Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Codex Kalachnikova Preview #3: The Cache
The Bushido lords would never admit it, but there were several unofficial methods of avoiding the test of the Hand or Heart. The most common, of course, was to die in the wastelands during the Test of the Stomach. Others, such as Bartholomew, managed to prove their worth to the Angels and joined them instead. Some fled to the city of NYE, to make a life as best they can. And others simply found a good water source and settled their, founding their own tiny household. For the most part, they were left alone; there was no time limit on the Test of the Stomach, after all. But should they prove successful in the harsh school of wasteland survival, find wives, sire bastards, and had a usefull skill or craft for trade, they often became minor lords in their own right. Some were powerful and successful, some single households eking out a living in the wastes, but all were technically called lords. After a generation or two (or more, in the lands of the Codex Bushido, where bloodlines and honor were a more prickly matter) they were generally allowed to swear fealty to a major lord and gain a measure of acceptance and protection. In return, they had to abide by the appropriate Codex-and come in force should their lord call the banners.
The Scum Lord spent perhaps a quarter of an hour preparing documents. He selected a few wax tablets, thin sheets of beeswax embedded in exquisitely polished hardwood frames. Each was embossed on the outside with the lord’s personal chop (a kalach outlined in black) and to each of his minor lords he drafted them a simple message: Owsla (the formal, ancient word for militia) has been called. Come with all your strength. The tablets were not that large, and to write too small risked the message being obliterated in the saddlebag. Thus, there were no pleasantries; those he would save for the formal documents that would be signed by his lords on arrival. Carefully he secured the wooden covers in place, sliding them into the cunning grooves wrought into the hardwood, and took them out to the courtyard, where Bart had ten Angels mounted and waiting.
Good men-I don’t see any fresh bruises, so he didn’t have to stomp them to ensure compliance. He handed each a tablet. These were old Angels, faces he recognized; they knew the lands as well as he did so he did not need to explain the route; he merely informed them where each tablet was to be sent. As he watched them turn their snuffling hawgs and ride off in different directions, he lit another smoke and sighed. I must speak to the Artificer Lord first, to see if he can keep that damnable sky carriage running. He heard Hyzenthlay approach behind him, and turned to smile at her. There was a large wax tablet in her hand.
“My lord, I have a detailed inventory of the deep larder, if you would have it,” she said, and held out the tablet.
“Summarize it for me, darling; I must prepare to ride out to the Hive.” That made her frown; there was always a risk when approaching the Hive, where stinging bees guarded their lands and honey with vicious abandon. But she continued nonetheless.
“Wet goods in the top cellar were devastated by the flames; virtually all the potatoes and apples were lost as well as the hanging meats. But the dry goods-jerky, grains, some dried fruit and nuts…almost everything in the second cellar survived. We may have to subsist on grain for a year or two, but…” The consorts mouth tightened dangerously as she finished “…with fewer mouths to feed, we should be able to survive.”
Khalid put an arm around her and offered her a drag from his cigarette. “Well done, my lady. What about water?” Water was the most important; it was impossible to improvise.
“The well was untouched, my lord, as was the armory. Only the upper larder was lost.” She took the cigarette to him and handed him the tablet in its place. “You will find details here. I must help the Mamas with their morning chores.” She kissed him, daring to linger a moment, and then strode out the gate towards the Angel camp. Interesting. She would have never had contact with the Angel Mamas before. The Scum Lord found the idea of sharing his women with other men distasteful, but he knew the Angels often felt the same about women sharing a man. It was noteworthy to see that the women got along anyway.
Bereft of his cigarette, he rolled another and started out at a walk for the cellar door. He stopped for a long moment in the doorway. The stench of burned flesh was still present; his eyes were stinging as he stepped down the wooden stairs into cool darkness. He did not take a light of any kind, both because he did not want to see the scorch marks on the walls where his family had perished and because he knew these tunnels well enough that light was not needed.
The cellars below this holdfast were actually a series of gently sloping, zigzag tunnels that went down in three levels. The first went all the way under the holdfast walls and came out just on the other side, where a large flat rock masked an escape tunnel. This cellar was wide and flat here, and wooden racks had once lined the walls. He turned off somewhere in the middle and went down a second staircase. The second tunnel sloped sharper, and went down and out at an angle oblique to the first tunnel. It contained endless plasteek buckets, leftover from the founders of this house, where they stored dried grains, fruit, meat and nuts. Amaranth grew wild out on the Tex Arcane, and was a common food for the region, and he had close to a thousand bucket’s worth stored here, untouched by the flame. It will be bread and porridge for a year, but we will not starve.
Somewhere close to the end of this tunnel, which curved around the well and ended under the bell tower, he moved a couple of empty buckets aside and came upon the entrance to the third level. In pitch darkness he descended the ladder, avoiding a tripwire he had dodged so many times it was practically an old friend, one wired to another of the family claymores. The Scum Lords of old did not care for intruders in the armory. The vertical tunnel was barely wider than his shoulders, and went much deeper than the others. It opened into a large stone cave shaped like the bowl of a spoon. He stopped there to light a lantern that hung on the wall, which brought the family armory into sharp relief.
Here were some of the holdfast’s most ancient treasures, claymores and kalaches and sharp blades and armor, all organized neatly on racks. Ammo of all stripes hung on belts, filled more buckets, and there was a great pile of kalach round casings next to his bench to be reloaded, the task he had been about when the Knife Priestess had delivered her ultimatum. The Lord was interested only in the great ring of keys that hung on a hemp strap beneath the ten mile cannon, an ancient weapon nestled comfortably in a dull green crate that read M20 75MM RECOILLESS RIFLE - PROPERTY OF US NATIONAL PARK SERVICE in the script of the old people. He picked up the ring of keys and slung them about his neck. Stepping over a pile of dusty artillery shells, the Scum Lord blew out the lantern and made his way up the ladder again.
Bart met him in the courtyard, already mounted, with twenty more Angels at his back, all armed with picks and shovels. About half the hawgs dragged towing sledges, the cunning wooden runners by which the Angels towed their plunder. “We ride for the weapons, my lord?” he said, reigning in his hawg as it snuffled after a chicken.
“Aye, Mr. President, presently.” Keenly feeling his lack of a horse, he mounted up behind the club president. Talia was looking at him from the rooftop garden; he waved at her as they rode out.
After nearly three and a half hours of hard riding-Blind stinking sky gods, but hawgs are slow-they came upon their destination, far north of the holdfast. The land flattened out here by degrees, and the copses of trees were becoming rarer. The land of the wild hawg was drawing to an end, and the land of the horse beginning-horses were one of the few animals that could simply outrun the hawg, and no trees pressed close enough for ambush. North, the great plain of grass extended as far as even his sharp eyes could see, swaying in the gentle easterly wind. It smelled strongly of a storm, as most west blowing winds did. He cautioned Bart to have his men take caution with their cigarettes; a small blaze out here could spell death for a dozen households.
Their destination was a colossal mound of heaped wax and dirt, nearly ten feet high, sculpted by the constant labor of generations of bees. They could see the insects in the air frequently, great fat black things the size of a man’s closed fist that not even hawgs dared to trifle with, no matter how sweet the honey was. The sting from one of these monsters would swell the skin until it split and cause a week’s worth of howling agony. The Angels kept a wary eye on the bees overhead as they swung down to dismount.
First they gathered a great pile of brush and grass, while the Scum Lord checked the prevailing winds by trailing a hemp leaf on a piece of twine. He watched it for the better part of half an hour, then selected a site for the bonfire. It was close to perfect; there was a small depression there that would aid their efforts. They built up the fire quickly, mindful of the droning insects.
Harvesting honey was risky enough business, but this was more than a simple honey harvest. The cache had been placed here and the holdfast’s founders had built their beehives over it-but ancient bees were weak, not suitable to survive in this god blind age, and the Scum Lord wasn’t sure that his ancestors had reckoned on them becoming such monsters to survive. Then again, maybe we all become monsters to survive in such a world. Or maybe we were monsters all along. The bees were confused, crawling over the hive, the smoke making them slow and unable to fly. It was then that the Angels moved in, with picks and shovels ready-and Khalidrah followed with his ring of keys.
He snapped orders as if they were his own men-“You, here, you, here, you two, here and here.” He had not done this for many years, not since his own father had checked on the cache in his youth. The dig sites were marked with small yellow stones, half buried. It was a dangerous task, and there was no back talk. The men were motivated by simple necessity-dally overlong, and risk an agonizing death.
Soon they had unearthed four great plasteek chests the size of beds, each one tightly locked and painted a different color. They were towed away on hawg sledges, and the Scum Lord knelt next to each and checked the contents. His friend hovered just behind him, a mixture of nervousness and anticipation on his scarred face.
“Rifles,” said Bart, and the lord nodded.
“Moseens. Old even by the standards of most weapons. And bayonets. They will serve your Angels well.” He took out one of the weapons, caked in dark grease, and worked the action with some effort. Then he tossed the crude weapon to the President, who caught it and shoved the rust spike bayonet in place. Then he grinned.
“Suitable for my men anyway. You see that, you god-blind fucks? Stick ‘em with the pointy end!” His Angels roared with laughter at that, and he tossed the rifle to one of the men in turn. The Scum Lord went to the next chest, which contained ammunition, and then checked the final two, which contained a wide assortment of other weapons and accessories-including, most precious of all, fifty kalach magazines, of the plasteek variety that holdfasters called Circle Tens. But the rifles were the true prize; such would make the Angels capable at greater ranges, and increase their effectiveness against body armor, compared to the scatterguns they usually wielded. The moseens were crude, not terribly accurate, and slow to fire and reload even compared to other bolt actions-but they were rifles. The length of the weapon will allow them to serve for lances at least. Bayonets fixed will make for a terrifying cavalry charge. The thought made him grin; he was picturing a herd of pale, spindly Knifeborn vaqueros spitted on bayonet points as they were ridden down by Angels. It was a satisfying image.