Two weeks later, the army came.
The Cyborgs and Blackwell stayed low and ran for the hay barn.
Several women in bright colors just happened to walk between them and the distant vehicles rolling down the road.
Rat pulled a few more weeds, then a huge carrot.
Then, when the vehicles were closer, Lula pointed at them as if just noticing them, and the mothers of the younger children ran to grab them and retreat . . .
Peg walked out to get a good look at them, and Rat walked up closer as the army vehicles rattled across the cattle grate and stopped. A few facing them, most of them surrounding the house. Soldiers leaped out and crashed through the doors.
They returned quickly galloping through all the out buildings, then they finally turned their attention to the people watching them.
"Where are they? Where's that damned mentalist and his halfbreed horrors?"
"Lord Renatt? He didn't stay very long." Peg limped up closer. "Then all the tribesmen took the cattle and horses and left."
"Who are you?"
"Pegleg, on account of I got a short leg."
The officer looked at her and shuddered. "Thieving Zigeur."
She looked indignant. "We didn't steal nothin'! We just used the kitchen."
Rat stumped up, all grubby, holding a foot long dirty carrot. "They hired us to get the hay in, b'fore they all left. An' here was this real nice garden, just startin' to produce . . ." He gestured with the carrot. "Crime to let all that food go to waste. So we stayed a while. And a good thing! We caught some stray animals, and such."
He rubbed the dirty carrot almost clean, with his dirty hands and took a bite.
The officer looked down his nose. "Where did they go?"
He pointed with the carrot. "East, down the road, if you mean Renatt." He spat on the ground. "The tribe headed off over the plain. They usually do, all summer, these long days. Best grazing in the world, they say. Not that we tie ourselves down with livestock." He craned his neck, looking past the officer. "Nice vickles. You ever sell any?"
The officer turned and stalked away. "Load up, we need to check the other houses."
They were gone in a few minutes.
Rat gave her a quick hug. "C'mon, let's get the weeding done. Gotta say though, I'm getting a bit tired of all these veggies."
"Well, old man, yer the one who said we ought not butcher one of those bulls." Peg eyed the mansion. If there were watchers, they weren't visable.
"I ain't that old." Rat brushed hair out of his face, which, in all honesty did have a touch of gray at the temples. And started pulling weeds. The mothers stayed back, as planned, the youngsters not trusted to not say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The teenagers returned to the garden patch, and the men.
They worked in the warm sunshine for a couple of hours, then wandered back by the tents to start a fire and the women started cooking, two of them went to the milking shed and the cows came in for a few handfuls of grain and to be milked.
The Army vehicles drove in from the north, having apparently looped around to look for those horrible Mentalists, and or the tribes. They barely slowed long enough to pick up the two men leaving the house.
Once they were out of sight, Rat opened his mental shields and winced. Four men at the edge of his awareness. He gave a thumbs down, and they continued their charade.
The sun finally slipped beneath the horizon and the fire died down. They split up and slept in the tents. And in the early morning, Rat slipped out to the outhouse the "zigeurs" were using and opened his mental shields to look around.
No strangers for as far as he could sense. he walked into the hay barn and around to the bales that were stacked on boards, so the bales under them could be pulled out. And pulled one out. "All clear. C'mon out."
Mr. Blackwell crawled out first, then Double-oh-five. Four Eighty was a tight fit. They grabbed his arms and pulled.
He walked with them back to where the women were starting breakfast.
"Well, Zigeur Clan Rat? We're clear for now, but if they come back it will be time for us to move on."
"But, where will we go?"
"Yeah, that's the question." Rat looked out over the northern plain. "We could probably get lost out there . . . although if they've gotten control of the satellite feeds . . . but if they had, they'd have been all over us."
Double-oh-five snorted. "Unless they only just figured them out. If they're killing all the Halfers, they may be trying to learn all the systems from instruction manuals."
Rat looked up the road. "Yeah. They weren't surprised to see us. They headed right for the house, and then the out buildings. Then us. I think we lucked out and they--either by satellite or on foot--saw a bunch of Zegeur camped out and mostly staying away from the mansion. And figured there might still be someone there."
Aria looked around from where she was sitting with her buddies. "But will they start wondering about us? And come back? We . . . we can't fight them."
"No. If we leave, we should head south. After all the fires, all the deaths . . . there are going to lots of displaced and burned out people. There will be refugee camps, people scattered around."
Double-oh-five exchanged glances with Four and Mr. Blackwell. "The three of us can get lost on these plains a whole lot easier than almost fifty of us can. We'll ride a ways with you, then drop out, maybe along the river."
Rat nodded. "Much though I hate to travel in winter, we could go cross country. Cross the river at those shoals once the river freezes. The four hundred miles south and we'd find the road that enters Moskva City from the east. And find out which way the refugees are going."
"There's plenty of streams entering the Dvina from the south, lots of trees and brush." Double-oh-five's mouth twitched. "Made hunting a real pain, didn't it?"
"I'm sure I don't remember any problems hunting there, and certainly not any boars." Rat raised his nose.
"We could rig a shelter and winter over in one of them."
Blackwell shuddered, but nodded.
"Well, we'll stay here as long as possible. And preserve as much food as possible." Rat sighed. "I don't know if Kalev will be back, or if he's going to try to winter-over out there."
Aria looked at him, uncertainly. "Should we do a second cutting of hay? Usually the barn is stuffed full by this time of year, isn't it?"
"Yes. Good idea, because we'll take some with us, and what little livestock we've got."
"Even those nuisance bulls?" Kirill grinned.
"Yep, then we can either sell them or eat them."
"Yikes!" Aria wrinkled her nose. "And to think I always wished I was in one of those adventures books!"
Arkhip laughed. "But look at our really neat disguises!"