The Bonds of Hospitality
©2012, Eric Oppen
This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Eric Oppen in 2012, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, except where it is intentional and has the knowledge and consent of the named persons, who already know who they are and are mentally ready for the nasty things done to their namesakes.
Change Year 26 (2024 AD)
“Ahhh, that hits the spot!” Nick Cleveland sat back in his chair, feeling the contentment that always came over him after a big meal. Even though as an Iowan, he had come through the Change more easily than most people who survived it, he never quite took food for granted. “You Mackenzies sure know how to take care of people!”
“Of course we do!” Juniper Mackenzie gave him a warm smile. “It’s Samhain! We always set aside a place for a traveler on that night… and we always have a welcome for a wanderer. You never know if he’s a God in disguise!”
Nick looked at Melinda, his wife, who winked at him. He liked the Mackenzies, in some ways better than the PPA… but they did have their little quirks. Then he saw his apprentice’s face. Selene Lieber looked completely serious, and she had that odd look she sometimes got in her eyes.
“We practice hospitality, too,” Selene said quietly. “No Farm wife would ever live down having it be known that she was a bad hostess.” She suddenly grinned impishly, a sign that she was very relaxed. Of course, the empty mug of Brannigan’s Special in front of her might have helped in that. “I could probably go across Iowa from one border to the other, just staying at people’s houses every night, without paying a cent!”
“That’s true, sweetie, but even though you could count on hospitality, it wouldn’t be a good idea.” Melinda Cleveland reached out and patted Selene’s arm. “You know what Nick always says: ‘the most dangerous animal in the world walks on two legs… and sometimes skulks along lonely roads.’”
For a second, everybody in the room looked grim. Even before the Change, life had been more dangerous for women in some ways, and the breakdown of law-and-order in the wake of the Change hadn’t improved things any. “You listen to your Deputy, Miss Lieber. He knows what he’s talking about,” said Juniper, in a voice that made it clear she was dead serious.
“Oh, I always do, ma’am,” Selene answered. “And we’ve had many interesting guests over the years at our place. They come from all over Iowa, as well as Marshall, Wisconsin and other places! I’m always so happy when we have guests who’re from far away! Before this trip, the only times I’d done any traveling was when I’d go along with Nicholas to Des Moines, or Iowa City, or Cedar Rapids! I like the cities, but I feel most at home out in the open country.” She speared a potato. “I’m a country girl at heart.”
“You dragged that girl behind you all the way to those places?” asked a Mackenzie. Nick nodded.
“She’s my apprentice, so of course she comes along. Sometimes Melinda can come too. Those are the best times. We ride through the beautiful countryside all day, meet new friends as evening comes in. If nothing else comes available, I can always claim hospitality with any County Sheriff or Deputy on the strength of my badge, and I get to show her new things and new people. She needs to know a lot to be a Deputy, when I’ve passed my badge on to her.”
“What sorts of people come to your door?” asked another Mackenzie. Nick had despaired of keeping them all straight, particularly since the Gaelic names they favored were difficult for him.
“Oh, traveling doctors, traveling preachers, just people on their way from ‘here’ to ‘there… ’” Nick looked reminiscent. “You never know what’ll come to our gate. Many of them have the most interesting stories to tell, too!”
“Sometimes they stay with us a few days, if the weather really socks in,” Melinda explained. “We have blizzards that are as bad as anything you get in the high mountains, and nobody travels during them. Nobody. Even the worst bad-hats we have know enough to stay at home and off the roads. And if a blizzard's on the way, anybody knocking on a door will be invited in.” She took a pull at her Brannigan’s. “It’s a point of honor.”
“Hey, you two, remember that one guest we had?” Nick leaned forward. “This was a few years ago… ”
❀ ❁ ❀
January 25, Change Year 20 (2018 AD)
Hardee County, Iowa
The westering sun painted the world with highlights of orange, but the sky was still mostly a brilliant dark blue. Nick Cleveland shivered, despite the heavy sheepskin coat, Mongolian-style fur hat, fleece-lined boots and woolen trousers he wore; sitting a-horseback didn’t involve too much movement, and the wind was picking up.
Along with his wife and apprentice, he had been helping track down a particularly troublesome sounder of wild hogs. Ever since the Change, wild hogs were a constant plague, needing endless hunting just to keep their numbers manageable. Some of their ancestors had been deliberately released from large hog confinements after the Change, while others had escaped in the chaos attendant upon re-settling thousands of urban folk in the countryside; many of the “Vakis” didn’t know or realize just how smart and dangerous pigs were. And once free, they had multiplied like rabbits in Australia.
The wind whistled across the fields, chilling things down even further. Shadows were turning a deeper, darker blue as evening came on. Nick thought about a mug of hot cider at home, and kicked his tired horse into a trot. Behind him, Melinda and Selene rode, in single-file as was their custom when out together.
Nick turned a corner onto a little-used side-road, and his eyes widened. A half-mile or so up the road, he could see a lonely figure walking, supported by a walking stick. “Melinda, Selene… take a look!”
While, officially, Nick was the Deputy Sheriff for that whole township, his wife and apprentice were both perfectly accustomed to helping with his work, when he needed it. He found them very useful, particularly when dealing with women; many women preferred talking to another woman to any man after having been victimized by crime. The three of them reined in, and peered down the road. “Is that anybody we know? Either of you two recognize him?”
“Not me, darling,” Melinda replied. She let her reins fall for a second to flex her fingers. Even in the thick wool-lined deerskin mittens she was wearing, she felt the cold more keenly than Nick did. “He doesn’t look familiar at all.”
“I’ve never seen him,” Selene said, her big silvery eyes focussed intently on the lone walker. “And I’m not sure at all where he’s going. That road doesn’t lead anywhere he could reach before night falls."
“Not to mention, the weather looks like it’s about to sock on in, but good,” Nick said, casting a wary eye at the sky. Off in the northwest, clouds were gathering, getting bigger and blacker as they rolled slowly down on Iowa. “If that’s not a blizzard coming, I’m the King of Romania.”
“Let’s go talk to him and see where he’s going,” Melinda suggested, picking up her reins once she’d worked some feeling back into her fingers. “We are supposed to keep an eye on everything that happens around here, after all.”
Nick nodded, and started off down the road. He wasn’t too worried… real bandits had more sense than to be out in this dreadful cold. Even so, he was curious. Most people, particularly in winter, traveled in groups. Seeing one lone man, out by himself… he wanted to know just what he was up to.
In a few minutes, the Clevelands (and Selene) were reining in alongside the lone walker, who turned out to be an old man.
“Good afternoon! Mighty cold day, isn’t it?” Nick smiled down at the old man, who gave him a keen look from under a fur hat. Nick had never seen a brighter blue eye. He noted that the other eye seemed to be missing, or at least damaged; it was covered by a black patch. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m just out traveling, heading from one place to the next. And I’m alone, if that’s what you’re wondering.” The oldster glanced off to the northwest, where the clouds were more lowering by the minute, and muttered something about “Uller.” That tickled something at the back of Nick’s memories, but he put it aside. There were other things to worry about.
“My name’s Nick Cleveland. Deputy Sheriff of this township. And these lovely ladies are my wife, Melinda, and my apprentice, Selene Lieber. Now you know who we are… more than we do of you.” Nick’s tone was polite, but there was a slight edge of authority in it.
“Earl Wedensbury, at your service. I come from east of here. I’ve been up in Wisconsin, but now I’m visiting your part of the world.”
“I could figure you weren’t from around these parts. Along that road, you won’t get to any shelter before night comes, and there’s a blizzard coming, sure as Fate. Would you come along with us? We’ve more than enough room, and food, and we can put you up till it’s safe to travel.” And I can run the ruler over you, old man. Even here in Iowa, solo wanderers are suspect. You might just be some old man who was a bit addled by the Change, but you might not be.
The old man looked a little surprised, before breaking out in a bright smile. “Why, thank you! Bless you for your courtesy to an old man!” He looked at their horses. “I do have a horse, but he’s not here at the moment. I do miss my Slipper.”
Melinda spoke up. “In that case, sir, will you ride pillion behind me?” She winked. “Between your age and all the clothes I have on, I doubt anything improper could happen.” Nick and his companions all rode with pillion-equipped saddles, in case they ran into someone who needed a ride. With spryness that belied his age, Mr. Wednesbury mounted up behind Melinda, and all three riders turned toward their home.
When they arrived, Nick’s Vakis came running, eager to see what Nick had brought back. “This is Mr. Wednesbury. He’ll be guesting with us till the storm passes. Get him set up with a room, and make sure to set an extra plate for dinner.” The Vakis helped Mr. Wednesbury dismount, as Nick, Melinda and Selene did likewise, leading their horses toward the stables and the food they desired. As Nick stepped into the stable, he looked up at the sky. It was darkening, and the first storm clouds were scudding in. Two large black birds flew by, and he hoped they’d get to shelter before the storm really hit.
❀ ❁ ❀
That evening, Nick, Melinda, Selene, Mr. Wednesbury and the Vakis all ate together, as was the custom at Nick’s Farm. Unlike many other Farmers, Nick did not consider himself somehow above the people who kept things going when he couldn’t be there. He also found that eating en famille helped him keep his ear to the ground about everything going on around the farm and the immediate neighborhood. Like many things he did, he had more than one purpose in mind.
Julie Schleicher, the chief cook, had outdone herself. She’d roasted several turkeys, stuffed with wild rice and other fixins, and accompanied them with mounds of boiled potatoes covered with butter. A big gravy boat graced the center of the table for those who preferred it, and steamed Lima beans and corn rounded out the main course. Milk for the children and some very good beer for the adults were the drinks of choice; Nick was not a bad hand at homebrewing himself, but one of the neighbors had actually built a microbrewery and wasn’t averse to selling his wares.
Nick himself had no religious belief whatsoever, but he bowed his head with everybody else as Grace was said. Many of his Vakis were believers, and he didn’t feel like getting into an argument with them over something that he felt couldn’t be proven one way or another. Then they fell to.
The guest, of course, was the center of attention. Mr. Wednesbury was seated between Nick and Melinda, and given first choice of everything. He ate with a good appetite, and turned out to be quite a raconteur, telling tales of places far away.
“You say you’ve been as far north as Lake Superior?” Nick asked.
“Yes, Deputy, I have. The people in the Upper Peninsula came through the Change fairly well. Being so isolated from the outside world helped them a great deal. The only wave of refugees they had was from the Duluth area, and there was more than enough room for people to take them in.” The single blue eye twinkled for a second. “And more than enough work for them to do.”
“That’s interesting news.” Nick made a mental note for his next report to his Sheriff, down in Goldfield, the county seat. He reported in regularly, as his duties required him to, and always included every bit of information he came across in the course of his patrols. Often, some titbit of information that meant nothing to him meant a lot to Sheriff Graves, who had access to much more news than Nick usually did. The saturnine, dark-avised Sheriff of Hardee County had his finger on every pulse in the county, and was seldom if ever surprised or caught unawares.
Melinda wanted to know about Wisconsin. “I had friends there, before the Change, in Madison. Did Madison… ?” She didn’t want to go on.
Mr. Wednesbury looked grim for a second. “Madison itself mostly didn’t make it, Mrs. Cleveland. Two factions arose and fought each other, and after they were done there wasn’t much left. The survivors refugeed out to the country. If you get up that way sometime, you can ask around, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high if I were you.”
Melinda bowed her head. She had always known that some such scenario was likely, but having it confirmed was still a slight shock. Nick saw a tear trickling down his wife’s cheek.
Selene saw it too. Very little escaped her notice, and she’d been all eyes ever since they’d run into Mr. Wednesbury. “Sir, where else have you been? I’ve never been out of Iowa, but one day I want to travel. I want to see the wonders that Nick and Melinda tell me about; the great cities from the ancient days, the ocean, the mountains… ”
“And so you will, young lady, so you will. I would guess that in your life you’ll travel very far indeed.” Mr. Wednesbury gave Selene one of his piercing looks, but what he saw did not seem to displease him.
That evening, they tucked their guest into one of the guest bedrooms. Those had been carefully situated so that if someone turned rambunctious, he could be contained, while still seeming inviting and pleasant. If Mr. Wednesbury noticed, he didn’t seem to mind, shaking Nick’s hand and thanking him for his hospitality to an old man.
“I had parents, sir. They were caught out East when the Change hit. Every day, I hope to see them coming back alive, although I know the chances are very low. So there’s always a warm welcome here for well-intentioned travelers.”
❀ ❁ ❀
They awoke the next morning to face a whited-out world. The trees outside could barely be seen through the double-glazed windows, and the wind that howled over the roof sounded like the hounds of Hell on the track of a sinner. Nick took one look and said “Okay, we’re socked in till this lets up. We’ll do indoor chores today.”
All the buildings of the former youth camp had been connected with a system of covered passageways in the year after the Change, for just such an emergency, so they could still get to the barns and stables. Nick personally went over his horses, inspecting their hooves and checking to see that they had food and water. Then he looked in on the cows, making sure that they were all right.
Mr. Wednesbury had chosen to tag along, and Nick was grateful for the company. He didn’t mind doing chores around the farm, but he liked having people to talk to, and Mr. Wednesbury was at least a new face. “I see you take good care of your animals, Deputy,” he commented.
“Yes, I do. Before the Change, this was a youth camp, and featured horseback riding, which was why we had horses when a lot of folks didn’t, after the Change. I grew up knowing how to tend to horses, and since I depend on mine for all sorts of things, making sure they’re in good fettle is only good common sense. Same goes for the cows, although I didn’t have any of those until a few years after the Change. Swapped two colts for some heifers, and I get them covered regularly by one of the neighbors’ bulls. We swap favors a lot around here.”
“I see. Do other people live like you do?”
“I’m a bit different from other Farmers, mostly because of my job. That, and the fact that a lot of the land I own on paper is swamp these days, since the dams went bust. The cropland I have, I rent out to the neighbors, and they pay me in various ways, mostly in kind. Between that, what I make as a Deputy, and this-that-and-the-other, we live fairly well.”
“Oh, yes. The swamp’s a wonderful place to run trap lines and grow wild rice, and I’ve got a bunch of beehives scattered about, all of them ringed with razor wire to keep thieves at bay. Not to mention, deer and wild pigs are a prime nuisance in these parts, but delicious.” Nick gave Mr. Wednesbury a serious look. “If you’re going to be traveling afoot around here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to beware of pigs. They’re smart and very dangerous, and not afraid of humans at all. I’d feel better if you were with a group of people.”
“I have ways of dealing with trouble,” Mr. Wednesbury assured Nick. “And I haven’t come such a long way without learning how to deal with danger.”
“Okay, it’s your life. However, I would still feel better if you were with friends, instead of all alone.”
❀ ❁ ❀
After dinner, everybody gathered in the big main room, which had once been the camp’s dining hall, and some people brought out guitars, flutes, recorders and other musical instruments. Soon, a singing party was going full blast, heedless of the dreadful storm still raging outside.
Nick joined in willingly, since he loved music and could sing very well. Melinda was less musical than he was, but she knew full well that this sort of activity was a tonic against cabin fever, and while she couldn’t sing as well as her husband, she had learned how to play the battered old piano that still stood in one corner well enough to provide some accompaniment. Nobody cared that the piano was out of tune. And when Selene gave them a solo in a clear, pure soprano, everybody else went silent. The songs went on far into the evening, hymns alternating with hits from before the Change, and no one minding.
Next morning, the household awoke to find the skies a brilliant blue, the wind having died in the night. Nick took one look at the white fluffy drifts, sighed, and went for his heavy outdoor gear. Every able-bodied person took a shovel, and they went out to attack the drifts that covered their home.
Pausing for a moment and wiping sweat out of his eyes, Nick was startled to see Mr. Wednesbury manning a shovel, for all the world like a much younger man. “Er, Mr. Wednesbury? You don’t have to do this. You’re a guest! Guests shouldn’t have to work!”
Mr. Wednesbury gave him a rather crooked grin. “I’m not as feeble as you seem to think I am, young man, although I do thank you for your concern. Some exercise is just what I needed to get myself feeling normal. And it’ll make a good appetite for the wonderful food you feed your guests.”
“That? That’s just everyday cooking!” Julie Schleicher had come out to offer everybody cups of hot apple cider, carried in a pre-Change thermos jug. “If you’d been here for the holidays, mister, you’d have seen some cooking! All of us around here compete to put on the fanciest spread we can, and I’ve got to say I’ve done well at it! Some of the Farmers here have made nice offers to me to come work at their Farms instead of this one. But I’m staying right here!”
“You treat your people very well, Deputy,” Mr. Wednesbury said. A shadow passed over his face. “I wish I could say as much of some other folk I’ve seen.”
“A lot of the Vakis here are old friends of mine, who either came here after the Change, or who were on other Farms until I found out they were there. We’re more like a big family than a lot of Farms. Some of these people act like feudal lords, which would make their ancestors spin in their graves.”
After the yards and paddocks were shoveled out, Nick and some of the other men hauled out a couple of horse-drawn plows, and got ready to plow out the driveway and the road. “Can I come along?” asked Mr. Wednesbury.
“Can’t see why not, sir. Come on, let’s go! The snow’ll get no shallower with us just staring at it!” With those words, Nick got the horses going, and they started to clear the driveway. Once the driveway was done, and they had plowed out a decent section of the road, it was getting on toward evening.
❀ ❁ ❀
At dinner that night, Mr. Wednesbury said: “I’ve seldom in all my days experienced finer hospitality, Deputy, but I think I’m going to have to be on my way tomorrow.”
“Sorry to see you go, sir. If you don’t mind me asking, which way are you headed, and do you have any destination in mind?”
“I’m for Pigeon Bluff, next, I think, and after that, I’m probably going to strike south. I’d like to see Des Moines.”
“Everybody should see Des Moines,” Selene spoke up. “It’s the largest city in the world… or so Nick believes.”
“As far as I know, it is. Now, if you want to get to Pigeon Bluff, you need to take the first right once you get to the next intersection West of here. Let me show you a map… ”
❀ ❁ ❀
Sure enough, despite sincere entreaties to stay a bit longer, the next day Mr. Wednesbury shouldered his pack, took up his heavy walking stick and headed out. Beside him, Nick and Selene rode their horses; a Deputy’s work was patroling and patroling was never done. Besides, Nick needed to get down to Goldfield and report to Sheriff Graves.
The skies overhead were a brilliant blue, reminding Nick of the paintings in a book of Maxfield Parrish’s work he had. He drew in a lungful of clean, cold air and felt better; while he didn’t mind having a few days out of the saddle, he got antsy if he stayed indoors too long.
At the end of the driveway, Mr. Wednesbury turned and said “I think this is where we part company, Deputy. I thank you for your hospitality, and hope you receive many blessings and get what you want out of life.”
“The same to you, Mr. Wednesbury.” The two men shook hands, and Mr. Wednesbury strode off down the newly-plowed road, his step as strong as a younger man’s.
Nick turned to Selene, who was watching him go. “Selene… is something wrong?”
“I think we did better than we knew, inviting him in, Nick.” When Selene spoke in that voice, Nick paid careful attention. She was extremely perceptive, and often noticed things he didn’t, which was part of why he found her such a valuable adjunct. “And I think his words had power.”
Watching as their quondam guest walked away, Nick noticed two big black birds flying around, as though they were with the old man. And then two big dogs he didn’t recognize came running up, greeting the old man like a long-lost friend.
Nick was not at all superstitous, but for a second, he felt a chill down his back that had nothing to do with the icy weather. Could it be? Then, as Mr. Wednesbury passed out of sight, he turned his mind to other things, and his horse’s head to Goldfield, seventeen miles away.
❀ ❁ ❀
Dun Mackenzie, Change Year 26 (2024 AD)
Nick came back from his reminiscent mood to see the Mackenzies looking at him very strangely. “Deputy,” said Juniper, “if I may, I’d like to have a long talk with you before you leave here… ”
❀ ❁ ❀
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀