slightly slurred speech. Dilated pupils. High color in the cheeks. Excessive sweating, although admittedly it was a tad warm in the room we were in and he was in pain. Compulsion to repeat his story many times. Nervous tic in one eye.”
Weasel fell silent except for chewing and swallowing. The biggest problem in past years had been alcohol from private stills. Amazing how many things could be turned into hooch. There had always been potato vodka and moonshine, blackberry and strawberry wine, and now apple-based drinks were showing up. But this sounded like something else. “Plant based, then, you think? Or shrooms?”
I nodded. Jeremy winced. There were always individuals, and more sadly, entire families, who preferred the drug route to hard work with a clear mind. My man would have to speak to Henry Perfle about this. On the surface, that was a roundabout way to tackle the problem, but the livestock manager was the only man who could get the foundry manager to listen without somebody’s hackles rising. Perf would put a bug in the foundry man’s ear, the injured and impaired employee, off duty on half pay while his leg healed, would be investigated, and sooner or later the young man would be fired. With prejudice. The investigation would be fair–nobody wanted to lose an innocent worker–but fast and ruthless. We were too few to sponsor rehab programs like those granddad used to tell me about. During the Before days, those programs flourished and had done so for centuries…with limited results and little if any sign of improvement in society as a whole, he had ruefully admitted.
Nobody saw Fort Steel’s problem in as much depth as I did. If the few–thankfully few, so far–addicts in our population knew what I knew…fifty-three plants out there, that I’d identified so far, could get you high if processed and used in a certain way. And that didn’t include the world of hallucinogenic fungi.
We were relaxing with cups of chamomile tea after the meal when Jeremy’s cork finally popped. “We’re surrounded by idiots!” He exploded, then apologized for exploding. I gave him a just go on, dear look, he adopted a rather sheepish expression, and the rest came flooding out.
“Sweetheart, you know the old saying that twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work? Okay, fine, I have to admit we’re batting a better average than that. Anybody who doesn’t put out some real effort during the day is noticws and eventually stigmatized. The word spreads, and few care to put up with that. The pressure on the slacker is considerable. We still have the lazy ones, always will, but overall…the trouble is, that’s where it ends. It’s all about traditional expectations in the here and now with very little long range thinking.
“I sometimes think Henry Perfle is the only civilian in the entire Fort with a lick of sense when it comes to seeing the big picture. The rest of them…they still can’t see where they went wrong in mobbing the apple trader, that their unbridled enthusiasm ending up costing us three times what we paid for the lot. When it comes to the Rendezvous next summer, man, bring up any of the key issues on that topic and it’s crickets. Nothing but crickets. It’s driving me absolutely bonkers. Our five-community get-together is going to be hammering out borders, for instance. Immigration policies for future groups, because there will be some. Military policy for MAP. Arbitration procedures for disputes between neighbors. What constitutes an emergency worthy of MAP action and what does not. Allocation of natural resources, ownership, development policies, all of that. Probably a more detailed set of bylaws for MAP, especially its limitations, because there certainly need to be some. Conscription rules in the event of total war with forces that would invade us, because from what we’re hearing, those back East boys are going to come sniffing around sooner or later. Water rights. A clear statement of sovereignty for each of us. Descriptions of areas we consider suitable for new member groups, because there are likely to be more refugee groups, too, and we won’t want confusion over property lines when they show up. Up until now, we’ve all been so remote from each other–with the exception of Jade’s bunch, the Roost, which is either too close for comfort or mighty handy when help is needed, depending on how you look at it. Trade agreements. All that and a hundred other things, every one of which will directly affect every man, woman, and child at Fort Steel for generations to come.
“And yet, ask Joe Blow on the street or even most of the managers, and what do you get? Glazed eyeballs, that’s what. I might as well be talking Greek to them. Or Swahili. Doubtful they’d know the difference.”
Weasel ran down after spewing that out, though his beady little eyes bugged a bit, much like his namesake. “With the exception of a few of our military men,” I replied softly, watching him sip his tea, “those who went on the MAP rescue run to the Roil, and a couple of military types, and of course you…honey, the rest of our people have lived their entire lives right here at the Fort, going outside only far enough to tend fields, do a bit of hunting, or watch over the herds while they graze. But they’ve all retreated inside the Fort walls before dark, every single day of their lives. Anything beyond the southern ridge or the northern prairie is unknown to them. Frightening, boogeyman-in-the-dark scary. Because of the foundry, and thank the Creator for that, traders have always come to us; we don’t have a single set of wagons going out on trade runs and never have. We’re at the back end of nowhere, the northern terminus of the Gatorville/Fort Steel road with nothing to the north of the old Fort Confluence area but untrammeled, unbelievably rugged, highly inhospitable wilderness. Now it’s time to integrate more fully with the big bad world out there and it’s beyond their comprehension. Not because they’re stupid, I think, but because they simply can’t imagine what it is you’re talking about.”
“Ugh.” He got up from the table, poured himself another cup of tea from the pot on the stove, and sat back down. “So instead of Pop Goes the Weasel, blowing my lid, what would you recommend I do?”
See what I love about the guy? I can’t tell you how my heart swells when he asks me for advice like that.
“For one thing, give it a little time. I’m sowing seeds when I’m out on my rounds. Planting the idea that gee, I sure liked the people we met from the Gathering, even if they were starved and sick, and do I ever hope my husband will take me with him to the Rendezvous because I’d absolutely love to see the Roil River country in summertime.”
“Wow.” Jeremy sat back from the table, slumping in his chair, the tension going out of his shoulders for the first time in weeks. “What would I do without you?”
“More likely who would you do without me?” I dimpled at him to show I wasn’t serious. “That Lissy Simms really has eyes for you.” She did, too, the hussy. Weasel chuckled, his male ego properly stroked. “Tell me, love, have you been trying to reason with people?”
He was quick. I’ll give him that. Suspicion flared in his eyes immediately. “Why? Shouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, you should…if you’re talking to reasonable people.”
“Not much of that going around, as I’m finding out.”
“So hit ’em where they live, hon. Talk dream stuff. You’ve never been to the Roil but from what those who went have said, you can’t wait. Get the rescue run folks together in a community meeting, brief them all first on what you’re up to–up to a point, of course–and have them respond to questions from the audience about what the people are like. The travel. Even the hardships en route, which they can downplay easily enough as the Rendezvous will be held during perfect traveling weather, not in the middle of a subzero winter. Find a couple of the men who thought some of those black girls were going to look mighty fine once they got some meat back on their bones; that should flare the nostrils of our younger men and tickle the fancy of a few older goats as well. You could even mention that while you knew the Gathering intended to build a stockade, you’d bet they couldn’t put one up that was half as good as ours. Get some civic pride going. Goodness, husband, you’ve conned people before, using a lot less to work with than you have in this case.”
That was true enough, Weasel knew.
For decades to come, Fort Steel residents would marvel at the way their fearless leader, the incomparable Jeremy “Weasel” Compton, sold the trip to the First Annual MAP Rendezvous. By the time it came to make his selection of traveling companions, he had more than fifty applications from citizens eager to journey forth, to see the wonders of Roil River and these midnight-colored folks. Impressive, considering the entire population of Fort Steel at that moment, counting brand new babies, numbered a mere 223 souls.
In truth, Jeremy Compton was as able as they came…as long as he listened to his top advisor, the wife who put the word “help” in helpmeet. And he always listened.
Except, of course, when he didn’t.