The morning is dark and clear, moved only by the clamour of many, molasses-slow bodies fighting the early chill. The barn is quiet, save for the murmurs of horses and cattle, stirred up by the yowling of a pregnant cat.
Walling in the camp, the forest is always loud. The trees fill all hours of the day with the rumble of their leaves flicking greedy, green tongues at the brightening horizon.
Though the sun can only weakly comb its fingers through the tents, the people of the camp quicken to their station. With the fast approaching day comes the day's chores.
As the children spill together in search of firewood, the troops gather packs of stale bread and gunpowder in stained fabric sacks. Their faces are grim, so all can feel the waxy layer of fear that sticks to the morning dew.
The kitchen workers, spurred on by the smaller children’s enthusiasm and flanked by Mavis, follow Shusterman into the kitchen. Mavis, in her sleek, black glory, chooses instead to skulk around the barn and scout for rats.
The wild screeches of dawn creatures are cut off as the kitchen door is pulled shut.
First slivers of onion and carrot fly, then comes the quick flash of a silver blade before chunks of horse and rat meat are tossed into the slow-bubbling stew. Through billows of tangy steam, large but careful hands move mounds of potato into more manageable piles, working in tandem with smaller hands that divvy up the remaining bucket of broth with a cautious ladle.
Aside from the gurgling of the pot and the sound of warm water sluicing over dirty dishes, the kitchen is blissfully quiet. Briefly, a muted but jarring shriek echoes from down the hall, but those in the kitchen relax again at the subsequent laughter. The workers meet the screeching with howling of their own and fervent clanging of metal pans until the head cook, dwarfed from where she stands alongside Shusterman, cocks a challenging eyebrow.
“Now, isn’t a little early in the morn for such behavior? I would have though the lot of you nothing but children.” She says, smiling slyly and mindlessly dicing the fish that were not immediately salted. “I thought I had taught you all better than that.” Contrite looks from the staff follow, much to the head cook’s glee. “That is how respectful adults act, especially in front of the little ones.” She turns and gives Shusterman a gentle pat on the cheek. Her fingers smell like fish and rust. “Such a good, kind boy you are. My son was like you. He’s off now, traveling the world. What's left of it anyway.”
The head cook’s laugh is harsh with work and age, but it dispels the press of tension in the room. Around them, the workers return to their tasks, so she risks a kiss to Shusterman’s cheek. Her hair smells like pine and smoke.
The two of them are quiet then, but work does not continue in silence. Songs of mountains and oceans are whistled through the chapped lips of the cleaning crew, with choruses telling of cool waters on overheated skin and the freezing winds of the Western mountain ridge. Rough hands move in steady rhythm to keep pace with the patter of rain off the tin roof, and eyes grow sharp as the kitchen fills with sun, weakened by dark clouds.
The stew is almost finished when the door is thrown open in a gust of cool breath and the squealing of rusted hinges.
The commander, almost swallowed by a burst of iron rust flakes, stands tall in the doorway. Dark in mood and skin, her eyes find Shusterman looming in the far corner.
She moves carefully, either in awareness of his mood or mindful of a recent wound, Shusterman cannot tell. He bites back both the question and the small tick of concern with ferocity.
William, who was diligently peeling off the mottled skins of carrots and collecting the scraps for the livestock in a small pail, quickly darts away, but not without a deep bow to the commander.
It was the commander- Cassandra, as Shusterman had known her then, the both of them no older than sixteen -who had found William, his lips blue and eyes closed. She had stopped, listening again for the raspy breathing of a half-dead babe, cradled in the cold arms of his mother. Shusterman had been the one to push the craggy slab of concrete off of his mother, letting the blinding sun spill onto William’s slack face.
After his sixth summer in the camp, William insisted on sleeping in a separate bed, though he gave not a thought to ever sleeping without the commander in reach should night terrors come.
The other workers have gone quiet, but quick hands move crates and cut portions of supplies with engrossment, though it is transparently fake. A dozen ears tilt in the direction of the commander and Shusterman. Even the head cook hums in false disinterest as she cuts a glare towards the commander, chopping off the heads of fresh cod with a little too much vigor. The glassy-eye fish watch on with honest indifference.
There is a heavy pause where Shusterman can feel sharp eyes cutting strips of skin from his bones with impersonal flicks of scrutiny. The commander- Cassandra, a voice whispers, lilting with simpering tinge of melancholy -sighs and straightens, her mouth a hard and tired slant.
“The troops wish to make move for the farther reaches of the canyon.” She says, pulling a map from her breast pocket and pinching the worn fabric between forefinger and thumb to indicate the passage. “They will need more food. Enough salted meats, bread, and nuts to sustain them for several weeks. We will need anything you can spare.” She punctuates the plea with a careful pause. “Please.”
Against his better judgement, Susterman considers the condition of the camp, though he is careful to betray no outer twitch of feeling. In truth, any supplies bought at the beginning of the month had been quickly diminished from civilian mouths alone. Fresh meat from cattle and pigs had filled bellies for a mere week, with the bread soon disappearing in droves of insatiable fingers next, until even the vegetable gardens were ravaged for whatever sustenance could be found. By the current day, all that was left was thin broth, shrunken vegetables, and tough morsels of meat stripped from an injured horse. The children had even begun trapping rats, skinning knobby knees on the splintered floorboards of the barn as they chased the vermin to and fro.
When Shusterman fails to respond, the commander scrubs a calloused hand over her face.
“Henry-” She interrupts herself with a bitter laugh. “Shusterman, I need this. The ruins near the route are fresh, there will be survivors. They will know which way the scourge moves.” Hope sticks like pine sap to her voice. He can see it in her eyes.
Shusterman surprises himself again. “It will take a few days to run inventory.”
And so, with a muted look of surprise from both ends, preparations are made.
When Shusterman returns to his tent for the night, long after the sun had escaped the split of the western mountain crest, he reflects.
It had taken fourteen hours to properly set the supplies for the troops. Shusterman had sliced, diced, and packed enough food to last a hundred men for the better part of a month, all with the slight bitter tang of anger on his tongue. He had been livid at each hunk of meat, each moldy loaf of bread. He had been so furious that the other kitchen workers cast him worried looks in a round.
But through his anger, he could think.
Shusterman knows what the commander needs of him, so he is sure to pack the best of the meats and grains for himself.
When they leave it is still pitch black, lit only by the dozen oil lamps clenched in the tight-knuckled hands of the younger troops.
Shusterman walks with the commander, keeping to her fast pace in an effort not to nod off. He is used to rising with the sun, but the moon seems barely risen as they move west.
They walk for miles, slicing over-reaching foliage with swords thin as wire. With each step the sky grows brighter.
When midday hits, the commander stops them to water the horses and to give the troops’ sore feet a rest. The oil lamps had been put away once they could see more than five feet in front of them, but in the blazing sun Shusterman can see many without shoes. Those barefoot have soles smeared with red and brown.
The commander and him do not speak often. Sometimes talk of the troops’ direction, or evident bad weather, or jaded horses is exchanged. Such words grow less and less as the near the passage. Soon even the more boisterous troops quiet as the oppressive thickness of the scourge is felt tickling the hair on their arms and necks.
The weeks blend together in a haze of green. Shusterman walks and eats in a steady routine that leaves room for no more thought than that of rest.
He hunts once, downing a deer with the help of one of the commander’s officers. Cassandra had smiled gently when they returned, the young buck slung over Shusterman’s broad shoulders. He found himself returning it with a surprising lack of reluctance.
Shusterman grows content with the discomfort, so when they reach the pass, he is unprepared.
The ruins are fresh, as the commander had said, and Shusterman is no stranger to death and blood, yet the sight still turns his stomach.
Besides the cascades of rubble from collapsed buildings and the eerie whistles of wind through broken windows, the narrowed streets are filled with blood. Crimson is smeared on bodies, splattered on walls, and pooled in the cracks in the pavement. Men, women, and children, all open-eyed and stinking of rot.
The smell travels with the breeze up to Shusterman’s perch with the commander, making some of the troops gag, others grimace.
The commander gives those weaker in constitution a few moments to gather themselves, then marches them down the hillside.
They spend the day inspecting the ruins, calling out for those huddled under bodies or trapped beneath a sheet of brick. Shusterman’s voice, without much use at the camp, is hoarse after a few hours of increasingly desperate shouts. For all of the troops’ zeal, they find no one.
And by the time they can feel the chill in the air, there is nowhere to escape.
The scourge is upon them by dusk.