By the time I made it back to the group, I’d seen at least a dozen ways that an intruder could get into, and out of, the hamlet without being seen. The only defensible position as far as I was concerned, was the large building that served as the village hall, just off the centre of the square.
All the buildings that I saw were made of timber planking. Great for insulation, bad for a fire…
Mal called a war-council.
“Well, Shepherd Luke an’ Elder Jenkins’ve filled in a few of the missin’ pieces for us at least. The 2 farms that were hit, were in glens at the base of that mountain range, to the north. The first anyone knew anythin’ was wrong was when the folk from the farthest farm, didn’t come to a local harvest festival. When they went to look for ‘em, they found the farm razed to the ground, an’ everyone dead. Couple of weeks later, the other farm owner didn’t turn up for market. Same thing. Buildin’s razed, everyone slaughtered. In the 3 months leadin’ up to this, livestock’ve gone missin‘, some’ve been found butchered. Some of the locals used to go out huntin‘, an’ had told of findin’ wild animals torn up, so at first, the lost livestock was thought to be animal attacks.
They’ve some story about a bogeyman, something called a ‘boudikan‘, s’posed to be a normal man turned almost animal-like. Whether’r not it’s more’n a story, I dunno. But, I didn’t used to believe in Reavers, once… Luke’s said that they’ve asked for an elder from one of the hamlets to the south to come an' speak to us. Seems he’s some sort of expert on the ‘boudikan’ legend, or some such.
Also, he told us a story of the sky catchin’ fire too…’bout 5 years ago, the sky to the south lit up, like it was on fire, an‘ the ground shook so bad people couldn’t stand. Then there was a noise like thunder that went on for’n hour, the sky turned black ‘bout a day later, an’ stayed black for weeks after. The more superstitious folk thought it was the wrath of god…”
“It was a volcano.”
“A volcano. A mountain formed from a fissure in the surface of a planet through which molten rock can escape. If the pressure is not released, it can build, until an explosion occurs.”
We looked at each other, wondering if she could be right. She screwed her face up and looked at me, as if I had actually spoken the words. I tried to hide a smile, and failed. Simon filled in the missing part of the puzzle.
“That could account for the climate changes too. An eruption of great magnitude would put enough ash into the atmosphere to block out the sun for weeks, maybe months. That would make the surface temperature fall dramatically, and it would be decades before the effects would pass. Didn’t you say that for the last few years the harvest has suffered because of longer, colder winters? That could explain it.”
“Ok, sounds believable to me. Wash, soon as you can, take off with Simon, see if you can find anythin’ that looks like it might’ve been a volcano. We’ll stay here, have a look around, an’ speak to this other elder when he shows.”
We watched as Serenity took off and headed south with Simon, River and Kaylee on board.
A quick check of the rest of the hamlet confirmed our worst fears. About twenty families, maybe around 300 people, and of the males, only about forty were between the ages of fifteen and fifty. The closest things to weapons were the tools the woodworkers and farmers use. The only firearm that was found looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for years and was useless.
“Hell Cap’n, we could always give ‘em the silverware from the kitchen if we needed to…”
“I’m hopin’ it wont come to that Jayne…”
“There’s always the spare weapons from the armoury. We could arm the best shots, use them as a second line of defence, with us as the first, Sir.”
“Lets not get too far ahead of ourselves. Maybe we can sort this without a shot bein’ fired.”
“Aint like any of your plans go to plan though…”
It was late in the afternoon when the elder from the settlement to the south arrived. After food and refreshment, Thomas sat and told us of the legend of the ‘boudikans‘.
“The first settlers here, came on 2 ships, one called ‘The Prospector’ an’ t’other was ‘The Iseenee’. The ‘Prospectors’ were lookin’ t’start new lives, ready t’face what Avon had for ‘em. They used what technology there was, an’ though they struggled at first, they managed t’carve a place t’call home. The settlers off The Iseenee though, they wanted t’turn their back on technology, wanted t’embrace livin’ from the land. Within a few months, their leader, a real firebrand by the name o’ Hannah Boudika, had gathered her followers an’ they headed off t’the mountains t’the north there. They’d come down every few months t’start with, t’trade furs an’ the like. Then it became once a year, at harvest. Then it was every couple o’ years, then less. Soon, it became rare t’see ‘em at all, an’ when they were seen, they looked less an’ less like people, dressin’ like savages in furs. My grandfather used t’tell me stories o’ when he was a boy, that when the Iseenee, or Boudikans as they called themselves, would come down from the mountain, the dogs’d be afraid o’ ‘em, an’ how it was hard t’tell the men an’ womenfolk apart. When I was a boy, t’get me t’behave, my mother’d say that she’d get the Boudikans if I didn’t listen to her. No one’s seen one for as long as I can recall though. Maybe they'd all died off, who knows?”
“You know he’s probably mad, don’t you…”
Jayne stood there, looking straight at Mal. It had been more than an hour since Thomas had told us the story, and for Jayne at least, that’s all it was.
“If he is or aint, don’t matter. When Wash gets back, he can go and have a look up in the mountains, maybe there’s the remains of their settlement or somethin’. Could be that what’s causing this is an escaped pet of theirs or somethin’…”
It was getting dark when we heared Serenity landing in the field behind the hamlet. The slight warmth of the day had soon disappeared to be replaced by the chill of the evening. We found ourselves drawn to the roaring fires in the large hall, and when our missing crew opened the door, the chill from outside showed just how quickly the temperature could drop when the sun was gone.
Soon, Simon and Wash were telling Mal and Zoe of what they had seen, River was hugging me and telling me about an animal that she had seen on the walk from the ship, and Inara was telling Kaylee about the story Thomas had told us.
“Well, looks like River was right…”…she scrunched her nose at the fact that she had been doubted…”…there was a mountain, round the other side of the moon, an’ one side of it has pretty much blown off. The devastation for about a 100 miles is complete. No trees, nothin’. If you’re lookin’ for a smokin’ gun, that’d be it.”
“Ok, least that could be a reason for the bad harvests. Wash, first light, I want you to head up to the mountains an’ have a look for any signs of a settlement or anythin’. Rest of us, get some food and rest, could be a long day tomorrow…”
We found spare bed spaces in the hall, and tried to get some rest. Within a few minutes, snoring came from Jayne, almost loud enough to rattle the windows. Cuddled up with River under the thick woollen blanket, we didn’t feel the cold, and when I suggested to Simon that it would be a good idea to share body heat with someone, River said that she had seen Kaylee shivering a few minutes before. We looked on as Kaylee joyfully accepted his offer to get under the blanket with him. The smile she gave to me and River could have warmed the room on its own.
The fire in the hearth had burnt low, but the heat from it could still be felt, and the smell of the wood as it burned lingered in the air. I didn’t know what had made me start to wake, perhaps I had felt River start to move in my arms, and it had been that. It still scared the hell out of me though when she suddenly screamed and sat up.
“Wuh de Ma! River, what’s wrong!”
“I saw you…”, she sat with tears streaming down her face trying to catch her breath…”…you were on the floor, laying on the floor, there was a fight, and you were covered in blood, and people were dead…”
Simon needed to give her a sedative to calm her, she had been that worked up by her dream. At least, we hoped it had been just a dream…
By the time she had calmed enough to go back to sleep, everyone else was awake. Jayne was in a foul mood to have been woken, I was worried about River, and I wasn’t the only one.
“Well, seein’ as we are all awake now, who’s for coffee?”
The grey light of a cold dawn seeped into the room through the windows. I sat there, and had a weird feeling that something was wrong, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. I looked at the sky through the window closest to me, at the glow of the dawn. When I turned my head though, and looked out of the window opposite, the glow of the dawn could still be seen…from the opposite direction…
“Hey, Wash. You have any idea which direction the sun is gonna rise in?”
“Uhhh, a little south of west I think, why?”
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise…
“Then why does it look like the sun is rising to the north-east?”
We piled out of the front door of the hall. To the south-west, the sun was starting to turn the sky pink. To the north-east, what I had thought was a sunrise showed to be an orange glow lighting the sky from behind a small hill in the distance.
“Wash! Get Serenity ready. We’ll take the shuttle to find the cause of that, you go lookin’ for what could’ve caused it.”
Within minutes, we were heading for what Shepherd Luke had said was a farm maybe two or three miles up a small valley. As we crossed the crest of the hill, we saw smoke curling into the air. As Mal prepared to land the shuttle, we saw Serenity pass us, heading up into the mountain pass ahead.
We landed, a few hundred yards from the burning buildings of what was once a farmhouse and its outbuildings. Soon as we landed, me, Zoe, Mal and Jayne formed a loose perimeter as soon as we stepped out of the door. Inara, Simon, River and Book remained inside the shuttle.
“You smell that?…”
“Yeah…blood…Simon, you may be needed.”
“I shall come too. A spare pair of eyes wouldn’t go amiss”
I gave my pistol to Book, and we headed out.
“Tyen sah duh uh muo! Everybody, spread out, Doc, stay close to me!”
Mal had seen what had been the cause of the fresh blood smell in the air. What had once been a grown man I guessed, was now a collection of body parts and torn flesh. Flies were already crawling over the spilled innards.
Today looked like it would be an interesting, and long day…