Wrote about 500 words in the early afternoon and quickly realized I was going B-F-B-F again; it happens when you’re a Pantser: you’re getting along on a storyline and suddenly realized, crap! I didn’t give that any exposition! So, I spent an hour polishing the 500 words and inserting them retroactively while making several other editing changes, all the while imaging what it was like in the 20th Century where writers quite literally cut and pasted their manuscripts.
Having said all that to say this: the first part is what I wrote about Jenkins then spent time retconning it into what you’ve already read. The rest is getting the Nation moving north and west, ending with Nichole putting on her new Bard hat! One more gloss to see the military units of the Nation over the Cascades, meeting the City’s Regular Army, then turning north against the cannibal’s main horde, as the civilians on the horse-drawn wagons make their way into the area around Napavine… and then…
Following yesterday’s arrival and presentation before Rhun, her quick hearing made her aware of concerns about the Great Lord’s family; his newest, infant, son, specifically. Once she had been called forward in that first audience, Nichole had concluded by offering Jenkins’s skills in medicine “for what so troubles you, Great Lord!”
You could have heard a moth land on their homespun, so taken aback was Rhun’s inner circle that I might really be a witch.
Rhun contained himself and sent Jenkins away with one of his men. The next time she had seen the corpsman was in the wee hours of this day, as he came back to his tent, adjacent to hers. She crawled out and leaned her head to his.
“A respiratory infection turned into bacterial pneumonia,” he whispered. Nichole hoped she didn’t have to. “It’s only been a few days, they told me. I’ve some just-expired amoxicillin capsules I can open and mix with water, milk… something.”
“Prognosis?” she had to ask, feeling him flinch from her odd voice.
“Good. It would take too long to get something like pedialyte from the City so I’ll see what I can throw together out here.”
“How’s things, sergeant?” she asked her friend and savior as night fell about them, held back by a few torches. All of the solar lamps were along the road to guide the migration, which was beginning to stop for the night.
“Their lead elements are across the river, prepared to hold it against all comers,” he stretched hugely. “Not that any are expected!”
Nichole had learned some months ago that early on in their recovery, Portland had hoped that the Tri-cities of Richland-Kennewick-Pasco had been able to keep at least one of the Hanford fission reactors running. Scouting reports told otherwise: without electricity to power the pumps and irrigate the fields, central Washington had quickly returned to desert, with no more than a few hundred human survivors. There would be no trouble to the Nation’s migration from this area.
“Let me get my horse squared away; I’m starving! You guys eat yet?” Brunelli asked.
“Miss Clarke has, when she was sucking up the top dog, here.” Reilly said with his dry sense of humor. “Jenkins?”
The corpsman shook his head.
“So it looks as if we three are scrounging,” Reilly concluded, but turning to stare at Nichole. “What are you going to do?”
None of them liked leaving her alone for any length of time.
“I shall return to there,” she indicated the yurt with a toss of her head and a smile, “to do what I do best!”
John gave a loud and discontented sigh.
“Fine,” he said, “but someone will be by to check on you!”
“Thank you,” she considered the nearest horseman and lowered her voice, “John!”
As the three men walked away, she paused to look at puddles of light stretching along the road down the mountain. Connecting the dots… but what is the final pattern?
“That sumbitch asked Nichole to what?!?” she laughed at John’s outburst from somewhere in the darkness. Time to go back inside.
The three clerks of the Great Lord glanced up at her entrance but quickly returned to their tasks. Barbarians, indeed! Nichole thought. If the Mongols had taken China first and absorbed their bureaucracy, their empire would not only have lasted hundreds of years, but likely reached from Japan to Portugal… complete unity of East and West. Did the world miss an opportunity or dodge a bullet? The interior of the yurt was well illuminated by several hanging oil lamps as well as the candle-sets at each of the three small tables. She returned to her place near Rhun’s, knelt, and grew still.
The great flourish of the tent flaps behind her could be only one person. She waited.
“Great Sky, woman!” Rhun exclaimed, nodding to the servants in the rear shadows before sitting on the rugs and bolsters opposite her. “You didn’t have to wait all this time!”
“It was, sir, not ‘all this time;’ my commander returned. I spoke with him…” she paused to draw him in. “And to speak with our corpsman. They went for dinner and I returned here.”
She saw his quick look over her shoulder to corroborate her story. Obviously one of them did as she watched him relax and allow the nearly invisible servants to place another skin of wine and a cup before him. At least I don’t have to drink –
“Fool!” Rhun suddenly raged, a knife out and at the thin, trembling man’s neck. “A guest sits before me and you bring them nothing?!”
To scared or forbidden to speak, Nichole spoke for him.
“I cry you mercy, Great Lord,” she said softly, dipping her head. “Let there be no death in your house; not now.”
And for that double-meaning, he just might kill me, too…
“Be gone and find a replacement; I will not see you again!” Rhun said harshly, dismissing the man. “And get your head up, woman! We both know who’s acting here!”
Nichole did; knowing they both were.
As the disgraced servant almost fell over himself in haste to leave, another came forward with another cup and poured some of the strong wine for both.
“Jenkins sees to my newest boy every six hours; he’s a good man,” Rhun said, picking up on her comment.
“Yes. He helped put me back together,” she looked right at him, “after your predecessor did so much to kill me at The Dallas dam.”
“I have already allowed he was a hasty man,” he drank, holding her stare. “I am not.”
“Let us,” she raised her cup to him, “make haste slowly, Great Lord.”
He tossed back the rest of his cup. While being refilled, he leaned forward.
“With a comment such as that, I bet you’re great in bed!”
“Better than you’ve ever had, Great Lord,” Nichole replied, her eyes dancing.
He leaned back with a smile and a single clap of his hands.
“My wives might dispute that!” he said, picking up the cup. “Perhaps if had all three of you at once…?”
She allowed herself to look away as her left hand came to her cheek.
“Why, Nichole!” He just used my name! “Are you embarrassed?”
She dropped her hand and smiled at him.
“Why, no! Excited at the thought!”
He rolled backward with laughter, which, she saw, was real.
“Again! You got me again!” He sat up. “Our time together is going to be very interesting!”
“Yes,” she took a sip, “it is!”
Two days had their center of gravity across the Columbia. At that the four from the City watched a very well planned evolution of forces unfold. Nichole, Reilly, and Brunelli were near Rhun on the south side of the ridge in the great 180 degree loop of the river, looking back and down at the mass.
“We’ve barely enough food and not enough fodder,” Rhun continued, pleased to have an attentive audience. “The ox carts will only manage fifteen miles each day, at best! Horse-drawn can do about fifty… until we get to the mountains.”
“This,” he waved, “is our first division: all heavy items with the oxen, guarded by boys under fifteen and old men over sixty.”
“So much for OpSec,” Brunelli muttered.
“I thought,” the Great Lord observed without turning, “that we were allies?”
Nichole heard John grind his teeth together once.
Rhun turned his horse about and continued up the hill, following the old Interstate toward the husk of the Tri-cities beyond.
“Such a desolation!” Nichole heard his mutter, looking about the hills. No trees, no bushes, so soil.
Does he not know? She wondered.
Now making fifty miles each day, their advance was palpable. Nichole did not know if the Nation had ever expressly stated the number of warriors and civilians that were part of this migration to the Mayor’s Office, but at each hill and mountain pass, she would look both ways and recalculate. And each time, her confidence in this scheme dropped.
Their advance still included many non-combatants and supplies on the wagons, including families of the chiefs and chieftains. Jenkins was among those, not only seeing to the rapidly improving infant boy of Rhun’s, but others as well. Let’s hope word of his works reaches their mens’ ears!
At the end of the next day, moving west by northwest, with the sun dropping below the snowy peak of Mount Adams, they were in a land still returning to desert, looking up at the hills that separated them from the former city of Yakima. Rhun had ordered a day’s stop, to allow his men and animals to forage. In practice, this meant eating and stealing everything in sight, local population be-damned. Neither Brunelli nor Reilly spoke in protest so Nichole kept her opinions to herself.
It was the first time she had seen one of their shamans around Rhun. He was pointing at the hills; the cloaked one at the sky. Curious, after making one final check on Toast, she walked over.
“What do you think, Nichole?” he asked from his saddle. His hearing is very good! “I’m hard pressed to believe that so little rain makes it here, that this place is such a desolation! Seer, here, tells me the land was struck by the Sky, for its sins.”
And your tone tells me exactly what you think of that!
“As we do not have to make an early start tomorrow, what with your men foraging,” she began, trying not to be snide, “may I tell you a story this evening?”
He turned in his saddle at that.
“You’re a storyteller, too?” actually surprised.
She dropped her eyes but raised her voice.
“For my friends, I can be anything at all.”
Word of mouth, she noted some hours later, was better than electronic social networks. The communal meal had been cleared away and a wide but low fire stoked where the food had been. Wine was issued, but Nichole had heard the admonition against drunkenness. There were a few soft and scattered conversations when she stood and walked close to the edge of the fire before turning and bowing low to Rhun. Rising from that bow she raised her arms and voice.
All of them. This is my chance to get into all of their minds!
“Great Lord! And all great men here! You stand in the midst of a catastrophe so great that even after fourteen thousand years, the land is still lifeless and barren, gasping its anguish to an unyielding Sky!”
May as well sprinkle some of their new beliefs into this… Nichole gave another tiny bow before turning right and continuing her story. In a sing-song tone, she spoke of the last Ice Age and the sheets that covered North America. She told of the warming, the beginning of their world, when what became known as Lake Missoula formed in now-former Montana.
“A Great Lake of the West!” she called with a little laughter. “That will show those stuck-up Mid-westerners! They still have their Great Lakes, but you, the Nation, are still alive!”
She felt an unpleasant ripple in her mind for that propaganda, but the cries and shouts from about her let her know she was on the right track. About to complete her first circuit of the fire, she saw John and Reilly. Reilly’s face told her he knew this story; John’s that he was still in love with her.
“But the warming continued! And the great plug of ice,” she was condensing several events into one and did not care. She did not have a single strand of code that Ordered her to tell the truth, “between your Great Lake and what would be the Columbia River Basin grew smaller and thinner! Just as our enemies shall before us!”
Another series of cries and shouts.
She paused before Rhun, her voice still pitched to carry.
“With a great crack, your great lake, my Great Lord,” I’m not bad at this! “Broke free! A wall of water! Hundreds of feet high!”
She turned about and started a second loop about the fire.
“Moving at eighty miles per hour!” she allowed tones of fear into her voice as she shook and looked this way and that. “Scouring every plant, all the soil! And…!”
She paused at the northern edge of the fire and pointed at the gap in the hills they would be taking in two days.
“And every person!” She lowered her voice, forcing them to lean in. “This was only five hundred and sixty generations ago… suppose it was you, settled here by the Yakima River, eking out a living, hearing the deep, odd sounds in the far north in the morning, only to come back to your family in the evening as a wall of water, taller than the tallest building you dimly remember, comes at out four times faster than your fastest horse!”
She pointed at the gap in the hills and amplified.
“There! JUST THERE!”
The fear she proved was such that all stood and many cried out. She lowered her hand and waited the few minutes for order to be restored. She resumed her walk.
“The land was scoured down to bedrock, blasted to this day. What became the river gorge was choked with the dead: plants… animals…”
Nichole rounded the south end of the fire.
“…people. Far, far downriver, even the Willamette and Centralia Valleys were, for a generation, lakes, until the waters could finally drain into the sea of Ocean!”
She was pleased with her little play of Greek as she drew up before Rhun.
“It is guestimated this event was the equivalent of forty-five thousand megatons of TNT,” she said with a very creepy smile.
“What?” The Great Lord exclaimed, his mind suddenly engaged. “Four and half megatons…!”
“My apologies, Great Lord! I did not speak clearly!” She faked a cough. “Four thousand, five hundred megatons blasted this land! Not from the Sky, but the Water!”
No; I’m doing this.
“The same water that now laps the coast of my homeland!”
She watched him sag back into his chair; a throne of sorts. As the muscles in his arms flexed to raise them, she spoke one last time.
“And now! Fourteen thousand years later! A new flood comes! Not over the hills, but over the mountains!” She pushed what was possible for a human voice. “You! A great Nation, in alliance with my Friend and Allies of the City of Portland! Will wash away the cannibal fanatics and make a homeland for you and your people!”
She saw, to his credit, Rhun was the first on his feet, clapping and walking toward her. Not wanting to compromise either of their positions, she sank to one knee with a bowed head. Able only to see his feet, she watched him turn about as the cheering grew even louder. She felt his hands on her shoulders and rose slowly, head still down.
“Who are you?” she barely picked out of the exultation.
Nichole raised her head but a fraction, knowing no one else would hear her.
“I can be your best friend; I can be your worst enemy.”
She felt the acknowledgement through his hands. He slid his right arm about her shoulder and let her in triumph once about the fire. The cheers went on and on into the black night.
At midnight, the three of the City sat silently outside of their little tents.
“Nichole?” John asked.
“What are you really doing here?”
She rearranged her mental mosaic.
She chose to tell the truth.
“My Order is to make the City-State of Portland into a Friend and Ally of the Japanese Empire,” she said quietly. “But… me?”
She dropped her head again.
“I just wanted to make friends.”