In the morning, the armed and ready group walked slowly toward the mass of people and paused only briefly when they were seen. They started to walk again when it appeared they were seen and ignored.
“I was going to mention this gathering of humans,” Mingus said quietly to Lockhart. “I guess it slipped my mind.”
Oddly enough, Lockhart was not angry. He fully expected the elder elf to lie or withhold information, if for no other reason than because he was an elf. But he had been taught by the Kairos in years past that once a Little One gave friendship, it was solid. He could only hope.
As they neared, they began to see the gaunt faces of the people. Ragged, well-worn animal skins barely clung to some of the people. Others were simply naked and on many of them the ribs showed to indicate their hunger. The eyes of many were empty, like they had lost all sense of what it meant to be human – what it meant to have hope. Still, they labored. Lockhart noticed the men dragged trees from further and further afield, and he noticed the great pit that had to be a quarter mile wide from which they dug clay with tools of stone and bone.
“Oh, the children.” Alexis spoke with concern. A pack of them gathered to see these strange new people. “Boston, give me some of the bread-crackers you have in your pack.” She reached one hand back but her focus was all on a grubby little girl in the front of the pack. Boston would have given them to her if Lockhart did not speak up.
“Don’t do that,” he commanded. “You will start a food riot.”
“Best to keep things hidden for now,” Mingus agreed.
“Absolutely,” Captain Decker seconded that agreement.
Alexis looked disappointed. She turned to Lincoln, her hand still out in search of bread. “Dear?”
Lincoln shook his head and gave a very practical answer. “We may need that food down the road. It isn’t for these people.” He held his breath as they walked straight into that mass of humanity. “I still say we should have gone around,” he mumbled, but one way was the clay pit, and the other offered no place to hide. Truth be told, they were all curious about what they might find.
They walked around most people who hardly gave them a glance. Some people stepped aside for them to pass and mumbled unintelligible words in their direction. Sometimes they had to walk a good bit to the side because there were fire pits everywhere, where men and women baked the clay into bricks, adding only a bit of grass or crumbled bark dragged in on the trees in order to hold the clay together.
“Straw would work better,” Lieutenant Harper spoke quietly, but as they looked around, there was only mud beneath their feet and it looked that way for miles. The earth had been stripped clean of every living thing and trampled under two million feet
They were near the mound in the center of it all. It had a tent on top, and was about half-way to the hill with the growing tower. That was when several men finally and deliberately blocked their way. They stopped. One man with skin the color of red clay and with big eyes, big hands and a big nose took a long whiff of air. He smiled after, showed all three of his teeth and said, “Mangot.” The man beside him said, “Golendiko.” The third man, one almost as big as Lockhart shouted “Clidirunna!”
Mingus tried to clean out his ears. Elves were gifted with the ability to hear and respond no matter what language was spoken, but he was getting none of it.
“I think they are trying to say food,” Roland said and he put his hand to his sword hilt but made no hostile move. The shouting was enough to attract a crowd, but the crowd still looked reluctant to touch the strangers.
“Keep moving.” Captain Decker urged them forward and at first the crowd parted, but before they could reach the actual mound the crowd closed in again. Lockhart could see over the heads of nearly everyone, and he saw the commotion had not drawn in more than fifty or so people.
“Make for the mound,” Lockhart said softly for fear the people would understand. They moved, but the crowd moved with them to block the way.
“Food!” Everyone spun around. Boston was at the back as usual and she threw a half-dozen bread-crackers over her shoulder, away from the mound. People shrieked and raced to fight over the morsels. Everyone got jostled. Lincoln got knocked to the ground, and Lockhart yelled.
“Everyone circle around Boston,”
“Lieutenant, opposite sides,” Captain Decker shouted. They circled up even as more people arrived to block their way. Eyes looked at Boston and wondered if there was more food where that came from.
“Serious damage going on here,” Lincoln pointed at the fight over Boston’s generosity.
“You mean you? You big baby.” Alexis was on the opposite side of the circle from her husband. She was next to her brother and faced the mound.
“Let us move together, as one body,” Mingus suggested. They did and the crowd backed up slowly. They got within ten yards of the mound before the crowd froze and would not budge.
Roland reached for his sword. “No, no.” Doctor Procter stayed the elf’s hand. “One act of violence on our part and we will be dog feed.”
“So we are in the red zone,” Lockhart said. “Any ideas as to how we score?”
“A quick shot over their heads?” Captain Decker suggested.
“Sudden moves and frightening sounds would not be a good idea,” Lieutenant Harper said. “Besides, they would not understand it.”
Alexis grabbed her brother’s hand. He looked at her with a curious expression as she spoke. “Split the herd.” And he nodded. They swung their hands, once, twice, three times and a brilliant flash of light poured from their fists. It shot straight to the mound and shoved everyone in that line back ten feet on either side to make a clean path. They ran. No one had to say it, and they reached the mound before the crowd could stop them.
“To the high ground and prepare to defend yourselves,” Lockhart shouted and the marines moved before they noticed what the others saw right away. The people were not following them. None of the people so much as stepped on the mound. They looked like they did not dare touch it, and after only a moment they began to wander back to whatever they had been doing as if the travelers were never there.
“Very primitive construction.” Doctor Procter was already examining the crude tent. It was really just a number of overlapping animal skins held up by some precious lumber. It was larger than Lincoln thought when he saw it from a distance and might easily hold a dozen or more people. He sketched furiously, but at the same time he imagined a good gust of wind might blow it apart.
“Wow.” Boston stared at Alexis and Roland.
Alexis smiled. “On my bad days, Benjamin calls me a witch.” She looked at her father. “But he says it with love,” she added.
Boston got herself spun around to face a pair of angry eyes. Lockhart was not happy. “You nearly got us all killed. I said leave the food alone.”
Boston dropped her eyes. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t mob you and tear you to pieces looking for more food.”
“Don’t be too hard on her,” Roland came to her defense. “She was thinking and just trying to help.” Boston heard, but she was busy. She looked up into Lockhart’s eyes. She saw that he loved her and the scolding was out of love, and that made her happy.
“I won’t do it again,” she said.
“Yes you will.” Lockhart softened a little as the relief he felt washed over him. He hugged her. “You just need to remember I’m the Director here in Bobbi’s absence. Maybe I can’t tell these elves what to do, but I’m still your boss.” He looked up. “And that goes for you, too. ”
“Yes boss.” Lincoln spoke absentmindedly since he was busy. Alexis grimaced and gave a sloppy little salute.
“Oh!” Doctor Procter was about to open the front flap of the tent when he was surprised. A woman came out and held the flap open. She opened her hand to invite them in.
“It appears we are wanted,” Mingus said.
“Careful,” Lincoln said as they walked into the dark tent one by one.
“Come in, come in.” They heard the man’s words before their eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was not much of a tent. There was no furniture, just some straw in the corner to sleep on and a big stump to sit on. The man, himself was very old, but when he stood up from the stump he also proved to be a very big man. “We do not often have strangers here.” He examined them as closely as they examined him.
“Where are we, exactly?” Lincoln asked.
“In my world. And my people, as you have seen are hungry.” He took a step and paused in front of Mingus. “I do not traffic much with elves.” He stepped over to examine Doctor Procter. “And there is something different about you. Something odd.”
“He is a half-elf,” Boston offered.
The man shivered a little, reacting the way Lockhart reacted when he first thought about it. “But you others,” He paused to point at Alexis. “Six, I think. You six are my people. You should be helping with the tower. You should be building the monument to my eternity.” There was a compulsion in his words. For a moment, Lockhart felt very much like that was what he wanted to do; but then Alexis touched him. He watched Roland touch the two marines while Alexis touched Boston and took her husband’s arm. The feeling of compulsion faded.
“So that is how it is.” The old man stared at them for another moment before he noticed the Doctor’s amulet. Of all the sophisticated things they had, the big old man went for something he might call familiar. “And what is this?”
“It is just a bit of sentimental wood.” Doctor Procter practiced that lie.
“No, wait. Don’t tell me. It is, how should I call it, a locator.” The big old man smiled at himself. He obviously had special powers of discernment as well as compulsion. “I should have this, but then you know how to use it.” Doctor Procter could do little but nod. “I need you to locate something for me.” He turned his back on them to walk again to the stump and bed where he lifted a spear as tall as the tent top. “Please.” He said that last word without facing any of them and it sounded like it was forced through gritted teeth.
“Well, I don’t know. It isn’t—“ The Doctor started to speak but stopped when Mingus bumped him. Mingus was a full-blood elf and knew the sound of a bargain when he heard one.
“What would you have us find?” He asked.
The big man stood with his spear. “There is a creature,” he said, and then he thought to explain. “My people are hungry because the powers in my world have rebelled against me. They have made this unnatural abomination and kept the food to feed it and help it grow. This travesty must stop. You must help me find it so I can end it.”
“And what is in it for us?” Mingus responded.
The big old man turned and eyed the elf with big, sad eyes. “My people are hungry,” he repeated.
“A true manipulator.” Mingus spoke with a bit of admiration. He would have said something else, but Lockhart interrupted.
“We will do it.” Several eyes shot to him in wonder. “Doctor, we can follow the direction on your amulet and I am sure this fine man will help us with the crowd.”
“Yes, of course.” Alexis stepped up and took the Doctor’s hand. “We will follow the direction pointed out on the amulet and this man will help us through the masses of people.” She turned to the big man. “We will help you because the people need food. People should not starve. That isn’t right.”
The big man smiled weakly but called with some strength. “Moragga!” The woman poked her head into the tent. “Gather the men. We are going on a hunt.”