From Circuits and Crises Book 6 of the Colplatschki Chronicles, coming later this week. Note: the book is set a hundred years before Elizabeth of Starland. It is six years since the Battle of the Great Plate River, when the Turkowi were defeated once and for all. Or so Emperor Andrew of Babenburg thinks . . .
I’m so tired of baking, Liara Kidder groaned, fanning her face with the corner of her apron. She and the other women, and some of the men, had been baking non-stop for what felt like months, ever since she and Lt. Johns and Goodwife Archer had ridden back from Karlavra. The heat of the ovens grew worse as the days grew longer, and more and more trees from the marshes and woodlands around the river vanished into the ovens’ maws, or became stored firewood, building timbers, or other supplies. I’m either baked or sodden and I’m so tired. She regarded the steaming planks of hardtack with weary resignation. Last batch, Godown be praised.
But, she thought with some pride, she’d done her part to fill the barrels and sacks crammed into the inner fortress. Bread and the so-called iron rations of bread twice-baked with powdered jerky and fruit paste, enough to feed the garrison’s four-thousand men for a month at least, now packed the store room. Liara had baked, mixed, pounded jerky, and sewn bags until her eyes crossed. I wonder how many other women help the soldiers? Maybe that’s what the Lander warrior women were, not real soldiers but cooks and seamstresses? That made much more sense to her.
“Liara! Quit fleece gathering,” Goodwife Alice O’Raurk shrilled, cutting off her thoughts. “You need to be working, not dreaming of that man.”
Enough! Liara planted her hands on her hips and waited as the old harridan bustled up to where she stood.
“I told you, you need to be working. There’s more baking to be done, so clean those ashes out and get more wood ready.”
“No, Goodwife. This is the last of the bread. Captain Kidder said that any remaining flour will be kept for fresh bread and other uses.”
Goodwife O’Raurk looked down her nose at Liara. “Oh really? I highly doubt that, miss.” She leaned forward until Liara could smell her sour breath, and pointed at her own chest. “I am in charge of preparing the supplies for Sigurney, and I told you to clean those ovens.”
“No, you are not in charge,” Liara snapped back. “Captain Kidder is, and he said we had enough.”
“Did he? Or are you making an excuse not to do your part?”
How dare you! I’ve been working as hard as every other woman here. She took a deep breath to try and stay calm, even as her fists began clenching. “Goodwife O’Raurk, I follow Captain Kidder’s orders. He said no more bread. I’m not helping bake any more bread because he said to stop.”
“And thanks be to Godown,” Goodwife Archer intoned, looming over the other women. “I wondered if we’d be baking cannonballs next.”
A hissed voice from behind Liara snipped, “O’Raurk already does. Her man uses her bread as a weapon.”
“Who said that?” O’Raurk straightened up and shook her fist. “Who is abusing my name?”
A few brave souls tittered but no one answered. Instead, Goody Archer observed, “O’Raurk, we have done all we can do to help our men. It’s time to get ready to leave.”
Thanks be, the river’s dropping enough we can cross, Liara thought. She’d snuck up onto the battlement the week before, searching for a breath of wind, and had stared in awe at the Morpalo River. Floodwaters spread for kilometers on either side of Sigurney, lapping the walls of the old town and endangering the causeways connecting the south bank and the hamlet to the fortress. Brown water stretched as far as she could see, and she wondered if it touched the feet of the hills north and south of the river. “A mighty sight it is, Miss Kidder,” the guard had said.
“Yes, it is,” she had breathed. “Can anything cross it?”
“Birds and fish. But if you mean people, I wouldn’t try it, Miss. It looks smooth and quiet, don’t it?”
“Yes.” And it had: smooth brown water without a wave or ripple, except where it flowed around a few trees in the distance. Those had once been well away from the banks, Liara recalled with an awe-filled shiver.
The guardsman had nodded and pointed. “It’s flowing fast as a horse jogs out there, in the middle of where the river usually runs. And dead trees and other traps hidden in the water, plus bits of island and probably people, deer, cows, the usual.” He’d shaken his head. “Many years ago my brother and I tried to pole across the Danials River, north of here, when it was high. Godown looks after children and stupid fools, thanks be, or I’d not be here speakin’ with you, Miss. The water ran so fast, and the hidden traps under the surface almost upset the boat before we were half-way across. We’d promised half of Colplatschki to Godown by the time we reached the other side.”
“How far downstream will it stay wide, do you know?” I don’t recall it being so big where it reached the sea, but maybe this is a bigger flood.
“Hard to say, Miss. Dozens of kilometers, I know that much. I guess the snows are melting all at once, as warm as it’s been here, and brought the river up faster and sooner. That means it will drop fast, too, but there’s going to be a mort of muck and mud to get through, and drowned trees and what all once things start dryin’ out. And you can’t plant water, not unless you can harvest your crops from the sea with a rowboat,” and he’d winked.
That evening she’d asked her father about the river’s rise and fall. He’d taken to spending more time with her in the evenings as she worked. Captain Mike Kidder had set his chalk and board down. “He’s right, Don is. The faster the rise, the faster the fall, although never instantly. We won’t wake up and find dry ground tomorrow. Instead we’ll start seeing mud, lots and lots of mud.”
She’d wrinkled her nose. Mud smelled, especially the mud around Sigurney.
Her father had chuckled. “I agree, as do all the farmers around here. They say that some floods sweeten the land, refreshing it. But other places the water sits and turns the ground sour, and it will be a year before any sort of crop will grow, except maybe marsh wheat. And even that will be scanty.”
Well, the river is dropping and Father says once the ferry boat can cross safely, he’ll send us north. Gerald says that Martino wants me to meet him and his family before we are wed, and that will be nice. Even she knew that only fools would try to escape to the south side of the river, especially now that all who could had fled, stripping their homes and villages of everything movable. A week before, a heliograph report came in from the east saying that the Turkowi had begun crossing the pass and coming down the south bank of the Morpalo. I wonder if anyone would go south and west to the Magwi? But that means taking horses, and finding the Magwi, wherever they have moved to for the season, or so Goodwife Archer says.
Liara wiped her sweaty face once more before making certain that the oven doors remained open a crack. Several women had been making family bread and clay-pot meals to take advantage of the last heat in the big ovens, and Liara had traded two baking shifts for a sweet-root and yard bird pot for her and her father. The other food needed less heat than the hard bread, and leaving the doors open a tiny bit helped keep things from burning.
Liara stopped by the well and drew two buckets of water, carrying them to the commander’s quarters herself. I am going to be clean! She shut the door, blocked it with a chair just in case, and washed off the dust, soot, and sweat, then rinsed her head. She used the dirty water to rinse out the night soil boxes. Her father did not like dumping the night soil near Sigurney, but the river would carry it far away, and the muck cart didn’t float.
That evening Imre Archer led prayers of thanks and praise for the women’s work. He’d almost become a priest before joining the army, and his deep voice fit the holy songs perfectly. Even Fr. Mou didn’t lead worship as well, Liara thought. Goodwife O’Raurk looked sour even after Capt. Kidder praised her organization abilities. Did she want all the credit? Or is she still mad at Goodwife Archer? Maybe it’s because Imre is a worship leader and her man isn’t. Which is foolish. Liara shrugged a little and turned her attention back to praying.
After the prayer service ended she stopped to look at the messenger birds. They’d arrived with the last supplies and guns not long before the river rose. Three cages, each with four birds, filled a sheltered corner by the stables. The birds looked soft, but Liara did not try and touch them. They also looked fat, and she wondered if you could eat the old ones. Their handler had said that they would fly to Scheel Center when he turned them loose, and that they could carry messages tied to one leg. She’d giggled at the idea of a bird that small flying with papers hanging from a string, until he’d showed her the little case that strapped to the bird’s leg. Well, you and fish are the only way to get word to anywhere, at least until the river falls some more.
A week later the men decided that time had come to send the women and children away. Their two boats had gone out light-loaded and come back safely, and had brought news that made her father’s jaws clench. “I don’t know if I believe him, Captain,” the boatman said. “Not entirely, but he swore the pass is yellow as far as can be. And that the Rajtan himself is marching with the army!”
“Which side of the river are they on?”
“Still south side, sir. The bridges upstream, all but Tamarak, are gone or so badly damaged that the infidels will have to fix them before they can get more than a bird across.”
“So he was serious,” Mike Kidder said. “Good work, Tan, and go get some rest. We’re going to start sending the women away tomorrow.”
They’d planned for that already, and the families had drawn lots. Liara had drawn the last boat, even though she’d pulled her lot half-way through the lottery. “Godown knows well,” Lt. Archer had said later that afternoon. “If the captain’s daughter went first, people would wonder. And if she’d drawn first and gotten a late number, they’d think the draw was rigged.” It made sense, but she wanted to be away, meeting her fiancé Martino and seeing Gerald and his wife and their new daughter.
Her father had allowed three days for everyone to leave, and Liara wondered why. She learned the next day. The first boat left, carrying Goodwife O’Raurk and three other women with their children and belongings. The next boat carried two horses and more belongings. “We won’t need all the horses if the Rajtan gets here, and if he doesn’t, we can reclaim them easy enough,” Capt. Kidder explained to her.
“Why not keep a few, sir, just in case?”
He fanned away a fly. “Oh, we will. But horses eat a great deal, and if we have to start slaughtering them, we won’t be able to eat that much meat fast enough to keep it from spoiling.”
She shuddered. Horse tastes sweet, richer than I like. Eating horses means the Turkowi have surrounded the fort and won’t leave. But the Patricians will send troops before that happens. “Father, are you planning on eating some of the horses?”
“No, of course not. But if we prepare for the worst and hope for the best, Godown will help us.” He snorted, eyes on the river as the boat faded into a dot in the distance. “The problem you plan for never comes.”
The next day, one of the two boats flipped over. It had begun raining, and one of the horses spooked when a clap of thunder sounded. It broke loose and hit the other horse. The two of them tried to jump off the boat and instead tipped it over, or so the men said. Soldiers in the second boat saw it and managed to save the men, but the boat disappeared underwater, then appeared downstream, upside down, and drifted away before anyone could catch it. Liara stopped watching after that and concentrated on packing. She’d already sent as many things north as possible over the winter, so her betrothed’s family could see that she was a hard worker and a good housekeeper. Liara also cooked several meals that could be eaten cold, so her father would have food after she left.
The next day she tied her things into a neat bundle and carried it down to the end of the old town. There she found the men watching the water. It looked higher than it had been the day before, and sounded different. The first boat trip went without a problem, and Liara gave thanks, even as she watched the water rise a little where it lapped the edge of the rebuilt dock.
“Rain upstream must have been worse,” Tan decided.
“Wonder if the rest of the snow’s melting? That’d bring the water up,” another man said.
At last only Liara, two horses, and one of the gunner’s wives remained. Her father kissed her. “I’ll be up in time for the wedding. And remind Gerald that he’s not to leave you alone with Martino, no matter what the young man says.”
She sighed. “Yes, Father,” as the men around them made what sounded like coughing sounds and nudged each other. Her father helped her into the boat, then got out of the way as soldiers led the horses on board. One acted nervous. Liara fingered her mother’s beads. Holy Godown be with us, please. St. Michael, soothe the beasts and help their herdsmen. Great Godown, have mercy, carry us safely. Godown, lord of the waters, please still the stream and carry us over safely. The men pushed the boat loose from the dock and they bobbed away into the water.
Liara felt the water pushing the boat as the soldiers rowed, trying to keep it headed across the river. The other woman closed her eyes and murmured prayers, but Liara had to watch. The water roared, and then she heard a hissing sound. What’s that? She looked upstream and saw part of a tree floating toward them. “Tree in the water,” she called.
The men pulled harder and one balanced on the edge of the boat, trying to use his oar to push the tree away. It tapped the boat, rocking it. Liara grabbed the side. One of the horses lost its balance and fell over, kicking. Another thud hit the boat and Liara felt it tipping and rocking. All at once brown water rushed over her.
Liara flailed, trying to find the surface. She got her head above water, choked on the muddy stuff, and gasped, trying to swim. She heard a scream and shouts, and splashing. One of the horses swam past and she grabbed its tail. She managed to wrap her hands in the hair, holding on for dear life. “Help me, Godown, please!” she screamed.
The horse kept swimming, and Liara kicked, trying to help. Her waterlogged skirts got in the way and she knew if she let go, they’d pull her under. “Good horse,” she called, trying to encourage the beast. Water got in her mouth and she spat, sputtering, looking up at the sky and fighting to keep her nose and mouth out of the muddy, cold river. She felt the horse kick harder and she tried to keep clear of the hoofs.
“Grab it!” A man’s voice called.
“Get it, pull it in!”
“Get her a rope, someone, hurry.”
The horse scrambled for footing and Liara let go, flailing, trying to reach land. Strong, warm hands grabbed her and pulled her out of the cold water. Two men dragged her up onto dry ground and began pushing on her back. She coughed and gasped. A man called, “She’s alive.”
Liara managed to get to her knees. “I’m OK.” I feel sick. I’m going to, “Blargh”.
“Good. You don’t want to keep that brew in your belly,” a familiar voice said, and she blinked through tears to find the fortress’s churigon crouching beside her.
Liara coughed, sucked air, and coughed again. I’m cold. Thank you Godown, thank you. Bless you, Godown for saving me. Thank you St. Michael for caring for your horse. “Father’s going to kill me.”
“No, he won’t,” someone else said. “Although if you come down with winter cough after that dunking you might wish he had.”
The churigon helped her to her feet and she looked around. The horse had swum back to Sigurney, downstream of the old town at the tip of the island! She was back at the fortress. One of the soldiers wrapped her in a scratchy blanket, and the churigon walked Liara to town. “The others?”
“We’ll just get you to a fire and see what happens,” he said.
Holy Godown be with them. Please may they have gotten across safely.
Her father arrived not long after she began trying to dry out. “Father, what happened?”
“You tell me.”
She shook her head. “I remember a tree hitting the boat, and the horse tipping over, and then I was in the water. I grabbed the other horse and he brought me back. Did the men and Goody Tarlo get across?”
Her father sat beside her on the rough bench and held his hands over the flames. “I’m sorry, no. They drowned.”
She felt her nose getting stuffy and sniffed. Her eyes burned and she began crying for the first time since her mother had died. “I’m sorry Father. I tried to stay in the boat, I tried not to cause a problem.”
He pulled her against him, holding her like a little child. “Liara, you did not tip the boat. It was Godown’s will and the flood. We should have waited until tomorrow, but . . .” He rested his chin on her head. “I just hope, dear holy Godown I hope, that they weren’t the fortunate ones.”
Four days later Liara heard a commotion from the courtyard of the fortress. She moved the pot off the fire and walked out into the sticky, hot afternoon air, blinking at the bright sun. “He’s here,” one of the men called.
“Damn it to hell,” Imre Archer swore, dark eyes snapping. “How many?”
“As many as a yellow-colored river.”
Liara skirted around the edge of the courtyard and walked up the steps to the battlement. She peered out the direction the men were pointing and saw what looked like a smear of yellow. “What’s that?”
“Here,” her father’s voice said. He handed her a field glass, and she peered at the smear. It turned into lots and lots of little figures, stretching past the bend in the river four kilometers upstream of the fortress. They all wore yellow, or carried yellow banners. “If the wind were from the east, you’d hear their drums and trumpets.”
She handed back the field glass. “Is that the Rajtan?”
“It’s Rajtan Tulwar Ko Singha and his army. Yellow is the color of Selkow, the goddess they worship.”
Godown help us. Liara gulped.
(C) 2015 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved