“This lot you’ve thrown in with are interesting.”
I looked up at Mom and squeezed her hand gently. The bridge we were walking down bowed strangely, despite the path being made of wood. This city was nice like that, having a huge park despite how massive it was. The park itself was bigger than many cities I’d been to, and had a nice lake that we were walking over.
“Yeah.” I looked at the skyline of impossibly tall buildings. They reminded me of St. Louis just by their sheer size. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. I can’t say. Your life has taken so many interesting turns lately. How can anyone say what’s right for you anymore? Only one person can, and that’s you.”
I chuckled softly. “Typical non-answer.”
“Typical smartass reply.” Mom smirked at me. “Are you ready for your lesson?”
I rose from the couch, crossing the room to her. I didn’t mind this house, but it was all drywall and carpet. All of the structure, the things that gave a house charm and personality were hidden from sight, no matter how much the plush decoration tried to make up for it.
“Yeah. What’re we learning today?”
Mom smiled up at me, her black eyes twinkling. “How to escape handcuffs. I think that will be a good skill to have, don’t you?”
I opened my eyes slowly, a yawn escaping. The sunbeam was nice, even pleasant, but it told me that I’d slept too long. I took a moment to wipe the tear from the yawn away and sniffled softly.
“Hello,” Brenda said, smiling in my direction. It could be hard to remember that she wasn’t actually blind, especially with the cloth over her eyes.
“Hey.” My throat felt rough as I glanced around. Only the two of us? “How long have I been out?”
“Over a half an hour, I’m not sure. I took a peek, and your hands were rotating back and forth like they were on fire.” She didn’t sound concerned, at least. Funny how she only took a peek.
“Mmm.” I never did find out if they learned anything more about that in Mother’s. Oh well, I did have something to fall back on, at least. “There’s two theories about why I do that. Well, two theories and a joke. We usually keep with the joke, even in friendly company.
“The joke is that I train, or that I go through the motions of training in my sleep. The first theory, and the one that I prefer, is that my body doesn’t produce enough of the paralytic that we have when we sleep. It’s almost enough, but not quite. So if I’m really into something in my dreams, my body gets into it a little bit.”
“Like a dog,” she said, nodding.
“Yeah.” I couldn’t help but smile. “Did you have one?”
“No. But when I was little, our neighbors did. For a while, at least. They had to give it up.”
Ah. By the tone of her voice, it wasn’t a fond memory. Probably something to do with the cult she was raised in. Right, moving along. “The second theory is… Well, we know that I have seizures. Usually petit mal seizures, nothing serious, but still there. Most people don’t even recognize when I have them, they’re so minor. I know that I usually can’t tell when I have one. On occasion, though, once or twice a year, I’ll have a more serious one. Nothing bad, still, but again. Still a seizure.”
Actually, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t had a single one last year. Maybe I was outgrowing them. Finally.
“So the second thought is that I might have a different kind of seizure when I’m sleeping. I like that idea a lot less.”
Brenda frowned a little bit. “Is it serious?”
“Nah,” I said as I made my way to my feet. “It’s just a thought, no evidence to back it up. My doctor didn’t say anything about it after Agamemnon, and my doctors back home didn’t think it was too likely, so I’m not worried. They just wanted to keep the option open because of my other seizures.”
“Hm.” Her frown grew, and there was a pause before spoke again. “Little illness?”
My grin split my face in two. “You know French?”
“Yeah.” Brenda chuckled a bit. “Where I came from, there were people of quite a few nationalities. If we didn’t want to work, us kids could stay at school late to learn another language. You’d be surprised how many of us chose that. I chose French because-”
I felt a pressure against my back before I felt a strike hit it. I was already turning, stretching my arm out before I heard a soft clap in the distance. I only had a brief glimpse of the woman before she disappeared again — this time the clap was right on top of me, pulling me towards where the woman had been even as I felt a pressure on my back again.
This time, though, I was ready and moving. My arm deflected the punch, only to be sucked into the void that much harder when the woman disappeared. Again, I’d expected it and immediately compensated for the pushing and pulling, already moving to deflect the next punch.
We did this sort of weird twisting dance three more times before I caught the fault in the pattern. I spun harder, my arm lashing out to catch the woman by the waist and pull her against me before her backfist could connect.
“No fair,” Emi whined as she squirmed out of my awkward hold. “You’re cheating!”
“I’m not cheating,” I said with a grin. “The problem is, you’re making it predictable. You always show up where my back is at the moment of teleport, always using that backfist that I taught you. And we need to work on your form a little.”
She pouted at me, and I folded my arm over my chest thoughtfully. “I think, after we get your form a little more ingrained, we’re going to have to add some more moves, like a sweep or something. If someone’s balance isn’t as good as mine, they’re going to be thrown off by the first teleport. If we can mix up where you teleport, you’ll also be able to keep them from being as predictable.”
Emi nodded, grinning from ear to ear. “Cool. Mix it up, like… So that I’m right behind them when I finish my spin?”
The direction she faced didn’t change when she teleported, so she had to spin in a 180 in order to attack. A small disadvantage, but we could work with it. “Yeah, something like that. I might also teach you a mule kick.” I paused for a moment. “Where’d you all go?”
“We did some scouting. We caught a glimpse of a field, which means we’re close to civ-il-i-za-tion.” She chuckled at her weird pronunciation. “Once we figure out where the hell we are, we should be able to figure out where to go from there. Getting your doohickey recharged is pretty important, yeah?”
“Yeah.” My hand went to my teleporter. “That said, before the year’s out, we’re going to want to find a Tinker to do some maintenance on it. Always bet on Tinker tech breaking.”
“I hear ya.” She grinned. “Your brother was always complaining about something messing up. Or how something wasn’t made right or whatever.”
That made my eyebrows raise. “You worked for my brother?”
“We all did,” Brenda said, still lounging against the tree.
“Brenda did paperwork and helped that Karen gal. Gonna miss her. John did the heavy lifting, but your brother had to adjust everything that he did.” That was actually perfectly normal. He did that with Sarah and I all the time. “Kathy helped out where she could, there was always something that needed done.
“And me?” Emi chuckled and bowed a little, her arms spread wide. “I did the sewing.”
“Oh?” I perked up a little at that. “You helped on the gas thing?”
“Nah.” That made her frown. “That was done and shipped before we got there. Chris had a bunch of other projects lined up that were cloth-based. He made a huge deal with the Dragon’s Teeth to get them posted to Burlington all permanent-like. Made us nervous for a while, but they didn’t pay us much mind. But he was making them a blade a week, sometimes swords, sometimes knives. And he also did, like, a shit ton of those water filter things.
“I’ll be honest, I was tempted to nab one. Hell, I probably could have asked him for one, and he would have given it for free. But…” She shook her head. “It didn’t feel right. He was treating us good, better than any of the winter jobs we’ve had, and I didn’t want to abuse his generosity. You don’t shit where you sleep, you know?”
I nodded, one half of my face twisting upwards. Good. I was glad that they had scruples.
“It may be crass,” John said as he and Kathy entered the camp, “but it’s an excellent philosophy. Did she already tell you?”
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “Jump.”
John’s shoulders slumped. Emi was a wonderful student, eager and willing. John… wasn’t. He crouched for a moment before launching himself upwards, getting almost a foot higher than he would if he didn’t reverse his power. And when he landed, it was extra heavy.
“Your timing’s off. You need to drop your density the split second before your feet leave the ground, or most of your energy is going to be put into lifting your normal-density body. And don’t land like that; flex the knees, let them bend so that they absorb the energy of landing.”
“Listen, Jordan.” Here it comes. “I tried climbing while light, but it wasn’t any easier than normal.”
I quickly held up a hand. “Your comparative strength doesn’t change as your density changes. You’re still going to be as strong or weak compared to how much you weigh. Yeah, it affects your speed, but that’s mostly passenger magic at work. But think about it this way instead: why do you need to climb nearly as far if you can jump the distance?”
Kathy stepped in. “Jordan, why don’t we discuss this later? I’ll feel much safer when I don’t have to worry about a wildling eating my face.”
“Quite right,” John said with a clap of his hands. “So, why don’t you grab a quick bath and get changed?”
Changed? “The only clothes that I have is a set of Cultist’s robes.” I quickly glanced to Brenda. “Uh, I mean—”
“No, no,” she said quickly. “I follow. But that’s not true.”
“Your other armor,” Emi said. “The new set your brother made. We made.”
John walked up to me, putting a hand on my shoulder and shaking me gently. A friendly gesture. “Listen, Jordan. I know that you probably don’t want to change into it. The color’s all wrong, it doesn’t look the same as what you’re used to, and it means… Giving up a certain something, yes?
“But this armor? It looks almost exactly like all the ones that you wore in the newspapers. That makes you more recognizable. Every step that we take away from thos pictures adds more doubt into who you are, which will keep the authorities off of our backs.” He sucked in a breath. “Plus, I was hoping that you’d let me shave your head. Maybe keep the scruff.”
I ran a hand over my face, feeling the thick stubble. I was always disappointed that I couldn’t grow a goatee or beard woth a crap. Shave my head but keep the stubble? It didn’t make sense to me, but whatever. He was making good points, ones that despite how much I wanted to, I couldn’t argue with. All of my arguments amounted to how I didn’t want to.
“Okay,” I said with a sigh, moving for the duffel bag. “Be back in a few.”
It hadn’t taken me long to bathe — the stream was cold, and I was perfectly fine with keeping my bath as quick as humanly possible. It was one thing to do it for endurance training, but another thing for when you’re just trying to get clean. Now, though…
I sat on the ground, staring into the duffel. He was right, it did feel like giving something up. Another piece of my life quietly slipping away from me. The armor didn’t look bad, it just… It was different. In less than a year, I’d lost so many links to my old life, and now…
I was cut out of my thoughts as a denim bag fell next to me, coins jingling. I looked up to find Emi behind me, and quickly put my hand to my groin.
“Relax,” she said, scoffing. “I’m not interested in seeing what you’ve got.”
With a lazy gait, she moved to the other side of the duffel bag, settling down so that her back was to me. I shifted a little, uncomfortable, trying to understand what was going on. Finally, I picked up the bag, turning it over in my hands.
“What’s this for?”
She let out a soft sigh, her shoulders slumping a little. “I have, had, two brothers, both of them younger. A mom, a dad, the usual. They aren’t, you know, dead or anything, they just… I know that I’m never going to see them again.”
Emi wrapped her arms around her knees, not bothering to look back to me. “I spent a long while in the wilderness, running. I didn’t know where to, I just knew that I had to run. I couldn’t… They would have thought it was murder or something. So I ran. When I found civilization again, my clothes were pretty much done. I got some coin, got some new ones, but…”
She shook her head. “Giving up those ratty, tattered clothes was impossible. I kept them with me forever. Sometimes I’d change into them to go to bed. And then… Well, eventually they weren’t good for even bed clothes, but I just had to hold onto them.
“There’s a lot of quiet pain with us, Jordan. We try and cover for it by living as large and hard as we can, but it’s not easy. It felt like, I dunno. Getting rid of those clothes would mean giving up what little I still had of my family, and I just… couldn’t. So, I made my coin purse out of my old jeans.”
Emi sighed again, looking up into the trees. “I dunno. I just… wanted to let you know that I get it, you know? Not completely, not really, but I can at least get a bit of it. The others… John doesn’t care to see his family ever again, Kathy… I don’t know if she ever had a family. Brenda, she’s an only child, and from what she says, it isn’t for a lack of trying on her parents part.
“It’s part of why I’m trying to stick close to you. I kinda get what you’ve got to be going through, and… I dunno.” She shook her head. “Anyway.
“Your armor, it’s a link to happier times. I get that. But… Chris made this to protect you. It’s a direct link to him. And trust me, he was a fucking slave master over it. It took forever to get it cut, and if it wasn’t absolutely fuckin’ perfect, he’d get all upset over it. I think he redid your cup nine times or something. And I thought he was bad! Once Sarah showed up, the two of them went over every inch of that thing, debating and arguing every single little detail.”
A puff of air escaped my nose. “Yeah, I can see them doing that. Fussing over it like that.”
“Yeah.” She chuckled a little, but it carried no mirth. “I know I’d give anything to see my brothers again, and I hated them. I know that you’re probably feeling something like that, but… They’re with you. In that armor. They made it, thinking that you needed something to protect you. From the Wardens, from public scrutiny. You’ve got a chance with it, Jordan. Don’t waste that.”
My stomach churned. “I don’t know if I can do it,” I said weakly. It was only a different form of armor. It was the same basic armor, so why was this so hard?
“Would you like some help?”
“Please,” I said quietly.
There was a pause, and when Emi spoke, there was an air of amusement to her tone. “Are you gonna be all shy and bashful?”
What? Oh, right. “If you’ve got two brothers, then it’s probably nothing that you haven’t seen a thousand times before.”
As she turned around, I made my way to my feet, choosing to stare straight ahead. It was easier somehow to not look at what she was doing. Why was I being so dumb about all of this? She made a point, sure, but it should be easy to just power through. Right?
Emi’s touch was gentle as she began the long process of putting my armor on me. It was almost like a second skin, and tighter than it should have been in some areas. That wasn’t all that unusual, though. The armor had to be broken in, and would adjust with time and use. I stole a glance down at her as she fussed with the legs, making sure that the seams were sealing properly, a frown of concentration on her face.
The confirmation that she wasn’t getting anything out of this helped me relax a lot. Just helping a mostly naked guy get dressed. No big deal, right?
As she finished my waist, she pointed at the ground. “Sit.”
I did, making a mental note to adjust the cup a little bit. Someone else wouldn’t quite understand how things were supposed to fit. It wasn’t painful, just… awkward.
After a minute, she pulled what felt like a turtleneck over my head until it came down to my neck, where it closed in snug against me. It went all the way up to the top of my neck, following the contours of the bottom of my head. The new neck piece that Chris had mentioned, the one that would seal in tight with my helmet.
Now it made a little more sense, why he’d urged me to change. The Changer must have mentioned his plan around Chris at some point, who had tried to protect me. Just like Bro.
And like that, a moment later, she was done — the chest and gloves were in place. I made my way to my feet again, and she moved to put my belt on me. As soon as it clicked, she took a step back, finally smiling. “There. You look badass.”
I nodded once, moving to retrieve the helmet from my duffel and stuff the old armor inside. I cleared my throat, trying to find words to just fill the air. “When we, uh, when we go after the people that we’re going after, I may wanna switch to my old armor. If it’s how people associate me, then it might help with my rep, you know?”
“Yeah,” she said, giving me a thin smile. “Come on, let’s get back.”
It only took a few minutes for me to collect the last of my gear and head back to the others. John was the first to speak up, though all eyes were on me. “There you go. Lookin’ good.”
I forced a smile to my face, looking down. A question popped out of my mouth, sudden enough to surprise even me.
“Do I look like a villain?” My voice was hollow, strangely reedy.
“What?” Kathy asked, as Brenda pulled her headband up.
“I mean, uh…”
“No,” Emi said, putting her hand on my back. Meanwhile, Brenda was already pulling her headband back over her eyes.
“Jordan,” John said, rising to his feet. “Listen to me, kid. It’s like the great poet said, ‘I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind.’ Nothing in this world is fair, and there are very, very few real villains in the world. There never have been. And you? You look intimidating as hell right now, but…
“Okay, see. Duo, he was a hero for a while in New York. You’d never guess it by looking at him. He had this dark costume and—”
“His costume had to be dark,” I said quickly. “His power drew light into him, so having dark clothes that absorbed light rather than reflect it away made him more powerful.”
John nodded slowly, pressing his lips together. “Right, so you know about him. He was a scary sort, not the kind that you’d think the Protectorate would parade out. And yet! That’s what they did. They brought him out, and he spoke at great length about not judging a man by his appearance, by his dress, all in this voice that sounded like he gargled with gravel every morning.
“This is a guy who once scared some punks messing with a lady into wetting themselves, but who was also well known for a picture of a little girl falling asleep in his lap. That’s… That’s who you remind me of right now. This guy who could be an absolute terror, who could easily play patty cake with a kid for hours on end.”
I nodded a little, smiling despite not really feeling any better. “Thanks.”
John’s smile was wide enough to show all his teeth. “Any time. Now, pop a squat, let’s make you a cue ball.”
“He’s just a hint too dark skinned for that,” Kathy said, moving to me and nudging me in the right direction. I needed a haircut anyway…
“This isn’t a village,” Kathy whispered. “This is an oceanside hamlet.”
I wanted to argue that, but I really couldn’t. Burlington was way, way bigger than the town we were walking towards. There were so few buildings that it barely justified anything. If there were a hundred people, I would be legitimately surprised and shocked.
The buildings must have all been nice once upon a time, but now most of them were little better than shacks. Only a few had kept up with maintenance. This had to be a place settled during the old exodus, when people lost faith in main cities and thought that they could do better, only to find out that making a new place to live was harder than it sounded.
But it was some semblance of civilization. That much, at least, was a step in the right direction. Even if it didn’t have a wall or anything.
As we approached, we could see people working in the fields, wearing simple clothing. I could make out one woman’s shirt that appeared to be more patches than original shirt. Not a good sign in the slightest. At the very least, though, they’d be able to point us in the right direction.
As we got into town, a rail thin woman limped right past us, not stopping to talk. She was oddly pale, given how sunbleached her clothes were, and her face was scrunched up in a squint as she eyed us suspiciously. Her thinning hair clung to her, plastered on by the sweat of hard work. I noted another man, just as lean and pale, leaning against one of the buildings, fighting a yawn. It wasn’t even noon yet, and he was already tired?
Everyone seemed like this. Either content to squint at us, ignore us in favor of limping wherever they were going, or napping. I was all for an afternoon nap, but that came after eating, not before. It just felt so weird to me, like there was something wrong with this picture that I could almost, almost put my finger on.
I still smiled politely to everyone that I made eye contact with. It didn’t cost me anything, and might help us out in the end.
The sun felt weird on my hairless head as we entered the center of town. It was John, though, who whispered to the rest of us.
“Anyone else getting a serious Innsmouth vibe here?”
“I don’t know what that is,” I whispered back.
“He’s the only one who does,” Kathy said, eyeing the people trying hard to ignore us. “But yeah, creepy place.”
I didn’t see how it was creepy per se. A little worrisome, what with everyone nursing hands and limping, and with buildings in various stages of disrepair, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to inadvertently say the wrong thing. Still, as we stood around waiting, I couldn’t help but feel a general unease settling in all of us. Even Brenda, after a peek from behind her headband, seemed a little uncomfortable.
After what felt like forever, an older man, devoid of hair, approached us. “Not too often we get visitors.”
“Not too often we have to rely on a random teleporter to hightail it from wildlings,” John said. Immediately, Emi winced and lowered her head. What?
The old man nodded, then broke into a smile, revealing snaggled, ugly-looking teeth. My own mouth hurt in sympathy. “Well, welcome to Horizon, for what it’s worth. Where ya headed?”
“New Brockton,” Kathy said quickly.
The old man’s smile disappeared, and he paused to rub at his forehead. “Well, can’t get there from here.” What did that even mean?! “There’s a wagon comin’ in a couple a days, might be able ta catch a ride north, ta Liberty. They got ships that meet up there, and wagons headed ta other places.”
“Carriages?” Brenda asked hopefully. She’d spent the entire trip holding Kathy’s shirt sleeve.
“Maybe, I don’t know.” He took a breath, like talking was hard. “But, we don’t got no inn if ya want ta wait. Might know someone ya can stay with, though. If ya can stand the food. Or ya can walk. Makes no never mind to me.”
“That would me most appreciated,” John said, enunciating even more carefully than usual. Weird. “If you could show us the way, perhaps we could see what the price of their hospitality would be before we make our decision.
The old man nodded absently and began plodding painfully slow towards some makeshift docks at the ocean’s edge. Now I was getting that oh-so-familiar scent of salt and sea. As we drew closer, I finally made out the rows of drying racks set up in the sand, fish fillets laid out on them. Interesting.
A boy, maybe thirteen at the absolute oldest, popped up from next to the docs and began running towards us. As he drew close, his tanned face broke into a wide smile. “Yes, sir?”
“We’ve got visitors who met with some trouble. Don’t want to be turning them away if we don’t have to. Why don’t you take them to your place, see if your pa will house them until the wagon comes?”
The boy glanced to the docks, then back to the older man. He didn’t want to. He’d either been working or playing, and wanted to get back to it. “Yes, sir.” Polite, at least. He turned to our collected group. “Come on, I’ll show you the way.”
The boy took off in a rush, and we had to hurry to keep him in sight. In a city this size, it didn’t take long for us to see where he was leading us towards, though. The biggest house in town, furthest from the beach and with either a large garden or small field behind it. We couldn’t keep up, not while taking Brenda’s effective blindness into account, so he reached the house before us, bounding inside.
“One normal kid at least,” Kathy whispered.
Emi frowned a little bit. “They glare at us, then get all hospitable.”
“Southern hospitality,” John added quietly. “Plus, Takada here is armed to the teeth but is trying to be pleasant. That elder is hedging his bets, trying to show that there’s nothing worth taking and discouraging violence.”
Takada? I looked around in confusion, only for Emi to move closer to me, almost using me for protection. “You’re my older brother,” she said in a hushed tone. “Takada. Different fathers.”
Oh, that made sense. I nodded once before putting my free hand on her shoulder.
A moment later, the boy bounced back out, running past us back the way he’d come. So much for politeness. Was I the only one who ever took an etiquette class?
In short order, a man came limping out. Unlike the rest of the villagers, his reason was obvious — his shorts revealed some nasty, deep scars in his leg that made him use a crutch. His smile was wide, and far less ugly. Something in the back of my head noted that he and the boy were the only ones without thinning hair.
“Howdy,” the man said as we approached. “My boy tells me that you all are looking for a place to stay?”
“Yeah,” John said, wiping his palm on his pants before approaching the man. “Wildling attack made us rely on a teleporter, but she’s pretty unreliable when it comes to moving a group of people. We’re lucky we didn’t end up in the ground.” He made it a point to look at Emi, who was dropping her head again. “Not her fault, though, and I’m thankful that we had her around.”
His accent had changed, more like the people in the village, but not quite. Weird.
The man nodded and gestured to his leg. “Smarter than I was, at least.” Ah, that explained the scars. “Tell you what, I got two rooms free. Only one’s got two beds, though.”
Kathy smiled warmly. “If you let us stay, we’ll gladly find a way to make it worth your while.”
“Be kind of you, miss.” He paused for a moment. “Then come on in.”
We followed him in, only to find a nice fire going in the fireplace, with a dutch oven on it boiling away nicely. The man limped to a cupboard, getting out some bowls. “Pop a squat. I got a stool, if one of you will take it. We’ll work out the price of your stay while we eat. Name’s Franklin, like the president.”
President? I didn’t have the time to ask, as Kathy was already speaking up as she settled into a chair. “I’m Lisa, this is Warren, Rita, Yoko, and her brother Takada.”
“Pleased to meet ya.”
I grabbed the stool as everyone else took chairs, leaving one open for him as he ladled out some soup for each of us. “It’ll be thinner than what I’d like, but it’s something while we talk. I wasn’t expecting company.”
“We’re sorry to intrude,” I said quietly.
The man looked at me, a slight grin coming to his face. “Humble and more polite than my own blood. I’ll be damned.” He paused a moment to set a bowl down before filling another. “Could use some help weeding the cabbages, if you all think you can without ruining the crop.”
“I’m sure we can manage,” Kathy said. “And that’s only fair. We’ve had worse deals.”
“Well, better than you trying to pay me.” A bowl went in front of her. “We got personal possessions here, but for the most part it’s a commune. We all share and share alike.” Typical for a struggling community — when they were struggling together, it was easier to share. If it weren’t for the age of the buildings, I’d say that this place was only five years old, still struggling to find its feet.
“And yet you have the biggest house,” Kathy observed.
“Been too big since the missus and my daughters passed.” Ah. That explained a lot. “You know, when we decided to head out of Bet and ended up settling here, everyone thought my wife was crazy for lugging this iron pot around. Takes longer to cook than what most folks have, aluminum pots, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it for something faster.”
“Is everyone here alright?” John asked. “I noticed there’s some folks who don’t look too good. Some sort of sickness or something?”
Franklin chuckled a little. “You could say that. It comes and it goes for most folks, but my family’s always had it good in that regard. During the late summer and early fall, folks get a bit healthier, start looking like their old selves, but by the end of winter, they’re back to this. We don’t know why, but now we don’t have the gumption to pull up roots and move. Too much blood in the land, you know?”
“I can respect that,” John said with a nod.
“Well, to be honest, we’re plum stupid for not doing it. I don’t know why we haven’t yet, especially with some folks thinking that the land’s cursed or something. Most crops won’t grow, and what will grow, most people don’t like. I have a hell of a time getting anyone to join me for ‘kraut, or even cabbage when it’s fresh. Most folks practically live off of fish alone.
“We got it lucky when it comes to wildlings, only two attacks so far, and most everyone’s got a gun. I got a shotgun, only reason my boy and I are still here today.” There was a tinge of bitterness in his tone. I could guess what happened to the rest of his family. “The folks we trade with say we’ve gotten off lucky, but still.”
As Franklin set a bowl in front of Emi, she spoke in a quiet tone. “Well, we’re grateful to that man for sending us to you.”
Franklin snorted softly. “Less to be thankful of than you think. My boy and I, people treat us with suspicion since we’re healthy when nobody else is. He’s thinking that if you aren’t safe, you’ll do me in first. And if I’m doing something hinky to keep me and my boy healthy… Well, it’s less for them to worry about.”
He set down a bowl in front of me, and I couldn’t help but grin at the contents, identifying them by smell alone. “Fish and sauerkraut soup! Well, if it were just fish, I’d probably pass and cook myself something, but this’ll do. Especially cooked in that.”
Franklin looked at me critically. “Problem with fish?”
Crap, I’d already put my foot in my mouth. “Oh, no, no! That’s not what I mean at all!” I paused to take a breath, thinking about the best way to explain.
“See, fish is healthy for you, but is low in a lot of things. Sauerkraut is high in vitamin C, which is important to help prevent scurvy and stuff. And that pot? Boiling water in it for a while will leech some of the iron into it, and iron deficiencies can do all sorts of nasty things.”
John narrowed his eyes at me. “Like what?” He wasn’t the only one. The man was looking at me curiously, too.
“Oh, joint pain, headaches, lethargy, hair loss, paleness, that sort of thing.” I shrugged, waiting for everyone else to get a bowl.
“And vitamin C deficiency?” Brenda asked.
“Uh, scurvy. Pain, swollen gums that are pulled away from the teeth, shortness of breath, difficulty healing wounds…”
Kathy was already turning to look at the man. “Don’t tell me that you and your boy are literally the only ones who eat the sauerkraut.”
“Then I won’t say anything.”
“And are the two of you the healthiest in the city?” John asked quickly.
“If you forgive a missing finger and a bad limp, I was just thinking about that myself,” the man said with a nod.
I looked between everyone, frowning a little. The mood in the room had just done a 180. “Uh, you all got weird there. What’s going on?”
The man looked at me for a moment before he let out a bark of a laugh. “Boy, you’d make a hell of a doctor if you’d use the brains in your head, you know that?”