The morning was blanketed with snow. A light flurry fell repainting all the colored patches that were uncovered white.
In the shack a fire was blazing with five children sitting around it cheerfully eating a breakfast of melted butter and bread. On the inside of the tent walls were hung patched sheets that blocked the cold and kept the inside warm and comfortable.
In the slum district this would be considered a lavish lifestyle. Even in the village there was no household that could afford this type of living with three young girls.
Since girls were seen as a liability and burden, this kind of joy would only be seen on the faces of those young misses of nobles and well to do citizens in larger towns and cities.
Of course this was until they were married off to better the houses and clans they belonged to.
One of the key words in this society Chu was beginning to be familiar with that relates to people: OWNERSHIP.
“Chu pass me some more bread because I’m bigger.”
“Lucy! give me more butter. I’m bigger than you”
“Dyna hot some more water for me cause I’m bigger.”
“Sakura gimme another blanket cause your smaller. I’m bigger.”
Bap, bap, bap.
“Stop being a bully.”
After Chu intervened he went back to thinking. Seeing him in that mood the rest kept their bickering down so as not to disturb him.
After awhile he raised his head to them and spoke.
“Ming I need you to find two boys who can handle a horse. Find me someone I can trust like Lucy, or else don’t bother returning.”
“AHHHHH Chu do you know how hard that is? I knew it Chu, YOU TRYING TO GET RID OF MEEEEEEEE!”
Chu turned to Lucy leaving the raving lunatic on the side.
“Lucy I need a girl who has more knowledge in housework. If she is willing to fight its a plus. Most importantly she has to be able to cook!”
Last time he asked this question they were all stumped. Other than preparing porridge, they were all lost in the kitchen. Chu didn’t want to be stuck with the role as a cook in this world. His goal was to explore it.
Last thing he wanted was to be tied down in a fresh new world cooking food for children. He reiterated to them not for the last time.
As for them being able to find someone reliable in the slums, Chu wasn’t worried. Reliable and honest people tend to stick out like a sore thumb in places like these. A network of chattering hungry children could rate a person’s character better than any lie detector.
The big problem was that such people were just as scarce as gold in these parts. Living too long in the slums tend to change people, and not for the better.
“Remember! No freeloaders, I need people who can work. Don’t bring me any lazy trouble-making bums.”
With that instruction Chu grabbed a book to continue his self-study. Dyna and Sakura cleaned up after breakfast and shifted to a corner to continue their sewing. That corner was presently filled with bales of cloth.
It was in the evening that Ming returned first. He knocked on the shack and waited for Chu to come out. When he exited in the cold air he found Ming standing with a boy taller than him.
“This is Clod. Don’t be fooled by his size he is actually only fifteen. He’s been in the slums since end of last winter. He is the only person I think I can vouch for. He once lived on a farm.”
Chu scanned the boy at the side. If not for the usual conditions caused by a lack of food, the boy would have a typical build of someone used to hard labor. His short brown hair and honest face were typical of those who preferred the simple life.
A farmer can always be recognized. Nature has a way of whittling down them into hardy forms.
“With your age and skills, how come you weren’t scooped up by other farmers or a village tradesman?”
“I got a lame foot. I can’t do much walking on it. People ain’t gonna waste time on a handicap.”
“How do you live then?”
The only work Chu was familiar with that paid money was delivering firewood. Clod certainly would not be able to handle the walk to the forest.
“I work tending horses at the Trading post. Most of my payment comes in firewood and sometimes I get food scraps from the merchants. I normally barter firewood for food from my neighbors.”
Chu nodded and led the boys to the Trading post. After talking to Griz for a minute he went with to the stables. Talking to the guard for a moment, he turned to Clod.
“Hitch that horse and cart for me.”
Clod looked at Chu in amazement. This boy younger than him just waltzed into the Trading post and blatantly had a talk with the fierce-some master. He then had the gal to lead him to the stables and drop an order like he owned the place. Worse yet the guard didn’t even bother with him!
Clod wasn’t aware that most of these guards were present when the Snow bear was carted in. Nearly all of them were aware of the relation between the Master and this young boy.
He was shaken out of his thoughts by the yells at his side.
“Hey! You think we all don’t have better things to do? Stop wasting time and show me what you can do!”
Clod walked across to the stable and got the horse. Chu noticed that he had a slight limp as if one leg was longer than the other. In the space of a few minutes Clod got the cart hitched and led the horse a little way to show it was done.
“Good job, put it back to how it was.”
Thanking the guard politely for his time, they left after Chu spoke to Griz.
They walked to a quiet spot until alone outside the slums.
“I am going to be straight with you. What we do is dangerous. It is very easy to lose your life, especially with your lame foot. If you want to risk it tell me now, we wont bother you again.”
Winter was already here. Clod was one of the few children still living alone. The main reason was because of his foot that made him a liability in the eyes of others. Being with him had no advantages. Worse yet was that when the merchants were gone, his little job would come to an end. His option to survive was to beg for the entire winter.
“What risk are you talking about?”
“We go into the forest at night for hunting. Are you willing to chance it?”
Clod stared with a stupid expression. He struggled to make a decision. One was a slow death, the other was a swift demise. Painful memories resurfaced in his mind and an overwhelming fear shocked him into trembling.
He swallowed down the bile building in his throat.
“I…I will join, I will go with you but I really don’t know how useful I can be.”
He looked down at his leg in grief.
“Hey, hey. You will be going with company. If we end up in trouble we can just use you as bait. hehehe”
When Chu finished smacking Ming, he told Clod to meet them at the Trading post in three days. He also bought him a rock bread so he wouldn’t starve. Sending him off amidst the numerous thank you’s and sobs, Chu and Ming walked back to the shack.
“Can you do anything right? I send you the first time to find someone strong, you come back with a girl. I send you to get a fit and able boy, you come back with a lame duck. Gimme one good reason why I should keep you….heh, huh?”
Ming cast his teary eyes at Chu. He knew the boy wasn’t mad and just joking, but he had to try to defend himself. He was smart enough to realize this person was frank and straightforward.
“I’m sorry Chu, it’s just that there are really two reasons a boy lands up in the slums. One is if he has no value, and the other is if he has broken the law. Clod just happens to be one of the few from the first.”
Chu understood where Ming was coming from. Both of them were here through family circumstances. Most of the boys and the couple of younger men were here because of some run in with the law. They were simply biding time until Spring when the bandits showed up for recruitment.
“Don’t worry about it, if it wasn’t for you I would still have to hustle firewood. You did good.”
A slum is where the lowest of society are pooled together. Harsh means of survival is obviously going to breed anarchy in some form.
This was also the reason why chaos descended on the slums so quickly. If Ming wasn’t acting as a deterrent, Chu might have already been beaten into submission. A small child like him was ripe for easy pickings.
Now that the gangs were forming, such a deterrent would simply have no meaning. The young men would eventually use them as work-dogs or destroy their shacks for firewood.
“Ming take Clod into the forest tomorrow and bring back four spears that we were using. I want you guys to keep hanging around the shack with them. Anyone asked, you’re preparing for those wild beast in winter. That should buy us some time until we can leave.”
Chu wanted to make it known that they would be armed for trouble. Of course within the shack they had the machetes to use. He didn’t want to display those on the outside, that would just be asking for a robbing.
Returning to the shack they found Lucy pacing around in front.
“Hey where were you? I brought someone ages ago. Wait here I’ll go find her again.”
Lucy ran of into the slums. Chu and Ming remained outside chatting while waiting. Soon Lucy returned with a girl. The girl was younger than Lucy suffering from food deprivation. She looked like a thin stick that seemed on the verge of toppling over. Chu fired out some questions on the spot.
He was THAT much afraid of her fainting.
“Can you cook?”
“Ammmm, yes I worked at an inn before.”
“What we do is dangerous. You would be risking your life with us, you still want to join?”
The girl gave a soft chuckle out of self-pity.
“What does it matter, I would be lucky to even last half the winter.”
Chu opened the door to the shack and had Sakura take her inside.
“Make some porridge for her, only a little at a time or she will get sick.”
He shut the door and turned to Lucy.
“I still need one more person. Can you find a girl to help fight?”
“Yes, I have a friend. She helped us out when I was taking care of the others. Please take her in, I think some boys are starting to pick on her. I was going to ask you later about it.”
“Get her then and bring her back.”
Chu entered the shack and went to a corner to read. The three girls were near the fire. It was only now that Chu realized he didn’t know her name. He decided to talk to her while the porridge was being prepared.
Chu talked as she sipped some warm water Sakura poured for her.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“Where did you learn to cook?”
Sue worked in a farm Inn. These were normally found on the outskirts of the villages and catered to travelers. During an attack by bandits the inn was burnt to the ground. Sue escaped with another worker. Reaching this village the worker she had trusted tried to sell her off into slavery.
He had her tagged and was excited to have her sold. Being a drunk he ended up picking a fight with a merchant and was killed by his guards. Sue escaped to a life in the slums having no choice but to etch out a life.
“Why didn’t you try working at the tavern?”
She gave him a wry smile. Rolling up the large sleeve on her robe a burn mark the shape of a T was imprinted on her arm.
“The worker I was with had me branded. No business would take the chance to hire a runaway slave. The penalties are severe. Although he is dead, I have been cursed forever.”
I looked at Sue now in tears with sympathy. To reside in the slums meant a harsh story following behind it. With the drunk ‘master’ dead she had no papers and was considered free for all as a runaway slave.
“Well we are all together here. For better or worse.”
“Chu I’m back!”
Lucy brought in her friend without even waiting outside. She was a black-haired girl named Miki. Like Lucy she could climb and had no hesitation in spending the night in the forest. She was the easiest to question as she and Lucy had helped each other out in the past.
She had only joined a group previously to avoid being bullied by others. This was only to find out that her new friends were like hungry wolves waiting for a chance to devour her.
Lucy coming to help her was like giving a lump of coal during winter.
Chu felt a new headache coming on. This group now consisted of mostly young girls. In all the villages and towns in the Empire, a poor gender selection like this would have been avoided like a plague.
This was not any problem to someone like Chu. He didn’t conform to this populations mindset and ideals.
His headache was coming from the fact that he was now the proud leader of a bunch of kids like himself. Together they would stand out in a crowd like a sore thumb. Besides being a target for bullying, they would have to avoid the eyes of unscrupulous people who may try to advantage them.
In a world where the strong survives, who was going to help who when all were weak?