©2010, 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 Author in year, 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.
Provisional Republic of Iowa
“Well,” I said, squatting over the corpse, “What do you see, Selene?” The horses whickered uneasily; the smell of blood and death spooked them.
“This wasn’t the work of wild animals.” My apprentice, Selene Lieber, pointed to the body, her silvery-gray eyes wide and solemn. “First off, the tools are gone. Those Vakis told us this guy was out here chopping brush. He’d have had a few tools with him, but none of them are here. Animals wouldn’t take tools.”
I straightened, with a groan; every so often, my body saw fit to remind me that I wasn’t seventeen years old any more, although I was in far better shape than I’d been in on the day of the Change. “Very good. And…?”
“The clothes are also missing. Again, animals wouldn’t bother those. The only animals that would take clothes, and leave the flesh uneaten, walk on two legs.”
I nodded. “And they are far more dangerous than any of nature’s beasts.”
“We’d better report this to the Sheriff. We’re due to report in anyway.” Selene brushed a wisp of her white-blonde hair out of her face. “And tell the Andersons.” This had happened on the Andersons’ farm, and the victim had been one of their Vakis — evacuees, to use the full polite term — who had been settled on the farm after the Change. Several other Vakis stood back out of the way, letting me do my Deputy Sheriff work.
“At least they aren’t Eaters,” commented Selene. She had an uncanny way of knowing just what I was thinking. “Eaters would have dismembered the body, wouldn’t they?” I looked at her, silently wondering. If she was like this at twelve, what will she be like as a teenager — or an adult? If she stuck with this work, she’d be the stuff of legends.
“Fine. Let’s ride. We’ll stop by the Anderson’s place first, and have them spread the word.”
Mrs. Anderson was a motherly soul, who treated her Vakis like her own children. Selene had been one of them, until her mother’s mental illness had prompted Mrs. Anderson to ask me to take her on as my apprentice. When she saw us riding up, she came out on to her front porch, smiling. “Nick! Selene! So good to see you! You can stay for supper, can’t you, dears?” Then she saw our expressions, and the Vakis following us, carrying a load between them in a big piece of canvas. “Oh, dear! You found Tommy, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, we did. He’s dead — and I’d say it was people who did it. Wild men, at a guess. You know the drill. Spread the word to the next farms over. We’re heading for Goldfield to alert the Sheriff.” Mrs. Anderson was, for all practical purposes, the person who ran Anderson Farm, and for all her motherly ways, she was well used to dealing with crises. As Selene and I turned to go, we could hear her giving orders. She would send runners to the next farms over, who would then send runners to farms further away, until all the farms in the area were on the alert.
Shortly afterward, Selene and I were trotting along toward Goldfield. The county seat was seventeen miles away, and getting there would take us the rest of the day. “We’ll stay at the Tarot Garden tonight, okay?”
“Whatever you say, Nicholas.” Selene had been much less of a burden than I had anticipated when I agreed to take her on as my apprentice, two years previously. I had had little experience with girls her age, and had thought that she’d be difficult to deal with. Instead, she had adapted to the situation with utter aplomb. Endless hours in the saddle, dealing with squabbles among Vakis or Farmers, having to share a pup tent with me or hole up in abandoned buildings to shelter from unexpected blizzards — nothing fazed her at all. She’d been born after the Change, and accepted the new world in a way I never really could myself.
Now, riding along just behind me, you’d think that she had been born in the saddle, even though she had never spent much time on horseback before joining me. Most Vakis didn’t ride much. She began humming a tune, and after a few minutes, I joined her.
The day was beautiful, with huge fluffy white clouds floating through a blue sky, and the good scent of the earth and growing things all around us. Cattle and sheep grazed peacefully, watched over by Vaki herdsmen, who waved as they saw us riding on past. Even though everything seemed utterly peaceful, I watched around us carefully, never really relaxing.
The first few years after the Change had been very hairy in a lot of ways. Quite a few of the Vakis hadn’t taken their new circumstances at all well, and there had been a lot of squabbling over things like unclaimed land. Even now, there were cases — like the present one — of wild men using the cover of the river-bottom woods to penetrate a good long way into Iowa; our patrols and fortifications along the banks of the Mississippi couldn’t stop people swimming across quietly on a dark summer night.
I’d been selected as a Deputy more-or-less by accident — I was a landowner, which made me, in theory at least, a Farmer, even though most of my land was either rented out to real Farmers or untillable; my household and I lived in what had been, before the Change, a Scout camp that had been built on my family’s land. As it had happened, the County Sheriff had known me from the SCA before the Change, and had tapped me to be a Deputy for my township. That made me the man to go to for a six-mile-square section of Iowa, and ensured that at least, I’d never be bored.
Every township in Hardee County had its own Deputy, whose job it was to ride around and see that the laws were being enforced. In some counties, or so I had heard, the bigger Farmers had hogged the Sheriff’s job for themselves, but I liked it better when the County Commissioners and the Sheriff were separate from the Farmers. I liked and thought well of most of the Farmers I knew, but I didn’t like them having a monopoly on power or law enforcement.
My own township of River Rock had a lot of forested and swampy areas, particularly once some of the dams had gone in the first years after the Change. Quite a bit of my own family’s land — the part that wasn’t rented out to real Farmers — was swamp now. My home was on the edge of the swamp, and I had sidelines that made that quite useful. A dozen beehives well scattered about — I had read about the endless trouble pre-Change beekeepers had had with diseases, and did not want to lose all my hives if one of them came down sick — traplines, several sloughs planted in wild rice, some cows and pigs, and quite a few trotlines and nets for fish. Between all that, and things we traded for, my little household and I lived pretty high, with a lot less work than most real Farmers did.
By the time we clattered into Goldfield, it was getting on toward evening. The Sheriff’s stables were not far from his office. Once the horses were settled, we went over to the Sheriff’s office in the old courthouse.
Another of the Deputies was also coming in. “Hi, Dianne! How are things down in Nassau Township?” Dianne Taylor gave me a gamine grin. She looked very like our Sheriff, and there were rumors that she was his wrong-side-of-the-blankets daughter. Rumors or no, she was a good Deputy for her township, and we got along splendidly.
“Well enough, Nick. You’re a little early to report in, aren’t you?”
“I am, but there are reasons.” I knocked on the Sheriff’s office door, and when invited, walked on in. Sheriff Graves gave me a long, considering look. “You’re rather early, Deputy Cleveland. Dare I hope that, for a change, it’s good news?”
Sheriff Graves had been the sheriff for a long time. Rumor had it that he was descended from our original Indian tribe, and looking at him, with his black eyes, straight long black hair, and hooked nose, I tended to believe it. He was also very like the stereotype of an Indian in that nothing ever visibly fazed him. “Yes, Sheriff, I am. We’ve got what might well be an invasion by wild men from Illinois.” I walked over to the large-scale county map that covered one whole wall of the office he used in the county courthouse. “I was following up a report of a missing Vaki over here, on the border between River Rock Township and Greene County. We found him, dead. His tools were missing, and so were his clothes, but he hadn’t been cut up or eaten at, so I’m sure that it can’t be a cougar or wild pigs. They’d have made much more of a mess of him and wouldn’t have been interested in his clothes or tools.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Only wild men would be interested in his tools — they were very commonplace.”
“Indeed,” said Sheriff Graves. “Your reasoning seems sound. What did you do?”
“Notified the Andersons. They’re setting up the hue-and-cry as we speak. I then rode for Goldfield to report to you. I figure that Des Moines needs to know about this.”
“You’re exactly right, Deputy Cleveland. I have had reports this morning of unexplained livestock disappearances from areas east of Hardee County. In most cases, the usual suspects — wild dogs and the like — cannot be blamed. This confirms the suspicions I have formed. I shall inform Des Moines at once. Or — ” he looked out the window, to see the sun setting in the west — “tomorrow, when the heliographs are working. You will be here tomorrow, I take it?”
“Yes, sir. We’ll be at the Tarot Garden, as usual. Our horses are in the county stables.”
“Excellent. How is Miss Lieber coming along?”
“She’s getting very good at this work, sir. She’s useful in a lot of ways — she often notices things I wouldn’t, and women often will talk to her more readily than they will to me.”
“Very good. I’m pleased to hear that you’re doing so well at training her.” I could tell that he meant this as a polite dismissal, so I got up to go. As I left, he said: “I know that Deputy Taylor is out there. Have her come in next, please.”
❀ ❁ ❀
The Tarot Garden was owned by a friend of mine. Jenny Ross and I had known each other for years before the Change, and she’d been up visiting me when the world Changed. Her husband and children had been in Chicago on the day the Change hit. Rather than return home to her empty house, she had stayed on and opened her restaurant and inn in an unowned building.
As we walked in, Jenny spotted us. “Nick Cleveland, and Selene Lieber! Good to see the two of you again! How’s the deputy business going?”
“Just fine, Jenny. Good to see you, and to be seen. Deputying’s just like it’s always been. Ninety-nine percent pounding my… self to a pulp in the saddle, one percent police work.” I looked around at the familiar room. Before the Change, Jenny Ross had collected Tarot cards, and when she’d opened her new business, she’d decorated it with Tarot motifs. I’d had to explain to one of the more excitable local preachers that Tarot decks were not Satanic, and using Tarot card themes as decoration did not dedicate the building and all in it to Satan. When the explanations were over, the preacher had needed a doctor to stitch him back up in his jail cell, and I’d been nursing a broken arm from his baseball bat.
“Here’s your menus. Selene, you’re looking better every time I see you. I wasn’t sure about this at first, with you being dragged all over on horseback, but you look like you’re thriving on it.”
Selene gave Jenny one of her big smiles. She was good at her work, but still had times when she missed having a mother to fuss over her. “Oh, I’m having a wonderful time! Every day is something different! Today we found a dead man killed by wild men from Illinois!”
Jenny’s dark eyes went very wide. “I hope you spread the word!” At Selene’s nod, she pulled out a slate and chalk — paper pads were rare and not to be used for frivolties like taking restaurant orders. “What’ll you have?”
When we had finished eating, Selene was visibly fighting to stay awake. “Jenny, we need a room for the night — the usual setup.” Jenny nodded and tossed me a key, with a room number on the tag attached to it. The Sheriff’s office had a standard arrangement with the Tarot Garden and several other places with rooms to rent in Goldfield; this way, we just signed for the room and the Sheriff settled up with the proprietors once a month. Or something like that. I wasn’t, frankly, terribly clear on the details.
I led Selene up the stairs, her yawning ever more hugely, and lit the lamp in our room. There was a bed for me and a smaller trundle bed for her; I sat her down on it and before I could so much as turn my back, she was stretched out, sound asleep. I pulled the blanket up over her, patted her on her head and blew out the lamp before I headed back downstairs to talk with Jenny and several other people who’d come in while we were eating.
❀ ❁ ❀
I was awakened by the light of dawn streaming into the room through the window. At first, I thought that my wife, Melinda, was there, since there was someone else in with me. When I opened my eyes, the mass of blonde hair that was half-covering my face told me who it was.
“Selene! What are you doing in here? I put you in the other bed!”
Selene opened her big silvery eyes and gave me a sleepy smile. “I was lonesome. It’s not like we haven’t shared a bed before. That pup tent of yours is much less roomy and comfortable than this is.” She nestled close. “I had a bad dream — a dream about what it was like before you came and took me away. I woke up and wanted to make that dream go away.”
She had a point, I had to admit. Even so…“I do think it would be better not to do this unless we have to. You’re getting a little old for this, I believe.”
She looked at me, nonplussed. “Why is that, Nicholas?”
I started to explain, four times, but finally gave up. “When we get home, ask Melinda about it. She can explain better than I can.” I reached down and gave her a pinch. She squeaked, her silvery eyes opening wide. “We’d best be up and on our way, so wipe the cobwebs out of your head!”
Selene let go of me and got up. She gave me an impish grin. “Dibs on the bathroom!” She rushed out toward the facilities before I could lever myself out of bed. I shook my head. I couldn’t have loved Selene more if she were my own daughter, but there were times that I found her utterly incomprehensible.
An hour later, we were finishing a huge breakfast; I’m a big believer in starting out the day with the main meal. Selene looked at me expectantly, so I decided to do what she wanted me to. “Selene, go to the stables and get our horses. Have them saddled and bridled, and bring them back here, okay?”
Happy to be given something useful to do, Selene bounced on out. I was in the middle of a long talk with Jenny Ross and several of her cronies, and at first, I didn’t notice how long Selene was taking. Finally, I noticed the time. “Blimey! What happened to that girl? She should have been back here half an hour ago!”
Jenny gave me a quizzical look. “She’s a love, but she’s a little strange. She might be looking at a butterfly or something like that.”
I shook my head. “Not when she’s on Sheriff’s business. She may seem a bit spacey, but she knows when to focus in on what needs doing.” Sighing, I got up and put on my hat. “I’d better go see what happened.”
As it happened, Selene hadn’t gotten as far as the stables. I found her a block or so away, cornered in an alley by some Vaki kids I recognized. The Vakis weren’t even supposed to be in Goldfield, but their farm was not far away. I surmised that they’d sneaked off for a day of playing hookey from chores. They didn’t see me at first, so I just stood behind them to see what they were doing.
“There she is, the little freak,” sneered one of them. “Deputy’s pet — tagging around after him like she’s a Deputy herself. She doesn’t look so tough, does she?”
“I bet she spreads her legs for the Deputy — for all the Deputies — and the Sheriff too,” came a girl’s nasal whine. “That’s the only reason anybody would tolerate her.”
Selene looked as calm as ever, but I could see that her hand was on the hilt of the Kukri knife I had given her for her last birthday, and she was ready to whip it out if any of the bullies got close enough. The bullies themselves had sticks and rocks. I narrowed my eyes. I didn’t like this sort of thing, and treating my apprentice with disrespect bordered on direct disrespect to me, or at least to the office I held.
After a little bit, the bullies took heart in the fact that there were four of them, all bigger than Selene, and moved in on her. Before Selene could draw her Kukri, I drawled: “My, this is interesting! I do hope I’m not interrupting anything!” They whirled, and jumped nearly out of their skins when they saw me standing there, my hand casually on the hilt of my katana. The four of them ran down the alley, dropping their sticks and rocks to run faster, their faces white with fear.
Selene came up to me. She was outwardly unruffled, but I knew her well enough to know that she had been frightened. “Thank you, Nicholas. I’m sorry I didn’t get the horses for you. Those kids chased me into this alley and cornered me before I could get away.”
“Not your fault, little one,” I assured her. “When we get out of town, we’ll make a short detour. I know just which farm those little delinquents came from, and I plan to have a few words with the owners.”
❀ ❁ ❀
A few weeks later, Selene and I were out on patrol again. The wild men had not been captured or killed yet, so this time we were in full war gear and armed to the teeth. I had my katana, as well as a heavy compound bow and quiver full of arrows, and a lance. Selene had her kukri, a compound crossbow, and a glaive; she didn’t have the strength to stand up to a grown man blade-to-blade, but with the glaive she didn’t have to, and she was wicked quick with it. Before someone with a shete could get close enough to hurt her, she could take out his hamstrings and then finish him.
The rain was pouring down, and even with our ponchos, we were both soaked. Water dripped off my helmet’s brim; at least since it was an old German model, the water off the back wasn’t going straight down my back. Selene was more subdued than usual; normally she was cheery and interested in everything we saw, but today she just rode along beside me silently.
I saw something moving at the edge of a field, something that didn’t look like it belonged there. “Selene!” I pointed ahead. “Can you see that?”
Selene was carrying the binoculars. “Nicholas — that’s a little kid!”
“Give me those binoculars!” When I had them, I looked for myself. Sure enough, it was a child. The kid was crouched in the ditch by the side of the road, trying to hide. “Selene — go and get me that kid. He — or she — shouldn’t be out in this sort of weather, this far from anywhere.” I thought that the child had wandered into a cornfield and gotten lost; it was something that happened every now and then.
Selene nodded, dismounted, tossed me her reins and went forward. She had a way with children that I didn’t have. Very soon, she was squatting beside the child, talking to it, before she scooped it up in her arms and came running back. I was a little startled; Selene almost never got excited.
When she came up beside my horse, I could see why she was agitated. The child had a broken arrow sticking out of its — her — arm. “Selene — ” I scooped the little girl up and held her in front of me — “the Hagers’ farm is closest, and Mrs. Hager’s a RN! Ride! Now!” I put spurs to my horse and galloped off, as Selene swung into her saddle and came after me.
Mrs. Hager was out on her front porch, and when she saw us thundering up her front drive, she came running out. “Nick Cleveland, what in the world are you doing now?” She didn’t have much of an opinion of my good sense. Then she saw the little girl I was carrying and shifted gears into “nurse” mode. “Marcus! Get a bed ready, we’ve got a patient! Susan, get my bag!” In a few minutes, the girl was lying on one of the beds while she put together an anasthetic; that arrow would take some digging to remove, and it would be better if she weren’t conscious.
Once the girl was out, Mrs. Hager began working, snapping questions at me as though I were three years old and Not Too Bright. “This girl — did she say where she’s from? I don’t recognize her, and I don’t think there’s any girl that matches her description on any of the neighboring farms.”
“No, ma’am,” said Selene. “She just said something about ‘mommy and daddy deaded,’ and then she was pretty incoherent.”
“This wound’s very fresh; if it were older, she’d not be alive,” Mrs. Hager went on. “Whatever beasts attacked her are probably not far away. She couldn’t have come far, not in this condition.” She gave me a piercing look. “Deputy, you can take as many of my Vakis as you want, but I want to know how this happened!”
❀ ❁ ❀
We started in the road, near where we had found the girl. Selene and I were still on horseback, but we now had a bunch of Vakis with us, on foot and armed with shetes and boar-spears. I privately didn’t think they’d be much good, but if there were a large group of wild men, I’d rather not just have Selene with me.
The little girl had left a fairly clear trail through the mud, and we had no trouble following it. After a while, we came up to an old campground in a grove of trees, and I could see smoke rising from behind the trees. “That doesn’t look like campfire smoke, Nicholas,” commented Selene.
She was right. There was too much of it, and it was in two or three columns. Even now, firewood was still valuable enough that nobody used it that extravagantly. “I’m going forward, Selene. You stay behind and keep me covered. Get your crossbow out.” She nodded and cocked her crossbow as I dismounted, tied the reins of my horse to a nearby fencepost, and walked toward the campground.
The smoke was coming from several wagons that were smoldering merrily away. I recognized the wagons. They belonged to a traveling theatrical company that had been scheduled to play in Goldfield before heading up to the biggest town in Hardee County, Pigeon Bluff. Well, the plays were cancelled now.
The next thing I knew, there were loud yells all around me, as wild men erupted from the bush and the interiors of the few intact wagons. For the most part, they had very poor weapons; one of them was brandishing a brush-hook like the one poor Tommy had had on the Anderson farm, and another of them had a double-bitted axe. The others had things like an old garden rake, a big stick, and other improvised weapons.
However, there were a lot of them, and they had managed to catch me off guard; I had been distracted by noticing just who the wagons had belonged to. I barely managed to get my katana out in time as I backed against the trunk of a large tree. By then, they were on me.
The one with the brush-hook looked to be the leader. He leaped forward, howling something incomprehensible, and swung at me wildly. He hadn’t known I was wearing armor, and his weapon glanced off the plates in my coat. Before he could recover, I slashed at him and cut him from the shoulder to deep within his torso, pulling the blade loose as he fell backwards in a fountain of blood.
That seemed to be the signal for them all to attack me at once. I laid about myself in every direction, but for every one I cut down, there seemed to be two more behind him. I cursed my overconfidence; if I’d had the Vakis with me, I’d have had much better odds.
There was a confused yelling, and one, then two of the wild-men went down, even though they were well out of sword range. Some of them turned, shouted something incomprehensible, and charged out of the grove. Unfortunately, that still left more for me than I was really able to deal with. I slashed and cut, moving my sword in a defensive pattern. The Vakis were coming… would they come in time?
Just then, something slammed against my helmet. There was a flash of light, and I felt myself spiraling down into endless blackness.
❀ ❁ ❀
When I opened my eyes, I was staring up at a strange ceiling. My head hurt horribly. I let out a soft groan, and someone bustled up to me. I was having trouble focussing, but finally figured out that it was Mrs. Hager.
“You’re awake? You lie still and heal…you damned fool!” Her words were stern, but I could hear unshed tears in her voice. “Doctor Connelly said that if you hadn’t had that helmet on, you’d have been dead!”
“Good…good thing I was wearing it, then, wasn’t it?” I whispered. “What happened?”
“Oh, once I saw those wild men charging at you, I cocked my crossbow and started shooting, as soon as I had a clear shot,” came another voice. Selene leaned over me, her silvery eyes wide with wonder. “I hadn’t realized that I could shoot so quickly. After I knocked down a couple of the wild men, they figured out where I was and came running out at me. The Vakis took care of them, right quick.”
“They were all killed. The Vakis were raving about your little apprentice here. They said that Selene never so much as turned a hair; she just sat there on her horse and shot them, one at a time. They couldn’t believe that a girl her age could do things like that.”
“Oh, it wasn’t difficult,” Selene said, giving Mrs. Hager a beaming smile. “Not nearly so difficult as dealing with sounders of wild hogs! Those are dangerous; these were just a bunch of wild men. Bigger targets, and more predictable. And I had the Vakis with me.”
“The Vakis took out the ones that she didn’t get, and she went on in and hauled you out. Once she was sure you were alive, she had them put together a stretcher and hauled you back here on a travois she had them make.”
I gave Selene a smile. “I guess someone paid attention to the things I taught her, didn’t she?”
That was the first time I’d ever seen Selene Lieber blushing.
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀