In the morning, the armed and ready group walked slowly toward the mass of people. They 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 did not get 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 and steadfast. He could only hope.
As they drew near to the crowd, 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 stayed on a grubby little girl in the front of the pack. Boston would have given the crackers 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, leaves, or crumbled bark dragged in on the trees, in order to hold the clay together.
“Straw would work better,” Lieutenant Harper spoke quietly, but they looked around and saw only mud beneath their feet. It looked that way for miles. The earth had been stripped clean of every living thing and trampled under two million feet
They walked slowly, all bunched up, eyes everywhere, until they came near a mound in the center of it all. It had a tent on top, and sat about half-way to the hill with the growing tower. Lincoln looked ready to ask about the mound, the one spot that remained untouched in all that mass of humanity, but several men stepped in front of them and 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, 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 soon became enough to attract a crowd, but the crowd still looked reluctant to touch the strangers
“Make for the mound,” Lockhart suggested.
“Keep moving.” Captain Decker urged them forward. 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.
“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 might be 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 got on the opposite side of the circle from her husband. She stood 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.
Alexis grabbed her brother’s hand. He looked at her with a curious expression as she spoke. “Split the herd.” 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 clear path. They ran. No one had to say it, and they reached the mound before the crowd could stop them.