Aunt Lucy must be immortal.
Not only had the oldest member of the Mingus Mountain community survived the fever that had claimed so many, she bounced up the stony path to Daphne’s house with more energy than the middle-aged man half her age who accompanied her. If not for her white hair and wrinkles no one would have believed she was an elder.
It was good to see that Gerald Perez was still alive. The scraps of news that had drifted back to Daphne’s house indicated that his unlucky household had seen many deaths this past spring. He greeted her with a palm full of the Nosi that some folks liked to chew while informally discussing important matters.
Daphne shook her head and offered him a brief hug instead. She’d never learned to enjoy this particular plant, and while she was glad Gerald’s crop had been bountiful enough to share she wanted to face this meeting with a clear head. The last time she had chewed Nosi socially she had ended up craving it for days, and Daphne didn’t have the arable land or energy to dedicate to such a difficult habit to break.
Sean Reed and Ephraim followed the elders up the path to the house where Sean and the remaining members of the council gathered around the little table in the main room. Small talk had to be the worst part of meetings like this one. Daphne didn’t know if Sean’s wives had settled their longstanding feud while the children were ill or if it was ok to ask about the health of Gerald’s remaining family members. He had lost so many of them that she worried any mention of his family would reignite his grief.
Ephraim poured cups of water for everyone and sliced the last of the cheese while Lemon begged silently under the table.
“No, Lemon,” she said, secretly grateful for the distraction. She really needed to stop slipping him treats a few times a week. Lemon was beginning to assume that not being given treats was a punishment.
While the food and water were slowly eaten Sean described what had happened to Liam and Marcus Swood on the night the soldiers appeared at the Reed’s farm. Both brothers had quickly figured out how to communicate with one another despite being temporarily placed with foster families on opposite sides of the valley. Marcus egged on his little brother as the two of them made a nuisance of themselves to the visiting soldiers. At one point Marcus had claimed the soldiers were changelings, one of the most serious accusations one could make about someone who wasn’t well known to the community. He had claimed to see one of the soldiers speak to a rock and then transform into one. When Nevada Reed corroborated his story the neighbours began to pay closer attention to what was happening and one or two reputable people reported seeing equally troubling signs of blasphemy. The gods never would have concerned themselves so intimately with the affairs of mortals, and anyone who respected the gods would leave magic up to the ones who created it.
Soon after word of their findings began spreading to the larger community the Swood brothers mysteriously disappeared one night. Sean and a few other adults had gone searching for them, but no trace of either boy could be found much to the grief of their mother.
“We searched the other side of the valley as well,” Gerald said. The port wine mark on the left side of his face had grown darker after a long spring working in the sun. Daphne detected a hint of sadness in his voice as he continued speaking. “It is as if they were never born.”
“And they’re not the only ones to disappear,” Aunt Lucy said as she raised her right eyebrow and glanced at Daphne. “MacArthur is gone, too.”
Daphne made a conscious effort to keep her expression neutral as the older woman stared at her. After their last discussion on this topic the last thing she wanted to do was give Aunt Lucy any new reasons to continue digging up the painful chapters in her life. The discussion slowly drifted to what everyone thought the community should do about the disappearances, surprise inspections, and gleeful destruction of property. If Gerald or Aunt Lucy knew what else the soldiers were looking for neither one of them gave any indication of that knowledge.
So many of Daphne’s theories about what was happening were based on wisps of information. She had long-since wondered if MacArthur was involved in something distasteful. He sometimes travelled to other communities in order to buy and sell sheep or sell the blankets his wives and children wove. While she had no proof of this, Daphne wondered if that was all he carried with him.
The question was, what else could he take with him that was easily concealed? Most households produced just enough food and clothing for their own needs. In a good year there might be a little surplus for trade or charity, but no one ever had enough to justify the many trips he made most years.
A long-forgotten memory flashed into Daphne’s mind as the debate droned on around her.
As small children Isaac and Ephraim had occasionally spent the day with their stepmothers or older siblings while Daphne finished harvesting the food that would see them through the summer. One day when she went to pick them up Daphne had spotted Ephraim hiding underneath one of the large wicker baskets in his father’s yard. When she asked him what he was doing he shushed her, said he was being smuggled, and warned that it wouldn’t work if people knew he was there.
At the time she had laughed at the idea of hiding a person.
Now she wondered.