The townspeople set up cots in a corner of the Great hall furthest from the massive archway that surrounded the thick doors of the main entry. Charlie recognized some of the symbols; he wore one around his neck bequeathed by his namesake. Although they seemed to mean nothing to his ‘hosts,’ he knew their meaning and realized the locals had no idea what they stood for. Their end of the room was on a raised platform set away from the colorful stained glass windows that couldn’t be used as an escape route without having to cross the wide open space of the empty hall.
Charlie was surprised that there were no visible guards with them as they lay down for the night; a fact he knew was also noticed by Charlotte. These people seemed nice but not stupid; he knew there were unseen eyes watching. He couldn’t know that the single eye that was watching them wasn’t human.
Rita had told them that if they needed anything, they should just stand and ask for her, “just call my name, ‘Rita’, and I or one of my helpers will come.” ‘More evidence of tach,’ Charlie thought. He hadn’t seen a lot of it in his lifetime but he knew from the stories his father and uncle told; tales that had been passed down from their father before them. Those civilizations could do amazing things with the tach they had at their disposal. Unfortunately, one of those ‘amazing things’ was the termination of almost the entire planet’s population. Because of that fact, Charlie’s tribe abhorred anything to do with it.
Huddled under the blanket given him by their hosts, Charlie scratched a small ‘T’ in the lower left corner of the note he was marking. He had pulled the thick wool comforter over his head and was carefully filling in sections of the coded parchment he would be sending to his father. The encryption his people use is based on the periodic table of elements. One or two large letters or numbers in the center surrounded on the corners by more symbols noting information the tribe would need to know about the town. The note had to be small because the birds they use to carry the messages are tiny. This method was designed to be inconspicuous and if found, indecipherable to others.
Inside Charlie’s loose fitting garment he kept three birds. His tribe had been raising various species of sparrows for decades, training them as carriers of their messages in much the same way pigeons had been used for centuries before. He carefully removed a bird from inside a hidden pocket inside the shirt and lightly patted its small head. He fed it crumbs of bread he had saved from the dinner his hosts had served them on clean white plates the likes of which he’d never seen before. He stroked the bird’s tiny chest feeling its heart racing beneath the soft brown feathers. When the crumbs were gone, he carefully spit into his hand and let the bird drink; a trick that is taught to all the children of the tribe as they are learning to care for and train their birds.
In a dark corner of the rook tower, Ellie noted that a bird was now being monitored. A small one judging from its heart rate. She did not notify Leader Tom, merely logged it to track the bot that was now part of Charlie’s bird.
Charlie wiped his hand on his robe to dry the remaining spit and gently but securely attached the small note to the bird’s tiny leg. Cupping his hand, he ran it the length of the animal from head to tail, this let the bird know that it was going to be placed back into the pocket hidden in Charlie’s shirt; the bird relaxed allowing him to slip it back from where he had plucked it. Now he just needed to wait until he felt safe enough to release the bird. He would use the window in the room with the smooth white stone chairs that Rita had shown them to use to relieve themselves. “They’re called toilets,” she told him. He had to admit he liked the thought of not having to dig a hole and bury his waste, but it seemed like tach; low budget. but still something that shouldn’t be enjoyed.
As he lie in the cot, which was more low-budget but wonderfully comfortable tach, his thoughts drifted to his beloved Uncle Chuck. He told Charlie there were only two justifiable reasons for a raid. To add a new mixture to the tribe or to gain a talent they didn’t already have. It was a conversation they had while hunting. Charlie remembered it as if it were just this past summer, but that would of course have been impossible; Big Chuck had died from the raid that spring. Charlie felt sad for a moment, his breath caught in his throat, he still missed his Uncle, he was like a second father to him.
This hunting trip must have been three summers ago Charlie thought. They were in a tree stand waiting for dusk, his Uncle had taught him that’s when the whitetail become active again; the cooler air would bring them out foraging again. Charlie had been talking about how frustrating it was to sometimes be out all day and only return with some rabbits or squirrels, hardly enough for their own family’s dinner.
Charlie asked quietly, “Uncle Chuck, why don’t we just raid another tribe and take their food? We know where there are several little towns, and we’re stronger than they are. Why don’t we just take it?”
He remembered the puzzled look Chuck gave him, “Charlie, that would be against several of the laws in the Good Book. Being strong doesn’t always give you the right to take what you need.” He shifted on his perch and laid the bow across his lap so he could look at Charlie directly. He wasn’t whispering anymore, his look became intent. “Before my grandfather, your great-grandfather,” he said with a nod and a brow lift for emphasis, “began our tribe, he belonged to a much larger tribe, a great nation that ruled all of this land. Everything farther than we could walk in our lifetimes,” he spread his hands and waved them in arcs to emphasize his point. “All of this land was one tribe. It was a very strong tribe with more food than anyone could eat yet many were hungry. Great cities of stone with more than enough homes for everyone, yet many were without a place for themselves or their children for shelter. A nation that was proud of claiming justice and liberty for all but many injustices went without penalty.”
Charlie had heard tales about this great tribe before but never with such passion. Chuck was talking using his hands and facial expressions for greater effect. Charlie remembered this so vividly because he hung on every word his Uncle spoke with such verve. His Uncle continued getting more fired up as he spoke, “that’s how the leaders of this once great and free land ran themselves for hundreds of years until finally all those smaller weaker nations from around the world and the small powerless tribes that lived within her borders banded together. That great country wasn’t so strong anymore. It no longer had a hold on anyone.” Chuck put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder and drew him in, “we only take what we can’t make ourselves or we make do without. If we’re fortunate to encounter another Gad fearing or friendly tribe we’ll trade for what we need. Although it’s becoming more difficult as the summers pass locating them, there are many strong aggressive tribes taking more than what they need. It’s making finding friendly villages very difficult.”
Chuck sat back and gazed off into the sky. “Our camp was raided when your brother and I were young men. We didn’t have good defenses. Our tribe had no one skilled in the working of metal.”
“A blacksmith?” Charlie interjected.
“Yes, little Chuck,” he said with a smile as he patted Charlie on the head with his huge calloused hand. “
“My Grandfather decided that for the safety of our people we needed someone to work the scrap metals that are abundant in the land into tools and weapons so he found one. It was the first raid your father and I went on.”
His uncle let out a small laugh, “that’s the same raid our tribe adopted your mother. Your dad took a liking to her right away, made her feel welcome. It’s a scary thing to be taken from your home and made a part of strange tribe with new words and customs.”
“Blood or skills, Little Chuck, that’s the only reason we raid. Never forget it.”
With that his Uncle turned back to face the woods, his deep brown eyes searching the trees for their dinner.
In the Great Hall, later that evening, quietly in a small room made entirely of the same smooth stone as the plates from supper and the ‘toilet’ he reluctantly pee-ed into, Charlie released the small bird through one of the narrow openings in the room’s louvered window. “Blood or skills,” he whispered as he planted a soft kiss on the sparrow’s feathered head. And in a language that Ellie still would not be able to understand if she could hear him, he said, “Fly away home,” as he released the bird into the dark night.
Moments later Ellie logged the removal of a small bird from her tracking of bots. No mention was made of this to Leader Tom either.