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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nineteen: Maturity

At the ten year celebration of the founding of Falling Spring and Mumbros territory, all of the founders were feted with a week-long feast on the commons between the boarding house for singles and the mill pond. There, where Moira, Ellen, and Joel had held their first picnic, a large pavilion had been constructed, open all around but with wind screens and a small raised platform at one end. Homemade tables and chairs had been set up to hold a fluctuating crowd, and the celebration featured mountains of food, homemade fireworks, music, and dancing, with a few rousing speeches thrown in for good measure. The week of festivities worked itself up to a final day of praises honoring the first family and others who had made notable contributions to the community.

After all the speeches had been offered and a dozen or more toasts raised, the children and betweens were freed to regroup on the lawn in front of the singles house, where the frequent work parties were organized on ordinary days, and the youngsters began several games at once, the aims of which seemed chiefly to be to fall into giggling piles at intervals.

While some older folks elected to retire for the evening, most of the adults settled into small clumps at various tables and told stories, shared ideas and rested from their busy schedules. It was, after all, the season of planting plants and seedlings, readying the vegetable beds, and tilling the lower fields. Every year the rising population demanded more attention to food crops, while commerce demanded higher production of trade goods, including the increasing variety of products they had learned to make from the hemp plant. But not this week. By turns, the founders had told their stories of how this place came to be – the sacrifices, the threats, and the joys of meeting new arrivals. Even the various new animal arrivals were celebrated.

At a quiet corner of the dais, Moira and Ellen relaxed over yet another glass of wine and watched the younger ones at play. But they both looked preoccupied and each continued to scan the crowd uneasily.

“Do you feel that?” Ellen finally asked.

Moira nodded, her face drawn from listening intently. “Something’s not right. But I can’t quite get a grip on it. Some kind of trouble. Not a threat, at least not in the usual sense.”

“Not quite here, but not a long way off, either,” Ellen added.

Moira roused herself. “I think I’ll have a stroll down to the gate and see if there’s something or somebody incoming who’s in distress. I’m sure there’s a watch, but with all this ruckus going on they may be distracted by the festivities.”

“Don’t be long, or I’ll worry,” Ellen said, giving Moira’s arm a squeeze.

Moira turned and smiled. She nodded toward the children at play. “I’ll take one of those little rabbits with me,” she said. “If it’s something important, I’ll send ‘em back on the run.” As she walked away, Ellen watched her relaxed, confident stride and noticed some others watching and smiling. The ten years seemed to have gone by in an instant, but it was an instant filled with a wealth of memories. And in all of them, Moira was always the first one willing to take on any task without fear and without failing.

“I don’t have to ask what she’d risk for this place, or even if she’d kill for it, or for me,” she thought, watching her disappear into the night. “She already has.”

She felt more than heard someone approach and looked up to smile at Joel.

“They’re sure making a fuss over us all,” he said softly, smiling back. “It’s a little embarrassing for me, because I was just a kid when the really hard work was done.”

“It’s embarrassing for all of us, Joel,” she said. “We were all just doing what we had to do to live. That’s still going on, so we shouldn’t be singled out just for getting here first.”

“Well, it was Moira who made it possible,” he said. “I still get chills when I think about those times.”

Ellen nodded. “Me too,” she said. We’d have died if she hadn’t stepped in.”

“Or worse,” Joel said, his tone bitter.

“Speaking of stepping in,” Ellen said as a thought struck her. “I hear you’re thinking of stepping out on us.”

He shook his head vigorously. “Not for a good long while,” he said. “Not to worry. I’m nowhere near being finished with my house, and there’s at least another couple years, maybe more, on getting those singles cabins finished. Moira and Glen want them strung all the way up the hill. By the time that’s finished, I’ll be way into the advanced tracking program that Glen is offering. I’m not going out there until I’m ready. And I’d like those who’re thinking of going with me to be ready as well. We’ve got to tackle that Northern Edge someday. But the kinds of tales coming out of that place make me shudder to think about it. I wouldn’t go if anyone else could come up with a map of that coast. But nobody has so far.”

Ellen nodded agreement, and they each wandered off into their own thoughts. Joel was humming a tune faintly, and she recognized the sound of distant strings. Someone at the far end of the pavillion near the open fireplace had brought out a guitar, and another picked up a flute. Old Mr. Langston was gone but both of his grandsons had learned his music, and they both reached for their fiddles and began to play. After a moment Joel stood, went across to the players and joined in on his penny whistle. Ellen was drawn to the soft, melancholy music and moved her chair to sit closer. She had almost drifted off to sleep when her eight-year-old son Ranier padded up softly. He was out of breath from running.

“Mama, Moira said you’re to grab Alice and come up to the keep right away. A family has come in and they’re all sick with something. Toby’s brought a wagon, and they’re going to try to get them up there without letting anybody else near them. She said tell you she doesn’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”

Ellen thanked him and told him to go wash his hands and to not say anything to the others. Looking across the room, she spied Alice deep in conversation with her mate. Trying to be discreet, she hurried over and placed a hand on Alice’s arm.

“We need you up top,” she said in a low voice. When Alice nodded and made to continue her conversation, Ellen leaned closer. “I’m sorry. It can’t wait.”

When they got to the wide road leading to the keep, Toby was coming down and offered them a ride, but Ellen refused. “Take that rig down to the river and give it a good scrub. And you too,” she ordered as he hurried away.

At first glance, it appeared to be influenza but of a kind not seen by anyone among the caregivers. Fever, cough, and stomach upset were to be expected. But the diarrhea was uncontrollable, and of the family of six, one child died in the middle of that first night. The grandfather was too weak from vomiting to take in anything, even water, and he succumbed the next afternoon. The remaining two children and their parents, dosed with endless water containing all the natural remedies available, began to stabilize but not to improve. On the evening of the second day, Annie came in from a wildcrafting expedition with Tish, her arms loaded with greenery to be analyzed. She was surprised to have such an abundance of company in the not often so busy infirmary next to her lab. After stowing her supplies she came back to have a look. She was beginning to look more like her actual advanced age but was still sharp mentally.

She felt one fevered brow and then another, then turned to Moira, who had been standing watch over the patients almost nonstop and who filled her in on the details. “You need to get some rest, sweetie,” Annie said. “You don’t look much better than them. I don’t suppose you collected any stool samples for me to check?”

“They’re in the lab waiting for you. But I’m not leaving until we figure this thing out. Moira said. “It doesn’t make any sense for the diarrhea to continue this long.”

“True. It’s almost like they have more than one thing,” Annie observed. “Did you have a chance to ask any of them if they’ve been around anyone with similar symptoms?”

“No. So far they’ve all been too out of it.”

But as she spoke, the older woman raised her head slightly and asked for water.

“Do you feel up to answering some questions?” Moira asked as she brought a cup and held the woman’s head up so she could drink.

“If you think it will help,” was the weak reply.

“It might. We’re still trying to figure out what’s the matter with you.”

“We thought it was just a cold or a bit of the flu,” the woman said. “There was a lot of sickness when we came through Buren. But nothing like this. We stopped for a night to rest, but the next day, everyone got worse. We didn’t know if we could make it here, or if you’d let us in if we did.”

“Where did you stop. Was there anyone else there?”

“No, Ma’am. It was an abandoned farm. We thought we might get some water from their well, but the electricity was off and we couldn’t work the pump. We ended up just filling our canteens from the pond. It didn’t taste very good, so we didn’t drink much.”

“Did you think to boil it,” Annie asked.

The woman shook her head. “The fire was already out, and it was raining. It was just too much work to build another.”

Moira sighed, nodded and looked across the bed at Annie, who had looked up at the same time. They had likely found the second cause of the sickness. It was a near certainty the family had contracted cholera, or something near to it, from the contaminated pond water. The two met at the foot of the bed and started to discuss treatment, but then Moira wobbled and had to sit down.

Annie reached over and put a hand on Moira’s brow. “Headache,?” she enquired.

“Yeah. How did you … oh hell. I tried to be so careful. But this really feels like the flu.”

Annie led her to a cot in the far corner of the infirmary. “You just better hope you didn’t get exposed to the other,” she said softly. “The best medicine is sleep, so you get at it. I’ll keep the watch. And I’ll get a culture going to verify the infection, so we know what we might have that could help them through it.”

Within a few days, the scare was past, although everyone working at the village infirmary got a crash course in the disposal of hazardous wastes. Moira, too, recovered from her bout of illness, and was soon back at work. She noted, though, that she was beginning to feel her age and every setback seemed harder to snap back from. It took a near tragic fall about a year later to make her realize that not only was she not immortal but that she had better put more focus on passing on her skills and knowledge than just in employing them.

She’d been up with the early watch, helping ready a work crew that would mend fences along the river that had been ripped up by spring floods. They’d be working with lots of old rusty barbed wire, and she had made sure they were outfitted in heavy leather gloves and other gear, even though the day would be warm and humid. Cuts made by rusted metal could foil all their medical skills, as tetanus vaccine was in short supply and what little they had was risky, since even with refrigeration it was very outdated. So she’d breakfasted with them in the singles dorm kitchen, and had returned there after their send off to grab a second cup of coffee and one of the cook’s famous sweet rolls. As she stood on the porch studying the early activities of a village that was just coming awake, she heard a shout coming from the mill and shielded her eyes from the low sun as she turned to see its cause. What she saw almost caused her to drop her cup. She set it carefully on the porch railing, leapt to the ground, and set off at a dead run.

Much of the mill’s operations had been improved over time but the mechanism itself still had parts dating back centuries. The wheel was overshot, driven by water from the spring’s outflow high in the middle of the bluff. When the wheel was stopped, the water was diverted by a flume, a wooden trough whose outer end could be swung out over the wheel so the water fell onto it at about a one-o’clock position. The falling water engaged with a series of buckets or enclosed paddles set at angles all around the outer circumference of the wheel, and by its weight the wheel was forced down and began to turn with some speed and force, thus driving implements and the grinding wheel. The flume was hinged, and was set free at the end of each workday so the stream of water fell directly into the millpond. Each morning it was the task of the miller’s devil, or apprentice, to climb to the top floor of the mill and, using a rope tied to the end of the flume, pull it over and anchor it in place, using a knot tied near the end of the thick hemp rope that when pulled tight fitted into a notch cut into the frame of the large square opening at the top of the wheel and flume. The wheel would then turn until the flume was released. A simple but dangerous design, especially when put into operation.

This morning the rope had apparently slipped from the apprentice’s hands and was dangling from the end of the flume with water cascading over it into the millpond. Another helper had gone into the pond, had retrieved its frazzled end and was climbing up the side of the wheel with the rope in a loop over his shoulder. Meanwhile the apprentice had climbed out onto the wheel and was reaching down for him. Unfortunately, unobserved by the climbers, the flume was being dragged slowly back toward the wheel by the weight of the wet rope. The situation was rife with opportunities for disaster, Moira could see. She could also see, as she came closer, that neither of the men could hear the miller’s warning shouts over the din of falling water. Neither seemed to realize their peril, for if the water reached the wheel, or if either man varied from his balance at the wheel’s exact center, they would be dashed to the rocks or thrown into the channel into which the wheel spun.

She passed the miller at a run and was up the steep steps as though a real devil was behind her. But she’d come up with a plan while running, and she grabbed up a long-handled garden hoe from outside the mill’s doorway as she ran.

“Harley,” she shouted. “Come in.” He turned and shook his head.

“I’ve got to get the rope.”

She pointed to the flume, which was still inching toward them, and showed him the long handled implement.

“Let me come out past you and I’ll hold the flume away while you bring the rope inside.”

He nodded and stood up straight, so she could crawl out between his legs and not put the wheel off balance. She came out, hoe first, and planted its broad side against the flume. By that time the helper, a lad named Galen, had come high enough to swing the rope end skyward, where Harley reached out and caught it. All would have been well then, for Harley, holding the very end of the rope, eased himself back inside the window, and Galen started clambering back down the side of the wheel. But Galen wasn’t watching where he put his hands, and the left one came down solidly on a wasps’ nest. He screamed and flung himself away from the wheel, and as he did, he pushed away from the center and the wheel began to turn.

Moira saw his action and felt the wheel began to roll forward. As it did, she lost purchase on the flume and it began to swing toward her. If she remained where she was, she would either be pinned between the flume and the side of the mill or be tossed into the narrow channel beneath the wheel. She had only seconds to decide. She scrambled up and, as the flume came in on her and caught the spring’s outflow, she dove straight into the channel of the flume itself and was spit out like a mere matchstick, over the wheel and past it, kicking at the nearest bucket as she passed to deflect her path. She missed being pulled into the channel by inches, but where she landed, just in front of the wheel, the water was not deep enough to break her fall. She went in flat, face down, with her arms crossed in front of her face. It was all that saved her.

She retained no memory of the fall, or of the many hands that lifted her gently but swiftly from the water and carried her in a litter up the hill to the infirmary. She awoke, hours after bones were splinted, cuts were bandaged, and the excitement had died down, to the light of a candle and Ellen’s soft breathing in the chair next to her. She thought at first her companion was asleep, but no.

“If you ever do anything like that again, I swear to god I’ll shoot you,” Ellen said, emotion in her tone.

“I’m not sure there’s enough left of me to do it again,” she answered. “What’re the damages?”

“Wrist, three ribs, and a concussion, to start. Several inches of skin and a little blood. And your superwoman badge. You’ve been demoted to ordinary human. I just can’t believe you. What were you thinking?’

“I was thinking they didn’t see what was happening and they wouldn’t be able to stop the wheel from turning and at least one of them was going to die. I couldn’t stand it.”

Ellen choked out a laugh that was partly a sob. “How did you think I was going to stand it if you killed yourself out there, Missy! I can’t lose you. None of us can. We’ve lost too much. You just can’t …” she stopped talking and wept openly, until Moira reached out and pulled her close. She didn’t speak until Ellen had quieted.

“I’m sorry I frightened you. But I took the job. And there’s no retirement plan. I’m in it for the duration.”

“Yeah,” said Ellen with a sigh as she sat back and rubbed her eyes. “Me too. But maybe we could consider slowing down a little.”

Moira chuckled. “I could go for that. I could start right now.” They laughed. Within minutes, the two were asleep, hands clasped, dreaming about days to come.

The next morning, after breakfast, the children arrived. They’d had five between them in those early years, Ellen three and Moira two, and each was poised to take up a chore that their mothers had been responsible for. Jared, the oldest, had a list, he said, and would be willing to take advice as to which was suited for what job. Any of them, he said, would certainly be willing to be trained. But there would be no No answers. And so they agreed, and everyone, even six-year old Aidan, set off with a chore to do.

This was not the only, nor the worst, to befall the family that year. That autumn, as Moira sat outside the Keep taking a break from prepping herbs to dry, she felt a deep ache, not quite physical, and for which there was no apparent cause. Then she looked up to see Joel stumbling up the path, obviously upset and exhausted, his dusty face tracked with sweat and tears. As he came before her, he met her eyes and then looked away, fighting to hold back sobs.

“Who?” Moira demanded, a chill clutching at her neck as her breath stopped.

“It’s Steven,” he said. And then his knees buckled, his face contorted. “He was down in the far pasture, looking for a cow that was ready to calve. He heard the cow scream, and ran to help. The pigs. They had the calf, and he – he just didn’t think. He tried to save it, and – and they took him down. They cut him bad, and he tried to run, but he was losing too much blood. He was trying to get back, but he was too far away. Lucky someone saw him just as he fell, or he’d still be out there. But it was too late. He bled out. He’s gone, momma. He’s gone.” The young man collapsed at her knee and wept as he had not done those long years since his arrival. Moira stroked his hair as her own tears coursed.
Then Glen and Ellen arrived riding double on Glen’s horse, Willy.

At her questioning look, Glen said, “Eldon and Ray are bringing him up on the wagon. We thought to put him up here until, well, until we figure what to do.”

“I know what to do first,” said Moira in a calm voice. “I want those pigs dead, every goddam one in that band. Drag them out far enough into the woods where their pals can find them. Make it plain, piss on their heads. Let them know you murder a human and you die. I think they’re smart enough now to take the point. Then we’ll call in the town and bury our friend.”

So it was done, and they rallied, and the years continued to pass, with Moira healing, mostly, and everything in her realm moving just about the same. Only, as she had promised Ellen, a little slower.

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