Home . . . Sweet Home?
Benedikt followed the smell of wood fires and cooking meat and walked out of the forest into yet another meadow. But this one had cars, . . . "Home! Or close enough!
Makar started grinning. "There's our camp . . . I can't hear Sevastyan!" his grin faded as he spotted a long heap of fresh turned soil.
They all crowded up an looked at it.
I am sure it does not look like a mass grave!
A faint cry from the left, a boy waving his arms, then galloping towards them.
Makar walked to meet him. "Yuli? What's going on?"
"Everything!" Yuli Smirnov huffed out a breath. "They attacked the Mikhailov camp! Lord Innokenty, Lord Marlen and, and, the Young Mentalists in Camp Naoumov murdered Lord Renatt and joined the attack!"
"Wait!" Anatoly stepped up. "Ignatov, Krupin. and Naoumov attacked us?"
Benedikt wheezed. "Because Uncle Volya was dead? And Lord Ivan?"
"And they were saying that Lord Klim had lost his power." The boy grinned. "But they beat the crap out of them! Lord Marlen's dead, and a bunch of the Young Mentalists, and workers and a Cyborg, and . . . they caught a bunch and they're talking about expelling them."
Tired or not, they hustled the last five miles and found the driveway guarded.
Thirteen lowered his rifle, grinning. "Lord Benedikt, Lord Anatoly. Welcome home." The Cybor sobered suddenly. "Lord Anatoly . . ."
Anatoly nodded. "I heard about father. And Ivan. Well . . ." He visibly braced himself and headed up the driveway.
The rest of them trailed along, wanting to know the worst, while dreading the scene.
And it was a scene.
The widow, Lady Kamilla wailed and cried and threw herself on Anatoly. His sister, Lord Ivan's widow gave him a hug and stepped away. Little sister Darya wiped damp eyes, but hung back from Kamilla.
Benedikt's mother huffed in irritation and took Kamilla away "for cup of tea," and the gang answered a waved invitation from his father. Lord Klim limped stiffly to a table familiar from his childhood.
"Well, Young Lords, if you'll pardon my sticking to business?"
"Please." Anatoly sighed. "So, it sounds like you had . . . five weeks? Almost six, of various excitements."
"Yes. It started right off the day after you'd left . . ."
It was quite the tale, and at the end his father asked about their power. They all gathered heat and light, and he huffed in relief.
"Good. Because we've lost the most powerful and well trained. And we're all coming to the realization that there will be no presentation and challenges, no chips, no plates, no Cyborgs. Ever."
Benedikt looked over his shoulder.
There's Eighty-seven four, Thirteen, Twenty-two . . . I don't see Forty-Nine . . . One-oh-three and Ten are Anatoly's now . . . good grief. Six Sixty-seven and Ninety-eight belong to Vlasiy? He's only twelve . . . Six doesn't really matter, he's got the brain infection. He'll die soon. But I could take him, just for practice . . . and Ninty-eight's pretty damn good, and much younger than that damned Forty-nine father always foists off on me.
And here's my pesky little brother walking out of the forest . . . leading . . .
"A horse? Where did Leonti get a horse?"
Father turned around and shook his head. "Krupin brought his old racehorse along, and rode it into battle, poor thing panicked and ran, dragging him. "Mind you, I shot him with the elephant gun, so he was probably already dead. And then Lord Khar's fireball completed the horse's panic."
They joined the crowd around the exhausted, injured animal.
"The burns don't look too bad, and the rest is scratched and strains and such." Leonti looked smug. "His saddle was rolled around to his belly and . . . Lord Marlen's boot was still stuck in the stirrup . . . with his foot still . . ." The twerp swallowed. "I took it back to them and traded two deer we'd gotten for the horse."
Their mother shook her head. "We're almost out of meat."
Leonti grinned. "Good thing we got three then."
Father snorted. "Now you're a proper horse trader. Why don't you stake the old beast out to graze and figure out how you're going to feed him all winter."
Benedikt snorted. "Hay, lots and lots of hay. Which would be a lot easier at a lower altitude. There might not be a city down in the valley, but there are lots of buffalo."
His father looked up at the mountains to the east. "I . . . think that's a good idea, but I hate to abandon the vehicles."
"We just have to get them to a downslope where we can use regenerative braking to charge the batteries. We can get them down, we just won't be able to ever get them back up here."
Father frowned. "We could take the batteries from the ones we don't take with us, if they have any charge . . . a lot of us would have to walk, but we're getting used to that. So tell us about your travels."
So they talked, and ate, then the other guys headed home to talk to their own families, and a couple of the younger servant women, who seemed pretty bright and cheerful for having chips in their brains, got really friendly and all things considered it was a pretty good homecoming.
In the morning he went hunting with his father, talked to Khar, who bloody introduced one of the Mikhailov servants as his wife. Benedikt steamed silently as his father played along. Swapped a leg of the deer they'd bagged for one of the geese Khar had netted.
On the way home, his Father talked about accepting the new reality. "There are barely two thousand people on this World. And only eight hundred of them are female. And that includes old women, like your grandmother, like your mother who is past child bearing. Many of you younger bunch are going to be marrying servants, with or without chips. At least for your first wives. Later, you can marry True, as the younger girls mature, and more are born.
"Which is a long winded way of saying that I am not about to antagonize a neighbor over the child of a servant, who, by her looks is probably Volya's child in any case."
"Oh." Good God! I will not marry a servant! His stomach clenched at the very idea of bedding a woman without a chip. What if she had the power? What if she influenced me in my sleep?
"So, let's test this idea of yours and send some logs down stream."
Benedikt jumped on the idea, glad to have something else to think about.