Chapter 9 -House Hunting

“This one looks good, if we get some sticks to build a wall here it would be nice. We can use here for a fire and put benches around it.”

“You think we are on a picnic? When are we going to be done cutting logs for this?”

Chu took in the crumbling stone structure that had half a wall standing. Giving the one who tried to ‘sell’ this one wall house to him some well deserved slaps they moved on.

They had started from the Trading post and were walking south along the grasslands. They were armed with a stout staff each and a small flimsy kitchen knife tucked at the waist. Lucy had a bag with food while Ming carried one with their own handmade torches and a length of rope bought from the Trading post.

The forest line could be seen on their right. Most of the farms that were abandoned were in the outskirts of the village close to the forest. The larger farms had the village as their buffer between them and the forest.

In the event of unforeseeable problems, Chu didn’t want to be far from the village. Half a day walk was his requirement. This would allow them to trek to the village for supplies with ample time to return before nightfall. Better yet, it would keep them away from the path of adventurous fools. He was aiming for one of those out-of-the-way places.

This was one of the reasons he avoided those abandoned farms off the trading routes. These farms close to the forest would have been built during the heyday along with the village. Only through experience and the difficulties in defending and farming with the threat of beast coming from the forest were they slowly abandoned. Of course there were some that the previous owners were unlucky fodder for some beast.

Some of these were simply left to the ravages of time. The ones close to the villages were scrapped and used as timber or firewood. It was due to the fear of what happened to previous occupants that most chose to live close to the village in the slums, rather than be alone at the total mercy of a constant overhanging danger.

Thus a suitable empty, abandoned house could never be found close to the village.

“Wow, this is a steal of a deal. It has half a roof and three, I say THREE walls with window openings to view outside.”

Lucy continued walking while looking around for any stone structures that might crop out of the undulating grasslands. Out here away from the village there was a calm quiet marred only by the expectant sounds of slapping which echoed behind her.

“You think we are looking for a resort?”

Slap

“When the wolves drag you sorry behind through those open windows, who is going to save you?”

Slap, slap.

“How many times I told you we need something secure. SECURE!!”

Slap, slap, slap.

The grassland plains were near flat with undulating hills. From some of the hills the village could still be seen in the distance. Most of the farms were built on these little inclines for that very same reason. To the left in the distance, whiffs of smoke curled upwards far apart from each other. These marked the locations of neighboring farms.

They were nearly reaching the limit of the farms that spread out. Further south would be empty grasslands for miles until the next set of farms and their enclosed village could be reached. Further into the grasslands they could see other farmhouses smoke curling from chimneys. Behind those farms would be the road that lead to the other villages.

By walking and looking around, Chu began to have a rough idea on how these villages were mapped out. Along the forest border that stretched from north to south, villages were set up like little dots to the east of it. Around each dot in a semi-circle, farms were set up with a distance of about a days travel. The roads connected the village and farms and made its way into the grassland to some destination.

With this arrangement the villages served as a focal point for lumber and furs. The also served as an early warning arrangement in the event of invasion. He needed more information to check if the latter was indeed true.

They found one house that looked good. It was just further from the forest than the others. The walls were made of stone but the thatched roof needed work. With winter on their doorstep, Chu had no idea how to get materials to finish it in time. They sat on the cold stone doorway to rest. Lucy shared around some bread slices for them to eat.

Sitting on the stone entrance he was thinking if to use branches to just cover the roof. Lucy had climbed on an old stone block and was gazing around. Ming was still inspecting the surroundings hoping to scavenge something of value. Looters might have overlooked something in haste.

He was in the middle of arranging his thoughts when Lucy called.

“Hey Chu. What’s that over there. Looks like a big house.”

He stood up and followed Lucy arm that were pointing out. In the distance closer to the forest he saw what looked like a building.

It was already in the afternoon but they did take some time to check places up and down while walking. The requirement of being able to walk to the village and back before night fall was a top priority.

“Lets go take a look. I think this house is the best shape considering the others. We’ll use this one if anything.”

They walked on and soon came to the farmhouse. It was built on a small hilly incline like the others. However what Lucy saw was not a farmhouse but a barn. The farmhouse was in a bad state with some of the walls already broken down. The roof was long gone.

The barn was in a good shape considering its abandonment. A few of the side boards were missing and one of the large doors had broken off. The roof was in good shape made out of wooden shingles with only a couple of places broken down. Best thing for Chu was that there was a platform built at the back that extended forward to near quarter the barn length. This platform was only accessible by a wooden ladder at the side.

Chu sent Lucy as she was the lightest to check out the platform. He continued his inspection on the outside around the barn. He was satisfied that the previous owners had used solid wooden planks as the side walls. After some pulling and tugging he was pleased that it would not be easily broken down. It would take some effort by wild beast to break through the walls.

Lucy had checked the platform and called him up. The platform was dry with the remains of rotted hay. Two small windows on either side were barred by a stout board. He didn’t bother opening them. Cutting two small openings were enough to view the outside.

“Good, good, good. This is better than the stone house from before. If we remove the ladder nailed here and make a portable one, this level will be safe from animals that can’t climb.”

Lucy gave Chu a rare smile knowing he was happy with this find.

“Chu! Come here.”

The two of them quickly made their way outside. Ming was standing on the side of a broken well near the back of the barn. He had removed the vines and a rotted board cover that made it partially hidden.

“I think this well has water. I dropped a stone and it made a plop sound.”

“Good find. With a bucket and rope we will have no problem for water.”

“Hehe…thanks. But there is something else”

Ming pulled him to one side and had him look over into the well. The afternoon sun was showing some light but not enough to see the water.

“Look at the side Chu. It looks like a hole or something.”

Squinting, only when he focused did he see what Ming was talking about. It wasn’t looking like the bricks had broken down but an arched outline could be seen.

“Lucy get the rope. Ming bring me the torches and flint.”

The torch was a self-made stick wrapped with cloth strips as a head. It was also soaked in the animal oil fat they made from the Trading post.

Chu tied one of the torches to the bottom of the rope and lowered it down. The three of them made out the water at the bottom as well as a small arched opening at the side. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary he pulled up the rope and this time Lucy went down holding the torch.

“If you see anything moving pelt the torch at it and yell for us to pull up the rope.”

Fortunately nothing happened and Lucy crawled into the hole at the side. Finally she came out and called to pull up.

“It’s a tunnel but it caved and I couldn’t get past.”

Chu stepped back and checked the direction of the entrance. In a straight line it led to the  back of the barn. He stood on the opposite end of the tunnel entrance and extended his hand lining up the direction.

“There. Check the barn floor, I think there is a trap door.”

Two hours later after clearing away all the rotted hay and debris did they find a small wooden trapdoor in a corner. After another period of struggling, swearing and sweating they finally managed to pry it open. Chu went down this time with Lucy to investigate. The entered a cellar about eight square feet or bigger and around six feet high so as children they certainly didn’t have to bend and walk. On one side was a narrow passageway that led to the well. The cave-in was easy to remove and blocked half of the entrance.

“This is perfect. If we clear the entrance to the well we would be able to have water and use the well as a chimney to cook down here. If we block the corner around the trapdoor like a fence and make a ladder from it to the top platform we can use it like a lookout post and move freely during the day.”

Chu was pleased with this discovery. Most likely the past owners took this secret to their graves. It was already late so they hid the well and the trapdoor before running back to the village before sunset.

After a quick cleanup and delivering his two coppers home they met in the shack. Sakura and Dyna had sorted out some clothes that were in good condition and started to make the quilts.

Sitting by the fire munching on a bread they had their discussion.

“Tomorrow we will start moving. I want to do it step by step to avoid being the center of attention.”

“Will we take Sakura and Dyna with us?”

Lucy poised the question in excitement. As children this was a huge development. For them to be part of this was like being introduced to the mayor. In her eyes they were all a group.

“No that will be too obvious if all of us head out away from the usual forest path. A couple of kids venturing into the grasslands looking for plants and roots is okay. But if we move with loads of equipment it will arouse suspicion.”

“How will we go then.”

“Tomorrow three of us will go to the Trading post in the morning when its empty. We will buy food and supplies that we can carry and drop that off in the cellar. We will forage for some firewood and spend the night there. That will give us an idea if any animals or people are active around there.”

“You wont come back for us?”

Dyna chirped.

“Not tomorrow, you guys will remain in this shack and continue to make quilts. I need you to work hard and sort out all the clothes here. The remaining rags will be used to make torches. Those that you made worked really well today.”

“Yes.”

The little girl nodded as she blushed and dropped her head in pride. She was still disappointed that they would not be together with the others tomorrow.

“Don’t worry we will be back. We need those blankets so we are depending on you”

Chu reassured the depressed looking girl. His older mentality broke out as he patted her head.

“The next day we will return and buy more food at the trading post. Then we will head to the forest and bundle firewood. We will hide that in one of the old houses along the way so it would be easy to carry.”

It takes about four hours walking from the barn to the village. By running back they actually took less time, even though they took time resting in between. That time was a rough estimate. Traveling with loads of firewood and supplies would increase the time. Even so they would still be able to make a round way trip in one day.

Chu planned to use one day to stock up firewood in one of the abandoned houses. It wold be less suspicious if they left the village empty-handed and then pick it up half way. He wanted to leave some bundles hidden in some abandoned houses between the barn and village.

In the event of an emergency where they had no choice, a supply of firewood could be used to warm up in a temporary camp. With all their preparation he was sure that trips during the winter would be inevitable.

“After we stock up on food and firewood, then we will move together.”

he continued

“In one week we will be free of the slums.”

Thinking about their needs and the supplies needed, he realized he missed an important step when gathering raw material that were cheap and necessary.

He gave a wry smile as he looked to them.

Who knows how to make bread?”