Chapter Twenty Three
(Captains and Conchos)
The Nissarmy marched tirelessly like a hoard of small automatons skirting the prairie of Gresslande and sticking to the trees for cover. None complained or showed any lack of energy. Plainly, they were more charged than they had been in many years. They were on an adventure. What could be finer? Life was good.
Skruff had gotten the troupe into the routine of stopping while there was still plenty of light to forage for food and prepare camp and as soon as they got used to the routine it went smoothly enough. At least as smoothly as the meaning of that word can be applied to any group of Nissas. Several of their number, were missing because a few had just wandered off, as was their wont. A few more had volunteered to look for them and they weren’t expected back any time soon either. All and all Skruff was happy about the progress they were making.
Eventually they encountered a wide muddy swath of trampled ground that angled from northeast to southwest and Skruff knew immediately that they were on the right track. A farm lay in charred ruins and the Nissas halted at Skruff’s direction. “Hey Chuck”, said Skruff. “We ought to check this out. Maybe some of the big people need help. Go pick five or six stout fellows and we’ll have a look.” Chuck shuffled off to do as he was asked and Skruff, meanwhile surveyed the ground. When Chuck returned with a group of young Nissamen, Skruff pointed to the ground, “Boots…big ones and lots of ‘em”, he said. “Look, the hus is all burnt but the barn still stands. We’ll go all sneaky-like. Follow me.”
The small group, picked their way into the farmyard and were horrified at what they saw. Aside from what had been a well-tended orchard covering a hill some distance off, the only tree was a huge oak in the middle of the farmyard and it was hung with the bodies of the unlucky farmer, his wife and four children. All had been given to the Blood-eagle and hung up by their heels. The bodies had been left for the birds and whatever scavenging animals could reach them. Several of the small party of Nissas began to weep. They’d never seen anything so cruel and could not believe their eyes.
It was Chuck that broke the silence. “Skruff, trulls did this?” Skruff just nodded. He’d seen much the same at Josdhal and was moved to take pity on Garr and the survivors of that massacre. “Come”, said Skruff. “Let’s check the barn. There’s no help for these poor folks.”
The barn was empty but for some old tools and leather harnesses with well oiled thongs and polished buckles and Conchos. Shkowtz, one of the older lads, spied an iron ring protruding from the straw covered floor of the barn and reached down and gave it a good yank. A section of the floor moved and he said, “Help me here. It’s a floor-door. The others all pitched in and soon the trapdoor swung open revealing a recessed cellar half lit form the noonday sunlight streaming through the barn door and stairs leading into it. There were shelves lined with ceramic jars with lids and wax seals. Skruff went down first, took one off the shelf and removed the lid revealing stewed apples. “Mmm, good”, said Skruff as he sampled a slice. He handed it up to Chuck and as they all sampled the fruit, nods of approval circulated among the group.
“Must be all kinds of fruit and vegetables here.” Said Skruff. In the corner was a tall pile of burlap sacks and from the rafters, there hung all manner of herbs and tubers. The trulls surely would have taken this small treasure trove of victuals if they hadn’t been in such a hurry. “Glad trulls are stupid”, said Skruff.
“I’m glad they’re hasty.” Said Chuck.
“I’m glad they’re gone.” Said Shkowtz. Everyone nodded ascension.
Eyeing the pile of sacks in the corner, Skruff began to formulate a plan. “Shkowtz”, he said. “Go get the rest of the Nissarmy.”
“No”, said Shkowtz.
“What you mean, ‘no’?”
“No mean I not gonna do it”, Skowtz replied offhandedly.
Annoyed, Skruff rolled his eyes and sputtered, “I know what ‘no’ means, but you can’t tell me that. I’m the boss”.
“Oh, okay”, said Skowtz, and ran off to fetch the rest of the troupe.
Chuck, at a look from Skruff, shook his head. “Oy…kids”.
What Skruff thought of when he spied all those burlap sacks was hundreds of Nissa-sized rucksacks. Once he explained the plan to the throng all the Nissa ladies of There who’d thought to bring their sewing kits, were aided by the ladies from Here, who hadn’t. Before long, they were turning out a rucksack every four or five minutes or so. The men busied themselves bringing all the goods up from the cellar and separating them.
By the time the sun had set everyone had their own rucksack filled with sundry items and they’d repaired to a sheltered glade in the forest to make camp for the evening. Chuck had suggested staying in the barn but Skruff argued that, while it was unlikely that any of the trulls who’d already been there would return, others on their way to the valley of Heldahl would be sure to come snooping about the barn and catch the Nissarmy, “With our knickers down.” They didn’t need any more convincing than that. Seeing the fate of the farmer and his family had been a sobering picture of what they were up against.
Skruff had begun to realize that there were certain among their number that could be counted upon for slightly more intellect and consistency than others of the troupe and that he could delegate to these and depend on things going fairly smoothly. Among them were Chuck, Shkowtz, Bizzard, Sneaff (who had no sense of smell) and the brothers, Bebo, Bobo and Bob.
At camp that night, when supper was over and all the children were bedded down, Skruff rounded up Chuck, Shkowtz, Bizzard, Sneaff, Bebo, Bobo and Bob for a “super secret extra-special meeting”.
That afternoon, Skruff had taken some time to collect all the shiny Conchos from the harnesses hanging in the barn and wrapped them in a bright red handkerchief. With his chosen seven gathered about his campfire he asked, “Hey, you guys wanna be captains?”
“Whadda we got to do?” asked Sneaff.
“Hmm”, said Skruff scratching his chin. He really hadn’t given it much thought. After a moment, he replied, “Well, listen to what I say and do what I tell you.”
“We already do that.” Said Bebo.
Skruff thought for a moment. “I know, I know but…well, then you get to tell all the others what to do.”
“When?” asked Bob.
“Well…always.” Skruff was starting to see this wasn’t going to be easy.
“Even when they’re sleeping?” asked Shkowtz.
“No, Shkowtz, only when they’re awake.”
“How about when they’re going to the toilet?” Bobo interjected, “I wouldn’t want to bother ‘em when they’re poopin’.”
“No, Bobo. You can wait ‘til they’re done.”
Bobo held his hands up to the fire and nodded, “Oh, good. That’s good.”
Skruff waited for a moment anticipating more confusion. When none came he said, “So, whaddaya say? Wann be be captains?”
“I wanna be a fisherman”, said Sneaff.
“Yeah you’d make a good fisherman”, sad Shkowtz. “You couldn’t smell ‘em.”
At this everyone laughed, except Skruff, who buried his head in his hands.
“I wanna be a brewer”, said Bizzard.
“Really? Me too.” said Bebo.
As Skruff arose and walked to where his rucksack lay, he could hear Bob saying, “I wanna be a cooper, or maybe a hero. Yeah, that’s it…a hero.”
When he returned to the fire, the others were all discussing the merits of being bakers. Skruff lay the red handkerchief on the log before the fire and unfolded it revealing the polished Conchos which sparkled in the firelight and the gathering fell silent.
“If you agree to be my captains, you get to wear these.” His revelation was met with “oohs” and “ahs” and wide eyes. “Well, whaddya say?”
All seven agreed gladly and were awarded one of the shiny badges of office. “You are now captains in the Nissarmy. I have your first order as captains.” Said Skruff, sitting back down. No one spoke but all eyes were on Skruff, questioning.
“Tell all the people not to throw away the jars and fill them with poop and pee.”
Seven jaws dropped and fourteen eyes blinked simultaneously.