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CHAPTER TWENTY

Rachel sighed as she finished the last of the badly blistered group. Most of them weren't as bad as Herzer but a few were close. Gathering up her gear she walked back to the camp and looked around for Jody. Fixing the hands had been the easy part.

"Jody, I need to talk to all the females, now," she said to the supervisor.

"What's this about?" he asked. "They're all working."

"Edmund told me to come up here, Jody, and I know they're busy. You really want me to have this conversation, though. Trust me."

"Okay," he said warily. "Courtney, Nergui, Shilan, Karlyn, Deann! Over here!"

He waited until the women had gathered around and turned to look at Rachel, folding his arms.

"And now you are going to take a walk," Rachel said.

"Why?"

"Because I said so, Jody," Rachel sighed. "Just go. Trust me, you don't want to be in on this."

He glared at her balefully for a moment and then strode off.

"Ladies, take a seat," Rachel said, gesturing at a couple of the fallen trees. We have to have a little girl talk."

She told them about the visit to Bethan and then about what had returned to visit the entire female species, then waited for the outbursts.

"You're joking," Nergui snapped. "That's just . . ."

"Disgusting," Rachel interjected. "Also true. And it's not going to go away."

"Ever?" Karlyn asked, eyes wide.

"When all the eggs are dumped it stops, say in fifty years. Maybe longer. But then, without the hormones, all sorts of other problems start. Or you can stay pregnant all the time."

"Fisk that!" Deann snapped.

"Been feeling a little testy lately?" Rachel said acidly.

"What about it?" Deann responded hotly. "All this . . ." she said, waving her arms around, "it's bound to make you a little angry."

"Angrier than normal?" Rachel replied taking a deep breath. "I can feel it coming on me and let me tell you that doesn't make me feel very damned happy at all. I'm especially looking forward to the cramps. Bethan said it's like a pulled muscle that just won't go away."

"Are we all going to be like that?" Shilan asked. "I'm not feeling . . . testy. Tired, yes, but not . . . unusually angry."

"I don't know," Rachel said. "Mom doesn't have any texts that cover it in detail. We'll just have to find out."

"This . . . this . . ." Courtney finally blurted out. "This just sucks."

"Yep, it does that," Rachel replied. "We're coming up with ways to . . . catch the flow. Like bandages to go on your . . . on your parts. And, remember, you're all fertile now. Get a little too friendly with your boyfriend and you're going to be carrying five or ten kilos of fetus and support structure around for months."

"I can't believe I'm hearing this," Nergui snapped.

"Believe it," Rachel replied angrily. "Believe it. Or don't and end up bleeding all over the ground! Or pregnant," she added with a tone of disgust.

"Hey, what's going on over here?" Jody said, walking over from the cutting.

"Jody, I don't want to say this again," Rachel snarled. "Butt the hell out!"

"Look, girl . . . !"

"No, you look!" she snapped right back. "This is a female conversation. Males are not invited. Now go away!"

"I don't care who your father is . . ."

"It's not who my father is that you have to worry about," Rachel said, standing up. "We're done anyway." She turned back to the women who were still sitting in positions of alternate bemusement and anger. "We'll try to get the supplies up to you by the end of the day. But be aware that this could start at any time."

"Oh, great," Karlyn replied, shaking her head in resignation. "Just fisking great." She stood up and walked over to an axe, looking for a likely tree branch. As soon as she spotted one she started hewing at it like it was the devil trying to climb out of a pit.

Rachel nodded shortly at the supervisor then went back to her horse, threw the saddlebags on, untied it, mounted and rode away at a canter.

"Is anyone going to tell me what just went on?" Jody asked angrily.

"Noooo," Deann answered carefully, getting to her feet and wiping her hands. "No, I don't really think you need to know. Not yet. And when you need to know you won't want to know."

"Nope," Courtney said, getting up and heading over to pick up her water bag.

"Uh, uh," Shilan added, walking away.

"Not in your dreams," Nergui replied, finally getting up.

"Just what in the hell is going on?" Jody asked the clearing, shaking his head.

"Strange days," Herzer replied.

* * *

The next two days continued much the same. With decent food—the second day there had even been a mess of venison stew with potatoes—and constant work Herzer could feel his already considerable muscles strengthening. His hands healed rapidly but he kept the wrappings of leather on nonetheless. He and Mike between them had felled the giant tree, an oak Jody told them, that had defeated the other teams, and the group had cleared a large area by the third day when they started cutting the wood to make buildings.

The day after Rachel's visit first Nergui, then Shilan had started to complain to Jody of diverse and mysterious maladies. They were quickly sent to town and returned later with bundles of cloth and odd cloth straps. Jody, after a visit from first Rachel and then Daneh, who looked drawn and tired, had passed the word to the males not to ask questions. But when Courtney had doubled over in the middle of the afternoon Mike wasn't willing to take "it's a girl thing" for an answer and the whole subject was brought out into the open. The reactions among the males ranged from bemusement to anger, especially since they were getting the details secondhand from the women. That night when food was brought out, most of the cooks were men from Raven's Mill, hastily conscripted from various other jobs. Apparently what was happening in the wood-cutting camp was also happening everywhere and from the muttered comments of the males Raven's Mill was in an uproar. The men, furthermore, were not well-trained cooks. The mush was half burnt and an attempt to cook cornbread in something called a "Dutch Oven" was a disaster.

Deann and Karlyn were apparently suffering from the same maladies, but they had gone back to work almost immediately on doing whatever the women were doing to manage it. Deann mentioned that she was feeling cramps and a certain amount of weakness, but in Karlyn's case there seemed to be no effect other than the bleeding and not much of that. Courtney, as soon as her cramps passed, was back at work as if nothing had happened as was Shilan. Nergui continued to complain of intense pain and while Jody tended to be unsympathetic, without any way to judge the amount of pain involved there was no way for him to order her back to work.

At the end of the fourth day at the site Herzer came over with his food and sat down with Courtney and Mike. As he did Cruz and Emory wandered over as well.

Courtney looked at him and gave him a wan smile.

"How you doing?" Herzer asked, spooning up a bite of beans. The mixture this night was really good, some sort of meat had been minced fine and added to the beans along with a slightly hot spice.

"Better," Courtney answered. "The cramps are gone at least."

"So . . . this is going to go on for five days?" Herzer asked. "I'm sorry, we're all pretty curious. If you really don't want to talk about it . . ."

"No, it's okay. It just came as a shock at first. In a way I'm glad we're out here; I don't want to think what it was like down in the camps."

"Ugh," Mike said, spooning up another bite of the stew and taking a bite of cornbread.

"Basically we bleed all the time, so we have to keep a pad of rough cosilk on."

"That was those strap things they brought up?" Cruz asked.

"Yeah. We don't know exactly when it stops. And they say it might get worse than it is this time. Karlyn is hardly bleeding at all and Nergui is like a fountain."

"Yuck," Herzer said, looking at the rather red mixture in his bowl doubtfully.

"I had the cramps for about twelve hours. Shilan and Karlyn didn't get them at all. Deann was just about put out by them. You couldn't tell by the way she was working but she was. Mine were . . . pretty bad. I couldn't work through them; I just wanted to curl up in a ball and put heat on them so they wouldn't hurt so much."

"Sorry," Herzer said.

"Why? There's nothing you could do," she replied with a smile. "I don't know how long it's going to last; Dr. Daneh says that five days is just an average."

Emory didn't talk very much, but he started chuckling now.

"What?" she asked.

"You won't want to hear it," he replied in a gravelly voice. "What I was thinking is 'never trust something that bleeds for five days and doesn't die.' "

"Oh, thank you very much!" Courtney snapped, fire in her eyes.

"Said you wouldn't like it," he chuckled.

Herzer and Cruz coughed in their hands while Mike just smiled.

"Thanks so very much," Courtney said with a frown then shook her head. "Men!"

"What about 'em?" Deann said, sitting down on one of the stumps.

"Can't live without 'em and there ought to be a bounty," Courtney replied.

"You'd better think about living without them," Deann replied. "Unless you want to be carrying around a baby."

"What's that mean?" Mike asked, sharply.

"I'm not trying to cut you off from your . . . friend," Deann replied just as sharply. "But bleeding means we're fertile again. Just like the other animals. So if you go making whoopie with Courtney, you're going to be looking at a baby in nine months."

"Well . . ." Mike looked at Courtney who blushed. "We'd . . . we've been thinking that having a child might make sense. But with the replicators gone . . ."

"That's the point lover boy," Deann said. "The replicators ain't gone. All us women are replicators now. We're fertile, Mike. We can have babies. That grow in our bodies like some sort of damn parasite!"

"It's not that bad!" Courtney replied. "I mean . . . I don't know. I'm sort of . . . looking forward to it. I want to see what it's like."

"How many times?" Deann asked. "You're talking about carrying around ten kilos of material in your belly."

"So? Deann, we're designed for it! That's what our bodies are for. Sure, if I had my choice I'd use a replicator. But I don't have that choice anymore. So . . ."

"So you're going to get pregnant?" Deann asked, aghast.

"If it's a choice of that or giving up guys, yeah," Courtney said with another blush.

"What a choice," Herzer said, shaking his head.

"Man, is this stupid war going to screw up everything in our lives?" Cruz snarled.

"Nice pun," Emory muttered.

"Wha . . . Oh, shit," Cruz said and laughed with the others.

Mike reached out with his boot and tapped Herzer on the foot.

"I think you've got a visitor," he said, gesturing over Herzer's shoulder.

"Hello, Herzer," Bast said, looking around at the group with a nod. She was carrying her usual panoply of weapons but also had a basket on her back.

"Bast," Herzer said, reaching towards her.

"Hello, lover boy," she repeated, swarming up him in a full-body hug. "Let's take a walk."

"If you'll excuse me," he said to the group.

"I'll carry your bowl back," Courtney said with a smile.

"Thanks," he said as Bast flipped off him and took his hand, leading him into the woods.

* * *

"Are you headed somewhere to take a bath?" Herzer asked. He knew full well that the clothes he was wearing reeked of days of sweat.

"Not yet," she replied as they passed out of the clearing into the woods. "There will be time later. There's a full moon tonight."

"And what does that mean?" he asked as she stopped to pull something from the ground.

"That we can see well enough to take a bath, silly," she smiled at him, stripping the dirt from the root she had dug up.

"What's that?"

"Armoracia," she replied. "Horseradish. It's a hot spice to be added to food. It also can be used for poultices and to help clear the passages in bronchitis."

"This is Rumex," she said touching another small, spreading plant. She tore off a small leaf and handed it to him. "It's best when cooked, especially with some pork as seasoning, but it can be eaten raw."

He nibbled at it and found it at tad bitter but overall quite tasty. He tore off a couple of more leaves and followed after her, feeling very much like a foraging horse.

"Lindera," she said, touching a small tree. "It can be used for spices or teas. The bark is the best but buds can be dried as well. Betula," another tree, this one tall and spreading at the top. "It's found along creek bottoms where you find willows and poplar. Its buds and twigs are pleasant to chew with a spicy taste and the under bark can be used as a sort of chewing gum."

They wandered on the through darkening woods as Bast pointed out plant after plant. She knew its growing habits, environment, medical and food uses as well as what animals fed upon it. Occasionally they saw small animals that crossed their paths, and she named each and gave its season of growing with barely a glance.

"Bast," he said finally, well stuffed with the various plants she had shown him were edible. "Is there anything you don't know?"

"I don't why humans cannot leave these woods to their own life," she answered sadly.

He paused beside one of the small creeks that were everywhere along the mountains and looked at her. The sun was down but the moon had yet to crest the mountains across the valley to the east. The light from it was dimly visible over their shoulder but the valley was still in blackness. She was a barely visible shape in the tenebrous black under the spreading trees.

"Bast, have I hurt you by cutting down the trees?" he asked gently.

"Oh, no, I'm not upset with you, Herzer," she said, coming up to him and stroking his cheek. "Come, it is time to wash."

She led him to a spring-filled crack in the rocks, just big enough for two. They ended up washing not only themselves but Herzer's dirt encrusted clothes and spending half the time having water fights as the moon rose in the east. Finally they were both cleaned and Bast extracted the fur roll from the depths of the packbasket. There by the stream she lit a small fire and prepared a light salad of spring greens. By the light of the fire, with the water of the branch to wash it down, they ate the salad and then enjoyed each other until the moon was high in the sky.

Herzer awoke in the early dawn of the morning to a smell of woodsmoke from the embers of the fire and reached to feel for Bast, who was gone. Opening his eyes he looked around but she was nowhere in sight. Only her basket and blanket remained.

By the fire was a note, written on bark with one of the coals.

"Lover I have watched the trees of this valley grow since before the cities were removed. I watched as the valley returned to its natural state and have walked these woods since time immemorial. I have known these trees, nut and branch, since they were born. I can name them and tell you of their life, each and every one.

I can watch them die no longer.  

I shall walk far from the homes of men and visit the forests and fields of my life. Perhaps I shall return some day and perhaps not. I never say good bye, only "Esol." This means "Tomorrow Again." Remember us as we were.  

Bast L'sol Tamel d'San."

Herzer set the note down after rubbing at the writing idly, then looked around and sighed.

"Great, Bast. Very touching. But I don't know where I am."

* * *

For a change, Edmund and Daneh had an evening off at the same time and could eat a simple but, and this was significant, peaceful dinner. Not a snack snatched up between critical operations or a meal supped with arguing council members.

And it was clear to Edmund that they had no idea what to talk about.

"So, how was your day, dear?" Edmund asked, realizing that it was both prosaic and insufficient.

"The usual round of emergency surgeries without anesthetic. I swear, I'm going to have to get all male nurses to hold down the screamers."

Edmund wasn't sure if he should laugh or cringe so he stayed silent.

"Jody Dorsett's going to have to relearn to use an axe," she added after a moment. "He managed to cut off his left thumb."

"Ouch!"

"Even in the old days of medicine they would have been able to reattach it. I've seen references to something called a 'nerve graft' but I have no idea how you'd actually do it. And practicing on someone who is twice your size and writhing in pain is a trifle difficult." Everything was said in a light tone but he could feel the bitterness going bone deep. And she had barely touched her food.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe when we have some poppies you can start working on anesthetics."

"What I really need is some decent medical reference works. I've been all through your library and everything else everyone had. But the only medical references are either first aid, very oblique and opaque statements or suited to a Middle Ages surgery. And I personally refuse to bring back bloodletting for common colds."

"Perhaps when Sheida . . ."

"Yes, 'when Sheida this,' 'when Sheida that.' I need this stuff now, Edmund! All I need is a smidgen of power, some nannites and the authority. Even a damned elementary textbook! But it has to wait doesn't it?"

Edmund finally realized that what she was saying was not what she was thinking. "Where are you at?" he asked after a moment. "And don't tell me about surgery."

"I'm in a very strange place, Edmund," she said after a long pause. "I'm thinking that it's time to go to bed with you. And part of me is saying 'Yes!' and part of me is screaming 'NO!' And I don't know which side is courage and which is cowardice. Or even which is right and which is wrong. And I'm tired of nightmares."

Edmund thought about that for a long time then sighed. "There is a part of me that says 'Say the yes is right!' And it's not even the part that's south of my expanding waistline." If I can even remember how, he added mentally. "It's the part of me that has missed my Daneh for many years. The Daneh that I fell madly in love with at first sight. The part that has missed you, all of you. That wants to hold you in the night and cuddle you and make you all better. But I also know that it's not going to be that easy. So I'm willing to wait. Be it until you find another or if you can't decide for the rest of your life. Because I love you, I always have loved you and I always will love you, no matter what road that takes us down."

* * *

On the afternoon of the sixth day in the woods, Herzer and the rest headed back to Raven's Mill. It took about two hours to walk to the Via Apallia, passing clearings being opened on both sides of the dirt track, and as they crossed the massive bridge over the Shenan, Herzer was surprised to see that Raven's Mill had changed even more.

Some of the original log shelters had been torn down, apparently to create an open area near town, and different structures had been put in. At the base of the hill to the east of the town a long, low building had been built and more work was taking place stretching up the hill. In addition, a wooden stockade was under construction. Based on the foundation that was being built it would eventually surround the entire "old town" and stretch up the hill near Talbot's house. Herzer, looking at it, realized that Edmund's house was precisely where a citadel or keep would be built and wondered how much of that was coincidence. He doubted that Edmund had designed the stockade to make his house the citadel but it would be very much like the old smith to choose the most defensible position to put in a house.

On reaching the edge of the town their group met two others coming in from the same general jobs. The three groups were stopped at the intersection and gestured to the side by a tall, thin gentleman with gray in his black hair.

"My name's Phil Sevetson. You didn't meet me before you set out on the first phase of your familiarization, but I'm in charge of the program. You've completed your first week successfully and the day after tomorrow you will start on the next phase. What that is depends upon which group you are in and the names and designations of the groups were not communicated before you set out," he added with a frown.

"Who is Herzer Herrick?"

"I am, sir," Herzer said raising his hand.

"The group that you are with is group A-5. Who is in the group with Herzer, that was just cutting in the west wood with Jody? Please raise a hand." He nodded as they raised their hands. "You are all group A-5, that is A for Anthony, Five. Any orders or information will be addressed to the group in that manner. That is, if there is a call for all groups to form in a certain area, you will gather with group A-5. Is that clear?" He waited until he got a nod from each then went on.

"Monique McBride? The group with Monique McBride, that was cutting in the west wood under the direction of Mislav Crnkovic, is group A-4. That is A as in Anthony, Four. All the members of A-4 please raise your hands."

He continued the process with group A-6 and ensured that, yes, they all knew that they were A-6 and would appropriately respond.

"Very well, now that you all know who you are. Much to everyone's surprise and massive damage to my training schedule, tomorrow has been designated as a day of rest. That means that you do not have to start your next phase tomorrow. Tomorrow you can rest. Just down the street from the town hall is the apprentice building," he said, pointing. "After we are done here, go there to draw your meal chits. Your overseers are there now making a report. You will be given sufficient meal chits for this evening, tomorrow and Sunday morning. After the morning meal on Sunday and before noon, report to the apprentice hall again for your next assignment. Is this all clear? Are there any questions?"

"They said we'd get money for doing this shit," Earnon said. "When do we get it?"

"Your supervisors are currently making their preliminary report to the apprentice hall," Sevetson replied, pursing his lips. "Additional funds above basic subsistence up to a certain maximum are their determination. The maximum is one additional meal chit per week and a bonus for quality and quantity of work of one chit."

"What?" Earnon growled. "That's it? A couple of meals?"

"Meal chits are now the de facto currency of Raven's Mill," Phil replied with a sniff. "They can, for example, be used to purchase a bath at the new bathhouse," he again gestured at the new buildings along the base of the hill. "They do not cost a full chit and there you can get change for whatever funds you are given."

"Change?" someone at the back of the crowd asked.

"Funds that do not equal a full meal chit," Sevetson replied. "You'll get used to the system after a bit; it is, after all, ancient and venerable. Questions?"

"Where do we sleep?"

"Many of the temporary shelters are still available. Be warned that there has been some robbery of materials and money. It is wise to remain at least in pairs."

"Can men and women sleep together now?" Earnon asked, sniggering.

"Not in the communal shelters," the supervisor replied, wrinkling his nose and sniffing again. "There are other places that can be rented and you can walk a short distance out of town and sleep in relative comfort in the woods."

"Great, we're right back where we started," Earnon grumbled.

"You are now familiarized with the tasks of woodcutting," Sevetson corrected. "This is one of the basic tasks of this level of technology. It is a skill that can earn you money, more if you parlay it into skill in charcoal making. Next week you will be familiarized with other skills. Eventually you will be complete and if you have performed well enough at one of the skills, the supervisors may consider taking you on as an apprentice. You are not 'right back where you started.' "

Earnon's only answer was a glare, so the supervisor shrugged.

"If there are no more questions, go down to the apprentice hall, draw your chits and then you are free to spend your time as you wish."

With that he strode off in the general direction of the apprentice hall and the rest followed.

In front of the hall under a wooden awning tables had been set up. Inside the hall, which was more of an elaborate log cabin, Herzer could see Jody, bandage on one hand, doggedly arguing with someone.

Earnon, Nergui and a few others from the other groups had pushed their way to the front so Herzer, Mike and Courtney hung back. When Earnon got his chits and counted them he let out a howl.

"I only got one chit for my work! I worked my tail off!"

The young woman parceling out the pay referred to her list again and shrugged.

"That's what it says," she replied.

"How much did Herzer get?" Nergui asked, nastily.

"I can't tell you how much others get. Next."

"Wait! I demand to see—"

"Me," Sevetson said, walking over to the argument. "You demand to see me." The man picked up the list then motioned Earnon to wait and walked into the room. He returned with a sheaf of paper bound together with string and opened it up.

"It says here, Earnon, that on the first day you caused an altercation, is that true?"

"No, it was Herzer that caused it, lying about me slacking off!"

"According to Mr. Dorsett, you were slacking off. Furthermore, you continued to contribute less than your fair share the entire week. As I said, you get, at most, one additional chit unless you get a bonus. Mr. Dorsett's recommendation was that you be given no additional chits because 'He's a loud-mouthed slacker who thinks the world owes him a living.' I can neither confirm nor deny the slacker portion but I did override his recommendation and ensure that you had at least some spending money. He further reports that you encouraged others in sloth. There is no place in this program for a person unwilling to work, Earnon. If you wish to earn more than this I would suggest that you apply yourself in the next phase of your training. Good day, Earnon. That is all."

Sevetson continued to stand by as others came up to receive their pay. On two more occasions there were disputes, one from Nergui who felt that she should have gotten a "bonus" and one from another camp who, like Earnon, had earned only a single additional chit. In both cases, Sevetson returned with their respective files and gave them a precise and unpleasant dressing down.

Herzer wasn't sure what he would get when it was his turn and when the girl handed him the chits, small pieces of a reddish metal stamped on one side with a raven and the other with a sheaf of grain, he just nodded his thanks and stepped away to wait for Mike and Courtney.

"How much did you get?" Courtney asked, counting hers. "I got five. Full pay anyway."

"Four, five . . . six," Herzer said, frowning.

"Me, too," Mike said, counting his. "I think we got a bonus."

"Why?" Herzer said, counting them again. "I got in a fight that first day."

"Hah! You have to ask?" Courtney said, taking both their arms. "You guys both worked your tail off. I was afraid I'd get docked for when I was out with the cramps. I guess they took pity on us womenfolk."

"Not on Nergui, apparently," Herzer replied, still frowning. "I didn't do more than my share."

"Yes, you did," Jody said, after walking up silently behind them. "You, Mike, Cruz, Emory, Karalyn and Deann all got bonuses. Karalyn and Deann didn't get as much done as you guys, but they worked like demons. Harder than you and Shilan, sorry Courtney."

"That's okay," she replied. "I don't think woodcutting is my niche!" she added with a smile.

"But you will find it," Jody said. "What are you guys doing now?"

"I don't know," Herzer replied, dropping the coins in his pocket.

"I was talking with some of the others," Jody said. "Some of the apprentice people who have been in town. There's already a mini crime wave going on. Keep a close hold on your money and watch for people trying to cheat you out of it. If you want a suggestion, head up to the bathhouse and get cleaned up. Dinner won't be for an hour or so yet."

"Sounds good to me," Mike said gruffly.

"Well, we do need a bath," Courtney chuckled.

"Let's go then," Herzer agreed.

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