Late at night, the forest beyond our little village comes alive with chirps and howls. I tended the fire while my mother prepared earthenware pots of porridge and stew. The bed of coals was almost hot enough to cook on, and only a few drips from the light shower outside penetrated the hay thatching overhead. Each droplet made a hiss as it hit the fire.
Father rambled on. “Furries and field mice. It must be the extra rain this season. I can’t recall ever seeing so many. I caught three mice today.”
“More to eat,” said Mother.
The fire crinkled in a light thrash as heavier logs settled over broken embers, followed by a flare of light and heat. I tossed on another log, and raked some more coals onto the cooking bed. Mother sat the two earthenware pots atop the hot charred matter.
I was captivated by the coloring. Ordinary wood turns black with flame, orange to read with heat, and then a bright lovely white as the fire inside is consumed. We spread it on the fields, and it helps the plants grow larger and stronger. I thought of the tales of Gregor and wondered if some of his magic was found in these scorched salts, and perhaps if they would work equally well on mushrooms. I only wished that I could learn more than the collection of stories available from the village.
“That’s enough, Gape,” said Father. “Toss another log on and let it be.”
I nodded and did as instructed.
“If this weather keeps up, it’ll be winter before you can build your hut. Digging in hard ground isn’t the easiest. You can nest with us for another season if you like.”
“I’ll do it.” I had no fear of cold or work. “I wonder about the nomads. How do they keep on in the winter without a place to store food?”
“As long as they stay away from our village, I care not.” said Father. “They survive by raiding and stealing from people who work hard. They’re jealous of us for our polite sharing of food with each other, and they’d rob us of it in a moment if they could.”
“Are they that aggressive?” I asked.
“Aggressive? Wild as a momma wood rat, I’d say. But I don’t think there are many around anymore. Haven’t seen any of them since you were a baby.”
“What are they like otherwise? I’ve heard they’re short.”
“Short, stocky, savage. A small group won’t attack a village, but there were nearly twenty of them in the last band. Twenty hungry bellies, following one of our best harvests. They hid out there by the wood line for days, sneaking in at night and raiding the fresh stores. We thought it was the smashers stealing extra until one of the hunters spotted them.”
“And the hunters drove them off?” Hunters were marksman and killers. They didn’t carry spears and axes like the rest. They wielded bows capable of striking down even large animals at range.
“The hunters?” Father squinted. “They helped. I cut down one of the raiders. If I hadn’t you wouldn’t be here. They fight with stones and sticks, crude clubs, and occasionally an axe or hammer. It only takes killing one or two of them to drive the rest of the pack away. Bloody animals, they are.”
“The hunters didn’t kill any?”
“You’re obsessed with that bow of yours. It won’t earn you a decent crop, and you’ll be begging for food by next winter. Let them hunt their game and demand extra for their efforts. The meat isn’t worth nearly what they’ll take for it, and everyone knows it. They’re one step from becoming raiders themselves.”
I watched the quiet blue flickers that lifted low from the hottest embers, trying not to provoke another argument. Bubbling started in the pots, and the steam lifted up and out through a small hole in the roof. Another wave of tiny raindrops could be heard through the main opening of the hut, as they battered against leaves and weeds softly.
Father wouldn’t approve of my joining the hunters, but I intended to make him see the light. Most of the year, rainwater and sunshine did the necessary work in a field, and I knew that even a small field could provide enough crops for a man. I would be a tame hunter, planting and weeding between hunts. I knew that fields attracted animals, even game, and I had a plan to domesticate a happy hunting ground in the same manner that Gregor domesticated wild grasses.
I looked Father in the eyes. His face had softened after the brash comment. “I don’t hate the hunters, but they’re a remnant from the past. We can trap all the animals we need for meat right here. We no longer need to go chasing wild elk, and the threat of invaders is all but gone. The few wandering groups that remain have probably scattered back to the north where they came from, and they’re smart enough to avoid civilized culture. For you, I think it would be better to spend your time productively and think about raising a family instead of going off on adventures in the forest.”
“I understand. Do you think some of the raiders started to grow their own grain and make their own villages? Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen them.”
He shrugged. Father approached and knelt beside me near the fire. He put an arm around my shoulders and told me a story.
A long time ago, people would hide their food. They would stash nuts, berries, grains, dried meat and anything else that would keep in hollowed trees or buried in the earth. Sometimes, they would forget where they buried the stuff, and come spring, new plants would spring up anew. After a while, they marked the locations of such dense food plots and dropped new seed after the harvest. These were the first farms. No matter how far they roamed, they knew what time of year to return to which area and find food. The connection between seeds and harvest developed naturally out of that. Swifts will do the same upon stealing grain from the fields.
Nobody invented farming. It was something which came natural to us. Permanent homes in especially bountiful places with fertile soil made for permanent habitats after food plots had been established and allowed to spread. This land was of such abundance that there was no need to continue roaming. We stopped following the birds and beasts north in the summertime, and devoted our efforts to staying in one place, consuming less energy, and living an easier life. Keeping cool in the summer and warm on winter nights was a new challenge that we invented after settling, to remain near such abundance.
Those who choose to continue roaming were among the defectors from Zielle’s settlement. They follow their own practices, and their own law. I don’t imagine they will ever choose to settle willingly. They are now outnumbered, and choose to stray far from civilized grounds. Like the angry long-snooted ravagers that tear through the countryside in search of game and meat, they’ll only approach a village when they’ve resorted to theft and war to stave of the threat of starvation that comes from their primitive ways.
Those who abandon Zielle’s tribe will find themselves lost and alone in the wilderness with nothing to eat.
By the time he had finished, the soup was boiling. Father and Mother took their portions first, leaving me the rest. I ate quickly and retired to my nest of hay near the back of the hovel. The following day would be a long one. The merchants would be arriving, and I planned to ask him about reading and writing.