Treva watched as the group of strangers came past her vantage point on the roof of an abandoned building at the edge of the old main street of her hometown. They were all dressed similarly, with similar packs, similar guns, and similar expressions of disdain – as if walking through this community was somehow beneath them.
Nola, her mixed breed canine companion, was concealed from view in the ruins below. After the armed hikers had disappeared from view, Treva climbed down from the roof and she and her huge dog took off through the alleyways, back towards their home.
Treva’s simple community was originally a block near the downtown ‘business district’ in this former county seat. While years of decline, due to the rising costs of energy, were decimating the economy many generations ago, this particular block of residents had collaborated in preserving their small enclave.
The original owners and tenants had turned their yards into vegetable gardens, and had smuggled livestock, such as chickens, rabbits, and goats, to raise for food for themselves and their families. At one point in the decline, they had been forced to barricade themselves inside the block’s perimeters to stay alive; safe from the roaming gangs of starving people who were eventually hauled off by military reserves and police to unknown destinations.
The authorities had ignored the obviously well-armed defenders of the block and concentrated on rounding up those who were on the streets without any resources. After those poor folks were cleared out, the survivors who were left in the city included that block and a few other blocks that had learned to collaborate for survival, as well as other individuals and small groups who had managed to find food and water, and hiding places. These stragglers had created some problems for the organized blocks for a while, until they either assimilated into the neighborhoods or else killed each other off. As the generations passed, the surviving neighborhoods had intermarried and merged, until they all referred to themselves as inhabitants of DownTown.
They had dismantled many of the abandoned houses and other buildings to reuse the materials, and cleared out space for growing crops and keeping livestock – in time, they had connected with survivors from other suburban, and rural complexes, developing a small cashless market within a radius of roughly a day’s walk to exchange products with each other. As Treva had been sent to watch the strangers approach, other folks had been sent to warn the neighboring communities, and to gather folks in case their assistance was needed. This would not be the first time that the communities had come to the aid of one of their neighbors, but the last incursion had been three generations ago – the Elders barely remembered it from when they were toddlers themselves.
Treva and Nola soon arrived at the stronghold of the community – a former large church. Arca de Vida, as it was known during the trying times, had become the community’s center, and it was here, at the lookout post near the top of the steeple, that the strangers had been spotted. In the small back room behind the huge public ‘sanctuary’, the Elders awaited Treva’s report.
Nola was so attuned to Treva’s state of mind that she raced ahead of the girl to get to the room where the Elders were gathered. Treva told them that the approaching group appeared to be well accoutered, and she was of the opinion that all of them were men. This caused some consternation as to how to present themselves. Rhea and Wanda, the two eldest householders in the community, were delegated to represent the community to the visitors. Treva’s mother, Raven, the hunting master, organized the hunters into taking up defensive positions while Rhea and Wanda, along with Lance, the farm master, prepared to greet the strangers.
As he led his troops through the small community — a shabby and stinky place in his opinion — the commander, Major Roberts, kept a running account of that as well as other impressions, speaking into a small devise. He was in the front line, to set an example for his men.
They drew up at the intersection of the streets that delineated the town square, where Rhea and Wanda were waiting. Lance stood off to the side. Major Roberts had his men salute the ‘leader’ after they had stopped and been ordered into ‘parade rest’. He greeted Lance, identifying himself and his troops, and asked to be taken to the community’s authorities, as he had important information for them. Lance, having been warned by the Elders of what to expect, explained to the Major that the two women standing in front of him were the highest authorities.
Rhea, as the most senior Elder, graciously extended her hand in greeting to the visitors. She introduced herself and Wanda as the Elders of DownTown.
“Welcome to our community.” She said, formally. “You surely have traveled a long way today, and we would like to offer you and your companions some refreshment. Will you follow my co-leader and I to our community center, where you will find food and drink to quench your needs?”
Major Roberts hesitated, his mind still focused on impressing Lance, who he had assumed was the important one of those in front of him. Finally, he shrugged and replied, gracelessly, “Of course, I will require some sustenance, and my men will accompany me. They could use some food, as well.”
He turned to follow Rhea and Wanda back to the community hall, and the troops fell in behind him. They looked straight ahead as they walked in step through the streets, ignoring the occasional rustlings and snickers that their appearance warranted, from small children who remained in the shadows.
One of the last ranks of men included Henry, who had been hired into the service of the City’s constabulary as soon as he was big enough to carry a loaded pack. While he marched, Henry fantasized that he lived with real animals, rather than the human beasts that he was forced to deal with every day.
It was said that his mother had been a gentle soul – that was why childbirth had taken her, he’d been told. He’d also been told that it was his own fault that she’d died, and so he must suffer for that. His father had told him that repeatedly, although Henry guessed from his father’s ways with his later women that he might have had something to do with her death himself. The man had been cruel – until his last woman, Hazel, had finally fought back one day when he beat her for serving him stew that burned his tongue. She’d attacked him with a huge carving knife, stabbing him until he was dead. The authorities had had her tortured until dead as punishment.
Henry missed Hazel. It had been Hazel who got him the job at the armory, which had led to him joining the military, which had gotten him here – wherever ‘here’ was. The other troops were grumbling about this backwater town they’d come to, but Henry thought it looked like a nice place. The few people they’d seen looked clean and well-fed, and the glimpses of children along their route hadn’t caused the adults to scream at them or beat them, as they would have back in the City. He couldn’t swear to it, but he also thought he’d glimpsed some big animals, too, running with the children. In truth, he’d hardly even glimpsed the children, having to constantly look straight ahead, chin up.
The men on either side of Henry were both older; they’d been relegated to the rear for some contrived reason about issues beyond their control. Plank, the one to his left, had dropped the Major’s gun on the ground when the Major threw it for him to clean the day before. The stock had cracked, but Plank had been the one amiss. The man on Henry’s right, Miltie, was always at the back, in one kind of trouble or another. Miltie was slow, having been knocked in the head by too many bullies when he hadn’t been quick enough to follow orders. Henry was in the back because the Major didn’t like that he’d played stupid when the officer tried to get him into his tent one night.
A Captain had come by, saving Henry from the Major. Using boys as they would women was frowned on by the authorities, although there were those who got away with it in the City. Out on an expedition, though, it wasn’t tolerated – bad for morale.
Since then, although the Major seethed at times, the Captain had protected Henry. Henry wasn’t sure what to think of that. Captain Walter seemed all right, but Henry never expected anything to go well for himself; he waited for the payment that the Captain was sure to demand from him some day, hoping that it wouldn’t be too costly.
After a two block walk through the partially demolished town, the Elders entered a church building. Major Roberts hesitated, and then followed the women into the sanctuary, which had been stripped of its religious trappings. He crossed himself, furtively, and then gestured for his men to follow. Some of the men also crossed themselves, but others just continued into the room. At the far end, below a raised area, there were tables and benches. A variety of cold meats and cheeses filled large platters, and baskets of breads rested among them. At one end of the tables there was a barrel full of clean water which women and men dipped with gourds into carved wooden mugs and bowls for the visitors to drink.
By the time Henry got to the tables, there was very little food left. Miltie and Plank grabbed the last few slabs of cheese and some rolls, leaving only one tiny roll in the basket for Henry. He took it in one hand, and grasped the bowl of water that a young girl gave him in the other.
There was no space left on the benches, although his companions could have made room for him if they’d wanted to; they didn’t, so he took his bit of food to the steps leading to the raised area, and ate. The girl who had ladled his water came and sat by him, and began asking him questions. He was so unused to being in the company of a girl that he found himself unable to do more than mutter a few things – his name, age, a very few other details.
The girl introduced herself. She was Treva, daughter of the hunting master. Treva told Henry that she planned to be a hunter like her mother, and had already led one deer hunt, the previous fall. Henry was astounded – he’d never heard of women being allowed to handle weapons. He thought about Hazel again. Perhaps she had been punished more for using the knife as a weapon than for actually killing his father, who had been old by then; practically useless.
As Treva talked, Henry began to relax and finally was able to speak openly. He told her of his own life, such as it was.
Treva was startled to hear what Henry’s society was like. They talked until dark, when the visitors were led to a compound where they could sleep, before leaving for their City in the morning. Unknown to the troops, they would be locked in for the night. After Treva reported what she’d learned from the young man, Henry, the Elders were glad that they’d taken the precautions that they had. These strangers could prove to be very dangerous.
The next morning, the visitors were all cranky. They slept in late, and then complained about headaches; the mystery was solved when the men who cleaned up their enclosure after they left found empty bottles that had been filled with spirits.
“They could have shared them with us; we would have enjoyed a little party.” Art sighed as he put the empties into a basket. They’d wash them out and reuse them – glass was not easy to acquire, and this would probably be their only recompense for cleaning up after those louts. He had not been impressed by the visitors; not in a good way, anyhow.
“Are you kidding? There would have been some nasty fighting for sure.” Loam responded.
“Yeah, judging by the way they were eying our women! What they don’t know could have been the end for them.” Art found himself unaccountably wishing that they’d had a confrontation with the strangers; he felt dirty just being in the space where they’d been, after them.
“And still could be . . . I don’t think we’ve seen the end of them.” Bear added his own take on their recent visitors. “We’d better keep sharp ears and eyes on the lookout.”
After they finished straightening the rooms, the three men headed back to the community hall. They stopped Raven in the street; she was returning from following the strangers after they’d left. Her favorite canines, Dash and Wellspring, stayed close by her side, barely giving her room to walk.
“Raven, are they gone, then?” Art asked his mate.
“Yes, and no.” she answered cryptically. “Yes, they headed back towards the City, but no, I think they’ll soon be returning. Next time they will not just come to talk.”
“That’s the impression I got, too.” Raven’s top apprentice hunter, Mabel, approached. She’d followed the strangers until they crossed the river, and then had set her dogs to watch and guard. “Steam and Bella agree.” After so many generations of dogs and people bonding for lifetimes, there were definitely nonverbal communications between human and canine partners, and possibly empathic exchanges as well; they almost knew what each other’s thoughts were.
“Well, since we all are thinking this way, we had better convene a strategic meeting.” Bear was Rhea’s oldest son. He was a natural leader who could read others as scribes could read books, and often called for council meetings to prepare for looming issues that most people weren’t even aware of yet. It was even said that he could take Rhea’s place if he wanted to, after she stepped down, and that was completely unheard of. He wasn’t pushing for it, though – he knew the burdens she carried, and heartily wished not to carry them himself.
“First, we need to tell our allies what happened, and what we expect to happen soon. Meanwhile, we need eyes and ears spread out in all directions. I do not expect them to come back the way they did this time.” Raven had her own ways of reading the intentions of others, and her own misgivings about the strangers. She sent Dash to collect the patrol leaders and their dogs, while Bear sent his dog, Toby, to herd the council members to the hall.
Mabel spoke first to the convened council, telling the facts first, and then adding her impressions of the total situation. They took her seriously, knowing from past experience her level of rapport with her dogs, but with other animals as well. Several of the women thought to themselves that Raven had made a very good choice in having her as apprentice; she would be another great hunting master.
After Mabel spoke, Bear related to the council the things he, Art, and Loam had found and sensed as they cleaned the quarters that day. The three of them were the most sensitive at picking up subtle clues, which was why they’d been assigned to the task. The community worked as a whole because of the cooperation between the various individuals and good use of each individual’s particular strengths and weaknesses.
Rhea asked somebody to fetch Treva again – her impression of the strangers’ society, as she’d listened to the young boy talk the day before, would reinforce their resolve. Some of the council members hadn’t heard her story until now, but once they knew what sort of society they were up against, they stood firmly with the others.
With Bear leading the planning, the council formulated a strategy to watch out for the strangers’ return, as well as the actions to go into play when that occurred.
Five weeks later, the guards gave warning – there was a group of strangers on horseback who had crossed the river upstream and had set up a camp several miles away from their farthest fields, which Lance and his apprentices had begun clearing because of their growing population. This invasion might be a warning to them not to expand as they had intended, or it could be a test of their fortitude. The scouts rushed the farmers back to town during the dark hours, while making sure that they had not been discovered by the strangers.
One group of hunters, led by Mabel, surrounded the camp upstream, discouraging curious eyes from looking too far in their direction, and causing the wildlife to ratchet up their rustlings to unnerve strange ears. They didn’t do anything else, yet.
The next day, the hunters watching the area downriver from the crossing detected movement from that direction. They surrounded that camp, also, and waited.
Two mornings later, both of the flanking groups started to break camp. A couple of hours later, a smaller group appeared on foot, on the road from the City; it looked like the same group that had come before.
As the groups upstream and down prepared to mount their horses, the hunters loosed their dogs onto the beasts, causing them all to bolt. The men, on foot now, and their weapons lost with their mounts, were quickly taken prisoners. The hunters kept them there.
The same group of men that had come before appeared on the road, crossed the river and walked into town, where they again walked to the square, and again, were greeted by the Elders. This time, when the strangers entered the community hall, they were grabbed, stripped of their weapons, and quickly bound with ropes. The Major acted cocky, expecting his flanking troops to arrive at any minute. As the hours went by, and his reinforcements did not arrive, the Major began to rant. He cursed everybody and everything he could think of, but to no avail. The townspeople left him and the other strangers alone in the hall until the next morning. Treva had bound Henry herself, whispering to him that his own life was not in danger, but he needed to ignore what his senses would be telling him during the night.
Later that day, the Major and his companions were joined by their compatriots from both flanking groups. Sometime during the night, they were also joined by great big snakes, who slithered all over them in the dark. There were sounds of wildcats roaring at the doors to the hall, as well as the cries of owls and other birds of prey coming from up under the roof.
By the light of the morning, the strangers could see that there were not any reptiles, beasts, or birds inside the hall. The Elders sent them water and bread, and at noon they were asked if they would change their minds about conquering the town. The Major refused to entertain such a suggestion, and wouldn’t let anybody else, either.
That night, in the darkness, they again experienced the terrors of the night before. Again, in the morning, the Major refused to back down. Several of the other troops, however, begged to be released; they would like to live in peace and prosperity as the townspeople did. Among them were Miltie, and Plank.
The horrors that the strangers experienced on the third night were even worse than the preceding nights, and in the morning more of the strangers begged for a second chance. That day, there were only a handful of troops still standing with the Major. The townspeople finally let them go, after stripping them of most of their clothing – especially their boots, and all of their other belongings. They were led out of town a different way, taken many miles downstream before being allowed to cross the river, and finally turned loose to find their own way home.
Rhea warned them that if they ever returned to the town, they would not leave alive again. Only the Major scoffed at that point.
Treva, with Henry at her side, finished telling her tale of the summer’s events to the gathering of young women around them. They were at the annual Fall Market Fair, and this year there were many events to talk about, as well as new young men to court. Nola and Petri, the dog that Henry had recently bonded with, lounged at their feet.