Chapter 19 -Living a better life

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Living a better life

The first month of winter rolled over quickly. Snow storms thundered across the skies a few times and the plains were now constantly under at least a foot of snow. A white ocean immersed the grasslands blanketing everything.

Amidst this monotone sea, a brown colored barn stood out like an island. Like the rest of the ruined structures that dotted the surrounding landscape, it emitted a dreary and gloomy feel. Inside this building however, housed a comfortable and bright atmosphere.

The space under the platform was now secured with a stout wooden fence. Behind it an oven was in operation with its cook currently baking a batch of bread. At the side were two girls sitting on crude benches happily sewing and chatting away. A small lamp on a table burned at the side providing additional light.

On the outside of the fence in the middle of the barn a small fire was blazing helping in warming up the entire barn. The temperature here was cool compared to the biting chill on the outside. A girl was laying down on the earthen ground on one side with a crossbow in hand. She was practicing her skills by shooting a target made up of a straw filled cloth scarecrow. The barn wall behind the scarecrow had a sheet stuffed with grass nailed onto it. It was adorned with numerous holes and cross-bolts stuck onto it.

On the other side of her sat a boy on a bench sharpening a knife on a small grindstone. Another boy was close by chatting away while swing a short sword in a rough manner.

Above all of them at the top of the platform was a boy lying down on a cloth bed partially covered with a heavy quilt. A few books were in front of him as he mumbled in his thoughts.

In the back of the platform was a ladder that went up to the roof of the barn. The roof of the barn was made with a high flat surface that sloped down on the two sides. This was to allow the owner to walk freely on the surface to conduct repairs.

A small platform was built to allow easy access to the small opening. This repair exit was now modified. The skylight was now opened and a crude structure made of wood and thick canvas constructed over the hole.

Standing on the platform under this small tent one could see everything in a 360 degrees angle all around. Currently a small girl was cloaked and sitting on the platform. Every so often she would get up and take her time scanning the surrounding. She would then sit down and relax under a thick blanket fiddling with an unloaded crossbow. A small box nailed to one end was filled with some cross-bolts.

A young girl’s voice called out from below at this time.

“I’m finished! The bread is done. Ming come and carry a bowl of hot stew and some bread for Miki. A warm stomach is the best thing for the cold.”

After a while Ming climbed up to the platform Chu was on carrying a bowl of hot bear meat stew and the equally piping hot bread both secured in a cloth bag. He deftly climbed up the ladder to the platform and handed Miki her lunch.

By the time he was back down, Sakura had already brought Chu his lunch also. As Chu sat up and took a break from reading to eat, the rest of them clambered up the platform with their lunch. Like this everyone ate together chatting with even Miki up above.

This was the result of their hard work throughout the month. The oven was complete and Sue constantly cooked up fresh food everyday. She also had packages made of cloth that contained dried rations that were stacked in a shelf in the cellar. This was in the event of an emergency.

Despite his leg condition, Clod was a general worker. Being raised in a farm he was familiar with lots of different chores. He helped Sue gather water, did the construction required by Chu and was the one who discovered the opening on the barn roof.

Under some modification it was the perfect crow’s nest in the endless sea of snow. It was because of this they didn’t have to worry about having a pair of watchmen braving the cold outside. Now Chu only needed one scout in something like a crow’s nest on a ship. This was the best he could ask for. Even Sakura and Dyna who were the youngest could now assume that responsibility.

Every evening Chu had training practice with the crossbows. Miki was the best and she was awarded one crossbow for her personal use. She had Dyna make a strap so she could sling it on her back. She now walked around with the crossbow on her back and a small dagger on her waist. Chu had to stop her from sleeping with the weapon, she was that happy.

Everyone else could now hit a target at point-blank range. Chu had Ming constantly practicing with the short sword to get familiar with it. Since they sometimes made a sortie on the outside for firewood under the watchful eyes of the scouts, they had to at least be able to defend themselves.

The bonfire in the middle was always lit during the day providing a little warmth and light in the late evening. They all still slept in the cellar with one person on watch near the trapdoor. Chu preferred to be safe that sorry. In the morning they were cautious when returning to the barn.

The well water didn’t freeze like he feared. In the passageway they had a makeshift lamp that Chu made burning at night for light. Maybe the well acting as a chimney for the warm smoke kept the cold away or possible because it was deep and the top kept partially covered. The water did not freeze and remained liquid. Chu never questioned the science of it, he just had Sue heat the water for them when it was time to bathe.

The only drawback was a good toilet facility. Chu had Clod construct one just down the hill not to far from the barn door. They nailed down some sheets around the wood for privacy. He did this after seeing Ming pissing just outside the door. A few slaps later he got this erected for them. He was not sure about contaminating the well water so he didn’t want to take chances.

Compared to before the children were now sporting healthy complexions. Gone was the malnourished state of their bodies. Even though their skin still had the remnants of scars and sores, they were in even better condition than the village children.

“Sue how is our food storage?”

Chu asked while dipping the bread in the stew. Everyday they would have a meeting like this over lunch. Chu was training them slowly so he wouldn’t have to bother about simple tasks. He slowly relinquished small responsibilities onto them. As they grew confident he continued giving them the kinds that had them thinking.

“I checked it like you showed me. I think we have enough for about two months. It can last if I make more soup and food like that. We will be out of flour soon though, the bread making uses it up a lot.”

The young girl answered. Compared to the near lifeless person from before, she was now more active. She had a round freckled face with brown hair cut just above the shoulders. Her hair was neatly secured and covered in a cloth like cooks usually wear.

The next person to speak was Clod. He had filled out to become a typical farmer specimen. With his short-cropped blond hair and square jaw, he was a likely candidate for any tradesman if it wasn’t for his leg.

“We need more nails and some oil to maintain the weapons. The swords are beginning to rust. If I can get more lumber it wold be good.”

Chu nodded his head. Until he was comfortable, he would not want to step foot outside this little corner of the world. Before he could proceed he had to become more knowledgeable and able to protect himself. Only by building up such a foundation would he ascend another step up the ladder.

“Chu, Lucy keeps hogging the crossbow. I want one for myself. And my sword is too lame I want a flashier one. And I want my own tools, Clod doesn’t let me do what I want. And I want more food Sue keeps making soup nearly every other day. I want more stew and good food. And I want…..”

Slap.

“We don’t have money for more weapons. The reason Lucy doesn’t give you the crossbow is because you only waste time during training.”

Slap.

“Last time you took the tools you wasted nearly half of the lumber. If Clod didn’t make use of it and made small benches and tables, that would have been money down the drain.”

Slap.

“Don’t keep bothering Sue in the kitchen otherwise I am going to personally start cooking watered down gruel for you. How many people in any of these villages around here can eat snow bear meat?”

Slap.

“Next time I see you dawdling and not training, I am going to take away your sword.”

Used to these unreasonable demands and the beating that followed, Lucy gave her report. Both her and Miki were responsible for keeping watch. Sometimes the other girls would help a few hours so as to break the monotony. The pair was like typical country girls with rough hands and dry skin. Lucy had loose shoulder length blond hair and the brightest blue eyes. She was the type of girl who would get the second glances anywhere. It was because of this she was always cloaked and wrapped up in rags living in the slums. Here she was comfortable enough to show her appearance.

“So far we have seen nothing out of the ordinary. One day Miki did see some people walking in the distance, but they were probably from the farms. They never came close to the forest but kept to the grasslands. We need some more cross-bolts, about twenty are damaged from the repeated use. Clod sharpened some but others are bent.”

Miki gave a shout of agreement from the top. They always talked loud enough for her to hear. In a quiet place like this they didn’t have to shout. She had long black hair worn in a ponytail and a pair of black eyes. Unlike Lucy who had a western type look she was more of an asian type. If wasn’t for the rough living leading to scabs, scars and blisters both girls would certainly grow to be beauties. Unfortunate hard life is detrimental to a girl’s beauty.

Sakura and Dyna were still little kids and they didn’t have much responsibility apart from helping out in chores. Sakura was a black-haired girl with an oval face she had a quiet nature. Dyna was a red-haired girl who sported a tomboy look. Her green eyes were the most noticeable feature. Dyna was the most outspoken of the two.

“Chu we finished all the sewing. The hardest work is getting water from the well. If we can get some more buckets it would be great. The oil lamps that you bought are great but we need more oil.”

“Ok, I will look into it.”

Like this Chu was slowly training them to be more understanding and responsible.

“Sakura, I want you to help Miki with her reading. She needs extra work after our usual classes. Ming would take her place as the watch. We all need to be able to read and understand some basic words before spring.”

Besides the training in the evening, Chu made sure everyone was learning to read. If these children were to remain with him, it would be a bonus to keep them knowledgeable. Sakura was the most promising being able to grasp the basics even faster than Chu.

“Tomorrow Ming, Lucy and I will go to the village. While were gone Miki would be the guard. If anything happens, hang a red sheet from the tower so we can spot it. Take safety in the cellar. Do it like we practiced.”

“Do we bolt both doors when you go, or just the outer one?”

Chu raised his head to answer back Miki.

“Just bar the outer door. The inside one is not a problem.”

The door to the barn was made smaller and was now designed by Chu to act as a trap in capturing non climbing animals like wolves. Unfortunately lone wolves were not prowling around since they had long integrated themselves into large packs. He didn’t have a chance to put it in action.

Whether it was them being isolated to the far south or their lack of movement out of the barn, there were no sightings of wild animals. During the day the snow visible around the barn as far as they could see remained trackless.

So far they were able to remain out of the scope of the wild hunting beast.

“We only have the small sled so we are limited on how much we can bring back. If the snow melts and eases up for a few days we may be able to rent the horses again.”

“Food and supplies like the oil for lamps will be priority in this trip.”

Food, clothes and shelter. He believed the basics were now covered.

What he didn’t know was pretty soon he was going to face a test on how secure he had actually made himself.

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