Authors: Christopher Priest
“He wants four militiamen!” I said, gasping from my running.
“Not enough. Leave that to me, sonny.”
The man who had spoken, who was evidently in charge, whistled loudly and beckoned towards some more of his men. Four more militiamen left their position near the city and ran over. The group of ten soldiers now ran towards the scene of the argument, with me trailing in the rear.
Without waiting to consult Collings, who was still in the centre of the mêlée, the militiamen charged into the group of men, swinging their drawn crossbows as clubs. Collings turned round suddenly, shouted at the militiamen, but was seized from behind by one of the men. He was dragged to the ground and the men moved in, kicking at him.
The militiamen were obviously trained for this kind of fighting, for they moved expertly and quickly, swinging their improvised clubs with great precision and accuracy. I watched for a moment, then struggled into the mass of men, trying to reach Collings. One of the hired men grabbed at my face, his fingers closing over my eyes. I tried to snatch my head away, but another man helped him. Suddenly I was free… and saw the two men who had attacked me fall to the floor. The militiamen who had rescued me made no sign of recognition, but carried on with their brutal clubbing.
The crowd was swelling now, as the other local men came to give assistance. I paid no heed to this and turned back into the thick of it, still trying to reach Collings. A narrow back was directly in front of me, clad in a thin white shirt sticking wetly to the skin. Unthinkingly, I slammed my arm around the man’s throat, pulled his head back, and punched him roughly in the ear. He fell to the ground. Another man was beyond him, and I tried the same tactic, but this time before I could land a blow I was kicked roughly by another man and I fell to the floor.
Through the mass of legs I saw Collings’s body on the ground, still being kicked. He was lying face-down, his arms defensively over his head. I tried to push my way across to him, but then I too was being kicked. Another foot slammed against the side of my head, and for a moment I blacked out. A second later I was conscious again, and fully aware of the vicious kicks being hurled at my body. Like Collings, I covered my head with my arms but pushed myself forward in the direction I had last seen him.
Everything around me seemed to be a surging forest of legs and bodies, and everywhere there was the roar of raised voices. Lifting my head for a moment I saw that I was only a few inches from Collings, and I pushed my way through until I was crouched on the ground beside him. I tried to stand, but was immediately felled by another kick.
Much to my surprise I realized Collings was still conscious. As I fell against him I felt his arm go over my shoulders.
“When I say,” he bawled in my ear, “stand up!”
A moment passed, and I felt his arm grip my shoulder more tightly.
With a massive effort we pushed ourselves upwards and at once he released me, swinging his fist round and catching one of the men full in the face. I did not have his same height, and the best I could manage was an elbow jab into someone’s stomach. For my trouble I was punched in the neck, and once more I fell to the ground. Someone grabbed me, and hauled me to my feet. It was Collings.
“Hold it!” He put both his arms around me, and pulled me against his chest. I held him myself, more weakly. “It’s O.K.,” he said. “Hold it.”
Gradually the jostling around us eased, then stopped. The men moved back and I slumped in Collings’s arms.
I was very dazed, and as I saw a red mist building up in my sight I caught a glimpse of a circle of militiamen, their armed crossbows raised and aimed. The hired men were moving away. I passed out.
I came round about a minute later. I was lying on the ground, and one of the militiamen was standing over me.
“He’s O.K.,” he shouted, and moved away.
I rolled painfully on to my side and saw that a short distance away Collings and the leader of the Militia were arguing angrily. About fifty yards away, the hired men were standing in a group, surrounded by the militiamen.
I tried to stand up, and managed it on my second attempt. Dazedly, I stood and watched while Collings continued to argue. In a moment the Militia officer walked away towards the group of prisoners, and Collings came over to me.
“How do you feel?” he said.
I tried to grin, but my face was swollen and painful. All I could do was stare at him. He had a huge red bruise up one side of his face, and his eye was beginning to close. I noticed that he held one arm around his waist.
“I’m O.K.,” I said.
“Where?” I raised my hand to my neck—which was hurting abominably—and felt warm liquid. Collings moved over and looked at it.
“It’s just a bad graze,” he said. “Do you want to go back to the city and have treatment?”
“No,” I said. “What the hell happened?”
“The Militia over-reacted. I thought I told you to bring four.”
“They wouldn’t listen.”
“No, they’re like that.”
“But what was it all about?” I said. “I’ve worked with those men for a long time and they’ve never attacked us before.”
“There’s a lot of built-up resentment,” said Collings. “Specifically, it was that three of the men have wives in the city. They weren’t going to leave without them.”
“Those men are from the
" I said, not sure I had heard properly.
“No … I said that their wives are there. These men are all locals, hired from a near-by village.”
“That’s what I thought. But what are their wives doing in the city?”
“We bought them.”
I slept uncomfortably that night. Alone in the hut I undressed carefully and looked at the damage. One side of my chest was a mass of bruises, and there were several deep and painful scratches. The wound on my neck had stopped bleeding, but I washed it in warm water and put on it some ointment I found in Malchuskin’s first-aid box. I discovered that in the fight one of my fingernails had been badly torn, and my jaw ached when I tried to move it.
I thought again about returning to the city as Collings had suggested—it was, after all, only a matter of a few hundred yards away—but in the end thought better of it. I had no wish to draw attention to myself by appearing in the sterile-clean surroundings of the city looking as if I had just come out of a drunken brawl. The truth wasn’t too far from that, but even so I thought I would lick my own wounds.
I tried to sleep, only managing to doze off for a few minutes at a time.
In the morning I was awake early, and got up. I didn’t wish to see Malchuskin before I had had a chance to clean myself up further. My whole body ached, and I could move only slowly.
When he arrived, Malchuskin was in a bad mood.
“I heard,” he said straight away. “Don’t try to explain.”
“I can’t understand what happened.”
“You were instrumental in starting a brawl.”
“It was the Militia …” I said weakly.
“Yes, and you ought to know by now that you keep the Militia away from the tooks. They lost a few men some miles back, and there are a few scores to settle. Any excuse, and those stupid bastards go in and start clubbing.”
“Collings was in trouble,” I said. “Something had to be done.”
“All right, it wasn’t entirely your fault. Collings says now that he could have handled it if you hadn’t brought the Militia in … but he also admits that he told you to fetch them.”
“O.K. then, but think next time.”
“What do we do now?” I said. “We’ve no labourers.”
“There are more coming today. The work will be slow at first, because we’ll have to train them for it. But the advantage is that the resentments won’t start at once, and they’ll work harder. It’s later, when they get time to think, that the trouble begins.”
“But why do they resent us so? Surely, we pay for their services.”
“Yes, but at our price. This is a poor region. The soil’s bad, and there’s not much food. We pass by in our city, offer them what they need …
and they take it. But they get no long-term benefit, and I suppose we take more than we give.”
“We should give more.”
“Maybe.” Malchuskin looked indifferent. “That’s none of our concern. We work the track.”
We had to wait several hours for the new men to arrive. During that time Malchuskin and I went to the dormitory huts vacated by the previous men and cleaned them out. The previous occupants had been hustled away by the militiamen during the night, but they’d been given time to collect their belongings. There was a lot that was left though: mainly old and worn garments and scraps of food. Maichuskin warned me to keep an eye open for any kind of message that might have been left for the new men; neither he nor I discovered anything of this sort.
Later, we went outside and burned anything that had been left.
Around midday a man from the Barter guild came over to us and said that the new labourers would be with us shortly. We were made a formal apology about what had happened the previous evening, and told that in spite of much discussion it had been decided that the Militia guard would be strengthened for the time being. Malchuskin protested, but the Barter guildsman could only agree: the decision had been taken against his own opinion.
I was in two minds about this. On the one hand I had no great admiration for the militiamen, but if their presence could avert a repetition of the trouble then I supposed it was inevitable.
Malchuskin was beginning to fret about the delay. I presumed that this was because of the ever-present necessity to make up lost time, but when I mentioned this he was not as concerned about this as I’d thought.
“We’ll make time on the optimum on the next winching,” he said. “The delay last time was because of the ridge. That’s behind us now and the land’s fairly level ahead of us for the next few miles. I’m more concerned about the state of the track behind the city.”
“The Militia will be protecting it,” I said.
“Yes … but they can’t stop it buckling. That’s the main risk, the longer it’s left.”
Maichuskin looked at me sharply. “We’re a long way south of optimum. You know what that means?”
“You haven’t been down past yet?”
“What does that mean?”
“A long way south of the city.”
“No … I haven’t.”
“Well when you go down there you’ll find out what happens. In the meantime, take my word for it. The longer we leave the track laid south of the city, the more risk there is of it becoming unusable.”
There was still no sign of the hired men, and Malchuskin left me and went over and spoke to two more Track guildsmen who had just come out of the city. In a while he returned.
“We’ll wait another hour, and if no one’s come by then we’ll second some men from one of the other guilds and start work. We can’t wait any longer.”
“Can you do that, use other guilds?”
“Hired men are a luxury, Helward,” he said. “In the past the track-laying was done by guildsmen alone. Moving the city’s the main priority and nothing stands in the way. If we had to, we’d have everyone in the city out here laying the tracks.”
Suddenly he seemed to relax, and lay back on the ground and closed his eyes. The sun was almost directly overhead and it seemed hotter than usual. I noticed that over to the north-west there was a line of dark clouds, and that the air felt stiller and more humid than normal. Even so, the sun was still untouched by clouds and with my body still sore from its beating I would rather lie here lazily than be working on the track.
A few minutes later Malchuskin sat up and looked northwards. Coming towards us was a large band of men, led by five of the Barter guildsmen wearing their regalia of cloaks and colours.
“Good … now we start work,” said Malchuskin.
In spite of his barely concealed relief there was much that had to be done before work could begin. The men had to be organized into four groups, and an English-speaking one appointed leader. Then bunks had to be allotted in the huts, and their possessions stowed away. Maichuskin looked optimistic throughout all this, in spite of the additional delays.
“They’re looking hungry,” he said. “Nothing like an empty belly to keep them working.”
They were indeed a dishevelled lot. They all had clothes of sorts but very few had any shoes, and most of them wore their hair and beards long.
Their eyes were deep-sunken in their faces, and several sported stomachs swollen by lack of proper food. I noticed that one or two walked with discomfort, and one had a mutilated arm.
“Are they fit to work?” I asked Maichuskin quietly.
“Not properly. But a few days of work and a proper diet, and they’ll be O.K. A lot of tooks look like this when we first hire them.”
I was shocked by the condition they were in, and reflected that the local standard of living must be as bad as Maichuskin had made out. If this were so I could better understand the way resentment grew against the people of the city. I supposed that what the city gave in return for the labourers was a long way beyond what they were generally accustomed to, and this gave them a glimpse of a better fed, more comfortable life. As the city passed on, they would have to revert to their former primitive existence, the city meanwhile having taken of the people’s best.
More delays, as the men were given food, but Malchuskin was looking more optimistic than ever.
Finally, we were ready to begin. The men formed themselves into four groups, each headed by a guildsman. We set off for the city, collected the four track bogies, and headed south down the tracks in grand style. To each side of the rails the militiamen continued their guard, and as we crossed the ridge we saw that down in the valley we had recently vacated there was a strong guard around the track buffers.
With four track-teams now at work there was the additional incentive of competition I had noticed before. Perhaps it was too early for the men to respond to this, but that would come later.
Malchuskin stopped the bogie a short distance before the buffer, and explained to the group leader—a middle-aged man named Juan—what had to be done. Juan related this to the men, and they nodded their understanding.