From ‘Alexandrik’

Yan Karlclayr, a chicken farmer from the village of Galamander, minds his own business, but makes it his business to speak his mind.

Yan Karlclayr threw a shovelful of hay and manure into the cart and then leaned his shovel against the coop wall.  He took off his hat and took a kerchief out of his back pocket.  He gave the kerchief a shake and mopped his head with it.  Getting bald, he was.  And mucking out the coops bothered his back a lot more than it used to.  Beginning to feel his age.  He went over to the grain bin and stood in the shade of an immense old oak.  A brown crockery jug sat on top of the bin.  Yan uncorked it and took a long pull from it.  Cool mint tea.  He leaned against the bin.

Across the yard, he could see his youngest, Jem, working in the squash patch, picking beetles off the plants.  A good girl, strong and hard-working.  Good-looking, too.  The young bucks would be hanging around soon.  Yan had lost his wife and oldest daughter to the Plague.  They’d been up picking mushrooms and must have been downwind of a party of refugees from the City.  They were showing symptoms before anyone suspected they’d been exposed.  Nurses from the Subcity were inoculating everybody in Galamander by that time, but it was already too late for them.

A sore blow.  Jem had only been a toddler.  Her sister Bes was barely old enough to help keep the farm going.  Lots of folks had lost family during those dark times.  But they’d all pulled together as always.  It had been far worse up north in the Freefolk Valley.  Some folks up there were bitter, and there had been some harsh talk.  Just last week two of the Mavewill outfit had been down from the Valley to talk to him about buying a few of his buttoncomb hens.  Quite in demand up there.  They sat around his kitchen table, sipping brew and working up the deal.  Took awhile, as Yan wasn’t inclined to part with as many birds as they wanted for what they were offering, but in the end they figured something out.

Then Jak Mavewill leaned back and said, “So, your Elder Doctor finally showed up after all these years.  We hear he’s taken on rattle-shaking.”

“True enough,” Yan said.

“What do folks around these parts think of that?”

Jak’s brother Dut added, “Didn’t think Galamander folks put much stock in rattle-shaking.”

“Never did much,” Yan allowed.  “Mostly, we’re keeping an open mind.  Dr. Alexander says there’s something to it, maybe there is.  After all, your Lang Shellee cured Joh Zakjen.”

“So we heard.”  A bit of acid seeped into Jak’s tone.  “About the only one he did cure.”

Yan frowned.  “What’re you getting at?”

“A lot of folks died,” Jak said.  “Shamans didn’t do a thing about it.”

“Nope,” Dut said, “Not a thing.”

Yan was surprised to hear this kind of cynicism from the Freefolk.  “Shamans did quite a bit from what I heard.  Worked in the camps, taking care of the sick and dying.”

“Didn’t cure any of them.”

“Nope,” Dut said, “Not a one.”

Yan inclined his head.  “It was a bad business.  Elder doctors couldn’t do anything either, once you showed the symptoms.  They did all they could.”

“Mighty slow they were in doing it, too.  Could have used an extra doctor.  Alexandrik picked a fine time to go off to learn rattle-shaking.”

“Now, Jak, you know better.” Yan leaned over to refill his mug from the pitcher.  “They explained it to us.  Subcity doctors could only make the serum so fast.  Another doctor wouldn’t have made a whit of difference.”

“Subcity Elders don’t like humans much,” Jak said.  “Some folks wonder if maybe they didn’t work as hard to make that serum as they could have.  After all, it was one of them that loosed that Plague in the first place.”

“That’s right,” Dut said, “It was one of them did it.”

Yan allowed just a bit of a glare flash in Dut’s direction.  If the damn fool couldn’t do anything other than bark back whatever his brother said, he’d be better off giving his mouth a rest.  “Subcity Elders aren’t any different from anybody else.  There’s good ones and bad ones.  I guess the bad ones are trying to take control now, but it’s not my business.  It’s Elder business, and I stay out of it.  All I know is that Dr. Apollodoria was in charge of making the Plague serum, and she’s as good as they get.  They shipped it out as fast as they made it, and made it as fast as they could.  That’s a fact.”

“Maybe so,” Jak said, “but it still seems mighty puzzling that one damn worthless City musician can get cured, and thousands of other folks just get left for the crows.”

“Puzzling,” Dut agreed, nodding his head.

“Puzzling that Alexandrik disappears right then.  And Galamandria, too.”

“That’s right, both of them.”

Yan snorted and turned away from the table, waving his hand dismissing the whole crock.

“Then, you explain it!”  Jak leaned over the table, his elbow thudding onto it and a finger stabbed at Yan for emphasis.  “Galamandria, who was supposed to care so much about the Freefolk, brought up in the Valley and all, and she just up and disappears!  Didn’t see her working in the camps!  Didn’t see her bringing the serum!”

“It’s Elder business, and I don’t pretend to know it!” Yan snapped, spinning at them again.  “Mirramarduk got murdered, and there was some sordid business around it, including what got the Plague loosed, and you can be sure it shook up Alexandrik and Galamandria but good.  We don’t know the half of it, and it’s not our place to!  Just got to have faith they did what they had to and that’s the end to it!”

“Might be the end of it for you,” Jak said, “But other folks wonder.”

“That’s right,” Dut, inevitably, said.  “They wonder.”

Yan folded his arms and glared at the both of them, wishing they’d conclude their business, take their hens and go.

Jak reached into the pocket of his browncloth shirt and took out a small chicle tin.  He opened, it, pinched off a piece of chicle and commenced to chew it.  Tea chicle, Yan noticed with disgust.  No wonder his teeth were brown.

Yan shook his head when Jak offered him some.  “Don’t touch anything but spruce chicle.”

“No kick to that.”  Jak slipped the tin back in his pocket. “You say it’s Elder business, and none of your affair.  But you do business the the Subcity and the Garden every day.  You got Elders living here with you, right in Galamander.  Seems to me their busniness might have a way of coming around to kick you in the backside if you aren’t paying attention.”

Yan took breath and then a sip of brew, holding on to his temper and putting together his answer.  When he spoke, he kept his voice low and even to be sure he didn’t bark out something he’d regret later.

“No different than it is in the Valley, Jak.  Some business is yours and some business isn’t.  When there’s trouble, it’s everybody’s business, and the Elders do their part with the rest of us.  When the Plague hit, Arabellica nursed my wife and daughter like they were her own kin, right up until the end, so I could keep the farm running.  Mistress Saravastaya made camps in the Garden to help keep those who weren’t infected safe until they could be vaccinated.  Silvanius and the other Galamander Elders worked with the refugees, tending to the sick ones, getting the ones who could maybe be saved to the Medical Center.  Neighbor helping neighbor, just like it ought to be.”

“Just folks, just like you, right?”  Jak glanced at Dut, the two of them exchanging a knowing nod.

“As a matter of fact, yes!” Yan’s determination to remain civil was being sorely tested.

“Doesn’t make any difference that one of them could fry you with a single touch, or break you in two with one hand, eh?”

Dut tossed in, “Wouldn’t want to get in a fight with one!”

“Nope, not me neither,” Jak said.  “Couldn’t be a fair fight at all.”

“We don’t settle things by fighting,” Yan said, feeling his fists clench even as he said it.  “We talk things out.”

“Sure, you do.  And you make nice to ‘em, if you know what’s good for you.”

“That’s stag scat!  You Valley folk, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to live with Elders!  They don’t threaten and they don’t use force, they try to figure what’s wise and fair!  If anything, they’re better’n us!”

Jak’s eye took on a malicious glint.  “Nicodamien, now he’d agree with you there.”

Yan shot to his feet, the chair skidding back and nearly falling over.  “You want those birds or don’t you?  Because it’s suddenly occurring to me that maybe I can’t spare them after all!”

Long after the Mavewills left, Yan was still steaming.  Now that he’d had a chance to cool off, he was just troubled.  It couldn’t come to any good, this suspicion and hostility.  The Subcity and the Valley, just as wrong, the both of them.  But he had to remind himself, the Mavewills didn’t speak for all the Freefolk, no more than Nicodamien spoke for all the Subcity Elders.  He just had to hope that the good elements in both communities would prevail in the end.  And maybe Galamander could set an example for them.

Only a fool would try to claim the Elder folk weren’t different from humans, with their glowing hair and dark skin and weird energies.  They didn’t age and never slept and were so damned big and powerful.  But you couldn’t let that get to you.  You had to remember, they were people who struggled and suffered and had feelings, too.  If you worked at understanding them and treated them fairly, they’d be good and fair to you.  Had to deal straight with them.  Never try to outfox them, because even if you got away with it, which was unlikely, they’d remember it forever, and you’d be the poorer for it.  But if you were decent to them, shared a joke and a friendly word with them, talked to them honest and plain, they’d respond in kind.  They’d help you out with all they had if you fell on hard times.

Yan called across the yard to Jem.  “How’re the vines looking today?”

She looked up at him and shaded her eyes.  “Not so many beetles today.  And the powder seems to have pretty much put a stop to the wilt.”

“Good.  Anything for supper?”

“Two yellow squash.  There’s many-squash coming, but I expect we should wait another day.  They are still a bit small.”

“Oh, go ahead and take a few anyway.  We’ll have more than we know what to do with in a week.”

She nodded, and bent to put them into her basket.  Yan smiled.  Yes, she was a fine girl.  He’d lose her to some young man some day.  But that was as it should be.  Her sister, now, she’d likely stay to inherit the farm.  Bes managed the eggs and got them to market.  She did most of the baking and helped butcher the birds when it came time.  Had a good head for farm management and knew how to handle herself in the market.  She’d make some smart fellow an excellent wife, but he’d better be prepared to like chickens.

Well, best to get back to it.  Coops weren’t going to muck themselves out.  He took a last drink out of the jug, recorked it and set it back on the grain bin.  Once he got the coops cleaned, he should get about delivering a load of manure across town to the Tamlil outfit.  Maybe he’d stop by Silvanius’s place and see if he was about.  Maybe share a pot of tea.  See if he wanted to use Yan’s north field to pasture his sheep again this year.  Talk about how much wool Yan would want for the courtesy.  Ought to talk to him about borrowing a pair of elk for the haying.

Putting on his hat, he walked back towards the coop.  A lot of foolishness going on in the world.  But it wasn’t Galamander’s business.  He paused, frowning.  Still, he hoped it wouldn’t come around and kick them in the backside.

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