The Strangers

Jeni crouched in the bushes beside the trail, watching the travelers go past, unaware of her scrutiny. When the sounds of their passing had vanished from her hearing, long after they were out of her sight, she slipped back through the underbrush to her village to raise an alarm. Strangers had never been seen around Willow Springs before, or none that Jeni had ever heard of, anyhow. But even stranger were the beasts that they rode.

The Willow Springs community consisted of a fairly large group of extended families who lived close to a wide strip of land that had, ages ago, been a road that connected ancient cities back in the Old Days. When the civilization of the Old Days had unraveled, living near roads had been very hazardous to existence. Jeni’s grandmother had been a little girl when they’d moved here. There was a spring, of course, near the bottom of the highest terrace. Two other terraces, separated by steep cliffs for most of the area facing the ancient roadway, were connected by a gently sloping meadow. They lived on the terrace closest to the spring. Matto, the master herdsman, grazed the goats up on the top terrace, where they were the safest from predators – except for those in the sky. There was a mill at the bottom of the lowest terrace, which used water to turn a great, heavy wheel to grind grains into flour, and the grain fields were also located on that level. In between, there were levels where most of the crafters lived and worked, vegetables were grown, and other activities were centered. The community hall was located about halfway up, surrounded by shops and the market area.

During the Troubles, Willow Springs must have been abandoned; overrun by mobs of starving people who wasted their last gasoline supplies to drive in search of food after the distribution system broke down, the residents who were not killed outright eventually starving to death. Jeni’s many-times-great-grandparents had been living in the remote mountains at the end of the Old Days, far away from the mayhem as civilization crumbled. Some of the survivors had been expecting the collapse and moved there a few years before it became noticeable, but most of them had been residents in the backwoods for generations who didn’t really accept their new neighbors. Jeni hummed the chorus of the Song of the Survivors as she made her way home to alert the elders. She wondered how they would have reacted to groups of strangers traveling through their mountains – would they have remained hidden or would they have confronted the travelers – or maybe welcomed them?

Teachers had passed down stories for hundreds of years, putting the words into cadences and music to help youngsters remember their history. There were songs about events that led up to the Collapse, and songs telling how their forefathers had emerged from the backwoods just a few generations ago, having been forced to leave after a devastating forest fire destroyed their homes and fields. They had found Willow Springs, abandoned — and set to work rebuilding a community there. The Ballad of Jeremy and Christa told the whole sad story of the exodus from the mountains, and exhilaration as the families had settled into their new homes. Even more thrilling for youngsters to learn was the Sonnet of the Woebegone Women, all about the decline of industrial civilization and the catastrophes that accompanied that decline. One verse of the Sonnet explained how the scientists had developed unbelievably destructive weapons which eventually were used, destroying vast areas of the world. The scattered survivors had struggled to raise their children to adulthood, regardless of their level of civilization.

But none of the songs Jeni knew told about how to find out if strangers were dangerous or if they were potential friends.

After reaching the village, Jeni went to the community hall, where the elderly spent their days either watching after the babies or working at small crafts. The older children also spent part of their days there, learning about numbers and writing, and singing the learning songs. This late in the afternoon, there were few children about – most of them had family or community chores to finish before dinner.

Jeni approached a particularly old elder, Raven. Raven was head of the council, and after Jeni told her about the strangers, she beckoned a middle-aged woman over to her.

“Now, Calenda, you need to gather old Nicko, Tansy, Kitty, and Hawkeye. There is something that the council needs to discuss right now. While you’re at it, you should get the hunters together. We’ll probably be needing their skills as well.” Calenda hurried away, and Raven turned back to Jeni.

“Jeni, thank you for the warning. You were the first to let me know, but I see Pete is hovering impatiently waiting to tell me something, and I think he won’t be the last, either.” Raven waved the girl back to give Bear room.

As Jeni turned to leave the hall, she saw Kitty enter the building at the other end. It was all out of her hands now. She almost walked right into the Teacher, Branna, who was perched on a stool, restringing one of the strings to her gitar.

“Wake up, Jeni, you almost impaled yourself on the end of my gitar!” Branna said, smilingly, to take the sting out of her rebuke.

“Oh, Branna, you’re just the person I want to see. Do you know what our ancestors did when strangers encroached on their territory, are there learning songs about that?” Jenna blurted out unthinking.

“Come, girl, let’s go over to my house. I doubt that Muskrat is back from the fields yet, and I think we’re needing some privacy just now.” Branna took Jeni by the arm and they walked across the commons and down to the next level to a small hut that Branna and Muskrat had built for themselves two springs ago when they’d formally mated at the Spring Equinox celebrations. It was small and crude, but it was their own. Branna reminded people of that, often – particularly her own brothers.

“Now, sit, Jeni, and tell me why you asked me that.”

“Well, I spotted a group of strangers just inside our lands today, and was very quiet, not moving at all until they were far away. They were following the Old Days roadway, over where the ancients had dug right through Rabbit Hill so that they could travel on level ground. If they stayed on the roadway, they’ll soon be past our lands, but what if they’d seen me? What would I do?”

“You did exactly as you should have done, Jeni. You remained quiet and unnoticed, and came back to tell the elders as soon as it was safe.”

Branna, heavy with child, put her gitar on a shelf against the wall beside the hearth, and sprawled into an oversized rocking chair. It filled half of the front of the hut, but Muskrat had insisted on making room for it when he found out they were expecting. He’d wanted to build another room right away, but Branna had finally talked him out of that, not without some difficulty. They could add on later, once they had some idea of how many children might grace their home.

“To answer part of your question, there actually are some old songs about strangers, but we’ve quit teaching them because there are so many songs to learn, songs that are relevant to our lives, that the others seemed superfluous. However, since strangers have been observed, I’d say that we’ll have to dust them off and start singing.”

Branna was just a few years older than Jeni, and had been Teacher for a year before she and Muskrat had mated. After Jeni had reached the age of majority (that is, twelve years old) she had apprenticed herself first to the vegetable growers. She learned that working in the sun was not what she wanted to do, although she had enjoyed working with the plants themselves. After that she’d tried animal husbandry, but the herders, a close-knit group, hadn’t warmed up to her. The goats had liked her well enough, though. This year Jeni was learning to be a tracker. She had been following a game trail, identifying the various animals that had used the trail recently, when she’d seen the strangers down on the ancient roadbed.

The two talked for a few more minutes, mostly about the baby, and soon Muskrat arrived, hot and dirty from a day in the grain fields. Jeni soon left, and decided she’d better check in with Rain, her tracking mentor.

Rain wasn’t home, but Jeni had figured that he’d be with the hunters at the community hall. She went back to the hall, where a large crowd was now gathered. Word must have gotten out quickly, Jeni thought. Even some of the herders were there. Not Matto, of course, but a few of the younger ones were standing in a knot, listening to Raven. Greg, the senior teacher, was off in a corner, riffling through a pile of old songs, written on thick sheets of very brittle paper. They could make paper, but it wasn’t a good way to keep permanent records. There weren’t many other options, though, unless someone wanted to carve into wood or stone. These old songs would soon have to be recopied, especially if they found ones that mentioned strangers. Everybody would want those, Jeni thought.

She spotted Rain in the middle of a group of hunters, and made her way through the crowd towards him. He looked in her direction, and then loudly proclaimed her arrival. “and here she is, herself — Jeni, with the best eyes in Willow Springs.”

The men next to Rain spread out, making room for the young woman. She graciously took her place beside Rain, and listened to the others as they discussed what the phenomenon of strangers in their lands might mean. Jeni wasn’t the only one to wonder how to deal with them.

The spring evening soon arrived, and people gradually returned to their homes and late dinners. Usually folks would quiet down after dark; some people would sing softly or play their musical instruments, some would sit around their hearths and tell stories or do activities that didn’t require a lot of light. Tonight, though, there were many groups of people discussing the strangers. Even the youngest children were affected by the uneasiness of their parents and elder siblings, and fussed more than usual.

At her house, Jeni was besieged with questions by her mother, Dora, and two younger sisters. She repeatedly told them everything she had seen of the strangers, and everything she’d heard at the hall, but they continued pestering her for more as they ate their thick savory stew.

Dora was chronically insecure – she’d never been the same since her mate, the girls’ father, had been killed in an accident. One of the carts carrying grain was backing up to the mill, where Shad had worked, and had tipped over on him as he was directing the men. They did not have any animals suitable for heavy hauling, though teams of dogs were sometimes used to pull small carts or sleds. Shad had died quickly, at least, which Jeni was thankful for. She’d seen people linger on for weeks and months after accidents, or with illness, suffering the whole time but never getting better.

Dora had almost turned the younger girls into smaller versions of her own fearful self, but Jeni, who had been almost an adult when the accident happened, had managed to overcome the tragedy, emerging from grief determined to face whatever life threw her with courage. Not that she didn’t fear; she had many fears but she wouldn’t let fear rule her own life.

Rain dropped by to see Jeni, and they went for a walk so that they could talk freely. Rain told her that even though no strangers had ever been seen anywhere in their territory, they needed to get prepared for the possibility. They ended up at Greg’s home, where a small group were still gathered around listening to more songs. Raven sat among them, with Branna. Greg was coming to the end of a song about strangers. This one warned about treachery – sometimes even among those you know.

Well, that was nothing new, Jeni thought. Human nature seemed to be such that anybody could lie, and most would if the reason was important enough to them. Trust of others had to be earned, it was not a given. She wondered what else Greg had found.

“This next song is titled ‘Dirge for Dubois.” The singer fled his home during the collapse, and later returned to find that the whole city had been burned to the ground. What wouldn’t burn had been toppled. Looters had carried off anything small enough to carry, and people had been carried off as well, probably forced into slavery. There were few tracks, because much of the ground, and the roadway itself, was covered in some hard substance. The singer lamented about the broken roadway, as well – using it as a metaphor for his broken life.” He sang the first verse, the chorus, and the last verse which mentioned the broken road.

Branna, who had been looking through the songs while Greg talked and sang, spoke up. “Greg, did you read this one?” She read the words out loud. “Don’t talk to Strangers, Don’t even Try. Don’t think they’ll be Friendly, ‘cause People can Lie.”

“Just when you’re Soothed into thinking they’re Sweet, They’ll cut off your Head. To them you’re just Meat.” Greg finished the verse.

“What kind of people were they?” Several voices could be heard asking that question.

“Those were rough times,” Greg said, “but from this and other songs, it appears that cruelty was common among the ancients. They lived in cities so large that it would take days to walk from one end to the other. But they could travel across those cities in mere hours.”

“Did they have horses?” Someone asked. “Surely the strangers yesterday were riding horses.”

“Horses wouldn’t need smooth roadways. Besides, those hard surfaces would have hurt their feet, wouldn’t they?”

“Apparently they drove ‘cars’.” Brenna explained. She had picked up another song, which seemed to lament the loss of cars – the speed and feeling of power that was only possible from a machine.”

“Our strangers don’t seem to have cars, only horses.”

“Their horses were going slow. Do you think they can run fast, like deer?”

“Maybe not, if they’re carrying men.”

Finally, the fire died down and sleep called out to even the most curious. There were many more night lookouts than usual, though. They were mostly looking in the direction of the old roadway, tonight, instead of the thick woods from which most troubles arrived – wild animals who could be dangerous.

Raven motioned Rain and Jeni over to her as she walked towards her home. They accompanied her and talked for a long while inside her house, and then went in. Rain and Jeni separated, each going to their own homes.

Shortly before dawn, Jeni awoke, washed, and got dressed. She packed extra clothing, water, and some food into a pouch, slung it over her shoulder, and left the house. Rain was outside waiting, with a bow and quiver of arrows slung next to a similar pouch to hers. He handed her a knife, keeping several for himself, and gave her a stout walking stick. She gave him a questioning look, and he grinned at her, saying, “I’ll show you why the stick later. Let’s get going.”

The two walked side by side until they reached the ancient roadway, accompanied by two of the community’s biggest dogs. Motioning Jeni to keep the dogs back, Rain squatted down to study the prints of the animals that had carried the strangers past here the other day. Their feet appeared to have been covered with some kind of metal strips. “Well,” he grunted, getting back to his feet, “they’ll be easy to track, anyhow.”

They followed the tracks down the middle of the roadway. It was totally overgrown with trees, bushes, brambles, and grasses, but the picked their way through the mess, always following the strange metal-shod hoofprints. They stopped only to take care of nature, and to refill their water bladders when they crossed streams, which had eaten away at the regularity of the road surface. There were some deep gullies that they, and the horses they were following, had to detour around. When the sun went down, they camped a little ways from the roadway.

By first light, Rain and Jeni were again following the tracks. After walking a few hours, they saw where the strangers had camped the night before. They had tethered the horses in a group, and pitched tents for themselves around a fire. They noted every detail that they could, and continued on their way. That afternoon it rained, a long, cold spring shower. The roadway was mostly under a canopy of trees, but they still got pretty wet. A couple of hours before dark, Rain called a halt, built a small fire, and set up a crude camp. The dogs brought in a rabbit and a grouse, which Rain cleaned and roasted. They changed clothes, rinsing the dirty, wet items in a nearby stream. After they all ate, he set a snare to hopefully catch something for breakfast while Jeni put out the fire and cleaned up the area, then they turned in for the night.

The next day there were no tracks to follow, but they continued on the roadway. By mid-afternoon, they came upon the strangers’ campsite of two nights ago.

“You do realize that we’ll never catch up to them. Unless they stop for several days, but why would they do that?” Jeni was making conversation at that evening’s camp. They were slightly more comfortable, having found a blanket either forgotten or discarded by the strangers. It had a long tear in it, but worked admirably well as a pillow. The two had been intimate a few times back at Willow Springs, but had never spent time together in such a concentrated setting, just the two of them for days, possibly walking to their deaths. Rain seemed as comfortable with the arrangement as she was, she thought — other than the ‘walking to their deaths’ part, of course.

“Yeah, maybe our leaders didn’t think this through any more than we did.” Rain replied.

“Never having seen horses, how could any of us be expected to realize all the ramifications? I, personally, was too concerned with the idea of strangers to think much about the horses.”

“So, what do we do? We can turn back or keep going. Which should it be?”

“We have learned much about these strangers. They are competent hunters. They know how to sustain themselves on the move. They know horses, and are able to use them to their advantage.”

“They are only passing through.”

Jeni stopped to stare at Rain. “Yes, you’re right. There are no women or children, so they will be returning to wherever they came from.” She suddenly looked around her, as if expecting to see the strangers ride through their camp at any second. “But, will they come back this way or will they go home some other way?”

“Now, that is a scary thought. If they keep going, that implies that they’ve been here before.”

“Or, they might have maps of the ancient roadways, and know how to get back without retracing their steps.”

“In that case, they might know where they’re going. I say we keep following them. However, we need to take better care of ourselves if we’re going to do this.”

“We need a deer. Our shoes are worn out, and our clothes are nearly as bad. Also, we need to provide ourselves with meat, and with other foods as well. I say we stay here for a few days or weeks – however long it takes to prepare ourselves.”

“I agree. Too bad I didn’t bring my axe. First, though, we need to find a better campsite.”

They stayed there that night, and in the morning, instead of walking on the roadway, they searched for a good long-term campsite. After an hour or so, Rain stopped and looked around. “How does this look? There’s a creek not far away, and it looks deep enough for a real bath. There are lots of game animals around, but the game trails are not too close, so there shouldn’t be too much danger of predators coming up on us. And, here are some saplings, placed just where we need them to build a shelter.”

“And it’s close enough to hear if the strangers come back through.” Jeni added.

Rain used a machete-like knife to cut down some saplings which he used to make a crude lean-to, attaching them to the saplings he’d left standing. Jeni wove grasses to drape over the saplings, and kept more grasses as well as pine needles to use as bedding.

That night, they luxuriated in their new shelter. The next day found them preparing for a hunt. Rain and the dogs set off down a game trail, while Jeni searched for other edibles. She found tender young dandelions, and other greens, as well as mushrooms which she knew were good to eat. There were also wild mints, good for tea, as well as other plants useful for flavoring foods. Before noon, the male dog trotted back into camp, a message tied around its neck. Rain had killed a bear, with the help of the dogs. He needed that blanket to make a travois that the dogs could pull, to get the beast back to camp.

Jeni rolled the blanket tight and tied it with her belt, and the dog took it in his mouth, going back the way he’d come. Knowing that there would be much to do, Jeni built up the fire and cut more saplings, as well as gathering more dry wood for the fire. By late afternoon, Rain was back, the dogs having hauled the bear carcass through the woods. Jeni was very glad to see him.

They worked until well after dark, skinning the bear and cutting it into chunks that they could handle. The dogs were kept busy fending off coyotes and other scavengers in spite of the extra fires that Jeni had going.

“I sure hope those strangers aren’t anywhere close to us now,” she joked. “We must be pretty conspicuous.”

“I don’t know about people, but the animals sure are alerted.” Rain picked off a coyote, which caused a food fight amongst the scavengers. “We certainly seem to do everything half-cocked around here. Maybe the strangers can help us get organized!”

There was a full moon that night, which made working in the dark much easier than it could have been, and more quickly than Rain had expected they were done. Jeni set the hide aside to begin preparations for tanning it; but only after they got some sleep. Rain cached the bulk of the meat from a tall tree, after cutting off a few days’ worth of steaks. Tomorrow, they would begin cutting and drying thin strips for traveling.

The next morning dawned damp and gray. The sky drizzled water on their lean-to, but the woven mats kept most of the water off them. Having slept until late morning, Jeni washed up and began slicing the raw meat. Rain crawled out of the shelter a few minutes later, followed by the dogs who had crowded in during the wee hours of the morning. The cache was safe, as was the bear hide. A small wildcat lurked behind a tree, and Rain threw a knife at it, scaring it away.

“You wanted meat, you got meat.” He said by way of greeting. “Unfortunately, I think we still need a deer, unless you want to make really furry moccasins.”

“Moccasins will just have to wait until we get all of this bear processed. Come help me with this, if you will.” Jeni had arranged sharpened sticks to hang over the fire, using rocks from the creek. She had pierced a couple of small roasts – thick steaks, really – and secured them high enough that they would cook without burning. Now she was trying to improvise drying racks for making jerky.

“I’m open for suggestions,” she said, waving her arm toward the results. What she had were thin pieces of meat tied with strips of her shirt and attached to her walking stick which hung high over the fire, supported by tripods made of saplings.

“Not bad, girl,” he replied. “Not what I had intended them to be used for, but it works.”

Three days later, Jeni and Rain were on the trail searching for a deer, when they heard a strange clop-clop sound, made by many animals, accompanied by the creak of leather. They’d circled around, almost to the roadway, following a game trail.

“That’s horses. And the strangers.” Jeni exclaimed. “They’ve come back. What should we do? They’re too close for us to try to go back to our camp. Why don’t we make ourselves known? If they seem alright, we can lead them to camp. No matter what, they won’t be able to find Willow Springs – not with us being way out here.”

“I’ve got a better idea. You take the dogs and hide. I’ll confront them alone to see what they are like.” Rain had a sudden hunch that even if the strangers seemed okay, it would be better if they didn’t know there was a female around.

“I’ll take Misty with me,” she replied. “You keep Gray. Better yet, Gray should remain out of sight. I’ll hide with both dogs until we know what is what.” So saying, she crawled deep into a thicket of brambles, wriggling her way through by hugging close to the ground. Misty and Gray stayed out of the thicket, but buried themselves in the tangled brush nearby.

Rain allowed himself to be seen by the strangers as they worked their way through a particularly tough patch of brush on the old roadway.

The man in the front of the group put up his arm, and the group came to a halt. He said something incomprehensible to Rain, who remained silent. One of the other men dismounted and approached Rain. He slapped him across the face, speaking more unknown words. Rain bolted, dodging as he ran. A volley of arrows flew around him as he fled the strangers, but he did not get hit. The man on foot started to follow him, but soon gave up and returned to his horse. The strangers laughed, and resumed their journey.

Rain was furious! Not only had the strangers insulted him to his face, but then they had dismissed him as if he was some inconsequential vermin. The dogs crept to him where he lay hidden behind an overhanging bank festooned with vines.

Once the strangers were far away, Jeni crawled back out of the thicket and went over to Rain and the dogs. They returned to camp, in silence. Rain tore down the lean-to while Jeni packed everything they could take with them, and by mutual consent they headed up into the hills, silently.

They would have to write new songs, giving new warnings about strangers. And maybe it was time to for their people to go see how their old territory in the backwoods was these days.

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